Teaching About the Holidays

I’ve really grown to love teaching about the holidays during this season.  In my former schools, we would have holiday concerts for which we would need to prepare. I feel like mandatory concerts amount to a sugar-coated version of teaching to the test.  Rudolf, dreidels, nothing pretending to be religious, but everyone has to “perform” stuff they like a lot or simply hate.  Did I like that?  Notsomuch.  Did it have educational value?  Meh.   That said, there is SO much value in learning cultural traditions, even if they are rooted in religion. In public school, this can be a spicy idea but, viewed from a purely educational point of view, there’s NOTHING wrong with studying the stories behind each holiday of the season, especially in this increasingly culturally illiterate world.  I personally have a complicated relationship to the holidays and religion in general, informed by a fairly secular upbringing and an interfaith minister wife who attends Catholic mass on occasion.  Through my four grandparents I am 3 parts Jewish (of the secularish variety) and 1 part Italian (of the secularish variety).   Traditions abound but finding meaning in all of it has taken until, well, a few hours ago. OK, it’s ever evolving but in a good place right now.

Almost everyone at my school celebrates Christmas.  Further, almost every kid at my school is hard pressed to explain WHY they celebrate Christmas beyond, “the spirit of giving”.  Hanukkah, Kwanza, and perhaps the winter solstice are mostly “those other holidays”, except for those 12% or so who (sort of) light candles for this and that.  So how do I help to bring meaning to our children?  I’m no expert but this is the thing I’ve developed for my 2nd-5th graders:

First, I always ask the question, “What do all of the winter holidays have in common?”.  Some get the answers right away– giving, being with family, eating…but the answer I want to hear is “light”.  We light candles and light up christmas trees and houses.  We celebrate the darkest time of the year with light.   I then ask, “What is the darkest day of the year?”.  Well 12/21, the winter solstice and gosh, then we  actually start talking about science and WHY the earth gets the least amount of sunlight.  Then I ask, “Do you think it’s a coincidence that Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanza all happen this time of the year?”.   This inevitably leads to a discussion about when Jesus was born (we don’t truly know the date), when the story of Hanukkah happened (not quite sure about that story either), and for how long Kwanza has been around.  Clearly there is some intention in placing the holidays this time of the year.  I also like to develop the awareness of pre-birth of Christ traditions, like the Yule which has informed the very way we celebrate all of the holidays this time of the year.

So, many of you may be thinking that I’m ruining the magic of these holidays by getting into the nitty gritty of it all.  My experience is that the discussion that ensues touches on the story of the Messiah, and the story of an oppressed people fleeing and ultimately returning to a sacred place, and stories of cultural pride and social justice.  We light our darkest nights of the year with the bright stories of a man who had lessons of peace for us all, a people who fought an oppressive king, a struggle and celebration of an African people, and a celebration of nature, represented by a lighted and decorated EVERgreen tree that traditionally and historically goes back to prior  to the birth of Jesus.   So many stories revolve around the idea of gift giving and sacrifice. In essence, these holidays are intertwined and about all the same stuff.   Kids get it!  They love the stories, told orally, without books and pictures.  What a thrill to do this.

Some activities (pretty standard) around this talk include:
-Israeli folk dances (from the place of the birth of Jesus and the land of Judea where Hanukkah took place)
-The dreidel game with marbles
-telling the story and listening to the opera of “Amahl and the Night Visitors”, a story about a boy making a sacrifice
and of course
-Christmas, Hanukkah, winter songs
I try not to spend more than a week addressing the holidays.  We all know that they will get holiday-ed out whether we give it to them or not!

Happy Holidays!

Product VS Process

I recently got into a little debate with my wife.  I know it’s unfair for me to post this without her side being represented but, hey, it’s my blog.  She is the director of a wonderful Vermont based distance learning company.  An accredited elementary and high school, they provide instruction and curriculum to hundreds of home schooled students.  Recently they held an open house and as part of the organization myself and a part time teacher with a few high school students in music I was tasked (as I am every year) to provide an ad-hoc hands on activity integrating art and music.  I do this by collaborating with the art teacher to engage kids I don’t know to design and present a crankie show in an, uh about an hour.

So a crankie show is a long scroll of paper moving through a small puppet show like box theatre. It can be accompanied by music, narration, be backlit with shadows puppets, etc.  Here is one I completed with my 4th graders two years ago:

On this particular day, there were lots of unknown factors so or course with minimal preparation, the art teacher and I set out to have a random cross section of home schooled children illustrate the classic song “The Rainbow Connection”.  We wrote the lyrics out on the long paper.  As children filed in with their families, they were encouraged to draw anything they saw fit.

photo 2After the scroll seemed complete and full we performed the song and viewed the cranky with everyone present.  I apologize that there is no footage!

My wife later commented that she was underwhelmed by the product adding that I could have created an experience that directed the artistic content a bit more.   I argued that sure, I could have drawn things myself that the children would color, and sure, it would have looked great.   But… the process and experience of children doing whatever they wanted, inspired by the lyrics on the page is most important.   Sure it was beautiful, messy, and chaotic but isn’t this the argument for homeschooling/ child driven learning?  You tell me.  The kids had a great time, we sang the song, and most importantly, they were able to see their art as a moving framed picture with live music.   Crankies are wonderful and provide opportunities to package minimally planned and crafted art projects into a complete presentation in minutes.  Lots of teacher guidance is great, especially if the objective is to create a set for a play, or a display, but an impromptu art project is a  magical thing when you just let it go.


Maintaining the ecosystem

photo 2Likely not a conscious choice, the garden at Symonds is an unofficial symbol of nourishment, connection, and being part of something greater in our world.  Tom Julius, Director of the teacher certification program at Antioch New England Graduate School has referred to the ideal educational setting as an elaborate ecosystem.   One main idea being that like an ecosystem, if the system is functional, it is open to positive growth and can withstand various negative external forces.  If one person comes or goes, the ecosystem shifts to accommodate but if there is real trauma such as years of budgetary and administrative stress on the system, then a downward spiral can occur.  This ecosystem begins with administration and teachers being caring, supportive, and respectful of one another.  This occurs parallel to  (and trickling down to)  a respectful classroom environment in which students are given intentional, often orchestrated opportunities to show respect for one another.   Music, Art, Library, and PE are places in which students have opportunities to interact in very different ways than the classroom environment, thus there are  more opportunities to reinforce the core components of a healthy ecosystem.


photo 1It’s October in music and up to this point in the school year we’ve basically been working hard to remind and teach our children how we function in a formal and informal setting with other humans.  We continue to stress (this really never ends) being a whole body listener as the most basic method of  showing respect for one another; adults and children alike.  In the music room we’ve been engaged in more of what could perhaps be described as tweaking the ecosystem  by urg3-two-hand-turns-9e2fc81ad2ing, perhaps even say (rein)FORCING positive interaction through dance, song, and group instrumental work.  All classes have participated in singing, dancing, and other whole-group activities such as games and loose instrumental ensembles. Here are a couple of  specific  examples of some of what we do to inspire positive interactions between one another:

Contra/ Square/ Folk dancing
I am super fortunate to live in the Brattleboro, Vermont area, home of Peter and Mary Alice Amidon, Andy Davis, and Mary Cay Brass.  These four folks are the founders of New England Dancing Masters.  (The featured photo of folks dancing is from their website).  This is a collection of some of the finest team building (mostly) traditional dances and singing games ever known to educators.  Here in Southern Vermont, Western Massachusetts where I tend to perform a lot of this music, and New Hampshire where I teach, these dance traditions are not just presented in the classroom, they are part of the woodwork in local grange halls, churches, libraries, and community centers.  I have been taking these dances into the classroom for the last 14 years.  This:
A) Allows students to practice how to choose and dance with a partner and large group respectfully
B) Helps in the practice of safely moving your body around others, demonstrating self control AND creativity  and
C) Instills confidence, leadership, and community participation.
YES!  Lots of this stuff is dorky, old fashioned, and anti pop-culture and it’s downright fun and gives kids the chance to be at once goofy and respectful in ways they don’t get to practice in a home environment.

School wide songs:
While many music classrooms are cut off from the rest of the school culture, I (and I know many other music teachers) attempt to foster school wide intergenerational unity by making sure that each week, the entire school learns one common song to be sung in the following all-school assembly.  The song can be seasonal, serious, eco, goofy- basically any flavor.  Here’s an example of me singing at assembly last week.  A common song makes kids and staff feel “in it together” and motivates school wide  learning.  The video is taken sans children–for legal and safety reasons we cannot show kids’ faces.


May PoleSchool wide and music room Rituals:
We have many.  These are opportunities for interaction that foster group pride.  Here are a few examples:

-Our Turkey Trot gets the whole school physically active around Thanksgiving, running and walking around the perimeter of the playground and collecting food for the local food bank.
-Our Halloween parade gives kids the opportunity to dress up for an hour and March around the playground showing off their costumes.
-Dancing around the Maypole around May Day (seen in photo). Demonstrating this form of visual art and music in an ancient ritual requires intense listening and cooperating skills.  Students need to pay close attention to each other in order to create beautiful patterns.
– 5th grade traditional English Longsword (Morris) dancing to commemorate the spring.


Makeshift instrument ensembles:
In order to prepare kids for really playing music together in band, strings, chorus, and the classroom, I often have kids beat on drums, improvise, and create “sound carpets” somewhat more freely than perhaps I should at the beginning of the year.  Kids’ interpersonal skills are developed through negotiation over conducting, arrangements and improvisation.  Below is an example of how one group came together to create something above and beyond expectations when given the instructions to set a group of instruments to a Haiku:

Deep in the jungle
Big, grey, fat, elephants live
Snorting and grunting

Social skill development is the most important part of this exercise.  Again, faces are excluded. Watch it until the end- they do something really cool:





I am always working to maintain my classroom ecosystem but I will stress that I am so thankful for and couldn’t do it without our healthy school wide environment.    None of this would be possible without great leadership within our school and a seasoned staff, many of whom have been around and working together for years.  An ecosystem takes thousands of years to develop and can be destroyed in very short period of time.  A school is no different– Symonds didn’t  become like this over night, yet it could be destroyed in an instant.    Warning?


More on the the building blocks….

It’s the 3rd day of school and I’ve seen every grade level except the K’s.    At this stage I am molding a music room culture for the year so content from 1st to 5th grade for the first few classes is virtually identical.  Here’s my message board:photoOur art and PE teacher are in the same process, perhaps with a slightly different approach, but what makes our job wonderful is that the result is the same.  We are all upholding the same “pillars”;  Kindness, Community, Effort, and Knowledge.  Further, though our terms might be slightly different, we have similar versions of the Responsive Classroom questions that we use to “create rules”.  We ask: What does SAFE, KIND, and RESPONSIBLE look like?   Every step is (theoretically) based on this question.

Looking at the sloppy handwriting on my white board you can note how I reinforce the culture with our first day activities:
1.  Our first activity, “Dinah’s Dead”  is an easy movement piece/ chant  that gets kids ready do participate in a pressure free silly way.
2. We briefly discuss what Safe, Kind, and Respectful look and sound like.  We discuss the “no “I can’t”” policy.  I do an activity in which students ask an opposite gender to dance by using eye contact and whole-body listening.  Our school psychologist and occupational therapist have created a chart that specifies what “me thinking” vs “us thinking”  is as well.  This is particularly pertinent on the 2nd and 3rd grade levels and is a big part of our classroom culture discussion.
3.  We practice responsible/ safe movement and taking care of materials by moving through an “instrument museum”
4.  If we have time, we dance (In this case a dance called “Alabama Gal” and discuss how to move safely in the classroom.
5.  Assess our own behavior and talk about the “scale” our teachers have created:  4= no reminders   3= a few reminders   2= a bunch of reminders    1= TOO MANY REMINDERS!   Classroom teachers are informed of what the class earned and often put into place group rewards (NO FOOD!) such as extra recess time or a fun game or video.

More to come!  I will be checking in in a few days….stay tuned.



The building blocks of a great year.

Old bellIn many ways, the first few days of school, a time typically wrought with excitement, stress, and extra work for classrooms teachers is different for me.   Having spent the last few weeks and much of the summer  at home with my 10 year old girl and 7 year old boy, I can honestly say that school allows me to breathe a sigh of relief.  A structure, an organized classroom, kids that listen (!)…..what a contrast to an ever evolving family life.  Plus, I have the added bonus of not having to get a whole class in the swing of things from the start.  I have 35 minutes twice a week with 18 classes…..a slow cultural evolution instead of the firing of the starting gun.

Now it’s time to see the kids!  The first day of our six day cycle at Symonds School (I can explain more about this later) begins with all-school assembly.  As the music teacher, I am the first voice our 350 kids hear in the ’14-15 school year.  As a musician, I rely heavily on my ability to improvise so while I plan classes, pre-choose songs for assembly, and generally function knowing what I am going to do next, it would probably surprise folks to know how often I simply change my mind  in the moment.  I do this because I CAN.   I have a song repertoire and the ability to wax poetic in front of large crowds, sometimes to a fault.  Stage (and in front of classroom) presence is like jazz to me; stick with a familiar structure but be ready for anything.  So when I feel that the school needs a body movement energizer when I planned a wordy song, I switch in the moment.  In this case I planned on the old familiar “Awake, Alert, Alive” as the kids’ (and staff’s) first activity of the school year.  Using hand motions to the melody of “If you’re happy and you know it”:

I’m Awake, Alert, Alive, Enthusiastic
I’m Awake, Alert, Alive, Enthusiastic
I’m Awake, Alert, Alive
Alive, Alert, Awake
I’m Awake, Alert, Alive, Enthusiastic

Directions:  Awake– point to your eyes/  Alert– point to the top of your head/  Alive– Hug yourself/  EnTHUS –pat thighs iAS– clap / TIC — snap twice


After a quick talk and ritual ring of the bell (the original bell from a former building, pictured above)  on the “Four Pillars” of Symonds (Kindness, Effort, Community, and Knowledge) by our fearless principal, Mr. Cate we ended with a rocking nursery rhyme song called Hump tee dum.

So then I ready myself for 1st and 2nd graders.  Stay tuned for the skinny on that.

Students arrive in one hour.

As I prepare myself for being ready for the ins and outs of the day to day, there’s a simultaneous excitement about the many projects I hope to get off the ground this year.  Fiddle tunes, fostering a connection with 38 children in northern India, an audio cd, book crafting, crankie shows, new games, songs….it’s hard to keep the focus on just getting started in the classroom.  The first two weeks will be setting the culture of my beautiful classroom.  It’s all about Kindness, Safety, Respect, and Expression.  Now to work I go.



Greetings from the music room!

In this issue:
1. A Typical Day in Music Class
2. January Themes and activities
3. Request for the contribution of a skill!


A Typical Day in Music Class
As you may know, “specials” see each class twice a six day cycle.  So, for music I have two chances to reinforce concepts, teach songs, or repeat fun stories, dances, or games.

From K to 5, students understand that they will line up outside the music room and demonstrate that they are ready to enter by being quiet and facing me.  Once inside they form a circle around our carpet.    The Kindergarteners have a special song that they sing as they prepare to be seated, sung to the melody of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”.  There are accompanying body motions:

Hands go up and hands go down
I can turn around and round
I can jump up on two shoes
I can listen so can you
I can sit I’ll show you how
Music class is starting now

When  everyone is seated, students will likely learn a school-wide song.  These songs are sung during assembly on the following Day 1 and are designed to give students a sense that they are part of something larger– the Symonds community.  As they sing in a group of 330+ instead of the usual 15-20 the lyrics and message of the song itself is reinforced.

After a song we participate in an activity.  This can be many things over the course of the year.  Some examples are:
-working with singing note intervals (do, re, mi, so, la)
-a notation and/or rhythm exercise
-instrumental work
-a dance
-learning about a particular composer

All of the activities emphasize participation among everyone and include concepts that allow students to internalize music and movement.  When appropriate, I strive to be cross disciplinary and discuss history, science, math, and language as it relates to music and the arts.

My goal is to end class with a musical piece for silent listening.  Given our 30-35 minute block together I admit that my goals are often loftier than time will allow.    Throughout the class, our self created Responsive Classroom goals are encompassed under “Be Safe, Kind, and Respectful”.  We talk to each other, sit down, sing, dance, play instruments and ultimately line up to exit with these concepts in mind.


January Themes and Activities

Grades 1-5 have been beginning work on Ukeleles.  I have a new guitar pick maker(!)–each student will be given their own pick, made from used gift cards for use in class.  Our focus in the upper grades include 3 chords– C, F, and G.  In the lower grade we are working on how to hold the instrument, locate notes, and pick each string.

This month we are comparing the music of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven.  I have given everyone a description of the Baroque, Classical, and early Romantic period of music and played examples. Students are then asked to identify each composer by the sound of a piece.

With the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday approaching we have discussed the significance of music in the civil rights movement of the 1960’s.  We have also touched on what significance MLK has to Symonds.  King’s message of conflict resolution through peaceful means resonates in the classroom and on the playground.  With this idea I introduced a song written by a friend just last year about the legacy of Dr. King.  Ask your child to sing it!  The lyrics are below:

I’ve Got A Dream
words and music (c) John Fisher 2012

I’ve got a dream and I can’t get rid of it
I believe in every bit of it
Been stuck inside of me
Ever since nineteen sixty three

It’s about the content of one’s character
Ain’t nothing else gonna matter
If around the welcome table
Everybody’s got a seat
From the Lookout Mountain in Tennessee
To the streets of New York City
An endless line of marchers
Until everybody is free

Every valley raised and exalted
Every mountain barrier vaulted
On the sunlit path to freedom
A beautiful symphony
In every hamlet, town and city
No rest and no tranquility
’til free at last, free at last
Sweet land of liberty

On the Washington Mall that August
As the marchers gather before us
We make our choice, lift every voice
And justice is the song
It was the greatest demonstration
In the history of the nation
The struggle is long and the struggle is hard
And now it’s ours to carry on


1. Wanted!  A carpenter willing to donate some time and skill to build a…….Crankie! SEE PHOTO BELOW
I have what may be considered an odd request.  Having spent a fair amount of time with Brattleboro music teacher Andy Davis this past summer I had the opportunity to observe his use of what is called a crankie.  A crankie looks like a TV but is made of wood and the movement in the inside of the box is controlled by a crank which moves a long piece of paper.  The paper can be designed by students and tell a story which can be set to music.  It’s a wonderful and creative tool! Symonds needs a crankie!  My thought is that we can create an annual “ABC of Symonds” song along with illustrations placed in the device.  It can be used for the 3rd grade Keene Comes Alive production , etc.  Anyone  with Carpentry Skills willing to put in some fun work, contact me psiegel@sau29.org
ere is a meeting this Friday at KHS at 3:30pm

Thanks for checking in and being involved-

Mr. Siegel

PS: I will be playing a free family show at 10am on February 2nd at the Brattleboro Winter Farmers Market  http://www.postoilsolutions.org/index.php?ID=11
Bring the kids!

Also, look for a kids show with me and Jay Mankita at the colonial theatre in early April.

I do lots of “adult” music but you’ll have to do your research to find out about that!

A Crankie!


I will be posting again soon but in the meantime, here is a worthwhile bit to read at:


Here are the “Ten Lessons the Arts Teach” compiled by Elliot Eisner, one of the country’s leading art educators. 

  • The arts teach children to make good judgements about qualitative relationships. Unlike much of the curriculum which correct answers and rules prevail, in the arts it is judgment rather than rules that prevail

  • The arts teach children that problems can have more than one solution and that questions can have more than one answer.

  • The arts celebrate multiple perspectives. One of their large lessons is that there are many ways to see and interpret the world.

  • The arts teach children that in complex forms of problem solving, purposes are seldom fixed, but change with circumstances and opportunity. Learning in the arts requires the ability and willingness to surrender to the unanticipated possibilities of the work as it unfolds.

  • The arts make vivid the fact that words do not, in their literal form or number, exhaust what we can know. The limits of our language do not define the limits of our cognition.

  • The arts teach students that small differences can have large effects. The arts traffic in subtlety.

  • The arts teach students to think through and within a material. All art forms employ some means through which images become real.

  • The arts help children to say what cannot be said. When children are invited to disclose what a work of art helps them feel, they must reach into their poetic capacities to find the words that will do the job.

  • The arts enable us to have experience we can have from no other source and through such experience to discover the range and variety of what we are capable of feeling.

  • The arts’ important position in the school curriculum symbolizes to the young what adults believe is important.

Elliot Eisner is a professor in Education and Art at Stanford University in California. This article was published in the Arts in Education Council of BC Newsletter. It was provided by Helen Daniels, Executive Director of the ARC Arts Council and a member of the Board of the Arts in Education Council of BC.