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?


Child Driven Learning

Moving past the phase of getting students “culturally adjusted” to the classroom, I’m  now focused on how we learn in the classroom.  I’ve become increasingly aware of (and acutely frightened of) the idea of becoming a talking head teacher.    I LOVE to talk in front of people, often to a fault.  This comes from spending much of my time when I’m not with children teaching adults and performing.   In my experience, adult learners want to spend at least as much time chatting about music as playing it.  Quite the opposite from the young ones.  My 4th graders don’t want to hear me talk about why the treatment of slaves and development of the blues in the Delta made for a far more sad sound than the Carolina Piedmont Blues…..(maybe you do if you’re reading this)  but kids want to jump, sing, write, and be entertained by the blues or WHATEVER.  They don’t necessarily care where music came from (at least not yet), but if it’s fun to listen to it, someday perhaps they will pursue that deeper understanding.  That’s why I sing the “modern” blues song by Bob Reid and Phil Hoose, “I Know Math”.  OK,  form aside, it’s not really a blues song but it’s got the feel and kids love to sing it.  If nothing else it’s wildly cross curricular and sneaks in the idea of the blues:

I Know Math 

From We Are The Children
Phil Hoose ©Precious Pie Music

Now I went to buy a toy it cost three fifteen
I gave her three and a quarter, (If you know what I mean)
She gave me one nickle back I said,”I’ll tell you one time”
“I know math and you owe me a dime!”

I Know Math Ooo I Know Math Yes I do!
Stronger than Karate – Tougher than Kung Fu
I Know Math

Now the teacher asked the class what is eight pus eight
She didn’t think we knew she heard us hesitate
Then the whole class yelled in voice clear and lean
“Eight plus eight is SIXTEEN!)

I Know Math Ooo I Know Math Yes I do!
Stronger than Karate – Tougher than Kung Fu
I Know Math

Now we were behind the score was seven to four but when our turn came we scored five runs more
The other team yelled at least we’re sttil beatin’ you
I said, “Don’t make me laugh cause we’re ahead by two!”

I Know Math Ooo I Know Math Yes I do!
Stronger than Karate – Tougher than Kung Fu
I Know Math

Now the Tooth Fairy knows I get a fifty cent rate
So when I lost two teeth I thought, ‘Hey this is great!”
She left me quarters til she heard me holler
“Get back in this room gal, you owe me a whole dollar!”

I Know Math Ooo I Know Math Yes I do!
Stronger than Karate – Tougher than Kung Fu
I Know Math

So Hey Cashier! Don’t you act so strange!
We can figure taxes and we make change
We know the minutes and we know the hour
and that adds up to a lot of KID POWER!
We Know Math Ooo We Know Math Yes we do!
Stronger than Karate – Tougher than Kung Fu
We Know Math

So now kids had fun singing “the blues” and I can go on and refer to this in the future in another context.

I have quite a bit more to say (and will in future postings) on learning in MY music room but in the meantime I want to share a TED talk on Child Driven Learning. This talk by Talk by Sugata Mitra  really touched on something I’ve been thinking about for a while; the fact that so much of my time in the classroom is spent teaching kids to be good listeners TO ME.  My lifelong goal in the music classroom is to foster a learning environment in which I don’t say a word but kids learn on their own– self driven.  I know it sounds like an odd pipe dream but Sugata Mitra’s experiment exemplifies this idea.
In short, he placed computers in the walls of buildings (child height) in small villages in India where children had no access to technology or education and suggested that kids teach themselves how to use them without even knowing the English language that the machines were programmed in.   Please watch and feel free to comment.  I’m very interested in others’ thoughts on this.  BY THE WAY, if you would like to hear the tunes to the lyrics I publish, let me know.  I’m game.
– ’till the next post

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.

Symonds school is a “Responsive Classroom” (RC). RC is a social curriculum used nationally (perhaps internationally, I don’t know). It was born in Western Massachusetts some years back. The Northeast Foundation for Children (NEFC) develops RC and promotes materials and workshops that help teachers and whole school communities develop common language and cultures of caring; ultimately a positive school environment that serves as a foundation for more successful academic learning. The Northeast Foundation website states the following:

Northeast Foundation for Children, Inc. (NEFC) was founded in 1981 by a group of public school educators who had a vision of bringing together social and academic learning throughout the school day. We remain dedicated to helping those who want to learn about elementary teaching that emphasizes social, emotional, and academic growth in a strong and safe school community. NEFC is a not-for-profit 501(c)3 organization and is the sole source provider of the Responsive Classroom approach.

The Responsive Classroom is a general approach to teaching, rather than a program designed to address a specific school issue. It is based on the premise that children learn best when they have both academic and social-emotional skills. The Responsive Classroom approach consists of a set of practices that build academic and social-emotional competencies and that can be used along with many other programs. These classroom practices are the heart of theResponsive Classroom approach:
Morning Meeting—gathering as a whole class each morning to greet one another, share news, and warm up for the day ahead
Rule Creation—helping students create classroom rules to ensure an environment that allows all class members to meet their learning goals
Interactive Modeling—teaching children to notice and internalize expected behaviors through a unique modeling technique
Positive Teacher Language—using words and tone as a tool to promote children’s active learning, sense of community, and self-discipline
Logical Consequences—responding to misbehavior in a way that allows children to fix and learn from their mistakes while preserving their dignity
Guided Discovery—introducing classroom materials using a format that encourages independence, creativity, and responsibility
Academic Choice—increasing student learning by allowing students teacher-structured choices in their work
Classroom Organization—setting up the physical room in ways that encourage students’ independence, cooperation, and productivity
Working with Families—creating avenues for hearing parents’ insights and helping them understand the school’s teaching approaches
Collaborative Problem Solving—using conferencing, role playing, and other strategies to resolve problems with students

Having been a part of a Responsive Classroom community, I will simply say IT WORKS. I might even go so far as to say that implemented nationally, it could save our schools. I’ll talk more about this later.

As you can see from the RC bullet points above, many music teachers would say (and I’ve heard them say this!) “I can’t do this with the little time I have!”. Well, I do, as does our stellar PE and Art teacher here at Symonds. It’s the consistency within and outside of our classrooms that make it all work. That said, how do I practice my first 4-6 weeks of “acclimation” to the music classroom, a place where I see kids 70 minutes a week…? Responsive Classroom stresses that the first few weeks of school are crucial for getting kids acclimated to the “culture” of the classroom. In many cases teachers refrain from any academic content to pave the way for a respectful, orderly, caring and attentive learning environment. This year I have 350+ students this year. 30+ are brand new to Symonds. The returning kids forgot over the summer and the new ones need to learn the crucial routines and expectations.

The music room is a place for order with a cloak of chaos and excitement. Kids have to feel that they can freely, artistically, and openly express themselves but not at the expense of safety and structure. My rules are simple: We must maintain an environment that is Safe, Kind, and Responsible. My first order of business is to establish how we move in our space. We practice, practice, practice how we sit down, line up, move on the dance floor, then we practice again. We also work on how we talk to one another, how we “take turns” talking. The formal part of cementing this understanding involves the signing of a contract. Once we have established as a class what it means to be “Safe, Kind, and Respectful” by naming behaviors and in some cases writing them down, everyone signs a big piece of paper that states “I will help make the music room a Safe, Kind, and Respectful place”. It goes without saying that this is probably more intuitive and more easy established in a grade level classroom than a “specials” room (by the way, I whole-heartedly dislike the term “specials”, and I will touch on that later as well).

So, in short, our first couple of weeks of music class is a combination of a couple of things:

1.Naming positive (and negative when given the chance) behaviors to establish a positive music classroom culture
2. Exploration of the music space
3. Having FUN (and understanding that silliness is fine, but it’s a matter of when to be silly) to establish that hard work can take place in the presence of positivity and a great time.

Not your traditional take on music in the schools

The common wisdom shared among music educators when discussing the significance of music education usually contains figures on how music promotes skills in math and social sciences and that studies point to that fact that music is a catalyst for brain development. The good news is that there are very few (or perhaps no one) that will dispute this. The better news is that music, when done creatively, cooperatively, and ubiquitously in a school community, gives kids a greater sense of belonging. When woven into the fabric of a strong social curriculum, children learn better!

Children are motivated to learn when they feel a sense of allegiance to the community around them. They learn better when there is a story or series of experiences that bind their school and peer group. Children learn more quickly when they are having fun. Songs promote a sense of place and belonging. Music spreads the stories that bind community and of course, music IS fun. This is why music education is important in public education. The very reasons we sing happy birthday, or play parlor games at a family gathering is why music education is important.   Growth is accelerated by these essential shared experiences

Over the coming months I will document what I experience every day in and out of my K-5 music classroom at Symonds school. The administration and teachers at Symonds have mastered the art of marrying academics, social curriculum, and the arts. I will attempt to encapsulate how a school which (among a LARGE percentage of public schools) was for a couple of years designated a “school in need of improvement” and pulled itself out. This is seldom done as the metric is designed for perpetual failure.

Please stay tuned for more…

In the meantime, click here for a link to the Symonds page on my website and  click here  for an example of what a school community is capable of doing 🙂