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?


The First Couple of Weeks(!)

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.