Doing my best to “be the change…”

Now, about that journey…

Balance, please!

22 February 2022

We just concluded our state’s adjudication season. In my school, that just means that my middle school students completed their regional auditions and my high schoolers completed their regional, all-state, New England, and national auditions. Both grade levels received their results and now know whether or not they’ve been accepted into honor ensembles. It has been another round of interesting auditions since students were required to submit video clips of their performances (solos and scales…no sight-reading). Each of the participating students receives a summary from their adjudicator. Right at the top of the summary is their score. As their teacher, the biggest challenge I face is getting their young eyes to move downward for the purpose of viewing how their performance measured up against a set of rubrics. Perhaps the most important part of the page is at the very bottom: the adjudicator’s comments. The score might determine whether or not they will place above the cut-off for the ensemble they’re working towards but the comments really tell the story. A number can tell them how many pitches or rhythms they performed correctly, but the comments are there to present their results through the adjudicator’s voice.

My high schoolers’ all-state results were the last batch to come in. Ironically, they arrived in the midst of the 2022 Winter Olympics. As hard as I tried, I couldn’t separate what students around our state were experiencing from what was going on in Beijing. This was especially true when I compared the U.S.’s Nathan Chen’s gold medal performance in Men’s Single Figure Skating with that of Kamila Valieva, the fifteen-year old ROC shoo-in for the Women’s Single’s gold.

Kamila Valieva at the conclusion of her Beijing Olympics 2022 free skate program

It was especially painful to watch Valieva leave the ice after her free skate and sit in the “kiss and cry” corner with her coaching staff. She is the same age as my frosh and sophomore students. I teach little souls just like hers every day. Despite the fact that she had been under scrutiny for doping, it was brutal to watch her experience such overt pain as she strugged through that final program. There was no room for doubt that her chance at reaching the top podium this time around was a no-go.

The conclusion of Chen’s 2022 Olympic quest was a lesson in the process. When he took the ice for the 2018 Olympics, he was touted as the next champion. He was supposed to be the Golden Boy. As history will remind us, that was definitely not to be. Chen finished 17th at the end of a marred short program causing him to totally miss the podium. In an interview, Chen shared words of advice received by the 2010 gold medal winner, Evan Lysacek of Team USA. Lysacek told him:

“… win or lose, you’re going to go home and you’re going to continue the life that you had,” Chen said. “And that’s honestly very reassuring because I think that oftentimes you kind of dramatize things and are like, ‘Oh, man, it’s the end of the world if things don’t go well,’ but really, no, the world continues to turn and things will go back to normal.”

Nathan Chen, at the conclusion of his 2022 Olympic free skate.

As a conductor/educator, I know that my ensemble members and I are constantly working with goals in mind. I post reminders about the number of rehearsals until our next performance in our rehearsal space. I want my young musicians to recognize the responsibility they bear as we prepare for our concerts. My biggest fear: that they lose sight of the value found in the journey. How can we get those students who are inately competitive to find that value when they’ve (we’ve) been programmed to want a place on the top podium…to be first chair…to earn a perfect score?

As I prepared to write for you today, I found an article in the New York Times about Nathan Chen’s journey that I commend to you. This is one of those pieces that I plan on using as I move forward with my own students. Simply put, it speaks of balance and the role it played in Chen’s successful quest for the gold medal. The article closes with these words from Chen:

“Ultimately, I think within my career I’ve learned that you learn the most from your failures, and that’s how you can grow the best. The ultimate goal is just to be able to look back on your career and say, ‘Hey, you know, that was great.’

The big question: Can we teach this kind of balance?

Ah yes…those Mindsets…

I believe that we can teach strategies to adjust Mindsets. Here are questions I’m posing to anyone who aspires to teach learners, regardless of the setting, about adjusting their Mindsets.

  1. As educators, do we honestly value the process over the product?
  2. As educators who are faced with challenges, do we honestly view them as opportunities?
  3. As educators, are we honestly open to changing the methodologies and strategies you use in your own teaching?
  4. As educators, do we honestly celebrate ALL growth throughout our learners’ journeys?
  5. As educators, are we able to make ourselves vulnerable enough…HUMAN enough to let learners see our own successes and failures?

The operative word in this set of questions is honestly.

I’m interested in hearing about the concept of Growth vs. Fixed Mindsets and how they have influenced the learning processes taking place in your teaching/work setting. Part 2 of these musings will be added next week. In the meantime, stay well and safe!


Students interrupted…(pt. 2)

11 February 2022

I found that I couldn’t move to pt 2 of my musings on Students interrupted without thinking about gratitude. Last week, I wrote about my efforts to show grace. This week, my thoughts kept circling back to something that was shared with me by a retired conductor during this past year.

In any language…

My doctoral dissertation topic was Leadership awareness and professional identity in ensemble conductors. The question I was seeking to answer through my research was, How do lived leadership and professional identity experiences of exemplary conductors contribute to their development as students, studio teachers, and in performance settings? As I think back on the entire dissertation process beginning with the identification of the problem through the actual defense, I continue to be struck by the participating exemplars and what they left behind in the wake of their interviews. These colleagues were recommended by their peers for meeting a number of parameters: *Exemplars were either currently teaching/conducting in higher education or conductors emeritus/a.

*They possessed established records of performances, either juried or adjudicated, in professional settings, as well as established records as clinicians and adjudicators.

*Exemplars are recognized as published authors (primary or contributing) and for their achievement as educators on several levels

Suffice it to say that the participant pool was filled with some heavy hitters in our profession. When I look back at the text of my dissertation, I continue to be drawn to the exemplar responses that were quoted. The one that is resonating with me today described the exemplar’s undergraduate conductor. He shared:

He was the first conductor I ever had who, at the close of the rehearsal always said, ‘thank you.’ And I decided I liked that. Why not? And I think he genuinely meant that he was filled with gratitude for us being there, even if it had been a poor rehearsal. We had our share of those. But it also said, ‘I’m finished.’ I like that as an emotionally meaning thing for me, but also a way to finish the rehearsal. There are other things that he did, but that’s one that was consistent. Every rehearsal he closed with ‘Thank you.’

I have been able to take so much away from my dissertation journey but this quote rings the bell for me. I know that my students are coming to me from a variety of home settings, musical preparation, mindsets, and so much more. This year, I made a commitment to say “thank you” to them when they share their music with me during rehearsals and, especially, as they leave my room to continue on with their day. I want them to know that I appreciate that they’ve made themselves vulnerable by sharing their talents. I want them to understand that their contributions are valued, regardless of their playing/singing abilities. I want to get the fact that their collaborative spirit makes a difference in all that we do. Are there times when it is a challenge to express my gratitude? When I’ve reinforced a meter change, a diction requirement, or a reminder to place their backpack or instrument case under their chair to keep me from taking a header as I walk around the room…yes, it is a challenge. I just hope that one of those words of gratitude…those moments of grace…will stick with them in the same way that my exemplar expressed from their undergraduate days.

That’s all I have to say this week. Let me know your thoughts. Have a great weekend…stay well and safe!

Students interrupted… (pt. 1)

I might have mentioned this earlier in the blog, but I have a small piece of paper tacked onto a spot on the bulletin board in my office. A rather unobtrusive slip of paper with a student’s name, the time of day, and the date…Thursday, 3/12/20. The next day, we got word that we would be closed because of the pandemic. Foolishly, most of us thought we’d be back in a week. I gently reminded my students to keep track of our Google Classroom and to pack their music to keep them company while they were at home. History tells us that we were wrong. That afternoon was the last time I saw the seniors in my ensembles and AP Music Theory class.

Fast forward to the 3rd quarter of the 2021-2022 year. The current seniors were sophomores during that fateful year. Most of the 8th graders would have been found in my 6th-grade class. Everyone in between and below (this was before the current 6th and 7th-graders were on our radar) and we’re looking at a generation of kiddos who are truly students interrupted. My teacher-senses tell me that something is missing from all of them and I am really concerned on several levels.

Thank you to our school nurse for this infographic.

Academically, I can only speak about where my young’ns stand as musicians. Let me just say that learning how to play an instrument (beginners), trying to develop tone and facility (middlers), and grow an ensemble mindset (high schoolers) was pretty much impossible. As a profession, we music educators did our best to infuse legitimate teaching and coaching while searching for the best tools to reach our students while learning the technology needed to make it all work. I can report that my students have become comfortable in recalling what they missed while distance learning. One of my 6th- grade trumpet students (sadly) shared that he was “…just starting in 3rd-grade and then we missed out on 4th and 5th-grade, so I really just learning this stuff” (cue me trying really hard not to let my tears show). The older students feel the same. As much as we worked to stay connected, being physically present to one another has taken its toll on our work.

Socially…I’m just shaking my head over this. It has been so difficult to resist asking a kiddo who is demonstrating bozo-ness, “What would you do/say that?” If it isn’t the sole cause of unfortunate actions/talk, I’d say it is contributing to all of that and more. Our students are still getting acclimated to being social beings who know how to actually know how to “read the room” while resisting impulsive behaviors. Logically, when you’ve been home and “engaging” with a teacher and classmates via a screen for at least a full year, you tend to forget that impulsive behavior/speech isn’t welcome in a classroom, around hallways, or in the cafeteria.

Seriously, what were you thinking?

When academic deficits meet with social stunting, it is probably safe to say that we’re looking at a perfect storm. CNN’s recent post speaks to the social and emotional development of our students (edited 31 January)

Now enters the dilemma: How do we deal with it all?

Personally, I’m latching on to one operative phrase (admittedly, not always easy to do): Show some grace. I found another blogpost from 2016 (pre-pandemic…remember those days?) so special thanks to Sean McComb for this. I say that it aged really well. McComb’s description of what our students are bringing with them each day rang true for me. He wrote, “I’ve learned how that moment can irreversibly color a student’s experience in our classrooms, like food coloring staining a glass of water. For children — too often bearing burdens of anxiety, a challenging home life, or the common self-doubts of adolescence — the last thing they need is for a teacher to be an adversary in their learning. Yet, I still occasionally make these mistakes. But I’ve also made the choice to be intentional in limiting and countering them. I’ve made the choice to focus on teaching with grace, so that students can learn with dignity.”

Oh, that word…intentional. If I ever get a tattoo, that word is definitely a frontrunner.

So, here are the points of grace that I’m doing my best to give…

  1. Make my expectations clear and realistic: I’m a music teacher. Regardless of how I’m practicing my craft, I’m used to working in an organized setting that uses organized communication. Even when we’re playing jazz, we’re working within structure. I can’t expect my students to meet my expectations if they don’t know what they are. Perhaps more importantly, my students need to be presented with expectations that they have the potential to succeed in meeting. Posting assignments and assessments in our Google Classrooms have been keeping me honest. I don’t do the “pop quiz” thing…nope. Not a thing for me. I’m a huge proponent of giving my students the opportunity to see where they’re heading in a unit or assignment. That equals expectations for me. We talk about them as I post them (in real time) so that questions can be asked to clarify anything that might be difficult to understand.
  2. Finding ways to give “space”: This is a challenge (big time). When I post assignments/assessments, they are always inclusive of due dates and TIMES. Yes, times. I don’t have to worry about someone dropping the ball in their preparations for rehearsals because their ensemble mates will do that for me. As much as they don’t want to hear from me, I think there’s something more piercing and that comes in the form of the, “Are you kidding me?” look that a student gives to another one when they’ve blown an entrance, forgot a key change or worse, don’t have an extra reed. Oh, those music kids…but I digress. When an assignment is late, I’ve started to ask “why” to give the student an opportunity to advocate for themself. I have started to extend deadlines by 24 hours with reinforced expectations and an understanding that the grade will be deducted by one point. Past the 24 hours is when things start to tighten up. Music students hate losing full credit so the prospect of losing points for non-musical reasons really hits them where it hurts. When it comes to assessments, the giving of space has come to include raising my awareness of where my students stand as far as performance anxiety. Group assessments are less likely to induce anxiety (safety in numbers, and all of that). Solo assessments are a whole other animal. Here’s where we still use FlipGrid, a leftover from our distance learning experience that allows students to video/audio record themselves and submit it to me for grading. I can send them back written or video commentary (always a treat…not sure why). If a student asks to submit a FlipGrid assessment ahead of the due date, I will permit them to do so.

I’ll add to this list with next week’s post. In the meantime, I’ll be getting down to business dealing with shoveling, etc. in the face of Winter Storm/Blizzard Kenan. In the meantime, I’d appreciate your thoughts on this entry. Stay well and safe!

Too Much Quiet…learning how to use it.

Receiving a structured study hall as part of my teaching assignment goes against the grain of my existence. I live in a world that is immersed in sound. It is the lifeblood of what I do as a music educator and conductor. When faced with having to enforce silence in a room full of 20 first-year high schoolers, I can only say that this makes for a difficult (read challenging) 80 minutes out of my day.

I don’t formally teach the students in my study hall. My official responsibilities are to provide them with a place that is safe and quiet in which they can complete assignments for other classes. As I am regularly reminded, it is 2022 and every one of these young’ns carries with them at least one electronic device (we are a 1:1 school) as well as a cell phone that is typically “smart.” These students are fully connected…perhaps, over-connected.

With all of that said, what am I doing that can contribute positively to my study hall students’ day? I’m doing my best to surround them with intentionality. Perhaps I’m showing my age but I have been so surprised to discover just how many of our students just don’t plan. So many of them seem to be moving through their days without an awareness of just how much control they can have over their function. Students in this category still haven’t learned the life skills needed to manage their workloads. I see students in my performing ensembles deal with this visual and mental overload when they’re presented with a new piece of music. They can easily become overwhelmed by the sheer density of information and need to be introduced to strategies they can use to deal with it all in stages. The easiest thing I can compare this to is encountering a table laden with a wide variety of foods, all of which you know you absolutely need to eat. Take it all in at once…no. Give yourself time to sample and actually enjoy what you’re eating.

Here’s where the intentionality coaching comes in:

  1. Give yourself time to scan the task at hand.

2. Make note of areas that you can immediately recognize as likely to be challenging for you.

3. Map out the task, breaking it down into sections while keeping in mind the due date for the task.

4. Commit to working on/polishing the task, section by section.

Whether their planner of choice is paper-based or digital, I’m encouraging my students to use them intentionally so they’ll be able to avoid feeling overwhelmed and achieve their end goals in a healthy and long-lasting manner. The plan might be simple, but it continues to give us all the opportunity to get ahead of tasks before they gets the better of us.

I hope your day is a good one. Stay well and safe!

What lies underneath…

Pamet River – deceptively less full but still contributing to Cape Cod Bay in the distance.

We’ve been spending this last week of 2021 in a lovely house near the mouth of the Pamet River in Truro, MA. The Outer Cape has long been a place of peace for us and this location did not disappoint. By the time we arrived on 12/26, it had already passed sunset so the view from our windows was hidden from us. When we woke on the 27th, this is what greeted us. The salt marshes revealed themselves to us and we could easily find paths on the banks of the Pamet that made for great walking.

This isn’t the first wintertime we’ve had on our beloved Outer Cape but it surely provided me with endless opportunities to reflect back on the past year. As was the case with many others, it held its share of positives and negatives. Our family grew by three, and I successfully defended my dissertation and earned my Ed.D. Sadly, we lost more loved ones to COVID-19, school shootings returned to take the lives of more students and teachers, and the political climate remained tense.

Words of wisdom? Probably not nearly enough to be life-changing for any of my readers. I’m just trying my best to stay aware of what I want to bring to the multiple tables at which I sit. While I might not be at my best 24/7, I hope for the strength and wisdom to remind myself that I have something positive to contribute to the world around me even when my river beds look empty. As you can see by the two photos of the Pamet, the water levels shift. Their ebb and flow were apparent to us this week. I couldn’t help but equate them with what we are able to bring to “our tables.”

I wish you all a healthy, peaceful, and fulfilling 2022.

Pamet River – filled and emptying its contribution to Cape Cod Bay in the distance.

Absent, but not really missing…

I’m actually embarrassed to say how long it has been since I last posted anything here. Time has passed and “things” have happened in my life and in the lives of those around me. I allowed those “things” to block off a bridge that I enjoyed building between myself and anyone interested enough in reading…

We ache. We weep.

My goal for this week was to share follow-up thoughts on Fall ’20 goals for teaching in the face of COVID-19. Of course, I still believe this is a worthwhile topic. In the face of what our nation has been facing since the senseless death of George Floyd, I’m having a hard time thinking about…

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