Archive for May, 2012

Country Kids

Several months ago I was standing at the BandLand door on a Monday morning greeting students as they arrived to drop off instruments in the band room before school.  Trying to make conversation, I asked questions like, “How are you?” and “Did you have a good weekend.”

As one 6th grade farm boy entered, I happened to ask, “So, what did you do this weekend.”

He stopped and thought for just a second before answering, “I helped neuter the pigs.”

Caught off guard by this, I just replied, “Good for you!”

But his answer got me thinking about some of my other country kids:  students who are growing up on farms with chores and responsibilities.  One such young man seemed a bit groggy one morning.  When I asked why, he told me that it was birthing season for his sheep and he had been up much of the night.  But he was at school on time and he wasn’t complaining.

The other day my wife and I were walking around the 4-H fairgrounds when I observed a boy who couldn’t have been much older than 13 or 14 grading the horse arena with a John Deere tractor that was two or three times the size of my car.  He was handling it like a seasoned veteran; there was absolutely no hint of carelessness or thoughtlessness.  He took his time and paid attention, and when he was done the arena was ready for a horse riding competition.

I have also had many young ladies involved in the county and state 4-H festivals showing horses, cattle, and goats.  I remember Emily who, at the age of 14 or 15, was entering her sewing project into the annual competition.  After several years of study and practice with her mom, she had completed a beautiful and complicated dress that met all of the requirements for the highest level of difficulty.

I don’t remember if she won the show, but I can tell you she was one of many who gained much more than a ribbon for her efforts.  She and these other young people have been some of my best, most reliable, most responsible, most respectful students.  They have gained skills and character traits that will serve them well in any endeavor.  Emily, for instance, has nearly completed her studies at one of Indiana’s top schools of pharmacology.  And she is just the kind of person you would want to dispense your medicines.



My 7th grade music class at Backpack Middle School runs for 9 weeks at a time, and I teach two sections each term.  Factoring in a few years when I taught only one section per term, I estimate I have taught this course a total of 36 times.

The last unit we study each term is entitled “Form in Music,” in which we explore the many different forms compositions can take, such as binary, ternary, rondos, and sonatas.

One of the simplest musical forms to understand is “Theme and Variations.”  It is just what its name states:  a composer writes – or borrows – a melody, then composes variations of that melody by changing its notes, rhythms, etc.  We discuss the definition of the words “Theme” and “Variations.” I then provide examples, both musical (live piano examples, as well as recordings) and non-musical (think “basketball shoes” as a theme; think of all the different kinds of bball shoes as variations).

The class is also shown a Powerpoint slide with the following definition:

“Theme and Variations is the musical form in which a composer writes a theme, and then composes variations on that theme.”

They are then told that the unit quiz will include a question that looks the same, except for the first few words:

“Name the musical form in which a composer writes a theme, and then composes variations on that theme.”

The answer?  “Theme and Variations.”  Simple, right?  The words are even emphasized as they are in the statement here, and we review this question on the day before the test.  It’s so simple, a caveman could do it (think “Geico commercials…”).

In all the times I have taught this unit, there has only been one class in which every student got this question right.  Usually, four or five of the 20 students miss it.  That is 20-25% (think “discouraging”).

My point in this post, though, is not what you might think it would be:  “How can any student not get this?”  No.  I didn’t write all of this to lament the sad state of students, though it would have been valid.

Actually, I would like to ask one question:  Given the real life situation described above, does it make sense to evaluate teachers based on their students’ achievement?

Is That a Dog?

I took Schroeder, our family dog, to Backpack Middle School with me on Friday.  He is an 85 lb., mostly white dog with black ears, and the students love to see him.  I take him once or twice each year, and since the school year is almost over, I thought the students would enjoy a visit.

It is fun to hear the students’ questions about him.  The most common are:

Q. – “Is that a dog?” (no joke)

A. – “Very good.  Your education is paying off.”

Q. – “What kind of dog is he?”

A. – “A shepherd mix”

Q. – “How old is he?”

A. – “8 1/2 years.”

Q. – “Is that your dog?”

A. #1 – Nope.  I found him out back, named him Schroeder, and taught him some tricks.  Wanna see?”  Or…

A. #2 – “Nope.  There I was, minding my own business, when out of the blue this dog with leash attached ran up and practically begged me to walk him.”  Or…

A. #3 – “Yes.  Wait a minute.  No.  Hey, who switched dogs with me?”

Q. – “Did you bring him to work today?” (no kidding)

A. – “No.  He drove.  I read the paper.”

The students are always eager to see any tricks Schroeder knows, which aren’t many.  He knows the commands to sit, lie down, stay, and come here.  And when I say, “Go to your room,” he goes into the BandLand office.

However, he is an expert at the “Find the Peanut” game.  For this, I send him to my office and close the door.  Then I hand out one peanut each to five or six students in the band room with the instructions that all the students are to hold their hands in front of them with fists closed as though they are each hiding a peanut.  When everyone is ready, I call Schroeder out and lead him around the room.  He gives each student a quick sniff; if there is no peanut, he quickly moves on.  But when he smells one, he starts poking his nose into their hands until they open up and give him the treat.  Over the years he has gotten very good at this game.

Once the introductions are over and everyone has had a chance to pet him, we get to work.  It is pretty neat how the students can go ahead with rehearsal while Schroeder lies on the floor next to my podium.  It seems they can be trained, too, though there was that one time I caught Cal trying to poke Schroeder with his trombone slide… (why is it always the trombone players?).

When I first started taking Schroeder to work with me several years ago, a few teachers asked why I would do this.  It never occurred to me that it could be a bad idea.  I just thought it would make school a little more fun.  The best part has been meeting students I didn’t know before or have never had in class.  They feel free to come up and ask to pet him.  Then they will often tell me about their pets.  It gives me the chance to get to know them better, and vice versa.

Of course, I have to be cautious with him; some students are scared of large dogs.  But to those who fear the interruption in the school day I would say, if handled correctly (get permission from your principal), and on the right days, activities like this can be a really good thing.

Pop Tarts Anonymous

Like everyone else, teachers have various ways of dealing with stress.  But Ms. Perry seems to have gone overboard with one particular coping mechanism, and she is blaming me.

Apparently, this started back on March 16, the night the Backpack Middle School Band went to contest.  We returned to BMS at about 9:30 p.m.; it was probably 10:00 before I finally left for home.  Though it was late, I made a stop at the store to satisfy a sudden craving for Pop Tarts.  I don’t get to eat them very often (the last time was many moons ago), but when I do, I like them toasted and buttered.  The problem was, I couldn’t eat just one.  Before I knew it, I had eaten four.  I only stopped when I read on the box that each tart has app. 200 calories.  Besides, I was pretty full and feeling satisfied, and strangely unashamed.

On the following Monday I happened to mention this little escapade to some other teachers in the lunch room, one of whom was Ms. Perry.  But in retrospect, had I known the effect it would have on her I would have kept it to myself.

Today, a full two months later, she blurted out to the lunch crowd that my little indulgence had worked a profound effect on her as she has eaten untold numbers of Pop Tarts since, and there seems to be no end in sight.

“I’ve been eating them every morning and every evening, at home and in the car,” she told us.

“How is that my fault?” I asked.

“You’re the one who mentioned them to me,” she answered.

“Yeah, but that was two months ago.”

“I know,” she said, “that’s when it started.  It’s gotten to the point that I don’t care if they are toasted or not.  I just eat them right out of the box.  The other day I found a pack under the seat in my car.  It was a mess, mostly crumbs, but I didn’t care.  I just kept stuffing the pieces in my mouth.”

“Have you been eating them alone in the dark?  Perhaps we should do an intervention.  We are going to need to cut off your supply.  Cold turkey would probably be best.”

By this time everyone was laughing.  I looked up at the clock and saw that it was almost time to get back to class.  As I stood to leave, my lunch bag fell open revealing a Ding Dong.  Ms. Perry sort of gasped.

“No doubt I’ll hear about this after Summer Break,” I said.

“No doubt,” she shot back.


Joe was almost late to 2nd period today because, as he said, he had to go from the In-School Suspension room all the way to his locker, then back to the band room.  When I asked why he had been sent to ISS, he said, “Mrs. Milton sent me there from English class.”

“Why?” I asked.

“‘Cause me and Mrs. Milton don’t get along too well.”

“That would be, ‘Mrs. Milton and I.’  No wonder she sent you out,” I said with a smile.

The end of the school year is approaching fast.  We gave our Spring Concert this past Tuesday, and all went well.  In fact, when I asked the students the next day what they thought of it, Philip said, “It was a punch in the face of awesome, followed by a chocolate coating of amazing!”  Great description.

During our pre-concert rehearsal, I commented to the students that I would really enjoy sitting in the audience and listening during the concert.  At this, one tall, quiet saxophone player chose that moment to open up and say, “Go ahead.  I’ll direct the band for you.  There isn’t much to it, is there?  I mean, really, how hard could it be?”  But, then, this was the same student who thought the little yellow bird in the Peanuts comic strip is named Woodchuck.

Wednesday after school we had our last 5th grade lesson of this school year.  We have had one lesson each week for the past four or five weeks as a way to give the kids a head start for next year’s Cadet Band.  While most of the students have seemed eager to try this new adventure, a few of them have surprised me with their tendency to just give up.  For instance, a percussionist didn’t seem to understand the connection between the notes on the page and the keys on his bells kit, so he interrupted me to say, “I don’t get it.”

“You don’t get what?” I replied.

“This…” he said, sort of waving his hands toward his instrument and music.  “I don’t get… this!”

“Yet,” I responded.  He just looked at me.

“You don’t get this… yet!”  I said again.  “Don’t give up so easily.  Let’s start from the beginning and try to see how the patterns in the music relate to the patterns on the bells.”

With that, we jumped right in, and a couple minutes later, the light seemed to go on.  Yes, the rest of the class had to wait, but they did so patiently.  And maybe in the process, a couple other students had some confusions cleared up, as well.

This drummer had seemed pretty frustrated.  And I was wondering how he could have failed to understand all of my lucid instructions.  But I’ve learned that sometimes, in addition to good instruction, some students just need a lot of encouragement.  So, when a student tells me, “I can’t do it,” or “I don’t get it,” I always respond with “…yet!”  It’s my way of trying to change their despair into hope.  After all, as I told my 5th graders, our middle school Spring Concert would not have been so good if those students had just given up a couple years ago.

Livin’ the Dream

I had a dream not long ago in which I was trying to copy some papers in the teacher work room, but I couldn’t because someone had nailed the copy machine shut.  Talk about frustrating and unexpected.  But, of course, it was only a dream…

One day recently a student approached me before class to turn in a practice chart that had been due the day before (I think the chart was blueberry scratch-n-sniff flavor, but I digress).  He had written the word “Absent” across the top of the chart, so I asked him for more information; if he had been absent, he wouldn’t receive the one letter grade penalty for being one day late.

“Help me out here, Danny.  I know our schedule was all messed up yesterday with the ISTEP (standardized) test, but I don’t remember seeing your name on the absence list.”

“I wasn’t absent from school,” he explained, “just from your class.  I had to go to testing.”

“O.k., but if you were in school, why didn’t you turn this in?” I asked.  Danny’s demeanor started to stiffen.

“I couldn’t,” he said, “I didn’t have time.”

I knew this wasn’t the case, so I pressed him further.

“You had 10 minutes before first period.  Were you late getting to school?”

“No, but I had to get to class,” he said impatiently.

“Well, other students stopped by to turn in their charts before school.  Why couldn’t you?  Or what about at lunch time?”

“I don’t know.”  Now he was getting angry.

“Aren’t practice charts always due on Wednesdays?”


“The band room is practically on the way to your first class.  And it is close by the cafeteria,” I pointed out.  “And the collection box is right there on the table by the door.”

“I know, but I couldn’t,” he was beginning to sound a little desperate.

“What about after school?  You have to go right by here on your way to the bus.”

Exasperated, he finally said, “I forgot!”

Talk about frustrating…

“You forgot,” I echoed.

“Yeah,” he said, a little softer.

“Then don’t get angry with me about it, Danny.  After two years in band, you know how we do things around here.  I’ll have to deduct a letter grade from your chart.  I just want to be sure you understand why so we can avoid this in the future.”

“Yeah, I know,” he said.  “Sorry.”

…and unexpected.

“Thanks,” I answered.

As it turns out, the amount of time he had practiced would have only earned a “D;” a letter grade penalty would make it an “F.”

I took the chart to my computer, brought up the grade book and typed in “D-.”  I know that some will say I was too easy on him (and others will say there shouldn’t be a penalty at all).  But in this case, Danny had shown a sincere change in his attitude.  I figured I could give him a little credit for learning a non-music lesson, even if he had to learn it the hard way.

On Display

Nothing a teacher does goes unnoticed.

Walking across the band room in front of the class the other day, I caught the toe of my shoe on the perfectly flat carpet and stumbled a little.  Not graceful, I know, but certainly I am not the only person who has ever done this.   My students’ reactions, though, were predictably merciless.  There wasn’t one single expression of sympathy, only laughter.

“I can’t believe it,” I said, pretending to be embarrassed, “you’re all so heartless. What  if I were sprawled out on the floor right now reaching for my Life Alert button, would anyone care enough to help?  Or would you be laughing so hard you couldn’t breath?!”

Even students who wouldn’t think to laugh at a classmate’s misfortune won’t hesitate to bust a gut at their teacher’s expense.

But don’t be too hard on them.  I really think they are just surprised to see that their teachers are human beings, which can be a good thing for them to learn.

And some of the best lessons they learn come from seeing how their teachers handle the mistakes they make.

For instance, I have always been bad with names.  It’s not that I don’t like or care for my students.  I can tell you all kinds of things about each of them.  I simply have trouble with names.  But knowing how important it is to a student to believe that their teacher knows them, I work really hard at learning names.

Nevertheless, I frequently call a student by the wrong name.  So, to take the sting out of it, I have had a long standing policy of paying a penny to a student when I mess up their name.  It takes the sting out of the offense and turns it into a game.  It has almost become a joke.  For example, just the other day I called Travis by his older brother Trevor’s name, and not for the first time.  Immediately, several students caught me and said, “You owe him a penny!”

I apologized to Travis and told him to see me after class.  Travis smiled, then we got right back to work.

If only all my mistakes were so harmless.  Unfortunately, there have been times when I have mistakenly and innocently embarrassed a student with what I thought would be a harmless or funny comment, only to see by the look on the student’s face that I had totally missed the mark.  So, what then?

Well, as I have tried to teach my own kids at home, we have to take responsibility for the things we say.  Rather than try to explain it all away, I simply offer an apology.  And if the offense was made in front of the class, I apologize in front of the class (unless doing so will only embarrass the student further).  After all, being on display means I am teaching all the time, whether for good or bad.