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Writing Assignment

goats

My students had to do a short writing assignment today in which they simply had to answer the question, “What is the most challenging thing you have ever done?” Of the numerous answers given, two stood out.

The first one, from a 7th grader, included a little bit of small-town, farming philosophy: “I would say that showing my goats is the most challenging thing I’ve ever done. It’s sometimes hard to show goats because goats do what goats want to do.”

The other answer was memorable because of a typo. A 6th grader wrote, “The most challenging thing I’ve ever done is help rebuild a toilet. I was leaky.” And so I laughed and laughed.

Covers

BooksSummer Band. In BandLand that means it’s time to plant a new crop of beginning band students. For two weeks in June each year I spend my days sowing seeds that I pray will one day yield a bountiful musical harvest.

Today is the last day of this year’s Summer Band, which has flown by. We are on our way to Indiana Beach for a day at the amusement park, a Backpack Middle School tradition that dates back to 1973. It gives the kids a fun way to wrap up our time together, and it gives me the opportunity to get to know them better outside the classroom. Take Brittany, for instance, who is sitting across the aisle from me on our school bus. When she came to her first lesson two weeks ago she was quiet and nervous. Eager to please, she listened intently every day and has already made great progress on her clarinet, as have all the girls in her section. Now, she is relaxed, talking freely, and asking a lot of questions.

 “Is it supposed rain today?”

 “How long ‘til we get there?”

 “What if I get lost while I’m at Indiana Beach?”

~~~~~~~~

Some students seem to be an open book. What you see is what you get. Others have to be read more deeply. First impressions can be misleading. My first impression of Brady left me thinking he would never learn to play the saxophone. He was late to the first rehearsal, and to most of the practices since; he seemed scattered, unfocused, and distracted, so that I thought he might be one of our special education students; and to top it all off, he has significant dental issues that made me wonder if he should be a drummer, instead. But near the end of our first lesson I asked a math-related question (I don’t remember why). With only a slight hesitation, and while everyone else was still thinking, or not thinking, Brady answered, “22,” and he was right.

“You’re pretty good at math, aren’t you, Brady?” I commented. He sort of smiled, but didn’t say anything. Every day since then I’ve seen further evidence of his abilities. He may be one of the smartest kids in the class. Though he has difficulty following directions and focusing, for which he takes medication, he is one of the fastest in his class at naming notes and playing them on his saxophone, and at counting rhythms. Clearly, my first impression was incorrect.

Suzie, on the other hand, is sweetness defined. Slim and blond, she is a pretty girl you instantly like and trust. She just seems good, and actually, she is. She pays attention, follows directions, and she is quiet in class, hardly saying five words in two weeks. But, far from being unfriendly, she is always ready with a smile. Like I said, she is a sweet girl, which is why her answer to my question below caught me off guard.

Yesterday I took a few minutes to go over some rules and reminders for our trip today, one of which is that students are not to be alone at the park, but should be in groups of two or more at all times.

“So,” I asked the class, “Suppose you are with three others, and they want to go on a ride that you are scared to go on. What are your options?”

Much to my surprise and great delight, Suzie said, “Suck it up and get on the ride.”

This was so unexpected that I laughed out loud and said, “You say nothing for two weeks, then you say that?” Of course, she smiled. Clearly there is more to this young lady than first meets the eye.

If it is true that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, how much more so for these young novels that are still being written?

Standard 10

With great power comes great responsibility.

“So, what about Jedi Knights?” I thought to myself.  We were in the middle of Concert Band rehearsal and I had just stopped the students to correct a mistake.  As I spoke I was looking around the room to see who was paying attention when I saw Keagan with his arm stretched out toward me and his hand shaped as though it were holding onto something.

“What are you doing, Keagan?” I asked.

“Trying to Force Choke you,” he answered in his best Darth Vader impersonation.

“Of course you are, but your powers are no match for mine,” I told him.

“We shall see,” he said.  Then, as though it was the most normal thing in the world, he kept trying throughout much of the rehearsal, sometimes on me, sometimes on other students, though never with any visible effect… (Of course, when it became disruptive, I quietly asked him to stop, which he did.)

At the end of rehearsal he tried one last time, so I decided to play along.

“Must…reach…my…grade book… Must…block…powers…with…Force Points Deduction… Minus… one…thousand…” I gasped, pretending to collapse onto my music stand.  At this exact moment the bell rang.

“You lose.” I said.

_______________

Years ago the Indiana Department of Education established curriculum standards for all courses taught in public schools.  The standards written for classes like English, Math, Science, and Social Studies are concrete and easy to follow.  They spell out in clear detail exactly what is to be taught at each grade level.  The idea is that if, for example, a 7th grade math teacher follows the standards, the 7th grade math students will be well-prepared for the annual standardized test.

The nine standards for music are, in my humble opinion, less helpful.  First of all, they are “music standards,” which means they were written for all music teachers.  So, some apply more to Choir classes, others to Band or Orchestra, and others to General Music.

Second, they are not as specific those for core courses.  To be as clear as the math standards, Band standards would say precisely what skills each instrumentalist of the band should master during a specific year of study.  For instance, the skills a flutist must master are not all the same as those of a trombonist.

Third, some of the standards are, well, nice, and even admirable.  However, you would never read something like the following in a math standard:

7.8 RESPONDING TO MUSIC: Understanding relationships between music, the other arts, and disciplines outside the arts

7.8.5 – Identify life skills developed in music studies and activities such as cooperation, effort, perseverance, and respect that transfer to other disciplines and contexts.

Laudable as these goals are (and I believe they are), strictly speaking they are not curriculum standards.  As 7.8.5 states, they are life skills.

At any rate, whatever one may think of our music standards, it occurred to me the other day that as long as we are dealing with standards like this, there should be one more standard, which I have now typed up and added to the standards displayed on the BandLand wall.  It reads:

Standard 10:  Having Fun with Music (Having a good time making high-quality music).

This is one of those “full circle” moments for me.  Early in my career I would react strongly against those who said that the way to get students to sign up for Band is to “make it fun.”  “Band and Music are fun,” I would say.  “Playing instruments and performing well on them is fun.”  And I still believe this.  I often complained, and still do, that students are too entertainment-oriented.  Some things just take hard work, but achievement is enjoyable.  Most things that are fun take effort; Band is one of those.

But as schools have placed ever more importance on standardized test scores, I have noticed that many of the fun things students used to enjoy in school have been disappearing:  Backpack Middle School students go on fewer field trips than they used to; there are fewer convocations or special presentations to attend; our literature students used to put on a yearly Renaissance festival, but no longer.

So, while I still believe that work and fun can coexist, and that good music is worth the effort and brings its own rewards, I have lately been consciously trying to find new ways to make Band as enjoyable as possible, and also dusting off some tried and true tactics.

For instance, and this is certainly not an original idea, occasionally I let the students choose what songs we will play in their method books; even better is to let them try conducting the band.  This can be a real hoot, while also providing a number of “teachable moments.”

When we practice scales we often play them in rounds (try this with the chromatic scale on Halloween – very spooky), or with different articulations, or with changing dynamics.  The chorale books we use on Tuesdays and Thursdays (Bach and Before for Band and Classic Christmas Carols) have all four voice parts written in every student’s book.  So sometimes we turn the music “upside down” and let the bass instruments play the melody while the soprano instruments play the bass line, etc.

My wife lets her instrumental students earn prizes for practice time.  She also takes her groups to perform in public at nursing homes or, last year, at the Statehouse in Indianapolis.  This got me thinking, so this year I have organized a field trip for my band students to perform Christmas carols at the local nursing homes during school and I invited the Choir director to bring along some of her students, as well.

Three years ago I began offering students the opportunity to buy Band t-shirts with slogans like, “It’s O.K., I’m With the Band!” or “Backpack Bands:  Fighting for Truth, Justice, and the BandLand Way!” which even featured artwork designed by a talented high school band student.

This past Wednesday was the last day before Fall Break, so I brought my dog Schroeder to school with me.  The kids always love seeing him (for more, see blog entry “Is That a Dog?” from May 20, 2012).

And this past Wednesday I engaged in a life or death struggle with a Jedi Knight wannabe…

I suppose all of this is a reaction against the stale, test-driven environment toward which schools are trending.  But it is all good to do anyway.  After all, music actually is fun!  Why shouldn’t we enjoy learning how to make it?  Yes, it takes discipline and effort, but so does almost everything worth doing.

Zombies and Student Discipline

This drawing was done by a student in my general music class.  The inscription says:  “Mr. Shaver  (HaHa, Not really – I just randomly drew this so here)”

It doesn’t look anything like me.  For one thing, I almost never wear a tie, or a top hat.  And I don’t have a mustache or a monocle.  But I do have hands.  How else would I hold my conductor’s baton when I direct the band…?  Just saying…

I guess it was the thought that counts.

This picture was drawn while we were listening to a portion of “The Planets” by Gustav Holst in music class.  I have found that if I let students doodle when I ask them to listen to a music sample they are much better able to control their restlessness and stay out of trouble.

On the other hand, one recent day while I was leading a class discussion on some fascinating aspect of Bach’s life I had to ask a student to stop drawing a map of his house explaining where the zombies’ entrances and exits were.  Not that it is wrong to be prepared, but his timing was inappropriate.

It probably seems obvious, but I will say it anyway:  classroom management and student discipline are the most challenging parts of a teacher’s job.  Consider, for instance, the recent Chicago teachers’ strike.  As my dad pointed out, you have to be impressed that while the students were out of school the police department put a bunch of extra cops on the streets to make sure kids were staying out of trouble.  Just think, teachers are expected to handle these young people in their classrooms every day – unarmed.

Just yesterday a 7th grade boy we will call Jack came to my music class wearing a pink breast cancer awareness bracelet on which was a slang term for a part of a girl’s body (I am trying to describe this delicately for the sake of any young kids who might read this).  Believing that this was surely a violation of our school’s dress and behavior code, I asked the student to remove the bracelet and give it to me, but he refused.  I asked a second time to make certain he had understood, and again he refused to comply.

I picked up the phone and dialed the assistant principal’s office.  As I did so, Jack angrily took the bracelet off and threw it across my desk, so I told him to wait for me in the hallway.  On his way out of the room he made a nasty comment about our school that included words like stupid, redneck, and another name for a donkey (again, I’m trying to be sensitive here).  When the assistant principal arrived I explained the situation and pointed out that Jack’s actions amounted to disrespect, which is itself considered a major discipline offense.  Throw in foul language and and insubordination, and the case is solid.  Jack received a one day suspension.

Please don’t think this sort of behavior is the norm at Backpack Middle School; most of the time things go along quite smoothly with only minor interruptions which are handled easily enough. For instance, when Calvin was using his pen cap to make a very realistic cricket chirping sound during band rehearsal, I expressed my appreciation for his skills and politely asked him to stop.  He then said he could also make the sound of a boiling witch, but he thought I wouldn’t like it.  I commended him for his judgment and continued with class.

Sadly, though, encounters with students like Jack are increasing.  Perhaps I will have to type up another entry speculating on the possible reasons for this.

The Pork Festival

This is my 13th year teaching in the Backpack school system, so today I will march with the Backpack High School Band in my 26th Pork Festival parade.  We kicked off this annual festival two days ago with a small Thursday evening parade, and today at 2:00 the band will take part in the Pork Festival Grand Parade.

                     

For a small Hoosier town this is a big deal.  The fire trucks always lead the way with sirens blaring.  Floats with beauty queens, cheerleaders, sports teams, church groups and politicians – including this year’s candidates for governor – will be interspersed with a half dozen high school marching bands.  Shriners on tricycle motorbikes will thrill the large crowds with daring maneuvers, and the local library staff pushing their decorated book carts will weave back and forth in a choreographed routine that is just as entertaining, and almost as thrilling.

In Indiana you can spend almost every weekend from late August to November at a small town festival.  For instance, there is the Elwood Glass Festival, the Atlanta New Earth Festival, and the Fairmount James Dean Festival (the town where “cool” was born, and Garfield cartoonist Jim Davis, too).  You can visit Frankton for Heritage Days, and Alexandria, whose celebration is actually called the Smalltown Festival.  Or you can go to Martinsville to watch the Fall Foliage Parade, and even New Castle for a Christmas parade in November.  But the Pork Festival boasts the most visitors and biggest parade of them all.

While I expect the crowds to be a little smaller today due to the cool, windy weather and cloudy skies, there will still be several thousand people lining the parade route.  I always enjoy walking alongside the band students and waving to familiar faces in the crowd.  Of course, I didn’t recognize anyone my first year, but today I will see a number of current and former students, parents and friends.  And when the band plays the Backpack school song, I can always tell the natives from the visitors because the outsiders don’t know the traditional clapping pattern that goes along with the song.

Last year’s parade took place in hot, muggy conditions.  As you might expect, some of the band members were pretty worn out by the end.  Thankfully, Pizza Shack, which is at the end of the route, always serves up cups of ice water and soda in their parking lot for the band kids from all the various schools.  Even so, one of our saxophone players, I’ll call her Sandy, felt overcome with the heat.  Personally, I was a bit skeptical since she had a history of feeling overcome by the heat after almost every activity, but there she was, lying on the ground complaining that she felt faint.

So, after conferring with our high school band director Mr. Fletcher, I pulled out my cell phone and called 911.

“9-1-1.  State the nature of your emergency.”  At this, I briefly explained the situation, and asked for an EMT to come assess Sandy’s condition.

“What is your location?” the operator asked.

“Well, I don’t know the exact address,” I began, wondering what I was going to tell this anonymous operator who could be in a far off city for all I knew.  “But, I’m in the Pizza Shack parking lot, which is…”

“Very good.  I will dispatch a unit immediately,” she interrupted.

“Oh – Thank you,” I answered.  “That was easy.”

A moment later, I heard a clanging alarm from nearby.  Looking across the street I saw three medics run out of the firehouse, jump in an ambulance, turn on their siren, and come directly across the street right to where Sandy and I were.

“I love small towns,” I said out loud to myself.

While the EMTs examined Sandy, Mr. Fletcher led the rest of the band back toward the high school, with a stop at the town park on the way.  While there, the band played several pep tunes to entertain the crowd at the car show. Meanwhile, the medics took Sandy to the emergency room, which is across the street from the high school.  I caught up with the band at the park just as they were finishing and walked back to the band room with them.  Arriving at almost the same time, Sandy came in to pack up her instrument and put away her uniform.  She was obviously feeling much better.  Whether her recovery was due to some medicine or to the attention she had received, I couldn’t say, but thankfully, it had been nothing serious after all.

Got to go.  The parade is going to start in just a couple hours.

Generation Gaps

My 8th grade band students played the Star Spangled Banner and the school song with the high school band at the football game Friday night.  They did a great job, too.  It was their first experience out on the field in front of the home town crowd.  More than one parent recorded the event for posterity.

One student had not been able to make it to the event due to a family emergency, but she called me on my cell phone to let me know.  I didn’t recognize her number, so when we hung up I saved it to my contacts folder so my phone would identify her in the future.  As it turned out, she called me two more times with updates, but my phone didn’t display her name either time because she was using different phones.

“How many cell phones do you have?” I asked her.

“Oh.  Well, the first time I used my mom’s phone.  Then, I used my dad’s.  This time I’m calling on my sister’s phone,” she explained.

“I give up,” I said.  “I can’t keep up.”

After the pregame performance the band sat up in the stands to watch the game and play pep tunes.  It was a beautiful evening; the setting sun was painting bright reds and pinks and oranges on the wispy clouds.  I pointed this out to one of my students, who agreed that it was a spectacular sight.

“Wow.  I wish I had my phone,” he said.

I wondered why.  Was he going to call someone and tell them to check out the sunset?  Then I realized, of course, that he wanted to take a picture with his camera phone.  I use my phone for making calls.  My students use their phones for texting, checking the weather, taking pictures, listening to music, and much more.  They only make phone calls when the person on the other end doesn’t text (like me).

Later, while sitting with the band in the stands, I caught the smell of barbecue coming from the concession stand.  Austin got a whiff of it, too.

“Mr. Shaver, do you smell like pulled pork?” he asked me.

“What?  What would make you ask such a question?  Besides, I was going more for a scrambled eggs effect…”

“No,” he laughed, “Can’t you smell, you know, like, the pulled pork in the air?”

“Oh!  Holy cow!  You have got to be more careful how you use the word ‘like’!”

Earlier this week a student asked me how old I am.

“How old do you think I am?” I responded.

“I’ll bet you are in your twenties,” he guessed.

I nearly choked.  Then I gave him some BandLand bonus points.

A Night of Surprises

Our trip to Band Contest is finally over, and all in all it was a good one.  I won’t keep you in suspense:  both of our bands – Cadet and Concert – earned Gold awards, which was gratifying.  Way to go, Backpack Bulldog Bands – thanks for a memorable night!

However, the night was memorable as much for its surprises as for the final scores.

Surprise #1 – Everyone was on time, which is not always a given, so we will count this as a pleasant surprise.

Surprise #2 – When we reached our contest site following a 15 minute bus ride, my eight drummers informed me that no one thought to bring a snare drum.

Figuring there was no point in wasting time, I sped right through the five stages of grief as quickly as possible.

“No way!”  (Denial)

“What were you thinking?”  (Anger)

“You’re kidding, right?  Please tell me you’re kidding?”  (Bargaining)

“How do eight drummers forget to bring a snare drum to Contest?”  (Depression)

“O.k., what are we going to do about it?”  (Acceptance)

Thankfully, our Contest hostess was kind enough to loan us a snare drum.  Problem solved.  Lesson learned.  Life goes on.

Surprise #3 – As the Concert Band students were lining up to go to the warm-up room, one student told me he had forgotten his music.  It turned out he wasn’t the only one.  In fact, a total of five students had not been listening when I told everyone to make sure they had their music.  Dispensing with the five stages, I went straight to pulling out the rest of my hair (which didn’t take long).

Surprise #4 – Both bands played exceptionally well.  This is not to say they were perfect.  I wouldn’t even say they were the best bands I have ever directed (no offense intended).  But all things considered, they put on quite a show.  It is not often that I enjoy – I mean really enjoy – conducting a band performance.  Usually, my attention is on the mechanics of keeping the group together and getting through the pieces without losing anyone.  But I thoroughly enjoyed these performances.  The bands played with a lot of energy and enthusiasm.  In short, they outdid themselves, and they made music.

Surprise #5 – The judges were not as impressed as I was.  This is the reality band directors face who choose to have their bands adjudicated, and I guess I should have expected it.  Judges don’t know all the countless challenges my students had to overcome.  Their job is to judge the quality of the performance and offer suggestions for improvement.  My job is to learn from them.

Surprise #6 – On the way home, one student stopped me to apologize for forgetting his music.  He said he knew it was irresponsible.  Wow!  That may have been the biggest and best surprise of all, which is why I said before that, all in all, this was a good trip.  My hope is always to teach these young ladies and gentlemen more than just music.  Hopefully, for at least one young man, a lesson was learned, and life goes on.