One of those days…

Music was made. Skills were taught. There were setbacks. There were advances. Difficult conversations were had. Smiles and grimaces existed simultaneously.

And this was all before 9:00 am.  Continue reading “One of those days…”

Questions: Fueling The Discovery Engine In Your Class

Questions: Fueling The Discovery Engine In Your Class

One of my many favorite parts about teaching is the discovery process that comes through questions, dialogue, and answers in a classroom. 

It is discussion, in this collaborative learning environment, where I feel the reach of understanding in a palpable way. 


Because questions provide the framework for exploration, not just regurgitation. But in large ensemble classes I can feel overwhelmed to acknowledge as many students in the conversation as I would like. 

So I’ve been working on this.  A lot. 

Here are some things I’ve discovered. 

  • Wait time. Be willing to walk around the room and give students a chance to reflect on their answer and to unpack their baggage around if it is OK and safe to raise their hand to begin with. I have gotten very comfortable with 30 to 45 second periods of silence while the kids snicker and giggle waiting for someone to talk.
  • Raise an obvious question that will lead to an obvious answer. There’s a place for some low hanging fruit now and again. I just own it by saying exactly that. “Alright, coming your way. An obvious question with an obvious answer…” And these seemingly obvious questions also give some of my more timid students an opportunity to feel like they can participate. A soft lob in the direction of a student who doesn’t always engage in conversation will help to build their confidence.
  • Make sure your questions are specific in scope and framed ahead of time when possible. Give the students every chance to succeed and participate by setting them up to form opinions ahead of the actual dialogue. 
  • I try to avoid asking questions with the end goal being my appeasement. I really want to know what they know. And I overtly state that guesses are welcome and wrong answers are OK. Wrong answers are simply a chance for us to understand new things. An opportunity for growth.
  • Good old-fashioned “think-pair-share.” Give the students a prompt and ask them to take 30 seconds to discuss with the person next to them. Then go around the room and have students share what their partner discussed. Then they are simply reporters. 
  •  Instead of asking for volunteers IF they know the answer, ask for volunteers WHEN they know the answer. Give it a few seconds and watch the hands come up. I did this just today in one of my classes and the rate of hands raised went from 3 or 4 to over 50% in a class of eighty 9th graders. All by shifting “if” to “when”
  • Be ready to support a student who gives an answer that doesn’t quite land correctly. You might be ready to offer a lifeline so that another student can step in to assist. If your read is that the student is comfortable, then you could walk them through possible solutions to get to a different answer. 
  • I find that when I ask opinion questions I have to frame them very specifically as such. By opening the door to the possibility that we could disagree and have different ideas there is a tendency to have more active participation.
  • I ask for mimimun numbers of participation. “After this next rep I’d like at least 2 volunteers ready to share their opinions about how the trumpets did in matching resonance player to player.”
  • Sometimes the “wrong answer” is an opportunity disguised as a mistake. What would happen if you went off script when a student took something in a direction that you didn’t plan for? Some of my most exciting moments have been the moments where I had to punt and figure out a new direction based on the information I was dealing with in real time. 

The final thought I want to share is that it is critical that you are willing to reframe a question if it seems like the dialogue is falling a little flat. Often times students know more than they are able to provide because the question is unclear. 

It is up to me to know if my questioning is clear and is leading the discussion in a direction that is helpful. As a teacher I must be willing to continually flex and adapt in order to get a true understanding of what my students are learning under my care.

Socrates was on to something. 

Welcome Back, Real Quick Can I Have A Moment?

Welcome Back, Real Quick Can I Have A Moment?

Coming off summer hiatus…transition to teacher mode complete. 

My list of adulting last week: 

  • Finally remembered to pack a lunch. 
  • Actually ate lunch. 
  • Doubled coffee intake. 
  • Ironed a shirt. 
  • Woke up to an alarm. 
  • Slept through an alarm. 
  • Got a haircut. 
  • Took a vitamin. 
  • Didn’t eat breakfast. 
  • Next day, ate breakfast. 
  • Did lesson plans. 
  • Went to bed to late. 
  • Next day, went to bed very early. 
  • Drank water. 
  • Washed my hands more. 
  • Tucked in a shirt. 

Felt settled and back at home in the comfort of something I’ve known well for the length of time my students have been alive. The warm routine of the start. 
15th Amador Band camp done. 

Week 1, year 17 of teaching in the books. 

But I took some time this week to remember to really see my kids (we always call ’em “my kids” don’t we?)

Like look in their eyes-really see them-see them. 

Here’s what I saw:

  • Nerves
  • Excitement 
  • Fear
  • Uncertainty
  • A family newly broken
  • A family newly formed 
  • New to school
  • New to city
  • New to country
  • Talent found
  • Friends left
  • Friends found
  • Questions
  • Answers
  • Hope

I have to remind myself that for each year my routine becomes more familiar and comfortable, that it is, nonetheless, brand new for the flock of teenagers that cross through the door to the band room. They only have one 1st day of high school. I’ve had 17. 
So I took some time this week to see them for who they were and where they were. It wasn’t easy in the busyness of the start. But it was worth it to find those moments to connect with them. Made my routine feel a little less routine. 

Here’s to some magic through the the crazy of this new year!

Welcome back. 

The Truth About Why I Stay

I’ve been asked recently “With all you’ve done in your career you must be ready to move on. So what’s next?”

It’s been freaking me out a little to see the number of people in my professional circles who have left their current positions in the last year. Like I’m wondering why I’m NOT leaving. 

Is it time?

Have I done all I can do at Amador? Have I reached my goals? Have I given what I have to give to these kids, to this community? Do I still belong in education? Could I be doing other things?

So it got me thinking about why I stay. Why I continue to be happy and content to find my best self in my best work with the best kids I could dream of. Also I love lists.

In a totally free flowing order about why I stay in teaching and why I’m staying at Amador for a 15th year…

  1. I find the challenges of reinventing our organization every few years endlessly interesting. My brain spins non-stop about the various things I want to improve instructionally, organizationally, and pedagogically. Institutional knowledge allows for the unique perspective over time of what sticks and what doesn’t. 
  2. I LOVE teaching 9th graders. A lot. Like if I could teach 9th grade band all day I might. They are earnest and responsive. They want so hard to please you by getting “it” right right away. They don’t understand how gravity works and have spatial awareness challenges that make even me look coordinated. They laugh at my jokes and trust the history I share and the legacy we are building. 
  3. I get to make amazing music with my kids. Every day. Real art. It’s not play time people. 
  4. The energy and effort I give on the podium comes back to me 5-fold when my students have a break through. And it happens daily. When a class discussion results in my mind being opened . When the students play a passage with beauty and control. When they support me in a moment of vulnerability. When they do something completely ridiculous and I laugh really really hard. 
  5. I like the rhythm and predictability of these 56 minute classes that each day are actually a new adventure. Like the clock and calendar are the framework and that doesn’t change much. But the mood, energy, and focus of 50+ teenagers will vary wildly day to day, hour to hour. And that is something I love (mostly.)
  6. Greeting my kids at the door as they enter. Saying good bye as they exit. Small connections that build our relationships one hello at a time. 
  7. Conducting pieces over again. I don’t repeat repertoire in the time that my students are in the band. But I’ve been teaching long enough that I have conducted some pieces multiple times. As I’ve changed and gotten older I approach familiar pieces with a different process. It’s quicker. More efficient. And I’m less afraid of playing SLOW. 
  8. Thank you notes and emails from kids and parents. To know you’ve made a difference. That your work hasn’t gone unnoticed or unappreciated. When you’re told you’ve been like a father. When you’re told you’ve saved a life. 
  9. Trust. Trust built over time with students, parents, community. Amador is the place I’ve been the longest in my life. And I like that. I still feel 28. But I’m not. I was reminded of this when a 9th grader (see #2) asked me how long I’ve been at Amador and I was able to say while gasping for air “As long as you’ve been alive!”
  10. Leaving the band room at the end of a long day or long week and knowing it will be there to welcome me back with a familiar warmth and comfort that I’ve come to love. 
  11. Turning the lights off and walking across the darkness of the band room and knowing I won’t trip on a single thing because I’ve walked that walk thousands of times. 

I could list so many more. Maybe for another time? But staying is worth it. Maybe I needed to affirm for myself. Thanks for allowing some self-indulgence. 

I know that I’m right where I want to be doing the things I want to do with the people I’m meant to do it with. 

And while nothing is forever, I’m feeling good about the run we’re having, Amador and I. 

Endings are tricky.

Endings are tricky.

I find a jumping off point tonight by sharing the prescient lyrics of Semisonic’s  1998 song “Closing Time”: Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.

Continue reading “Endings are tricky.”

Sight-Reading Beyond The Superior

Sight-Reading Beyond The Superior

As a young teacher I was upset that the top group, THE TOP GROUP, PEOPLE, didn’t receive the coveted “Unanimous Superior” as a result of our sight-reading…

Continue reading “Sight-Reading Beyond The Superior”

Quantity & Quality: The Great Balancing Act

Quantity & Quality: The Great Balancing Act

Once upon a time 130 students sounded like a lot to handle.

Continue reading “Quantity & Quality: The Great Balancing Act”