Saturday, December 13, 2014
Over the last few years, I've talked to a lot of teachers and even the most innovative, dynamic ones have a streak of insecurity. When I was doing the Bright Ideas Gallery, showcasing some innovative teaching practices, most of the time I had to convince teachers what they were doing was interesting to other teachers and worth sharing. But in keeping in touch with those teachers now, some of them have abandoned the great things they were doing.
It seems like it is so easy to take the wind out of teachers' sails. One tough class, one challenging parent, one colleague's off-handed remark, or one uninformed news report, and it all crumbles. When this happens, we tend to revert to "foolproof" traditional one-size-fits-all methods that "worked" when we were kids but may not fit education today, and we eschew risk-taking, innovation, and personalization.
I don't like to think of myself as a teacher who needs external validation (if I did, I would have given up on this blog a long time ago, based on the amount of pageviews it gets!), but sometimes, it feels good to get some recognition. Some of my biggest compliments come to mind. One came last year, and one came last week. The one last year was when I was talking to a dad of one of my students. I think it was around December, and he said how he was telling his coworkers at his office about some of the things we were doing in our class, and they were amazed or disbelieving. The one last week was when I was at the mall, and I ran into a colleague of mine who would come in for me from time to time when I was away a few years ago. She introduced me to her husband, and he said, "Oh, you're that guy. My wife used to tell me about all of the cool things she did in your class. I wish I had been in your class." And he told me how he was the squirmy creative kid.
The thing that stands out about these two situations is that the remarks came from people outside of education. I don't tend to talk about my work with non-educators (and barely even with educators) because I don't do a good job of explaining the things we are trying to achieve these days. So for these two people to take an interest, remember, and positively remark without solicitation is very gratifying. They really understood what I am trying to do. Though we can't rely on positive feedback from outside to fuel our confidence, it probably does help. Yes, these kinds of encounters are gratifying in the same way that negative encounters can be destructive, but if we really believe in what we are doing, then we should be able to work through al situations staying true to our vision.
I think the reason why I try so many things in my class, even though I know a lot of my ideas are going to fail, is that I know at least one out of four of my ideas is going to work in a big way for some or all of my students. Someone might say, "That means that three out of four ideas are going to fail. Why not shorten the odds and just stick with the things that work?" And the answer is because that's the part I don't know: which idea is going to work with this class or each individual at this time. What is tried and true last year could be a dismal flop this time. What works for chatty kids might not work for introverted kids. Etc.
So I'm not trying to be innovative just to keep things interesting; I'm trying to be innovative to give all of my students the best possible chance at learning. And the chance of success far outweighs the risk of (my personal) failure.
Sunday, November 23, 2014
I think of people today and we have such short attention spans. If we can't get something fast (say 8 seconds), we Google it or we give up and move on. To have this young guy say he spent eight years (taking time out for sleep and food) working on a 30 second stunt was more amazing than any of his tricks.
In recent years, I've read Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's work about Flow and getting in the sweet spot where you don't want to give up, or Malcolm Gladwell's essays about 100,000 hours to master something. I think that these are interesting ideas, but are somewhat incomprehensible to kids because they are a bit abstract (Flow) or unfathomable (100,000 hours at something). But Zerbe put it in perspective when he said about the 8 years, "Failure is temporary."
So many times, kids (and adults) expect themselves to be perfect right out of the gate. But to think that failure is temporary is like the story about Michelangelo. When asked, after he completed the statue of David, how he accomplished such an incredible sculpture, Michelangelo is quoted as saying, "I just removed everything that didn't look like David." Rodin said something similar in that every piece of marble already had the figure within; all he had to do was find out what it was. I like to think that every student is that amazing piece of art, and that education is the process that chips away to define what each being is.
And each of those chips includes mistakes we've made along the way. Mistakes are essential to learning. One summer as a kid, my family spend two weeks at a lake water-skiing. On our way home, I pointed out to my dad that I did not fall once . He then pointed out to me that I didn't get any better throughout the week because I played it so safely. We was right. I didn't want to make any mistakes so I kept the boat slow, and didn't go outside the wake. The next summer, I made all kinds of mistakes. I fell, I skittered over the surface of the water, I konked myself on the head with the back of my ski, I got rope burn, and I had a lot more fun. I pushed myself way more and didn't worry about falling in. I took more risks and found out more about what I was able to do.
I love it when kids get immersed in learning, and don't worry about making mistakes or looking foolish. Imaginative play is the perfect opportunity for learning without ego. Kids go as far as they can and experiment, making up rules as they go and adjusting them along the way.
Similarly, some of my favourite geniuses have that childlike, playful nature to their work and to their life-long learning: Fred Astaire, Richard Feynman, Tommy Emmanuel, the Dalai Lama . All of them don't take themselves too seriously and have this impish smile on their faces as they take on some super-human challenges. They have so much fun, and it's like they are privy to a wonderful secret, and they inspire people like me find out what that secret is.
And make a pile of mistakes along the way.
Monday, October 13, 2014
Susan, I haven't seen your new room, but here is some general advice.
Sound is probably an obvious place to start for a music room. If you are working in a multipurpose room (which a lot of music teachers in our area are), then the floor is probably tiled. Tile is great for clean up, but brutal for amplifying sound. The sound just continues to bounce off every flat hard surface. This can be a problem for kids like me who get exhausted from trying to concentrate and listen to instructions or performances when every other distracting sound is amplified too. Lots of band rooms are carpeted which is great for sound but kind of gross for spit valves. If you are in a tiled room, see if you can cover as much of the floor as you can. Likewise, for the walls if they are hard concrete. Try to cover them with paper, cheap fabric, posters, or draperies to absorb some of the sound waves from crashing around the room. Even old music recording studios put egg cartons on the walls to bring the reverb down in the room.
I also like to have some kind of voice amplification in my classroom, let alone a music room. I used to have a cordless headset, supplied by the school. (It was really important to remember to turn it off when going to the staffroom or bathroom). I don't have the luxury of one of those cordless sets anymore, but I brought in an old keyboard amp I had with a mic that has a really long cord.
Why amplification? For many reasons: I can walk around the room with my voice heard by everyone in every location; in order to get a good volume, I do not have to strain my voice; in order to get a good volume, my tone does not change (sometimes an increase in voice volume turns my voice to an unintended "angry" tone); and with a handheld mic, the physical act of holding a mic is also a visual focus for attention, especially when students are sharing their work in the class (such as an "author's chair" situation).
For music teachers, I do have one caveat. Use the amplification for instruction only, not for demonstrating singing nor singing along with students unless you are in a large auditorium. Most teachers when they sing, project just fine, so amplification is unnecessary; in fact, it is probably overkill. Plus, something happens to the tone of a singing voice when amplified. If the amplification is too trebly, students will copy and sing really nasally. If the amplification is too bassy, students will try to boom like Rick Astley (and NO ONE wants that). The unamplified voice is the truest model for students to follow, I think.
Keep the lighting low if you want students to keep calm and focussed. Like kindergarten teachers, you can flick the lights on when you want to get the students' attention, boost their energy level, or if they have something, like sheet music, they need to see themselves. If students are usually on one side, and you the teacher is usually on the other, position the students so their backs are to the windows. The reason for this is it is really hard to see the teacher when he or she is backlit. All of the shadows run across the teacher's face when backlit. And how are you supposed to see what you are doing? Have the room lit enough that you can see all of the students, but dim enough to keep things calm. Overhead or digital projectors also cast off a great deal of light onto a screen that helps to focus students. If you use neither, then you can use a piano lamp or a battery operated booklight to see your notes or music.
For room arrangement, sight lines and places to do the kinds of activities you are doing are two key elements. If you do lots of choir, then risers are great because everyone can see you and you can see them. They are also fairly space efficient because they are tiered. Benches are less effective, but are easily moveable and probably more available.
If you teach individual instruments such as Orff, guitar, or recorder, then I like to have some separate spaces for practice. If everyone is practicing in the same room, they will get louder and louder just to they can hear themselves. The louder it gets in the room, the more anxiety or excitement is going to be increased for those who have difficulty with that much stimulation. For some instruments, you can pair students so that they can listen to each other and help, plus only half the class is playing at one time. Move students or the pairs away from one concentrated area and have them dispersed throughout the room.
Another thing I like to do with noisy practice is to have breakout spaces such as the hallway (make sure it is okay with teachers), a courtyard, or outside. Outside practice spaces are great for so many reasons. It feels good to play music outside. It is less inhibiting because the sound just seems to float up and away (not trapped and ping-ponging in the room). And some students who are sensitive to noise seem to relax in the outdoors. Mind you, performing outside is a whole different story.
My last bit of advice is to use music to set a tone. For example, put on some calming jazz, classical, or new age music to keep things cool as one class comes in and another one leaves. Put on Flight of the Bumblebee or some crazy Van Halen guitar solo if you want students to do something quickly, like set up the chairs or clean up. I hear music is very powerful, so we might as well use it.
Like all learning spaces, music rooms have to match the activity and the teacher's methodology to be effective.
Monday, September 08, 2014
While I was looking at the guitar books, there were a couple of girls who were about 13, trying out some of the guitars hanging on the wall. While I was on my quest, I wasn't really paying attention to them. I looked at different guitar methods and theory books, looking at the merits and deficiencies of each one, but I had trouble concentrating because the guitars were right beside the books and the girls were trying every single one of them.
I started listening to them while looking at the books, and they played the same riff over and over on each instrument. It was that opening bit of "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" by the Beatles. I think they had just learned it at school, and then got on their bikes to try it on different guitars at the music store. They tried it on dreadnoughts, on nylon steel guitars, and on electric guitars. One of the girls realized she could use the same fingerings on a ukulele. The other one was less successful using a bass. They both picked up 12-string guitars and played together. Just like with their other experiments, they said together, "That sounds SO cool!" In my head, I agreed with them.
I ended up going to the counter, not with books, but with a couple of sets of strings. As the clerk rang them in, I thanked him for giving those girls so much freedom to play. He just kind of smiled at me as in, "Isn't that the idea of a music store?" (In some stores, it definitely isn't).
I left the store very inspired. I didn't have a new book; I had a new outlook. Those girls only knew one song, actually one part of one song, and I know hundred of songs, but somewhere along the way, I lost the passion of just playing. Those girls didn't have the skill I had, but they had everything I wanted: enthusiasm, the joy of creating, the wonderful curiosity of using what they had in different ways, and a thirst to learn more (I can't see most girls that age getting that jazzed and riding their bikes to go do some more math, for example).
A similar experience happened to me this summer. I was at the Blackberry Festival in Powell River with my family. There was this great jazz band made up of early teen boys. They really swung. I have never been able to play jazz on my guitar well, but I was inspired by these young guys. I've been playing for longer than they have been alive, but they could do circles around me in terms of jazz. I realized my inability was not in time spent, but in approach and attention. So when I got home, I dug out my jazz books and started to pay attention to new patterns I hadn't recognized before. Little by little, I am starting to get it, and I can feel that I am getting it.
I spent this past Sunday with my buddy, Kevin. He surprised me when he told me he has taken up painting! When we got to his place, he showed me some of his work and I was blown away. In a short time, he has picked up some great skills, but more importantly, I could see the passion he has for painting. I asked him how he got started, and he said something interesting. The tipping point was when someone casually asked him about his hobbies, and being the busy guy he is, he realized he didn't have any. Inspired by his 94 year-old dad who is dabbling in painting, Kevin picked up an acrylic paint set that was at a general store he was at while on holiday.
I love this pattern: a little grain of sand of a problem is irritating our clam at the back of its shell. Through time and series of seemingly random occurrences, the a solution presents itself, producing a beautiful pearl of inspiration. Inspiration, like learning, is all around us. We have to be aware enough to recognise it and go with it. And sometimes that means going back to the beginning.
Monday, August 25, 2014
In a lot of cases, there was no real "discovery" with respect to innovative ideas or products. Instead what happened was that the actual invention or concept was always there, but no one really had figured out how to use it in a viable way. Xerox gave Steve Jobs the computer mouse because they thought it was useless. Steve ran with the mouse to create the first really personal computer, the Macintosh. This happens in education all the time. A lot of ideas or methods have been around a long time, but someone figures out how to use an old technique in a new way or repackages it in a way that makes sense for modern users.
This brings up another pattern: timeliness. The Paul Masson winery used to say, "We will sell no wine before its time." They were right because there has to be a match between the idea and the zeitgeist of what is currently happening. People have to open to what you are developing. Handhelds came way before the iPod, iPhone, or iPad, but they never really caught on with the masses. Even Apple came out with a dismal "failure" (by Apple standards) of a PDA*, the Newton. Apart from techies, no one wanted to carry around a deck of cards-sized computer in their pants, and now we would not dream of leaving our homes without our devices. (We would sooner leave our homes without our pants).
Timing was everything. With the iPhone there is a huge convergence of technologies that even by themselves are pretty amazing: cellular phones, digital cameras, microcomputers, compact storage, powerful and small rechargeable batteries, touchscreens, flat and small displays, digital music transfer, etc. All of this had to come together, and simultaneously, consumers had to see a need for this powerful little bundle.
My favourite aspect of developing innovation is the most elusive one: dumb luck. Sometimes there is a great random chance that occurs that forces the innovator to think of things in a different way. What would have happened if Jobs hadn't toured Xerox that day? Surely, it was a case of right place, right time. And without even one of those technologies I listed above, would the iPhone have even gotten off the ground let alone be so popular as it is today? If you've been reading this blog from the beginning you know that I was looking for a striking way to redesign my classroom, and it was just happenstance that I went to the Museum of Anthropology that gave me the idea for my beloved risers. It was also not just dumb luck but my limited wood working skills that led me to create them in a rectangular, open and highly agile design (and not the closed, curved and somewhat limited design that original inspiration was).
The one aspect of innovation that I have not written about before is: risk taking. This summer, I read Amanda Lang's The Power of Why. She talks about how innovation can come from curiosity, and in her examples there is risk taking involved to get the innovation to that next step. I get that. Because innovators are doing something new, the ideas are not always well-received because they go against the grain of what has already happened or what is currently happening. It takes a lot of courage to break from the inertia of history. Electric light in homes was first seen as dangerous (compared to gas or lit candles?). Flight was seen as heretical: "If man was meant to fly, he would be born with wings." (Something to think about the next time your flight is delayed). Elvis was seen as lewd on when he shook his hips on the Ed Sullivan Show. (Luckily, Miley Cyrus came on after him).
Innovators are risk takers who push the envelope. Even if they are not successful with their innovations, they help us re-examine the limits of what we thought was possible. Also, there is something deliciously rebellious is pushing the limits. My whole design journey started as a joke, a prank, (see Origin). My co-conspirator, Craig, and I were giggling like little girls when we started dismantling the storage room so we could use it as our secret clubhouse, later dubbed The Space. It was like a non-malicious version of that movie from the 90's Pacific Heights where freaky tenant Michael Keaton drastically alters the suite rented to him by on-site owners, Matthew Modine and Melanie Griffiths (before she got her lips renovated). Craig and I took down the curtains from the windows, and then used them to cover up the ugly storage units. We removed or hid anything that reminded us of school. We brought in soft lighting, couches, an espresso machine, rolling bamboo blinds, a CD player that played non-school music, etc. It was a great private joke and we didn't tell anyone at first (except the custodians who came in to get paper towels and toilet paper out of storage). It was a wonderful inside laugh, that we slowly leaked to the staff. It brought the staff closer together by giving them a "null" place devoid of the pressures and reminders of teaching, and it morphed into applying the same idea for personal classroom spaces.
Sometimes, it takes a lot of bravery to not do what is expected, and sometimes, it is just plain fun to do the unexpected. The really great thing in terms of seeding innovation, is that risk-taking is something we teachers can foster in our classrooms. We can model it. We can allow mistakes to happen without scorn, and even encourage mistakes as part of a constructive process. We can encourage questions and curiosity. We can debrief what happens when things go wrong or right, and develop next steps. We can give examples like Jobs, Edison, and the Wright brothers as innovators who made many mistakes until they found something that worked. We can document process, and use the documentation as a blueprint for next time.
Unlike timing or dumb luck, risk taking is a seed of innovation that is doable. (Sewable?)
*Personal Digital Assistant, not Public Display of Affection
Monday, March 31, 2014
I finished the prototypes of my lap desks (3.0). When I showed them to my wife she got really excited. "They're so cute," she gushed. "They look like shopping bags!"
Hmmm. Boutique learning? Personal, customized, and you can take it with you. I like it.
Notice the small storage area for a pencil and planner. I made it with duct tape and an insert of hardboard. No sewing!
The drawstring closes the top to form a nice easel, but also doubles as a handle.
Saturday, March 29, 2014
them their desks back. Also, in the spirit of "Take Your Learning Wherever You Go" I wanted my students to have a mobile workspace.
Saturday, March 01, 2014
Friday, January 17, 2014
Over the winter break, I brought in the risers.
I followed previous students' advice and introduced them very slowly. (Actually, the first time I introduced the risers, I did it slowly because it took me so long to build them! ) Now, I brought them in slowly because I wasn't sure how my wacky ideas would be received in my new school.
With my students this year, I'd built up a lot about the use and expectations on the risers before bringing them in.
The kids love them. They get the idea of using them for self regulation, moving on them when their bodies feel wiggly, standing by them when they need to stretch while working, and gathering on them like bleachers when we need to meet together as a group.
The parents have been supportive too. We had our student led conferences last week, and they were interested and curious. Some of them stretched out on the risers or kneeled beside them on the floor as they looked at their child's learning. One dad was saying how he tells his coworkers about the different things we are trying, but his coworkers don't really believe or understand what he tells them.
My staff's reaction has been very varied. My principal has been very supportive. He understands about trying things in different ways, and we've been attending a seminar series on self regulated learning. The other teachers are interested ("Hey, what are those things?") or oblivious (because I've kept the arrival of the risers very quiet).
The custodial staff has been really terrific. I tweak and rearrange everything every couple of weeks. Desks are moved out and stored in the hallway as we transition onto the risers. I have carpets for floor work and to hide extension cords which means sweeping and vacuuming can be a puzzle. Not once have the custodians complained, and we communicate with each other to see what works for them and for students' learning. In fact one replacement caretaker said the riser set up was the most innovative thing he'd seen in a classroom. He totally understood the intent, and wished he'd had them when he was a squirmy young boy.