Kenley Kristofferson


Tag: ed

Music Ed Monday – Little one, what do you choose to be when you grow up?

At the beginning of this year, we had a PD session on character development which really changed the way that think about teaching.  It didn’t change it in a philosophical way, but more in a practical and pragmatic way.  It’s good that you want to make kids more successful and happier people, but how do you actually do it in a classroom day to day?

I didn’t have all the answers that day because no one ever does.  You will just never, ever have all of the answers.  As soon as you resign yourself to that, you can start making progress.

So no, I didn’t get all the answers, but I got a few.  I got enough to get started.  Even moreso, I got enough to get me even more curious.

I started talking to other teachers around the school about the PD and it was largely well-received.  One teacher in particular (and who I have tremendous respect for) said she’d been interested in pragmatic character education for a while and had just finished a thought-provoking book about it.  It was called How Children Succeed: How Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character by Paul Tough and she very kindly lent it to me.

I started reading it, but got overwhelmed at work and life and put it away for a while.  It wasn’t until two weeks ago that I really started digging into it again and I’m so glad I did.  It’s challenged me a lot while still giving me some tools to teach character education more effectively.

Several sections stuck out to me, but I’ve been thinking about the upcoming section quite a bit over the past few days.  It involves a low-income middle school in the US called IS-318 and their exceptional chess program.   In an email exchange between the author and a Scottish chessmaster named Jonathan Rowson, the master writes about the difference between wanting something for yourself and choosing it:

When it comes to ambition… it is crucial to distinguish wanting something and choosing it.  Decide that you want to become a world champion… and you will inevitably fail to put in the necessary hard work.  You will not only not become world champion but also have the unpleasant experience of falling short of  desired goal, with all of the attendant disappointment and regret.  If, however, you choose to become world champion (as Kasparov did at a young age), then you will “reveal your choice through your behaviour and your determination.  Every action says ‘this is who I am.'”

Isn’t that fabulous? Much of the context around this chapter involves practicing chess for hours a day (three as the minimum example, twelve-to-fourteen with the book’s most extreme one), but the notion still stands.  If you’re going to do it, then do it.  If you’re going to use your passion as your label, then you better do your passion.

Sometimes, I wrestle with this as a composer.  During school start up, I rarely compose as much as I want/need to.  If I do write through September and October for a deadline, I usually crash hard at the end of November and all the way through until Winter holidays.  But in the interim, there’s that nagging feeling of “you should be doing something creative right now…” and you just don’t have it in you.

That “nagging feeling” also means that you’ve made that choice, and you’ve probably made it because you like it, or it gives you some sort of enjoyment or meaning.  Here’s another section from the How Children Succeed about that:

During one conversation I had with [the chess teacher] whether she ever felt that her students were sacrificing too much to succeed at chess.  She looked at me like I was crazy.  “What’s missing from that idea is that playing chess is, like, wonderful.”

If you love it and love doing it, then do more of it.  “You are revealing your choice through behaviour and determination” and every action says “this is who you are.”  I love that.  Even when I’m not writing and I’m exhausted and the last thing in the world I want to do is compose, I know that I still love it and that brings me back to the piano.

Sometimes it’s this…

happypianoAnd sometimes, it’s this…


But that’s what it takes if you want to be this…

The same applies to teachers as it does to students: Just because it’s hard, doesn’t mean you can’t do it.

If you are a student (or former student) reading this, what do you choose to be? Whatever it is you choose, know that you can do it.  You can do it.

You can do it.

… but it’s not going to be easy and it’s not going to do itself :).  There are never any substitutes for hard work, but there are a multitude of rewards.  Whether it’s seeing positive reinforcement on a paper you wrote, someone crediting your ideas, have a finished piece of art in front of your eyes, or seeing your work affect someone emotionally, the reason why it’s that good is because you put that much work into it.  But even moreso, all of your actions are a result of who you choose to be.

Think back to when you were a kid and an adult asked you what you wanted to be when you grow up? Reframe that situation and that wording: “Little one, what do you choose to be when you grow up?”

Let’s have a great week,

PS: For more positive results, see last week’s post.

Music Ed Monday – Good News Calls

 But the most important lesson to be learned about calling parents at home to praise the achievements of their children is that those calls are actually more effective.  The student comes into class the next day with a lighter step, a brighter smile, and usually more of the same wonderfulness that prompted me to call home the night before.

– Taylor Mali
“What Teachers Make”

Taylor Mali is my favourite poet, not because he writes about teaching and I’m a teacher, but because his way with words really works the fine balance between economy, eloquence, and kicking your butt with very precise text.  I’ve been reading many of his books at the same time (The Last Time As We Are, What Learners Leave, and What Teachers Make), which may not be the best idea in terms of continuity, but I really do love his writing.

The interesting thing about What Teachers Make is that it’s mostly prose and not poetry.   The book discusses teaching in general and his relation to it (personal experience, anecdotal stories, etc.), but also deconstructs his poem of the same name.  You can hear him read it below…

There’s this line about “calling home around dinnertime” and he’s talking about the “good news” calls.  It’s when you call home for a good reason, usually to celebrate something that the student (the parents’ child) did in class that day.

But we’ve really stigmatized calling home, haven’t we?

When I think of calling home, it’s usually to discuss the negative things… and that’s what the parents think too.  It’s always nice to hear the shock in a parent’s reaction to hear how well their child is doing (especially if their kid gets called often for the negative reason).

After reading that passage in the book, I decided to make some good news calls of my own – sometimes I do, but not nearly enough.

It was so refreshing for both myself and the parent that I decided to do it again… and again… and again.

All of a sudden, you think yourself: “Wow, I’ve got some really great kids.”

And you do 🙂 Sometimes we spend so much time greasing the squeeky wheel that we don’t see that silent majority that are absolutely fabulous, especially those in the academic “middle.”  We really do spend a lot of time on the extremes of the spectrum, don’t we?

So, here’s your  homework: Make one good news phone call this week and share it in the comments.  You won’t regret it!

Have a great week,

Music Ed Mondays – Life Includes Mistakes (Part 2)

Welcome back!

In the last post, we talked about how stigmatizing mistakes probably isn’t the best reinforcement of learning.  I’ve been thinking a lot about this over the last week and it’s become more complex and paradoxical and moreso the more that I think about it.

I think that the caveat lies in the degree of the mistake: Not putting in an apostrophe isn’t going to crash the stock markets, but getting in a car accident while texting will probably ensure that you won’t have your phone behind the wheel anytime soon.

Some mistakes need to be made because that’s how we learn (but not the texting behind the wheel, avoid that one).  The crux lies where we have a stockpiling of minor mistakes that become overwhelming, like a key signature error while difficult rhythms are going on.  On its own, it’s not a big deal, but we don’t want it to happen on stage.

So, what are some options?

1) Establish an environment where mistakes are okay.  We rehearse in the Band Room and mistakes are bound to happen.  We reiterate that to our students all the time – “give it your all and if you make a mistake, then be aware of it and try to correct it next time around.” That’s a nice one-liner.

2) “Strong and Wrong.”  If a G-natural slips out instead of a G#, “make it with the most beautiful tone and in the most perfect rhythm imagineable.  Be aware of it and take care of it next time around.”

3) “Take 30 seconds and figure out that bar – Go.”  There’s safety in numbers and the practice need only be for a few seconds, but just let them figure out [whatever it is] and go on.  It will save you so much rehearsal time, seriously.

4) “It takes as long as it takes.”  If there are mistakes, teach them where they went off the path and then let them submit the assessment again.  Use the mistakes as teaching tools.  It may be using apostrophes incorrectly, playing one section out of time or messing up the coefficient in algebra.  Let them learn from the mistakes, but not under the banner of numerical, grade-based punishment.

5) Don’t test them until they’re ready.  “Finish your assessments up to x%, then do the test.”  This is a lot more work for the teacher (a lot, trust me), but it’s really worth it.  The understanding and the numerical score will both improve.  Let’s be honest, that should happen every time, but some kids don’t test well and some are fantastic BSers.  Let the grades reflect achievement.

In the back of your mind, you may or may not be thinking this: “that doesn’t sound like real life!” or another of my favourites, “then what are we teaching them?!”

Don’t worry, they’ll get those mistakes and learn from them.  They will be late for their job one time too many, or say something they didn’t mean and have to deal with the conversation’s fallout, they’ll break someone’s heart and have theirs broken as well.

Sometimes, the most important things that we teach don’t happen in our classes, it happens between them.

Let the classroom be a place for learning.  The self-esteem and risk-taking strategies (within reason) they’ll learn from not being afraid to make mistakes will enrich their lives, really and truly.

Because hey, let’s be honest, it’s not only about students – everyone worries about making mistakes, you and me included.

Imagine a world where mistakes are something to be managed, rather than avoided; accepted, rather than dwelled upon and encouraged via risk-taking and exploration, rather than punished.

Now go do it 🙂

Thanks for reading,