Kenley Kristofferson


Tag: teaching

Music Ed Monday – The Gift is Ours

Around this time of the year, teachers often get cards and letters and usually for thanks.  It’s a nice gesture and I always look forward to it.

That sounds a  bit pretentious, but given that the nature of our job is to help other human beings further themselves and figure out the world around them, the notion that some of them may be grateful isn’t a strange one.

What said students don’t often realize is that the gift goes both ways – in many cases, we are better because you are here.

In the event that a student is reading this, you may realize that we have made several demands on you over the course of your time with us.  A great many of the times, you’ve probably met us every step of the way.  Fewer of you will exceed our expectations and even fewer will fail to meet them.

In all cases, the teacher learns from the students’ behaviour.

Whenever you react to us or our expectations, it prompts a question.  It’s not the same question every time, but it might look something like this:

Meets expectations: They did what I wanted them to do (in order to facilitate growth), now what’s the next step?

Exceeds expectations: They surpassed what I expected them to do, what could I have done differently?

Fails to meet expectations: They didn’t do what I expected they could, what did I miss?

In all cases, your reaction facilitates our growth just like our expectations facilitate yours.

The gift of growth goes both ways.

But it’s not only that.  There are many students who work hard for us and give us their best every time.

There are many students who light up our room with smiles and a great attitude.

There are many students who are a great friend to others.

There are many students who make the best of their time here by taking part in school sports, events and activities.

There are many students who let us get to know them as people.

They aren’t all the same students, but the result is always the same:

Investment = Growth.

As teachers, your investment in this building is the best gift you give us because it enables us to forge relationships that encourage your positive growth as a human being.

For example, when you give everything you’ve got on an English paper, the feedback and assessment become relevant because they can improve your ability to communicate.  But, behind that, the topic of that paper is probably something that you’ve never thought about.  Maybe a human rights issue, Romeo’s inability to get (or keep) what he wants (which, in almost all cases, is love), or an introspective project about discovering who you are.

When you give everything you have to that human rights issue by doing your research, carving your commentary to be razor sharp, or exploring ideas that have previously scared you, you may begin to challenge who you really are and (maybe what you really the topic.  Or, you may even unravel things that issues that you didn’t know existed and become motivated to be a part of the solution.

Growth 🙂

If it’s Romeo’s inability to maintain a relationship, what’s getting in the way? Are you like that? Is there a cock-eyed arrogance that drives men/women away? Is your over-emotional state sabotaging your ability to date someone past three dates? Do you always take the most complicated solution, even when a mind-numbingly easy one is presented? You may learn something about yourself…

Growth 🙂

Do you have to do a multi-genre essay about various aspects of your personality? Have you ever looked that deeply into yourself before? Were you scared of what you might find? And what happened when you did find it? And then how did you reflect it best in your work? Is your fear of commitment best shown as a collage or a poem? Is your love of family an expository essay or stream of consciousness poem?

Growth 🙂

We get really invested when you invest in our work because every assignment we give you is designed to facilitate growth.  Again, that growth often comes with a mutual trust between the teacher and the student and can turn into a dialogue, which often becomes conversation, which often becomes a relationship that encourages your positive development as a human being.

If you are a student reading this and you have given a lot to the school, then thank you.  Thank you for investing in yourself and, consequently, investing in us teachers too.

If you are a student reading this and you aren’t really into school, consider giving it a second chance.  You can’t win the lottery if you don’t buy a ticket, right?

If you were once a student and reading this, you probably made a difference in someone’s life while you were at school and you might not even know it, so thanks for that 🙂

Music Ed Monday is taking a break for the summer, so we’ll see everyone in the fall!
(though, stay tuned for VGM Wednesday and various blogs about musical adventures!)

Music Ed Monday – Before You Go…

Today is the last day of class.   So, Grade 12s, you made it.  Congratulations 🙂

This wasn’t the hardest thing you’ve had to do, but it certainly wasn’t the easiest either.  It took a lot of work – sometimes, you didn’t put in quite as much as you should, put it appears that you put in enough.  You’ve made a great start.

Mr. Brandon had some great sentiments for the last class, and I feel like I’ve shared so many hundreds of hours with you all (100 hours per course; the record is 700 hours) that I want to leave you with some things that we’ve been saying during your past three years.  You don’t have to listen/read/follow, but you can if you want 🙂

1) Be humble.

Listen to everyone you meet, treat them with respect, and let them teach you what you need.

2) Nobody cares what you can do without trying.

Or to be said another way…

3) We only expect your best.

Give it your all, then give it a little bit more.

4) The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago, the next best time is now.

This is a classic Brandon-ism, but it’s so good that I need to share it.  Which leads me to another…

5) It’s never too late to do the right thing.

Never, ever, ever.

6) Sometimes, it’s your fault; sometimes, it’s not, but both are okay.

As humans, we like to deflect blame.  We don’t like to be found at fault for things, whether it’s a car accident or gossipping, missing a bill payment or hurting someone’s feelings.  Some of these things may actually be your fault, so just own up to it and take responsibility, instead of making excuses.  It’s amazing what you’ll learn about yourself and how sparse those mistakes will become in your future.

7) When the caterpillar wound itself in a coccoon, it thought its world was ending… then it became a butterfly.

Sometimes, the hardest part of life is not knowing what comes next, especially when the axe is to the grindstone and you can’t see past the next paycheque, exam, or sleepless night.  But even through the fog of exhaustion or a huge life change, great things can happen and happen all the time.

Thanks for a great few years.  Be safe and do the right thing… Always.

Until then,

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 Monday – The Inspiration Board

We used to have this whiteboard at the front of our room, but then we got this incredible SMARTBoard.   It’s an enormous touchscreen monitor that’s rigged up to our iMac.  It’s like Star Trek, the future is now 🙂

… But then what were we going to do with this old whiteboard?

Well, we just put it off to the side on, really, the only wallspace that would fit.  We also didn’t have much to put on it either (because we did everything on the SMARTBoard), so it held rehearsal schedules or reminders for a while, but then it turned into something entirely different.

I love this thing.  It’s now the “Inspiration Board” and I can’t really take credit for any of it.  This is a brainchild of Michael Brandon, my collaborating teacher.  We each bring something different to the Music Room, but I’m sure glad that he brings this.

But then another amazing thing happened: The kids started writing on it too.  Take a look at this gem here:

Then just last week, Michael posed a question on the white board: “It’s your turn! What have you learned?” And just look how they responded…

Some of my favourites include…
– “Everyone leads from their own seat” (we can thank one of our clarinetists for that one)
– “No one cares what you can do without trying.”
– “Feel the fear and do it anyway.”

It’s amazing what they’ll tell you if only you give them the opportunity 🙂

Have a great week!

Music Ed Mondays – Listen Harder Than You Play

This is one of my favourite one-liners.  It just says so much in so little (the mark of a good one-liner, I say!):

– It tells the musicians to ramp their awareness.
– It encourages them to focus their attention on something.
– It reinforces them to take a greater responsibility for the whole…

And more!

As musicians, it’s so easy to get lost in our part, especially if it’s technical.  But if you’re playing an ensemble and aren’t the soloist, it doesn’t matter how well you can play your part if it’s not going to coalesce with the rest of the ensemble.  I know that I’m not really saying anything new, but the harder I try and solve the problem, the less I realize that it’s probably an easy solution that’s solved by not by the band playing harder, but listening harder.

Even when I’m playing in an ensemble, I constantly have to remind myself to listen to the people around me, and I bet the kids in the ensemble need it too.

We’ve been working on articulation like crazy in my Jr. Symphonic band.  Okay, that’s a half truth – we’ve been practicing “reading the whole notation,” not just reading rhythms, then dynamics, then articulation, but drawing awareness to all of those parts of the notes… but the lynchpin is always articulation.  It always got better when we would isolate sections and all I’d say is “listen for the articulation,” then it was fixed.

It wasn’t about fixing, but about awareness.   Now pull the awareness to other aspects that you’re working on in your performance: Pitch, tempo, shape, etc.

Maybe it’s not about more rehearsal, maybe just more awareness… and more listening.

Anyway, I don’t pretend to be the master, but this is something I’ve been thinking about!

Your homework: Try and it for a week or two and see what your class does.   How do they respond? Do the elements that you’re working on improve or stay the same?

Let me know!

PS: I have the BEST VGM Wednesday this week! I’m SO excited!

Music Ed Monday – Allow Yourself To Be Moved

The strangest thing happened on Friday night: I went to “Indie Game: The Movie” and was emotionally moved.  I mean, really emotionally.

I had to go home and journal after watching the movie, it was that profound.

If you don’t know of IGTM, then watch the trailer below and read up on it.  There were only two screenings in Winnipeg and both were sold out – lucky I got my tickets in early December.

IGTM follows three sets of developers: Phil Fish from Polytron Corporation (of Fez fame), Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes from Super Meat Boy and Jonathan Blow, who made Braid.  Let’s do a quick rundown…


Super Meat Boy




They each have their own creative struggles, most notably with creative expression, being understood, being valued and the push for production (i.e. deadlines).

It really brought to light so many feelings that I had pushed way, way down.  For example, there was a scene where Phil is talking about how he’s been so close to this game for so long that he’s scared he’s lost perspective and can’t see the game for what it really is anymore and I feel like that all the time, especially with the choral suite that I’ve been working on-and-off for the past year.  I’m so attached to it that I don’t even know if it’s good anymore.  Well, that’s not entirely true – I would know if it sucked, but if I’m putting my heart and blood and time and tears into it, I want other people to feel what I feel and if they don’t, then I feel like maybe I haven’t achieved what I’ve set out to do.

(Keeping in mind, that once art is sent out into the world, it’s free to be interpretted as it is, Brenna said that tonight and she’s definitely right).

I don’t want to cry anyone a river in this post because that’s not what it’s really about.

On Friday, I was moved.

On Friday, I was vulnerable.

On Friday, I was open to art and it was open to me.

Let’s be honest here: Sometimes, I’m not open to art.  Sometimes, I keep that wall up and ain’t nothin’ getting through it.

We’re probably like that a lot, aren’t we? There are so many other things going through our mind that we don’t allow ourselves to be vulnerable during class when we’re rehearsing rep, listening to music or singing our hearts out.  Our guards are up.

The strange thing is that we don’t really like that feeling – the music always feels best when we connect with it.  We know that because that’s why we do it, that’s the feeling that keeps bringing us back.   But why do we stop it? Why do we stop the very thing that brings us there in the first place?

That’s this week’s assignment: Be aware of what gets in the way of your connection to Music in the classroom.  It’s hard, so be ready for that, but it’ll be worth it.  We’re going to pick up on it next week, so come prepared 🙂

Allow yourself to be moved.  Open up and let it happen, even if it’s just you and your iPod in the middle of the night.  Put your guard down and see what happens – you might be surprised, but you sure won’t be sorry 🙂



Music Ed Mondays – What We Remember

Think back to when you were in school… all the way back…

What do you remember?

(Think outside of your subject area, if you’re a teacher)

Raise your hand if you remember how to play Ab major.  How about the symbolism of Piggy’s glasses in Lord of the Flies? SOH CAH TOA? How many parts of the cell can you name? How about Newton’s Laws of Motion?

If you remember half of that, good for you.  You’re probably in the minority… just sayin’.

You know what I remember from high school? My physics teacher (the fantastic Manfred Hildebrandt) could look at us while writing on the board – accurate, clear and with lines of text that were straight.

I also remember that my Grade 11 English teacher was the mayor and taught us all about civic politics… oh, and Shakespeare too.

One of the turning points in my life was when I was in Grade 10 Band and the suspended cymbalist (it may have been Kailee or Laura, I can’t really remember) and it was the most perfect and steady cymbal roll that I had ever heard.  I had goosebumps, it was like the whole universe aligned at that moment then wrapped itself around me.

It was the moment where I thought “I must do this for this rest of my life.”

The teachers were delivering curriculum, but as this happened they were also delivered meaningful moments.  That’s where the learning happens, but the kind that never leaves you.

Isn’t the above caption so true? Doesn’t it align with not only what you remember in school, but what you remember in life?

As teachers, how can we facilitate those moments to deliver the messages that kids really need to hear? It may be imbuing our female students with a sense of power and confidence.  It may be when students realize that Chemistry is more than just titration and potassium snowballs, but it’s the study of what the world is made of.  It may be that poem that a student writes about their absent father – they try to read out to the class, but can’t finish because they’re crying too hard.

I struggle with this often: How can I make every class meaningful? I don’t really have an answer, but here are some strategies that kids have told me resonate with them:

1) Be genuinely passionate – if you love it, they may not love it too, but they’ll at least subscribe to your newsletter.

2) Go off the page – Allow yourself to go on a rant.  I know that kids may try and get you off topic, but they’ll only get you off topic on things that you are passionate about (because that’s how it works, right? :P).  Shockingly, that rant may be more powerful than your entire class.  My English may be okay at commas, but the majority of them can explain Einsteinian gravity pretty well… (maybe don’t do it all the time, though!)

3) Introduce things that are outside of your curriculum – One of the most intense Jazz Band classes that I had recently was when we watched some videos on SOPA (the “Stop Online Piracy Act” in the US) and had a class discussion regarding copyright, passion for the arts, the joy of creating, gigging, making records… such a fantastic class.  Many of them ended up following the news that night and continuing to build their opinions and thinking critically about the class discussion.  Just a great day 🙂

So, this week’s assignment:

– Try one of these strategies and see if you can draw out a teachable moment – emphasizing the word moment.  It may happen, it may not, but you can’t win the lottery if you don’t buy a ticket, right?

– As you’re trying it, consider the quote below and use it as a guide…

If a good story transpires, post it in the comments!

Happy teaching!

Music Ed Monday – … Now Go Do It

In the last few posts, we’ve talked about visualizing our classroom – “What if it were…” and “What does that look like?”

Now comes the hardest one:

Now go do it.

The cliche is “if you build it, they will come,” isn’t it? But the problem with cliches is that so many of them are true.  Another good cliche that I love comes from (I think) music educator Tim Lautzenheizer: “All good programs are personality-driven.”

When you project the ideas of visualization, it’s really inspiring.  Have similar people inspired you like that in the past? Do they continue to inspire you in the present? It’s wild, we even have a word for people who think that way: visionaries.

But, what’s perhaps the most inspiring about these individuals is that they often have credibility because they’ve reached their goals.

Look at Tim Berners-Lee, imagining a world where everyone could connect and share information instantly via computers.

Look at Dave Eggers, wanting to open an area where local writers can help mentor kids and improve with literacy in a public space (in his case, 826 Valencia).

Our goals as teachers are smaller in scale, but no less grand.  I don’t know about you, but I want to foster healthy, literate minds who are motivated to improve the world they live in.  As we teach them, we prompt the questions: “What if…” then “What does that look like…”

And then finally we give them the silver bullet: “Now go do it.” 🙂

They what inspiring people look like to us is often how we look to our students.  A bit of pressure, but what’s stopping you? You can do it – what if/what does it look like/now go do it.”  All good programs are personality-driven and, without even realizing, I bet that you already do it, just let them see your process.

Complete your goal.  If you do it, post in the comments below and let us know how it went! If you feel especially courageous start a new goal and don’t worry about instant gratification.  What if it’s a 2-year goal? A 3-year goal? A 5-year goal?

Thanks for reading and happy teaching!

Music Ed Mondays – What Does That Look Like?

In our last post, we talked about the things that that get in our way, if only…

Your homework was to find an “if only” in your life and write it down.  Beneath it, you were to write “what does the solution look like?”

So how did that go?

It’s hard to get what you want if you don’t know what it looks like.  We all think this way and kids of this generation especially so.  When we ask them to write a newspaper article or transcribe a solo for jazz band, they really need a template so that they know what’s expected.  You may not always need to explain every little thing, but let them go and guide them to find the patterns between the expectations and the examples themselves.  As a comparison, ask them how many instruction booklets they’ve read – they usually just pick up their new toy and start playing with it, figuring it out as they go.

And we need templates too, don’t we? When I go to festivals and hear a great ensemble, I often think “show me the steps to get there.  What is the sequence? What does that classroom look like?”

Michael Brandon and I talk about that a lot in our quest as teachers and, whatever element of our class culture or pedagogy we’re talking about, the same question always pops up: “What does that look like?”

Lately, we’ve been working on tuning fifths across the ensemble and using it as a method of teaching intonation to get that really transparent sound.  Michael’s been doing a lot of the big research and sharing it with me, my credit in the whole endeavour is much less than his, but we’re both pursuing it together.  He’s been reading like crazy and looking online for rehearsals that have been teaching that concept so that we can visually/aurally perceive what that rehearsal looks like.  I’ll share the results of our find when we get back to school from Winter Break.  But if the kids (and let’s face it, teachers too) don’t have that aural example of listening to great ensembles consistently, then they probably won’t understand what we’re talking about.  We both need the sound in our ear.

Let’s get a bit bigger, though.  Some classroom elements brought up were classroom management and having extra help.  What does that look like?

Just take a second and visualize what good management looks like to you.  Do that now.

Okay, now you see it, what’s next? Try telling the kids what you imagine that class looking like because they need a template, remember? Better yet, ask them what they imagine their class management looking like.

What’s the next step? What’s the sequence? What are some strategies you can use consistently? Keep that visual in your head and ask around.  Share your vision – if you don’t ask, you don’t get.

Speaking of which, how about that extra help? What does that look like? Remember to be realistic – another teacher isn’t going to teach your Biology class for you, but they may share resources, strategies or materials that are really fun and effective with you.  Tell the kids too, “I got this from Mr. Jones and it looks pretty fun, so let’s give it a try.”

What does that look like? If you don’t know, then visit a teacher who you respect (or even better, that your students really respect) and see how they do it.  Build your template, see what that looks like…

… (here’s the most important one)…

… Now go do it 🙂

That’s the third one.  Your homework for this week is:

– Find one element of your teaching (curriculum, materials, classroom management, etc.) and visualize what that looks like.  Make a list of five (5) attributes that manifest your vision.  If you are unsure, visit another teacher whom you admire.  But remember, this is your classroom.

Happy teaching!

(Cool eye picture from Under 30 CEO

Music Ed Mondays – If Only

“If only.”

Do you ever find yourself saying that? I find myself saying that all the time.

“If only there was more time in the day.”

“If only there were more money in the budget.”

“If only I weren’t so tired all the time.”

Those two words carry a lot of power because they really convince us of our own limitations as though the universe were conspiring to hold something back from us.  I mean, the ones above are small obstacles, but it’s often the smallest obstacles that inhibit us the most.  Time, money and fatigue hit us hard both at work and at home, right? They apply to almost everybody, almost all the time.

That’s everybody’s story.

I wrestle with that a lot, but so does everybody – it’s everybody’s story.

So… now what? I’m just like everybody else, but everyone else can do it – what’s blocking me?

Maybe it’s the things that are out of my control (because I can give commitments up to make more time, I can scrimp on luxuries to save more money and I can forego activities to sleep more).

“If only I were better at classroom management.”

“If only there were another teacher around to help me.”


What’s interesting about those two big problems is that they’re actually solvable with a bit of dialogue, relationship-building and research.  Ask other teachers how they deal with classroom management or poke around the internet (in the age of the internet, there is no need for a teacher to feel like there is a lack of resources).  Talk to your administrators or your counselors, or other teachers you really respect.  Also, if you’re not of the younger type, talk to the younger teachers because they may have some new ideas that will blow your mind.  Don’t be the old dog that can’t learn new tricks 🙂

This post isn’t about strategies, it’s about recognizing the barrier: IF ONLY.  The “strategies” listed above aren’t meant as an elixir or cure-all, but just demonstrate that the barrier can be overcome… most barriers can 🙂

This is the first of three blog posts in a little series about approaching the obstacles in our lives and our classrooms.  Your homework has two parts:

1) Find one “If Only” (big or small) and write it down in a place where you won’t lose it by next week.

2) Below it, write “What does the solution look like?”

If you feel bold, write it in the comment section as a public commitment.

Good luck!

PS: Image gotten from Gloomies, isn’t it cute?