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When Students Want To Learn
Dr. Lisa DeLorenzo
This is an abbreviated chapter from my book, Sketches in Democracy: Notes from an Urban Classroom, published 2012.
What do urban students really want from school? Despite what the public may have us believe, urban students do want to learn. Look past the slumped figure, arms crossed at the chest, hood pulled down the forehead, “go ahead, just-try-to-teach-me face” and see instead, an active, creative mind. Peel through the layers of defensiveness and studied boredom to find a cache of curiosity and wonderment. There is something that makes every teen tick, something that gives way to profound interest, and something that generates excitement about learning.
At the urban school where I taught, that magic bullet came in the form of an electronic keyboard. Just after the holiday break, fifteen music keyboards were delivered to the school, thanks to the generosity of our partnering university. A new calendar year had unfolded bringing with it opportunities to start over again. The keyboards couldn’t have arrived at a better time. Students were fresh and alive from a long week’s break and nothing spells excitement like the chance to explore an instrument. Not just any instrument, but one that teens associated with popular music on the radio and music videos.
Journal Entry (January 8): Today was our first day with the keyboards. When each student put on his/her pair of earphones the excitement was palpable. Although the room was silent except for the tapping of keys, the students were completely absorbed in their “play” (The task: Find out what this instrument can do). It was impressive. Shakura was dancing in her seat to a demo tape with a huge smile across her face. Marissa kept yelling, “Guys, listen to this,” (with her earphones on she had no idea about the volume of her voice).
Of course some of the students immediately found “porno” sounds or at least that is what they imagined them to be. The “DJ” button was another major hit and many of the students spent their time playing rap-like percussion music. Their delight in the different sound effects was infectious and I found myself running from station to station, laughing out loud at their discoveries.
The smallest successes, like figuring out “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” or discovering a new sound effect on the keyboard, created a sense of exhilaration that was simply contagious. After the initial class, we began to create sound paintings through various colors and sound effects programmed into the computer. Eventually students wanted to read music. They wanted to play the music they loved such as the theme song from the movie, Titanic. One student was particularly drawn to the music, Für Elise (Beethoven), and began to slowly and deliberately to figure out the melody by ear. When others heard the music, they were enchanted.
From a democratic standpoint, preparing students to think intelligently and independently within a social context contributes to meaningful decisions that affect our society. If we agree that these are the kinds of citizens that forward the common good, then schooling must teach both for content and for the dispositions that drive stewardship.
The “need to know” is an impulse that emanates from the student. The artist teacher taps into that initial impulse and flies with it. Teachers begin to uncover latent curiosity by asking questions that provoke critical thinking and posing problems that do not always have clear solutions. The more students become engaged in learning, the greater their tolerance for complex problem solving. Along with this comes an increase in persistence, tenacity, and confidence in one’s ability to work through difficult problems.
We have to believe that great possibilities exist in each student. Without such conviction, teachers continue to follow their familiar mechanized routines in planning and teaching the lesson. Teachers who delight in their content and novel ways of engaging students, however, not only inspire reticent students but also keep that spark glowing. It is this inner glow that reminds teachers why they went into teaching in the first place.
The following entry is a selected sample taken from my book, Sketches in Democracy: Notes From An Urban Classroom, published by Rowman and Littlefield in 2012. The second part of this story will appear in the December blog.
What I Learned As A Teacher of Urban Students: Part 1
Dr. Lisa C. DeLorenzo (November 7, 2016)
Teachers step into urban teaching for all kinds of reasons. Some cannot find jobs in suburbia. Others have a need to “save” those poor kids from the ghetto. And, some teachers, committed to social justice, see education as a means of providing children with the tools they need to find hope in an often-ungracious world. These are the teachers whose wisdom extends far beyond the teaching of content to a deep understanding of the human condition and the important role that their students play in the process.
To become a teacher of urban students is a privilege that may allude many in our profession. Urban teaching has unquestionably received bad press: shootings, classrooms out of control, teacher safety etc. Except for extreme examples, such as Columbine, suburban schools seem to have much more balanced representation in the news. Nevertheless, American psyche embraces the notion that bad things happen in urban schools.
Having taught music teacher education students for many years, I realized that my own experience as a rural and suburban music teacher was incomplete. For that reason, I took a sabbatical year to teach in an urban school in a nearby city. It was the most difficult teaching I had ever done, yet what I learned from these students at William Grant High School (pseudonym) proved unlike anything I had experienced in my then 20 years of teaching.
Prior to the opening day, the teachers met to talk about how to best create a school based on democratic principles where, for instance, students shared in setting rules for behavior, teachers taught lessons that involved students in problem solving, and discussion was a key factor in reflecting on ideas and giving students a legitimate voice in the process. We overlooked the fact that democracy is a process that evolves over time and this became evident when the school opened its doors on the first day.
I was nervous but enthusiastic about the first day of school. My enthusiasm, however, dimmed quickly. Whereas I envisioned teaching exciting ideas while also demonstrating democratic teaching practice, the students were more interested in socializing, talking with others during the lesson, and creating a chaotic climate in the classroom. Lunch was a circus. The first day had been set aside for a celebratory “picnic” style meal with the whole group eating together instead of walking to the cafeteria at the neighboring school. With no large meeting area to congregate, the students set up some classroom tables in the central area of the building.
Because the space was not large enough, they crammed into all of the space available, often unable to pick up a drink without hitting another student. Lunch consisted of a dry turkey sandwich and a choice of milk or juice (still frozen). A number of students opted not to eat. By the end of lunch, student behavior had eroded into loud talking, running to the bathroom and unsanctioned visitations with friends in other classrooms.
Music class, unfortunately, was scheduled after lunch. Given the events of the day, I could already see that my carefully planned lesson was not going to work. As other teachers had discovered that morning, I faced a situation that had no viable solution other than to salvage what I could from my now-not-appropriate lesson plan. Predictably, the students were bored and uninspired. At one point I asked students how their first day had gone so far. Their immediate response was “dull, boring, and frustrating.” Their complaints were embarrassingly legitimate. It was hard to imagine any of the students wanting to come back the next day.
First days of school are particularly fragile times for a beginning teacher: How will I introduce myself to my students? Will they like me? Should I develop the rules or should my students help me? Will they like me? Can I establish myself as the teacher in charge or will I come off as a bully? How can I make the first day fun while still setting a tone for serious work? Will they like me? Gloria Ladson-Billings remarks, “despite all of their youthful and idealistic enthusiasm, most new teachers are frightened and overwhelmed by the demand of teaching.”
What teachers can learn from days where nothing seems to go right is that another day is always coming. Rarely can a teacher, if acting in the best interests of the students, create an irrevocable situation. Perhaps the very best thing we can do for our pre-service students, aside from emphasizing flexible thinking, is to convey the fact that many events in teaching are caused by things beyond the individual teacher’s control. As William Ayers explains, “Teachers often work in difficult situations under impossible conditions. For the most part, your students are pretty forgiving—hopefully the teacher can forgive him/herself when things don’t go as planned.”
At MSU, we talk a lot about democratic practice because as teachers in the public sector, we have a greater purpose in teaching, not only developing intellect, but also advancing students’ sensitivity to issues of social justice. One might gather from this blog entry, that urban schools need ironclad rules and lock-step instruction – the very antithesis of democracy. However, it is the children who are marginalized in society that need democracy the most. For the pre-service teachers who ardently believe that urban students have less to offer than suburban students, it is critical that their training address such ideas head on. Students depend upon teachers to create a supportive community that engages them in essential questions about our world. This is the kind of school that we hoped to build and would make progress, however slowly, toward this goal.
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Happy Fall, NAfME! For this month’s Cali Column, we have a recent blog post by Anthony Mazzocchi from his blog, The Music Parent’s Guide: A Survival Kit for the New Music Parent
If you would like to read more of Tony’s work, click HERE!
3 Awful Things That Happen When Children are Denied Daily Arts Instruction in Schools
Posted on 05/24/2016 Written by 2 COMMENTS
Regardless of the social and economic circumstances of our time, the arts have an essential place in the balanced education of our children.In all the education discussion I hear and the literature I read, the arts are consistently given little to no attention. At the same time, a large portion of our population is tired of having to plead to make the case for arts in schools. We all want an education system that delivers a broad-based curriculum that takes into account the continuing and varied needs of our children — not a system obsessed with academic learning alone.While many in our world still think that the arts are for a chosen few and that “artists” are simply “born that way”, I believe that our narrowed thinking of creativity is more due to a lack of contact time of creative subjects in schools. To get people to think about the issue of arts in a child’s school life, I start with a basic question: What would happen if any subject was delivered only once a week in school? And doesn’t that mean that there aren’t more creative people in our world simply because we do not cultivate that creativity in school on a daily basis?Here are three awful truths about the adverse effects from a lack of arts in schools has on our children:
A vicious cycle of killing creativity continues. How would our children develop — and therefore be perceived — if they had math, english, or science only one day a week for a half hour? Would they be seen as “dumb” by the time they were in middle school? The answer is, of course, yes — and that is exactly what happens in regards to creativity. Creativity is, in fact, taught out of us in school due to little or no contact time, so by the time children are teenagers, they often think of themselves as “not creative”. I’m not necessarily talking about children becoming artists, dancers, or musicians; I am talking about empowering a generation to be non-conforming, imaginative people.
The inequality with arts instruction exists simply because of the school schedule. Blame it on time or blame it on money, the truth is clear: when you deliver one day of arts instruction in schools, you are leaving it to the family (or lack thereof) to continue to support the child’s instruction at home. We all know this leads to severely uneven results, and most kids will become frustrated and quit. This attrition is not due to the myth that only a few children are artistic, rather that there’s a shortage of time spent in the arts during the school day. If arts instruction is delivered five days a week, we would not only see more children realize their true passions, we would see a new generation of great, creative, and innovative thinkers emerge from the public school system.
The Achievement Gap widens. When students come from families with financial means, they have the ability to overcome unbalanced school curricula by spending money on tutoring, lessons, summer opportunities, etc. It’s generations of financially disadvantaged youth — mostly students of color — who will never reach their potential as creators and innovators and who will never realize their passion due to a narrowed curriculum in schools.
A lack of the arts also has a profound effect on multi-cultural schools. The arts provide a profound vehicle for schools to take into account their own cultural settings and embrace them by developing “arts festivals” and other innovative cultural exchanges. Children participating in and learning through the arts, especially in approaching cultural studies across the curriculum, is more powerful than any textbook can muster.
Another generation grows up believing people are born creative. All the brain research in the world will not convince someone who has grown up without rich arts instruction that they really are talented and have simply missed the boat for reasons beyond their control. This “lost” generation will find it increasingly difficult to navigate the ever-changing workforce; they will become teachers and school leaders who aren’t creative and who don’t value arts in their schools; and they will have children who they believe are not artistic simply because of genetics — a perpetuation of a damaging falsehood that we must bring to a halt.
Does this all sound too dramatic? It’s not. If we stop a moment to reflect on our school curricula, we actually will see that our loss of creativity in schools has been slow and subtle — a cut here and a cut there, and here we are: barely hanging on to the arts in our child’s school day.
In order for our children to meet the profound challenges and changes in our world, our schools must embrace the power, values, and processes of teaching and learning that the arts provide in our education system. To value the arts in school curricula is to say loud and clear that the practice and appreciation of the arts will benefit our children — and therefore our society — in ways that are immeasurable by our current standards, yet more powerful than anything we have collectively experienced before.
For more information and blog posts, check out Tony’s blog HERE!
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Greetings, NAfME friends! Mark your calendars for Saturday, October 22nd; NAfME is going pumpkin picking!!
$5 includes a hay ride, the playground, and a visit with the farm animals!
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Hello NAfME friends! If you are interested in elementary music education, continue reading! There are some amazing events coming up very soon!