educational paradigms

Today was my last day teaching CITS. it's been a good experience for the year, and i can't wait till next year.

That being said, i'm going to go in a slightly different direction with this post. The teacher was discussing how each year it is getting harder and harder for him to get students to do any work. This year's beginning group, he said, was one of the worst he's ever seen, and, as a whole, he has seen the program decline. In fact, he told me that the school in general has been in a steady state of decline over the past few years. The main culprit, in his estimation? Lack of work outside of school.

I'm not one to take up one side of a story and run with it as fact, however, this is not an isolated incident. I have heard of school districts where teachers are actually afraid to assign homework. What?!? SERIOUSLY?!? yep, it's true. One school, in particular, has had several teachers leave over the last few years completely based upon the threats of parents. Yep, parents are coming to this school, complaining that the teachers are giving far too much work, that the assignments are far beyond what any 6th grader could ever accomplish, and threaten the administrator and teacher with legal action.

OK, i'm not even positive what legal action could be taken. "My son/daughter says doing a 2 page book report on a grade level 6 book is far too difficult. I don't have time to help him/her, so i'm coming in and TELLING you that s/he is NOT going to do it. And if you fail him/her, i will sue you." I REALLY hope that this is a complete exaggeration, but i don't think it is in all cases.

Now then, i'm not saying that perhaps the parent does have a point. Maybe, just maybe, it is too much work. for me, as a 6th grader, i would have laughed my head off. I remember having to write a 500 word book report in 6th grade (this is about a page and a half to two pages, double spaced) and having HUGE problems summarizing the 350 page book in 500 words. Granted, i was reading something a little larger, but, seriously? and even if they don't hit 2 full pages, they won't get automatically failed.

There has been a continuing shift from teacher oriented to learner oriented learning. Basically, the mode of transmission, originally the teacher lecturing, has been moving toward giving students more free reign in deciding projects and assignments as well as assessment. This is supposed to give students more flexibility to work on projects that interest them, take advantage of their strengths, and hopefully produce better outcomes. But...is that the point?

Education's main purpose, to me, is to create life-long learners. I'm not concerned as much with outcomes assessment, or skill creation, or even knowledge transference. All those things are a part of education, but if we (teachers) cannot create learners that are able to learn on their own, and WANT to learn on their own, and have the ability to learn on their own, then we have failed. why? let's take a simple model:

a student is working in his English class, preparing a book report. The teacher is having all students write a report on the exact same book. unfortunately, this student did not like the book, and struggled to even finish it. He is a bright student, gotten mostly As and Bs throughout his career. The teacher has decided, seeing so many students "struggle" with the book, to go over it in class for about a week. the student, being grade oriented (he cannot play sports if he doesn't keep at least a 3.0 GPA) pays attention in the lectures and takes a few notes. Prepared with the notes from the teacher going through the book in class, he writes a 3 page book report that is, in fact, nothing more than a regurgitation of the notes. He checks it carefully for spelling and grammar, and turns in the report. The teacher awards the student at A because of the perfect spelling and grammar. The teacher agreed with the content, of course, because it was his own words rewritten in an eloquent manner. The student receives the A, is pleased, and goes on with his life.

Now, what's wrong with this picture? i can name a bunch of things, in my opinion. And whose fault is it? everyone involved. First, having everyone do a report on the same book, while a good exercise, always has the danger of having students thoroughly dislike the book. There is something to the "you have to learn to work through things you don't like," and i can appreciate that, however, if the point of the assignment is to get into a book and write a good paper, then it is not a good approach.

I'd say the teacher failed in these ways: 1) clear objectives were not giving for the assignment. Why is everyone reading the same book? What does he specifically want from the report? 2) instead of getting to the root of why the students are struggling, he assumes it is just too difficult of a book and walks them through it. how is the achieving his (unstated) goals? 3) giving a good grade based upon grammar alone trains students to expect that is how ALL papers will be graded. Again, this problem really goes back to #1, because how can he grade it in any other way without clearly defined goals for the assignment.

The student also failed in this assignment: 1) if anything was unclear, he should have asked for clarification. 2) when struggling with anything, asking questions is the way to approach the problem. how else can a problem be rectified?

i could keep going on and on, showing each failing i see at each level, from teacher to student, to parent, to administrator. In the end, education is a chain of ALL levels working together. And what's most important, again in my estimation, is creating a life-long self-sustaining learner. Once you're out in life, there isn't a teacher to hold your hand, or even, sometimes, a parent or friend to guide you through the process. If I want to learn a brand new piece of audio software, i may get lucky and know someone that has used it, but, more than likely, its me, the program, a 2000 page instruction manual, and a few tutorials. i better have a way of learning this program all on my own.

In the end, that is the greatest thing any student can learn. yes, the transmission of some specific knowledge is required to function in society (yes, red means stop and green means go. not knowing this is, well, a big problem...) as well as skill building (from mechanics to math to suitable typing and language skills) but if a student can never learn to be a student on his/her own, then life after high school will be nearly impossible, be it going onto college or entering the work force. It becomes a trial by fire, a sink or swim environment where people learn to learn or they lose quickly and fall back only on the skill they have accrued to this point.

Do i have an answer to the problem? no, not really. I'm becoming a fan of contractual learning, where students, teachers, and parents all get some input at some point. It's much like providing a syllabus with a few blanks that can be filled in. Open communication at all levels is also of huge importance, and making sure that the communication line is not garbled. Telling a student to tell his/her parent(s) about something isn't a great way to do things. Written communication is better, especially something that can be sent directly to the parent. I dunno, i still have a lot more questions than answers and am still working on identifying problems. Some of the problems are obvious, others are much more covert. maybe, by the time i'm 175, i'll have worked out something suitable.


college teaching experience

Well, i was a bit behind in getting it done, but in my Pedagogy of Composition class, i was required to teach at least a 20 minute session of an undergrad composition course. I got lucky in my late planning and got a chance to work with a beginning electronic music class.

it's been a little while since i last taught college students, and i've never formally taught electronic music. I spent a large amount of time working in labs and helping students with tech skills but that's a bit different. One thing i noticed about my teaching style was i first commented on the technical aspects. it was "i heard distortion here, i a bad edit here, blah blah blah." However, i tried to push on past that and focus on compositional ideas.

the time really flew and even though i have sketched notes of what i talked about it seems kinda cloudy in my head. I'm going to go ahead and blame the ash cloud over Europe from the eruption on Iceland. Most people are blaming it for things, why not blame it on my being brain dead? lol.

anyway, i had thoughts and they're gone. It was a good experience. Maybe i'll recall them better after i get some more caffeine in my system.


next to last week

Well, it's my penultimate week at UMKC (pre-finals, of course. not that i have any. thank you to the school gods for doctoral students not having to take written finals.). It was also my penultimate week teaching up at CITS. next week they are doing a concert of all their pieces. Ho boy, what a time...

This week we tried to get everyone to play through their pieces. Because of the disjointed schedule (as always seems to happen in elementary and secondary schools) it was obvious some of the students had put no more work into them since last time. With the final date closing in, we decided to comment mostly on "the little things."

Like having it written down...there are a few students that just seem to refuse to want to write it down. We (as in myself and the head teacher) have tried almost everything with these students. g'ah! one said "well, i have this idea in mind, it kinda goes like this (plays an interesting melodic fragment on his cello)." my answer "Great! write it down for me, and we can work together to flesh it out." he sits down, and proceeds to do nothing for the next 30 minutes while i listen to other people play. i come to him later and ask "So, do you need help getting that written down?" answer: "No, i can do it..." nothing still. When the head teacher approaches him, the student says "Oh, well, i hear it for cello, and, uh...maybe...violin? Oh, and piano. but i don't have a group..." The teacher's answer "well, i'll play violin, and we can ask to play piano. he takes lessons." the student gets quiet...and after a few minutes asks to go to the restroom...

At first i thought he was just having trouble writing it down...then i thought maybe he has some sort of learning disability. he might have some sort of hang up, either as a disability, or as just a different style of learner in general* or perhaps it's more of a social problem...or combination thereof.

Oh, btw, this is the same student that the teacher and i discussed may have Aspberger's. However, it's the new "Catch-all" disorder, with a lot of students that are just plain awkward getting stuck with a label. labels are such a nuisance...

Anyway, i'm starting to think he might just be lazy...his playing is the same way. When he's interested and he WANTS to play, its great. the rest of the time, it's just sloppy. I dunno. I refuse to just "give up" on a student. hopefully he'll come with SOMETHING next week, and i'll just take him in the corner and coax the rest out. But, i won't dictate what he plays. first off, that'd almost be cheating** and it wouldn't help develop his skills really. He can play. he CAN notate (i have seen him write notes on a page previously...just not for the "newest idea" he has.)

in other news with that class, a lot of students wrote very interesting music. but, wow, are they timid players. lol. Every comment was "what, i can't hear you play. play it louder! even if it's soft, play it louder!" i really tried to give them positive reinforcement and let them know the piece is good and that they're playing is good, so play it proudly! it's like pulling teeth getting these kids to feel self-worth

I never had that problem. nor most of my friends. we all thought we were hot shit in band. seriously, it was all about how awesome we were. we'd get in fights about who is the best player. At this school, even with the reinforcement from the teacher, and myself, they all just think they suck. g'ah!!! self-confidence!

the other note i kept saying was "well, you played it THIS way, but it's not written down. just write down what you did!" a lot of students asked "well, how do i write that?" and i gladly tell them. Usually half way through my sentence there is a little lightbulb that goes off as they recall how it was written in pieces they've played.

All in all, it's been an interesting experience with these kids. Hopefully they can come in next week and have their pieces more confidently in hand. There are a few that had fun with it but felt like their piece "sucked." i just ask "did you enjoy it? did you like writing music?" answer: "yes." reply: "well, it's just about practice. if you like it, keep doing it. the more you write, the better it will get! start with simple things, 20 measures or so for one instrument. and as you feel more confident, just write more and more!" i actually saw a couple students light up a bit with that idea. We all expect perfection, so it's good for someone "older and wiser" to tell you "it's quite alright if it sucks. just do it better next time! i remember when i wrote something terrible. it was last weekend..."

*I really thing it's a style of learner issue far more than learning disability. he definitely GETS it. there's not that "fog" as some students put it when describing a learning disability.
**I have helped a couple students write down what they were playing, but i didn't write it for them. and i'm more than willing to sit there and help him get it down, but he seems uninterested in that. Perhaps i should force the issue, but i don't see how that would really be beneficial at the end of the day...


Notes on teaching

So, a bit about my recent teaching.

The last couple times i've gone up to the middle school, it's been in "bad" situations. The first time was right before a concert. I volunteered to help coach a small ensemble. The concert was a "solo and ensemble" concert. I took a string quintet (3 violins, cello, bass) out into the hall and worked with them on their piece. Oh boy...

It was a difficult moment. There was no agreeing on a tempo. every time they attempted to start, it was a different tempo counted off differently. I took over counting off for them and rehearsing the sections. I attempted to get them to understand that chamber groups need to communicate a great deal more than a normal ensemble...watching them play, well...They were completely in their music. They weren't even looking at ME let alone at each other. the only one that really looked at me was the bass player, who, bless his heart, is trying really hard but is just behind the rest of the group (he started this year). I worked them for the hour, just on basic issues; playing rhythms correctly, tempo consistency, strong entrances. It was a difficult little session. They were all trying hard, but their attitude definitely got in the way. All but one of them had the "i know what i'm doing!" attitude and just kept making the same mistakes over and over, even with coaching.

I found their big problem to be that they were "playing" not "rehearsing." I remember when i was like this (it wasn't exactly long ago. heh). When does that magical light kick on regarding practice and rehearsal technique. I will admit, i was much better in chamber rehearsals than i was on practicing for a long time. I was more willing to work passages slowly, repeat sections till it was right, and do exercises to get our ears and minds together. Maybe it's because i always understood the necessity to get everyone on the same page and playing together. Individual practicing, a completely different story. I only recently got myself into good practice habits, and i often still have a tendency to just "sit and play" rather than "practice."

I don't know when that light kicks on, and i definitely think getting students to play in small ensembles from the beginning is important, but i had forgotten how difficult it can be.

Now, for note 2 on teaching. The next week i was in, it turned out to be standardized test week. Which means, of course, music and other "specials" or "electives" are unimportant. About 1/4 of the class was there. so, the teacher asked another favor of me; "can you take this bass player and give him a private lesson on these pieces? do you feel comfortable doing this?" I nodded, though i wish i had some prior warning so i could pop out my string techniques book (which i had just unpacked) and looked it over. I asked "it's 1, 2, 4 right?" Ah, fingerings!

So, i took our aspiring young bass player (who i mentioned had only been playing for about a year) to the back and worked a lesson. I had him play a passage and, sure enough, it was all "1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1" finger sliding all over the place, flailing to hit the notes. So, i had him write in fingerings. And practice them in front of me, slowly. I could tell he was playing a lot by hear, so i would play the passage for him first (using Pizzicato, cause i can't handle a bass bow. the weight is almost enough to break my wrist!) and then handed it back. I'm sure i got some fingerings incorrect (i'm no string player. really wish i had brought my string methods book...) but at least there were fingerings! The pieces were pretty difficult, all requiring lots of shifting (which is true of a lot of bass parts anyway. Not many notes available without shifting. heh). I tried to work out the best times to shift so he could get the notes.

We also worked on rhythm a lot. I really believe that with young players, rhythm is almost more important than pitch. so, we worked a great deal on the rhythms and the fingerings, relying on practice later to get the pitches down (if the right fingers go down at the right time, making sure they hit the right spot is almost the easy part. lol. ok, maybe not. lol).

Anyway, i think the little lesson helped. I really think the student could improve greatly with regular private instruction, but i am not the man to give it at all. If he was a brass player, pianist, even a singer or woodwind player, i could fake. Heck, even the other strings i am better with. Bass and i NEVER got along. lol. I can barely get the string down, can barely hold the bow. If i'm going to work with a string player, give me a viola. Sounds funny, i know, but the bow technique isn't bad for me, the fingers are good space apart (violin is too close. i feel like my fingers are on top of each other. I actually have to lift fingers out of the way to do half steps.). it's just comfortable for me.

But, it's still better if you find a string player. heh. I can coach on the big ideas, but the details of technique for a string player are a bit beyond me. It was easily my weakest point in techniques classes. Working with this orchestra has been good for me, for sure. teaching comp to such young students has been a fun challenge, as has working on my instrumental teaching skills from way back when. Ah, the good ole days.

And now, i'm going to go back to film scoring.

Been gone FAR too long.

I apologize to all my avid readers (HA!) for being gone so long. I have a glut of material to speak on and will try and catch up.

First a few general happy pieces of news. First off, congrats to Paul Rudy on winning the American Rome Prize. He'll be spending the next year hanging out in Italy. Coincidently, i will not be spending the next year studying with him, which makes me quite sad.

Also, had a successful performance in NYC with my latest piece "It Was Raining" with the fabulous vocalist Sarah E. Fox. We also performed (as a duet, somewhat, heh.) Aphorisms of Futurism by Andrew Seager Cole. It was a fabulous concert and i really hope that Sarah and I can take those couple pieces around a bit.

Now for the sad news: The monitor on my laptop is not happy. At all. Apple wants to charge me something like $1300 to replace the whole thing. I'm not actually 100% positive it needs replace. The way it's acting reminds me of just having a bad connection. I'm going to tear it apart with a friend of mine and see if we can fix it. If not, i found a place that will replace the monitor for $300 plus shipping. Screw you Apple!

That being said, i'm going to do a couple quick posts, mainly just to separate them. The first will be in regards to my recent teaching. I haven't been blogging about it like i should. I have fun adventures but i have been a little...pre-occupied. Still am in some ways.

Now then, with "It Was Raining" finished (for now. It needs MASSIVE revision and programming, but it's gonna sit for awhile.) i have a film score for an animated short. It's about a village of flying hamsters that keep getting attacked by a troll. There is only dialogue during the first 20 seconds or so, and from then on, it's all score. There is also going to be no foley. we decided to do everything in the score. It'll be a fun challenge, especially since i'm doing it 100% electronically.

After that, i'm going to work on a Pierrot ensemble piece. I actually dislike Pierrot ensemble greatly. I think it is mid heavy. I'm definitely going to add some metallophones to the mix to give a little brightness to the mix, as well as specifying a soprano for the vocal part. I'm actually thinking of writing it using "micro-poetry." It's quite the fad at the moment, with published twitters and such. I'm going to talk to some folks i know that do "that writing thing" and see about ways to get tons of submissions. i think it would be a lot of fun to do a contest for it, with the winners getting put into my piece (which is being entered in a competition). It would be a fun form of collaboration, i think.