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Why I teach what I teach and how I try to teach it (Part 1)

April 9, 2013

I was proud of myself. Not ‘I’m such a genius’ proud, but content that I had turned a weakness into somewhat of a strength.

Although the curriculum I’ve been asked to deliver has varied substantially over 14 years, I started off, and presently am, a High School Music teacher. And I love it! But unlike most of my wonderfully patient and passionate colleagues, I wasn’t a Band kid myself. Not that I wouldn’t have liked to, but Music was only offered in grades 7 and 8 in my school and the only instrument we played was recorder… I did have inspiring teachers, thought, who let me experiment with different recorder sizes so I wouldn’t be bored out of my mind. It worked! It got me thinking about how different pieces of a musical puzzle fit together to create beauty. They planted a seed that is still growing today.

So when, my Music Teaching Degree in hand, I got my first gig as an actual, official, stand in front of the class Music teacher (which, being a new teacher, happened to be in one of the most economically needy neighborhoods of the city, of course), I didn’t have a clue as to how a ‘normal’ music class was taught! Add that to the fact that I had no allocated budget whatsoever and that it took me 3 months to actually get the instruments for my students that had conveniently been absorbed into the inventory of a community band program and you get a sense of what my Fall of 1999 was like. We worked a lot on rhythm and played cool beats on our body parts for a while. And, some time a bit before the Christmas Break, our barely functional wind instruments arrived and we started our Band program.

I’d like to officially thank Bruce Pearson for getting me through that first year. I was able to get my hands on a minimum amount of copies of his ‘Standard of Excellence’ Band method book series. That first day, once everyone was holding something to blow into, I asked the students to open to the first page of the book and look at exercise number 1. I counted to 4 at roughly 80 bpm and internally crossed every finger I could imagine and… It worked! The kids were playing what in a somewhat skewed parallel universe could be misinterpreted as a concert Bb! From then on, it was mostly repeating, motivating and repeating again. I had become a Band teacher!

This continued for a few years until I was bumped by a teacher who was only in it for the money a steady gig would get him. And of course, as often happens in these cases, admin closed down the Music department I had built up and handed them, almost literally, on a silver platter, just to get rid of him. (I later found out that the administration at his previous school had done the same thing. It must be a difficult decision to make; what’s in the best interest of students? Do you give them the opportunity to learn the art of making Music at all costs? Do the advantages outweigh the damages caused by being taught by a role model who shows no empathy, no interest in you or your well being?)

My principal was thinking about offering computer science classes to the kids and was looking for a way to keep me around, so he offered me the job. I’d always loved technological gadgets and the job was tenure track; how could I refuse? But once again I found myself in the situation where there was no real set curriculum and I had not a clue as to what I was doing… We were getting a brand new computer lab packed with 32 machines running Windows XP, equipped with the latest Microsoft Office software, so I started asking myself: “How could my students actually use these machines? What could they learn that they could then transfer into other classes?” As a Music teacher I had felt like an impostor, constantly trying to emulate ‘legitimate’ band teachers, those who knew how it was ‘supposed’ to be done. But as a Computer Science teacher, something I was even less prepared for but for which a ‘standard’ model of teaching (even less a curriculum!) had yet to be created, my concerns were beginning to shift from being self-centered to student-centered. I had always cared deeply for my students’ well being and, especially in a community where most parents were still teenagers either physically, emotionally or economically themselves, I had strived to be a positive role model at all times. But this was different. This was what I now identify as my very first ‘How can I best prepare my students for real life?’ moment. It didn’t last, but it was a start.

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