Is Your School Band Playing this Weekend? Thank a Teacher.

I’m not much of a flag waver, really. I always thought that author James Baldwin captured my feelings precisely in Notes of a Native Son when he wrote:

I love America more than any other country in the world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.

These days, perpetual criticism is essential. We are headed into dark times, redefining the meaning of patriotism and sacrifice. It’s easy to lose faith in our government and the grand experiment—all men created equal—that founded this nation. It’s easy to let hope die when threats of another pointless war appear on the horizon.

I still believe, however, heart and soul, in the shining but imperfect ideals of a democratic education –equality under the law, the American common school, a free, high-quality education for all children, simply because they deserve it. Thirty years of teaching school have given me a hard crust of cynicism about many things related to education and America. But I never lost my enthusiasm for the Memorial Day parade.

For 25 years, my middle school band students marched through the small town where I taught and lived, in the Memorial Day Parade. There was a whole set of traditions around this event, which grew larger and more complicated every year: the aural passing down of our special drum cadences from the self-appointed 8th grade drumline leaders, mending the color guard flags originally purchased through a pizza sale back in ’88, and patching up hand-me-down snares and sousaphones scrounged from the high school.

There was never a budget for this–middle schools don’t typically have marching bands–but somehow there were always T-shirts, and cold drinks at the end of the parade route. We had a stunning handmade banner that two moms whipped up with lots of lamé and sequins. In my last year, we marched nearly 300 students, on a morning when the sky was a sapphire blue and Air Force jets flew overhead as we rounded the corner by the cemetery.

This took up a fair amount of teaching time. I would get on my knees and beg colleagues for 20 minutes on the Friday before the parade, to assemble five bands into a single marching unit and take a few spins around the parking lot. One year, as I was trying to get the back of the band to master pinwheel corners, the front rank (rambunctious 8th grade trombones) marched right up the sidewalk, opened the front doors, and led the band, playing America the Beautiful at top volume, through the school hallways. By the time I sprinted up to the head of the band (and the principal popped, red-faced, out of his office), marching through the school was a done deal–and became yet another annual tradition.

I was always clear with my students about the meaning and purpose of Memorial Day. They would occasionally whine about how boring America the Beautiful was–Mr. Holland’s band played Louie, Louie, right? I explained that they were old enough to dedicate a morning to thanking local patriots and acknowledging the sacrifices made by Americans over centuries. Older people, watching them march by, would be pleased to hear traditional music. It was about respect.

We do this, I told them, to remember and honor those who made it possible for you to live in this beautiful little town, in this safe world. People like my Uncle Don, who died in February 1945, part of the Fourth Marine Division which stormed Iwo Jima. Or Ray Shineldecker and Joey Hoeker, two high school classmates who lost their lives in Viet Nam. I had lots of funny stories to tell about Joey, who lived around the corner in my old neighborhood–a big, goofy kid who was what guidance counselors in the 1960s called “not college material.”

On our last band trip to Washington D.C., after performing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, I was loading tympani onto the buses as my students toured the Mall. A few girls came running up, calling “Mrs. Flanagan! We found him!” Found who, I asked.

Joey Hoeker, of course–on the Wall. And I lost it, right in front of all those kids.

I thank those who served and sacrificed so I can love my country, and criticize it, too. A hat tip to all the band teachers and student musicians who help make Memorial Day meaningful this weekend. And to hero teachers and band directors everywhere– donating yet another weekend to the community –please keep teaching, in spite of everything.


The Teacher as Assessor

A little handmade meme has popped up recently in my Facebook feed, shared by Alexandra Penfold, a children’s author and food writer.


Interesting, no? Being told—by scientific measurement, no less—that you were minimally proficient at the skill that was your heart’s desire and life goal. And then sailing on to the very wonderful career you planned, data be damned.

There are lots of implications here, most importantly that test scores are not even close to reality. The first question I would ask Penfold, if I could, is whether she was ever made to feel as if her skills were ‘remedial’—either by any of her teachers, or by her family. I doubt it.

But I have heard plenty of stories about kids who seemed to be fine, cooking right along, until they were derailed by surprising test results, causing a radical change in plans (different classes, different college, different career). Testing impacts lives—and Penfold probably missed the worst of the data fetishism that has become standard in American public education.

And yet, the alternative—the teacher as sole assessor–has come to feel almost random to us. Do we trust teachers—all teachers—to provide useful and accurate feedback, the kind that nurtures children’s dreams and also pushes them to excel? It’s a tall order.

Teachers develop their personal assessment skills and models over time. And building equity and encouragement into testing and grading (as opposed to using evaluation as sorting or punishing) takes a lot of trial and error. Some teachers are good at using grades and scores as investments in student growth. Others, not so much.

Universities don’t do enough to prepare teachers with a range of assessment strategies—but there are limits to the training even the best college programs provide. The only way to become seriously good at assessment—in ways that help students– is practice over time.

Here’s a story:
When I was a novice teacher (back in the 1970s, when merely suggesting that teachers ought to have common grading scales or practices was considered an insult to one’s academic freedom), one of my assignments was 5th grade beginning band. I met with students in like-instrument groups, twice a week.

There were no grades. Band was considered an elective activity, and none of the elementary electives were graded, largely because the teachers who taught them saw hundreds of students each week. I thought of myself as a Band Director, a more rigorous secondary teacher. I thought part of the reason my students weren’t making the progress I thought they should–backsliding between sessions, snickering when they made mistakes, not taking their learning seriously–was because they weren’t getting a grade.

So I graded them secretly. I had them play, every 2-3 weeks, one at a time, and took notes on a legal pad. I clustered them in groups—the stars, the competent ones, the not-yet-but-maybes, and those who really shouldn’t be in band next year, when they would be meeting daily and at last getting real letter grades. By the end of the year, I had a lot of unshared data on these students.

There was one little girl in the clarinets that I found hopeless. I got tired of switching her hands (left on top, right on the bottom, instead of the reverse) and putting the correct fingers over the holes. She was a sweet girl, chubby, bespectacled and earnest, but her clarinet playing was comprised mainly of squeaking (leaky fingers), honking and miscounting. In my rank ordering of about 20 clarinet players, she was dead last.

The pad went into the bottom of a cardboard box, when I moved up to the middle school the next year. The clarinet player moved up, too. In fact, I taught her for eight years, giving her the John Phillip Sousa award as a senior, as she headed off to the university as a music major.

I found the pad some years later. I had, of course, forgotten all about my earlier assessment of a girl whose persistence carried the day. It was easy to see how her initial failures were largely my fault; by the time I found the ‘assessment,’ I was much better at teaching beginning clarinets. I was also lots better at using the power of the test or grade to enhance learning.

But that’s the bottom line here: assessments have tremendous power, for progress or penalty.

Be careful out there.

Who Do I Appreciate? Music Teachers.

Like a lot of my educator colleagues, when it comes to Teacher Appreciation Week, I come down somewhere between surly and cynical, preferring actual respect and control of my professional work, not to mention adequate compensation, over a potluck lunch and a mug.

Being snotty about Teacher Appreciation Week is bad form, however—a cheap shot. Exhausted teachers everywhere deserve recognition and our gratitude for making it most of the way through the ’18-’19 marathon. And one subset of educators—music teachers—merit an entire month of appreciation.

Music teachers do it all. They teach 250 students a day, often in groups of 65, with each student holding a noisemaker. Elementary music teachers might see 500 students in a week, struggling to learn all their names, and packing five or six skills into a dozen 30-minute lessons per day. Music teachers take their students out and about, singing for the nursing home or marching in community parades. They’re responsible for hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of fragile, finicky equipment—and often have to raise the money to replace what’s broken or worn out or keep the music library fresh.

They deal with childish egos and children’s artistry, then put the results of their practice out there for untrained, opinionated parents to judge in concerts, musicals, contests and Friday football shows. They often sacrifice their home and family lives for the good of their programs, knowing that those programs can easily be cut at the next Board meeting, because they’re not ‘essential.’

I am part of a Facebook group of 26K music educators. What happens in BD Group stays in BD Group, but someone just asked if any of us had ever had to send a student home from a field trip or band camp. There were 158 horror stories shared (along with some great prophylactic advice), but none saying ‘…and then I stopped taking my students anywhere.’ Because everyone knows that what makes a music program memorable and magnetic is the concert at the State Capitol or the last night of band camp, when that large group of diverse kids has bonded into a weary but cohesive unit.

It’s easy to hack away at music teachers and their work. Everyone in the building or district or community has an opinion on what a ‘good’ elementary program, halftime show or orchestra concert looks and sounds like. I once got a letter from a Board member’s wife suggesting we raise money to buy capes to spice up the marching band shows. Her high school band had capes, and they were the ‘top band in the state.’ According to her, anyway. Multiply that by every, say, month—and you get the picture.

Or you can read an article entitled The Tragic Decline of Music Literacy and Quality,’ by Jon Henschen, a financial advisor from MN, which includes cheery bits like this:

Public school music programs have been in decline since the 1980’s, often with school administrations blaming budget cuts or needing to spend money on competing extracurricular programs. Prior to the 1980’s, it was common for homes to have a piano with children taking piano lessons. In 1909, piano sales were at their peak when more than 364,500 were sold, but sales have plunged to between 30,000 and 40,000 annually in the US.

Besides the decline of music literacy and participation, there has also been a decline in the quality of music which has been proven scientifically by Joan Serra, a postdoctoral scholar at the Artificial Intelligence Research Institute of the Spanish National Research Council in Barcelona. The results of the study revealed that timbral variety went down over time, meaning songs are becoming more homogeneous. Translation: most pop music now sounds the same.

One wonders if Henschen has ever listened to American pop music from the 1950s. In fact, his piece could easily have been written in the 1950s. We’ve been fighting to keep music literacy and quality from ‘declining’ for a century or more. And when I say ‘we’—I mean music educators.

Stories, studies and op-eds about the value of music education pop up regularly. Like this one, from a young man looking back with gratitude at his musical experiences in high school.

Or this one, thanking a battle-axe music teacher that Jon Henschen would have lauded, for straightening him out and putting him on a path to becoming a lifelong musician.

Or this video, a perfect illustration of the utter joy of singing.

And yet—somehow, the message about the critical value of music education gets lost, over and over again. Why is that? Serious question. Why haven’t we learned that music—all the arts, really—are about our very humanity? In fact, there is new evidence that the ability to keep a beat, that most basic of musical skills, is linked to the ability to read.

Now, music teachers everywhere already knew this, especially those entrusted with developing a steady beat or pitch recognition (yup—it’s science) or simple melody repetition with small, distracted children at 2:45 in the afternoon, a half-hour before the bus comes. But still– it’s nice to see.

I’ll put that research into my bulging digital file labeled Music Advocacy, perhaps pulling it out when the next wave of Phonics Warriors suggests that we need to be re-allocating resources currently spent on ‘specials,’ because, you know, Reading First.

In the meantime, Music Teachers: I see you. I hear you. I thank you for your creativity, persistence and sacrifices. You absolutely rock.


Who Is Gifted? Why Does It Matter?

Having authored a dozen or more columns on gifted education, it’s easy to predict reader response. It’s unfailing, in fact. There is a well-organized parent advocacy army associated with educating our brightest kids, always at the ready to respond to published commentary, claiming anything less than a full-bore endorsement of extra resources and programming for gifted kids is Not Enough. Because they deserve it.

Essentially, I agree with them. In fact, I got a Masters degree in Gifted Studies, back in the day (way back), because I thought I wasn’t challenging my most accomplished students and wanted new ways to deepen their musical learning. I actually thought I represented the ‘talented’ part of ‘Gifted and Talented.’

Stepping into Gifted World was revelation, however. Educators in the field were mostly interested in whether curriculum for the gifted should focus on acceleration or enrichment. (Acceleration won.) And, of course, the core disciplinary question was just who was entitled to such enhanced curriculum. I learned about the range of testing tools to identify giftedness and creativity. There were cutoffs and variables and labels. There was a fair amount of dissent, even hostility. And nobody was talking about kids with exceptional talents in the arts.

My thesis involved surveying music teachers around the state, who were very kind and willing to respond (in the days where that involved paper and the US Postal service). Most of them offered excellent ideas on strengthening and expanding musical excellence in their own classrooms, as well as special instruction, camps, honors ensembles and other challenges.

Although musical talent is overlooked in the ‘gifted’ discourse, I remain interested in gifted programming in public and private schools. I have taught any number of genuinely gifted students over 30+ years, kids whose interests and capacities, across the academic board, were extraordinary. I saw bright students who didn’t fit in formal programs for the gifted and sank like stones. I saw kids whose parents seemed to have one goal: winning non-existent academic races. I saw children whose unique and remarkable gifts seemed unrecognized—by everyone, including their own teachers.

Gifted programs have come and gone over the intervening decades (mostly gone, as funding dries up and the focus shifts to data-based accountability). But this week, I read an article from Hechinger that took me right back to grad school and the never fully-clarified question: Who is gifted?

The most troubling aspect of gifted classrooms is that they tend to be disproportionately filled with white and Asian students while bright black and Hispanic students often get overlooked. Indeed, gifted and talented programs can sometimes look like a clever tool to separate children by race or ethnicity in school. In New York City, for example, white and Asian parents who have the resources and/or inclination to prepare their four-year-olds to excel on standardized tests snag almost three quarters of the coveted seats. Meanwhile, black and Hispanic students make up more than 65 percent of the public school system.

The article focuses on slicing and dicing test data, asking insulting questions about whether ‘watering down’ a talent pool by allowing kids who test in the 92nd percentile to take classes with kids in the 99th percentile is ‘fair’–a word that presumes precise, certain numerical identification of ability and potential based on one test score (the MAP test, in this case). Fair to whom?

There are lots of presumptions in the article—that only certain students deserve to be offered special instruction, that students who missed a couple more questions on a computer-delivered test are inherently less capable than students who may have had two lucky guesses, and that segregating students in racially-similar schools makes identifying gifted kids and offering them tailored instruction easier.

Troubling, indeed.

The tsunami of readily available testing data has led to articles and arguments about percentages of a human quality as slippery and ill-defined as giftedness. It makes sentences like this possible:

Education experts, like the rest of us, argue endlessly over whether it’s a good idea to accept the trade-off between achievement and diversity.

Think about that. Should any educator—let alone an expert—see ‘accepting’ diversity as an option, and then only if it doesn’t get in the way of faster delivery of the same content? Or meaningless higher scores? There are a lot of questionable value judgments embedded in this one sentence.

It’s questions like these that make people skeptical about the value of exclusive programming for gifted children. If programming for the gifted is just another data-driven contest, a prize to be won, then it’s a waste of resources. There needs to be a solid rationale for offering bright children across the spectrum—rich and poor, black, brown and white—rich and stimulating curriculum, distinctive instruction and unique programming.

It was that rationale—kids deserve opportunities that match their capacities and talents—that drove me to study education for the gifted. It’s enough. But only if we can avoid excluding and ranking children, and hoarding opportunity through the use of achievement data.

Nor can we demand allocation of more resources for the gifted on the basis of ‘national security’ or ‘the Chinese are doing it,’ as this article does. National security is an important goal for every American citizen, no matter what their achievement test scores reveal.  We’re not going to accomplish security (not to mention life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness) without offering a meaningful education for every single child, no matter what they bring to the table. photo-1532168881420-27ec4ba493a6