The Handmaid Teacher’s Tale

Every now and then, someone will ask about favorite books, the ones you’ve re-read repeatedly. Books that influenced your life. Answers often range from classics (‘Little Women’) to the Bible. I have my own list of a dozen or so—but it’s easy for me to share the book that most influenced my life: The Handmaid’s Tale.

I like what the Washington Post said about it in an early review: Published in 1985, this is a novel of such power that the reader is unable to forget its images and its forecast. It is at once scathing satire, dire warning, and tour de force. “A novel that brilliantly illuminates some of the darker interconnections between politics and sex.”

Darker interconnections, indeed.

When I first read the book (sometime in 1986, shortly after it was published), I was a new mother; my baby daughter was born in 1985. I was also a full-time teacher, with a 45-minute commute, who didn’t have a lot of time for pleasure reading or meandering trips to the library.

I had, however, read and liked Surfacing, one of Atwood’s early works that was on many short lists of early feminist reading—The Golden Notebook, Yellow Wallpaper, The Bell Jar, and the like, those now-classic novels  about women figuring out how the world works. I checked Handmaid out from the library, and hoo boy—that book was one powerful, dystopian reading experience.

Some years later, I read an interview with Atwood (by then, one of my favorite authors), where she noted that there is real-life precedent for everything in Handmaid’s Tale. This truth re-emerged when Hulu created a TV series based on the book in 2017, and viewers commented on the dark and violent nature of the story—I can’t watch! It’s too violent! And totally unrealistic! Umm—nope.

Lest you think I was a raging, underwear-torching feminist back then—hardly. I was happily married, and embarrassingly grateful for my low-wage, womens-work career as a teacher. I went to exactly one consciousness-raising meeting, and came home with a headache, thinking that these women were whiners who needed to solve their own problems rather than waiting for The Movement to change their lives.

And yet. All the way back to my first day as a band teacher, in 1975, I knew that it was a man’s, man’s etc. world, and the power in K-12 education was firmly in male hands. Although the percentage of women who hold down K-12 teaching positions has steadily increased since the 1960s, I was in a heavily male-dominated subset of teachers: band directors. In the late 70s, working on my masters thesis, I acquired the mailing list of all secondary instrumental music teachers in MI. There were seven women holding down HS band jobs in the entire state, somewhere between one and two percent.

That number has slowly, gradually shifted—but it’s taken forty years, and we’re not anywhere near parity yet. I have dozens of humiliating stories about being the only soprano in a room full of tenors and basses, the designated secretary and coffee-maker at professional meetings. Some of them still hurt. Occasionally, on social media, a female band director will share a story about inappropriate remarks made by a male colleague—and there will still, still be men who defend the other man as ‘well-meaning.’

All of this reminds me of a passage in Handmaid’s Tale where Offred–June, for those who know the TV series—reminisces about the day her bank account is frozen, and her husband Luke says not to worry, he’ll take care of her. And he intends to—because he means well. Luke, Offred thinks, is a little too sanguine about all of this—and he’s one of the good ones.

Being a woman in a male-dominated profession was a lot of that operating assumption: good relationships with men were the key to a productive educational work life. If your principal liked you, or your male band-teacher colleagues liked you, you were probably fine. Underestimated, misjudged and overlooked, perhaps. But they’d be polite and friendly, as long as you were no threat to their presumed superiority in a competitive education arena.

A lot of the sexism in education flies way under the radar. It’s subtle. So subtle that the people who are exposing it in their own behavior don’t see their own words and actions as sexist. This cluelessness is not surprising. Unrecognized, unacknowledged sexism is everywhere—in politics, media coverage of current events, everyplace from childbirth practices to cooking.

And paying attention to it matters, a lot, if we care about raising healthy children and building healthy cities.The current debates on transgender students, for example, are rooted in sexism (and, it could be argued, violence):

Supporters of [a bill to prevent transgender students from participating in sports] heavily centered their arguments around athletic differences between cisgender women and cisgender men. Gabriel Higerd, a former adjunct professor of exercise science who researches transgender sports policy, said “biological females are one of our nation’s greatest treasures” and argued that this bill is necessary because it protects cisgender female athletes from competing against transgender female athletes. I have never heard any single group of Americans described as “one of our nation’s greatest treasures” as if they were some sort of commodity and not human beings.

And there you go: Biological females, a great treasure to our nation. We’re back in 1985—or 1947, as women (white women) were forced out of the post-war job market and persuaded their place was in the home, caring for as many children as they could bear. Go back as far as you like. You’ll find sexism. Atwood took us to a place in a not-distant future when men acted on the principle of female fertility being a ‘great (and biblically designated) treasure.’ Not hard to fathom, at all.

I am a big fan of the beautifully filmed Handmaid TV series which uses Atwood’s book as starting point, and of her sequel novel, The Testaments. I did not re-read Handmaid for 30 years. When the series was announced, I bought a digital copy. I remembered all kinds of things about the characters, passages of text, the plot and the utterly chilling world that Atwood created: Gilead. It rang true—or at least possible—in 1986, and just as plausible, if not more so, in 2016.  

 I also know that every time I have written a blog, over the past 17 years, about how women and their talents have been suppressed in EdWorld, I have received pushback. Some of it has been downright ugly.

Which is why I don’t pay attention to reviewers who think that Handmaid’s Tale, focused more and more about savage retribution in Season 4, has jumped the shark. I prefer to think of it as cautionary tale.

Watch—or read—and learn. What goes around, comes around.

Memorial Day

I am old—old enough to remember when Memorial Day was called Decoration Day, and always came on the 30th of May. For many years, I went to the cemetery with my grandmother–also named Nancy–on Decoration Day, with a pot of geraniums for her husband, my grandfather, who died in the 1930s. Her parents, and some of her siblings, were buried in the same cemetery. We went to visit them all, with flowers, taking care not to step on the green beds where they lay.

There were always little flags on veterans’ graves, but so many men (and a few women) were veterans that it seemed like half the people resting in that cemetery had a flag. A graveyard full of citizens who served their country, sometimes dying for that very cause, surrounded by their loving families.

In 1969, May 30 was a Friday. It was an unusually hot day. My high school band played in the local parade, and band parents met us in the park, after the parade, with galvanized tubs full of ice and glass bottles of Coke. I was a senior, playing my last parade on the first day of a long weekend, wearing the stifling gray wool uniform with its little satin-lined red cape, and the flat-topped hat.

It may have been a dare. Or it may have just been the oppressive humidity, and the fact that I’d never have to march in a parade again (or so I thought—ha). But after opening the Coke, I pulled out the braided neckline of my uniform jacket, and poured the icy cold soda right down the front of my body. There was a moment of delicious coolness and some hilarity among the group where I was sitting.

And then the Band Booster president, an officious mom who was in charge of fitting and maintaining 100+ plus band uniforms (and whose two perfect daughters would never dream of despoiling one) came storming over and read me the riot act.

Did I know that I, personally, would be taking my uniform to the dry cleaners? Did I understand HOW MUCH THOSE UNIFORMS COST? And that they had to last for 20 more years? And (this was the real indictment, an uptick in the charges)—did I not respect those who died for our country, those whom we remembered on this sacred day? For shame.

Actually, on that score, she was wrong. I remembered, all right.

I grew up hearing stories about my Uncle Don, who died at 19, in the first wave of Marines on Iwo Jima. My dad’s favorite brother, the handsome one, the rebel. Buried on Iwo Jima, then moved to Rock Island National Military Cemetery, after the war. My dad, after learning his brother had been killed, went AWOL from his own unit in the Army Air Corps, and was busted from Sergeant to Private for the offense. Although he never talked about his own wartime experiences, he never let any of us forget.

In 2021, those who died on the battlefield are a relatively small handful. Thank God, or whomever can be credited with the policies and foresight to keep us out of war.

But in the past year, as more people died from coming in contact with a deadly virus than were killed in combat in WW II, it’s been easier to understand what it feels like to see daily, mounting death tolls in the news. To personally know folks who were sick but survived, to see friends with longer-term disability from COVID, to know families forever riven by death.

Many of them, to use a worn-out phrase, served their country, as well—as stock clerks and bus drivers, teachers and nurses. They died before the vaccine was available, gasping for air, often without family, victims of a different kind of war—an ugly political war, partly created by our own elected leaders.

As an adult, I have experienced Memorial Day in dozens of ways—leading my own school bands in local parades and cemetery services, playing in or directing community bands, and—just two days ago—playing Taps with the Leelanau Flute Ensemble on a friend’s balcony.

Every year, the day reads a little differently. I don’t think it’s disrespectful, or not-sacred, to reflect on all the other things, besides our always-honored war dead, that need remembering. You’ve probably read snippy memes about the difference between Veterans’ Day and Memorial Day.  Both spring from the same source: Let us pause to remember what we’ve done—the noble and the despicable acts, the proud and the shameful. It’s who we are, as a nation.

And—let us teach our children to pause and remember as well. (Click on this link. You’ll be glad you did.)

Student Appreciation Week

So here we are, once again ‘celebrating’ Teacher Appreciation Week, with all the teachers saying—no, no, don’t get me a $10 Starbucks card or (better yet) a $50 bottle of champagne. Instead, write me a sincere note of gratitude. Here, write it on my Facebook page. Feel free to embellish.

We all have that box of thank-you notes. And yes, we re-read them periodically. And hats off to all the folks who bluntly say If you really appreciated teachers, you would…. pay them and let them sit in on decision-making, for starters.

But sometimes, I feel like the Grinch Who Stole Teacher Appreciation Week– seriously, what we actually need is a Teacher Appreciation Decade, during which we encourage promising young people to pursue professional education training, craft a new conception of teacher compensation, and look to other nations for guidance on how to build a select teacher workforce,  valuing diversity and creativity above all.

We just returned home from a couple of weeks away, and at the bottom of our mail tote was a TIME magazine with this cover:  ‘The Lost Year: How the pandemic changed a generation of students.’ The article is much less inflammatory than that title—it’s about high school seniors, and the difficulty they’re having taking the required tests, filling out FAFSAs and setting their sights on the most desirable (and selective, of course–it’s TIME magazine) colleges.

I am intimately familiar with puffed-up headlines on general-readership magazines. But geez. The Lost Year? A Generation of Students?

We’ve lost some things, all right. One of them may our blind faith in the value of testing data—another might be the elitist belief that a student must go directly to a four-year college, or forever be consigned to slogging along with a Joe job and a sub-par life.

I know that colleges and universities—especially those that serve the middle class—are in for tough times and lower enrollments. Institutions with huge endowments will be fine, on all fronts. If Biden’s plan to pay for community college comes to fruition–spoiler: I’m a fan–we may have a whole new layer of society with upgraded skills and no debt.

The Way Things Were has been upended. But like any year where there are transformative events, the outcomes are hard to predict. Is going to community college for a year, while you get your academic ducks in a row the worst thing that could happen? This generation of students—K-12—has faced new challenges. But what they’ve learned has not been lost.

After I read that TIME headline, I was so incensed that I posted a Tweet:

Hey, media.

How do you think teachers feel, after gutting out the most difficult year in their already-difficult career, when you refer to ’20-21 as a ‘lost year’??

A few hundred people liked and Retweeted it and many added thoughtful commentaries.

Like this from Julie Wright:  Students, too. I have so many who’ve been working hard and learning… in some ways way beyond what 8th graders generally know. No, it wasn’t the best or easiest way to learn for most kids, but they’ve done so much. Don’t treat them like passive victims.

From Ashley Stanley: How do we think students feel about these narratives after they left it all on the field? These kids SHOWED UP for their LEARNING this year. These last few weeks, I’m all about helping Ss know that the work they did was real, important, and meaningful.

Jennifer Robbins of Montana: I have worked so hard to support students’ writing, reading, and thinking. As I read poems, essays, & narratives at the end of THIS year, it is not a lost year. They’ve grown by leaps and bounds, and it’s especially clear during 2020. No lost learning in Columbia Falls, MT!

@NShrubs said: Yes! My 2nd graders made lists of all the kinds of things they’ve learned, from fixing their own lunches to subtraction with regrouping to coaching each other on tech stuff via Zoom. My 3rd graders wrote about what they learned about themselves – learning online, reading, etc.

And—sadly–@VictoriaCherry said: How do the kids feel about hearing their own parents complain about having to care for them?

There was lots more. Teachers most definitely do NOT feel that this was a lost year—and, in teacher-like fashion, spoke up in defense of their own students’ hard work under tough conditions. So there you have it.

Who appreciates all the out-of-the-box things kids have had to do this year, in unfamiliar formats and time frames? Their teachers. In my music ed wheelhouse, I have now seen at least three dozen unusual spring concerts, accomplished by students and their ultra-creative teachers, using technology, germ-bags on horns, edited literature to match those able to play. Each one, in its own way, a triumph. And each submitted as evidence: See? We’re getting stuff done.

So—not a lost year. Thanks to the kids. Let’s appreciate them, too.

Eight Reasons to Ditch the National Anthem–from a Music Teacher

Quick! Which famous, Romantic-era American poet wrote these words?

Where is that band who so vauntingly swore
That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion,
A home and a country should leave us no more!
Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps’ pollution.

You’re already ahead of me here–yes, these words (and lots more problematic verbal embellishments) were the work of Francis Scott Key, author of our national anthem. Including this bit, speaking of foul: No refuge could save the hireling and slave from the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave.

Of course, nobody ever sings those verses.

As a musician and school music teacher who has played and conducted the national anthem thousands upon thousands of times, I was fascinated by the gusher of praise for Lady Gaga’s creative (and, I thought, quite lovely) rendition of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner.’  Gaga changed the key (yes, there’s an official key–Ab) and the meter, crafting a unique arrangement and singing a notoriously difficult tune well.

Her critics mostly focused on her politics, rather than her performance. Some ‘classical’ musicians, who typically turn their noses up when amateur or pop musicians sing things at big public events, gave her a thumbs-up.

What we ought to be giving a thumbs-down is the national anthem itself. It’s a disgrace.

  • The tune is an old British drinking song, To Anacreon in Heaven. Our second best-known national song, My Country, ‘tis of Thee, also swiped its melody: God Save the King (or Queen, as the case may be). We need our own music, written by a bona fide American.
  • The vibe is warlike—not representing our core values. Seriously. Check out the actual words, above. Don’t we want something that, say, salutes democracy and patriotic concord?
  • The words are meaningless to modern Americans. They were written at a time when the continued existence of any American states, united or not, was in question. There is reason to study that time, as our current lack of unity is pretty terrifying–but my guess is that perhaps one out of ten American citizens can tell you what the song is actually about, with a lyric sheet in front of them.
  • The SSB is incredibly difficult to sing, with a range of an octave and a fifth (that’s 12 notes, from the bottom to the glaring pinnacle). It’s also in ¾ time, which makes marching difficult.
  • The archaic lyrics are eminently forget-able. Here’s proof.
  • The key of Ab is not easy for young or amateur musicians. Instrumental arrangers, trying to make something interesting out of a prosaic tune, often make the range and key problems worse by adding prone-to-crack trumpet or vocal flourishes, in an even higher key.
  • It was officially named the national anthem in 1931 because Woodrow Wilson used it to raise and lower the colors during his administration, and we didn’t have an official anthem during WW I, like all the other countries.  Evidently, Congress couldn’t agree on something better.
  • It does not lend itself to group singing—as you may have noticed if you’ve attended a professional sporting event—and what’s a national anthem for, if not a little dab of honest patriotism that all can participate in?

And yes, I’m thinking supportively of Colin Kaepernick et al, too. We need an anthem that embraces our multiculturalism, our principles of representative government, our gorgeous natural beauty—and (thanks, Joe) our national unity. If we ever get it.

I taught and performed the national anthem every year I was in the classroom. At first, I just taught the notes and rhythms, but stressed the importance of playing it well. My personal preference is a straightforward instrumental version, played at a rapid clip. The longer the song drags out, the more restless the crowd. The meaning shifts from a desire to appreciate our common values to a distraction from whatever it is the audience came for.

Later, I turned learning the national anthem into a humanities lesson, studying the drawbacks to our current anthem and exploring other options to the land of the free and the home of the brave. There are lots of picture books that present Francis Scott Key as noble patriotic hero, quill in hand as the battle rages in Baltimore Harbor, but his backstory as a slave holder from a wealthy American family added complexity and honesty to a classroom discussion with the mostly white students I was teaching.

I polled my students—what could replace the Star-Spangled Banner? It’s a great lesson for music teachers, K-12, vocal and instrumental—but also those who teach literature and civics. You can analyze the musical elements as well as the lyrics and cultural genesis of any number of potential anthems.

I added Lift Every Voice and Sing to the list, because it’s an honest picture of how much of our citizenry lives with generations of abuse and neglect—and still sings about faith, rejoicing and the harmonies of liberty. I was very clear with my students, after introducing the song, that it was the Black national anthem, not available for white people to steal, as they had already stolen too many cultural artifacts and ideas. That one idea could, by the way, could support an entire month of lessons.

Teaching at a middle school, my students would cluster-vote for This Land is Your Land, which is undeniably super-easy to sing and play. The protest verses made it attractive to them in the 1970s and 80s. Later, someone would always propose God Bless the U.S.A. as the national anthemand many times, it was students’ consensus choice. Mostly, I think, because they’d heard it before, and could sing along.

Which proves my point: a national song ought to be widely known and easily sung.

Personally—and this is hardly an inspired choice—I would prefer America the Beautiful. Not for the purple mountains’ majesties or alabaster cities, but for this classic line, more relevant than ever:

America! America! God mend thine every flaw.

Confirm thy soul in self-control, Thy liberty in law.

Ten Things I Used to Think

I Used to Think was a writing and thinking prompt developed for students, part of the work done by Project Zero. Lately, we haven’t been all that interested in what students think, or how their thinking might change, given more information, dialogue and cogitation. Instead, we’ve been interested in raising their test scores by asking them to simply reproduce knowledge–or keeping them six feet apart and masked until they’re tested again.

The last four years have radically changed a lot of what I think. For example:

I used to think that choosing the right Secretary of Education was the first critical key to strengthening public education across the nation. I really enjoyed the game of proposing/comparing people who, from various perspectives, would be great Education Secretaries. My standard of excellence was always Richard Riley. Riley was Governor of South Carolina, where he did a great deal to recruit teachers of color and address poverty in public education, before being tapped by Bill Clinton as EdSec. He was not, however, an educator, and he presided over a time when education reform was considered a good thing.  But now—I am uninterested in digging up years-old board memberships and former jobs of prospective candidates for EdSec. I am not convinced that being a long-time educator is a prerequisite for success on the job. Experience in the political and policy realm really matters. I’m not even interested in writing a blog about it. Heresy, I know. But there it is.

I used to think that bipartisanship was a good thing, that moving government forward necessitated both collaboration and compromise. I thought policy creation was sausage-making—everyone gets to put in a little something. I thought having a broad range of opinion, from progressive to conservative, was how the country remained stable, and loyal, and patriotic.  But now, I agree with Rebecca Solnit: We shouldn’t meet criminals and Nazis halfway. (Read the link—it’s fantastic.)

I used to think that churches, in spite of their many flaws, were trustworthy organizations that, on balance, did good in their communities. But now, even though I work at a church that is a beacon of kindness and acceptance in a small town, I am horrified at how far astray from core, all-religions wisdom—the universal, do-unto-others stuff—that many Evangelical Christians have wandered. They say there are no atheists in foxholes—and we’re all living in a kind of viral foxhole these days—but I am heartily sick of driving around and seeing God’s Got This! signs in my neighbors’ yards. I think everyone—believers and non-believers, all creeds and traditions—needs to wear a mask, stay home, wash their hands, and stop pretending to be compassionate or ‘saving’ people.

I used to think that racism springs from acute flaws in human character—hatred, and ignorance, likely instilled early by family and community. But nowthanks to Ibram X. Kendi—I recognize that what has held deep-rooted racism in place in America for 400 years is not a continuous stream of benighted people, but policy. White people stole, platted out, and sold land that Indigenous people lived on, hunted and fished, for centuries: policy. Majority-White public schools have always had far more resources and advantages than the schools Black children attended—and policies that nominally have been established to increase equity have also increased segregation.  A country that was literally founded on diverse expression of thought has built its own caste system, through layers and layers of interwoven policy. The good news is that it’s possible to change policies.

I used to think that free and fair elections were the cornerstone of American democracy, and that most people saw election day as a kind of Norman Rockwell tableau, a cherished opportunity for everyman to have their say. I thought the peaceful transfer of power was inviolate. But now… I don’t even have to finish this one. Turn on the television.

I used to think that teachers, in spite of their lousy pay and lack of control over their own work, were regarded as community heroes and helpers. But now—there’s this. This. This. And thousands more. Today, I read an outrage-inducing piece claiming that yeah, teachers are getting sick and dying (isn’t everyone?) but there’s no way to prove they actually caught the coronavirus at school—so hey, everybody into the water. The negative repercussions on this entitled attitude—teachers are so selfish when it comes to their own health!—will last for decades.

I used to think that voluntary academic disciplinary standards were a useful way of organizing curriculum, and the occasional standardized test (say, three or four between kindergarten and graduation) didn’t hurt anyone, and provided some valuable baseline information. But now, I think that standardization, and the widespread belief that more data will improve public education, is pure folly, an illustration of the old saw that a man whose only tool is a hammer sees every problem as a nail. Rewritten: To a man with a computer, every problem looks like data.  

I used to think bootstrapping was a real thing, taking out loans to get a college degree would pay off in the end, and there was a future for deserving and ambitious students. But now, I believe we have outrun this concept of social mobility through more education, which may have once been true. If you’re rich, or your family is rich, those advantages will hold. If you’re trying to catch up economically, the odds are so seriously against you that your smarts, moxie and good character mean pretty much nothing.  The only possible hope (see above) is major policy change. 

I used to think that I was a pretty good music teacher–way above average, in fact. But now, watching music teachers struggle, every single day, with how to teach music online—and, incredibly, succeeding, I am humbled. Even more important, I’ve witnessed them forming communities on social media to help each other tackle these challenges and share resources and innovations. I’ve seen them have in-depth conversations about core pedagogical issues and the future of their profession. Humbled, I say. Seriously humbled.

I used to think putting up a Christmas tree before Thanksgiving was sacrilege, part of the ugly, metastasizing commercialization that has spoiled a once-simple holiday.  But now—this year—I think that, in this season of kindling light against darkness, any cultural or religious tradition that brings joy is spot on, and the sooner, the better.

The Real Learning is in the Chat Box

My friend Mitchell Robinson, of Michigan State University asks: Am I the only teacher who finishes a Zoom class, during which I’m sharing a slide show, moderating class discussions, posing questions on assigned readings, and trying to respond to students’ questions in a thoughtful way, only to find out after ending the Zoom session that there was a whole other class happening in the chat window that I couldn’t see because my cursor had disappeared under the 25 windows and tabs I had open, juggling apps and programs?

Ah, yes. The chat box. My theory is that the chat box, used by adults and college students, contains what people want others to believe they’re thinking (cute jokes, pithy observations, deep questions) but don’t want to say out loud. What they’ve always been thinking, in fact, as a ‘presentation’ was occurring, in real time and real life, as well as online: a mishmash of random thoughts, tentative assertions and show-off remarks. Perhaps, in some contexts, a little flirting.

You might even say the chat box contents, especially in a well-run virtual classroom, is what participants will be taking away from this class—not the official material, as displayed, but their reactions to those ideas. Content on the slides will always be there for you, to refer to, like facts in a book. The chat box, and ongoing dialogue following are where the learning juice is found.

Brilliant lectures or important speeches are much better when there is a backchannel conversation going on. Sort of like watching political debates and Twitter at the same time, as people offer bon mots about, say, having a fly on your head, but also more cogent ideas about national leadership.

That’s what Dr. Robinson found, too—his students were ‘sharing their raw and deeply personal “takes” on the day’s discussion prompts that somehow didn’t make their way into the video feed…’

For several years, I facilitated seminars for an online graduate course in teacher leadership. Sometimes, I had guest speakers–including a few well-known authors and thought leaders in education. This was before using an electronic meeting platform was commonplace–and we had to set aside a half-hour before each seminar to help guests and students learn to use the platform, which was called Elluminate.

I wouldn’t dream of outing anyone, but there were more than a couple of people who fly all over the country and get big speaker fees who were adamant that they did not want to ‘talk on the internet’ or have people see them on camera. Can’t I just call in, they’d say? On the phone?

Elluminate had a chat function, too. The chat box was always on the screen unless the moderator made it inaccessible. Some of our participants (mostly teachers) found it maddening or terribly rude that backchannel chat was going on while the class speaker was presenting.

There were speakers who sharply asked participants to HOLD THEIR QUESTIONS until they were finished. Often, it was just get-to-know-you chatting, as participants came from all over the country. Worse, speakers would stop to read the chat every time something was posted, including private messages posted between individuals. Awkward.

They couldn’t relax, and trust that folks were following along, while simultaneously questioning or extending what they were learning.

I started telling guest speakers that this represented the real way students and adults processed any content. I had teachers tell me that this was the problem in education today—nobody had taught their students how to be quiet and pay attention. It was disrespectful.

Questioned, most would admit that they didn’t listen respectfully to every word an administrator said in a mandated staff meeting. And they especially didn’t pay attention to what students communicated to each other during their conventional classes unless it was an Official Discussion where students were Supposed to Contribute. There was a hierarchy of respect, it seems, and you know who was on the bottom.

I think of the chat box as a tool for democracy of thought.  Of course, I have mostly used it with teens and adults, who could construct a sentence or express a thought.

But I am guessing that, in spite of the fact that it’s absolutely the wrong way to teach early elementary grades, by the end of the year, many of our youngest students will have absorbed the road rules, democratic or not, of the online classroom. To chat, or not to chat.  To type a word, instead of speaking or writing it by hand. I can’t decide if that’s progress or tragedy.

Mitchell Robinson, after marveling at the riches and throwaway thoughts in his chat box, said this, about his students, who are learning to teach and learn in new ways, leapfrogging over traditional practice:

This next generation of teachers is so smart, so thoughtful, and so empathetic. During a time when everything looks so dark, these young teachers offer the promise of a brighter future–it’s just up to us to get them ready to take over. And then get out of the way.

Creative and Just Curriculum, Pt II: Six Ideas about Teaching Music During a Pandemic

Facebook post, shared by a colleague: Started band camp last Sunday, two rehearsals per day. No more than 25 students in a group. They wore masks while moving between stations, and after the second rehearsal, two students went home because of low grade fevers. One tested positive. We were forced to shut down for a minimum of two weeks. There was no precaution we didn’t take.

Welcome to 2020, music educators.

About six weeks ago, Texas band directors (a fierce and highly competitive bunch) started posting summer band-camp photos, on a band directors’ site I follow. Flute players with facial shields. Trumpets and mellophones with their bells bagged. Masked percussionists, labeling their mallets, so they’re touched by only one person. They were fired up. Creativity and safety would win the day!

The page today is really tough reading: Shut-down camps. Lost jobs. Will there be a marching band next year if there’s none this year? Pictures of band rooms where precisely 13 students can play while social-distancing. Deep, philosophical chats about the value of music in kids’ lives. And this—how the hell am I supposed to have a band online?

Well, the bad news is: you’re not. And when this pandemic abates, the best-case scenario for all powerhouse performance-based music programs is the option to rebuild. Any teacher (raises hand) who’s ever had to build, then re-build, a music program of any kind knows how difficult that job is, what losses are suffered when your dynamic program loses the thing that makes it magnetic: Pride in performance, fun in preparation.

So don’t think I’m Pollyanna, telling music teachers to keep your chin up and try something new. I know you’re righteously sad about your good work being threatened. What I am offering is this: a few suggestions for doing some authentic music teaching during a terrible time.

For starters—stop calling yourself a band/choir/orchestra director, and begin calling yourself a ‘music teacher.’

Second—understand that your college education and years of experience have given you all the musical expertise you need to create some new ideas about music that can be delivered to students in multiple modes. You know enough about the structure and history of music to create some great lessons. And what you don’t know offhand, you can easily find, without leaving your living room.

Third—don’t think the only curricular options students have are limited to music theory, music history and practicing. Much of our college-level theory and history instruction was deadly dull—no need to repeat it. Also– please don’t assign practicing. You need to give kids a good reason to practice, and logging time for a grade is not a good reason to practice. Learning to play another instrument would be—Bari sax? Ukulele?  

Fourth—you know what tools, student interests and previous skills are available to you. If you’re meeting students in groups, and they all have Zoom, you might be able to do some bucket drumming. Or maybe your orchestra would be more interested in a History of Popular Music survey unit—to find out where the music they listened to originated.

Perhaps you’re stuck with phone calls and emails, and have to do something written or shared via email groups. I used to play what I called Sound Samples for my students, around a theme. They listened to a series of 10 or 12 clips, each a couple of minutes long, with a list of what they were listening to (each with a brief description). The list was out of order. The trick was to listen closely enough to identify key features of the music and thus, identify the pieces. Ungraded—but I know from experience students love guessing right, or figuring out what they’re listening to, using the clues.

For those incredibly lucky teachers who have the right technological tools and skills, teaching students to do ensemble playing via technology, with themselves or others, is a possibility (not Zoom, by the way—it’s the wrong tool for ensemble singing/playing). Only a narrow slice of music educators have the equipment and expertise to do this—but perhaps it’s your personal challenge, right now.

Fifth—Keep in mind that students take a music class to play. Teachers are fearful of play. Not only because their professional evaluations and livelihood are often linked to a mandate to produce satisfactory evidence–data– but open-ended play is not generally The Way We Do Things.

In schools, and in the grim, we’re-behind education policy discourse, a teacher who encourages students of any age to poke at ideas, learn from mistakes, and approach established disciplinary content as a treasure chest to explore is seen as disorganized. You tell ‘em what to do. And then you evaluate how well they’re doing what you told ‘em to do.

I am a music teacher–theoretically a creative art–but can state categorically that music, as traditionally taught in secondary schools, is not very imaginative or playful at all. School music programs tend to become performance-oriented only–and often rigorously competitive—as students get older.

There is an important body of information and skills in music. The more of that disciplinary knowledge students have mastered, and the more proficiency they develop, the greater their ability to capably perform interesting and satisfying music, and become a more appreciative and knowledgeable music consumer. These are all worthwhile educational goals, by the way. Far more worthy, in the long run, than bringing home another trophy.

The National Association for Music Education standards include composition, often overlooked in school music programs focused on replicating already-created music with a high degree of perfection.

After I’d embraced the rehearse-rehearse-perform model for 20 years, I realized I wasn’t teaching my students much about music other than How to Play Band Music. I started experimenting with composition. I had adopted the practice of thematic teaching—focusing on one broad aspect of music each year. The first year I tried to include composition, our theme was World Music—identifying the musical features that make something sound Italian or Scottish, rustic or refined. We listened to gamelan bands and balalaika choirs and West African djembe drummers.

And then I asked them to compose something in an ethnic style.

It’s nerve-wracking to turn kids loose to create. How do you structure that lesson? What’s the subject matter takeaway? What if your students create inferior products (as they certainly will, at first)? Must you grade them?

I had to deal with “Just tell me what to do” and “Can’t I do a report instead?” We persisted. And eventually, it was fun, playing with our acquired skills, creating new music–recording it on audio, video, electronic keyboard discs and paper. Their choice.

Some students performed their compositions live, including several groups and soloists playing the blues (that’s how you teach theory, by the way—using it).  There were R. Carlos Nakai-ish recorder solos and improvised polkas. And lots and lots of drumming.

Most of the work was fairly unoriginal, but some of it was stunning. Here’s the best part. I assigned it on a Friday, giving them almost a month to get things in. On Monday, there were maybe two dozen completed assignments in my inbox, and groups wanted to know: Can we do another one?

Sixth—like most things about school and learning, music programs that are well-funded and adequately staffed get better results. It costs money to support a music program at any level, and a great deal of money to outfit a HS performing group, beginning with a facility. In some ways, losing daily rehearsals and summer camps and access to a world-class auditorium levels the playing field and lets musicians focus on the heart of music—human expression—rather than being best. This could be the year where imagination and creativity (and, in the process, justice) is the focus.

From a marvelous blog, What If We Radically Reimagined the New School Year:

What if this urban district courageously liberated itself from narrow and rigid quantitative measures of intelligence that have colonized the education space for generations, and instead blazed a trail for reimagining what qualifies as valuable knowledge? What if we put our money, time and energy into what we say matters most? What if this school year celebrated imagination? What if healthy, holistic, interconnected citizenship was a learning objective? What if we designed a school year that sought to radically shift how communities imagine, problem solve, heal, and connect?

The Blessings of Liberty Include Fully Public Education

I wrote this blog on July 5, 2018–at a site that is now blocked by a paywall. Yesterday, I read Donald Trump’s speech at Mt. Rushmore, and his follow-up speech–pretty much the same blah-blah–at the White House, on July 4. When this popped up in my feed today, it felt as if I was naive then–that I had no idea just how far evil would rise, how a terrible crisis could drive the country even further apart. All of this still applies.
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I played my flute in a patriotic-themed outdoor concert last night with the Northport Community Band–as cooling breezes blew across Grand Traverse Bay and firecrackers popped in the distance. There were at least 400 people seated in lawn chairs, clapping along to You’re a Grand Old Flag, The National Emblem and The Stars and Stripes Forever. We played a service medley, as we always do, asking veterans to stand when the tune representing their branch of the service was played. This is standard for our summer concerts–and I usually think of this as hokey, the musical equivalent of a ‘Support Our Troops!’ bumper sticker.

But last night, instead of zoning out during the rests, I watched the crowd–the old men struggling to get to their feet or simply waving from their wheelchairs as the crowd clapped and cheered for them. And I thought of all the major sacrifices–not just lives of young, innocent men and women, determined to serve their country, but the endless struggles for civil rights and equity and justice. I reflected on the striving, loss and pain incurred in the ongoing process of trying to make this nation a true democracy (or republic–take your choice).

The people who tartly point out that we have never been a just and fair nation are correct. But I don’t remember a Fourth of July where I’ve felt more discouraged about the home of the brave, land of the not-really free.

I also still feel a deep commitment, an obligation, to the relevant principles, even as they’re chipped away and made meaningless: Liberty. Opportunity. Equity. Justice. Peace. Persistence.

I found myself, unexpectedly, in tears last night. So much has been lost, damaged, soiled or destroyed. Evil is rising. You can’t deny it. Just watch the news.

Were all the sacrifices in vain–going all the way back to the ragtag Colonial armies, losing their lives over taxation and the conviction that somehow this was their land, that they were entitled, by their Creator, to defend their homesteads and the fruits of their labor? What about the terrible price paid to end the scourge of slavery? To build and invest in becoming a world-class power? All the people who steadfastly developed the American dream–is it just the way of the world that their sacrifices were meaningless in the face of greed and corruption?

The etymological root of the word sacrifice is to ‘make sacred.’ I think I was experiencing the sacred last night, watching the 90-something Navy man sing ‘Anchors Aweigh’ in the front row–and the grandfathers who served in Vietnam shyly nod to each other across the crowd.

I also thought about where and how those men and women were educated. Where did they absorb the idea that citizenship is both blessing and duty? Who taught them to read and calculate, who nurtured their talents and their dreams?

The county where I live–one of the most beautiful spots in the nation, according to Good Morning, America-was originally settled by Native Americans, who still have a large and active presence here, and whose children attend public schools. The abundant fresh waters that drew them here centuries ago are now threatened by a crumbling oil pipeline that lies under a major shipping lane.  Should a public education include factual information about protecting our greatest environmental asset? Is that not also a sacred American principle?

In this holiday week, I am choosing to still believe in the things that genuinely have made America great, those blessings of liberty that include a free, high-quality, fully public education for every child.

Strummin’ on the Old Banjo

About twenty years ago, I served on the team of teachers who crafted the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards Certification assessment for music teachers. The 16-member team was carefully drawn from an array of music education specialists, with an eye toward balance. Balance between K-12 and higher ed, vocal and instrumental music, male and female, geographic—and ethnic balance.

Everyone on the team took the work seriously. All of us were experienced master music teachers. We were trying to lay down valid and reliable assessments that could measure a music teacher’s pedagogical skills and content knowledge. It was good work, based on a set of standards drawn up by another diverse national team of teachers.

The National Board Certification process has changed since then—we were the first teachers to tackle these tasks—but the assessment consists of portfolios of the candidates’ classroom practice, including videotaped lessons, and a set of on-demand content assessments. It was our job to design the assessment model, then provide alternate items so the assessment could be used for many years.

The content assessments were designed to be rigorous—for example, composing, in 30 minutes, a short piece of music for specified instruments, voices, key and time signatures and in a prescribed style. If you’re not a music teacher, that might sound impossible, but music specialists compose and arrange music to fit their musicians all the time. A music teacher who couldn’t sketch out a quick composition meeting certain parameters could not be considered accomplished.

In addition to assessments around music teachers’ curricular knowledge, rehearsal skills, theory and composition, there was an exercise to assess teachers’ knowledge of music history. Four members of our team were Black; three had attended an HBCU. And they thought that ‘drop the needle’ exercises, where teachers listened to discrete samples of traditional Western composers and identified the composer, historical period and other compositional or historical features were—not to put too fine a point on it—baloney.

Two team members (both white and male) were music education professors at well-regarded universities. And they believed this knowledge was music history. They refused to entertain the thought that music majors anywhere were not well-grounded in the Western canon. They kept saying things like ‘you’re telling me you can’t identify all nine Beethoven symphonies? That you didn’t study them in college?’

The Black teachers said things like ‘Can you tell me what a field holler is? Can you sing one, right now? Can you trace hip-hop through its various incarnations, back to New York City and the Caribbean? That’s what I studied in college!’

The conversation grew heated at times, and eventually boiled down to this nugget, the thing we’d said we were considering, all along: What knowledge is essential for any music teacher to be effective and accomplished?

There were two distinct schools of thought:

  • One, there is an established canon of Western-generated art and folk music in the United States that represents music of worth. These are the materials we should be teaching our students. The rest is somewhere between inconsequential and trash.
  • Two, our students are immersed in popular music, nearly all of which can be traced back to African roots, in some aspect. Jazz, in fact, is the first truly American art music. To avoid what came before and after jazz in the realm of popular music—or to set it aside as ‘less than’ dead, white, Eurocentric composed music—does our students, black and white, a terrible disservice.

At that point, I had been a music teacher for nearly 25 years and considered myself an exemplary practitioner. Many of the points raised by the Black teachers were new to me. I spent the weeks between the team’s meetings studying ‘multi-cultural’ music. What was the same? What was different?

More importantly, what did my students need? Was I just following in the footsteps of white music educators, using the same music, teaching the same sterile skills, pursuing the same goal of ‘excellence,’ without really considering more important questions about music and human creativity in a culture? The first aha moment for me? Noticing that the method book my beginners used featured ‘Jump Jim Crow’ in a lesson about dotted rhythms.

The ultimate outcome for the National Board music certificate was designing two different assessments—one called Western Music History, testing teachers’ knowledge about the traditional, Eurocentric canon and another called World Music which drew on samples from around the globe, and occasionally tossed in a ragtime or swing tune. It was a decidedly imperfect compromise. By the time our work was done, three of the four Black team members had quit.

When the certificate was rolled out, I was a scorer for the World Music assessment, where it was obvious that many American music teachers didn’t know a lot about non-Western music. In working with candidates—white candidates, especially secondary band and orchestra teachers—I was likely to hear that they found the World Music assessment irrelevant or unfair. Make-work, even—not knowledge they needed to have or use. Those conversations between team members rang in my ears.

Thankfully, these issues have not gone away. Dialogue between music teachers has become richer and digging into folk music and popular standards has revealed a lot of low-level, unrecognized or underestimated racism, in addition to the blatant, out-there stuff. There is significant scholarship around the value of non-Western music—and pushback as well; this piece and the comments are a good example.

I frequently read threads now on music educators’ groups, as well as journals, articles and casual conversations about musical literature and how to re-think habitual literature choices. Nine out of ten preservice music teachers are white. This is a big deal.

For white teachers, reading through compilations of music with racist roots that they’ve sung as children and used in their classrooms is similar to teachers who love Dr. Seuss learning that his books carry some racist baggage.  I’ve been working on the railroad? How can that be racist?

The trick is to ask, and to listen, and not behave as if your favorite pancake syrup has filed for a name change. White people have been in charge of music classrooms, instructional materials and evaluating what ‘good’ music is for centuries. So what if you ‘always’ used Oh Susannah! to teach sixteenth note pickups? Do better.

Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, in ‘How to be an Antiracist’ says that racism doesn’t spring from hate and ignorance. Racism is a result of racist policies, policies that form racist systems, and encourage and maintain racist behaviors. That’s a hard concept to understand, at first.

But when I think about all the white music teachers defending the songs that make light of slavery, and enslaved people, it is clear: choosing music that I prefer is making policy. Teachers make this kind of policy in their classrooms all the time. Being an antiracist music teacher begins with our most fundamental responsibility: making the best possible musical choices.

Changing What We Teach

Over the past couple of days, there has been a steady stream of resources, generously shared, for anti-racist teaching.  Here, for example.  Here, here and here and here. And this, just this afternoon.

There are plenty of articles out there speculating on when and how we go back to school, and the consequences of going back too soon. But all the handwringing over alternate schedules, classroom lunches and sanitizing the playground are a great example of focusing on the urgent rather than the important.

Going back to School as Usual only works for a segment of privileged kids in well-resourced schools. All schools, including those where parent satisfaction is high and student achievement is admirable, can benefit from re-thinking what we teach—more than how we teach.

There have been endless conversations on Twitter and Facebook about the value of suggested resources and materials, just how age-appropriate they are, and how they intersect—or don’t—with traditional, standards-based curricula. These conversations, even when argumentative and heated, are good.

This is (or should be) teachers’ professional work. These should be the things we’re reading about, dissecting with our colleagues, discussing with our friends. We can’t go on merely doing what we always did. That’s not teaching. That’s mindless reproduction. It’s clear that it’s not working.

This will involve changing who we are and what we think, sometimes. Take this school superintendent in Michigan, for example, who commented, on his Facebook page:   

“Burning, breaking windows, and looting is also an injustice — what happened to Floyd was wrong! A criminal response is also wrong. Any statement otherwise, condones and perpetuates both criminal acts!!  …it all starts with being a law abiding citizen – had he not paid with counterfeit money, had he not resisted, had he not been under the influence — then there would be no contact with officers; that does not excuse the officer; it just eliminates the conflict to begin with!! It starts with being a good citizen!”

Yeah.  Superintendent of a district with more than 5000 students.

But—I have seen and heard other remarks like his in the past week, and in many years past, in times of unrest. From all kinds of people who see themselves as well-meaning, even progressive. From teachers, too, who see themselves as ‘good citizens.’

Which is why we must do more than space desks six feet apart and set up hand-washing stations. What good is school if it’s just transmitting sterile, pre-approved information, teaching basic skills and collecting data? Why take the risk, unless students we’re giving students something of value, something that challenges them to create a better world?

Skimming through the resources shared by teachers who want to know more about anti-racist teaching, I had a familiar ache: I miss having my own classroom. There is nothing like the juice of having a few hundred students (music teachers often have a few hundred students) and plenty of occasions to talk with them about social justice and equity—and cultural appropriation.

If there were any one thing I hoped my students would learn, it would be an awareness that they’re consuming black musical culture without crediting it to the correct source–or respecting it. That’s the reason I did any anti-racist work (and I’m not suggesting I was good at it): my students were soaking in the outcomes of how to creatively make music out of oppression, and they were totally unaware of it.

We need anti-racist curriculum, all right. Including–maybe even especially–in the arts.

I remember a conversation I had with one of my colleagues, about doing a unit–this was back before the curriculum was steered strictly by CCSS–on ‘tolerance.’ She was teaching 8th grade English and wanted to do some readings and discussions. I got excited about the kinds of music that could support and weave through that kind of unit–artists and composers and reasons why music has value in the culture, helps bridge differences.

We talked about what the community might push back against–we doubted that parents would openly confront teachers over readings about racism, but agreed a handful were likely to complain about readings about tolerance around sexual orientation.

Tolerance (a weak word, but hang with me) might be defined in such a unit as:

In a particular time or place…who is it OK to beat up on a Saturday night? A hundred years ago, for example, it was OK to beat up your wife or girlfriend. The police and neighbors would overlook that as ‘family business.’ That was tolerated. That’s not OK any more—at least on paper. It’s also no longer OK to beat up an immigrant, someone of a different ethnicity or color, or someone with a different sexual orientation.

Except—we can all think of plenty of current examples where tolerance of difference has been shattered. For plenty of spurious reasons. Including righteous declarations about ‘citizenship.’

We’re in trouble. We need to teach our children to do better. We need to look hard at coded language. We need to emphasize the most basic civic acts: Voting. Speaking out. Media literacy. Being broadly informed, about a range of issues. Talking to our neighbors and families.

All of that takes courage. Not as much courage as taking to the streets, but courage. If we just go back to school and do the same old things, then all the ‘learning community’ and ‘21st century’ and ‘high and rigorous’ blah-blah we’ve been tossing around doesn’t reflect what our students observe with their own eyes. If we don’t take this opportunity to teach what matters, we don’t deserve the honor and responsibility of being educators.