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?

Toward a More Just (and Creative) Curriculum, Part I

Virtually all of the discussion between educators is now centered on whether it’s feasible, with any kind of plan, to return to in-person schooling in the fall. I believe this national conversation will follow the Major League Baseball template: schools will begin closing as viral clusters pop up, perhaps re-opening, then closing again for the balance of the year, as it finally dawns on the most resistant anti-mask parent and school board member: This just ain’t gonna work. It’s too dangerous.

Wouldn’t it be great to just skip that step and focus instead on two things: getting adequate broadband to the half of students and teachers who don’t have it, and figuring out how to use available connections to teach kids things that actually matter?

Teachers settle into a teaching practice– gathering, testing and adopting habits and materials that are effective (and discarding those that aren’t). Many teachers had difficulty abandoning those standardized resources and pedagogies when forced to teach online. They tried to do what they always did—at first, anyway. When that didn’t work so well, they began experimenting, with personal calls and meetings, extending or modifying assignments—and plenty of other strategies.

Teachers quickly discovered that the usual deliver/practice/test model was a bust, with students randomly not showing up or completing things that would have been finished, had the teacher been strolling around the classroom looking over their shoulders. How would this impact grading and testing and comparing? District and state leaders eventually said—we can’t grade (or test or compare). It’s not fair.

The news media, of course,  interpreted this as ‘Students Do Work but It Doesn’t Count!’

Why does the general public assume that learning only matters when it’s quantified? Because we’ve taught them that is the case. Let’s cut to the chase instead: Now that we’re here online (or mailing packets, using phone-in conferences or emailing)—what would be the most useful things to learn? What might be jettisoned in favor of things that address important and current issues?

For children in primary grades, this amounts to lots of basic-skills building around interesting things in their world. When we talk about very young children, most people assume that they’re the ones who need the traditional high-touch curriculum: learning to read, do simple arithmetic, and socializing. In person.

That may not be possible. And I’m not entirely convinced that older kids do better with remote learning. I can think of a number of things that are central to early-childhood learning that might be adapted to learning at home. Vocabulary, speaking and listening, stories that teach us something, counting games, virtual museum visits, nature walks with items being shared and discussed, puppet shows—the list is endless.

The catch, of course, is having someone older around to supervise that nature walk, find the link to the virtual museum, and watch the puppet show after the teacher shares creative ideas and content.

I can also identify the teachers in secondary schools who will struggle the most to develop online models of teaching: music teachers with performing groups, art teachers, physical education and drama teachers, career and technical educators and those with hands-on pedagogies.

We need to be very clear that what elementary-grades schooling provides is free enriched childcare, and that the dangers in online learning generally come from those who would cannibalize both public education and the legitimate, even exciting, uses of technology toward the goal of making a profit.  These are separate issues, and it’s easy to conflate them.

What if, instead, we turned this new way of teaching and learning toward breaking free from lockstep curriculum, and focused on the great issues now facing our country? Things like inequity, antiracism, community-building to help ease the pandemic and other critical problems that need solving? What if we tried to establish a virtual culture of justice, one tailored to our school and our students?


Even when we focus on academics, we too often target low-hanging fruit like graduation rates rather than teaching and learning. Shallow successes allow us to pat ourselves on the back. But a high graduation rate is meaningless when our graduates enter the world without a fundamental grasp of the tools and knowledge necessary for full participation in life and citizenship. We can hope for a reimagining of schooling during this time, but nothing will change in our schools until we prioritize the education of our students.

We could call it the 2020 Interim Curriculum, to keep those heavily invested in CCSS and annual testing from freaking out. It could be a place-based, context-sensitive approach. Learning during a pandemic. Making it up as we go along. If the things we always do can’t be done, because they require conditions and materials that can’t be had, what worthwhile topics—things currently in the news, things that our students might want to know—can fill in?

I’ve had some practice in the art of making it up as I went along. Here is a brief example:

I taught 7th grade math for two years, when the music program was cut. Both times (more than 20 years apart), all math teachers taught from textbooks. In 2004, it was a new curriculum that used different soft-cover books for individual topics. I was the last teacher in the rotation, and while waiting for the previous teacher to finish the topic and pass books on to my class, I had a few days to fill. No challenge for a veteran math teacher, with dozens of field-tested tricks, but I was new.

The Detroit Free Press had a special section on housing. It discussed housing prices across the metro area, square footage, interest rates on mortgage loans, down payments and the fact that for many families, their homes functioned as their savings investments. Lots of charts and graphs and tables, as well as dozens of photos.

I (illegally) copied a couple of the tables and graphs to interpret, and brought the whole section into class. I read the copy on the front page, and then spent the rest of the week showing them how to figure out why a large down payment might be better than a minimum amount, how housing increased (or decreased) in value, the differences between buying in a popular area and a run-down part of town, and how much of a house payment was principal and how much interest.

Seventh graders, it turns out, know nothing about the price of a home. The idea that the homes they were living in might cost a quarter of a million dollars was stunning. Equally surprising was the idea that a genuine mansion in Detroit, with four times the square footage and six bathrooms, might cost less. We briefly touched on redlining, and its impact on Black families in Detroit. We calculated down payments, monthly costs and equity. There were no homework assignments, but each day was full of math and learning. At the end of the year, in the survey I gave them, lots of them mentioned that learning about housing was the thing they remembered, and enjoyed, the most.

And that was before that kind of information was readily available online. I imagine teachers gathering links to stories about housing, the job market, education loans and careers—practical advice plus practice in calculation and understanding how to use math (or literature, or science) in making a better world.

How do things work? How could they work better, for all of us?

The possibilities are endless.  In Part II, a blog about teaching music composition, something face to face music teachers in performance-focused classes seldom do.

Worst Year Ever

I was amused to see that Jay Mathews, longtime Washington Post education columnist, thinks this will be the ‘worst year ever.’ So bad that he thinks maybe we ought to ask public school principals and teachers if they have any bright ideas about how to do school—what do we have to lose? They might have some creative solutions! #sarcasm

The best charter schools have made good use of their freedom from old school district rules and biases. Why shouldn’t teachers and principals at regular public schools have a chance to do that, at least during this crisis?

At least during this crisis—and then, of course, we’ll go back to ignoring their wisdom and treating them like cheap, interchangeable cogs in a dysfunctional machine.

I have been reading Mr. Mathews for two decades. I understand that he represents the old guard in educational journalism—the folks who are actually employed by mainstream news outlets, rather than the motley and generally unpaid crew of folks writing from the trenches. The people who work in schools every day.

The point of this blog is not to evaluate how accurately journalists report on truths about teaching and learning vs. those who rely on call-Randi-then-phone-it-in columns. There are plenty of classroom-based bloggers, after all, who cannot see beyond their school, their students, and their particular needs.

Still–there are lots of people writing about the crisis around returning to schools now, and that’s good, no matter who they are  We need to hear all the voices, including those whose crazy idea just might work for someone, somewhere, even if it is a non-starter for you.

So here is my idea: What if this were the best year ever?

More specifically, what if this were the year that we–students, teachers, parents—got to try everything we ever considered doing? What if you could design your own teaching-learning path and your own outcomes? Freed from the constraints of rigid curricular standards, conventional M-F schedules and tests designed to sort, rank, reward and punish—what if you got to choose what David Berliner calls ‘good learning’?

Nearly every argument against this stems from our cast-in-concrete ideas of what school is supposed to be: You are supposed to be reading in first grade. You are supposed to learn to ‘socialize’ in school. You are supposed to learn a tiny bit about multiple, discrete subjects every day, instead of spending a whole day (or week—or month) using only one or two disciplines. You are supposed to be ready for college or a career at the end of the thirteen-year race.

You are supposed to be able to focus, seated, indoors for hours at a time, without frequent breaks to stretch, use the restroom or talk to other people. Or daydream. Or read something interesting. Or doodle, look out the window or immerse yourself in a topic, skill or project that is of great interest to you.

In fact, in some schools, it doesn’t matter what you’re interested in—we have your content and your benchmarks all laid out for you. It’s aligned with the test that will tell us what classes you’ll take next year, and the year after that. Will the pandemic be over then?

Perhaps this feels as if I have gone all Summerhill, (the ‘radical’ book all education majors dissected in the 1970s). As if I’m a fan of unschooling–or one of those people who babble about the factory model and how school stifles their child’s imagination. How classes are boring in person and even worse online.

Not so. In fact, I’m a great fan of public education, of kids adapting to a schedule and learning to get along in groups. I think most schools do a credible job of teaching kids what they need to know—and some teachers and schools do a spectacular job of preparing kids for the world to come. I also think (and have gotten into trouble for saying out loud) that the brightest children amuse themselves and are seldom bored in school, at home or sitting in front of a computer. It’s the kids who rely on structure, attention and directions from an adult who are bored, who use their intelligence to be compliant or competitive, rather than creative.

So let’s use the resources that public education controls—and get creative, for once.

The plans for fall have been repeatedly divided—by media and policy-making spokespersons—into three buckets: Regular, face to face school. Hybrid models. Online instruction. None of these models is universally viable.*

More to the point, all of them are based on the idea that we need to tread water and make school as close as possible to what it was in 2019, while waiting for the virus to go away. The US Department of Education’s vow to not grant testing waivers for 2020-21 is not based on their deep desire to see whether kids have ‘fallen behind’ so they can get ‘caught up.’ The entire K-12 system now requires test scores as our product, the gears and levers used to control and shame public education and, where possible, replace it with privatized, for-profit models (including charters).

If tests were to go away, permanently, then schools could start designing their own curricula, tailored to the children they serve.  If benchmarks were to go away, we could return to meeting children where they are and moving them forward. If standards were to become optional guideposts, rather than rigid requirements—the kind that mandate flunking children who struggle to read when they’re eight years old –we might even find them useful, especially novice teachers, beginning to build a practice toolkit.

If this sounds like happy talk, it’s pretty much what we had 30 years ago. It’s hard to remember, but solving educational problems used to take place at the district and state level, and testing was something states did to make sure tax dollars were being wisely spent. In many states, schools that posted low scores were given compensatory funding and technical assistance, and deficits were assumed to be related to poverty.

That was then. And now, we’re headed into the ‘worst year ever’—but only if you accept that what we’ve been doing for the past two decades has been a good use of our resources.

It could also be the best year ever. This won’t happen without a political overhaul and a cataclysmic upheaval in practice. But it may be the best opportunity we have.

* This is a personal gripe, but positioning the return-to-school choices for fall as bifurcated—in-person vs. online—is short-sighted. I live in a place where on-line schooling is close to impossible—a huge rural district (168 square miles) where high-speed internet connectivity is iffy at best. My DSL line (our only real choice) operates at less than one mbps, upload and download—not enough to run a Zoom classroom, upload photos and videos, or send an emailed assignment with a large attachment and expect it to arrive in a few minutes. Buses with wifi hot-spots and free devices aren’t going to suffice.

Please don’t tell me that this is a local government problem. I understand that. But my local government, despite 10 years’ worth of being urged to deal with the problem, is reluctant to act, saying that they haven’t heard complaints, and don’t want to spoil the ‘rural character’ of the county. By the time the local government acts, the school year may well be over.

We were one of the cooperative districts formed by the Rural Electrification Administration in 1935, when many of our farmers were not connected to electricity. The reason then is the same as now: too expensive, not enough profit in connecting farms and wide-apart homes. So yes. It’s political. This is what will happen to our postal service, too, if Trump gets his way.

Kids who can’t go to school online need creativity, too.

Five (Conservative) Ideas about Going Back to School in the Fall

Could you give us some of your wisdom?

Hard to turn down a request like that, from a friend. This particular friend created a freebie news magazine for parents 20 years ago, filled with local ads and feature stories. It’s professionally assembled and well-known locally—and has just shifted to a glossy online platform. And now, my friend needed some contagion-relevant content for the August issue. Topic: Going back to school. In a pandemic.

Well, I could write about that. Then she said: Remember—nothing political! This has to be advice that will comfort parents and not be considered at all controversial.

One of the reasons I left a national blog perch with a paywall and started my own blog was so I could write about all kinds of juicy and controversial things and Say What I Really Thought. It’s been fun, and the juiciest and most controversial blogs have drawn the most traffic.

But hey. I’m flexible. Besides, I was a public school teacher for 31 years, in a district filled with conservative, traditional parents. I can do middle-of-the-road careful; I can offer up sensible advice while not honking anybody off, too much.

This is what I came up with—five non-controversial ideas for parents about how to approach our eventual return to school, whether that’s next month or next year. Your mileage may vary, of course.

  • Be flexible. This may be the hardest thing for parents and teachers—and students as well. We’ve become accustomed to guidelines and traditions: School always starts in the fall and ends as summer begins. School is held in buildings, in classrooms. But this year, we just don’t know what will happen. It will be tempting to assess blame—against school leaders or the government—when we are frustrated. The pandemic is nobody’s fault, however—and the most useful ideas for schooling in a pandemic are often unusual. Will your child meet his teacher outdoors, twice a week? Perhaps. Might the school close and reopen multiple times? Maybe. Will there be distance learning, online or via printed packets? Likely, even if it’s not optimal. Stay open and amenable to change. Your children will follow your lead.
  • Relax—there is no such thing as ‘falling behind.’ First, nearly all schoolchildren are experiencing this disruption to their regular school routine. More important, any veteran teacher will tell you that students do not learn in uniform, year-by-year levels of progress. There are spurts and plateaus, times when new skills and content are gained and times when students merely practice using the things they know and are able to do. Your child—with a little gentle help from you—can continue to grow or solidify their learning: Reading (out loud or silently). Walking in nature. Choosing their own interests and projects to pursue. When in doubt, Google learning ideas for children. And stop stressing over tests and competing. Your child will be OK, in the long run.
  • Stay in touch with your school. If you have bright ideas about how to cope with stemming the spread of infection, or if your children have specific needs, share this information with school leaders and teachers. Give them a chance to help your family adapt. If at all possible, stick with the school—whether public or private—your family chose last year. This is not the right time to go school shopping, hoping to find something ‘better.’ A school where your child is known is a better bet than rolling the dice, academically, during a dangerous national health crisis.
  • Trust school leaders and teachers. They are between a viral rock and the hard place of public needs. They are also willing to take risks and learn new things to provide an education for your child. They deserve our support. Their rules and procedures are designed to keep children safe and create order in the school. If your family does not agree with all of the school’s plan and requirements for re-opening, keep in mind that schools are responsible for communities of children, not just your child. Our democratic society was built on the rule of law; modeling that has never been more important. It is vital for children to respect their school’s directions and decisions right now, around masking, distancing and sanitizing. It’s an important step in building their adulthood and citizenship.
  • We are all in this together. Your children are like millions of schoolchildren across the country, your family’s problems are shared by families across the state. The most productive approach to solving these problems is doing so in a way that benefits everyone in your community, keeping them as safe as possible. Our ability to remain calm and approach a national emergency with a can-do spirit is something Americans have been proud of, in past crises.  We will survive this, and even learn from the struggle, if everyone does their part.

FaceBook: Fount of all Wisdom, Wellspring of Stupid

I know all the things that are wrong with Facebook, all the reasons why now might be the perfect time to Just. Step. Away. Several friends have virtue-signaled their unwillingness to play nice with a man who sells them (and their data) out and closed down their accounts. Many more have taken extended breaks, keeping a toe in (and, I suspect, checking surreptitiously on the regular). Others have shifted exclusively to Twitter or some other, more hip social media site.

But—like that last cigarette or glass of Pinot Grigio, Facebook is addictive. It—and, from slightly different angles, other social media sites—act as the town square, in 2020. During the pandemic, when choosing which information to believe and act on is a matter, quite literally, of life versus death, Facebook is where a lot of people get their news.

And I’m going to say something surprising: that’s not all bad.

Frequently bad, sometimes ruinous, sure—but also (somewhat randomly) useful.

It’s where dialogue is generated. Notice I didn’t say high-level discourse—but I have learned things from reading Facebook. This is mostly because I don’t accept or keep Facebook friends who can’t carry on a conversation.

I am genuinely interested in what people think. Facebook is where I’ve learned that a lot of really benighted people live in my county—and while that’s not happy news, it’s good to know. It’s also where I have met some of the smarter people on the planet and been enriched by their logic and reason.

Facebook can be a kind of socio-anthropological adventure, if you have thick skin and are willing to research and argue your opinions—and also change your mind. Here’s an example:

One of the most commonly asserted and accepted reasons that children need to go back to school in the fall is the thought that school is good for their mental health—the socialization, the ‘normalcy,’ the daily routines and of course, the all-important knowledge acquisition and skill-building that comes with in-person schooling. There is evidence that school is a safer place, physically, for some students—a place where caring adults are paying attention and providing baseline needs, for seven or eight hours.

I saw that argument as rational, if not 100% convincing.  Then, I read this on Facebook, from a child and family therapist, arguments against ‘COVID schooling’ because it’s supposedly ‘good for kids’:

– Having to obey rigid and developmentally inappropriate behavioral expectations to maintain social distancing for hours at a time
– Restricting their engagement with their peers even though those peers are right in front of them
– Somehow having to have the executive functioning within all of this to meet educational standards and possibly experiencing shame, and self-doubt when they reasonably can’t
– Being unable to receive age appropriate comfort from teachers and staff when dysregulated from all of this, thereby experiencing attachment injuries daily

Did this change my mind? Hard to say, because I recognize that there is no one answer to the critical and urgent questions around schooling in the fall. But it widened my perspective. It made me understand that credible people are looking into the other side of ‘kids need school’ when school is a place of fear and rigidity.

I read multiple international, national, statewide and local newspapers, and a couple dozen magazines. I watch TV news. But I also find things on Facebook I wouldn’t find elsewhere—news sources and, more important, the considered thoughts of respected friends, and friends of friends.

There’s value in that. Also danger. It’s easy to believe third-hand quasi-information, especially when it confirms your biases. Raise your hand if you’ve ever re-posted something, then had to take it down, after being embarrassed by a public correction.

Which is why I believe the most important thing we can do, right now, for all literate children, is teach them how to evaluate media. Fortunately, there are great resources to use—and while distance instruction pales in comparison to face to face learning, this is something that can and should be done online

If I were in charge of training teenagers how to assess the media they consume, I’d start with Facebook.

I’d begin with a list of Facebook personalities:

  • The Plentiful Poster who puts up a dozen or two links every day, designed to share the best (in their opinion) articles and resources.
  • The Ad Hominem Attacker who goes first for the jugular in personal critiques. The Orange Cheeto? Cruella DeVos? Our Tyrannical Governor? Forget political arguments and opinions—it’s all about who to blame. There are some people who never get past this level.
  • The Short Attention Spanner who doesn’t read the link they’re posting. Or confirm any outrageous claims with a second source. Or read anything before commenting.
  • The guy who thinks long is better, and proceeds to type paragraph after paragraph, comment after comment, just to wear you down. The woman who can’t remember where she first saw the post—but was blown away by it, thinks it may have been written by a doctor and is thereby God’s honest truth.
  • The My Way or the Highway Poster, who is not interested in discussing. Only telling.

That’s enough for starters.

I’d ask the students to provide other (living or social media) typologies from their experience: Who’s credible? Who’s full of baloney? Who’s trying to impress you? Shut you up by policing your anger and demanding ‘civility’? Snow you with phony facts—or (and this is absolutely everywhere) Fake Math?

I see you waving your hand over there—reminding me that we should begin by teaching kids how to evaluate evidence and websites, not the integrity or authority of people they know or are friends with (two different things) on social media.

But I am reminded of one of those old saws about teaching: Start where the student is. And for many of them, that’s personal relationships or relationship chains.

Who should you trust? It’s absolutely the question of the year.

Are Teachers Babysitters? Maybe.

People are uber-touchy, even panicky, about the questions around returning to school—it’s a life and death issue, all right, including potentially gambling with our most precious asset: our children.

Like any venture that is launched before all the facts and outcomes are available—marriage and childbirth spring to mind here—both in-person schooling in some fashion and staying home for distance learning have their vocal supporters and detractors.

There’s free-floating hostility, too—accusations of parents ‘dripping privilege’ who are urging public schools to reopen, knowing they have the resources to keep their children safe. There are politicians who just want ‘normal’ again, blaming the media, the left, and public institutions for pumping up panic.

And there are teachers—without whom, students will not go back to school—self-righteously proclaiming that they’re not babysitters.

This is not a new statement. A few years back, there was a meme that made the rounds—the teacher rounds, anyway—comparing the work of teaching to babysitting for 30 children for seven hours a day. Guess what? The babysitter made more money. Way more money. So there!

I was never sure what the moral of the story was. Proof that teachers are grossly underpaid for the important work they do by saying that even babysitters make more money? How is that helpful?

Here’s the thing: All work that is critical and essential in building a functional society has its moments of mundane, even undignified monotony. A nurse friend who works in endoscopy once remarked that she’d spent four years studying chemistry, anatomy and biology, but her chief responsibility in her daily job was holding senior citizens’ butt cheeks apart so they could get a colonoscopy.

Not a pretty picture. And not really representative of her skills and expertise, which are substantial. Still, many of what society considers high-level occupations—hedge fund manager, say– are nothing more than a narrow band of knowledge, social connections and high-speed internet. A lot of important work is commonplace and undervalued. Like taking care of children.

Let’s acknowledge, upfront, that the nation, as we know it, will not function without a robust system of childcare. Let’s also acknowledge that PK-12 public education is the biggest piece of that.

Let’s admit how fortunate we are, to have public schools that keep our children safe, Monday through Friday, but also enriched intellectually—and, in many cases, fed, inspired and given glimpses of a better life. Every parent knows what a relief it is when your children are finally in school full-time, and your own work or interests can take precedence for part of the day, knowing that the kids are, indeed, all right.

Teachers are, in fact, childcare experts. Occasionally, someone suggests that teachers’ jobs consist of dispensing knowledge and instilling standard competencies, no more. This is 100% baloney.

Ask any first-grade teacher how many lost teeth she has processed (using protocols for blood-borne pathogens she must review annually). Ask any seventh-grade teacher how many times he’s had to deal with a sobbing child who’s just been called ‘fat’ by mean girls. Ask any high school teacher who’s attended the funeral of a student lost to cancer, or to suicide.

Go ahead—ask them: Did you care for this child? And was that caring an important part of your job? A lot of what teachers have been doing during the shutdown is a kind of childcare, by the way.

During the Great Depression—the one that started because of wealth inequality and the stock market crash—more and more students finished high school. There were no jobs for them, and school was a safer, more productive place than the streets. Public works offered alternative programming, building infrastructure and skills. Funding, during the Depression, was iffy, and politically contentious, but teachers found their extra work in accepting large classes and coping with students who would have otherwise dropped out, paid off in a better-educated citizenry:

The most dismal years for schools were between 1932 and 1936. By 1939 educators observed that Americans’ desire to maintain and improve public education was very deep rooted.

Of course, attending or teaching school in 1934 didn’t involve a pandemic-level health risk.

There’s been lots of digital ink praising grocery store workers, take-out restaurants and USPS drivers for keeping us fed and informed. But what these folks want is not praise for doing their jobs. They want better wages, personal protection against the virus and good health care, which during a pandemic would include regular, free diagnostic testing.

Teachers want the same things—PPE, a viable workplace, testing/tracing, and acknowledgement that they, too, are indispensable, and valued, front-line workers. Corporations don’t expect workers to do their jobs from home, using personal computers and paying for their own internet—why should schools?  

Teachers also want the option of making their own decisions, without condemnation—nobody knows better than teachers that policies and guidelines are one thing, but reality, in schools, is something else entirely.

We simply don’t know enough yet to make sweeping pronouncements about schooling in the fall. This is highly distressing to proactive educators, not to mention parents, who want to get their ducks in a row. But the pandemic is a raging, out-of-control forest fire at the moment, in many places. When teachers mutter about a national strike, to protect their own health and well-being, I think it may well come to that—and it might be justified. But.

Do we all have to follow the same guidelines? Especially since it’s likely that risk levels and mitigation compliance will change, frequently, over the next few months? More to the point: if schools don’t provide childcare, who will?

I keep thinking about a school where I volunteer. About two-thirds of the students there do not have enough broadband access to attend a Zoom meeting or upload an assignment that includes an image or attachment. Theoretically, half of them have access to a device—which may be a single Smartphone for a whole family.

Every child in this district eats a free hot breakfast and lunch at school. It’s a large rural district with families spread out across the county, so it would take a fleet of buses with wi-fi hotspots and free devices for each child to go full-tilt distance learning—and still, most families could not connect in real time.

We’re talking about in-person school here, at least some of the time–or packets. We’ve lived here for 10 years and can testify that adequate broadband isn’t coming anytime soon—it’s simply not a money-maker in remote rural areas where most students live in poverty.

On the other hand, there is only one class of children per grade, in this school, and the largest class is 16. Some classes are as small as five or six. Unlike the vast majority of schools, there is actually room in the school to social distance. It’s a tight-knit community, and there are just 27 cases of COVID in the county.

Is going back to school riskier—to the whole community— than a patchwork of babysitting neighbors or, more likely, kids staying home alone?

I also keep thinking about this statement: Americans’ desire to maintain and improve public education is very deep rooted. Let’s keep it that way.

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.

Rule Followers, Unite! And Stay Alive…

Meme wisdom: Those who have stayed inside, worn masks in public, and socially distanced during this entire pandemic are the same people who are used to doing the whole group project by themselves.

Of all the hundreds of things I’ve read about distancing, risk assessment, statistical analyses and their failings, back to school/stay home, and whether masking is really an IQ test—I like this one the best.

Every teacher with a couple years’ experience recognizes those kids: the ones who do what they’re supposed to do, even if it means picking up considerable slack generated by other kids. Community-minded kids are not always academic superstars, by the way—some of those really resent having to share their superior intellectual skills in the service of a good grade for a group. They will let the teacher know that, too.

In my classroom, rule-followers were kids who retrieved the percussion mallets or folders, after class. Students who showed the person next to them the correct fingering—and said ‘good job’ to their stand mate, when they mastered the Ab scale.

After all, we were playing together. Music is not an interpersonal competition—it’s a group project. We need each other. That was the party line in the band room, anyway—and most kids actually believed it and lived it. It didn’t come naturally, however.

The question is: how do cooperative kids get to be that way? What is the secret sauce that feeds a sense of community responsibility over personal gratification? How can we have pride and true excellence, while staying within the guardrails of kindness and collaboration?

The quick and easy answer is that children learn (or don’t learn) this concept at home: Our family is a team. Don’t be greedy. Don’t be selfish. Use your manners. Think of others. Share.

I would suggest that students also learn (or don’t learn) these behaviors and beliefs in school—and from absorbing an endless stream of media. And by living in the United States. As Bob Wachter says:

America is good at many things. But handling a pandemic—at least in our current political atmosphere—isn’t one of them. In fact, we suck. We’re too individualistic, too spoiled, too vain, too partisan, and too willing to believe misinformation, conspiracies or craziness.

Yikes.

Still, I’ve been having conversations with teachers—both retired, and still in the classroom—who express surprise and horror at things their former students are saying online: No way am I wearing a mask. This whole thing is so overblown. Even if we get a vaccine, I won’t trust it. I need a haircut! This violates our constitutional rights. I heard they’re just saying everyone who dies had COVID. I think Bill Gates is behind this.

So much for the value of science, the actual documents and principles of our government, statistical analysis and media critique skills. Nice job, Teach! Sigh.

In a class on International Education, a Japanese teacher told us that the first goal in every elementary classroom in Japan was a focus on building community—acceptance of every child, no matter what their academic skills or personality, as a valuable and functional member of the group. We work together, we clean together, we play together, she said. It’s our social foundation.

Indeed, many teachers in the United States do several of the same things—build their classroom communities and procedures for working together early in the year, knowing that it’s a worthwhile investment of time that pays off in better discussions, a better atmosphere, better individual and group work. Whatever success teachers had in their lightning-quick shift to distance learning was built on relationships that were nurtured early in the 2019-20 school year.

The problem is that these practices—establishing caring communities, cooperative learning—aren’t always valued in the American system. Following agreed-upon rules becomes a fool’s game, something that only suckers and goody two-shoes types buy into. Japan is a homogeneous society, we’re told—but we, here in the home of the so-called free, are more diverse. We must rely on our individual strengths and ruthless determination to get ahead.

And so we end up with this—and this, both of which illustrate the point where  refusal to comply with simple rules becomes psychopathy. Plus—staggering COVID infection and death rates that could have been prevented or mitigated if everyone—parents, educators, and political leaders—did their part and followed the guidelines.

How do we get people to obey the rules? Ask a teacher. A few quick thoughts:

  • Mandates and punishments seldom work to change behavior in schools. Likewise, we can’t arrest every person who tries to enter a business without a mask, or crowds behind us in line. The more time we spend enforcing rules and punishing students, the more we get this escalation and anger. Schools now defunding in-house police officers are moving in the right direction. Force is the blunt instrument of compliance, as some segments of American society know only too well. Force leads to more force, and all of this is based on fear, a terrible motivator.
  • Incentives have temporary value. Teachers who gave obedient students Jolly Ranchers know this–it’s basic Skinnerian conditioning, and eventually masks the real goal in favor of the reward. You can give customers wearing masks five percent off their purchase, but the habit is short-lived.
  • Community disapproval sometimes works, if gentle, but it can horribly backfire, as any teacher with one recalcitrant troublemaker prone to public fit-pitching will tell you. Being shut out of a community is a painful experience for all humans, children and adults. It seldom leads to permanent changes in attitude and can, over time, damage children and adults. Use cautiously.
  • Persuasion seems to be a wonderful way to change anti-community behaviors. If only it were quick and easy, to just ‘listen to the scientists’ and do the right thing. It doesn’t matter what experts and authorities have to say or how many times you post that clever graphic about the percentages of virus suppression with/without masks—persuasion and its ugly cousin, shaming, seldom work without a long, gradual period of shifting values. We’re a nation of skeptics, encouraged by myth and law to ‘stand our ground’–and our selfish habits die hard.
  • Modeling can be effective in schools, especially adults who model kindness and cooperation. When children see adults behaving responsibly and with a generous spirit, they get the idea that we’re better off working together (at least at school). Modeling works less well with adults, but it’s always worth trying.
  • Leadership is a powerful tool in sustaining a school community and creating a climate of safety and caring. I know lots of teachers and school leaders who had students and staff eating out of their hands, due to strong character and clearly expressed values. We have seen some genuine political leadership during this crisis, as well as abject failure. In fact, it’s never been clearer how much leadership matters—it’s emphatically not true that all politicians are crooked and only interested in benefitting themselves.

The literature on leadership is vast and often contradictory, but every nation that has been successful in quickly changing the habits of its citizens to mitigate the effects of the coronavirus has powerful and well-regarded leaders. In the battle to get citizens to follow the rules we need both leadership and courage. We also need to remember that all these tools can be used for the wrong ends.

It takes courage to call out citizens who are endangering others, people who value their own temporary pleasure over the well-being of others. Heedless people. Selfish people.

People who are tired of being the ones who do all the work in that whole group project, UNITE!

Photo by Will Harper. The local sheriff, when contacted by marina staff, declined to come.

Michigan Republicans Attempt to Get Out Ahead in Back-to-School Policy

The first thing I did when I retired from teaching was embark on a PhD program in education policy. When I enrolled, my advisor wondered immediately why a newly retired teacher would want to study education policy. She thought I should be in the teacher education program—or maybe the ed leadership division, with all the wannabe superintendents.

But I wanted to study education policy—to see just how the sausage was made, by whom and for what reasons. As a long-suffering object of education policy, I wanted to untangle the process that had so often made me ask: What were they thinking, when they came up with this?

I learned a number of things, most of which weren’t part of any syllabus, none more important than the fact that education policy creation is seldom measured and thoughtful, informed by research, goodwill and common goals.

John Kingdon, one of the most influential thinkers on policy creation, believes that there are ‘windows’ where changes in policy become possible as three streams—a problem, a policy proposal, and politics converge to yield something new.

That’s where we are right now. Big problem: returning to school (or not) during a pandemic. Tons of policy options to address this problem. Politics swirling around the issue, from state control over health mandates, a bitter election season and the devastated economy. What does this mean to our youngest citizens? How will they be educated? This is an oversized picture window for policy creation.

Michigan’s governor, Gretchen Whitmer, announced a ‘Return to Learn Advisory Council’ in mid-May. It was composed of educators, school leaders, public health coordinators and mental health specialists. The panel would use a data-informed and science-based approach with input from epidemiologists to determine if, when and how students can return to school this fall and what that will look like.‘  Last week, Whitmer said that students will be going back to school in some form, as long as our numbers remain low and the virus is reasonably controlled. All good, right? The rest is TBD.

Yesterday, Republicans in the state legislature released a one-page plan that they labeled ‘Return to Learn’ (sound familiar?)–and it is not really based on science or even data, unless you count the ROI numbers that the ed-tech-corp folks must be running about now (Ding! Ding! Ding!).

Perhaps the Republican legislators read Kingdon, and fear that the window to impose their will might close unless they wrest control of the policy proposals and (especially, given the governor’s 70% approval rating) politics.

The document is a mess (D- to the communications outfit they hired to write it). It’s filled with familiar, yet awkwardly worded, edu-mush like ‘Learning doesn’t stop when a student leaves the classroom. Schools should be measured for how they engage students, not how long a student sits in a seat.’

And there’s this gem: ‘Understanding a student’s knowledge of critical concepts is important to ensuring instruction is focused on the most-needed areas.’ I wonder who thought that one up.

My personal favorite: ‘Our plan empowers school districts to develop flexible learning plans for the 2020-21 school year to maximize student learning.’ What does that even mean?

Most of the items seem to be code for a few things the Republicans have long wanted—‘efficiency’ in education policy– and haven’t been able to get. In veiled and gauzy language, and extremely short on specifics, they cover all the various policy models I learned about in grad school:

Mandates:

  • Students absolutely will be tested whenever they return to school (no worries, testing companies). Because otherwise we’ll have no idea ‘where they are at academically.’
  •  Forgiven snow days (a really big deal in Michigan) would be limited to two (currently, six snow days don’t have to count toward annual required seat time, and school districts can apply for three more in an exceptionally snowy winter). For a document that proclaims ‘how long a student sits in a seat’ doesn’t matter, this is a bit inconsistent, but the legislature seems to be trying to appear tough, the law-making equivalent of ‘I had to walk through drifts to get to school, damn it, and these kids can, too.’ This and other items appear to be things the legislature is still smarting over, and wants to re-litigate, even though they have little to do with the pandemic.
  • In-person instruction will be required for grades K-5. This appears to be a gift to parents who must work, as the cutoff age for needing a babysitter is probably 11 or 12 years of age.
  • Benchmark assessments must be used. (You’re not getting out of that, you lazy teachers!)
  • Online learners will get the same scope and sequence of curriculum, and the same day and hour requirements as those learning in person. No more one-hour Zoom meetings followed by independent work or reading, even though ‘learning doesn’t stop when the student leaves the classroom.’ This appears to be assurance that the online education they’re gunning for is just as good for older kids as face to face classrooms.
  • Schools will be directed to focus only on math, reading, science and social studies, called ‘the basics.’ You know what means, and what will be missing, come fall.

Persuasive Policies:

  • There’s a whole section on health and safety, but all it says is that schools will ‘partner’ with their local health departments to ‘ensure’ health and safety practices that ‘make sense,’ and that intermediate school districts will get $80 million to ‘coordinate safe learning measures,’ whatever that means. No money directly to school districts for these health and safety needs. For example, cleaning and sanitizing, ventilation systems, more classroom space, masks. Stuff like that.

Inducements:

  • There’s a section on ‘Restarting Extracurricular Activities Safely’—with a lot of murky language about empowering parents and local guidance. If you don’t understand what that means, there’s a little basketball icon to subtly explain: Yes, there will be sports.
  • A one-time $500 reward for ‘front-line’ teachers. This—essentially a signing bonus for coming back to teach during a teacher shortage as well as a dangerous pandemic—fools not one single teacher. It’s not gratitude. It’s desperation.

System-changing Policies:

  • The lack of specificity, beyond the 5th grade, and the drumbeat of ‘innovation’ and, especially a promise of $800 per student to implement ‘robust distance learning’ is the biggest deal here. In fact, the concept of ‘attendance’ will be ‘redefined’ to mean ‘engaged in instruction rather than physically present.’ That’s huge. Who needs bricks and mortar schools—except for sports?
  • Schools have already been told to expect cuts—as much as $2000 per student, in a state where baseline funding per student hovers just over $8000/per. Now, in a financial sleight of hand, the legislature is promising $800 per student to spend on distance learning plans.

There’s more, hidden in the policy weeds and glittering generalities, but we all know that a budget, not fancy talk, is how priorities are revealed. A lot of this language comes directly from the Great Lakes Education Project, a DeVos-funded policy house

You don’t need a degree in education policy to see this sloppy one-pager for what it is—exactly the kind of ‘innovation’ that will make educators ask: What were they thinking, when they came up with this?

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.