The Music Teacher... VOCAL Music Teacher

Gabi R., 5th Grade
Interview Question Answers – Future Educators Club Project
From Mrs. Andersen, Elementary Vocal Music
April 2012

1.    How do you come up with games to help kids learn?

I’ve collected most of my teaching games from other teachers.  I’ve learned them from textbooks they’ve written or workshops I’ve attended.

Some of these “games” are actually folk dances and are historical.  No one really knows who came up with the original actions, movements or rules.  Ethnomusicologists recorded and collected theses pieces and their accompanying games while studying the folk music of specific cultures.  These historical games are usually especially good. They were so well loved, they’ve been passed down from generation to generation.  They are the BEST teaching materials.  They’ve survived through the centuries in some cases without ever being written down.   “Survival of the fittest,” the theory of evolution/adaptation, applies not only to biology and living organisms, but also to quality music!

If we are doing a song in our course of study (curriculum) that doesn’t have a game, I have made up a few of my own.  Some of those are totally new creations on my part or are adaptations or hybrids of games I’ve borrowed from other songs.  

Games make the learning “stickier.”  I’m glad you love them so much.  Yes, I am guilty of tricking kids into singing.  It is good for some students to forget to be self-conscious of their voice because they are just playing a game.  These folk games are especially good for young students who can’t read as they are very repetitious.  The students then get many, many opportunities to succeed in pitch matching.  I WANT these little ditties to stick not only their brains, but also in their hearts.

2.    I noticed in your class, students don’t always listen.  How do you fix that?

There are many strategies for getting students’ attention, for getting kids to focus.  There is no foolproof method.  I design activities that allow us to practice good manners.  The classroom procedures we have in place are all manners training.  At the beginning of the year I explain the expectations (good manners and why important), model the procedures (looks like, sounds like) and we practice them.  I also have small mini-lessons or stories to tell when students have forgotten particular manners.  Interrupting is common at the end of the year when we are comfortable like family with each other and when all of the really exciting events happen.  

Good teachers know it is not enough just to ask kids to stop doing something.  They also must teach the student what they should, and what they could, be doing instead - replacing bad choices with good ones.  Some of our youngest students honestly may not know what options they have in problem solving.  Our older students may need reminding and redirection.  Non-verbal communication (teacher eye-contact and pointed facial expressions) actually works best for me.  

3.    Is there anything you learned from students that you never thought about?

I learn new things from students every day that I’ve never thought about. It’s one of the perks of teaching and one of the things that makes my job so great!  It is humbling, a wonder, and a great joy to get to learn from the world’s most honest, curious and uninhibited people on earth – kids!  It’s a well-kept secret that elementary schools are a super rich intellectually stimulating environment.

4.   What is your favorite concept to teach?

Rhythm syllables, how to count music, timing I guess.  I probably love rhythm so much because of the formative experiences I had as a member of my high school’s drum-line.

5.      Is there a specific grade that you enjoy teaching the most?

Third grade is always really fun.  The content/literature in the curriculum for that grade is a collection of so many concepts and songs that I just truly love and enjoy immensely. Plus, the majority of kids in third grade can finally read well, with fluency.  Once students have begun to master the skill of reading, the amount of content that can be covered in class just grows by leaps and bounds.  It is exciting for teachers, and probably parents too I can imagine, when marked learning and growth really shows.  I can see that it only took this long for them to get from point A to B and it used to take this long AND… we may even cover in a week or two what used to take a whole quarter to learn.  Then, once we get the basics out of the way, I get to pick all kinds of really cool extra material for study to practice these concepts.

6.    When students don’t understand, what do you do?  What if they don’t speak up?

When I notice students are not understanding a concept, I mentally shift gears and try to explain it or demonstrate it in a different way.  Most of the time, I have at least three of four different approaches to teach any given concept.  I try to actually use them ALL at some point so to reach every type of learning style.  Some students are strong visual learners, so I use pictures and diagrams or show them what to do.   Some students are strong aural learners, so I explain in detailed language and provide many listening examples and opportunities.  Some students are very tactile learners, so I give them objects to manipulate or touch.  If students don’t understand, I try a new approach.  Even if students don’t speak up, evidence of understanding or lack thereof shows up very clearly in the formal assessments like CBA tests that are given and also in the informal assessments teachers constantly perform.  

An example of an informal assessment is when first graders are writing rhythms with popsicle sticks.  I can visually scan the room several times to check for understanding.  Those students who don’t have a clue stick out like sore thumbs.  I then can give extra attention as their needs dictate.  I don’t write down how everyone is doing all of the time on every task, but I DO make mental notes and sometimes write a symbol or two on the seating chart.  Good teachers always are scanning when students are working on tasks.  We document as much as we can too.  Student learning is best served by using a balance of both of these assessment methods.

7.    Why did you decide for the 4th graders to play the recorders?

Research shows that the majority of 3rd grade students really do not have enough brain development to master the recorder, specifically fine motor skills.  Have you ever noticed how uncoordinated or clumsy younger kids are?  Their handwriting is bigger.  They swagger a bit and stumble more than big kids.  They usually can’t make baskets.  It takes a while for the brain and the body’s muscles to sync up.  It just takes time and practice.  By fourth grade, student’s fine motor skills are finally able to handle the coordination it takes to place fingers over the holes on a recorder and know if they are sealed or not and to blow air into the instrument at just so.  

I want to get students reading music and transferring it to instruments as soon as possible.  My goal is music literacy.  I want my students to have music in their lives well past elementary school.  I really wish the musical tools they are given here at school, open the door to some broader, more meaningful musical experiences throughout their lives.  I hope those experiences are not limited only to being consumers of music as a product, but those experiences also include being able to experience the joy of performance and creating their own free music anywhere, anytime.  Music is a very valuable tool for healthy self-expression.

8.    The programs are amazing!  How do you do it, organize them, and get the materials?

There are two companies with catalogs and websites I browse in order to find an appropriate program, Plank Road Publishing and Music in Motion.  There are others, but these two have the best prices, service and also recordings on-line.  Some teachers write their own musicals, but I find there are expert composers out there who write excellent musicals that are absolutely age appropriate.  Their accompaniment CD’s are of a very high quality, as is the literature they produce.

I look through their program selection very carefully every year.  If possible, I choose material that relates to another area of study in our building.  For instance, in the year that was the 200th Anniversary of the Lewis & Clark expedition, our Intermediate program was a musical entitled, “The Adventures of Lewis & Clark.”  The year Pluto had its status as a planet taken away, we did “Spaced Out!”

I collect the materials needed as listed in the musical notes.  Risers need to be ordered.  Copies need to be made.  Speaking parts and solos need to be assigned and special practices need to be arranged for.  The schedule needs to be sent out to all of the teachers in the buildings as their regular class times do get disrupted for a day or two.  Contact my backstage crew.  Seating charts.  Contact our videographer.  Type and print notes home for each grade level.  Type and print the program bulletin.  This is the very formulaic approach I use here at Dundee.

-    In the Fall so it won’t conflict with testing and Area Concerts in the Spring
-    6th Grade gets the speaking parts and auditions for them.  Students CHOOSE to participate in this aspect.
-    I assign songs based on the ability level and personality of each grade level
-    The most challenging song(s) are given to the 5th & 6th Grade Chorus

-    In the Spring so Kindergarteners are ready, they are comfortable with school AND most First graders can read well enough to follow along with word sheets
-    Kindergarten, easiest song – they can’t read
-    First Grade – the slowest song – so they are successful with reading along
-    Second Grade – coolest song – something to look forward to
-    Third Grade – left over song, but they get to do the speaking parts.  Their teachers assign these as they are most familiar with students’ reading levels and work ethics
-    Traditionally coincides with the Dundee PTA Flower Sale to help bring in traffic and increase sales for them

1 – Intro to the program, hear the whole thing, learn how your class’ pieces fit into the bigger picture
2 – Begin memorizing and learning two songs.  Goal – ½  of both songs words and dancing memorized
3 – Review beginnings and learn the words and dancing for the remaining portions of both songs
4 – Review and polish both songs – stamina/energy training lesson
5 – Risers, demonstrate, place & practice transitions
6 – Dress rehearsals, all groups come together
        logistics + organization + enthusiasm

9.    What is your least favorite thing about teaching?

That’s a difficult question.  For the most part, teaching is extremely rewarding.  As with any job or life, I guess accidents or crises happen.  Every so often, there are tough teaching days.  It’s sad if a student or co-worker gets hurt physically or emotionally.  It’s scary if someone is angry with you.  It’s really important to have a support system in place, so when bad things happen, you aren’t alone.  Life isn’t perfect.  We are all perfectly, wonderfully human though.  This career is never boring.  Sometimes, you just have to take your lumps like everyone else.  Grace is a beautiful thing.  Building strong relationships, staying true to your ideals, will serve you well.

10.    What kind of things do you do when you’re outside of school or when you have a break?

I used to be able to say, I’ve been a member of a choir every year of my life since I was three years old, but I’ve gotten a bit too busy since marriage and haven’t been in a choral ensemble now for two years.  I attend teaching workshops and music conventions.  Continuing education is a must.  

I LOVE these things.  I play a lot of pinochle with my extended family, I crochet, I read science fiction/fantasy novels, I am a substitute accompanist for a college music teacher friend of mine whose husband is a minister’s church on occasion.  I adore gardening and yard work.  We regularly visit our families, so that involves a lot of travel.  I also enjoy and help maintain my extended family’s lake house and grounds.  I was a competitive swimmer and love water sports.  Even though I don’t strike the prettiest picture in a bathing suit, in the summer, I live in one and am out in the water as much as possible.  I attend musicals, plays, concerts, Stars hockey games, Husker football and volleyball games.  I also work part-time jobs to supplement our household income.  That is pretty common among teachers too, but just keeps life interesting.  Other jobs are fun too.

11.    Was there something that inspired you to teach music?

Someone – My high school Choral Director, Mr. Charles K. DeWall
He is a quiet man of integrity.  HE really taught me most of the useful things I’ve learned about teaching music.  His teaching style had a very profound influence on my life.  Difficult to explain, but I’ll try.  He is spiritual without being religious, engaging without deploying charisma or pretense, and all of the crazy advanced work we did under his guidance felt easy and organic instead of contrived or stressful.  

I also initially was a bio-chem major in college but I had made it into the top choral performance ensemble.  We rehearsed every day over the noon hour and I ate lunch with my fellow underclassmen singers, half of which who were music majors.  I’ve been lucky enough to always be a good student.  I’ve always had excellent grades & test scores.  School’s always been easy for me.  I just became super bored with ionic bonds, formulaic breakdowns and memorizing long lists of scientific nomenclature.  I found myself really fascinated by the discussions those music majors were having.  I decided to change majors my sophomore year and I haven’t looked back since.  Music engages me.  It is a deeper part of who I am than I had realized, and I needed it.  Getting to teach it, continuing to explore its depths, passing it down to others on a daily basis, makes my soul happy.

Thanks Gabi,
It’s been a while since I’ve taken the time to reflect this much in depth.  A healthy exercise