Thursday, January 23, 2014

A Shocking Confession


I bet I got your attention with that title! I wonder what you’re imagining. I took a quarter away from a kid who was playing with it in class and didn’t give it back? I taught a lesson without any differentiated instruction? I didn’t step up and step down at a staff meeting? No, the real truth is much harder to imagine, more scandalous, more apt to get me excommunicated from the initimate circle of teachers. Okay, brace yourself. Here it is:

I wrote report cards tonight— and enjoyed it!!!!


If there’s one thing that unites us teachers, it’s our mutual dread of report card writing. But tonight, I set up at my newly cleaned desk by the window, put on a Keith Jarrett Trio CD, piled the newly minted tests with much of the vital information I needed at my fingertips and proceeded to write a love letter of appreciation to each 8th grader— of course, with a few hints about what to work on next. Okay, I confess that after 22 in one long stretch, I needed to stretch, play along with Keith on the piano, step outside for some fresh air and clear my head of kids for the moment. But then back I went— and I was still enjoying it!

As any teacher knows, the hardest part about grading is hitting that wall when the report card asks how so and so is doing in such and such and you’re struck with that dreaded feeling— “I have no idea!” Or you’re searching for the necessary positive comments and you realize that it’s hard for you to find them in this particular child that goodness knows, you’ve tried hard to love, but let’s face it, they haven’t made it easy! Or you look over the grades and realize that all your students are in a Lake Wobegon parallel universe where every child is below average— and it occurs to you that it just might be your fault. Or you’re a specialist teaching some 500 children and are supposed to pretend that you know them. The reasons to hate filling out report cards are many and varied. 

So why did I enjoy it so much? First of all, music is pretty low pressure on the parent or high school transcript Richter scale. In 39 years of teaching, no parent has ever come up to me on the verge of a nervous breakdown because their kid couldn’t correctly identify the Mixolydian scale or because I caught them playing the xylophone without alternating mallets. Secondly, I designed the report cards to be simple and touch on the things that I cared most about— participation, effort, enthusiasm, progress, insight— and spared myself the micro-managed details: “Can swing in 3/4 time.” “Can swing in 2/4 and 4/4 time at various tempos.” Can swing in 7/8 time using the minor pentatonic scale with smears and glides over a transposed 12-bar blues with altered chords.” Thirdly, because I had the tests that not only showed what my 8th graders now knew about jazz, but also what it meant to them. And what a pleasure it was to receive their thanks for opening their ears to music they were growing to love and understand that they might never have encountered on their own.

But mostly I enjoyed it because I love these thirty-two 8th graders. All of them. I love sharing music I love in a style of teaching I love with particular pieces I love. I love watching how each responds to the challenges thrown at them and each finds their way to a breakthrough moment and I love noticing that moment and naming it in the report card. I love thinking about the next challenge that lies ahead— “Don’t be afraid to honk that saxophone, give it more oomph and soul! You’re playing the blues!” “Consider developing an interpretive dance to that poem you recited.” “Let’s work a bit on the intonation of that bass.”

And yes, I also love the moment when……I’m done!!

1 comment:

  1. Doug! This is so helpful to me!! Thank you very much!

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