Thursday, May 7, 2015

21st Century Curriculum Statements

Well, it’s not as attention-grabbing as “10 days to a leaner, meaner, sexier curriculum statement!” but I know a grabber soundbyte when I see one and “21st Century Skills” are all the rage in the education circles. But instead of lists of alliterative multi-syllabic nouns, what I’m talking about is describing what we music teachers do and what we our students will be doing in language calibrated precisely to the kids we are teaching. (Which means no words like “calibrated.”)

Below are three first-draft samples of curriculum statements for my school's updated Website, the first paragraph written to the parents and the rest written to the kids— preschoolers, 4th graders and 8th graders respectively. Read it as if you were a parent. A kid. A fellow music teacher. Does it stimulate wonder instead of clobber you with dry facts? Does it make you curious to know more instead of putting you to sleep? Do you want to go to these classes? If so, why don’t we all consider re-writing our statements and then make our classes actually as exciting as we make them sound? Wouldn’t that be refreshing?

And so…

Preschool Music

Wouldn’t it be a good idea to wrap school around the way children actually are? We think so! And so our music program begins where children begin—in the world of chant, song, movement, play and fantasy. We take their raw musical impulses and begin to slowly cook them. Here’s how we talk about it the kids:

“When you walk down the hall and come into the music room, you never know what is going to happen. But the way you come in so excited as you take off your shoes and sit in your special place tells us that you know it’s going to be fun! You love to move and so we’ll move. But not just running around. If we’re going to run, we’ll do it to the music on the piano and know when to freeze. We’ll try it backwards, sideways, in place, in slow motion. What’s it like to run when you’re scared? Happy? Angry?

We know you love to chant to rhythm, so we’ll make music from your names and little rhymes set to a beat. We can do it loud and soft, fast and slow, high and low so it sounds even more interesting. Maybe we’ll play the words on a drum or a bell or make a little melody on the xylophone.

We know you love games and we know a lot of them! Games when you sing and clap with a partner or dance inside of a circle or sing a song and then race to squeeze the rubber chicken. We’ll balance beanbags on our head, dance with scarves in the air, skate on paper plates, turn instruments into things in our imagination (it’s not a drum! It’s a steering wheel. A frisbee. A pizza.). And we can use everything in stories we’ll act out.

Sound like fun? It is! See you in music class!”

Fourth Grade Music
By 4th grade, you are pretty good musicians! You know how to play lots of percussion instruments, find the melodies you sing on the xylophone, play together as a group, play and read notes on the recorder, sing in parts in chorus, act in plays and improvise and compose. Hooray! Now what’s next?

For starters, there are more complicated rhythms, trickier melodies, more notes to learn on recorder and always the practice you need to do all of that even better, with good technique and deep listening. We’ll start with a piece that you’ll first sing, then learn on the xylophone and then play on recorder and then create a dance and then create accompaniment with other instruments. If you play piano or flute or violin, you can play it on those too.

Most exciting, after three years of playing the pentatonic scale with the “fish” and “bananas” taken off (F’s and B’s), you’re going to learn some new scales with the full seven notes (the white keys on the piano). This will bring some new challenges and opportunities when improvising and new sounds when putting a piece together. And remember 2nd grade when you changed the home note from “do” to “re?” And then changed it again to “la?” We called those the pentatonic modes. Now you’ll do the same again, but these modes have fancy names—the Ionian mode, the Dorian mode, the Lydian mode and more. They all allow you to express different moods (a “mode” helps express a “mood”) and understand even more about how we can put music together?

Of course, we will still dance some fun and more complicated dances, explore creative movement, recite poetry and act in plays—“music” is hardly ever just music alone.

Are you ready? Let’s go!!

Eighth Grade Music
Why is jazz the last theme of your San Francisco School music study? Certainly not because it’s “better” than Mozart or gamelan or nursery rhymes. Every year of your study has given you something memorable and valuable. But jazz has an extra something that you’re now well-prepared to understand and appreciate. Consider:

• It is a great summary of all your music skills, with complex chords and chord progressions, diatonic, modal and pentatonic scales, rhythms of all sorts, chances to play it all on Orff instruments, piano, guitar, saxophone, voice, ukulele, recorder and more.

• It’s a great summary of the styles of music we’ve studied, built on the harmonies of Bach and Chopin and Debussy, melodies from African-American folk blues and the popular music of Tin-Pan Alley, rhythms from Cuba and Brazil and West Africa.

• It’s a great summary of American history, filled with tears and laughter, outrage and inspiration. Impossible to talk about Louis Armstrong or Billie Holiday or Duke Ellington or any of the creators of this extraordinary art form without discussing the changing face of racism and poverty and women’s rights, without telling the stories of remarkable triumphs against all odds, without acknowledging the mix of cultural influence from Jewish, Hispanic, Irish and other cultures thrown together in the musical melting pot.

• Anyone you listen to today in pop or rock music exists because of Bessie Smith, James P. Johnson, Ella Fitzgerald, Frankie Manning, Louis Jordan and indeed, the whole history of African-American music, from the field hollers to spirituals to gospel to blues to ragtime to jazz and beyond. In this study, you'll finally know who to thank.

That history we’ll go into once a week in our listening class. The other two days a week, we’ll be playing jazz blues, swing band tunes, songs from the Great American Songbook, jazz rock and Latin jazz. You’ll learn all the parts of the music and switch instruments on each piece. You’ll also get to play anything you’re working on outside of school— saxophone, piano, ukulele, guitar, whatever. You’ll learn how to improvise a solo in different styles and understand how to develop each piece.

Intrigued? Let’s get swingin’! 

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