Wednesday, May 31, 2017

The Month in Review

Well, dear reader, it has been quite a month. Looking back over the month's posts, it went from naked gardening to report cards, with pink kittens, bad math, Buddhist teaching, windy weather, Bach and basketball and the continued outrage of that guy who continues to thrash around like the bull in the china shop of democracy.

On the school front, Spring Concerts tucked away, report cards rearing their unwelcome heads next to the annual Samba Contest. Today 4th graders in groups of four put together a coherent samba dance routine in eight minutes flat. Kids never fail to astound me with their energy, spirit, intelligence and kindness and that’s why I’m signing up for another tour of duty next year. Of course, they drive me up the wall, as is their job, but for now, the delight outweighs the insanity.

On the personal front, I went the entire 31 days without eating a granule of sugar, generally ate healthier and less, but the mirror is not reporting any progress on the 10-lbs.-less front. I vowed not to step on the scale until June 1 and tomorrow I will do so with fear and trembling. But really, at the end of the day, why should I even care? No young woman at bars are checking me out anyway and if my sense of beauty hasn’t moved its address to the soul by now, then I’ve wasted all these years. I did hike and bike more as well, not just to make numbers drop on the scale or rise on the cardio-vascular count, but for the simple pleasure of being outdoors and moving the body. I changed my screensaver on the computer, thought more about getting an i-Phone and decided “still not yet,” and got through another month without a microwave (never have had one—don’t think I ever will).

On the art consumption front, I reluctantly finished the wonderful book The Time In-Between, now am into Commonwealth by Ann Patchett and  enjoyed the always thought-provoking words of Wendell Berry in his new collection A Small Porch. Got hooked into the HBO series Veep, always there for me when I’m tired of thinking or producing or creating. I’m sure I saw some good movies, but except for the most recent Spanish film Truman, of course, I can’t remember them. I went to the Summer of Love exhibit at the De Young Museum and enjoyed some wonderful shows at SF Jazz.

In my own artistic pursuits, the piano and I remain close. Every once in a while it lets me feel that I’m breaking new ground in jazz improvisation or classical piano precision, only to turn around on some days and say with a smirk, “Just kidding!” The blog also remains a faithful companion, but my connection to it is indeed diminished by the either real or fake mammoth drop in stats. Yesterday it said 0! And is hovering between 20 and 70. (Thanks to Jeffrey Wilson for commenting that he’s still a faithful reader!)

June will kick off with the Warriors match of mythical proportions with the Cavaliers. I’ve been a faithful playoff fan, watching each of the 12 games they won. Now it feels like the meeting of “an irresistible force with an immovable object.” Should be exciting, but if the Warriors don’t sweep the series (not impossible, but unlikely), I’ll once again miss the final games unless I can find a Sports Bar in Morocco. Devastated about that! We’ll see what happens.

For the few faithful readers left, that’s the news and I know none of it deserves to be interesting, but occasionally I hope a sentence or two entertains you or provokes an interesting thought or affirms an unspoken feeling—or at least gives you a good book or movie recommendation! Happy June to you all!

Assessment: Part II

Continuing yesterday's article, with this connection sentence: "Starting with some essential principles and then moving on to the specifics of how, here’s a look at a kind of assessment that supports the feeling of joy, inclusion, risk, community and belonging that a good Orff classroom cultivates."

Assessment of Learning:
Assessment of learning means we have some criteria to determine what constitutes success in a given task. From matching pitch to keeping the beat to articulating the vowels and consonants to getting a good tone from the recorder, just about everything we do with kids in music class has specific and concrete techniques and understandings that can be observed, noticed and assessed. Assessment in the music class is not a scheduled moment in the class, but a constant ongoing conversation. It assumes the teacher has the criteria, knowledge and observation skills to correct and adjust the students’ techniques and clarify their understandings.

In music, what they know—this is a quarter note, this is called the pentatonic scale, this is a deceptive cadence—is just a part of the assessment and often less important than what they can do. What they can do is also assessable— again, technique on the conga, mastery of the melody, balance in dynamics, etc.—and is woven throughout each class.

Though more subjective, what they can create is also subject to assessment, brought out in reflective comments both from the creators and the other kids watching or listening.

“I liked the part where one group was rising in their movement and the other was falling.”

It felt like the melody of the B section could use a harmonic change.”

“This passage had two many parallel parts. Consider changing one to be more complementary.”

This is useful information. Giving each group an A or B or C is not.

Assessment for Learning.
Assessment for learning means being thoughtful about how to assess in a way that helps and encourages the student to improve and move forward. Note how specific the comments above were and without blame or shame or attaching a letter or number grade that ranks it on some artificial scale.

Here we come to the prime reason for assessment—to help the students. Much of the number/letter grade systems in school are based on competitive, harsh and often flawed judgment that aims to place children in a heartless hierarchy with no concern for their tender souls. It labels rather than guides them, fixes their efforts in what amounts to a single snapshot in time instead of attending to the flow of their growth and development.  When we assess to help children, we recognize and help them recognize that this is where they are in this particular moment of time and this is what they need to move forward and get better.

Many grading systems are based on the false notion that grades are essential for motivation. But once the grading game begins, the focus shifts from the pleasure of knowing things and finding things out to learning the rules to please the teacher. The craft and joy of the subject takes a back seat and the game of trying to figure out how to store things in short-term memory in time for the test begins.

The back story to this idea is that human beings are lazy and would sit around eating pizza and playing video games all day without a system of motivation to get them off of the couch. But in his book Drive, Daniel Pink affirms what most of us already know: that our drive to master things is every bit as strong—and perhaps stronger—than our hope to get out of work. It feels good to work hard and make progress, especially in things worthy of our attention that we care about, and tracing our journey from clueless novice to accomplished master is one of the greatest satisfactions of a human life.

I always tell the children (especially 5-year old boys!) :

“You will have more fun doing things well than doing them silly or sloppy. Any fool can do it wrong and think it’s funny, but the real satisfaction comes from showing me—and more importantly, yourself—what you can do and how you can work through the hard spots to really accomplish something. Trust me, having fun by doing things well is actually much more fun than avoiding doing them or doing them wrong on purpose. You’ll be happier, I’ll be happier and your classmates will be happier. And when we perform this in a show, your friends and family and other people in the audience will be happy. And that’s why we’re here—to be happy for the right reasons. Ready to get back to work?”

Participation and Effort
Which brings us to the main criteria I use in grading children at my school—the level of their participation and effort. This is the area in which they can choose how much and how hard and how seriously and how joyfully they will work. They can’t control the musical environment of their home, the opportunities to study of their financial or cultural situation, they can’t choose their genes. In light of that, it doesn’t make sense to grade them in relation to each other. The wealthy child brought up by machines and poorly versed in interaction with other human beings will be so heavily disadvantaged in comparison to his economically poorer but musically richer classmate who grew up singing and dancing in the home and with extended family and in the church and playing clapping games on the playground. They will come to my class with uneven skills. So all I can do is help them mark their progress from where they started at the beginning of the year to where they arrived at the end, driven by their sincere participation and effort.

Numbers That Help
At the same time I’m speaking out against labeling kids with letters and numbers, we in fact use numbers in our elementary school twice-annual report cards. As follows:  

1)   Needs significant support.
2)   Needs some support.
3)   Meets or exceeds expectations.

In the first, that means they can’t do or understand  x, y, or z—yet. (The yet is crucial.) When the group is singing G, he or she is singing a tone between Eb and E.

The second means they’re on the way. They can hit that G sometimes or when singing next to this person (but not that person) or when singing alone or when singing with the group, but not all the time and not in every situation.

The third means they got it. Pretty much every time. And if they sing with an especially soulful feeling or with an extraordinary timbre or are already hearing harmony parts, we won’t give them 3+ or 4, but mention it in a comment.

Indeed, the whole game of numbers and letters is simply a shorthand to convenience the teacher. But alone it’s pretty meaningless. It robs the child and the parent of the specific comment that would actually help and all assessment is only helpful if it’s specific. So on our report cards, all numbers are followed by comments and the comments are as specific as possible. It’s best to have at least one affirmation and one challenge. “So and so had a breathtaking glockenspiel solo in one class last month and finally mastered the grapevine step. Getting a clearer tone on the high E on recorder is a goal for next semester.”

In short, assessment works best when it’s constant and specific and comes from a growth mindset. All challenges include that important phrase “not yet.”

From “Not Yet” to “Now I Have It”
Everything we know about human learning from both common sense and high-level brain research can be just about reduced to three words: “Practice makes better.” Anything we apply ourselves to with intention and attention and continue habitually to persevere through daily practice will reap its rewards. If we seem to have no talent or aptitude for something—be in basketball, bagpipe, ballet or biology—we will improve with practiced perseverance. If any of the above comes to us like a gift from the gods, we still need practiced perseverance to meet our talent. Studies show that the difference between Conservatory students who made it onto the concert stage from those who didn’t was about two thousand more hours of practice.

Knowing that we are “bad” at something because we haven’t been exposed to it enough before and didn’t have sufficient repetition to make the neural connections that embed learning in the brain is a very freeing piece of information. We don’t need to add self-loathing or judge others failures. Of course, there are many other factors of learning differences and emotional readiness to learn and genuine interest in the thing to be learned, but mostly kids just need time to get better and preferably time that’s fun, relaxed, exploratory, experimental, rigorous, disciplined and guided by an expert teacher.

We would do well to remember that for most of our adult life, we will never get a grade again. We may get a job performance rating, a review from an arts critic, a trophy from a sports competition, but nobody is telling Steph Curry or Yo Yo Ma that they got a B- in today’s practice or a C+ in the game/performance.

Without teachers hovering over our shoulder after we leave school, we would do well to develop some solid sense of self-assessment and this practice can start as young as preschool. One thing that has proved very useful to me and very friendly with its no blame/no shame structure is the following five stages of mastery: (Initially described as "Four Stages for Learning Any New Skill", the theory was developed at Gordon Training International. by its employee Noel Burch in the 1970s. A Toronto teacher named Jen Hardacre passed on a version with number 3. added.)

I don’t know how to do this and I am unaware that I don’t know how to do it.

I am keenly aware that I cannot do this and it feels bad.

I am starting to get it, but I’m not quite there yet. It takes a lot of effort.
I can do it! Consistently! Though I still need to concentrate intensely.

It is so wholly a part of me that I don’t even have to think about it.

After an activity, I ask the children to tell me where they are, either by giving a number or more commonly, showing their thumb. Thumbs up means “I got it,” angled up “pretty good”, horizontal “so-so” , downward “not yet”. This is a kid-friendly version of the 5 stages list above without the long words. (Note that you can’t give a self-assessment for number 1, which is the most dangerous and difficult of all the stages. When people don’t even know that they don’t know but think they know, well then, they can become President of the United States. But it’s not a good thing.)

One problem of self-assessment arises when we don’t know how we’re doing because we don’t have enough information or criteria yet for what constitutes “good” in a particular genre. For example, when I improvise in my Ghanaian xylophone lesson, I have to look at my teacher and ask if it’s okay, because I don’t know what improvisation in that style should sound like. So even though kids mostly know how they’re doing, there’s still plenty of room and need for the teacher to assess alongside the student’s own perception.

I was hoping for a clear and understandable model of what kind of assessment makes sense in an Orff Schulwerk program. Or any program.  But nothing is ever that simple. There are so many factors in our complex choices about how to teach and learn that we must pay mind to many of them at once. But if I had to reduce it to five, I’d say this:

• Watch the children. Be aware of their triumphs and struggles.
• Constantly give specific and useful feedback to improve.
• Trust that the children are learning the most important things and relax about attaching grades every step of the way.
• Give the children the tools to self-assess.
• Create engaging, joyful, relaxed classes that allow for maximum learning. Have fun!

Now please memorize all the important points in this article. There will be a test.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Assessment in the Orff Classroom

(In my life B.B. [Before Blogs], I used to write articles. Mostly just to clarify my thinking about my craft, but sometimes they were published in various Orff/ Music Education magazines. Yesterday I wrote one for an international Orff gathering in the summer. And I liked it. And since I have nothing to say about today other than I’m out of my mind to think I can prepare 32 6th graders to play music for, decorate and be judges for our annual Samba Contest at school in just two 45 minute classes (one of them was today), I thought I’d share the article. Part I as follows:)

Bringing an Orff Schulwerk program into schools is reason for celebration. It gives children who might not otherwise be exposed to any kind of music education the opportunity to meet their musical self and discover how to speak and express themselves through song and sound and movement and more. When taught in the full spirit of faith not only in each child’s innate musicality, but also his or her creative faculties and humanistic promise, an Orff program can change a child’s life for the better, can change a school culture for the better, can do its part to refresh and even heal a troubled world.

But schools often have very different agendas that are not always friendly to children’s flowering, that care little about healing the world, that are more concerned with the right answers than the right questions, that often care for tests scores more than the students. To negotiate the conversation between two sometimes opposing cultures, there must be clear and careful thought. Consider the following scenario:

A Model Class
Children are seated in a circle of instruments—bass xylophones, altos, sopranos, cowbell, conga, hi-hat, ride cymbal, bass drum. Each instruments has a different part to play in a multi-layered arrangement of a children’s game, Boom Chick a Boom. In-between each instrument is a child watching, listening and studying the player to his or her right. All play until the teacher signals, “Uh-huh! Oh yeah! All right! Move on!” and during the next 8 beats, all move one place to the right. The children who had been studying now play, the children who had played now watch to learn the next part. And so it goes, until all have traveled around the circle.

The atmosphere is relaxed, the music is swinging, the kids are clearly having fun and so is the teacher. When someone is struggling with a part, the person next to them leans over to help them. Not because the teacher told them, but because it’s the natural thing to do—it feels good to help people and things are more fun when the music sounds good. If the time is up before they get all the way around, you might hear kids groan and one might even exclaim (as once happened), “This is more fun than recess!!”

Notice the high level of education and the model of healthy community here:

1). Kids are motivated without threats or promises of reward. The excitement of great music that is playable by them at their developmental level is enough.

2) The kids are happy.

3) The kids are relaxed, willing and able to try out new things, take a risk within the circle of community.

4) The kids are connected to each other, each individual part joining to make a yet more glorious whole. They are part of a venture larger than themselves of which they contribute a necessary and beautiful part.

5) The music sounds great.

6) The kids get to hear it from a different vantage point as they move around the circle and play each of the separate parts, thus getting a round and complete understanding of how it works.

7) The kids discover what they can initially do well, what’s challenging. They’re ready to keep working on it in the classes to come.

Who can argue with that? Wouldn’t any music teacher be thrilled to have a class filled with happy, helpful, motivated children who are playing great music?

Trouble in Paradise
Now imagine if we bring the traditional school culture into the above activity, grading the children on their performance on each instrument in the circle. What would happen?

1)   Now the kids are not motivated by the innate pleasure of striving for mastery and instead or focused on doing what the teacher want to get a good grade. The grade becomes more important than the music and the process of learning it.

2)   The kids are stressed, knowing they are being judged and that their grade will (theoretically) indicate their future success in society. They’re not happy.

3)   They will be unwilling to take risks because they might fail on their first time and be punished with a bad grade. When there’s stress, the brain gets stuck down in the lowest part—flight, fight or freeze—and kids can’t access higher level thinking skills nor the body master the needed techniques.

4)   The kids are now in competition with each other. Since most grading systems are based on the curve—all can’t get A’s—one child’s “failure” is thus a cause of celebration for another child’s chance for “success.” Instead of helping, kids are pitted against each other.

5)   Nervous, stressed musicians don’t make good music.

6)   The kids are not listening to the whole, more worried about their success with their part.

7)   When kids discover something is challenging and their grade will decrease as a result, they add an extra layer of feeling like they failed or they’re stupid or they’re not talented instead of recognizing, “Hey, I’ve never done this before. Of course it will take a while to feel comfortable.”

In short, the wrong kind of assessment, even with the intention of holding teachers and children accountable for successful learning, ends up doing the opposite. And if we’re serious about “successful” learning, it means we have to entirely re-think the way we assess kids.

And I have. Starting with some essential principles and then moving on to the specifics of how, here’s a look at a kind of assessment that supports the feeling of joy, inclusion, risk, community and belonging that a good Orff classroom cultivates.

(Stay tuned for Part II tomorrow.)

Spring. Summer. Winter. Fall.

This the title of a beautiful Korean film that deals with my favorite themes in books and movies— innocence, fall from grace, redemption. But it also describes the weather in San Francisco yesterday.

Spring is windy. Summer is foggy. Fall is sunny. Winter is rainy. Yesterday it almost was all of those at once. The day began with a slight drizzle, then the fog rolled in and the wind kicked up and air was San Francisco summery wintry (who doesn’t know the Mark Twain quote “The coldest winter I ever spent was summer in San Francisco?”). The strange thing was it was kind of all of these things at once.

Which made it challenging to ride my bike across Golden Gate Bridge. At the other end was the reward of a bit of real summer warmth dining outdoors in Sausalito, but getting there, the wind was fierce and I was worried that my experience of Fall would be getting swept up off of my bicycle by a particularly fierce gust, either thrown to my right into incoming traffic or to my left over the bridge and "Fall" into the water. Okay, maybe I was being a little too dramatic, but the thought did cross my mind and I did not want to be a person remembered on Memorial Day as giving my life in honor of the music department meeting I was heading to.

Well, here I am the next day and gratefully so. The house is cold—I put on the heat this morning; on May 30th! Outside my window the tree branches are dancing some wild tango as the wind continues. What the heck? Laying out my sweaters as I get ready for the last two weeks of my 42nd year at school. We begin preparations for the Samba Contest today, but more like the Iceland version than Carnaval in Rio!

I know none of this is particularly fascinating news to report, but if nothing else, you got a great movie title out of it. Check out this film.