Helping the cause

July 27, 2006

Today was the first day back to school for North Port High School, where I teach.  In Florida, as in other states, we have a high stakes test that all 10th graders must pass in order to graduate (the FCAT).  Our school earned a grade of a “C” for our efforts last year, and our Principal was understandably disappointed.  Of course, there are many factors that contributed to our grade, but one of the biggest was the fact that we have so many level 1 readers that did not make progress.

After analyzing data all morning (fun!) our Principal asked that the elective teachers stay behind for a brief discussion.  Now I’m getting to why this is in my blog…

He said that it is very important that the elective teachers partner with and reinforce what the core curricular teachers are doing with reading. When he asked for discussion, I raised my hand and offered that the elective teachers are often the ones with the closest relationships with our students.  They will often do for us what they wouldn’t even consider for their Math or Science teachers.  By communicating regularly with the core teachers, we can have a big impact on student achievement.

Now for the technology-

Most music educators that I know are EXTREMELY busy especially during the fall.  We groan when we hear about initiatives that “interfere” with our rehearsal plans and wonder where we are going to find the time to fit all of it in.  If you have been reading my blog- you know that I am a big fan of podcasting.  I think that this is an excellent way to recieve information from other teachers.  For example, the Reading teacher could outline a specific strategy and how to implement it on a podcast, and I could download it and listen while I’m mowing the lawn on the weekend instead of having a face to face or faculty meeting, taking valuable after school rehearsal time.  As I’ve said before, having the ability to choose when I recieve professional development has been a revelation.  When your Principal asks you to be a “team player” why not raise your hand and offer to teach your English teachers how to podcast!


Distance Learning in the Music Classroom

July 24, 2006

Every year it seems that more and more constraints are being put on the school schedule because of “No Child Left Behind” and high stakes testing.  Add to this the expanding AP and IB course offerings as well as specialized “singleton” elective courses and it becomes next to impossible to get the students we need into the ensembles that best meet their needs.

For the last few years, I have been seeing increasingly clear “writing on the wall” that we must begin to change the way we deliver instruction in the music classroom.  Certainly, more general and electronic music is needed- taking a cue from what is happening in in the UK for example- however I think that the large ensemble is still a vital part of music education and we must adapt to the changing educational landscape.

It is becoming increasingly easy to communicate asynchronously at a distance using one of the many open source technologies that are being developed as part of “Web 2.0” or “The Read/Write Web”.  I believe that the direction we need to be investigating is reaching those students who cannot schedule class regularly but still wish to be part of our ensembles.  Using a blog along with a podcast of essential concepts that we deliver in our classrooms could be a way to enable students to participate in the class “on demand”.  For example, you could record (audio and/or video) your rehearsal and podcast it along with comments and supplemental materials (web resources for clarifying concepts, etc.) for students that cannot take the class.  It would then be necessary for them to participate in the group in a weekly rehearsal (possibly in the evening) to work on ensemble skills that cannot be conveyed through other means.  This is similar to community bands and orchestras across the country that are very fine, yet only meet once a week.

The difference between these fine semi-professional groups and our student groups is that they understand how to practice and most are accomplished musicians.  Our students must be taught how to practice and need constant feedback in order to improve.  Through various forms of electronic communication, I believe that this may be possible.  The key is sharing our best musicians with each other and allowing them to tutor our lower level musicians over distance.  I may have a first-rate clarinet section, but my trumpet section is weak.  You may have a strong trumpet section and your students can mentor my students to improve.  My clarinet students can do the same for you…the possibilities are exciting!  Of course, another “set of ears” for your full band rehearsal couldn’t hurt- directors could communicate in the same way.

To this end, I am seeking music educators to partner in a distance learning experiment to explore the possibility of this type of distance learning.  Call it “No Band Student Left Behind” if you will.  We all have many levels of musicians in our programs.  My idea is to allow the networking of our finest musicians to tutor and support our lower level musicians.  This system is loosely based on the Japanese system of the “band club”.  In Japan, band is totally outside of the regular school day, and more advanced musicians instruct less advanced musicians, making it possible to make incredible progress in a short amount of time.  Their system relies on 3 to 5 hour rehearsals every day after school and on weekends.  I don’t know about you, but this is just not practical for me.  What IS practical is allowing our bright and capable students to do what they do best- socialize!  By providing direction, we can utilize their natural curiosity and digitally native skills to the benefit of our programs.

If you are interested in joining this effort, please email me at  as always, I am eager to hear your comments.

Professional Development while Jogging and in the Car

July 20, 2006

I am in my office 3 weeks before school starts- which is late for me and for most band directors…getting odds and ends done and getting a feel for the coming year…

I try to jog about 30 minutes to an hour in the morning and I have a 45 minute commute to and from school.  I usually listen to music on my ipod while I run and to satellite radio in the car to pass the time, but lately I have been getting professional development from the likes of Alan November and David Warlick via their podcasts while I am on the go.  Recently I upgraded my factory stereo to an inexpensive unit that has an auxiliary in jack.  This enabled me to plug in my ipod and satellite radio without having to go through the RF frequency transmitter (which is not nearly so convenient or effective as the manufacturer would have you think).  This has given me the opportunity to have professional development “on demand”.

Now, of course there must be time for recreational listening and we can’t always be “on”, but it has actually helped pass the time by engaging my brain during two relatively unpleasant “mindless” tasks. (You can only listen to so much sports and news talk shows…) I used to get very defensive and frustrated with my administration and my colleagues when they would bring up the subject of “continuous improvement”.  My immediate response would be “I just don’t have time!” Truth is, we ALL only have 24 hours in the day and it is what we choose to do with it that defines us.  So I have carved out almost 2 1/2 hours during the day that I can listen to what I am interested in and what I feel will be relevant to my development- it seems like such a simple concept, and I’m sure that the readers of this blog and most of your friends have already discovered this, but for me it was very empowering.

I am currently searching and adding podcasts to my itunes RSS and I’m finding that there is so much out there that I couldn’t possibly listen to it all but here is the big difference- IT’S ON MY TERMS, so if I don’t feel like working my intellect after a particularly stressful day, I don’t!  But when the urge strikes me at 4:30 in the morning to find out about the latest web 2.0 applications, I can dial it up on demand.  Very empowering.

Just think what that simple scenario I just described would do to our classroom- students could learn on their terms, when the information would “sink in” and they are ready for it rather than cramming it down their throats when they are at the least receptive time.  I really think I’m going to take a look at podcasting some important lesson concepts and showing my students where they can access the information when they need it.  I know you can’t make the horse drink the water you led them to, but at least they can have an adequate supply so that they can drink when they are thirsty.

By the way, my new stereo has a neat feature that plays CD’s with mp3’s and wma files.  Now I don’t have to import my recordings of rehearsals into itunes before I burn the files to CD- I can listen on the way home (either on the CD which gives me a portfolio of rehearsal progress OR straight from the recorder’s headphone jack) I think that my commute in the fall will be taken up by analyzing my band’s performance on a daily basis (or at least as much as I can stand…) more on this later.

Keeping in touch while on vacation

July 17, 2006

Here I am in an apple computer store in Washington D.C. Why on earth am I blogging on vacation? I just wanted to share with you another way that my job as music educator has changed. I just checked my webmail, my blog comments (even though I don’t have any!), my band’s website forum for any questions about my upcoming bandcamp (again here- just in case my students and parents are reading this blog- we do a Drum and Bugle Corps for our marching band, but since that is such a rarity, for the purposes of this blog, I’m just calling it “marching band”).

This is a pretty big deal because in the past I would have a knot in my stomach the night before coming home from vacation anticipating all of the problems that have arisen and the work that would need to be done answering all of those questions and getting information out, etc. By using webmail, I have started heading off several potential problems such as an incorrect date posted on the booster’s web calendar for camp, a particularly sickening email from my head guidance counselor telling me that a large number of students couldn’t be scheduled in my classes due to conflicts…..aaarrrgh!….

I have also used our band’s forum to converse with some students with questions about camp, and approved a parent’s request to be added to the band’s yahoo group for access to emails and the web calendar. Even a year ago, I would not have even considered this type of activity over vacation, but with the anonymity of the web and the fact that I can check it on my terms when I am ready is very empowering. For all of you music educators who have not set up a yahoo group (or a google group or .mac group) for your organization, I strongly encourage you to do so- the amount of communication and information flow is staggering.

I am really looking forward to getting back to work (gasp) I am excited about using my new tools (especially my ActivBoard- a competeor to SmartBoard which is capable of some amazing things!). When I get back to good ol’ Florida I’ll begin work and blog about the progress of my year. I might even podcast on it! I’ll also take some more time with wordpress so that I can get more features up and running.

Podcasting from the Parade

July 11, 2006

HEY!!! My hero David Warlick commented on my blog!!! Even though it is ranked at the bottom of Technorati…I am honored! If you don’t know who that is- you should- Google him (it’s now a word in the dictionary- a verb!) and go to his excellent blog 2CentsWorth.

The annual 4th of July parade in North Port, FL is definitely NOT the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade…but it is a slice of Americana too often missing in bigger cities. Our Band (Actually, we are a Drum and Bugle Corps- but that is a subject for another post) has been participating in this mid-summer extravaganza ever since the school opened in 2001 (my principal so thoughtfully volunteered the group even before it existed…yep, that’s another post…)

What made this year’s parade different was the use of technology. Recently, I made a surveymonkey survey and asked my kids how they prefer to communicate. Not really surprising- their preferred method of communication was a website that they could check for information followed closely by email notification (text message on their phone was a distant third and snail mail only got 2 votes- hmmmm…) I decided that I would not make a single phone call or send a single postcard out to remind my students about the event. To my (not) surprise we had the best attendance we have ever had at the event and the website and forum that I set up for the communication was absolutely abuzz with conversation!

I had also recently learned about podcasting and thought it would be great fun to podcast from the parade practice and the parade itself. I interviewed kids and just talked to them (my kids love to talk and were thrilled to be in a podcast- they thought it was very cool!). What happened was a very informal, personal connection between director and student and student to student that happens every day but is never captured for others to witness and share. I got comments from my more tech savvy parents like “it was so amazing to hear you just talking to kids and to hear how much they love the organization”.

I have to tell you that this simple technological exercise that I learned in a workshop over the summer provided one of the most memorable educational experiences I have had in my career. Not that the product itself is worthy of archiving for future generations- but the look of excitement and respect in my students’ eyes when the promised pictures and podcast were put up within an hour of the event’s end (it was that easy) really moved me.

I plan to podcast a lot more both formally and informally. I see many applications for checking mastery of concepts introduced in class and for re-teaching and scaffolding for those students who need more time than we have in class.

If you would like to listen to this wonder of digital media- be my guest and please leave a comment so that I can know if I’m going in the right direction with this. Go to

Times they are a-changin’

July 10, 2006

Why would I take time to bother with this foolish notion of blogging when I have a marching band show to produce, class lists to pour over, instruments to be repaired, music to select, camp to plan…etc…etc…?  Because after 18 years of teaching I have been challenged to fundamentally question the way I have been teaching music for my entire career.

For me, it started in 2003 when I recieved my Master’s Degree in integrating technology in the classroom.  I have to be honest- I thought that this would be the quickest and easiest way to the next pay column and was perfectly content to go through the motions (being a tech-saavy band director what could they possibly teach me that would impact the band classroom?)  Then I saw Dr. David Thornburg…and everything changed for me.  When I heard him speak so eloquently about how our kids are different now “digital natives” and that they are “wired differently” to learn differently because of their access to technology- that was all it took to start the wheels turning.

Last year I was selected (one of 50 teachers from my district) to participate in the NeXt Generation Learning project in Sarasota County Schools.  Inspired by the writings of Thomas Friedman and his book The World is Flat we set out to define what teaching and learning will look like in the 21st Century.

This year’s three-week Summer Institute (That’s right, 3 weeks of my summer for 8 hrs. a day) included two Keynote Speakers that caused me to question how effective my classroom really was.  Alan November and David Warlick introduced us to the world of blogging and podcasting.  In example after example of hard data and research they showed us that kids really do learn differently and that we are losing them by trying to force them to learn the way we did.  While listening to them I couldn’t help but picture my rehearsals (and those of my colleagues).  I realized that music education has really not changed all that much since its beginnings.

I decided to invest some of my precious “band director time” into this blog to share the way my classroom will change (and has already begun changing) with those that, like me, have seen the incredible potential that the new technology tools bring to education.  I welcome comments from my like minded colleagues sharing how they have changed their classrooms- we are at the very beginning of an incredibly exciting time for teaching!