Monday, July 30, 2012

What Music Has Taught Me

Music is a moral law. It gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, a charm to sadness, gaiety and life to everything. It is the essence of order, and leads to all that is good, just, and beautiful, of which it is the invisible, but nevertheless dazzling, passionate, and eternal form.  -Plato

Trail behind HSU.  Taken 7/26/12
Every summer for the last fifteen years I've attended the Brass Chamber Music Workshop at Humboldt State University.  With 80 participants and 5 days of different ensembles, there are many opportunities to create music with incredibly talented musicians.  I don't get to play my tuba as often as I'd like, so the Workshop has become an important part of my summer where I am able to play all day, recharge my musical spirit, and reconnect with the incredible friends I've made over the years. It is an exciting, inspiring, and fulfilling week.

I've always felt that being a musician has benefitted my practice as an educator. As I sat through rehearsals last week, worked with coaches, and talked with friends, I began to see the parallels first hand.  Here are just a few reflections on what being a musician and tuba player has taught me about teaching:

Good communication - verbal and nonverbal - is essential within a group.  Communication builds relationships and trust among individuals. Sometimes eye contact or a slight movement may be all that's necessary to convey a message.  Other times, we may need to voice our needs and opinions to our colleagues.  Being able to read the group dynamic and act accordingly can set the tone of the rehearsal or classroom community.

Practice (with good technique) every day.  Do it to maintain. Do it to improve.  Do it to transform.

If you're wrong, own it, and then fix it.  Mistakes mean you are learning.  That doesn't mean you should keep making the same mistake over and over.  Own it, fix it, and then move on.  Similarly, if someone else is wrong, give them time own it and fix it before you say anything.  It is important to respect that we all learn differently and at our own pace.   

Give specific feedback.  Positive or negative, feedback helps us to evaluate ourselves and our performances.  Telling someone you'd like them to do something differently or that they did a good job is one thing.  Specifically telling them what or why takes the conversation to another level.  Either way, appreciate it, but don't wallow in it.    

Blend. Be loud enough so your voice can be heard, but not enough to stand out.  Harmonizing with the group creates a more pleasant sound than constant dissonance.  If you've got an interesting part, play it out, but always in good taste.

Everyone's part is important.  Sometimes you get the melody, and sometimes you get the "oom-pahs."  Regardless of the part, music is created when everyone works together.  So, support your team by playing your part well, trust that your colleagues are doing the same, and work towards the greater good.

Look ahead. Take time to think things through before they happen.  Having a general idea of what's ahead helps a lot when it actually happens.  When in doubt, take the repeat and do better the second time around.

Feel the beat and move forward.  Music and education are both dynamic - they need to go somewhere.  It's easy to get caught up in what happened a few measures (or days) ago, but it's what's in the moment and what's ahead that matters most.  It's up to the players to feel the pulse and keep the line moving forward.

Keep an open mind when working with new people or playing new pieces.  You never know what may happen, or what opportunities may arise as a result.

It's not always about the performance.  Take time to enjoy the process.  Performances are just one moment in the journey and they may not always go as we imagined or hoped.  Being able to appreciate growth as a player (or learner) and see how far you've come is a more valuable experience than a perfect performance, anyway.

I feel very fortunate to call myself a musician and an educator.  Both have taught me discipline and responsibility, yet have allowed me to creatively express myself and build meaningful relationships with people.  Music helps fulfill my spirit, where education allows me to have a greater purpose in this world. Ultimately, both fields have challenged me in ways I've never thought imaginable and I'm a much better person for having them in my life.

Saturday, July 14, 2012


Closure isn't always something that I get as a teacher.  (I am still reeling from seven of my students missing the last day of school!)  The cycle of a school year naturally lends itself to students and colleagues coming and going.  This ebb and flow is necessary to create new relationships and bring in new energy within a school.  Sometimes, though, these relationships are cut short. A student may decide to pursue other interests or their family may suddenly move away.  It's never easy when this happens, but here are some questions I think about to cope with the frustrations and losses of these difficult situations:

What will I remember? 
India Opal Buloni had the right idea asking the Preacher to help her remember all the things about her mother.  Thinking of those good moments with our friends helps us remember the positive qualities about that person and the impact they had on our lives.  

What's the lesson?
We can learn a lot from people, especially kids, if we're willing to listen.  Understanding the lessons from our relationships can bring insight to others in the future.  

How can we move forward?
There comes a time when life moves on and we have to be okay with it.  We eventually have to clean up students' workspaces, put away independent reading books, and sometimes, recycle papers they may have left.  We can never fully delete a person from our lives and I think Dr. Seuss said it best: "Don't cry because it's over, smile because it happened." 

My students and colleagues will stay with me forever.  Understanding that change is a normal part of life helps us carry on even though they may not be in our lives anymore.  Just knowing that they are out there doing good in the world is enough for me.  

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

A Million Dreams That Roar

Powell’s Books in Portland is a magical place.  It’s everything you want a bookstore to be – comprehensive, cozy, and reasonably priced.  There are at least a million books one could easily (and happily!) get lost in.  I spent a morning wandering the Rose Room.  Of all the books, I came across a true gem: An Awesome Book by Dallas Clayton.  You can read it here for free. 

The message behind this book is simple: dream big.  Clayton’s words are lyrical, enchanting, and speak to both young and old.  They were exactly what I needed to hear.  Here’s my favorite part:

Yes, there are places in the world where dreams are almost dead 
So please, my child, do keep in mind before you go to bed
To dream a dream as big as big could ever dream to be
Then dream a dream ten times as big
As that one dream you see
Then once you’ve got that dream in mind please dream a million more
And not a million quiet dreams
A million dreams that roar

With every read, it just gets better and better. I have no doubt that this book will be one of my most loved and treasured.

I can’t wait to hear the roars, screams, and shouts of my students’ dreams as they flood my classroom in the fall.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Dog Days

My husband and I taught our dog how to ring a bell when she needs to go outside. Over the past five years, this has been both a blessing and a curse.  My dog likes that the bell will get an immediate response, and my husband and I like that we can both be working around the house and still know what the dog is up to. 

Imagine my surprise today when the following scenario happened: 

Dog gets up to ring bell.
I hastily put on shoes, hook up the leash, and take her outside.
Once outside, dog bypasses lawn and heads for the driveway on the side of the house.  She then proceeds to flop down in the middle of the driveway and take a nap by the tomato plants.

She has learned to work the system. 

It’s well-known that Northwest summers don’t officially start until after July 4.  Naturally, today was one of the first really sunny (and kind of warm) days we’ve had this season.  Somehow, my dog knew this and wanted to take advantage of it while she could.  Instead of dragging her back inside, I decided to join her.  We sat in the driveway for a few minutes—her rolling on her back warming her belly and me kicking off my shoes. 

I was reminded in that moment that sometimes it’s important to take a nap in the driveway by the tomatoes, just because you can. 

Teachers tend to run themselves ragged during the school year, giving everything they’ve got to their students and colleagues. I’ve found that even when summer hits, many of us still have a hard time slowing down because we finally have the time to pursue the all of the things that we neglected during the school year (I’m looking at you, Fountas and Pinnell book).  Yes, I believe that summer should be a time to learn, reflect, and plan for the coming year.  I will be the first to admit that I can spend hours researching and constructing instructional units.  However, I’m realizing more and more that it doesn’t have to be about getting everything done all the time. Sometimes it needs to be about taking a walk in the morning. Or reading for an hour of two on the couch.  Or talking with a far-away friend on the phone.

While I’m definitely excited for the possibilities of next year, I know that taking time during the summer to enjoy the moment and recharge my batteries is just as important, if not more. 

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

You Stay Classy, San Diego - ISTE '12 Reflections

There are lots of emotions that come with the close of a school year.  Exhaustion. Anticipation.  Sadness.  This school year was particularly challenging, and in the last few weeks I often found myself repeating, “Just make it to San Diego.”  Well, I made it and I’m thankful that I did.  My trip to San Diego was an enlightening and energizing experience that I will not soon forget.

Here are my top four take-aways from ISTE ‘12:

1. Don’t be afraid to take big risks.

Last year I took a huge risk, traveling across the country to ISTE ’11 in Philadelphia. I was mostly alone, unfamiliar with the East Coast, and relatively new to the edtech scene.  Going to Philadelphia was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made and I left excited and eager to take risks in my classroom.  Some pretty amazing things happened as a result.  So, naturally, I wanted to continue taking risks again this year.

I came to ISTE ’12 with a confidence I certainly didn’t have during the previous visit.  It helped that I had my buddy, Ryan, to go with.  He was a fantastic travel companion and sounding board. In addition to being more focused and selective in the sessions I attended, I also made it a point to learn more about ideas and products about which I was curious, but didn’t necessarily have a lot of information.  I took risks introducing myself to others, even if they were kind of a big deal in the ed tech world.  These risks allowed me to feel more connected to the ISTE organization and the people I met.  

Speaking of which…

2. Conversations with others can lead to amazing collaborations and creations.

I believe that life is about the people you meet and the things you create with them (thank you, Holstee Manifesto).  I met some pretty fantastic people and shared some remarkable experiences with them.  Our conversations were meaningful, challenging, and at times, downright hilarious.  The people I met energized me in ways I deeply needed after this year, and I’m positive that our talks will continue in the future and lead to some pretty awesome things for our students.

So, to my #isteBFFs, thank you.

3. Yes, and…

I’m generally a pretty positive person by nature.  Even still, there are times when a discouraging colleague or a lack of resources can get the best of me.  Instead of saying “no, but…” to a challenging comment or idea, I resolve to turn it around and say, “yes, and…” It’s a much more validating solution-oriented statement that keeps the conversations flowing, rather than drying up. 

4. Think Big and Be the Change

My incredible teaching partner, Amy, knows to run and hide whenever she hears me say, “So, I have this craaaazy idea….” She’s really great at seeing the reality of a situation and making things work with the resources (and time) we’ve been given.  Thinking big has lead to both amazing and not-so-amazing outcomes in our classrooms (our virtual field trip around the United States comes to mind), and has allowed me to expand my creativity given the parameters of what I am required to teach my students. 

One of the most fortunate occurrences at ISTE ’12 was that I met Matthew, The Busy Librarian.  Matthew, like myself, is a big thinker.  He’s creative in his practice and deeply passionate about education.  We’re scheming up an awesome plan for the upcoming school year to connect our schools and let our students’ voices be heard.  I can’t wait to share it with you.  It’s going to be, as Matthew says, an “epic win.”  

Even after a few days, I am still trying to take in all that I learned and experienced at ISTE ’12.  I do know one thing, though—all this new knowledge is meaningless if I don’t go back to my school district and share it with others.   Small changes in the ways I teach my students and interact with my colleagues will ultimately have a much larger positive impact in my school community.  Even when I feel like I’m unconventional in what I’m doing, I need to remember the potential impact of these small changes and the experiences I gained in San Diego.

Monday, July 2, 2012

A Beginning


First things first, I don’t really consider myself a writer. Sure, I can teach specific writing techniques to my second and third graders and can even craft a pretty decent essay, but when it comes down to the actual process of writing, it takes me a long time to get my thoughts down exactly the way I want them.  Please be patient.          

What I really am is a student.  I know it sounds cliché to say I’m a “life-long learner,” but at my very core, that’s who I am.  A few years ago, I came across a phrase (credited to Michelangelo) that I’ve used as a mantra in my teaching career: Ancora Imparo (“I am still learning”).  This phrase is posted in my classroom as a reminder to my students that we all have a right and an obligation to learn new ideas on a daily basis and reflect on our work.  So, that’s why I’m here.

I’m hoping this blog will focus and challenge my teaching practice while helping me maintain balance, process new information, and stretch my creativity.  If I can connect with other like-minded educators through this process, well, that’d be pretty awesome, too.  I try to live each day doing what I love, and loving what I do.  Thank you for joining me on this quest.