10 Guiding Principles

As I sit in front of my computer the night before the first day of school begins for me in a new school district, I find myself reflecting upon last weeks new teacher orientation (even though this is going to be my 7th year teaching) and the charge I have anticipating an awesome year. I have joined a district that prides itself as being a leader in educational innovation. We recognize that the world is changing around us and we must evolve and change our teaching to support new ways of learning. I have joined a group of teacher leaders who have a have a growth mindset. I believe, growing from the writings of Margaret Wheatley, that we need to approach a new situation with the willingness to be disturbed. This fosters growth.

The superintendent of Bloomfield Hills Schools, Robert Glass (@glasr333), opened the new teacher orientation with a talk about our mission statement, core values, and strategic instructional goals. I was delighted to hear these 10 guiding principles, from which the district frames the learning experience.

1) The curriculum makes time for depth by thoughtfully managing the number of standards (‘less is more’ concept) I choose to schedule Informances because of this guiding principal. Musicians invite the audience into the processes of musicianship by performing the music that they are exploring in class at that time. They explain the depth of understanding as they perform their pieces, mostly originally composed music, to their parents, peers and community. Less is more.

2) Content knowledge, while important, ceases to be the primary learning outcome, becoming the vehicle to support higher levels of thinking (application, analysis, synthesis, evaluation, creation.) The dates of the musical periods and labels musicians put on expression, like pianissimo and dolce are important content knowledge, on a need-to-know basis. I support musicians using the organization of sound and silence to express, be songwriters, create with passion and purpose. Create.

3) Deep student ownership and control of learning. Teaching shifts to facilitation. Designing projects where musicians can create divergent musical solutions enables autonomy. Facilitating a true music workshop caters to this shift. When musicians are working in “bands” or composition groups, I am able to conference with individual musicians or the entire group at a time. This allows for musicians to create at their Zone of Proximal development until they encounter a time where they seek out the help of a more experienced musician (you) which makes the dialogue more meaningful. Make the shift.

4) Strong, caring relationships and very high levels of collaboration among/between staff and students. The International Baccalaureate Learner Profile is a great place to begin to build relationships with your students. Show them you want to understand how they see themselves and that you care, They matter. I have been told by some very wise friends that ‘They wont remember exactly what you taught them, what they will remember is how you made them feel.’ Bring out the best in your students. Focus on what they can do rather than on all the things they can’t do. Build those relationships.

The first time I got together with the staff at West Hills Middle School, I immediately felt the collaborative culture. I met with the 4/5 grade teachers to discuss the big ideas and concepts that run through their curriculums and how we could support the learners with different experiences. I had no trouble finding a teacher to collaborate with for this season of Rock Our World. Share, Learn, Grow.

5) A culture that embraces risk-taking in the learning process believing that sometimes more is learned from failure than success. Rob Glass spoke about reframing failure. It’s not a failure, it’s an iteration. I create an environment where it is okay to make mistakes with sound, sometimes our mistakes become the inspiration for the next iteration. When this is a part of your classroom culture, you will never hear “am I done?” because there is always another iteration. This is where my piece is today, and sometimes that has to be the iteration that is submitted for world review, but as we become more experienced, our music will be different. Take risks, with your students.

6) Project-based/Inquiry-based interdisciplinary learning boosts critical thinking and creativity by allowing students to frame problems and construct their own solutions. I plan to take the ‘projects’ a step further this year. I have always designed open-ended problems that musicians have created musical solutions for such as improvisations, compositions, arrangements, videos, cover song, etc. We have shared these pieces on our class website, YouTube, SoundCloud, and on my blog. This year, after having dinner with Kevin Honeycutt, I plan to add a purpose to the projects. I have already contacted David Dubois, a teacher in Grand Rapids, to collaborate on ‘Music to save Music’. A project I will approach my students with to create original music to bring awareness to music programs that are being cut. We will submit our original music to iTunes and all of the proceeds will go to a cause of their choice. Construct solutions with purpose.

7) Learners are connected to the world outside the school. See Rock Our World post.

8) Engagement in meaningful work that increases learner passion and motivation. This speaks to all of the above Guiding Principles. Learning trends are shifting to more differentiated learning paths. Divergency in showing ones understanding supports the individual learners’ passion and motivation. When exploring a concept such as tension and release in music, do you allow any piece of music that shows this understanding? Musicians connect to genre and instrumentation. The shared understanding that any kind of musical creation will be acceptable supports agency and feeds musicians’ passion and motivation. Make divergency a norm.

9) Technology tools are readily available and easily accessible to support personalization. I have 8 iPad minis that are out on my desk at all times. There are not necessarily iPad projects, they are available for anyone to use at any time. Kevin Honeycutt talks about ‘cognitive blisters’ which prevent kids from learning. Are there ‘music blisters’? I call them hurdles.  I believe that for some musicians, standard notation is a hurdle. We all have awesome music in our heads that we want to share with others. If I were to ask you to create a piece of music, but only through standard notation, the result probably won’t be as complex as the music you have in your inner ear. When musicians use technology to support their music making, they can create a very close arrangement to the music in their head. Not all musicians use technology and that is okay. The ones who want to, or need to, can. Have technology available.

10) Staff share a commitment to a small set of clearly understood annually identified, generally agreed-upon, non-negotiable instructional goals.  This is a Guiding Principal that I have no experience with, yet. I interpret this as making the commitment to be the best teacher I can be, and I will be held accountable for it. I think that this is also a commitment to a growth mindset.

These Guiding Principles are a fantastic frame for the experiences you design for the learners who will be in your classrooms starting tomorrow and for the rest of the year. I am lucky to be a part of a district that are committed to these principles. By working together and being committed to a clearly understood set of shared goals, we will create a school district that truly, “…enables our learners to be architects of their own futures” ~Rob Glass

The Magic Is Lost When It’s Bought And Sold

It is midnight on Friday and I am on couch tour in Auburn Hills, Michigan as Phish plays their third set at the FirstMerit Bank Pavillion at Northerly Island in Chicago Illinois. I have seen Phish live (in concert, not on a webcast) close to thirty times because I am so fascinated with their improvisatory skills on stage. They are able to segue into and out of any song, key, time signature, mode and melody. As I listen to this concert with lesson designing ears, thinking how I can best use any of their music in the classroom, I am also reflecting upon a post I read today from Matt Gomez (@mattBgomez) titled I Teach Kindergarten and I Don’t Like Teachers Pay Teachers. In this post he is concerned that Teachers Pay Teachers (TPT) is creating a “laminating culture” where units of study are used with one set of learners, and are continually being reused with a different group of learners regardless of their learning styles or interests.

I agree with Matt.

I have had many teachers tell me to sell my music lesson plans on TPT. I have not. Here is the thing, units are simply words on a page. It is a reciprocal relationship between the learner, content, classroom community, and their relationship with the teacher that make those words come alive. There are in the moment changes that effective teachers make to facilitate a closer approximation of understanding happen for individual learners. Questions that are crafted after listening closely to learners’ word choices which may take a lesson in a different direction. Teachers need to be completely comfortable with their content area and the way people learn. Confidant enough to jump into a wormhole with their class because the leaners’ interests have taken a turn and know that they will come out the other end closer to the learning goal. This cannot be written in plans. These things cannot be bought and sold.

The musicians that comprise Phish understand sound and silence completely.  They are able to freely and creatively organize these elements through their individual instruments to communicate their emotions to a group of listeners at their concerts. Their audience follows them from venue to venue to be a part of this collective experience which changes every concert. The venue changes, the atmosphere changes, the audience changes, the vibe changes. This is what being a rockstar is all about.

I have seen the #EduRockStars hashtag on Twitter used to tag educators who are doing amazing things and sharing them with other teachers.

Sometimes sharing units or lesson plans, but mostly sharing big ideas. Changing other educator’s perspectives of the learning experience.

Teachers have to understand the process of learning completely. They have to be able to freely and creatively organize learning environments, through their content area(s), for the individual learners who come to their classroom. The learners come to school to be a part of this collective experience that changes every day.  The experience changes, the atmosphere changes, the learners change (from year to year or class to class), the vibe changes. This is what being a edurockstar is all about.

I also want to share Matt’s disclaimer: First off I do not like black and white statements so please don’t take this post as a claim that I have issues with everything on the site. Also, if you sell products there or buy from the site this is not attack on you personally, I am simply asking you to think and consider my points. 

Please consider using anyone else’s lesson plans as starting points and think about what truly matters.

The individual experiences of the learners in your classroom.

Be prepared to be flexible

When Dunn and Dunn wrote about learning styles in the 1980s they could not have anticipated the way today’s learners would be wielding digital devices.  Musicians have an entire band in their pockets that play in tune and with a precise sense of ensemble. It is easier than ever for amateur artists to realize the music in their inner ear and create an original piece of music that can be shared as an mp3. The musicians at Oakwood Elementary are songwriters, many of who started in Kindergarten.

Stack of song lyrics found on my desk on Monday morning

The picture above is what my desk looked like when I came to school on Monday morning.  All of these songs were written by musicians in their homerooms and wanted to share these songs with me. The previous week’s class period went a little like this…

I had a lesson planned where we were going to show our understanding of the importance of  keeping a steady beat with a group while performing by creating rhythmic accompaniments to acoustic covers of pop songs I found on YouTube. The second grade class came in with a stack of songs that they were quite excited to share with me and the rest of the class. There were a few musicians who asked to perform an a cappella version of their songs for the class, which the class really liked. There was such enthusiasm in the room that I would have been remiss to do anything but follow where the students led. So our plans changed. The class formed bands and began plans for creating the music. They all gathered into groups in the corners of the room as the singers vocalized their melodies to the other band members. There were musicians who asked to use iPads exclusively and others who asked to use acoustic instruments along with electronic.

Preparing a classroom experience for learners who come to be creative and expressive is a challenging task. We need to reflect closely on our prior teaching practices, outcomes of formative assessments, classroom dialogue, and student questions while never loosing sight of the goals and overarching ideas of our content areas. What makes us outstanding and highly effective is being able to see an opportunity to connect to our students’ passions and as an educator, we must understand our content area so well that we can go into this wormhole having the confidence that the other side will definitely bring us closer to the goals that we have set.

Got some more songs!


Punished by Rewards? A Conversation with Alfie Kohn

The principal from my Intermediate School shared an article with her Monday bulletin as a suggested reading for the staff. I have been thinking about the problems that have risen from time to time in my classroom when learners that come from an extrinsically motivated classroom to my room in which there is not behavior manipulation. Punished by Rewards.pdf I totally agree with Alfie about intrinsic motivation and have thought for a while that there is a direct relationship between the level of learner engagement and classroom management. I particularly enjoyed…

“However, [giving rewards] doesn’t give us license to treat kids like pets when the task is uninteresting. Instead, we need to examine the task itself, the content of the curriculum, to see how it can be made more engaging.” Pg. 2

Learners who don’t find their experiences in the classroom life worthy do one of two things. Some will passively and politely comply with classroom rules, while others (like me) will rebel and challenge. Are the experiences we are providing life worthy? I often ask myself while designing music experiences, why is this important? Are the learners engaging in authentic processes of a musician in ways that are problem solving experiences? Is the assessment designed to honor multiple ways of showing understanding?

“Skillful teaching involves facilitating the process by which kids come to grapple with complex ideas—and those ideas, as John Dewey has told us, have to emerge organically from the real-life interests and concerns of the kids.” Pg. 3
Can’t pass up a good quote from Dewey. The passage right after this quote explains it well. It’s not the drill and kill skill set that learners are fired up about, it’s how they can apply those skills contextually into their personal interests. Life worthy.
Alfie talks about content, community and choice being factors for successful learner experiences. This resonates with me and brings Ron Ritchhart’s 8 cultural forces to mind. Expectations, opportunities, time, modeling, language, environment, interactions, and routines. These forces are always present in our classrooms, it’s how we marshal these forces that make a learner’s experience meaningful. Life worthy.
Probably my favorite passage…

“Has the child been given something to do worth learning?” If you ask me what to do about a kid being “off task”—one of our favorite buzzwords—my first response is going to be, “What’s the task?” If you’re giving them garbage to do, yes, you may have to bribe them to do it.” Pg. 6

Think, Pair, Share

Today was a great day to be in Mrs. Moore’s third grade class at Oakwood Elementary. We focused on some the big idea of “What is music?” We gathered out thoughts using the Think Pair Share thinking routine. The Think Pair Share routine promotes understanding through active reasoning and explanation. Because learners are listening to and sharing ideas, Think Pair Share encourages students to understand multiple perspectives. The dialogue was amazing. Here is some of the thinking shared in class today:

Music is…

  • a way of expressing your feelings
  • the beat and rhythm that makes you dance
  • playing an instrument
  • creating pieces and songs
  • a wonderful tune that everyone listens to
  • makes people dance
  • something you make
  • a way to become your dreams
  • a way to get a message out to people
  • a way to be yourself
  • show yourself to the world

This is a pretty sophisticated list of ideas. As we analyzed our thinking, we  noticed themes that had emerged. Music is something you create to express yourself, music evokes feelings that make you want to dance, and that music has beat and rhythm. There were missing pieces in our prior experiences and I needed to find ways of exploring these missing dimensions. I also needed to begin from somewhere the learners were quite comfortable with. We started discussion about playing instruments and if there were ways of creating music without using instruments. I played a piece called “Spondee” by a group called Matmos.

Click below to play the track

Spondee by: Matmos

There is a distinct point in this song when sound becomes music. The “random” sounds become more organized as a steady beat is introduced. I had some  non-musical items in my room that I brought out for us to use. A cardboard box, a plastic Tupperware container, a jumprope, big pieces of Styrofoam, a plastic milk crate, and a music stand. I invited a few musicians to create a piece of music using non-instruments, those musicians then chose friends to take their places and so on until everyone had created music in a group. In every case, one person started playing a repeating rhythm and before long, the group of 5 musicians were performing music without “instruments”.


There was one group that had difficulties maintaining simultaneity. The rest of the learners were able to audibly diagnose and reason with evidence to offer their solutions. The musicians creating listened to their friends thinking and were able to successfully continue with new understanding of steady beat.

I will begin from the anchor chart bulleted above to create experiences for the learners to push their thinking. We will connect to the ways musicians in Stomp create and extend our thinking through the short film Music for One Apartment and Six Drummers where musicians create music in an apartment using everything they can find. This may open our thinking to questions like “When is music” or  “Is sound that doesn’t have a steady beat music?” or “Is John Cage’s 4’33” music?” Where we go next will depend upon the learners curiosity.

Chalk Talk

I have been reflecting on the conversation I wrote about in my last post in which a third grade class at Oakwood Elementary discussed musicianship. I carried their conversation into a fifth grade class at Brandon Fletcher Intermediate School, where fourth grade learners from three elementary schools come together into one school.  I only teach one of three elementary schools in the district so it is important for me to understand the perspectives of the learners coming from the other two schools. We gathered our thoughts using the Chalk Talk thinking routine last Friday. Chalk Talk is a silent way to reflect, gather your thoughts, generate ideas, problem solve, and generate project ideas. We began gathering our thoughts about what makes a musician to frame the rest of the years experiences.

Group collaboration – Chalk Talk

In their homeroom class they are grouped by tables, so for this routine they stayed in those groups. The learners began to have a conversation on paper. Sharing their ideas and perspectives of what they believed makes a musician. Some thought while others wrote, then they would pass the writing utensil around and the thinkers would add their thoughts, extend someone else’s, politely challenge others thinking, or question peoples thoughts. They would spend 3 minutes at each group’s paper. I used an online stopwatch to maintain consistent think time for each station. I could see each learner’s thinking extend every time they read and added to someone else’s thoughts. These are some examples of their thinking.


Before I collected the thinking routines I asked the learners if they noticed any themes that had emerged from their shared thinking. Many were eager to share that musicians had to play instruments or sing, and had to have talent. Some learners disagreed and we had a rich discussion about musicianship and what the role of musician was. The challenges looked like this:


It is this kind of deep thinking that extends learner’s understanding of the overarching ideas of expression evoking emotion from the listener and in-turn creating an emotion for the performer. In the words of learners in the BFIS music room, “anyone can be a musician, all you have to do is be willing to take big risks”.



This is the environment and community is fostered be the learners in the music room. Throughout the school year, as all musicians have more experiences composing, arranging, listening, performing and thinking, their perspectives of their own musicianship may shift and shape their musical identity, which will carry on well after they have graduated.

“What makes a musician?”

Yesterday was the third day of the 2012/2013 school year at Oakwood Elementary. Meet and greets were well underway in a third grade class when one learner shared she had been playing the piano and was writing songs over the summer. She performed one of her original songs for the class and that fostered a discussion on how she was able to write music. The conversation was approached from many perspectives, one of which was the use of technology to enable amateur musicians to create sophisticated music. I asked the learner for an example of this and T-Pain was brought up and his use of auto tune to alter his singing voice. The class became interested in other artists that used alternate means to create music. I offered Lasse Gjertsen, a Norwegian animator, videographer, and YouTube sensation. His video Hyperactive, is entirely make up of one frame video/sound clips organized into rhythmic beats.

After watching the video, a learner raised their hand and asked, “How did he do that?”

In response I asked, ” How do you think he made this video?”

The class turned-and-talked to a neighbor for about one minute to allow think time and to allow the evaluation of one’s ideas before sharing with everyone.

There were many different ideas about how Lasse was able to create this video. The importance is that I valued everyones ideas and we made an anchor chart on the board (which I should have taken a picture of). There were a few learners who brought up that it was video clips strung together.

I asked “What evidence do we see that makes you think that?”

The class took another minute for turn-and-talk

After another discussion of the details of the video, I asked if they were interested in making a video similar to this one. The learners were quite interested and I offered VidRhythm, an iPad app where you record short clips and the app arranges them into rhythmic beats.

The musicians were very proud of their creation. Next week we will continue exploring the essential question “what makes a musician?”