Things I Know 318 of 365: Christmas music used to be better

I love Christmas music.

I bide my time each year. Waiting. No Christmas music until the day after Thanksgiving. We are civilized, after all.

The problem, each year, is there is more and more of what I would call crap counted by others as Christmas music.

Because I’m cool and wasn’t at all an outcast in high school, the  measure of any Christmas music claim is how close it resembles medevial madrigals.

Two years ago, I found refuge in Pandora’s “Classical Christmas” station, and never looked back. In the car, where the radio is my only choice, the crap sneeks in.

It’s not that I’m a purest. I just think we got it right a few hundred years ago and have been messing it up ever since (with the exception of Billie Holiday’s recording of “I’ve got my love to keep me warm).

See xkcd’s useful visualization of my point below.

Things I Know 175 of 365: They gave me music

If music be the food of love, play on.

– William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night I.i.1

“I listen to different music now.”

At the end of my first year at SLA, this was the answer from one student to my question of how my students had changed in their freshman year.

She explained she’d come to the school listening to a mix of emo and pop and was leaving her first year with an appreciation of rock, R&B, Hip Hop and oldies. She even admitted to not hating some classical music. (That one was my fault.)

Other students commented on their changes during their first year of high school too. Four years later, only the music comment sticks in the attic of my brain. I’ve packed it away in the box labeled, “Things Will Be Okay.”

I come from a family of musicians. If they don’t play, they appreciate those who can. Music was everywhere as I grew up. From Tomé to Presley to Tears for Fears to Manhattan Transfer – depending on where I was and whom I was with, anyone could have been providing the soundtrack to my day.

It’s what led to the giddiness when Myspace first asked me to include what song I was listening to when writing a blog post. It always seemed silly they asked about the song and asked how I was feeling. To me, they were one and the same.

When I write, I listen to anything by Hans Zimmer, Balmorhea or Rachel’s. Lately, an album called Cocktail Mix: 4 has started to work its way onto that list.

Music is how I feel.

Rather than wading through the murky waters of a Secret Santa this year, SLA teachers had the chance to opt in to a mixtape exchange. Pick a name, compile a mixtape of at least 15 songs for that person and exchange burned CDs at the staff holiday party. It was better than any $5-limit tchotchke I’ve ever received. Try it.

I drove away from Philly yesterday morning.

As I did, I put a CD in my car’s stereo – Mr. Chase, ❤ MUD.

On one of the last days of school, two students appeared in my room and presented the disk to me.

“These are songs that remind us of you,” one of the students explained.

Both of my G11 classes collaborated on the project to suggest songs which were then curated. The result was a disc I kept myself from listening to until I was safely alone, in my car, driving away from Philadelphia.

To say I was touched by such thoughtfulness would be an amazing understatement. They were caring for me.

The mix is a collection of songs I played mercilessly in class, songs we connected over and songs I’d never heard but am honored they connect with me.

I am humbled.

This mix has been added to that box in the attic of my brain.

I share it here because I hope it makes you smile the way it made me smile.

Thank you.

Things I Know 36 of 365: We’re really good at not teaching kids to sing

I celebrate myself, and sing myself.

– Walt Whitman

Each day in fifth grade, as the bus arrived at school, I hoped everyone would break out in song. I didn’t have a particular tune in mind – at least not one that I recall now.

I just thought we should start singing the way the people did on stage when my grandparents took me to the symphony. Mayber “Carmina Burana” or the “Ode to Joy.” Something simple.

“Let’s sing,” I’d sometimes say to whichever friend was sitting next to me as we stood to de-bus. No one ever did.

Last summer, working with educators in South Africa, as we closed our week of workshops, the teachers would sing in celebration. Everyone, to a person, would sing. We’re talking harmonizing and vocal percussion.

These same teachers who at lunch were bemoaning contract negotiations and class sizes and access to technology, they sang. They transformed from teachers I could drop in to any faculty lounge across the country, to the cast of Glee.

I’ve never felt as foreign as in those moments.

This was what I’d hoped for every bus ride to school. It was happening around me.

But years of education had taught me I didn’t know how to sing.

So I stood sort of clapping arhythmically waiting for what I’d hoped for all those years to be over.

I mean, what would you do if everyone on staff broke into song at your next staff meeting?

When Jabiz Raisdana said he’d be taking my students’ writings and cobbling them together into a song, I thought, “Oh, I could do that.”

When he said, he’d be recording it, I thought, “Oh, no never, hu-uh.”

Worse still was the look on many of my students’ faces when I read them Jabiz’s suggestion that they might contribute a recording of a chorus of the song – fear and panic.

I’m not entirely certain when we teach students they can’t sing. I haven’t found where that particular standard resides in the curriculum. Whatever best practices we’re using to teach students not to sing (or play instruments for that matter) we should really start to employ them in the teaching of math and reading. We’re really good at it.

Could you do this? Making music tell a story

The Gist:

  • Students in my Storytelling class are now working with music.
  • What we’re doing isn’t explicitly stated in the state standards.
  • No part of me believes this project isn’t helping them to be better readers, writers and thinkers.

The Whole Story:

Looking at the syllabus for my Storytelling class, I noticed I’d planned for poetry to follow our short story unit. Taking the temperature of the students, I decided a course adjustment was in order.

Instead of poetry, we’re working with music-without words.

To start things out, I needed to stand their expectations on their ears.

Everything was to be cleared from their desks. I distributed blank paper.  Crayons, colored pencils and markers laid sprawled on a central table.

“I’m going to play 10 stories for you,” I said, “You need to draw or write the story as you see fit. You’ll have 30 seconds between each story to finish before we move on.”

Papers were folded, coloring utensils collected and chairs situated just so.

I pressed play.

“Kyrie” from Mozart’s Requiem wafted from the speakers.

“I’ll let you know when there’s one minute left of each story,” I said.

They started drawing and writing the stories they heard.

When all was done, we’d listened to:

“Kyrie” from Mozart’s Requiem

“Fanfare for the Common Man” by Aaron Copeland

The theme from the 60s BBC show The Avengers

Verdi’s “Grand March” from Aida

“Heart String” by Earl Klugh

“Ode to Joy” from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony

The tango from Scent of a Woman

Apotheosis’ take on Carl Orff’s “O Fortuna”

The theme from The Rock by Hanz Zimmer

The theme from Pirates of the Carribean, also by Hanz Zimmer

Thirty seconds after the last story, I told the class the story of riding in the back of my mom’s Nissan Pulsar when I was in first grade and we lived in Kentucky. When we’d drive back to Illinois in the middle of the night for holidays, each song that was in heavy rotation on whatever light rock station she was listening to was burned into my memory.

I played “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” by Tears for Fears and explained, for me, that song was about being 7 and riding from Kentucky to Illinois more than it could ever be about John Hughes’ 16 Candles.

Then came the assignment. They’re to re-tell the stories they wrote after the first day of class as a non-vocal musical track. They may compose something original or remix and mash up other tracks.

The only allowable vocals are unintelligible words like Orff’s Latin lyrics in “O Fortuna” or something along the lines of a doo-wop riff.

I’m excited to hear what they create. My hope is this assignment will stretch their thinking. I’ve tried it, it’s tricky.

Nowhere in the Pennsylvania English Curriculum does it direct students to be this kind of writers. Nowhere does it ask them to read texts as music. For that matter, the draft of the Common Core Standards doesn’t include anything like this.

I could massage a few of the standards into place, but either the assignment or the standard would end up inauthentic.

That said, I have no doubt what my students will be doing is a valid, challenging, authentic form of consumption and creation. They’re reading, writing and thinking in a way no test could measure or equal.

It’s going to be difficult, messy, frustrating and beautiful.

I can’t wait to hear what they create.