Virtual Presentations

On my bucket list of things to do as an educator, one of my wishes has been to have students attend a live concert.  However, given the ever-evolving nature of Co-Vid as well as emerging issues of equity, this has been something that has presented a challenge, in addition to not having the same opportunities as a homeroom teacher to organize a field trip.  Fortunately, given these unprecedented times, the accommodations given to still present these experiences to students have also been pivoted from various artistic organizations.  Here are some of the ways students have continued applying their knowledge in new formats:

*the Toronto Symphony Orchestra digitized two concerts that my students enjoyed, The Ultimate Guide to Eating Hallowe’en Candy and Zoophony:  http://www.tso.ca .One of the advantages of virtual concerts is that gives students an opportunity to pause the video and discuss what is happening, and given the nature of so many different types of student learners these days, may present an in-class version of a ‘relaxed performance.’  I even let students bring snacks and lie down in the class to listen to the music if needed.  Many virtual concerts have a fee for digital rights that accompany class resources.

*the BBoyzm dance company: http://www.bboizm.ca recorded presentations and made them available to teachers along with a virtual Q and A with the artist.  Students were able to connect live despite not having the advantage of seeing a live performance with audience interaction, and were able to see a presentation from a group outside of the travel area that may not have been possible in person.  The funds for the presentation were provided by a cultural grant and therefore this free presentation was ideal for a community with various needs.

Naturally, we hope to return to in person presentations soon, however, if you are interested in checking low cost or free presentations for students, here are some other places to check out virtual resources:

-your local library or community/arts centre

-educational locations such as nature preserves, museums and science centres

For students and staff that have had a challenging few years, it is wonderful to see how people react to this technology integration of creativity and education.

Pop Culture in the Classroom

The first week of May has two important pop culture events: May the Fourth and Free Comic Book Day.  These fan celebrations are great ways to connect to student learning and camaraderie both in and out of the classroom.  More and more, students are interacting actively with media in terms of their interest in characters and immersive communities.

When I was growing up, the May 4th “Star Wars Day” existed only as a pun and has exploded over social media the past 10 years.  Most of my colleagues knew of my fondness for this space franchise and when the day began to be celebrated with fun tie-ins for kids both young and old, I naturally incorporated it into my classroom.  I was particularly excited for this year’s being the first in person occasion in three years and the first since arriving to my new school two years ago.  I was pleasantly surprised when colleagues showed up in some Star Wars hair and shirts with stuffies of various characters, and since our principal encouraged us to be inclusive and call it “Space Day”, there were many star and moon ensembles as well.

Students enthusiastically showed up at nutrition break to my room wearing various outfits, including some in costumes.  They participated in word searches, Mad Libs, and fun poses against a galactic backdrop.  What pleased me the most was that many years ago, mostly only boys would have these shirts and plushies on hand.  The fan culture has catered more and more to all genders with various characters and positive representation that appeals to a wider variety of fans.

Free Comic Book Day is a wonderful opportunity to check out the local comic book store and begin the journey to learning about superheroes and villains in graphic novel form.  Students enjoyed drawing using step by step videos of characters from their favourite cartoon shows and were encouraged to check out events at their local library.  Once again, more inclusivity in terms of characters’ backgrounds and ethnicities leads to more children seeing themselves represented on the big and small screen and in the pages of books that are a great resource for a variety of reading styles.

The terms ‘geek’ and ‘nerd’ can be used to negatively stereotype both neuro-divergent and neural typical children with interests and personalities that don’t ‘fit’ into society norms.  It’s empowering to see students embrace ideas that being a fan, whether comics or sports, is something that can introduce lifelong friends and talents.

Music Monday and encouraging arts in the classroom

May 2 will be the first Music Monday I will be celebrating live in three years and the first in my new school. Music Monday is an initiative organized by the Coalition for Music Education to promote the importance of music education in schools. You can find information at https://coalitioncanada.ca, and schools are invited to sign up internationally as well.

At the same time on the first Monday in May, schools are encouraged to virtually sing along to a song commissioned by Canadian artists. This is Music Monday’s 30th anniversary, and during the past 10 years I have participated I have sang with the students I.S.S. (Is Someone Singing), co-written by astronaut Chris Hatfield, Music is Our Medicine, and other contributions by a variety of diverse artists. We always encourage students to play along if they are shy about performing using a variety of instruments.

A book that I like to read in connection to this topic is “The Man With the Violin”, by Kathy Stinson. The author based the story on a real experiment where master musician Joshua Bell disguised himself and played for one hour in a subway station to see if passersby would pay attention to classical pieces in a non-concert setting. The beautiful illustrations convey to spirit of the children who were the most moved by the music. My students quickly recognized the importance of not judging a book by its cover and how important it is to have music occurring in everyday life from a young age.

The past few years have taught us the importance of the arts in our entertainment as well as our mental health. This year, I am video recording some of our students of various physical and neurologically divergent needs for a special slideshow on how music can be enjoyed by everyone, no matter their background and age. There are many ways to integrate music education into a variety of subjects and I hope that the choirs convey the importance of music on students’ learning and emotional well-being.

Using Short Stories for Literature

When I was in junior high, my dad travelled to Australia and brought back a short story collection for me: “UnReal” by Paul Jennings.  He thought I would enjoy it because each ending was a twist and the stories were funny and unusual.  When I was getting ready for my first week of teaching I thought that the students may enjoy them too.  Every since then, we have gone through a few of the stories at the start of each year to get a lay of reading comprehension and writing activities. You can find listings here: The “Un” books: https://www.pauljennings.com.au/index.php/en-au/books/latest-book-releases/unreal

Novels can be tricky to use in the classroom due to the increased needs of students: some fall out of favour over time due to re-examining content, they can be intimidating for students in early ESL stages or on IEPs, and it can be hard to take a novel adapted into a movie without the inevitable comparisons to the big screen version.  Short stories also allow for the reader to not have to worry about missing days and being confused by the story, or being bored and feeling stuck with finishing listening to an unmotivated tale.

In the “Unreal” short stories, I allow the students to be creative in doing activities that integrate other subjects.  We have done everything from drawing a scene, creating a drama sequel, and writing a diary entry from a character’s perspective.  Many students that are reluctant readers find they are more easily able to digest the content and get motivated to be involved in thinking up predictions to the endings.  Every year I enjoy seeing a new point of view from someone that I haven’t considered.

Another advantage for short stories is that with a variety of topics, you can also get students to vote on their choices, or perhaps find other pieces similar to the style of an author (think of the “we recommend” section of a book store).  I try to look at what has been selected in my book clubs, and the operative is that: not “novel” but “book.”  Gone are the days of long texts and only fiction; in fact, my book clubs look at memoirs which coincides with research that non-fiction that attract more reluctant readers.  In bringing this into the class, there are some great selections out there, like ‘YA friendly’ versions of adult books like Michelle Obama’s “Becoming”.  Students also enjoy the “Who Is/Was” books which is a great connection: if they liked “Diary of a Wimpy Kid”, they might enjoy reading about the author Jeff Kinney.  Once again, the illustrations assist students with visualizing the biographies of celebrities from the past and present.

The other short stories I would recommend include “Sideways Stories from Wayside School” by Louis Sachar.  There are a wide variety of characters with different personalities that can be re-interpreted in a variety of races and backgrounds.  Many students nowadays consume media in ‘chunks’ like short Tik-Toks and quick Youtube clips.  It may be time to take a look at how we engage using 21st century learning in the classroom  as well.

 

Do you Read ‘Teacher Books’ in Your Spare Time?

Teaching is a career ripe for interesting stories from a variety of viewpoints. There is of course, the humour of working with children who sometimes say and do whatever comes to mind. There is the heartwarming nature of kids who have grown up to credit the influence their educators had on their careers and lives. And inevitably, there is the frustration of a career in a system that is plagued by various public opinion and continuing challenges such as lack of funding, etc. Here are 3 books I enjoy by current and former individuals who have dabbled in education and put their experiences to paper:

A Teacher in the Wild, by Devin Siebold:
Stand up comedian and former Florida teacher Devin Siebold financed a picture book on Kickstarter based on ideas he had about how students react to running into teachers outside of class in a ‘natural setting’ like the mall. His trademark humour from his stand up matches with hilarious illustrations from Izzy B that will make adults and kids smile imagining how the encounters look from each POV.

32 Third Graders and One Class Bunny, by Phillip Done:
This memoir combines vignettes on teaching that will have educators nodding and laughing in agreement. I picked up this book at a second hand store and have recommended it to many of my friends. Be prepared to be entertained by essays comparing entering school compared to an airplane, the hazards of using a laminator with ties, and trying to make the perfect Open House presentation.

I’d Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had, by Tony Danza:
Yes, “Who’s the Boss” actor Tony Danza did a brief stint teaching high school English (he got a teaching credential before his career took off) as part of a show for A & E. Although one must be cautious of how ‘reality television’ is filmed, the book is an expansion of the reflection of an ‘outsider’ in a system based on Tony Danza’s memory of being a high school student years earlier. The thesis is simple: if more individuals were able to see education from the perspective of the staff, they would see that it is a lot more difficult and that often when we are young we don’t always appreciate what others do for us.

The common thread that all of these books have is that there is a fine line between laughing at experiences that are not easy and being relieved at relating that it may happen to everyone. Whether you read books from teachers for entertainment or reflection, there are many voices to relate to on a variety of school experiences.

Connecting Students with a Local Author

Sometimes teaching even after close to 20 years can yield new literary experiences. A few months ago, I attended a convention and came across the usual spread of artists selling their books. However, I was definitely ‘drawn’ to a short novel series by a teacher who lived about an hour away. Inspired by the popularity of Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Captain Underpants in his class, he had written a set of books about two friends who loved pulling ‘mostly’ harmless pranks in their school and neighbours. You can learn more at https://itchygooneybooks.com.

I purchased an autographed copy of the latest and as predicted, they connected with the humour and doodles. At the end we decided to contact the author Mark Gunning by email listed on his website after exploring it. Despite him not being as highly prolific as R.L. Stine or Dav Pilkey, I prepared the students for a reply being slow in coming, if at all. However, I was so pleased to find out that Mr. Gunning offered to answer our questions LIVE via a Google Meet before our spring break.

The students were kept surprised and their only negative comment was that they couldn’t do the meeting in person, but in this age, they are accustomed to adjusting their expectations with technology. Mr. Gunning was able to offer some valuable insight into how to become an author and how to put your own spin on popular ideas. In addition, he was pleased at the activities we were able to create using his series to integrate with other subjects such as Art, Music, and Science.

Local authors often rely on word of mouth to build an audience and in this case, young fans and educators are paramount in assisting with selling books. Here are some suggestions on how to choose someone from your local area:
*check your local library for lists of books and check if there are virtual school visits. Many librarians are still connecting virtually to reach broad audiences and you may be able to coordinate a Q and A with other schools simultaneously.
*connect with the author as a staff member via social media yourself to keep everything safe and control communication. Most authors include a few platforms to follow nowadays.
*check for the books on other formats for accessibility. Some school libraries may have rules on vendor purchasing, and the local library may not always have copies. However, you may be able to get copies of ebooks (in this case, the first book is free in Mark Gunning’s I Told You So series as a Kindle download, which only requires a parent to have an Amazon account).

Mark Gunning said he got the ball rolling on his writing career after another author visited his school. Perhaps a budding author will credit an interest with writing as a career after a meaningful connection to guide them on their literary journey.

The Power of a Card

Over many years, I have had students give cards over the various special events of the year. Like Hallmark, the busiest time I am opening things are the winter holidays and the end of the year, but sometimes they will produce cute decorated cards for Valentine’s Day and my birthday.

Sometimes the cards are store bought with a ready to go printed message and the student’s name hastily printed. Other times, I get a plethora of stickers and adorable personal messages on construction paper where the parent has sometimes helped with spelling. And occasionally I will get the card purchased from the store, but the student has made extra effort to find something I will like or pertains to my job, like superheroes or the Nutcracker ballet.

But every so often, you will get the special “comes out of nowhere” card where both parent and child combine talents. Last week, I was struggling with the planning of returning online students, continuing to be called out to cover classes short of supply teachers, and the ever evolving political news of the past two years. When I got to my first period French class, my mood significantly improved when one of the students who was transferring to another school surprised me a day before he was to leave with a small but powerful card.

His mother, who works at the local library, helped him make a printed design that said Merci. Although we have students leave during the middle of the year frequently, not having the students every day as a homeroom teacher usually means a quick goodbye passing in the hall.  I was touched that they worked together to make sure I received a beautiful card in person.

I am not sure how long it took, but the fact that the parent and child took the time to put something together meant so much to me personally on a gloomy day. While the rest of the day didn’t go perfect, I felt that I was able to cope with the challenges a lot better knowing this family understood the effort we made over the years to this young man.

Over the years many students have taken their time during nutrition break or asked to stay in for ‘work’ only to produce a ‘surprise’ card using colourful paper and supplies from the school.  Though not expected from all students, or in the same ways, it is the display of character traits that makes me so happy as an educator to see the development of the kindness these students will take with them throughout their many years after they leave the school.


Forest of Reading and Literacy Award Programs

As school starts up again every January, I always look forward to the recommendation list in my public library ebook section for the Forest of Reading program, an annual initiative in Ontario to get kids reading from a wide variety of levelled books (picture to high school chapter reads).  There are so many new local authors I have had the chance to be exposed to from this program and I have yet to find a student that couldn’t find something that interested them either from the list of fiction or non-fiction books.

Much can be written about the positives and negatives of student incentivization to read more, but in this case I feel that the Forest of Reading and other programs in Canada and around the world strike the perfect balance of getting students excited about competing with others for reading the most books as well as getting the chance to interview with teachers about their completed selections. In our region, students get to accompany their classmates in the school board to a celebration at the local sports arena to hear from some of the authors in person as well as see arts presentations and hear the final winner in each category for Favourite Book.  The connection to seeing people talk about their inspiration motivated students to think about what ideas they could have that could one day be in a book, or how they could persist in not giving up in a variety of career fields.

One of my favourite aspects about the Forest of Reading is that it promotes equity in how the books are distributed.  If you can’t get a copy from the local library in print or digitally, school libraries receive funds to distribute multiple copies of some of the books to students where teachers can have them read independently or as a class so they don’t miss out.  Every year, I see that some authors have had another one of their books selected sometimes in the same series which shows their ability to connect with the committees and students.  Forest of Reading is also great at promoting diverse reads where even tough subject matter is communicated in a way that students can understand and relate to.

When I taught in a school with middle school grades as well as early elementary years, I always wanted to ensure that students were able to tell me something they learned or thought about after reading the book, even if it wasn’t one they would recommend personally.  In addition to ensuring students weren’t looking up crib notes as much, it gave me insight into how students felt about characters and what sparked their interests.  It also gave me insight into what other sorts of recommendations we could make to have them continue their reading journeys.

Given the state of the world these past few years, literacy is always something that we can encourage with our students to open doors as well as become involved with, as a family.  The Forest of Reading name is perfect in inspiring the image of children starting a lifelong journey into a world of possibilities, and reminding teachers to continue to read in their spare time as well.

 

Skills that the Dramatic Arts Teach Us

Whether I am teaching Music as a rotary teacher, Drama as a homeroom teacher, or integrated Arts, I strive to make the curriculum content meaningful to students’ learning. It is no secret that Language and Math are seen as the most important subjects by parents and boards of education.  However, I feel that if we focus on skills children learn from the arts, we can show the value of these programs in addition to providing a safe space to students with divergent needs and intelligences.

When I look back at my elementary school years, I regret not being involved in the drama department.  Due to coming ‘out of my shell’ I feel proud that I had the courage to get involved in amateur acting later in life. There were a lot of things I learned that I took back to my teaching in the classroom.  The acting teachers who also taught school age classes reiterated that focusing on these skills was how they got more reluctant students to open up.

Acting teaches students teamwork, listening skills, and focusing while multi-tasking. At one of the first classes I took as an adult, we spent the first hour just observing each other and commenting on what we noticed about the verbal and non-verbal communication of the group. Whether following a script or improv, students need to be able to think on their feet to move a dramatic situation forward or to get out of the common forgotten line lead-in or prop mishap. Working together for a common goal is something that occupations require in most fields.

Acting encourages risk-taking and patience. Sometimes it feels that everyday students and adults play roles in their lives, and it is important to recognize feelings in ourselves and others. I remember how transformative it was to finally see the audience reaction after two months of working on a play. I also acted with children in these plays and was excited at their confidence growth over the weeks of rehearsal.

A lot of education based early years programs focus on play-based learning, something that acting has at its core.  When acting, we awaken the imagination and learn how to recognize emotions in others, sometimes from just a look or body language.  Whether we encourage students to take drama to complete an elective requirement or pursue it as a career, we are giving them many tools that will help them to succeed across a wide variety of careers and social interactions for the remainder of their lives.

Dance Anxiety

Although I consider myself a creative music and drama teacher, I don’t feel the same when it comes to dance.  With the other performative arts, I feel that I am able to use my experience as a high school band member and amateur acting hobbyist to present interesting lessons and assist students. Dance was not something I have ever gravitated to since I was young.  Although largely fitted under the same umbrella, someone may have rhythmic talent but not able to convey it through movement.  I have also met colleagues that can choreograph Bollywood routines, but balk at the idea of trying to teach those notes on a scale.

The same can often be said of students.  While they are busy scrolling through TikTok, I wonder what percentage ‘like’ videos but just use the platform for viewing vs. creating their own content.  Or, how many will diligently practise a dance from a viral challenge in a bedroom but freeze at the idea of performing in person in front of their peers.

When Music and Dance were separated into different parts of the report card halfway through my career, I knew I was going to have to challenge myself with teaching content that I was not as familiar with.  Also, picturing myself back in my school days, there were predominantly going to be students that were not confident dancing even for non-‘romantic’ purposes, even in the pre-teen years.  Here are some of the strategies I have adopted from introverted French speakers or oral presenters:

-if the dance is in a group and some students are more confident, see if you can get students to agree to perform one version live and record a different one with all of the group and sometimes this is less anxiety-inducing.

-if you are teaching online, have students send a video in where only you have to see a solo dance and challenge them to see if they have other talents that can be used such as backdrop design or video editing.

-If you have students that straight up decline to participate, do a bit more information gathering from them. Find out how you might be able to engage those students and help them participate in a way that still meets curriculum expectations; even if their learning task is different (e.g. complete a written reflection on the style of dance).

As you can see, these ideas work for both in person and online learning while following the curriculum expectations.

It has been interesting to see how examining a variety of music and dance styles can give students leadership opportunities in the arts, so if all else fails, sometimes performing a favourite song or latest artist hit can have students want to be in on the fun.

I will be getting married in July and I cannot remember ever dancing with everyone watching.  Here’s hoping I can practise what I preach in honour of my students.