Teaching Music in the Intermediate/Senior Divisions – Term 2 Final Assignment

This is the second lesson plan I completed for my music teachable class. This time, we were tasked with planning a five-lesson unit (giving an in-depth plan for one of the five). I was really challenged by the assignment, and drastically changed my plan a number of times. I finally settled on what I regard as a pretty solid concept – what I call an ‘album study.’ The concept of the album study is more or less identical to that of the novel study. That is, a group of learners work together with a text, asking questions and coming to deeper understandings. Rather than a novel, of course, we study an album. I chose Kendrick Lamar’s genius 2015 release To Pimp A Butterfly, but many other albums would work just fine within the format. My other ‘finalists,’ The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill and the Sara Bareilles concept album Waitress, were interesting to me for similar reasons – exploring racism, sexism, abusive relationships, and so on. This social justice/equity focus is extremely important to me, but might not always be possible in all classroom environments (student needs, time, etc.)

In keeping with the democratization of the classroom that I want to work towards,  I wouldn’t arbitrarily pick one album to study. Instead, I’d prepare a sort of short list to students, based on their interests. We would then decide as a class what we want to explore. Considering that even the longest albums are generally no more than an hour (unless you’re Kamasi Washington), students could listen to multiple albums repeatedly before we decide on one to explore as a class.

Whether or not I succeeded is not my call, but either way, I learned a lot from it. Plus, who doesn’t like Kendrick Lamar? Again, if you find any of this useful, feel free to use/adapt it in your own educational practice!


Teaching Music in the Intermediate/Senior Divisions – Term 1 Final Assignment

This is the first major lesson plan I did in my program. It’s built around graphic notation, and while it was written for a grade nine music class (likely mostly beginner musicians), it could very easily be adapted to fit most music education environments. If you enjoy it, or find it useful, feel free to adapt it in your own public and/or private education practice!

Unit: An Introduction to Women’s Studies/Feminism

As part of my school placement, all Teacher Candidates are required to engage in co-planning and co-teaching with their Mentor Teachers. For my first unit, in the fall, I wanted to introduce students to issues around women’s experiences in the world. Of course, as more than half the class is female, I wasn’t introducing these issues, per se. Rather, my goal is to work with students towards what Noam Chomsky calls ‘tools for intellectual self-defense.’ If we can pass along ideas and resources from some of the great women who came before, and work with young women (and men!) to make sense of gendered issues, perhaps there is hope for ending patriarchy. I’m glad my MT is on board with this.

To begin with, we had a very frank discussion about gendered stereotypes. There was certainly discomfort during our Four Corners exercise, when I provided a few questions and statements about gender.Three young women in the class, in particular, really impressed me. They weren’t able to hide their indignation at stereotypes! When I asked students if they agreed that men should be in control of the household, all three started talking at once. In other classrooms, with other teachers, they might have been asked (or told) to calm down, and speak one at a time. Instead, they organically spoke with and to each others’ ideas. One student would be at a loss for words describing a particular idea, and the next would instantly pick up where she left off. It was a genuinely moving experience  – and my MT and I shared a laugh over the stunned look on some of the boys’ faces!

One idea that became crystal clear over the course of this unit was how bright young people really are. I certainly wasn’t the type to see myself as an expert on anything before this, particularly as a White guy, but any illusions I may have had about that are long gone. I thought I might have to consciously step into the role of facilitator, versus lecturer, during this unit. What I wasn’t expecting was for students to essentially force me into that role! They had too much to say on all sorts of issues to let me lecture them. One boy, for instance, talked about he (like me) cries a lot. When one of the other boys called him girly for saying that, a third boy immediately jumped to the first’s defense. Neither I nor my MT needed, or had time, to address the homophobia and misogyny of the comment, because the students spoke peer-to-peer about it. This is often more impactful than using our teacher voices to chide students for bigoted comments.

One of my tutorial leaders addressed the question of ‘politics in the classroom’ a few weeks ago, after our professor had spoken quite eloquently about the Quebec City attacks. She argued that using our platform for social justice is an absolute moral imperative. Not for ourselves, or our own egos, but for the students who can;t say anything. This really framed my Women’s Issues unit, retroactively, because I realize that this is the direction my MT was pushing me in all along. What do we do with and for those female students who can’t speak to their parents about sexism? Or those who maybe don’t feel comfortable in their own bodies? Having an MT and TC (both men) who welcome these discussions…it lets our students know that they’re not alone. We are with you; we stand with you.

Pathways to Education (Gallery Walk, and some thoughts)

As part of the Bachelor of Education program at York, all first year students are required to complete a practicum placement with a community agency. In addition to our one day each week in a school, we go to this agency for one morning, afternoon or evening each week. This can be anything from a homework club, to a home for the elderly, to giving subsidized music lessons. I’ve been spending one afternoon each week at an agency called Pathways to Education, in Regent Park. For the first semester, I was in Academic Support. Basically, high school students come in with homework, or general academic questions, and we do our level best to help them. I’ve edited essays on American history and Shakespeare, as well as helping one group of students find some social justice-related resources for an equity course. In second semester, I’ve been working in Peer Mentoring with a group of grade nine students. I’ll post in a few weeks about my experiences there, and I’ll be keeping this post to my thoughts on Academic Support

One of the most interesting things to come out of this placement is a heightened awareness of how much high school has changed since I was there. Even though I’m in the Intermediate/Senior stream of my program (grades 7-12), my school placement this year is a middle school class. So, I haven’t really been in contact with high school students outside of Pathways. Although my own high school experience was highly unusual – I went to a public arts school – it had lots in common with those of my friends at other schools. A lot of the assumptions about time have changed, for instance. When I was in high school, I had no illusions about graduating in four years. I took my time, confident that I could take a fifth year of school, and spread the academic stress a little thinner. Knowing that I needed six strong marks in my senior (grade eleven/twelve credits) to make it to university, I did in three years what nearly all university applicants are doing in two years. I have witnessed the incredible toll this is taking, particularly in communities like Regent Park that already battle poverty, violence and racism. Four years is simply not enough time to mature, achieve academic success, and move from the relative comfort of the elementary schooling years, to post-secondary. Agencies like Pathways are being forced to pick up even more of the slack as the Ministry of Education hands down increasingly brutal budget cuts.

Unfortunately, because so many students (particularly in grades eleven and twelve) were asking for help with math and science, I wasn’t always able to give a lot of assistance. Nonetheless, I learned a lot from Academic Support. First, every students deserves a chance. Regardless of family resources, skin colour or sex, every student ought to be taken seriously by the school system, and treated with respect. Second, course selection and content ought to better reflect diverse communities. As great as Lord of the Flies may be, it is but one of many thousands of novels that can be taught in schools. Perhaps we can choose books with similar themes that consciously reflect a desire for inclusion and cultural diversity?

In the photos below, you’ll find some photos of a diorama I made for my Community Practicum seminar. As part of a Gallery Walk presentation, each student was required to talk creatively about their placements, and ideas connected to it. I chose a diorama for two reasons. First, and most importantly, I always loved making them. As you can see, I have basically zero talent in the visual arts, but the experience was still a ton of fun. Figuring out how to recreate the space I was working in, while speaking to the connections between my experiences and education theory (shown by the books glued to the walls) was a total mind-bender! Second, I felt it was important for me to ‘walk the walk’ in regards to trying and failing. I can’t well ask my students, current and future, to be willing to embarrass themselves if I myself am not willing to do so. As a former teacher and mentor of mine used to say, “I won’t ask you to go anywhere I’m not willing to go.”


Photos from George Webster – Part 2

Hope and Education (and a barrage of abbreviations)

“When we only name the problem, when we state complaint without a constructive focus or resolution, we take hope away. In this way critique can become merely an expression of profound cynicism, which then works to sustain dominator culture.” – bell hooks

As I sit here writing this, I’ve now completed 1/3 of my first practicum placement. Tomorrow morning, I will co-teach my first lesson. It’s hard to believe that it’s been nearly three months since Orientation Day at York. I wouldn’t say that I was nervous, per se, but I was definitely unsure of what this year would (and will) bring me. Like my fellow Teacher Candidates (TCs), I was ready to get the year rolling. But what would the students be like? Would I get along with everyone, or get eaten alive and become a CPA? Would I enjoy it, or would my nearly decade-old dream of teaching crumble? I worried about all of these things as the summer was ending, to be sure, but one question seemed to keep coming up. Would I like my Mentor Teacher?

Bachelor of Education (B. Ed.) programs place every student with Mentor Teachers (MTs) for their in-school placements. Each program carefully considers where to place you, taking into account everything from your teaching subject(s) and education philosophy, to your age and experience, and how those might relate to various MTs and school communities. As a fairly outspoken proponent of democratic education – emphasizing the doing of democracy on a daily basis –  I must admit that I was scared I’d get a teacher I didn’t gel with. I don’t mean to disrespect various teaching philosophies and styles – some of my favourite teachers have been very much in the old ‘gatekeeper’ style. But that’s not me, and it’s not how I want to operate as a music educator, so I was worried I’d spend my year in a philosophical wrestling match with my MT. I was dead wrong!

The day I first walked in to George Webster Public School, I felt my worries (at least the MT-related ones) melt away. My MT, Mr. Lewis, is a few years older than me, with about seven years of teaching experience. We made a little bit of small talk in the morning, but after mentioning my social justice focus while introducing myself to his (our?) Grade 8 core class, we immediately hit it off. During his prep period, and into lunch, we talked about our perspectives on social justice education, and about how far we can take our ideas within the school system. One of the great dilemmas that seems to motivate/haunt both of us is the question of whether or not social justice is even possible within the context of public education. Our conversations do sometimes take a turn toward the hopeless (what is it all for?), but we always come back to hope. A simple idea, to be sure, but a powerful one. Hope is contagious, and Mr. Lewis exemplifies it every day. Stupid questions? Never heard of ’em. Mr. Lewis is open to all sorts of ideas, and when students answer a question ‘wrong,’ he tells them something like “good job, but try again,” thereby showing students that they are valued and intelligent. I vividly recall being made to feel inferior when I couldn’t grasp certain concepts in my elementary and middle school years. Not only does my MT not do this, but he is in fact actively hostile to comments like “how did you not get that?” I’m inspired by his dedication and positivity, and I sincerely hope to live up to his example in the months and years ahead.

“I cannot be an optimist, but I am a prisoner of hope.” – Cornel West

(Please enjoy this song by Gregory Porter. It’s really meant a lot to me these last few weeks!)

Photos from George Webster – Part 1