I’m following in my mother’s footsteps and picking up freebies of every sort from school as the year winds down and retiring teachers are clearing their rooms. I happened on some great versions of classics, one of the series being a graphic novel Sherlock Holmes.
So naturally GK—the six year old—has been reading mysteries on the sofa before bedtime. Coincidentally, I’ve been reading Stone Soup at school in music class—I hand out percussion instruments and as ingredients are added to the soup in the story, I let students punctuate each vegetable with a beat on the drum, a scrape of the guiro, ding on the triangle, etc.—including sound effects. I had the kids purr, “oooh, fancy!” in a British accent each time I said the line, “Soup from a pot? Fancy that!”
Anyway, I laughed when at home one night while folding clothes, GK casually mentioned that “in Sherlock Holmes, Sherlock says, ‘Watson, I fancy we may employ ourselves better at home.’ What does ‘fancy’ mean?” I feel like we have the most hilarious and entertaining crossover conversations in this house.
I’m seeing all my new tulip varieties pop up. The double late and ruffled parrot tulips are gorgeous and the slender yonina are elegant but I love the fringed orange tulips better. Even though the stems are almost too short for cutting, there is not a more stunning color. Look at me turning into a flower lady! I promised a friend I wouldn’t get old prematurely by falling for roses or irises (those being, in my mind, old lady flowers. It will happen, I am sure. Just not pre-40).
The kids at school can’t believe they’re even real, they keep coming up to the desk to touch and smell them.
I didn’t add columbine to the jars I gave to teachers because they are just too fragile. But I love having a prolific columbine plant just down the steps from the porch. It’s my little Colorado memento.
Monday I explained the tradition of May Day and the May pole and May Day baskets. I showed the students a clip of the dance from the opera La Fille Mal Gardee. I tied some tulle ribbon to the top of my old North Pole sign (worked perfect!), took a deep breath, and crossed my fingers it wouldn’t be a total disaster. For preschool and kindergarten, I just had kids skip in the same direction while I played music. For the middle grades we tried a bit of weaving but it was still almost too complicated for them to grasp. Only my sixth graders really got the hang of it (boys in and under to the left then over to the left while girls did the opposite moves to the right).
I was so proud! I daily feel like it is down to the wire planning sixth grade stuff and then I just have to go with my best idea and hope they don’t act like it’s completely dumb. Usually I preface sixth grade activities with, “I tried this with my younger kids and they didn’t really get it, so I was thinking we should try it…” At least it justifies me in case they hate it and think it super lame—hey, I can blame it on the little kids!
Six and a half days left in the whole school year! We’re going to play music Jeopardy! (This is Mrs. Stegner’s favorite ice cream flavor. What is cookies and cream?) and make a Venn diagram of theremin music versus synthesizer. (Beach boys will make an appearance!)
A co-worker casually mentioned this week that I was “well-suited for life in the sixties”—meaning, I am sure, the 1960s and not actually me being sixty years old. I don’t know what brought on the comment, but as much as I hate screen-time and teenaged zombies and phone addiction (ask someone who is sober how they feel about their past), I do agree. (But I’m pretty sure she was calling me a hippy because her words landed after I gifted the first flowers from Honey Creek for the P.E. teacher’s wedding shower.)
We have arrived, blessedly, at Easter break. Our Spring break was long overdue and we won’t get a full week like most everyone else. No matter, I have one more Spring concert behind me as of today and one more to go before summer break. The kids rightly butchered a couple partner songs and I led them astray on Here Comes the Sun. I do blame it on no rehearsals since last week, but that’s just how my schedule worked. I couldn’t have done anything to fix it. (Frankly, I am still shocked that I can speak into a microphone in front of hundreds of people without passing out. There are small and large miracles.)
After neglecting laundry folding and cooking for after school allergy shots and hand x-rays (the school nurse said, “have you looked at his hand?” I did—in passing in the hallway. It looked puffy was all. It was when she added, “lesser things have broken a hand in gym class,” that I took him to urgent care) I am ready to catch up on spring cleaning beginning tomorrow.
We did not blow away in our latest spring storms. The tornadoes went south and north of us even while the winds threatened to damage things. Our trampoline was already down last month so I was hoping we wouldn’t lose a tree or more than a barn door. The door that fell off a couple weeks ago will have to be rebuilt and we’re waiting on some Amish folks to cut us some thick wide planks with their saw mill.
I spray painted an old wind mill we found in the weeds. It will be the first colors in my back garden before the real stuff pops up. Joe picked sunflower colors (I probably would’ve picked pink or blue but I don’t argue with folks who run to Tractor Supply so I can stay home). For a couple days my spray finger muscles hurt.
I have in mind to write quite a bit this long weekend since I’ve been busier with school stuff than I’d like. If I could write I could think out the school issues better—I have a finish line in sight, something like 25 days left of instruction—but I don’t want to wait till the food gets cold, so to speak. So many thoughts on teaching, kids, attitudes, commonly held beliefs, culture. I gather all the opinions I can find and then I gnaw on the big chunks and piece together what I believe to be the best and worst of the experience.
Today was better than yesterday: yesterday I was looking up alternatives. All the things I’ve said unflinchingly like, “I’ll never do that” or “a person who cares should be willing to do this”—well, I waver, you know. And on top of this burden, I keep seeing all the schools in the state that also have position openings for elementary teachers…and it’s so critical. Kids are getting the short end and kids are our future. But then I know I can’t save all the kids and at this point I’m barely staying afloat for the ones I’ve got.
Wouldn’t it just be so simple to stay home and spray paint things and fiddle in the garden? And isn’t that what everyone wants and shoots for yet also murmurs flat “must be nice” sentiments if I were to be a stay-at-homer again? In my current teaching world it’s fraught with strong feelings that no one keeps to themself even as some strive to make money (a pittance) and spend it on seasonal screen-printed t-shirts, manicures, spray tans and eating out. Yet this more boring existence (privileged, some call it, though I’ve never myself bought the t-shirts or had a spray tan or mani) is what turns out solid kids, I think—the moms and dads who are home, again and again, doing the mundane and meticulous parenting.
Veering into Average Pearl material here…I’ll save it for tomorrow.
Over the long weekend I took a couple kids to the library’s used book sale. This is the first I’ve attempted, and I went for two reasons: I could get as many books as I wanted with my teaching ID and the middle boys are getting ready for a knowledge bowl tournament. It was a long, cold, dreary weather weekend and we had nothing better to do than study up. (Postscript: the kids each snagged medals, gold and silver. A success!)
Whenever I get weary of public school ways, I am consoled by the fact we read incessantly. I hope it covers a multitude. Our street smarts are definitely tuned up at public school but our k-bowl chops are home nursing books. Lu has been obsessed with Robinson Crusoe lately so I’ve had my eye out for other old goodies. He is strong where Jubal is not. They are really two halves to the same coin. Jubal memorizes the necessary trivia words (Pequod—Queequeg—Melville) but Lu internalizes the story. If you ask Lu for a brief synopsis of any book he will drone on about details till you politely distract him with a bag of potato chips. If anyone doubts, just mention the gae bolga or how he feels about Swiss Family Robinson novel versus the movie. (Foy’s expertise is more in the mental math department and general war trivia. This doesn’t make for as good of a story.)
Anyway, I came across a Kodaly book and nabbed it because, though my music teaching days are short, I still am only sprinkle-immersed in this Hungarian-born approach to learning music. I have tooled around on the Holy Names university folk song list but I didn’t completely understand where it came from or why it applies to anything elementary.
But the idea overall came, as I learned, from the pre-kinder work in Hungary in the early to mid 1900s. If educators could give children a brain inventory of hundreds of familiar folk tunes, they would be able to more easily transition to reading and sight reading music. Solfège—the idea of assigning a tone to a note (movable or non movable) would be accessible to kids who already chanted sing-song on the playground or jumped and clapped to rhythms.
The example that stuck out to me from this book was this: Johnny is a sis-sy!
Ha! Right up my Kod-“alley” (can’t and won’t apologize). The method behind this music teaching madness is so basic, but the foundation relies on the simplest of refrains. I’m not sure if the next music teacher will continue on with this sight reading training, but it’s been fun to watch the kiddos at school go from begrudgingly singing anything to playing solfège copycat games and singing in rounds. My first graders are especially great at it and are pretty good at hand signals, too.
I pulled out my big tub of dahlia tubers to see how they overwintered in the basement. Half had rotted; the other half were dry and peachy. I’d covered them with dry oak leaves and newspaper. I was pleasantly surprised they did ok overall. I’ve stuck the good tubers in some soil to see if I can get them to sprout early.
Some choppy thoughts—I look forward to the day when my brain isn’t overbooked and can wander more freely. We have a short Easter spring break and then one month left till school is out!
The girl had an inspiration. “Would Mrs. Kumlien like the very first fish I ever caught?” “You should keep it for yourself,” Kumlien said, admiring the big, gleaming bass. “But my mother would know I have been fishing.” “Of course, how stupid of me,” the Professor said. “Yes, it would make Margretta very happy. We’ll eat the flesh of your fine fish. But I will skin it so carefully that I can mount it for you, Inga.” “You mean it will look alive? All glistening like this forever?” “Forever,” Professor Kumlien promised. “Absolutely forever.” He had spent the morning mounting two passenger pigeons for Robbie. Now he would spend the rest of the day mounting Inga’s black bass. At this rate he would never lay up for himself treasures upon earth, but many were the treasures he would lay up for himself in heaven where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal.
The Wolfling, Sterling North
We’ve made it to March. March! I do not care to bemoan Mondays or any season in particular, but it sure feels good to have only two full months of school left on the horizon.
I know the feeling of at this rate and never laying up treasure here upon the earth. It’s not that I even want the treasure, but I do like a clean(er) house and a tidy garden, and I’ve been trading it in for choir practices and running furiously. Maybe “running furiously” is overkill, but my work days are unrelenting and I’m not getting home with much oomph left to cook supper and do house stuff. I love teaching; let me say it again, but I also love being a mom and that second job is finite, with an approaching deadline. (Here I feel the pull to defend myself, because it has been pointed out to me that to even have the option to not teach is out of reach for some folk, as if I just happened upon the good luck to not need an income. Which—I’d like to point out, for a long time we scraped by on one income and I’d do it again in a heartbeat because it taught us a million good lessons we would’ve never otherwise learned. One car, no cellphones, chopping and stacking wood for our winter heat, dinners of hot rolls and baked potatoes and stringy meat we could afford. Love, sacrifice, hope, dependency, generosity, long-suffering, kindness…yes, I recommend. God does bless those folk with all the blessings in the heavenlies)
On teaching: sometimes I feel the pinch of what I could do with my time to be more effective but it is too costly to fix myself in that direction. I have to really lean in and examine if I’m doing it to impress or please people or if I’m doing it just to be a decent, not lazy person. Heaven knows I’m not getting paid anymore for working harder. I can follow the state standards and draw up a perfect pacing guide AND have monthly performances AND afternoon/weekend choirs AND visit the nursing homes…and I can bust my tail doing it all. We could busy ourselves to the point of not enjoying anything, and I know we are at the cusp.
Still, I really want the kids at school to have an excellent experience in music class and walk away with more than just a memory of some teacher forcing them to sing when they didn’t want to sing. (I’m a realist—this is exactly what the kids remember about the last qualified music teacher they had.) I enjoy being creative and working with the medium of children, even if they are doggone fickle and sometimes have terrible attitudes and self-control.
I’m slowly tricking the fifth graders (all of them) into singing an actual 2-part choral piece and I had no inkling this might happen. I just shrugged and tossed them each a piece of “Rattlin’ Bog” and said something evasive about how kids should have the experience of examining a real piece of music…maybe we should try to read it and see if we could follow it through to the end? I can’t believe I have them tricked into doing exactly what I want! We’ve come a long way since Dona Nobis Pacem. Next thing you know I’ve scheduled a concert for April.
Fourth grade recorders are back out because I signed up for MusicPlay Online and discovered the magic of experienced recorder teachers. Step one, teach B A G and have them “practice” by holding long notes for ten to twenty counts on each, thus wearing out the students before they annoy you with random tooting throughout the class. I’ve also been explained the difference between Baroque and German recorders and successfully avoided F and explained why to the kids (different style recorders finger it differently). I don’t have to print out music—all of the resources are already there. Highly recommend MusicPlay! We’re already playing DCBAGE in waltzes and 4/4 time. Watch out 5th grade band, we are coming in hot.
Sixth graders are still a random box of surprises. They are pretty poor music readers, so I’ve come up with a few games to examine rhythms and copy them (without making it feel like kindergarten clap alongs). My best idea lately has been to split them into small group and hand out cards with a rhythm which they have to translate into spoken words. Four sixteenth notes followed by a quarter note, rest, and paired eighth notes would be “peanutbutter-toast—sh—grape-juice” and so on. Once the small group can clap and say their measure, I assign a point and give them a new card to work on. Jolly Ranchers for the winners!
Their progress is behind even the fourth graders because they start out with such a poor learning attitude. I have to slowly win them over to my side. It is (eye-roll) ridiculous but sixth graders are consumed with the is-this-cool/this-can’t-be-cool riddle. This from large children with mullets. I know. I do try and support their tender little misunderstanding souls by giving them the pick of the litter fun stuff when I can swing it.
We are on the cusp of spring. I am watching the two littlest play on the trampoline. It is incredible to see a little girl in a faux pink fur coat, rolling and tackling her big brother. If I weren’t a touch grossed out by girls competing in the sport of wrestling, I would give her a fair shot. She is as spicy as they come and not even one bit afraid of getting hurt.
We are past the one hundredth day of school. There have been high school basketball games and pep band and elementary after school choir practice. The middle boys are practicing for an upcoming knowledge bowl competition. I got to moderate my first high school quad, which is as nerdy and fun as it sounds.
I have put in my resignation as music teacher. It makes me sad because I love it so much and I’m getting better every single day. But it’s added too much to my plate (understatement) and I am truly under qualified for the position. If I stayed, the administration would eventually (and rightfully) require me to pass a music test. They need to go ahead and find someone who is trained for the spot. Two years have gone by now without a qualified music teacher. If I stay they would continue to be happy and unaware…I guess I’m trying to be responsible and force things to come to a head for the benefit of our students.
I started some ranunculus in the basement in January. Last year was such a ranunculus flop because I just soaked the corms and plopped them in the ground, basically setting them up to rot. Who knew it took such a gentle touch? One of the kids remarked that as delicate as the process is, and if they can’t regenerate naturally, ranunculus ought to have died out a long time ago. I think I agree. My Successful Gardening book doesn’t even list ranunculus as a corm, but a tuber. So I’m pretty much in the dark here…
As were my little corm friends. I soaked them and stuck them in a shallow tray of soil and popped them in the basement. After two and a half weeks, about half of them had sprouted or grown tender little roots. A quarter of them were moldy. Another quarter were dried out.
I planted the sprouted corms and covered them with the heavy black landscape material. Then I re-soaked the dry ones and patted them back into the dirt tray. Since then, a few more have sprouted. I didn’t even bother putting the trays back in the basement, but left them in the front entryway in full sun. They have done fine—I think it’s more important they just get a head start in cold, but not frozen, simulated ground.
Can you tell I love the pioneer style of figuring out plants instead of using science? Ha.
Finally a weekend! I started to write at the beginning of the month but keep getting derailed by weekend jaunts to knowledge bowl contests. I would be very boastful about our k-bowl conquests if I didn’t have the “let another praise you and not your own lips” verse imprinted on my heart. Let it be said that kids who read will one day rule as k-bowl royalty. We are coming into our own and it is pretty magical to watch.
We made it to Valentine’s Day and second and third graders square danced for parents and other admirers. I didn’t have time to get nervous before calling the program with a microphone in hand and 120 kids who can’t remember their left hand from the right. I definitely put a Sharpie dot on every student’s left hand before hitting the gymnasium. We started out with Arkansas Traveler and finished strong with Achy Breaky Heart.
This week I’ve been reading the book and singing the song Froggie Went a Courtin’ to my littlest students. I cut out some foam puppets and glued them to popsicle sticks. Someone was getting rid of a little wooden puppet stage and I am a sucker for puppets.
I have to laugh when I think about the conversations we have in class. I can’t even imagine what the kiddos go home and talk about. My own kids have said all sorts of stuff that had me bewildered when they came home and relayed teacher news.
After Froggie asks Miss Mousie to marry him she replies, without my Uncle Rat’s consent, I wouldn’t marry the President! We paused and talked about “consent”—this is the funny part, though these days you get the feeling it’s on the Do Not Mention list or else you’ll make CNN headlines. I went tangential (as I often do) and told them the story of Mr. S going to ask my dad, Mr. Roger, if he could marry me. There was baited breath in the music room—-what did he say?! Wide eyes blinked. I paused for effect and then told them how my dad agreed and gave Mr. S his permission to marry me, just like Uncle Rat gave Froggie! Super simple, right? These kids had never even heard of such a thing. It was hilariously cute and kinda sad, too. So many kids are starving for these sweet little conversations (and puppets, too. Even the older grades saw the puppet theater and begged me to do the puppet play for them).
I think many grownup people forget how much kids need to be treated and talked to like kids. A child needs a thousand stories, lots of repetition, simple explanations. At the music conference I attended last week, I was informed that Jingle Bells was now on the no-sing list, along with Pick a Bale o’ Cotton.
“I know we used to sing it, but know better, do better. Picking a bale of cotton is not a fun thing,” the workshop leader said. When I came home, I asked Gretel what she thought the song was about.
“It sounds like a fun jumpy song for kindergarten,” she said, and that was that. If the “know better, do better” rule applied across the board, I’d more readily accept it. But for now I’d rather a thousand kids innocently sing a bouncy song about picking a bale of cotton than one kid watch Rihanna singing at the Super Bowl that “chains and whips excite me”—or whatever other trash she plans on dishing out.
It’s such a sad era, culture wars and all that. Too much emphasis on culture, as if it ought to define us, when culture is not, nor should it be, synonymous with tradition and things we hold sacred. Many folk tunes are filled with death, matching upbeat tunes to morose storytelling.
Froggie, the insensitive amphibious masochist, carries a sword and a pistol by his side, also not culturally appropriate these days. It’s so hard to make Miss Mousie, Uncle Rat, and everyone else happy, poor guy.
The music conference was still the best thing I’ve done all year. I learned more than I could have ever hoped—I wish I could’ve done it at the beginning of the school year. I met teachers who believed in me and instructors who encouraged me. It was like a power boost in Mario after he catches the star—I’ve got some energy and can super-focus my classes again.
Winter chased us right home from school on Wednesday and we settled right in to our long winter’s nap. The cold was bitter and the wind howled around our stone farmhouse. We snuggled on the couch and read books and watched movies and ate yummy food and baked tiny things (and scraped their tiny tops off upon removal) in the new Easy Bake oven. Just the right kind of Christmas.
I don’t know what I’d have done if I had to get up that last Thursday morning and face another half day of school. Now, tell me what other job does a person hold that feels so doggone perilous? My Christmas spirit was at a fever pitch (upon research, “fever pitch” is sometimes defined as “a degree of abnormal excitement that usually develops rapidly among a number of people and sometimes leads to impulsive violence.” Um, accurate.)
The irony is that I’m a person who can get on happily for days, weeks! Without any background noise. I love music, but I adore silence. I would be a great truck driver or artist. I enjoy reading legal documents and weird research papers. But here I am playing and singing Christmas music for eight hours straight, trying not to lose my marbles as I try to explain why students cannot play jumbie jams or blow constantly through their recorders every single time they come into my music room. Every time I get xylophones or bells out, my head rings for the next two hours. The car ride home from school MUST BE SILENT or I will flip my ever-loving lid.
The students delivered their Christmas Sing-Along Wednesday before the end of school (you can watch it here). Joe tells me that from his audience viewpoint, parents were pleased, so I am pleased. I realize there are professionals who do bigger and better and more all the time, but then I remember they are professionals. I am happy to remind myself that I am not. I’m also happy to remind the school I am not a professional, for which they pish and posh me. Later, when I was talking with Joe about it and he was husbandly-proud of me, I started feeling angry. Not angry for giving me a compliment, but because my goal wasn’t to fake being an amazing music teacher—it was to expose the lack of music education the school was offering and inspire the administration to not settle for less-than-qualified staff.
I tried to explain to him how students deserve way more than my silly scarf-dances-choreographed-to-Raffi material. This is because I was looking into elementary district choir and realizing how advanced the two-part, foreign language sheet music is in comparison to my silly listen-to-the-Muppets-recording-and-try-to-replicate. It’s ridiculous how advanced some of my students could be by now but since we are a country school where the administration doesn’t put a high value on music education, many will never get to experience that level of accomplishment. Of course, who are you going to hire to do this job for $32k? Somebody’s mom, that’s who. Let’s call it provisional and let the constituents know in a calm, off-the-cuff email that we have a handful of “not highly qualified” staff at our school. Never have I been more insulted and flattered at the same time. I’m in high demand.
This is definitely why the job is good for me and the two weeks off for holiday break is bad…I start to think and my thinking gets me fired up.
I wish I could teach a choir, but it’s kind of like wishing I could paint a mural on the barn or weld my own yard ornaments. I’d need the tools, training, and practice. And maybe some talent in that particular area. And also some rhythm, music-wise (I am getting a little better in this area but not great).
That is a long-winded whine, but it helps me to write it out and hopefully keep positive. There is a lot I can do, it just is more in the drama department (if I have the courage to figure out the auditorium and lights, camera, action). I have my sights set on May and I can’t wait to try and get a couple Spring plays together. I need to focus less on the academics and more on the creative side…I guess I just need to be who I am and not be who I’m not. Plus the kids love it when I bring in dried arrangements of milkweed and explain how the pods burst open and seeds fly away. They love it when we make masks or projects or do Christmas carol mad-libs or figure out a hand clap rhythm to Peer Gynt. They love playing my lame Charades on the auditorium stage. They love me, and we have good discussions about non-music things that are, hopefully, working on their character. Music teaching is just the genre of learning.
Oh, Honey Creek! I have loved being home, walking the woods, breathing the air, pretending cattails are magic wands—when it wasn’t bitter cold. The Midwest is richer, weather-wise, than where we lived out west. There is a seriousness to it. You must heed its warnings or heatstroke or frostbite will claim souls. In Colorado we laughed as we dug the cars out of four feet of snow. We stripped down to t-shirts and mud boots and sweated in the snowy sunshine. I miss it, but I am much at home here.
It has been an odd week of traveling and sickness coupled with all the usual Christmas duties. I still am not quite sure how people have more than one job… I started and finished Hannah Coulter this week for my bedtime reading, and it seems, in Wendell Berry’s world of fiction, that an entire life can be lived quite fruitfully on several acres and nothing more doing than maintaining the farm and a couple kids. Berry doesn’t even ever once mention trips to Branson or sinus infections and earaches.
I already agreed with this sort of lifestyle—the stay on the farm one—so I must be living more than one life’s worth right now. The Christmas spirit isn’t exactly wearing on me but I am feeling some Christmas spirit fatigue. It’s a good thing I love Raffi—that’s all I can say. Burl Ives, though pleasant, has a certain je ne sais quoi that feels irritating after a few go-rounds of Holly Jolly Christmas. Come to think of it, 99% of Christmas albums begin to grate after so long. I can only imagine working at a department store from October 31st until Christmas. But I guess no one is forcing you to sing along while you stock the shelves.
In elementary music room purgatory we force participants to sing and march and play to holiday tunes non-stop, mostly because I am unprepared and possibly unqualified to hand out worksheets. I have an ever-present fear of not being fun and engaging, I suppose. I never liked the music theory book that accompanied my childhood piano lessons. I dreaded the homework part, never quite memorizing the lines and spaces and key signatures. I’m afraid of worksheets that are just busy-work and I don’t think there’s enough time in the world to grade them. I wish I had more discipline. Maybe this is why I can’t convince myself I’m the permanent person for the job.
Raffi—dear Raffi! The timeless song-singer and beloved Egyptian Canadian from my childhood. We’ve brought egg shakers and rhythm sticks and square dancing to the party. If he only knew the revival we’ve brought to his 1982 Christmas album forty years hence. I’ve found a thousand ways to incorporate all the songs into my every day doings, so much so that I’m contemplating making videos to document if it isn’t copyright infringement. It’ll be one of those to-dos on my get-to-eventually list.
Another thing that breaks up the Christmas music—ahem, monotony—are some fun activities I’ve found by perusing a YouTube channel made by one Mr. Delgaudio. He has taken some old poems and songs and worked them into arrangements and games with some Orff instrumentation. Favorites right now Hej, Tomtegubbar and Mincemeat Pie. It feels right to hang onto the shirttails of a real music teacher when I am fresh out of ideas.
The kids performed on stage last weekend. It wasn’t the best time because one was on medicine, one needed to be, and another was just beginning to come down with something. We didn’t even practice Jingle Bells until right before the show, so our singers were unprepared and in the wrong key, but FC and GK thought it was amazing fun to be on stage with the brothers. And Jubal got to play his Bela Fleck-Jerry Douglas tune on dobro, which was beautiful. Each time we do something new, we gain experience. We meet the neatest people, luthiers, musicians, other families. Plus, there were some amazing youth groups on stage which blew us all away and makes the kids want to up their ante each year.
I’d like to be to the point where things are “beginning to look a lot like Christmas”—and at school, they are, but at home I’m afraid I’ll never have any presents wrapped, let alone a tree in the living room.
Yesterday as we were wrapping up car duty and headed back inside the school, a fellow teacher went to pull the plug on the hallway Christmas lights and it went BANG! And a flame shot out. Only one of the the strings went dark, but there are thousands of lights in the hallways. (Teachers are, as you probably know, the most festive of holiday celebrators.) It’s a good reminder to unplug my own classroom lights when I leave so as to not start a fire.
We are rehearsing Christmas songs, of course. This will be the first time singing in two years for most of my students. This makes me feel: a. Helpless, and b. Unqualified. I wish I could play piano and sing at the same time. I wish I knew anything about conducting. I wish I were coordinated. My hack is to add as many hand motions as possible to detract from the very obvious notion that I cannot conduct.
My guitar is a good red herring, too. (I first wrote red heron. Now that would’ve really thrown you off, no?!) Turns out everyone who cannot play guitar is very impressed with a three-chord playing guitarist. This will buoy anyone’s self-esteem. Before we started in on the Christmas tunes I felt obliged to do a short unit on Thanksgiving. So we rolled out some blue paper and made a brown boat and talked about pilgrims and Indians in 1621. We discussed why it is so important to always have an attitude of gratitude (my Sunday school years kick in hard)—why, you ask? Because thankful people are happy people. Unthankful people are constantly tossing out blame for their unhappiness. Anyone who has read Ann Voskamp knows that. We sang I am Thankful to the tune of One Little, Two Little, Three Little Indians—I asked kiddos what they were thankful for and we sang: I’ve got a house and I am thankful I’ve got a house and I am thankful I’ve got a house and I am thankful I’m so very thankful!
Then we moved on to an original, yes, by moi. To be perfectly honest, I stumbled upon a record in my classroom closet called Dances Without Partners with a copyright date of 1973. It’s got the cutest songs—more on those in a minute—but I nabbed the tune from Follow the Leader and turned it into a song about a sad turkey (to contrast with our Thankful song.
I’m just a turkey I’m just a turkey A turkey, and I don’t know what to do
I’m just a turkey I’m just a turkey And it’s almost Thanksgiving Day Boo hoo!
They’ll catch me…. They’ll eat me…. They’ll stuff me up with bread….
They’ll dress me… With gravy… Now you see what I begin to dread!
OH… I’m just a turkey I’m just a turkey A turkey, and I don’t know what to do
I’m just a turkey I’m just a turkey And it’s almost thanksgiving Day Boo hoo!
The neat thing about writing your own music and making students perform it is that I am getting all my creative needs met—the thing I love to do is being acknowledged and (generally) enjoyed by my favorite kind of people—kids! And I get to add in all sorts of standard-approved material, the stuff that makes your administrators proud. I busted out the “turkey legs” (brown maracas, but the kids love it when I pretend to take a bite out) to shake on the word “turkey”.
So that’s what I’ve been up to with the younger crowd.
As much as I use Youtube to look up songs, I have yet to dig in and find all my resources there. I told the art teacher I need to just do my own recording of stuff I come up with so I can go back and remember all the silly songs I make up. Even the Veterans Day assembly included an original song (written by our own third grade teacher) which would be cute to re-use. You can watch it here, beginning at minute eighteen. We used boomwhackers for the bum, bum, bum, bum!
But back to the Dances Without Partners record: most of my energy is spent trying to convince the average student that listening and participating is worth their time. They are, as most bred-and-born screen-time aficionados are, super unimpressed with old records because it doesn’t have the excitement of a flashing Youtube video with animations. After realizing what I was dealing with, I decided we needed more exposure, not less, to these things that require intense attention. So I play the record while students are walking in the classroom. They must be silent and follow me until we are seated. If they cannot do it, we go back out in the hallway, turn around and try again until they master it. This gives them exposure to the listening part, and by then they are ready to do something other than walk in a line. So we sit down, tap our fingers on our knees, and call out their names, one at a time: Now let’s name the fingers…there’s the…THUMB! And the…POINTER! And the….MIDDLE FINGER….and the RING finger! And the PINKY, the PINKY!
This fifty-year-old record is a series of games for children, called out in a man’s voice. It begins with The Finger Game and moves on to The Clapping Game, The Stepping Game, and so forth.
Are you beginning to see what a mean old music teacher I am?! We have to make the unexciting (the full-on, whole body participation) exciting again. We have to re-introduce the dull (walking in a straight, quiet line) in order for anything but the flashy and passive to be attractive. I am convinced of this if we want our children to be anything other than couch potatoes.
*after posting, I went back a made a video for I’m Just A Turkey. Go watch it here!
Pop brought over his latest long project, his aluminum bass. We took pictures and marveled at the Osage orange and cherry neck and fingerboard. And we had to take pictures in the barn, of course. He bought it off of Craigslist last year when we first moved back. I had been looking for a dobro for Jube and when I saw the bass I sent him the info. I’m so glad he got it, it sounds terrific and we can’t wait to show our bass-playing friends in Branson. It can really thump.
I am feeling I’ve figured out the rhythm of school, for better and worse. The top things I worried about in the beginning do not plague me as often—I am quite comfortable getting up early in the morning to drink coffee and put on a very small amount of makeup (concealer under eyes, mascara). I don’t worry like I did about wearing the right clothes. I have enough decent choices. Getting lunch amounts to either packing snacks or buying it at school.
My kids still are determined to make me late with the wearisome habits of complaining about breakfast and various body aches (Gretel) and frantically searching for a jacket, missing homework, etc. (boys). FC has the disadvantage of huge feet that don’t go gentle into that good Nike shoe. It takes him foreeeeever to loosen the lace and shove it in. Until now he’d always been a Velcro man. Third child and all—I don’t have time to get his fine motor skills up to par. He knew how to tie shoes once upon a time, then Covid brought us down a notch. But I determined with his last new pair of shoes to re-learn the tying part because my art teacher co-worker mentioned the stress of 6th grade boys, who, having never had to wear anything other than slip-on shoes, must learn at 12 years old how to tie a knot for an art project.
Believe me, I got the message. But new skills like these are most likely to be practiced in the morning between the acts of taking Claritin, brushing teeth, and locating water bottles and other lost things. We are always a good 15 minutes off schedule. I’ve tried to remedy it by getting up earlier but no one likes that option. They just wallow in bed and get up right before they hear my voice turn peevish.
We’ve been quite on our own this week with Daddy traveling. A couple of my classes performed Veterans Day music at an assembly which was pretty darling. Boomwhackers were involved with third grade to go with an original, written-by-a-third-grade-teacher song. Homemade paper poppies and Uncle Sam hat headbands accompanied the preschool and kindergarten crowd. I did have to drag a couple of those rotten kindergartners to the principal’s office just yesterday, lest you think this sort of rehearsing is always a cupcake with sprinkles on top.
The people who sold us our farmhouse were of a family of four brothers and two sisters, the brothers all being veterans. It was a great surprise to see that three of the four were the main speakers for our assembly. I couldn’t be more proud to have our little students sing for such wonderful folks.
With Veterans Day performances behind us, I am diving into a 5th grade Christmas agenda because we’re already scheduled to sing on the steps of the Capitol. If you are thinking this is probably beyond my pay point, I would readily agree. I have no idea what I’m doing. The water is very deep. After the assembly today Jubal told me I needed to stop flinging my arms around and that he’d never seen anybody direct music like that before. It doesn’t hurt my feelings because part of this whole experiment is me making a point that this school district ought to actually hire someone who knows what they are doing (potentially with training) (or anyone with an interest to even offer training). I keep waiting for someone to call me out so I can slink back to my comfortable, shadowy farmhouse and amuse myself with goofy writing and growing my garden.
Alas! I got many compliments, like many. I need to be less enthusiastic or something. They’ve gone from a flat nothing to something and are far too easily impressed. For 5th grade I’ve selected a (probably) much too hard Dona Nobis Pacem. Hard, because remember they’ve had no music training in over a year, much less have they ever heard of the word, Latin. Plus their teacher doesn’t play piano, ha! The other piece is Miss Piggy’s version of Christmas is Coming. My approach is letting them listen to the Muppet’s Christmas song and copying it. Today we practiced chanting it in a round and it went surprisingly well. The first day I busted out the sheet music was daunting but I pushed through. And now I’m seeing the very tiny glimmers of light at the end of the tunnel (a boy-girl seating chart has helped).
Sixth grade is where I feel more hopeless, because the students are all as big as me and convinced I want to ruin their lives by making them do something stupid. Interesting how that attitude prevails inside kids who are regularly doing stupid things anyway. I made them rap about Thanksgiving foods today. No wonder they hated it? But what am I supposed to do? Baby steps, right?
Fourth grade is made up of half goons and half sincere kids who really want to learn recorder. Obviously I’m terrible at classroom management because the thing that led to my chronic hives situation a couple years back was homeschooling my own children. Tangent: management is not my forte—one of those comes-handy-to-a-mother skills that I just didn’t get. So it is super ironic how I am teaching recorder (??!!?)—an annoying instrument I don’t play, to kids who are terrible listeners. I feel like I’m practically yelling the entire hour: REMEMBER, LEFT HAND AT THE TOP. LEFT, NOT RIGHT. HOLD UP YOUR HANDS. SEE THE HAND THAT MAKES AN ‘L’? GOOD. NOPE, JASON. WHEN YOU ARE LOOKING AT ME, MY LEFT HAND WILL LOOK LIKE YOUR RIGHT HAND. OKAY, BETTER. COVER THE THUMBHOLE. NOPE, WITH YOUR THUMB. YOUR LEFT THUMB. OKAY, LET’S PLAY A ‘B’. LET’S REMEMBER TO TONGUE THE NOTE. THA, THA, THA. ONE, TWO, THREE, FOUR, ONE, TWO, READY, PLAY. OKAY, STOP. STOP. STOP! WE’RE NOT BLOWING AS HARD AS WE CAN. BLOW GENTLY. TAMMY, WHY? WHY ARE YOU DOING THAT? OKAY, LET’S TRY AGAIN. FIVE ‘B’S. THA THA THA THA THA. ONE, TWO, THREE, FOUR, ONE, TWO, READY, GO. THAT’S NOT A ‘B’! ‘B’ IS THE THUMB ON THE BACK AND POINTER ON THE FIRST FRONT HOLE. NOPE. NO. NO. OKAY, EVERYBODY PUT YOUR RECORDERS DOWN. DOWN. NOPE. NO. OKAY, TAKE THE RECORDER OUT OF YOUR MOUTH. MR. JONES, ARE YOU LISTENING? NO, YOU’RE NOT. NO, SIR. IT’S STILL IN YOUR MOUTH. TAKE IT OUT. EVERYBODY PUT YOUR INSTRUMENT UNDER YOUR CHAIR. MR. JONES, STOP. STOP!!
Wait, did I say I felt helpless in sixth grade? Never mind. I’ll catch up on the first and second graders next time.