Periods of Reflection

Just random musings from an elementary perspective. Views are my own.

Month: May, 2012

Teaching and Improvisational Music

I listen to music.  I listen to music A LOT. I consider music to be the fuel that drives me on a daily basis.  Depending on my mood, I have an artist or genre that fits my specific needs for that moment.  Going deeper, the genre of improvisational music really tugs at the soul and inspires me.  I admire artists who create musical conversation on the spot with their bandmates, knowing full well it may not produce the greatest outcome.  But let’s face it, when you have an adventurous spirit, anything can happen.  The moment when a band locks into a groove that abandons the theme or  central chord structure of the song is when the magic happens.  Of course, these moments can lead to inspiring musical interplay that maybe would never have seen the light of day if the band had not pushed themselves. Through audience and band interaction, it becomes part of their historical lure.  Taking chances when improvising can also lead to flat, uninspired moments.  Let’s face it, it’s the risk you take.  How does this all related to teaching, you ask?

Improvisational music has helped mold my teaching style. I enter the classroom everyday with an idea about how’d I’d like to see the day progress.  All academic areas are intertwined to form a cross curricular environment that uses every second of our precious day purposefully. Materials are gathered at a rabid pace to ensure all students have an opportunity to be successful.  As we all know, even the best laid plans don’t always get executed, and sometimes we need to seize that improvisational, teachable moment.

The bell rings and I wait outside your door to greet their smiling, eager faces.  Everyone is settling into the day and the lessons are progressing as planned.

In Social Studies, my students are currently studying Colonial American children and their roles and responsibilities. A question from a student begins to spark some deep, meaningful conversation.  The conversation continues for a few minutes and I begin to realize  I am clearly delineating from the plan.  My mind begins to race, and I know deep down the conversation being had is meaningful for students.  Do I “Let go?” Do I seize this moment of improvisation and become a facilitator?  Do I enable students the opportunity to explore content based on questions they’d like to know the answer too? Of course! I begin to quickly reflect and realize that my plan for the lesson was not deep enough for students because they were craving more.

Cue the spirit of  my improvisational teaching pedagogy. Students began to seek out more information about colonial children in groups.  I watch as 24 students become groups of three, each with a very specific task. Slowly, these smaller microcosms pool together resources from around the classroom, internet, and various iPad apps.   The laser like focus in their eyes, the purposeful nature of their conversations, and the smiles on their faces radiate one of excitement and passion.  I could not help feel the magic and adventurous spirits of the children taking over the classroom.  Chills run up and down my arms, as I take a moment to just “sit-back” and watch.  I begin to think about improvisational music and how this moment would have never happened if I stopped the questioning from students and did not have an environment for purposeful student exploration.  What started as a read aloud, has now blossomed into a collaborative, improvisational “arena” where students took a risk and true ownership of their learning.  Students become the “band” and I was the “audience,” encouraging them at every turn. The outcome of this activity become such a positive learning experience for the students, as well as myself.

That night, I received two emails from parents telling me how excited their child was when they arrived home because of this activity.  As if watching their faces as the magic unfolded was not enough, the emails assured me that students will develop a love for learning when given the chance to have a voice and a classroom to take risks and improvise.


Purposeful Chatter Through Collaboration

In a effort to review our content area vocabulary words that students have explored throughout the duration of the school year, we have been playing numerous games, ranging from Jeopardy, Scategories, and “Head-Band.” This school of review comes from Marzano’s strategies for teaching vocabulary.

The premise of head-band is students chose words from a pile, hold it up to their forehead so they can’t see the word, and their partners give them clues to solve the word. Students have created index cards of their vocabulary words. The clues can range from synonyms, antonyms, non-verbal actions, kinesthetic movements, etc. The greatest part about this activity is the purposeful chatter. For so many years, we’ve been led to believe that quiet equates to better focus and student achievement. I tend to disagree. Of course, certain activities need to be done independently in order to get a valid assessment of where children’s strengths and areas of improvement are to drive instruction. However, the power of head-band is the frantic energy students display.

One may walk by my room during this time and think it’s absolute chaos and disorganization. How can there be any learning going on with all that chatter? This couldn’t be further from the truth. As I walk around monitoring progress, I hear students using their own individual techniques in order to enable their partner to guess the words correctly. The level of purposeful student engagement is real and alive. Students giving the clues and students guessing the word need to tap deep into their memory and use many skills they’ve acquired throughout the year to be successful. How can you not love a game that combines engagement, focus, demonstration of learning, and FUN?

Learning From Letting Go, Failure, and Reflection

Failure is powerful. Why? How? The key is reflection.

Through failure and reflection we grow. Holding up the mirror to ourselves and not being afraid to admit faults and errors can enable significant growth.

This year I have undergone a powerful shift in my teaching pedagogy. I learned how to relinquish “control” and truly instill trust in my student’s ability to think for themselves and/or cooperatively. (That’s not to say in years past I did not practice this, but not to the extent I have this year.) For example, I am not afraid to tell students when I don’t know the answer to a question, or ask them for their input to make lessons more creative. This was empowering both for them and me, and I have not looked back since.

Learning to Let Go.

Take for example Everyday Math centers. During a grade level meeting earlier in the year, the idea of implementing math centers was brought up. I was very adamant about not incorporating them into my classroom. What’s wrong with how I teach math now? Where will I find the time to meet all the varying groups of students and their needs? Who will support me? How will I ensure all students are on task and focused? An overwhelming feeling took over without fully thinking it through.

I took a step back and a deep breath.


I began to think to myself, I have rituals and routines already set up and students are very capable of making appropriate transitions around the classroom. I knew my understanding of the math curriculum was strong. I always arrive at school with plenty of time to properly plan to ensure all students can be successful.

Oh, I get it! The remaining barrier was myself and letting go.

That’s when the decision was made. The next day I jumped into the deep end of the pool.


Since that fateful meeting earlier in the year, I have not looked back. Math centers are an integral part of my routine. Day after day, I reflect about what was successful and what can be improved in a very systematic way. I have mentally and verbally acknowledged mistakes made along the way and rectified them. Guess what? More mistakes happened, reflection took place, and the cycle repeated itself.

I recently had a conversation with a colleague and we discussed how our year has progressed. The animation and hand motions (yep, I’m Italian 🙂 I was exhibiting were of pure excitement. I mentioned that I felt like a new teacher and how I’ve learned so much this year from letting go, failing, and reflecting.

True growth for the WIN!

Transference of Power

Picture this. Students sitting anxiously on the carpet in the front of our classroom.

Lesson objectives are written on the board and students are ready for an adventure of learning. The objective of the lesson was finding the theme of a poem. Our curriculum binder called for posting twenty or so various themes that students will encounter in literacy. Suddenly, a funny thing happened. Since developing a PLN (personal learning network on twitter) I have shifted my pedagogy in many ways. I will delve deeper into that topic in another post. I will say, however, I’ve truly put my trust behind students having a voice and an opportunity to prove themselves.

I decided, instead of giving students too many options for themes, which they probably would have had a difficult time understanding, I transfered the power to them. I read aloud the poem and asked them to immediately “turn-and-talk” to their neighbors on the carpet to discuss the theme. The discussion that formed was one of empowerment and engagement. Students were discussing the theme, as they saw it in their mind, and used evidence from the poem to support their theme. Additionally, students were making well thought out inferences using the author’s words. This sent chills of excitement up my spine.

I began to think to myself, “Do we not provide students with an opportunity to think for themselves?” “Do we provide almost too much support that narrows their thinking?” While I will never argue with the idea of providing supports so  all students can be successful using a variety of strategies, sometimes you just have to leave it in their hands. The results will most likely astonish you.

After having this “A-HA moment,” students partnered up to read “Mother to Son” by Langston Hughes. Anyone familiar with this poem will understand the depth of it. The students quickly went to their book nooks to partner read, discuss the theme, and respond in their reader’s notebook. During that time, I took small groups of students who needed  additional support and we broke the poem down line by line to deepen understanding and ensure all had an opportunity for success.

I was overjoyed when we returned to the carpet at the end of the lesson for reflection. Students proved, that given the opportunity to think for themselves, they can and will deliver. The themes that were discussed were extremely well-thought out and concise. The looks of confidence and pride radiated off their faces, and they were overjoyed with their successes. My friends, it was a powerful learning lesson for all.