With the new AMLE2017 conference song and video up on the interwebs, music is on my mind. Music is everywhere. In our cars. In our phones. In our classrooms. In our homes. Music is even with me as I write this blog (thank you, DJ Shadow). And, of course, music is a part of everything we do in the critical middle grades. How so?
First, we have a unique sonic vantage point when it comes to music. Most people only hear musicians after they have already practiced countless hours, played numerous songs, recorded multiple albums, rehearsed on many stages, etc. Middle school educators get to see and listen to students learn instruments for the first time. Is it always pleasant to the ears? Is it always satisfying to the listening palette? Not necessarily, but music in the middle grades is about the process as well as the product. And there's no need for auto-tune here. We get to experience art and artists taking shape every day. And that's all thanks to the outstanding band, chorus, and orchestra teachers that we have in our buildings on a daily basis. Thanks to their dedication, our students are celebrated for the notes they play or sing on a score, not just for the scores they make on a test. Thanks to their passion, our students have another joyous reason to come to school every day. And thanks to their positive outreach, families see our schools are great places where their children are celebrated as musicians, singers, performers, creators, and artists.
So now what? If you want to increase attendance at your school, increase the number of music and art opportunities you offer on a daily basis. While we want all of our students to be academically driven, some kids are more propelled by the arts. And music class is what keeps them coming to school! And do the same thing if you want to increase grit, resilience, and social-emotional awareness in students. Students in band learn that it's not about one person, one instrument, or one section that makes the band work; it's about collaboration and cooperation. It's about trying again and again even when it sounds rough the first time. And it's also about supporting your fellow musician—because we're all trying to make this piece of music sound great. That takes positive social-emotional behavior, patience, and tolerance—all life skills we want to instill in our young adolescents. And I'm speaking from firsthand knowledge. As I've mentioned before in other blogs and articles, I might not have survived my junior high school years if it weren't for my band teacher and my beloved low brass friend, my tuba. And my own seventh grader has been able to struggle, succeed, and create with the trombone thanks to exceptional band teachers at his school. It's given him another handhold on the mountain of early adolescence. Something else to help him say, “Hey, I've got this!”
Music is also part of the critical middle grades because it's the perfect metaphor for what we do on a daily basis. Take a guitar, for example. In its essence, a guitar is a box of wood and some strings. What makes it truly sing is when those parts are put together. For the strings, each of them has a specific note it plays (E, A, D, G, B, E), and that's nice; but what makes it really cook is when they are tuned and played together. That's also the essence of interdisciplinary teaming. Each teacher on a grade level can be good at teaching his or her content area (ELA, SS, Sci, Math, Art), and that's nice. But what makes a grade level really cook is when teachers are put together on interdisciplinary teams across the content areas so they can build relationships, create artistic teaching and learning, and really get to know their audience (students and families). Will there be some disharmony and discord when a team is first put together? Of course! It's the same with an instrument. Like guitar strings, getting every person in tune takes time and a patient, listening ear. Again, there's no such thing as auto-tune in the middle grades! And will the interdisciplinary team always remain in tune throughout the year? Of course not. That's why we build relationships with each other and check in and tune up every day during common planning time. And when we play our middle grades music in harmony, our students are the audience that benefits every time.
Continuing the guitar connection, I also think about the role of the amplifier as it pertains to what we need to do in middle schools. An amplifier, of course, amplifies the music created by a guitar. Without an amplifier, a guitar on its own is nice; but what really makes it cook is when it is plugged into the amplifier so it can sing louder, prouder, and more voluminously across the landscape. What's the middle grades connection? With the amplifier, I contend that we can't just play our middle grades music quietly in our schools. That's nice work, but more people need to hear our song. We need to plug in our pedagogical guitars, crank up the volume, and let the whole community, district, state, and world know all the amazing stuff we're doing! Many people in our communities think they know the middle school song and what it's all about, but we need to play them the new critical middle grades tune! We need to get loud and proud by publishing our stories in the local papers, getting on radio and television stations, websites, community posts, etc. In other words, we need to do more than show up—we need to get voluminous and step up!
So how are you celebrating music in the middle grades and helping the music of teaching and learning grow in your school on a daily basis? How are you getting loud and proud about your middle school?