Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Marching Band: Classroom of Tomorrow

Not pictured: The other 22 people in pirate garb legally considered adults.
(Pictures taken by friends, posted on Facebook.)

I thought about writing about this most recent Band Day, since it was some of the most fun I've had at a football game in a long time, but UDMB director Heidi I. Sarver has already written a great piece about it.

I spent that game with one of my families, the University of Delaware's Fightin' Blue Hen Marching Band (UDMB). With all the music, friendship, and general silliness that can be involved with band, like the alto sax section's annual celebration of International Talk Like a Pirate Day, it can be easy to forget that it's a college class. The football field is a classroom ahead of its time. More classrooms should strive to run like a marching band. I think my professors agree, though they may not realize it. In my time as an English Education major, my professors have told me to build relationships with my students, get them to co-construct knowledge together, and stay on task while providing an open environment offering flexibility, openness, creativity, and positive learning.

The future of education, members of my Literacy and Technology class. Scared yet? Because we are. Don't tell anyone.

*Starred Thought: Expand your circle.

I often tell people that joining the marching band is like gaining 300 free friends. If you've got the guts, you can say hi to pretty much anyone walking around on campus with one of the grey instrument cases marked with an "MB" and they will talk to you and have a nice conversation until you have to go in different directions. The UDMB is a big family, and we work well together. Members become fast friends with the others in their sections especially. My section in particular, the alto saxophones, has an annual barbeque and a plethora of other events held outside of band. I know people in every section, and it's a great network to have even outside of band.

A classroom should have its own culture that builds relationships between students that can hold outside of the classroom and into the future. Knowing a lot of people can get a student a lot of opportunities in life. I often tell a story about how the manager of an IHOP that was opening in my area wouldn't even give me an application because I was under 18 at the time, but practically hired another guy my age on the spot because the manager played football with the guy's dad in high school. I only really found out about the opportunity to grab the job I have now because I knew someone.

A small part of my network from St. Mark's High's Marching Band, which I started building six years ago.

*Starred Thought: Be a great teacher. Have skill.

We're told in my classes that we need students to build on each other's knowledge and construct new knowledge together. We're all teachers, or will be at some point in our lifetimes in some form or another, and it's important that students know how to teach and present information clearly. One great example is from a middle school I did fieldwork in, where small groups were assigned different positions as "reporters," who had to attack a text from different angles. One group summarized plot, one drew a picture of the setting, one talked about characters and the ways they spoke, and so on and so forth. These groups then had to present to the rest of the class. Giving students opportunities like this develops public speaking and team skills needed in the workplace while also achieving a goal together through their own hard work.

In marching band, we have a whole set of field staff made up from band members. These members are trained in leading their sections and teaching them things that they need to know. This could include anything from reinforcing marching basics to full-blown student-run music rehearsals for individual sections in which the band director does not even have to be present. This also further builds a network of support for the band members (the students) because we know who can help us with what and all three-hundred-and-something of us don't have to bring every little question directly to Sarv (the teacher) herself, who is only one person. She gives the skills to the staff, who give the skills to the members, who become staff themselves who give skills to the members. It's a constant cycle of content reinforcement that keeps us all at and above the standard expected of us, and it's all led by a teacher. We all achieve goals together through our own hard work: the pre-game and half-time shows.

*Starred Thought: Inspire musicians to do well.

If a teacher has created a positive learning environment that engages students and makes them care about what they're doing in the classroom, students will want to push themselves and apply their knowledge. Specifically in the context of my teaching of English, I need to encourage creativity, emotive reading, and open discussion, while still guiding it. This way students will stay on task while saying what they think needs to be said and sharing their skills and opinions with their classmates in a way that provides real feedback with a real audience. In band, for instance, our drill section leaders tend to be open to ideas for visuals. If a member has a good idea that fits well somewhere, it can be added, though it may require permission. For example, in high school, I was in a group that was in a form shaped like a circle. One of us had the idea to make the circle rotate. Our band director and drum majors asked us to try it, and it worked, so we were told to keep it in. We ended up trying other things with it. Some of them worked, and some of them didn't, but we were given the flexibility to try them, to push ourselves. The audience gathered at the football games liked the rotating circle too, and it was encouraging, positive feedback. In UDMB, Sarv gives credit where credit is due, will level with us when we aren't up to our usual standard, and she isn't afraid to push us harder because she knows we can do even better than before. And then better. And better.

I now volunteer to work as staff at the St. Mark's High School Spartan Marching Band's summer band camp. Helping me inspires me to be a better band member so that I can help them to be better band members. It's a feedback loop fueling a desire to push myself and others and apply what I've learned.

Building relationships and giving students responsibility also naturally help to make a positive learning environment and classroom culture.

*Starred Thought: You have no control of anyone.

Ah yes, the ultimate secret of leadership. Speaking of giving students responsibility and classroom culture, one big issue we've talked about in my education classes has been attendance issues. Many people are striving to improve schools in ways that will make students want to show up, but others are baffled about how to solve this problem. I think it could be a symptom of a classroom not doing enough of the things I've been talking about in this post. A lot of what I've said is very student-centric, and this is because students are the centers of learning. Teachers are guides, but students decide for themselves that they want to learn. That's why I think it's important to give students a feeling of responsibility.

Responsibility goes side-by-side with independence and self-efficacy, something most high school and college students really want and something most teachers want their students to have.

It's made very apparent to me as a student and member of the marching band that if I am not at rehearsal or the games, there is a hole in the show. The classroom is not complete without me. I don't even think about the grade, I think about the work that needs to be done, the goal that needs to be accomplished. The forms, the show, and the learning will be objectively worse if I am not a part of them. If I don't know my music, I can easily throw off the person playing next to me. Everyone is aware that we affect each others' rehearsals and performance, and so we all feel a sense of responsibility and most importantly, importance.

That's what it's all about. Students feeling that their own learning and the learning of their peers is important, and genuinely caring about it. When you have pride in your band or class and in yourself, you are in the optimal positive learning environment. It makes me forget that I'm in a class. It makes me care about learning and about the people way before I think about getting the grade, and it's all run pretty smoothly.

I swear I've learned as much about the art of teaching in band as I've learned in my classes.
I have high hopes that I will be a better teacher because of it.