Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Punished by Rewards: Excellent Book, Good Methods

As a music teacher and former public school teacher, I think a lot about education and learning, specifically, how to keep kids engaged, well-disciplined, and inspired.  It's a huge challenge, especially since children have wildly different personalities and learning styles, and teachers have a very limited repertoire of disciplinary or motivational tools.  Therefore, I can understand the temptation to start handing out rewards for good behavior.  Especially at the beginning of the school year, or when you get a new student, rewards are a quick and easy way to get some compliance.  But Alfie Kohn's book Punished by Rewards gives many excellent and well-researched reasons why rewards are actually counter-productive to a well-managed class and how they actually sap students' intrinsic motivation to learn.

Kohn makes the case that rewards are manipulative, and children can realize very quickly that they are being manipulated.  That makes them distrust the adults who are working with them, instead of looking at them as partners who are doing their best to help.  Furthermore, rewards usually require you to continually "up the ante" so to speak. A child who's accustomed to getting a gold star for completing their homework might start demanding more gold stars for other tasks, until a type of crazy gold-star inflation starts occurring.  The goal of education is to create life-long learners, children who will pursue their intellectual interests and educational goals because of their own intrinsic motivation.  But if a child will only read a book is he/she gets a candy bar or a gold star for doing so, then we as educators (or parents, or coaches) have failed in our primary goal (besides, I always cringe when teachers give candy as a reward, considering the childhood obesity problem our country has).

In any case, rewards usually only have a temporary effect on behavior anyway, as I saw one summer when I was working for a music and arts enrichment program at an elementary program in Dallas ISD.  At around 4pm, we were supposed to bring a large group of children (sixty) into the gym to develop and rehearse their end-of-summer performance.  Herding sixty third-graders into a gym can create total chaos, and just getting the students ordered and in place was an exhausting task.  So one day, another teacher brought a bucket of candy, and promised each children a piece if they stayed quiet and got in line.  That first day, it seemed to work like a charm.  All the children quietly lined up in their places, and each was given a piece of candy.  The next day, a few boys acted out.  When the teacher gave candy to the other kids, they acted out even more, and then told her they would not stop misbehaving until she gave them each a piece of candy.  Some of the bigger boys even started bullying smaller kids into giving up the piece of candy they had been given, and the gym quickly descended into pandemonium again.

So if rewards don't work, what can a teacher do to maintain a well-ordered class? One thing I do is anticipate problems and establish a good procedure to keep them from happening at all.  For example, at my preschool children loves to play with my parachute.  Some of the children can get very excited, so they started screaming or screeching in high-pitched voices, which drives me insane.  Now, before I take out my parachute, I make sure that all children understand the "parachute rules." These include: 1. stay seated until the teacher gives you permission to grab a handle of the parachute, 2. use only "inside voices," 3. you get what you get, so don't throw a fit--i.e. no fighting for a particular handle or side of the parachute that you want.  I've made it clear that any child who don't follow the rules get a time-out, and if everyone gets to rowdy, I'll simply put the parachute away.  These procedures have saved me from many headaches and stresses, and generally make playing with the parachute for fun for everybody.  The key is to talk about rules and expectations before I bring out the parachute, so the kids are prepared for what they are supposed to do. After I established the overall expectations, I had a few kids test my boundaries, but they very quickly adapted to the rules (no one wants a time out while we're playing parachute:).  It's made the games much more fun for everyone, including me.

FYI, one of the funniest moments this week was when one boy got over-excited and screeched a bit, and all the other kids reminded him to only use "inside voices." I didn't have to say a word, and he calmed down.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Why Do Adults Stop Being Creative?

As I mentioned in my post about D&D, I've thought about why children have so many opportunities for creativity, and adults have so few.  While there are certainly some practical reasons why adults don't finger-paint, for example, I don't think that it all comes down to a lack of time or anything like that.

It's amazing what happens when you give a small child some paper and crayons.  They will fearlessly, often hilariously, and sometimes disastrously attack said paper until it's completely covered in scrawling, knotty globs of color.  They rarely stop to worry if their drawing bares only the vaguest resemblance to the object they're trying to depict.

Likewise, I can set a child at a piano, or give them a rhythm instrument or bells, and they will merrily smash, ring, strike, and play random keys to their hearts' content.  So why is it that I can't imagine most adults approaching music or drawing or any other creative activity with the same enthusiasm?

I think it has to do with fear.  Adults are afraid that of failure, of embarrassment, of judgement. When I teach adult students, it's very common for them to tell me that they've wanted to study violin or piano for a long time, but at some point in their lives they were told that music is a talent that they didn't have.  Other people tell me that they don't draw because they do not have enough talent to be an artist.  This is completely missing the point.

It's hard to deny that people are all born with different abilities--it's obvious some people are naturally faster, smarter, more musically or artistically gift than others.  But no one makes it to the Olympics or becomes a virtuoso pianist or a world famous artist on talent alone.  What's more, just because you might not make it into the upper echelons of fame doesn't mean that you shouldn't nurture your creative abilities.  Most people who run don't end up in the Olympics; they run because it's good exercise, or it's cathartic, or it's fun.  Why should adults be afraid to draw or make music then?  I don't sing because I think I'm the next Adele.  I'm not.  I sing because it's fun and enjoyable.

Quite honestly, I get sick of people telling me that they never learned an instrument because they don't have musical talent.  Learning an instrument is hard work, but it's also rewarding and wonderful.  Anyone who makes a good effort and practices enough can learn to play an instrument.  Maybe you won't be the next Yo-Yo Ma, but who cares?  Why not find an creative outlet?

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Our Sweet Kitties

Update: Here are some more adorable pictures!

Our Sweet Kitties!

These are our cats, Mead and Lynx.  We adopted Mead from the Dallas Cat Lady's shelter October 2011, and a friend of ours gave us Lynx in January 2011.  Lynx is part Maine Coon, so he's a gentle giant, and one of the friendliest and most loving cats I've ever seen.  Mead is a sweet baby who has been a great friend to Lynx ever since we got him.  He is a bit of a rascal sometimes.

Update: Here are some new adorable pictures of Lynx and Mead!

Other Cat Picture Posts:

Cat Like Box

Bringing Home Our Kitties

Adorable Kitty Videos

Christmas Kitty

Cat Burrito!

Lynx Snuggling my Socks

The Lord of Shoes

Our Sweet Kitties

Moby Kitty

Dungeons and Dragons: Fun and Creative


As many of you know, I really enjoy playing Dungeons and Dragons.  Right now, I'm in a group that regularly plays several 4th edition campaigns, and I'm the dungeon master for one of them. I'm not going to deny that D&D is pretty nerdy, but for anyone who doesn't play, you should know it's also fun and creative. Essentially, a game of D&D is like getting together with your friends to tell a group story set in a fantasy universe.  The DM creates or plays all NPCs and settings, while everyone else creates a character, including their character's back story.  I'm always impressed with the amount of storytelling ability my friends have.  The group I play with has some very talented people in it, so their character back-stories are usually very compelling and unique.  As a DM, I'm always trying to give my setting and NPCs a unique and exciting voice, and that can be really enjoyable.  Had I never been a DM, I likely never would have imagined a pair of elderly gay wizards running the only magic shop in a small village, or Singy, the Holy Dog of Pelor.

Looking back on it, I wonder if I would have ever tried being a creative writer if I hadn't played D&D.  In essence, I spent a lot of time in college and later in life creating stories for my characters or my world, even though I never really "wrote" anything.  I'm not the only one who uses D&D as a source of inspiration--my friends who are artists often enjoy drawing beautiful pictures of their characters, or elaborate maps for their games.  
What strikes me now is how rarely adults (at least those in non-creative jobs) ever get a good outlet for any type of creative expression at all.  I see children drawing and singing and playing instruments, just experimenting, constantly.  I know that relatively few of these kids will grow up to be artists or musicians, but that doesn't mean that they aren't creative people.  It's strange to think that as adults so many people just leave off doing all the fun, creative things we do as kids.  Why is that? 

For anyone who needs a good creative outlet, let me recommend D&D.  Seriously, it's fun, it's social, and you can be creative and imaginative in a way that you haven't been since you grew up.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Suzuki Method--a Violin Teacher's Perspective

I have taught violin, viola, and piano for many years now.  I love teaching music; it's a powerful feeling to watch children's understanding and enjoyment of music develop through their lessons.  I have tried all kinds of methods, but I have found that the best one by far is Suzuki Method. This is a very controversial statement in the music community; many musicians dislike Suzuki teaching, or what they think is Suzuki teaching.  I know--I felt the same way before I really understood what Suzuki really was, and why it was so effective.

First, Suzuki emphasizes early childhood music education--ideally, children start learning an instrument like violin when they are three to five years old.  Why is this controversial?  For several reasons, I think that some musicians are uncomfortable with the young ages of Suzuki students.  One--our society does not expect very young children to show that level of confidence or capability.  The idea that a lisping four year old who hasn't learned to read yet can learn a complicated instrument is a tough one for Americans to grasp.  Yet, when you look at cultures outside the US, as Elizabeth Kolbert did in this article, you see that young children elsewhere are not only encouraged but expected to behave far more competently and responsibly than we expect from American children.

For another thing, teaching music to very young children can be a very challenging job. Most traditionally trained classical musicians have never been taught how to teach.  In fact, although almost all musicians teach lessons of some sort, the art of teaching is too often ignored or even discouraged at music colleges, especially by violinists or cellists or other strings players.  This is a stupid cultural thing that should absolutely be changed, but that's a subject for another post. The point is, most violinists end up teaching violin how they were taught, and that means a particular type of traditional methods.  No matter how inefficient and illogical these traditions might be, some music teachers cling to them.  Remember, they have often never been taught any other way.  Young children are a particular challenge, and many older traditional teachers refuse to even take them.  You cannot communicate with a three year old child in the same way you do with an adult.  Effectively teaching young children requires a great deal of patience, a sense of humor, and an ability to break basic techniques down into their simplest components, and not everyone can do those things.  It's very hard to set high standards and insist on excellence while staying constantly patient.  Because so many traditional teachers are uncomfortable teaching children at this age, they claim that very young children can't be taught at all, or that they'll end up being robots who don't play with any soul, which is far from the case.

Often, traditional teachers think that Suzuki students do not learn how to read music, since so much emphasis is put on learning to play by ear or by rote.  In fact, I think that Suzuki students learn to read music much more effectively because they learn to associate music notes with tones, not just A-B-C note names.  It is true that Suzuki teachers delay note reading until a student is comfortable actually playing the instrument, but I think that helps students develop a more beautiful sound, which inspires more practicing.  Learning the violin is demanding--it's tricky to get a beautiful sound, then you have to move the fingers on your left hand in just the right way to stay in tune.  If you try to teach note-reading at the same time a child is trying to learn how to actually play their instrument, you have a recipe for bad sound, missed notes, and ugly tone.  But if you focus on one aspect of the instrument at a time--first we get a beautiful sound, then we work on learning our fingering and intonation, and finally, we learn how to read music, then you have a more natural progression of skills.  Furthermore, when I do start teaching children to read music, they have already developed their listening skills, so instead of associating notes on a page only with a fingering or a note-name, they can associate it with a sound.  I think this actually makes Suzuki students more effective at reading music, because many of my students essentially can "hear" the music when they see it on a page, instead of only recognizing note-names.

Finally, I love the amount of compassion that Suzuki brings to the study of music.  I was deeply inspired by Shinichi Suzuki's book Nurtured by Love.  This powerful book talks about how music education is about raising children to have beautiful, well-nourished souls, not just creating the next prodigy.  Music teaches discipline, confidence, and appreciation for beauty and the fine arts.  It enriches the lives of our students.  Almost none of the students I teach will be professional musicians someday, and that's not a bad thing, considering how difficult it is to survive as a musician in this economy.  But I hope to enrich all their lives, and to show them that they can create beautiful music with a little bit of discipline and practice.

Related articles on Suzuki Method and Violin/Viola teaching or performing:

Suzuki Method--a Violin Teacher's Perspective

Suzuki Philosophy: Every Child Has Talent

Suzuki Techniques--Listening is the key

Violin Life Lessons

Inspiring Practice

Practicing Violin Effectively

Great Apps for Musicians

Excellent Supplemental Books for Suzuki Violin and Viola Students

Suzuki Method for Adult Students

For Parents: How to Support your Child's Music Practice and Development

Overcoming Performance Anxiety: How to Help Music Students Prepare for Recitals, Auditions, and other Performances

Music Lessons for Children with Disabilities 

Seven Ways to Develop Listening and Aural Skills in Music Students

Pascale Method for Violin--A Review

More Apps for Musicians and Music Students

Classical Music Isn't Dying--It's in a Recession

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Macavity, Macavity--Cat songs and games for preschool

Teaching music at a preschool can be fun and exciting, but I often get tired of the simplistic music that's peddled to kids.  I know from teaching Suzuki violin lessons that even very young children can appreciate fairly sophisticated music, so once the five note kids' ditties began driving me insane, I decided to try something different.  I found my inspiration in a copy of T.S. Eliot's Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats,  illustrated by Axel Schleffer, which I picked up at Half-Price Books for fun.

I worried at first that the poems were too British and the vocabulary too difficult for the kids to understand, but the kids loved them.  I think the enjoyable cartoons helped to win them over, but soon enough even three-year old children were memorizing lines from the poems.  

But what does this have to do with music?  Well, Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical Cats is based on the T.S. Eliot poems.  All the lyrics for the musical, with the exception of Memory (which is based on an Eliot poem called "Rhapsody on a Windy Night"), are from Old Possum's.  I have the Cats games go like this: I read a poem first, do a few basic literacy activities (have the children find the title to the poem on the page, or find a simple word like "cat"), then we listen to the song and play a game.  The songs and games for "Magical Mr. Mistoffelees" and "Macavity, the Mystery Cat" are the most popular with the kids.  

To play the  "Mr. Mistoffelees" game, you need a parachute. I have 6' parachute which works well with my class sizes, but if you have a lot of students, you might want a bigger one.  I play the "Mr. Mistoffelees" song from Cats, and the children grab a handle or a side of the parachute.  I choose one child to "disappear" underneath the parachute (like Magic!), while the others lower their handles.  On a count of three (or when the music goes "Oh!"), we all lift the parachute high, and the hidden kid "magically" reappears.  This might sound simple, but three-to-five year old kids love it.  This game has kids laughing faster than anything else I've done.

The game for "Macavity, the Mystery Cat" is basically a modified "cops and robbers" or hide and seek.  Some students pretend to be Macavity, and sneak around on all fours.  Other kids pretend to be detectives who constantly fail to find the Macavities (because Scotland Yard never finds Macavity).  Sometimes I'll plant "clues" for the detectives to find, but usually they just make up imaginary clues (which is endlessly entertaining).  I'll sometimes leave out toys for the Macavities to pretend to steal, or leave out the parachute for them to "mess up." Then the detectives investigate my wrinkled parachute, or find poor, kidnapped Fluttershy.  The four to five year old kids also love this game, but I don't play it with the three year olds, since some of them find Macavity too scary.

For other fun Cats games, see my posts on Skimbleshanks: The Railway Cat and The Great Rumpuscat.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Traffic--modern migration

I have been thinking about human interaction.  How would we look to an outsider, if one existed? If an alien species were to watch us in the same way that field biologists or wildlife photographers observe lions or zebras in Africa, how would they see us?

It's funny to think that, ultimately, humans are animals, just like bears or cats or whales.  Imagine the aliens watching as human beings drove their cars in traffic (modern-day short-term migrations?) or the rituals of waiting in line at the grocery store or a coffee shop.  Lines are not natural to the human condition.  Watch a group of preschool children--they run together in a massive herd.  We have to carefully teach kids how to wait in line, and let's face it, that's a pretty essential social skill to have in a modern society.  Do geese teach their young to fly in formation, or do they do it instinctively?

Would our society be better off if we thought of ourselves as animals--if we understood that the human animal has instincts that might rear up no matter what we do to suppress or control them?  I don't know.