Privacy and Comfort

I recently have experienced some dramatic personal events.  I lost two family members in close succession, eight days apart.  Because of these family sorrows I traveled back to my home state of Utah three times over a six week period.  I tried to keep my missed teaching days down to a minimum, but my students have seen substitute teachers a number of times in the last month and a half.

Teaching became a place of refuge for me during this difficult time. It felt great to dive into the needs and stories of my students, and to focus on preparing for upcoming programs.  During the school day I felt competent and in control.  My life had a normal flow.

However, in the middle of one class several weeks ago, a Kindergarten girl raised her hand.  “I’m so sorry about your sister,” she said.  I was taken aback.  My sense of safety was challenged, and I felt uncomfortable at best, violated at worst.  I was surprised that this Kindergarten teacher chose to give details of my situation to her class.  At my school the students are all young, Kindergarten to 2nd grade.  It felt misguided to talk about my family, both because of my sense of privacy, and because of the age of the children.

More recently, when I returned to school after the third trip to Utah, I found a tall pile of letters and hand drawn pictures.  The substitute teacher had apparently asked the students in each class, eight classes of about 22 students each, to write me condolence letters.  Ouch!  I know that she meant well, but the thought of my students discussing my personal grief was the opposite of comforting.  I would have been so much happier if the teachers and substitutes, when asked why Ms. Keefe was absent, had said simply, “She’s visiting her family.”

So the question that has surfaced for me is: what are the boundaries of personal and private at a school?  What are the actions that give comfort and what are those that violate privacy?  It’s good to feel the support of colleagues, but which personal issues of a teacher are legitimate areas of conversation with students?  The death of a family member of course is not the only problematic situation.  Perhaps a teacher is seriously ill, or is going through a divorce.  What should students be told?  What are the boundaries?

~ Liz



The xylophones have been moved back to the music room.  The boxes of scarves, drums and puili sticks are shoved off to the side and will be put away soon.  The songs and poems from the big performance are tucked neatly away in a folder marked, Winter Performance 2012.  We did it!  And it’s time to move on.

In the days after a big school performance the whole energy in the music room shifts.  We are all exhausted, children and teacher alike, from working on the same materials for many weeks.  After the concert that intense energy evaporates.  This is a transition time, and the children need time to reflect, to have some choices, and to try something new.

The very first time I see the students after a performance I ask them two questions.  First of all, I invite them to reflect on their experience.  I ask them to think back to how they felt as they stood up to walk onto the performing space.  They offer a range of emotions: they felt nervous, scared, proud, awesome, embarrassed, happy.  I can see their faces relax as they see their classmates name emotions that they shared.  The word “stagefright” is discouraged.  It is such a loaded, negative word.  I prefer to have them talk in a more personal way about how their belly was fluttering, or if they were feeling shy.  I then assure the class that it’s okay to feel all of these things, and that anyone who performs experiences those same things, all mixed up together.  As we talk through the experience most of them realize that these uncomfortable feelings lasted only until the song or the dance actually started.  There is something about actually doing the materials of the performance that focuses the mind and leaves anxiety behind.  The reward is feeling the warm energy of the audience, and feeling proud at the end.

The second reflection activity is for the students to remember one song or dance that they enjoyed watching.  An answer of, “I enjoyed everything” is not accepted.  They are encouraged to recall details, perhaps some of the lyrics of a song, or a few words of a poem.  Maybe there was an instrument or prop that caught their attention.

The next part of the transition is for the students to have some choices.  Music class turns into a Request Day.  They can ask for a song or a game that we haven’t done in a while.  It is fascinating to see what they remember and want to do again.  In my classes this week, they asked for materials from earlier in the year, but to my surprise, they also requested games and songs from much further back.  Several first grades wanted to play Little Bird, a game they learned in Kindergarten.  A second grader wanted to sing a song from last May, an original end-of-the-year song that they sang as a thank you to their teachers.  They remembered every word.

Then it’s time for something completely new, and there is nothing better at this point than a new singing game or play party.  Some of my favorites are Down in the Valley, Punchinella, Little Johnny Brown, I Let Her Go-Go, Bow Belinda, and Chickens on the Fencepost.

Fellow music teachers – how do you handle the transition from the big concert back to regular music class?  I’d love to hear your ideas.  You can use the comments below to share.  (If no comments are visible, then click on the word: Comments, below the title of this post.)

Jump Jim Joe

“I’m gonna jump, jump, jump Jim Joe.”

Tap your toe!

A child stands in front of a classmate and holds out his hands.  The other child takes the offered hands, and the song begins.  So many levels of activity going on here, but the most poignant is the social connection.  These games evoke some of the most basic experiences of being human: What does it feel like to be included?  What does it feel like to be rejected?

The song can be taught.  The dance can be taught.  But the puzzle remains of how to choose a partner, and that also needs to be taught.  First of all, every person in the class needs to be included, so the children are instructed to choose a new partner each time the game begins again.  Also, everyone deserves to be treated with kindness, so the children are taught that if someone holds out their hands, you accept.  For the quiet child, the challenge is to reach out to others, or at least to be available for others to invite them.  We demonstrate how you can raise your hand high if you find yourself without a partner, so that someone can find you.  Often the other single person is behind you, and out of sight. And there is always the option of  “Emergency 3′s” where you can join a group of two if time is short, and no other singles are close by.

An Emergency 3.

Why go to all this trouble to teach the step-by-step social skills of this simple play party game?  Ah… the social skills make ALL the difference in the experience of the game.  If everyone feels valued and if each person knows that they will be treated fairly, then something magic begins to happen.  The energy flows and bubbles over.  There is an almost ecstatic feeling when everyone in the room is feeling the kindness of others, and they are singing and dancing together.  This moment is worth every minute of teaching time spent on the minutiae of social connection.

“Now you find another partner, and you jump Jim Joe.”

~ Liz

Click HERE to download a pdf of Jump Jim Joe.

Calming the Wild Beast

The children come in the door of the music room. One child is angry at a classmate for cutting in line. Another was hurt at P.E. and has a scraped knee and a leaky bag of ice. Two girls can’t sit next to each other without constantly talking. Three children are simply exhausted from the rigors of the day, or perhaps not enough sleep the night before. It’s a normal day in the music room.

How about this… try this simple focusing message and see if all those discordant energies can be brought into alignment.

“When we’re outside, our bodies are large and moving and full of energy. Let’s bring our bodies into this room, and make them smaller and quiet. Our voices outside are loud and yelling, let’s bring them into this room, and make them smaller and quiet. Our minds outside are as big as the playground. They’ve been thinking about friends and lunch and homework. Let’s bring them into this room, and make them smaller and focused.”

These simple words might possibly transform a class of wriggly, disconnected children into a quiet and calm group of children who are all sitting on the floor, looking at you. Class can now begin.  ~ Liz

A Moment of Beauty

wheatIt is the privilege of teachers, and especially of teachers who deal with the arts, to have experiences of beauty in the classroom. Probably many of us have experienced these moments of grace… of flow… of spirit.

At the end of the year in my elementary music classes, I invite those students who take music lessons to play informally for the class. The point for me is to bring the students’ out-of-classroom music-making into the classroom. Oftentimes the offerings are modest, beginning pieces, but I honor them all. The theme from the James Bond movie is a perennial favorite, and I usually hear Für Elise at least a dozen times. The students play their simple pieces, and the class gets to practice being an attentive audience.

violin200I offer this opportunity every year, but I don’t remember a moment of beauty entering my classroom through this activity until this past June. “Alex” brought in his violin. He also brought in his composer/violinist father. The two of them together played a “Bourrée” by Handel. There was a note here and there that was out of tune, and “Alex” rushed one section, but there were moments that just grabbed my heart. I closed my eyes, and there, in that simple music classroom of 3rd graders, there was a moment of transcendent beauty.

How does this happen? Why does this happen? Why do these moments fill us with such joy? These moments can occur in the most surprising places. In fact, the surprise is part of the deep pleasure of the experience. This is not something that you can create with your will. It is something that just happens. From last spring I have a mental snapshot of 9-year-old “Roberto” dancing across the classroom with such grace and abandon that my heart was seized. Something happened – something that was connected with joy and spirit, something connected with guilelessness and pure intent.

marinhillsOf course these moments are not limited to the classroom. Several months ago, as I was walking in the hills north of my home, I watched the wind move the grass so that it rippled like ocean waves. It brought me nearly to tears. These moments of beauty can happen listening to music, or looking at art, or in the midst of the mundane events of life. But there is something about a music classroom, where attentive listening and creativity are nurtured, that creates a fertile ground for these connections.

I get annoyed when I meet someone new and they say naively, “Oh – you are a music teacher, how fun! You get to sing and dance all day.” Arggg! If anyone has spent any time in a music classroom, they would know that it is not all sweetness and light. A classroom full of 20 – 30 active children, each with their individual issues of not enough sleep, too much sugar, different learning styles, different levels of music and movement experiences, feelings of rejection or anger, lack of impulse control, (not to mention the ability to sing on pitch or not, and the ability to control their bodies in space) – all of these factors make the day of a music teacher lively, to say the least! But… there is also, in the midst of schedules and canceled classes and lice checks and report card assessments – in the midst of all the hubbub of the day – there is the possibility for one of those elusive moments – a moment of beauty.

~ Liz