My most advanced class has 22 students. This is their third or fourth year in a class with me. Most of them are friends outside my class, wicked smart, highly skilled musicians & composers and lightning fast with the technology. Many of them also have IEPs or 504 plans (Special Ed), are ADD, LD or have substance abuse, eating disorders or emotional or developmental concerns. A couple even have their very own parole officer! Many have GPAs above 3.5 and scored over 2000 on the SATs, even the ones with POs! Over 50% of them will be going to college, not trade schools, as Music Composition, Music Technology or Music Business majors and one third of them never studied music before they took my class. This particular collection of students is probably the most gifted and skilled class I have had in my thirteen years of teaching. There is a special kind of comfort and familiarity in an environment like this that can produce a little less “discipline” than I would normally tolerate in my classroom. I walk a fine balance of whom they have experienced me to be, who they think I am and who they want me to be. I occasionally need to remind them that I am thirty-plus years older than they are, have several degrees and certificates in music, education and technology, more experience performing, conducting and life than most will ever and I am still their teacher.
This is a very special group of kids and the classroom has a special kind of controlled chaos. Ok, sometimes, not so controlled. My biggest concern has to do with delivery of material and communication. Traditional lessons just don’t cut it in this environment. Mostly, they compose their own music. I do give them assignments but it’s really like pulling teeth to get it done with the same gusto they do their personal projects. Threaten them with a bad grade? Not exactly my style and certainly not what many of them need. They’ll just go away, drop the class or really not care too much. I really need to get my points across in a completely different way than I do in my other classes. Enter the Internet and Intranet.
I recently got a Facebook page. I have been staying away from Facebook because I really do like my teaching license and was afraid that something could go wrong and I would be in one of those Tweeted newspaper articles about a teacher who did something someone thought was bad on Facebook and …. Not for me. Then, reality settles in. Facebook is the most widely used communication tool on the planet. Period. So my Facebook page is as closed as I can make it and I warn my students about trying to “friend” me. Although 18 is the legal age in Connecticut, my age requirement is 21. It’s pretty simple for me, if you are old enough to have a legal drink with me, we can discuss being “friends”. Until then, don’t even think about it. I simply tell them that if they try, I consider it harassment. Please pass this factoid along to their friend so they don’t get any funny ideas. More importantly, my students and I have a very high level of respect for each other and if I am serious about something, they know it. Respect goes a lot farther than any threat, idle or real.
I took a survey of my students. How many were on Facebook? All. How many on Twitter? One. How many were on Facebook at least once a day? All but one. How many were on Facebook multiple times a day? Same number. Then a colleague, Anna Masse of New Canaan, CT (check out her student’s music http://tinyurl.com/kmn9fz) showed me how I can create a Facebook Group that is only open to those I allow in the group. I also make it so that no one can post anything on the group page except me (Hey, I’m a Facebook newbie). What do I get? All of my students in one place that they go to multiple times a day that I can send messages to or post information on the Wall. Very safe, private, secure and very cool. Now, I post information that I want them to have. Due dates and reminders for assignments, links to educational videos about music or the software they use in class, links to articles I want them to read that I think is of interest to them about remixing, microphones, artists, the music industry, contests and more. What do they get? Homework. Shhhhhh don’t say homework! I mean they get extracurricular materials that add to their educational experience. Get it? Do I ever have to use the “H” word in class? Nope. Do they think it’s an assignment? Nope. Do they all do it? Nope. Do I care? Nope. Please don’t use the “assessment” word here. Remember, these kids are 17-18 and they have one foot out of the high school door (some one foot barely IN the high school door)! They really are interested in the content as long as it helps them make their music “better”. I know who is watching or reading what when they come to school the next day and comment on the link I sent them and there is immediate banter about the subject throughout the room. I see the results in their music every time I sit next to one of them and plug my headphones into their computer. Assessment takes on many formats.
Facebook takes care of a big piece of classroom management for me. What about the day to day IN the classroom stuff? What about the kid who sits there and wails on the keyboard, shredding the ivories as if there is no tomorrow and records… NOTHING! The page is a complete blank. Talk about ADD… How do I get him to stay focused without having to call or go over to him? Trust me, there is more than one of “him”, too! And what about the kid who decides to look at the soccer scores on line rather than hit that record button? I really do prefer wheeling my chair around the room and plugging my headphones into the splitter so the student and I can listen to their piece together. I do it all the time. It is a great joy to sit next to a kids and hear them talk about their music, ask questions and we discuss it together. However, sometimes you just need to leave them alone. They need time to work in peace and try things on their own. I have one student who gets so nervous and anxious that I can’t listen to his music until he feels ready and tells me it’s OK. Fortunately, he’s a great musician and is always working diligently. No concerns there. He has told me what he needs, I accommodated him and he functions beautifully. I wouldn’t do this with every student. I can’t. I would love a Korg GEC (Group Education Controller http://www.soundtree.com/music-education/korg-gec3). Hey, I am a contributing author to the high school curriculum that SoundTree and Alfred are putting out with a purchase of the GEC! I always seem to have an obstacle to getting one. I currently share a classroom and we don’t want the other department’s kids messing with it, they are going to build a new one for me so we are waiting for that, etc., etc.
Enter the Intranet. Our Macs are networked and I have a fabulous little program called Remote Desktop (http://www.apple.com/remotedesktop/). This program allows me to do a lot with the computer screens. I can see their computer screen on my computer. I can view it, control it and send it to other computers in the room. I can also send them my screen or a text message and we can even chat via text. If I see that kid on the Internet looking up football scores or something, I simple take control of the screen, close the browser and hit the record button on the software. We exchange a glance and they are refocused. If I see those guys “jamming” at their stations, I send them a simple text, “FOCUS!” Instantly, they are brought back to planet earth. I use this software in all of my classes. Students come into the room and they immediately put the headphones on and start in on their music or the materials they know they have to do at the beginning of each class (remember “warm-ups”?). Once they are all in the room and I have taken attendance, I send them all a text, “May I please have your attention”. Immediately the headphones come off and they are looking my way. No fuss, no muss and they think this is the coolest thing! Sometime I forgot to tell them all something at the beginning of class and instead of trying to get their attention again, I send them the information in a text. I used this in that most advanced class I was talking about and one student said, “Finally! Just tell me what you need without interrupting my work”. Way cool and highly effective.
My next technology-for-classroom-management venture with my most advanced class will be the use of screen-casting software for them to describe and assess their own compositions. They will also demonstrate their knowledge of the software and other technologies by making screen-cast demonstrations and tutorials. They already know my policy that everything they produce has to be “Disney Rated G” so I am not worried about content. If I can get away with posting them on YouTube or some other site, I’ll get the other students to make comments on them. They’ll learn to speak about their music, demonstrate their knowledge and make self-assessments. This is gonna be good!
Homework? Tests? What homework or test?