Tuesday, September 16, 2014

I used to think... now I think

[This is a reflective essay that I was asked to write. We were asked to look at our own learning and teaching and discuss how how views have changed. This is based on the Connect...Extend...Challenge routine where you connect to what you know, extend your knowledge, and then look at places where you are still challenged.]

I am a non-traditional teacher. To date, I have not received any formal training in teaching yet, all I do is teach. I am a private voice teacher and choral director by trade. I am a homeschooling mom who co-owns a homeschool cooperative. (A cooperative is a gathering of homeschool families for group learning. My cooperative hosts approximately 25 families and 50 - 60 children ranging in age from infant to 13).  My education in teaching has been on-the-job. In fact, it could be considered trial by fire! I must be doing something right as my daughter thrives as a homeschooler, my classes at the cooperative fill to capacity, and my voice students happily refer me to their friends. 

This Coursera class establishes that I do know what I am doing. I realized this past week that I intuitively figured out what works well. Now I have a name for the concepts, and the holes in my methodology are being plugged. I was most intrigued by the discussions around child-led learning.

Before my daughter was born, I didn't believe there was such a thing as true child-led learning. When I went to school, the teacher told us what we were going to learn and then we did it through assigned reading, exercises, and projects. With the exception of picking my electives in high school, I did not get a say in my learning until college. Homeschooling opened my eyes to so many possibilities for how children learn in general but it still took me time to truly let my daughter have a say in the process.

Creating a partnership in learning
The decision to homeschool happened around my daughter's third birthday. By that point, she had proven herself verbally and mathematically ahead of the curve. She could already read, hold intelligent conversations, skip count, and do simple arithmetic. The final tipping point came when she regularly came into the kitchen while I was trying to cook dinner and started asking really great questions about a variety of topics. My instinct told me to drop what I was doing and help her figure it out, but I did not want to burn dinner. Thus started "school" for us where we sat down daily for a little while and explored her questions.

As she got older, the schooling became more formal. I picked various curricula and created my own when I found something lacking. She happily progressed. Recently, I returned to our earlier model, giving her more control over her education. She and I now work together to pick what she learns and how she learns it. Since we started doing this, her enthusiasm for learning has skyrocketed

My homeschool cooperative is also child-led. For each 8-week session, the children are given the opportunity to suggest topics of study and then vote on which classes will run. The resulting classes do not look like any "standard" class, but are filled with rich, cross-curricular content.

The discussion about the teacher in Cambridge in the fourth class video in the second week mirrors my own experience of going from delivering curriculum to becoming learning partners with my daughter and the children at the cooperative.  Within the cooperative, my business partner and I find ourselves at various stages of this process with several of the children. Some kids naturally took to the idea of choice while others are shy about voicing their opinions. A few are downright paralyzed by the amount of choice they receive.  We continue work at it with them, but at least in a few instances, our model doesn't match the model the children are experiencing at home for their education.

What is Worth Learning?
Of everything that I have absorbed from this course, the most challenging for me was the short David Perkins video, "What is Worth Learning?".  I struggle with this every day with my daughter. While I have given her control, I still insist that we cover certain material: math, grammar and writing, science, history, etc. For science and history, for example, she can choose the focus if she wishes else I have material at the ready. For math, she picked the curriculum and we work through it together. Each subject area offers her choices in approach and, often times, specific topic. If left to her own devices, how much of this would she actually choose to do? I don't have an answer to this, but I suspect several subjects wouldn't make the cut. 

Perkins raises the question that rattles around in the back of my head every week when I look at the week's school plans. How much of this stuff is really worth learning? I believe that if she specifically asked for it, then it is worth it because it interests her. The concept of "unschooling" among the homeschooling community addresses this by allowing the learning to be completely child-led. The children learn what interests them. Parents help find resources if necessary, but the rest is in the child's hands. A study published in Psychology Today found that unschooled children grew up to be productive members of society with college degrees and a variety of jobs. ("Survey of Grown Unschoolers, Part 3: Pursuing Careers", Peter Gray, Ph.D., Psychology Today (online article), 6/21/2014).

While Perkins was not specifically talking about unschooling, the question still applies. These unschoolers learned to learn and think on their own. In some ways, as Perkins suggests we do with the traditional topics, these unschoolers taught themselves lessons for their future. Maybe we should ask, "What is worth learning and is it specific to the person doing the learning?" 

I started reflecting on my own learning when we began homeschooling. This course gives me new angles to ponder. When I look at my daughter and her homeschooled friends, it makes me sad about how I was taught. I was often bored and uninspired in school. My interests and learning style were rarely taken into account. Children deserve more than that and my goal is to do my part to achieve this.

Monday, September 8, 2014

What I Think I Know... What I Puzzle Over... and What I would Like to Explore

Today's "think piece" is a grid.  Down one side is "What I Know", "What I Don't Know", and "What I would Like to Know".  The top of the grid are the following categories:  "About Learning", "About Teaching", and "About Contexts for Learning".  Before I get started on this exercise, as the title of this post suggests, I'm actually changing the wording to David Perkin's thinking routine of think-puzzle-explore because learning begins with what I think I know.  

What I think I know about learning
I think we are all life-long learners.  The adage, "you learn something new everyday", is absolutely true if you're open to that idea.

I think we need guidance to learn how to learn efficiently.  The last class I took, Learning How to Learn, dove into this into great detail.  I highly recommend this to teachers as it helped me shape my own teaching practices to better help my students learn their material.

I think that everyone has a different learning style and speed at which they learn material.  As teachers, I believe it's important to take this into account even though this can be challenging in a a room of 20 - 30 students (or more!)

What I puzzle about with learning
I puzzle over why some people have a "head for" a particular topic while other's don't.  For example, some people are math whizzes and others can barely balance their checkbook.  I know it's possible to re-train your brain, but I wonder why our initial blank slates are so different.

What I would like to explore about learning
I would really love to dig into the various learning styles and see how I can leverage them better with my students.  I've learned many tricks along the way that other voice and chorus teachers use.  Each time I learn a new one, I'm always amazed at what a difference it makes for a particular student and/or issue.  

I would also love to explore gamification of learning.  My daughter takes classes through Minecraft Homeschool.  She is currently enrolled in a writing class through them.  She's also learned history, art, and science through their service.   She's having so much fun that she doesn't realize she's learning it -- and she retains so much!  I know there is a ton of research in this field and as an avid gamer, I'm fascinated by the concept (and wish I had this kind of thing when I was a kid!)

What I think I know about teaching
Speaking of what some people have a "head for", I think that anyone can teach, but you really need to have a "head for" it to be a great teacher.  I believe intuition and the ability to quickly read people are necessary skills that are difficult to teach.  I also think that do the job well, you need an inordinate amount of patience.

I think that you cannot teach in a vacuum.  You need the support of your peers and outside resources.  I find this to be true in both my voice studio and with homeschooling.  I have several peers in both arenas that I frequently bounce ideas around with.  They're a great source of inspiration and ideas.

What I puzzle about with teaching
I puzzle over whether I'm doing it right.  I'm a self-taught teacher.  I have never taken a formal education class before this summer.  While I'm not a self-taught musician, I do not hold a degree there either, so I often feel the imposter syndrome creeping in there as well.

What I would like to explore about teaching
I would like to explore how to read a room.  I'm great in a one-on-one setting and with a chorus, but often times, I'm challenged to gauge an entire class at once. I believe I probably just need more practice, but I would like to see what kinds of tips and tricks are out there.

What I think I know about contexts for learning
I think that to truly learn something well, it should be across contexts.  It's one thing to be able to do an algebra problem in math class.  It's an entirely different matter to understand how to use that same algebra concept to tackle a physics problem.  With my homeschooling co-op, I rarely teach a study group that's truly a single-subject.  I teach math and science using cooking or, we create art using math.  

What I puzzle about contexts for learning
I puzzle over how to better create that cross-context learning experience.  Some things naturally go together, but I am often times in awe of other homeschooling families who can make a unit study about a particular topic or theme cover four or five subjects at once.

What I would like to explore about contexts for learning
I would like to dive into what I'm puzzling about.  I think having this ability to tie together several seemingly unrelated ideas under one thematic umbrella would be incredibly helpful.  The older my daughter gets, the less necessary this becomes, but as a teacher at the co-op, this is a skill that will prove useful for many years to come.

Friday, September 5, 2014

How to Practice Music

[Note:  This was written as my final project for "Learning How to Learn".  We were given a very open ended project in which we were supposed to assimilate everything we learned in the course into our own lives.  I chose to write a document for my students.  Projects are anonymously peer reviewed.  I've kept the cover letter that I included with the project as it gives some background into why I chose to do it this way.  I cannot say enough good things about this class and the associated book (see the references at the end of the document).]

Dear Coursera Reviewer:

I undertook the Learning How to Learn Course for two reasons. First, I will be returning to grad school in the coming months. After not having taken any formal classes for 20 years, I thought this course would be a great way to jump start my learning (and it has been!). Second, I am a music teacher and as an educator, I am always looking for ways to help my own students learn most efficiently. I have decided to focus on this second reason as a basis for my final project.

All of my students come to me excited about music. Many of them have no idea where to start when I hand them their first songs to start working on. While we regularly discuss ways to approach practice, I have never prepared a handout for their reference. Please bear in mind that this document is written for middle school and high school aged kids (approximately ages 12 – 18). I did include a few references that I thought might be particularly interesting to them, but they won't get anything from an overly academic paper.

Everything taught in Learning How to Learn is applicable to learning music. Like math and science, music is a challenging field of study that some people seem to have a “head for” while others do not. I chose to focus this document on what I consider to be the basic habits you need to efficiently learn music, especially when you are busy with many other activities:
  • Scheduling – taking advantage of diffuse mode learning; learning the material in small steps; interleaving.
  • Approach – getting to know the “big picture” of the musical piece while picking apart individual sections; learning it through a variety of ways (inputs).
  • Memorization – creating a game plan.
  • Goal Setting – put a plan in place and work toward it; focusing on the process and not perfection; dealing with procrastination.

My academic year starts the week of September 8th. I plan to hand this document out to each student. As an assignment, they will be required to create their own practice journal where, in the very least, they are to track their weekly and daily goals. I expect that this will not only help them focus better on their learning, but it will also help me to understand how they spent their week when they are struggling.

Thanks for reading!

Learn Your Music!

I get it. You're busy. You have homework, sports, dance class, speech team, and rehearsals for your musical. You barely have time to sleep let alone spend any time on your lesson music. While I cannot help you find an extra hour or two in your day, I can help you use what little time you have to practice and learn your music.

You should practice a minimum of 15 minutes most days plus a few days with longer practice sessions sprinkled in. Why a little bit every day? Your brain needs time and repetition to put information into its long term memory. Spending an hour or two practicing your music the night before your lesson will not prepare you as much as a little bit of practice every day.

Your brain has two levels of learning: a focused mode and a diffuse mode. The focused mode happens when you are actively working on something like a math problem, your history reading, or your latest song. The diffuse mode is the background processing that occurs when your attention is focused elsewhere. This is when your brain is making connections with stuff you already know. The great thing about our brains is that it can work on learning your music while you do your math homework if you give it a gentle nudge in the right direction.

To take advantage of your focused and diffuse modes, try a practice schedule like this:
  1. Vocal Warm-ups for 5 – 10 minutes
  2. Do some homework for 15 – 30 minutes (or more)
  3. Practice your music for 15 – 30 minutes
  4. Do some more homework for 15 – 30 minutes
  5. Sing a little more for 10 – 15 minutes

Adapt the times to meet your needs and your schedule. Weaving your music practice with your homework allows your brain to process one thing while you work on something else.

Do you have a few measures of a song that you just cannot seem to get? Instead of repeating it over and over again, put down your music and do something else1 – practice another song, do your homework, or go check Facebook. Your brain will still work on that part of the song. When you return to it, you may find that spot easier to sing.

Why are warm-ups important to do every day, even when you had choir earlier in the day? The warm-ups and vocalises that we do during lessons are meant to help you focus on specific issues. Do these at home to strengthen what we learned during your lesson. Just like your songs, your brain and body need regular practice to get the hang of stuff like proper breathing and vowel placement.

How to Practice
Just like anything else, learning music has a multi-step approach.

Big Picture: Obviously, you need to know how the entire song goes together. Listen to your recorded vocal line, find audio recordings and/or videos on YouTube, and read through the text. If it's in a foreign language, look up the literal translation of it (or do it yourself with Google Translate). Also, practice speaking the words.

Nitty Gritty: When you sing through the line, pay attention to the places where you are having issues. Instead of starting at the beginning each time you sing the song, focus on only those few measures. (If you have multiple trouble spots, work on each section individually). Drill the section until you either you're feeling comfortable or until you feel like you've reached your limit with it and then move on to something else.

Other Options:
  • If you are having trouble learning the rhythm, clap the rhythm. You can do this independently of your rehearsal recordings or with them. Also, say the lyrics in rhythm.
  • If you are working on a character piece (show tune or art song), practice the lyrics as if delivering a monologue. This will help you with the emotion and delivery of the lines.
  • If you find yourself in a place where you cannot sing, listen to your rehearsal recordings in a focused way. Sing along in your head or listen to trouble spots, paying attention to what's happening in the accompaniment, the rhythm, and/or the notes.

When practicing, remember that the only way to eat an entire elephant is one bite at a time. Breaking a song down into smaller sections will make it easier for you to learn. Also, working on your music from a variety of angles will help you learn faster. Your brain loves getting inputs from all different directions!

As a performing artist, you will need to memorize music. Here are a few tricks to help you:

  • Keeping the verses straight. This is always my biggest challenge – keeping the verses in the right order! Pick out key points in the verses and associate them with something else, like the floor map of your house. Put each piece of the verse in a different room of your house and mentally walk through your house to find it. Put the first verse on the first floor; second verse on the second floor; third verse in the basement; and so on. An example (from “Art is Calling For Me” by Victor Herbert):
Momma is a queen - My mom dressed as Queen Elizabeth (mudroom)
Papa is a king - My dad dressed as Henry VIII (kitchen)
So I am a princess, I know it - I'm dressed all in pink with a big tiara (back hallway)
But court etiquette is dull, boring thing - My cat in my big tiara, asleep (office)
I just hate it all, and I show it! - I'm having a royal temper tantrum (family room)

  • Write out the lyrics. Studies show that writing something out by hand helps us remember2. Take a few minutes and jot down the lyrics – don't look at your music until you're done!
  • Find other hooks – Remember how I said your brain likes multiple inputs? Listen to your song frequently. Sing your song as often as you can. Work on the song without the music and focus on the emotion and storyline. If you have movements that go along with the song, practice those as well. All of these combine build stronger neural hooks which makes it easier for you to memorize.

Finally, it's important to have goals when you practice – especially when you're short on time! After your lesson, set weekly goals for yourself. These could be as simple as learning that new piece or memorizing verse one of your show tune. They could also be more focused like working on your deep breath support, or practicing a vowel sound that needs better placement.

Before you go to bed each night, look at this list and set smaller goals for the next day. If you're working on breath support, you might set the goal of doing three sets of breathing exercises throughout the day. If you're learning a new song, you could decide to focus on the section that's the most challenging. When you set your mini goal, also set how much time you plan to devote to it. If you know it's going to be a busy day, you might only set two mini goals at 10 minutes apiece.

It doesn't matter if you don't have an hour to spend. You won't accomplish your weekly goal in one sitting. What is important is that you devote a little time to your goals each day. If you have a hard time getting started, set a timer for the amount of time you had planned for your goal, put away all other distractions, and give it your best try for that amount of time. Don't focus on perfection; instead, focus on the process of practicing. Perfection will come on its own with time if you put your best effort into your process.

Lifetime Skill
It doesn't matter what you're learning, applying the general ideas above will help you learn more efficiently. If you are planning a career in music, it's especially important to develop these habits now – music school truly tests your ability to learn music quickly and efficiently. Talented music students sometimes fail because they lack a learning system.

A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even If You Flunked Algebra), Barbara Oakley, Ph.D., Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin (2014) – This is a fantastic book for learners – it doesn't matter what topic you want to learn. Unless otherwise indicated above, the science behind the ideas in this paper comes from this reference.

Other resources:

  1. Anne Trafton. (July 21, 2014), "Try, try again? Study says no: Trying harder makes it more difficult to learn some aspects of language, neuroscientists find." Science Daily.
  2. Maria Konnikova, "What's Lost as Handwriting Fades," June 2, 2014, The New York Times

Six Questions to Ask a Learner

Foundations for Learning #1:  Introduction - Six Questions

As teachers, there are six questions that we should potentially ask of our learners, if possible.  Before we ask them, though, it's important to ask ourselves these same questions since we are all life-long learners.  Below, I answer the questions for myself.  I already ask a version of a few of these with my students, but I look forward to adding these into my conversation with new students as I do believe it will help me tweak my teaching to their learning styles.

How Am I Smart?
I am musically smart.  In the music world, I generally pick up things quickly.  That doesn't mean I don't have to practice -- for perfection, I'm like anyone else, I still need to drill.  However, I can pick up the gist of a piece fairly quickly.

I am book smart.  I have always been a voracious reader across many interests.  I enjoy learning most things -- science especially.  This has been a great help to me as a homeschooling mom for a younger kid.  The Peanut is still at the age that I'm truly learning right along side her, although her independence in this matter is starting to shine through.  I have enjoyed learning all sorts of things with her that I probably wouldn't have otherwise taken time to learn.  As the teacher in this relationship, it helps if I can grasp the big picture concepts quickly so I can help guide her.

Finally, I am people smart.  I don't think I always was, but teaching one-on-one has really helped me in this area.  In a one-on-one setting, being able to read people is an important skill as it helps move things along faster.  In a lesson, I push my students to their limits, but the limits vary from kid-to kid.  Knowing when I'm about to run up against that brick wall and pulling back gives them the best lesson I can offer.  In the group setting of the co-op classroom, that reading skill is important to help me know where the kid is at -- is she getting it?  Did I just blow his mind?  Are those two chatty because their bored or because they haven't seen each other all week?

What do I know about learning?
Everyone is different.  What works for me may not work for someone else.  I was pleasantly surprised that The Peanut's learning style is similar to my own.  As I explore curriculum and lesson ideas, I always ask myself if this would work for me.  If it does, I have a good shot of making it work for her.  Even so, I still often need to tweak and adjust things for her.

In the one-on-one setting, I talk to them about how they learn in school and how they learn their instrument or choir music already.  The first two - four weeks involves experimentation on my part to see what really works for a student.  Since this is a phase where we're getting to know each other and routines are still being established, it's easy for me to try several things.  Some students I struggle with for longer while some students just click immediately. 

In the classroom setting, I do what I would imagine all other teachers do, I try my best to adapt to each kid and what I know about their styles.  Some of these kids, I've been teaching for a couple of years and know them quite well.  Since our study groups are small -- usually no more than 12 kids -- it's easy for me to get to know the newer kids.

What works best for me?
I am an audio/kinesthetic learner.  I need to hear something first and, in the case of lectures and school work, I need to write information down.  In the case of music, it helps me to play the line on the piano since I get both aspects at once.    When memorizing music, I write out the lyrics on a separate piece of paper and listen to the song a lot on my iPod.

What are my strengths and weaknesses?
My strengths:
  • Intuition -- not only my ability to read people, but my gut usually doesn't lead me astray when I'm questioning what to do next.
  • Open-mindedness -- I do my best to listen to others and continue to learn from those around me.  I try very hard not to judge a situation or person until I get to know them.
  • Loyalty -- I am fiercely loyal to my friends and colleagues.  In the music world, it's extremely important to have a group of people you can trust and rely on since it can be very competitive.  In the teaching world, it's great to have several people to bounce ideas around with.  I am lucky to have fallen in with "the good crowd".
My weaknesses:
  • Confidence -- this can be a positive trait, but sometimes this spills into cockiness when it comes to what I know and don't know.  I recently had a performance that could have gone better because I thought I knew the music better than I did.  It may have been fine if it has been a perfect day, but I was battling exhaustion because I slept poorly and allergies.  The music wasn't anywhere near to muscle memory and the performance suffered because of it.
  • Lack of a filter -- I tend to say what's on my mind which, again, can be positive.  Sometimes, however, it doesn't come out the way I would want it to.  Sometimes, I say it when I should probably not say anything.  I've worked hard in the teaching environment to stop and think before I say something.  In other areas of my life, I seem to not always have this capability.
What helps and hinders my learning?
The biggest hindrance I have is lack of focus and time management.  I usually am juggling too many balls so to sit down and focus on one thing is difficult.   I am working very hard on making the time and making it a priority as I look to starting grad school.  I am also working harder at communicating to those around me when I need it quiet so I can focus.

If I have that quiet focus time, I'm usually pretty good.  My studio space serves as my learning space for music -- it's usually quiet there so I can just focus on the songs I need to learn.  If I put away the distractions (the smart phone, etc), and have an updated prioritized task list, I can usually jump right in. 

Where and when do I learn best?
It depends on what I'm doing.  I learn my music best in my studio.  I do best in small focused chunks bursts of learning (which thankfully works best with my student schedule) so I can background process while doing other stuff.

I do my other work either in the morning or the evening for usually no more than an hour or so at a time.  More than that, and it all starts to blur together.  If I need more time than that, I try to schedule more time with breaks in between in those time periods.  I find book learning difficult in the afternoon, while I could work on music at any time in the day.

Who do I learn best with?
Again, it depends.  As a performer, I am often working as part of a group.  I like to learn my own part by myself, but once I have the basics down, I do best in a group setting because it helps me to understand the big picture better.  I know my performance suffers at least a little when my group is forced to pull something together last minute.

In the case of more academic learning, I can go either way.  I am fine to learn on my own, but I do like have the resource of my peers and/or the teaching staff available to bounce ideas around with if I'm stuck.  I also am fine working collaboratively in a small, focused group.  All too often, though, that group ends up being a chance for social time and not much studying gets done.