Saturday, March 31, 2018

Someday ...

"Cynicism is a self-fulfilling prophesy. You have no chance if you assume you have no chance." 
– Robert Reich

It should go without saying that the primary objective of any educational system is to put students first. That’s a given. It should also go without saying that the way to put students first is to provide them with good teachers. Good teaching is an essential element to helping students get a good education. Without good teaching, the quality of a child's education is a crapshoot.

Taking this one step further, I’d like to point out that students are not served well by demoralized teachers.

Teaching in a public school is far more difficult, I am sure, than the average person outside the classroom understands. On a routine basis teachers are forced to endure pointless meetings, unnecessary administrative paperwork, piles of student papers to grade, overcrowded classrooms, underfunded mandates, unmotivated and unruly students, prescribed curriculum programs that don't work, and, of course, standardized testing followed by even more standardized testing.

The list goes on … and on.

How teachers find the time to teach or even prepare to teach, I don’t know. Sometimes all they can do is try to survive the day at school.

Then, when they leave school and go home, they are hit with an onslaught of news reports about failing schools and the need to “reform” education, which often means little more than giving teachers additional work that is too often designed to satisfy administrators and politicians, rather than the needs of students.

This all-too-common process of demoralizing teachers and cutting the heart out of the teaching profession has created a crisis in our public schools. The culture must change. We must develop a system for public education that does not demoralize teachers, a system that gives teachers time to teach and develop their craft, a system that treats teachers as professionals and pays them like professionals.

Someday we will have state and national governments that help nurture that system, and I believe that day will come soon. I stand with the teachers in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky and other states who have recently taken pubic action to bring significant change to American education. 

Monday, March 26, 2018

A Teacher Who Asks Big Questions

The 12-minute documentary embedded below won a gold medal in a national media competition in 2012. (This might seem like old news, but the message is timeless.) The film is titled "Wright's Law" and tells the story of a high school teacher in Louisville, Kentucky, who delivers an annual lecture that tries to answer the question, "What is the purpose of it all?”

Great teachers are our nation's most valuable resource, and this video shows teaching at its best.

For more information about Jeffrey Wright and his former student who made this video, see the The New York Times, December 24, 2012.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Learning for the Sake of Learning

In 1978, I was enrolled in an American literature course at New Mexico State University taught by Marion Hardman. Dr. Hardman was a legendary teacher who left a legacy that continued long after she was gone. She was a master teacher and remains, I am sure, the best literature teacher her students ever knew.

She taught at NMSU for 40-plus years and had a building named in her honor while she was still teaching. The class I took under her tutelage was on the second floor of Hardman Hall and was the last class she taught before retiring.

I assume the students who shared that class with me remember her final lecture. For me, it was a life-changing event, and I still have my notes from what she said.

During that last lecture Dr. Hardman gave an account of how she first came to NMSU. She talked about the problems she faced as a young woman at a conservative agricultural school in the 1930s.

It was fascinating to hear her talk about her career at NMSU, a career that would inspire feminists and scholars of both sexes. She talked about her intellectual development. She talked about meeting Ernest Hemingway.

After she finished telling personal stories, she ended her farewell lecture with words of advice that have never left me, words that have guided me throughout my teaching career,

She warned against the movement to make learning “useful” and “relevant.” For Dr. Hardman, education was about much more than simply preparing students for a career. She thought education should help students tap into something eternally true about being human. She felt students should examine the wisdom of the ages and understand their lives in the context of the entirety of human experience — art, history, literature, music, philosophy, and science.

After requesting that all of us listening to her last lecture commit ourselves to learning for the sake of learning, Dr. Hardman lamented a headline in a local newspaper stating that NMSU students “learn to earn.” She advised us to recognize the triviality of that headline and instead explore our innate desire to live a good life through discovering the pleasures of learning for the sake of learning. Dr. Hardman believed an education should nourish the intellect and feed the soul. 

Her words have inspired me throughout my teaching my teaching career.

Thank you Dr. Hardman. 

Hardman Hall
New Mexico State University

Friday, March 9, 2018

Eric Whitacre Conducting Actual Choirs

Yesterday I posted a blog with three embedded videos of Eric Whitacre conducting virtual choirs. In the For-What-It's-Worth Column, I've posted videos below of Whitacre conducting the same pieces with actual choirs.

The music is worth hearing in all its forms.

Eric Whitacre conducting Lux Aurumque

Eric Whitacre conducting Sleep

Eric Whitacre conducting Water Night  

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Eric Whitacre: Everything was in Shocking Technicolor

I first heard about Eric Whitacre over a decade ago when my son sang two of his compositions — Water Night and Sleep — with the New Mexico All-State Choir. If you have yet to hear about Whitacre, he is a rock star of the choral world, a charismatic man who is swarmed by crowds of admiring fans at music conferences. I count myself a big fan

Whitacre’s life story should give hope to anyone who starts late in music. In his lecture on TED, he tells about going to the University of Nevada Las Vegas at age 18 with little musical experience. When the choir conductor discovered he could sing and asked him to join the UNLV choir, he at first refused, believing people who sang in the choir were “geeky.” However, he accepted the invitation after a friend told him he could travel to Mexico with the choir at the end of the semester. 

Whitacre refers to his first day with the choir as one of the most transformative experiences of his life. As the choir began singing the Kyrie from Mozart’s Requiem, he said everything changed. “In my entire life I had seen in black and white, and suddenly everything was in shocking Technicolor.”

Whitacre stayed with the choir, learned how to read music, and began studying composition. Within three years he had completed his first concert work, Go, Lovely Rose. He then earned a graduate degree in composition from Juilliard and has since published over forty vocal and instrumental works, making quite a name for himself through his works for "virtual choir."

As my son told me, “If you meet someone who says they don’t like choral music, tell them about Eric Whitacre."

Eric Whitacre, Virtual Choir, Lux Aurumque

Eric Whitacre, Virtual Choir 2, Sleep

Eric Whitacre, Virtual Choir 3, Water Night

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Mozart Breaks a Rule

"People err who think my art comes easily to me. I assure you, dear friend, nobody has devoted so much time and thought to composition as I. There is not a famous master whose music I have not industriously studied through many times." 
–Wolfgang Mozart, in a letter to a friend (attributed)

In 1770, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was a fourteen-year-old music prodigy who had been touring Europe as a performer since the age of six. While traveling through Italy with his father, he found himself at the Vatican during the days preceding Easter, and he heard a performance of the legendary work of vocal music titled Miserere. The Catholic church had printed only three copies of the piece and had restricted performances to Holy Week services in the Sistine Chapel. Within hours after hearing the piece, Mozart created a manuscript of Miserere from memory. He created the manuscript without the pope’s permission and then returned to the Sistine Chapel two days later on Good Friday – Friday the 13th – to hear the piece again and make corrections to his manuscript.

Miserere was one of the most safely guarded works of art in Europe, and performers were prohibited from taking the music outside the Vatican. By creating a manuscript of the music, Mozart violated a papal edict protecting it. His transcription may have even contributed to the published versions appearing all over Europe the next year. No one is certain. Historians do know, however that Mozart’s father seemed determined to abide by the pope's decree.

"You have often heard of the famous Miserere in Rome, which is so greatly prized that the performers are forbidden on pain of excommunication to take away a single part of it, copy it or to give it to anyone. But we have it already. Wolfgang has written it down and we would have sent it to Salzburg in this letter, if it were not necessary for us to be there to perform it. But the manner of performance contributes more to its effect than the composition itself. Moreover, as it is one of the secrets of Rome, we do not wish to let it fall into other hands."
–  Leopold Mozart, in a letter to his wife, April 14, 1770

When Pope Clement XIV heard about Mozart's transcription of Miserere he did not condemn the boy for violating his decree. Instead, he recognized Mozart’s musical genius with a papal knighthood, making Mozart a Knight of the Order of the Golden Spur.

Allegri, Miserere – King's College Chapel Choir 

Many thanks to The Greatest Music Stories Never Told by Rick Beyer for introducing me to this story.