Three years ago, I was assigned to mentor our new band teacher, Ben Caudill. I was understandably nervous. After all, I teach writing. I played violin badly thirty years ago, and I wouldn’t know an oboe from a hole in the wall. But I got lucky. I got to see a master teacher in action. I like to think we can learn something from everyone, and I saw that motivating kids through grades can only go so far.
As a sixth grader, my son George also did not know his trumpet from a hole in the wall. Neither did sixty other kids. It was very loud in Mr. Caudill’s band room, full of squeaks and sour notes. Still, most kids got A+s every quarter. I have been thinking a lot about what that A+ means.
When I worked with Ben, I remembered being curious about his grading practices. If everyone gets a high grade, does it reflect what their learning? Does it show their understanding of the material? Does it motivate them? Do they grow as musicians?
My answer is yes. After observing Ben teach, I found big takeaways, ones I reflect on as I shift away from emphasizing grades in my English class.
First, Ben’s band students knew that songs lead to performances for a real audience. Warm-ups and practice weren’t just something they did in class every day for no apparent reason. Every few months, hundreds of moms, dads, aunts, uncles, grandparents, and friends gather in our cafetorium and listen to the band play. When that audience shows up, you want to sound good. You don’t want to be that off key trombone who makes your audience want to cover their ears, laugh hysterically, or run the other way. Having a real audience, one who you care about, one who is paying attention, one who is listening to you, matters. It makes you want to improve and try your best, for them and for yourself.
Another takeaway relates to feedback. Whether Ben was listening to kids play solo, in sections, or all together, he gave brief, specific feedback. It was quick. It was constructive. And it was neutral. Kids knew this feedback existed to help them, and because it was neutral, they didn’t get defensive or argumentative. Even my unmusically trained ears could hear kids could shift right in the moment and make the necessary correction, or at least try it. I watched it happen. It WORKS.
I also watched how Ben guides his students through making mistakes. Learning a musical instrument is all about weird notes, missing keys, screwing up. You pick yourself up, shake it off, keep practicing, and keep moving forward. Talk about a great metaphor for writing and for life.
My final takeaway is about growth. If you have ever spent time in a band room, you will think these teachers are miracle workers. Every year, Ben takes sixty completely inexperienced kids and unleashes them on flutes, clarinets, trumpets, saxophones, and DRUMS. It’s loud. It’s chaotic. At this point, it’s all about mistakes. Successes are fleeting. At the first concert, Ben’s students play songs that last ten seconds. Then, as eighth graders, we see the amazing progress. At concerts, they play complex jazz and symphonic pieces that quite often give me the chills. They are musicians now, and many of them see themselves that way. They see the payoff reaped from thousands of mistakes.
Now, as an eighth grader, our son says band is his favorite subject. George joined a sextet with some friends, and they practice once a week before school. He practices with the jazz band two other mornings before school. This year he even did a trumpet solo, completely shocking his parents. Even more surprising, our sports-obsessed child was torn when he thought he’d have to miss his jazz band performance because he had a basketball game.
This is a delightful, surprising, and completely unexpected miracle.
This is the sign of a great teacher. A teacher who focuses on mistakes, feedback, growth, and having an authentic audience. A teacher who gives pretty much everybody A’s. There is a lot for me to think about here.
Of course, this leads me to writing.
I write best when I have an audience reacting to my words. I feel best about my writing when I receive honest, open feedback that helps me grow and that helps me see what is already working, what moves my audience, or what nudges them in a different direction. I learn from my many writing mistakes, and I’m always trying to stretch my writing in new ways. It would make sense that my students need those experiences, too.
How can I see that quantum leap with my writers, too? It’s all too easy to get in my head and start comparing music to writing. “Making music is more satisfying than writing. People would rather listen to music or play it than write or read. Music is more high interest. Kids are more motivated because of peer pressure. It’s harder to write than it is to play an instrument. “
Instead of comparing the negatives, I am making a shift. How are music and writing similar?
They both have the power to unite us. They both have the power to make us feel-to laugh, to cry, to understand, to connect. They both have the power to make us think. It sure isn’t about the grade.
Grades keep us compliant, and they keep me in control.
I used to think I wanted engaged kids, not just compliant ones who jump through the hoops I set out for them.
Now I know.
I want empowered kids. Kids who seek out learning and are able to persist through multiple areas by continuing to play, continuing to push, continuing to listen to others, continuing to find their own voices and their own hoops to jump through. Not mine. I’m just along for the ride.
Our next assignment is based on the NPR radio show called, “This I Believe,” and my students will all receive A’s for finishing their essays. But they will also have to choose an audience. They will conference multiple times with me. I need to see that they are trying to use the strategies I’m teaching them. They will need to show that they moved their writing from a first draft to something more powerful.
Meanwhile, I’m going to channel my inner band teacher and see how much my students grow this year as writers. I am up for the challenge.