Anyone who knows me and just wants to follow more closely than facebook...or anyone who teaches and just wants to get inside of someone else's life and classroom...or anyone who might be inspired to change their (and yes, I can use this pronoun to mean his or her...look it up) life, might enjoy my blog. By the way, I like to use ... it mimics real conversational space and gives the reader time to digest...see?

Monday, July 2, 2012

Wrap-up 2011-12 and MY NEW ORCHESTRA!

Well, its done. The RIF notice was not rescinded, so I am going to the junior high school full time. Because there are no other instrumental programs that feed into Roosevelt High School, it is good that I am teaching instrumental music to grades 7-8. By June, I had started about 160 students on strings and winds. Many of them will take my classes again for eighth grade, and hopefully, at least 50 will sign up for band or orchestra when they become Freshman in 2013. Its going to be a huge shot in the arm for the marching band, jazz band, orchestra and mariachi programs at the high school where enrollments and quality have been decreasing with the scheduling conflicts and lack of elementary and middle school programs.

So that feels good.

What does not feel good is teaching 42 beginners aged 12-13 who don't have respect for equipment and/or authority. I feel old when I say it, but times have changed. Students talk back and try to convince you that they weren't doing anything wrong, that you are being unfair. They lack control over their bodies and show no remorse when speakers break, or horns are dropped. One student who had not been given permission to get out of her seat, walked passed me while I was playing the trumpet to the class and pushed it into my face as she tried to shield herself from the sound. She talked back as I reprimanded through the pain in my face. When I have a substitute, students run around the room, go in the practice room without permission, steal things from each other, eat food and chew gum, walk out of the room without asking, and generally do whatever they want.

Its very tiring. Classes are over an hour long which doesn't vibe with the adolescent attention span of four minutes. The only way to survive is to lower standards and just get through they day. It doesn't feel good.

I'm going to focus on the slight majority of students who want to play and learn music and have the confidence to do so. They deserve my best attention and I intend to give it.


The other saving grace is my El Sisteme orchestra that we have started this summer. What a complete contrast to my normal classes of students who did or did not sign up for music! Michael Hudson-Medina and I started the Boyle Heights Community Youth Orchestra (BHCYO) last week on a wing and a prayer. We are doing this for free to get the program started, to show the need for such an activity on our community so that donors see the importance of music. As Gustavo Dudmel says: Music Saves Lives.

We set registration on June 26, hoping for 40, expecting 20. We got 65! it is amazing. These kids come to school at 9am and stay until 12pm completely excited to learn music and play an orchestra instrument. We have showed them the videos of Dudamel conducting the Simon Bolivar Orchestra, telling them they will be like this if they practice. We teach them singing, rhythm, notation, and of course, playing. They will learn the violin, flute or trumpet for now before switching to the other instruments as they wish and as their bodies grow.

My teaching is completely rejuvenated. They love it and they learn so fast. It takes an entire semester to teach my regular students basic notation and rhythm. These 6-11 year-olds have it after a week! I am challenged every minute with everything I know about pedagogy to keep up with them. We were so swamped, I had to call for help and now have four volunteers from professionals (Thanks, Andrea!) to recent high school grads walking around to correct and guide, leading small groups, and taking students to the bathroom. The parents have been wonderful, so excited and grateful that this free program is bringing such great education to their children.

I hope to chronicle this process to show how simple and profound it is. This is the most beautiful and pure exchange of human energy I have every had the privilege to witness. Through music, these children are tapping into the pulse of the universe, what makes us all tick. They are looking into a mirror and seeing themselves reflected back with value, skill, and beauty. And this is only one neighborhood, in one city, in one country. Two adults. Could you imagine if these were everywhere? We would end war, have no need for prisons, and hear music from all around us, everywhere, rather than the silence that surrounds each person who has a small metal device attached to her head.

I have been reading the book written about El Sisteme called "Changing Lives." I have been going to workshops and visiting rehearsals in LAfor four years to train to lead my own group. I have been watching videos and talking to the people on the ground level from Venezuela, Columbia and Brazil. But none of that could prepare me for the reality of watching it unfold firsthand, for creating the actual space where the actual children come who can't wait to learn their next note. The music is saving them, and they are saving me.

If you are in LA, please come by. You will leave with a smile on your face that will not fade. And, hopefully, you will ask yourself: What can I do?    A look at El Sisteme

Friday, March 30, 2012

Its been a while, but so much to say

Well, its my fourth year now, and I have gotten a pink slip, known as "RIFfed" around here, for the third year in a row. But I have learned. This year, I didn't even skip a beat. I didn't stop smiling or crying or anything different. I have learned that it is a waste of time or energy because nothing I do affects the outcome. It is completely out of my control. I feel very zen as I let it go and drive each day to work. The good thing about the RIF is it puts everything into focus: is this really what I want to be doing? should I look for another job outside the district (which I do anyway all the time) should I even be a teacher? The RIF follows me from class to class as the questions swirl around each interaction with each student. When Melissa opens a bag of chips and starts eating them right under the sign on the board that says NO FOOD OR DRINK IN THIS ROOM, the RIF becomes an escape hatch, a relief. But when Aaron says, "Miss, you ATTACK the present to AFFECT the future," the RIF becomes a heavy feeling inside, sadness in the loss of working with students like him, who appreciate what they get at the time they get it.

So my junior high job is safe, as the Reed Decision prevents RIFs at that school. I have been asked to teach there full time. It sounds nice now. Especially when Jocelyn brought me a list of songs handwritten on four small sheets of paper and said, "Miss, is it okay to give you homework over the break?" I asked what she meant, that it looked as though she had put a great deal of time and effort into this list (although I didn't recognize any of the songs). She said, "Well, you taught me to like Classical Music, so I wanted to give you some songs in return. Will you listen to them?" She wouldn't look right at me as I thanked her sincerely and said that I certainly would listen and let her know what I thought. She is in seventh grade and plays the double bass. Turns out the songs are mostly metal. Who knew? I felt so honored. Teaching children really brings reality into a crucible of what is important and what is not.

Thank you, Jocelyn. I plan on teaching at the junior high next year and creating an advanced ensemble just for you. You deserve it.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Band Camp

This one time...at band camp...

Yes, August has brought the inevitable...Band Camp. Because our school used to be on three tracks, year round, this is a new idea...well, hasn't been around for at least 15 years. Last year, we only had 7 people, so we used the whole week to recruit as students came on campus to register for the new traditional school schedules. This year, I started the summer with a roster of 32. Seven showed up for camp this Monday and have continued to come every day. We have only added three more for a total of 10. I nearly cried. We had called everyone several times and 17 had confirmed with at least 5 maybes.

Tet moment of truth for me was Monday morning for about 5 minutes. The students were outside, it was supposed to get up into the 100s every day this week, and I had a choice to make. Do I spend 40 unpaid hours teaching 7 students? When I wasn't on contract? Or do I cancel it and wait for school to start, when the rest of the students would show up? I really thought hard. But I knew the answer. I had 7 teenagers in front of me who loved music, had nothing else to do, and needed to be taught. As always, I realized it was my privilege to teach them, and that the results would only make things easier on me when school began. I took a deep breath, let it go, smiled and walked outside to do my job.

"Welcome to Band Camp 2010! Let's go to the field."

Saturday, August 7, 2010


All teachers need vacation. Sometimes we have to force ourselves to take them and stop moving because our minds are always racing with thoughts and ideas for our students and classrooms. I force myself to slow down by visiting family. It reconnects me and I still get to fulfill my altruistic desires. It is also cheap...important for teachers. If I could afford it, would I take a vacation on a luxury river-cruise in Europe, or at a beach resort in Baja? Probably not. I love my family too much, and I can only handle so much down time. With my family, I am not a teacher or a conductor. I am just me, and therefore, I am on vacation.

This vacation I chose to spend in Australia visiting my aunt and uncle. I haven't been in almost 20 years, and it feels great. It is winter here, so there is little motivation to be out and about swimming and sight-seeing. My teacher-friend and I are happy in front of the woodstove with our laptops, watching bad TV and eating too much icecream. I have time and yummy ingredients to cook so everyone has enjoyed my lasagna, cheesecake, scones, leg of lamb and various breakfast eggs. Australia is full of fresh foods and even the packaged foods are delicious.

I am still planning, of course. I am writing this blog about being a teacher, and I am trying to learn the computer program for writing marching band drill that I bought. My friend has not stopped planning and working this entire time. She has been ordering things, calling school personnel, and even writing lesson plans. So much for two teachers on vacation. We go halfway around the world, but modern technology does not allow us to pull the plug on our constant desire to improve each year for our students.