Category Archives: teaching tips

An Ode to John Keating: A Reflection on Dead Poets Society

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I was in third year high school when my brother and I discovered the Dead Poets Society.  He and I watched it over and over until we knew all the lines well enough to stage our own play version.  We pondered over John Keating’s words as much as his prep school pupils did.  Robin William’s character, this inspiring and creative imparter of knowledge, was my teaching muse.  He still is.

To say that Keating was not a traditional teacher is an understatement.  The film starts out showing the teaching styles of the other teachers in the school.  They epitomized the complete authority figure; their tools of the trade: rote, authors as indisputable sources of knowledge, and fear.  Then enters Keating, whistling Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture as if strolling down the park, caught up in an exciting world of his making.  Exactly then we assume that this is no ordinary teacher and we’re right to do so because in a few beats he brings his students to the school gallery and gives them the famous “Carpe Diem” speech.  “Seize the day, boys,” He said in eerie tones.  “Make your lives extraordinary!”

Keating’s methods were unusual.  They required a certain sense of boldness, a willingness to take the plunge or even act the fool.  But he didn’t appreciate the clumsy audacity, the crazy dive into the abyss.  He didn’t encourage the wise-crack remarks and antics of Charlie, especially when he pulled off the phone-call-from-God prank (“It’s God. He said girls should be allowed in Welton!”).  He wanted his students to be brave thinkers and thinking braves: to rip (-rip-rrrrip!) the pages off a book that boxed and judged poetry as one would a potential American Idol; to run in the field and recite a poem as strongly, and as passionately, as one would kick a soccer ball; to stand on the teachers table and view his classroom, and the world, differently.  His goal was for his students to experience knowledge and life.  Not all of his students appreciated it.  One of them, Cameron, couldn’t wait to get Keating into trouble in order to get brownie points from the headmaster.  Another, Todd, was so inhibited that he welcomed his teacher’s passion as much as he would a rattlesnake.  Certainly, his colleagues didn’t, except for the Latin teacher who eventually started holding his classes in the school paths, striding along with the rhythm of Latin words. 

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When I was younger, I passionately hated the close-minded headmaster and Dr. Perry, the uber-strict father of Neil, the student who joined the production of A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream.  My brother and I would snarl at these characters each time they appeared because they did nothing but disapprove and discourage.  But now that I’m older and, in the 5 years that I’ve been a teacher, have bore the brunt of disapproving headmasters (or nuns, to be more precise) and discouraging parents, I can say that I understand where they are coming from, and it is fear. 

People fear what is different.  Sometimes fear manifests itself as narrow-mindedness and self-righteousness.  In Keating’s case, his teaching method was deemed improper because it didn’t fit the defined cornered mold from which the faculty was modeling.  What was so wrong with holding classes outside of the classroom? Or asking the students to step on top of a desk to illustrate a point?  These were not corrupting activities.  They weren’t fatal or anarchic.  However, if one is encouraged to step off the gravelly path then maybe that person will eventually step further away and walk a different path or create paths of his own, or so Keating’s colleagues feared.  More than to keep order, rules, in essence, are meant to control.  If you allow a student to veer away from a rule, even in the slightest, they might eventually rebel.  In the conservative school administration’s eyes, any teacher or student who thinks outside the mold is suspect, therefore, to be feared.

Welton found a way to get rid of Keating because of Neil’s death.  Still wearing his Puck garland, he died by his own hand; although it may well have been Keating who pulled the trigger, if you ask Neil’s father and the headmaster.  His crime was that he nurtured the boys’ love for the stage and believed Neil when he said he had gotten his father’s approval.  Should Keating have pursued the matter and called Dr. Perry to verify this?  Would that have pacified the rigid father and stopped him from sending his son to military school, thus preventing Neil’s suicide?  We, teachers, should always do more than what our job descriptions ask of us.  Our contracts don’t ask us to wait with a student whose parents are late in picking her up, or lend an ear while another tells us about an argument she had with her friend.  These are not written in our contracts but they don’t have to be.  Good teachers do them for free because we care for our students; but in the end, we can only do so much.  We are not their friends.  We are not their parents.  We are responsible for their welfare only up to an extent, and beyond that hope that their parents and guardians are nurturing them well. 

Several times I’ve been paid a great compliment.  On separate occasions, a few of my students told me they reminded me of John Keating.  They might as well have called me “O Captain, my Captain”. In all those occasions my smile was a mile-wide.  There’s nothing more blissful than to hear my students tell me they think I’m doing a great job.  This wonderful benefit isn’t in our contracts either, and I’m glad it isn’t. 

When you’re a teacher, happiness is not always about money.    

Film poster and still from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dead_Poets_Society
The video clip from the movie is under fair use.

Our Students, Their Brains

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The idea for this entry started as a response to Dino Manrique (a.k.a. noid) and his comment on my post, “A Musician’s Fear and Loathing of Mathematics” which I posted on his website, filipinowriter.com

His comment

Imagination and the Right Brain
Submitted by noid on December 12, 2007 – 4:17pm.
An example of our school system’s — and our society’s’ for that matter — over-emphasis on left-brained modes of learning. That’s why creatives/right-brained individuals often feel left out or marginalized. The ironic thing though is that right brain/intuition is indispensable to genius. More than a handful of quotes, for example, have been attributed to Albert Einstein regarding the importance of the imagination:
Quote:
I am enough of an artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.
or
Quote:
Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.
or
Quote:
To raise new questions, new possibilities, to regard old problems from a new angle, requires creative imagination and marks real advance in science.
I, myself, am just finding this out. Am now more fascinated with math and science than I ever was in school, knowing that these fields can actually be approached from a more artistic perspective. Long live the right brain! 🙂

I agree with your observation about the focus of society and schools on left-brain modes of learning.  Math and science do exist in the realm of logic but every new theory and invention was born of creativity and ‘thinking out of the box’, possible only by way of the right brain.

What if we switch it around? Can we say that it’s possible that the arts can be approached in a more logical perspective?  Certainly, music can be analyzed structurally and this requires logical skills.  There is, in fact, a subject called “Forms and Analysis” where a piece is dissected by measuring harmonic and melodic pitch intervals and, by using certain systems (like the diatonic system — major and minor, for example), predicting the music’s movement in relation to the tonic (or where it originated).  It’s almost mathematical, this analysis. One can argue that music can be regarded logically “after the fact”, once it already exists; but what of the composers who intentionally employ mathematical concepts into their music, just as he would elements like timbre or dynamics?    

I’ve met musicians of all sorts. That many are strongly right-brained comes as no surprise.  They use intuition to create or interpret music, and are more likely to be innovative in their approach.  But there are also quite a few, composers and performance artists alike, who are strongly left-brained.  Not surprisingly, they’re the ones who excel in the analysis of musical form.  They sight-read music faster, are able to interpret musical symbols more efficiently.  However, one sort lacks what the other has: which could explain why ‘Forms and Analysis’, a subject where only a few breeze through and the others come out of crawling, is one of the most dreaded at the U.P. College of Music; and why not all performance artists, no matter how superb their technique, are said to have ‘heart’. 

Of course, the happy exception would be the musicians who have balanced right and left brains.  Possibly, they have a thicker corpus callosum which enable a more efficient communication between both hemispheres.  They have the capability and the ability to find the medium between creative and logical thinking.  As composers, they can go beyond existing structures and find unusual ways of expressing sound while still consciously aware of form and all its elements.  As performance artists, they are sticklers for what’s written on the score, but are able to bring a new dimension to the music by way of intuition.  One could say, probably, that these musicians know the rules and choose to break them, or more precisely, venture from them.   

As an educator with these observations in mind, I would probably be more careful in judging a music student’s or musician’s logical or creative abilities.   Too quickly, music teachers would label a certain student “bobo” (stupid) for not being able to quickly grasp musical concepts whose understanding require logical thinking, or “parang bato” (like a stone) for purely interpreting a piece as written, with nary a touch of feeling or personal interpretation.   Different brains means different capabilities.  In fact, musicians born with a balanced brain could have been easily programmed to lean heavily towards only one hemisphere had they been trained to do so by a music teacher who, say, forced them to stick to reading notes and never to play by ear (oido); or by one that constantly ignored a student’s inquiry about certain musical symbols and encouraged them instead to improvise. 

If  teachers are always encouraged to regard their students as individuals, then it follows that how their students think is just as important as what they think.  We must not rely on impressions or the usual clichés (all musicians are right-brained) and be quick to dismiss or give up.  Instead, we must be creative in finding new avenues of teaching in order to rouse our students’ less utilized brain hemispheres.  Observation, care, and a genuine concern for our students’ thinking process will ensure a deeper understanding and holistic response to music.

Pablo Honey!

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I had a music room in my former school, ICA*.  It took me a few months before I started feeling like it was MY own room.  I brought a couple of personal things for the room which the students immediately noticed.  I realized then that I could make the music room an extension of myself, a way for my students to know a little more about me.

After the Christmas break, Cherry, one of my co-teachers, brought some toys her daughter had outgrown to donate to the school’s social action club.  Among them was a green rubber cactus in a cowboy get-up: big red hat, shades, and purple bandanna.  It was one of those toys that you can slip into an antenna or bar-b-que stick, having no spine to keep itself upright.  Its strange soft rubber texture amused me so much that Cherry gave it to me, and I returned the favor by using it to play pranks on our co-teachers, making her laugh the whole day.  A spineless rubber cactus + teachers caught unaware = a recipe for a roaring good time.

Well, not really.  Maybe just a fun break between the mundane routine inside the faculty room.

When the novelty of the rubber cactus wore off in the faculty room, I relocated it to the music room where the CD player antenna became its permanent backbone, and forgot all about it — until my first class for the day arrived.  They noticed the cactus right away and seemed fascinated with it.  When they asked me why it was there, I told them it was an observer and will make sure they participate in the activity.  Here he is:

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During recess, I thought I’d give the toy a name.  I thought of Pablo but wrote Pablo Honey on its name plate without thinking.  I decided not to change it, thinking the girls would easily make the connection to Radiohead’s first album.  pablohoney.jpg  They didn’t.  Many of them teased me, saying Pablo must be my ‘honey’.  Others had their own theories, like a reference to Pablo Neruda or to other famous people named Pablo.  I saw the futility of insisting its Radiohead origins and decided to remain mysterious.  What surprised me was the girls’ immediate acceptance of its name.  Not one of them suggested a different name or wondered why a toy would have a name in the first place.  From then on, the rubber cactus ceased being called ‘it’.  He became my sidekick and the music room’s official mascot.

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Pablo Honey helped me reach out to my students.  His presence caused a change in my and the girls’ attitude.  Maybe it was because he really did seem to watch over them from its high antenna spine, maybe it was because they saw a different side of me, one that was more playful or cool enough to bring a toy to class; whatever it was, the girls became more relaxed and happy to be in the music room because of him.  They liked shaking his jiggly arms and patting his head.  They took his picture (in fact, the one I’ve been using was taken by a student and Emailed to me) and doodled him during and outside of my class.  One of my seniors, Meggy, even drew his portrait:

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It hangs above my clavinova at home.  Another senior, Christine, gave me a little cactus on the last day of school.  The tag on the pot said: “Pablo’s Honey”, which really warmed my heart.  As much as he gave my students the chance to see a different side of me, he gave me the opportunity to see a different side of my students, one that I never would have seen had I remained distant and non-human in their eyes.

My last day at ICA was bittersweet.  Pablo Honey watched as I packed up all my stuff, making me feel less alone inside the quiet music room.  In my new school, SPUQC**, I don’t have a music room or my own CD player.  Even if I did, I couldn’t bring Pablo Honey over there: he will always belong to my girls at ICA.  In the meantime, my new students seem quite fascinated by this timer I bring to class to keep me on schedule.  It’s shaped like a carrot and everytime I take it out of my bag, they giggle. 

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Maybe it’s time to think of a name. 

*Immaculate Conception Academy
**St. Paul University Quezon City

Not Alone

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I am this (see above) no more

This may seem like a lazy post but I wanted to post the responses I received from my previous entry.  They are reminders for me and for anyone that:

  1. Other teachers get the blues, too.
  2. Getting the teaching blues doesn’t mean you’re a bad teacher.
  3. When you reach out with honesty, people will respond to you with honesty and help you.

blapple1.jpgFrom Eileen of Dedicated Elementary Teacher Overseas:

Dear Lizzy,

Sorry to see you going through this distress. Sometimes change comes slowly, but now you might be open to new opportunities. I write two blogs (one a serious one on education, and the other a whimsical blog on metaphysics–an outside interest of mine, that I want to learn more about). One reason I started blogging is I never have time to write either (and I hope to write some books as well as magazine articles). I just started an English-language writers’ group in my city, which meets roughly once a month. By blogging, and the need to post (at least once a week during school, and hopefully more) I’m hoping THAT will force me to figure out how to fit REGULAR writing into my schedule. Maybe the blog can help you do that, too?

blapple1.jpgFrom Repairman of Repairkit:

Malaise and mild depression hits all of us at various points. Being male, I’m not sure if my experience is relevant, but a supportive network of friends — even one good one — will often get us over the period of distress. And nothing helps like a loving “significant other.”

Have you defined (to yourself, at least) what you want to do, where you see yourself in five, ten years? Are you happy? Set some big goals. People founder without big goals.

Also, ambivalence, having contradictory feelings about the same thing, isn’t exactly uncommon. Bear with it!  Hoping the sun shines for you!

blapple1.jpgFrom Jose of The Jose Vilson:

First off, let me say that I decided not to read the comments to this post. After all, it’s only now that NYC teachers like myself are getting back into the hang of things with teaching. However, after reading this post, I had a couple of thoughts:

1) Being yourself is such a weird concept. On the one end, it’s what helps you get through the struggles and complexities of being in the classroom. However it also makes us feel disingenuous about the role we play in front of the kids. That’s why much of what we do is acting. Even when we have rough patches, we’re supposed to act apart from ourselves in a sense.

2) Teaching would be great if it wasn’t for all the administrative stuff. I hate having to do all that paperwork, and excuse my Latin, but that shit sucks. I would rather just teach the kids stuff and go back and forth until they learned it. Unfortunately, a lot of it comes with the job. Maybe a part of the fact that we don’t want to see more paperwork is because when we signed on to be teachers, it was to run from the traditional jobs in the office. Paper, however, comes with almost everything out there.

3) I’m almost in the same boat as you. Writing is my passion as well, but in this capitalist society, writers don’t get paid, and those that do are very few and far between. The reason I even have my job is because it’s the only job I knew I could do. If I had a choice, I’d wake up, eat Lucky Charms, and sit on my ass writing and watching NY Yankee games. Yet, most writers that dedicate themselves solely to writing are poor for real, and often depend on the kindness and generosity of others.

4) Corollary: Spaces like these are important. Not only can you jot down some notes that you wanted to write on, you can continue practicing and getting feedback. Some writers I knew will write about a page for their entire “Book Writing” day. Sometimes, being busy the way we are makes us have to be efficient and focused on the task when we get the chance to write. Be grateful for every opportunity you get.

5) To be honest, as a suggestion, I think I love “The Music Teacher” because of its simplicity. If you think back to the great films and pieces I’ve ever read, the greatest books had titles that were really simple, because it stood in stark contrast to the complex themes of the book.

6) To paraphrase the Lion King, courage doesn’t mean that you’re not afraid. Take heart in what you do. Be strong.

Peace …

Thank you, Eileen, Repaiman and Jose.  For you three: blapple1.jpg, for your words of encouragement and support.  You have made me realize that I am where I should be and for that I am grateful.

Tay Zonday: A Chocolate Philip Glass?

Before you raise your fists in an uproar and call me a racist, watch the clip… 

The title is a play on Tay Zonday’s song, “Chocolate Rain” which, according to Yahoo and Eonline, is sweeping both virtual and real worlds.  A few nights ago, Zonday was a guest on ‘Jimmy Kimmel Live’ where he performed his famed song live.  Famous musicians like John Mayer and Tre Cool have made their own version of the song while 8,000 spoofs were uploaded in YouTube.  His clip garnered 5,140,000 hits and was made favorite 22,223 times. 

                                          “Chocolate Rain” as Hook 

Now, why would a serious music teacher like myself write about Tay Zonday?  Is his song worthy enough to be mentioned here, much less a classroom? 

I say, yes.

5,140,000 hits. Made favorite 22,223.  Chances are my students could have been one of those who watched the clip.  Yours could have been one of those who saved the clip to their favorites folder.  In this day and age of virtual living, we teachers should not find that surprising. 

My once-a-week class of 50 minutes gives me the burden of revving my students’ interests.  I deliberately chose the word “rev” instead of “motivate” to emphasize the urgency of catching their attention.  In order to do this, I’m constantly on the look-out for ‘hooks’: things that 12-18 year-olds might be interested in.  They could be positive exemplars that don’t have to have the same exact characteristics as my topic.  A few solid similarities go a long way with ‘hooks’.  The same goes for negative exemplars.  Their differences can be a basis for comparison and, therefore, fodder for discussion.  Of course, there’s a huge gulf between concrete contrasts and flimsy connections.  Students can detect desperation faster than vacating their chairs at the end of the day.  In order for me to find real solid connections between what might interest them and my topic, I put myself in their sneakers, so to speak, and listen and learn until I find it interesting, too.  I find that that’s the best way to be sincere.

                                        “Chocolate Rain” and Minimalism

Aside from its obvious potential for teaching vocal timbre and electronic music, we can use “Chocolate Rain” as a jumping off  point for introducing minimalism, the twentieth century genre popularized by the likes of Philip Glass, Steve Reich and Terry Riley.  Minimalist music is based mostly in reiteration, stasis and, slow transformation.  It is:

“… any music that works with limited or minimal materials: pieces that use only a few notes, pieces that use only a few words of text, or pieces written for very limited instruments, such as antique cymbals, bicycle wheels, or whisky glasses. It includes pieces that sustain one basic electronic rumble for a long time. It includes pieces made exclusively from recordings of rivers and streams. It includes pieces that move in endless circles. It includes pieces that set up an unmoving wall of saxophone sound. It includes pieces that take a very long time to move gradually from one kind of music to another kind. It includes pieces that permit all possible pitches, as long as they fall between C and D. It includes pieces that slow the tempo down to two or three notes per minute.”

                                                            Tom Johnson, The Village Voice, 1989 

                              A Quickie Musical Analysis of “Chocolate Rain”

  1. Reiteration of a musical phrase: Zonday had a theme made up of 13 notes (the rest are passing notes) which he repeated for 4’52”.  Referring to Tom Johnson’s explanation, it was a piece that moved in a seemingly endless circle.
  2. Repetition of text: His repetition of the words “chocolate rain” contributes to the constancy of the piece.
  3. Subtle transformation: Although the theme was consistent, you can hear that he created subtle changes by moving the bass to a lower and higher register.  He also made use of syncopation, stressing a subdivision of a beat usually not emphasized, in the shift of the bass to the lower register. 
  4. Single timbre: The most obvious. Although he used an electric keyboard and could have programmed it for other timbres, he chose one and stayed with it throughout the piece.

Okay.  That may have been a simplistic dissection of his song but, hey, unlike Zonday I can’t go on and on about one thing.  Besides, the ‘hook’ is just the beginning.  IF you plan to use “Chocolate Rain” as one then the goal is not to dwell on it.  Cite it, silently thank Tay Zonday for the help, and then get down to business.  That is, if you can stop the students, and yourself, from humming his hypnotic repetitive melody.  Last Song Syndrome (LSS) can be such a pain in the butt.    

My sources:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Minimalist_music
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philip_Glass
http://www.encyclopediadramatica.com/Tay_Zonday
Kids, repeat after me: plagiarism is a stupid person’s only recourse.