Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Song Birds Saved The Crab Apple Tree

By Mark T. Burke

Today, I'll tell you a story.  This is a bit of a style shift for me.  But, there's been something happening in my back yard over the last few months that I feel has a great message; a message with significance in the world of music education.

The Song Birds Saved The Crab Apple Tree

There's a small Crab Apple tree in my backyard.  It doesn't look too old, but, it has seen a few years.  Our home has been owned by quite a few families since the early 80's.  I believe we are the 6th owners.  The little Crab Apple has enjoyed the pampering and endured the lack of it from its care takers.  Its bark is rough and stained and its branches thin.  Its leaves had been so small over the last few years.  Last year, it bloomed in spring like a champ.  But as the blooms fell, the leaves sprouted, small and pale.  As the summer heat moved in, the small leaves turned brown and fell.  Hoards of insect and those worms that build those ugly nests moved in.  I was sure this spring would bring no blossoms.

To my surprise, the Crab Apple blossomed.  I loved the tree, but I didn't know anything could be done.  So, it appeared, the Crab Apple would see another year.  After the blossoms fell, the leaves began falling off again.  This year seemed worse.  I was stumped.  I had tried sprays and pruning and those little nutrient sticks.  Nothing was working.

One day, I found myself at the hardware store buying a bird feeder and seed.  I brought the feeder home and hung it on a feeder stand.  The birds weren't finding it.  There was an occasional fly by, but no real feeding action.  I decided to move the feeder.  I hung it on a branch of the Crab Apple tree.  It didn't take long for all kinds of birds to find the feeder. Blue, yellow, red, purple, gray, brown, big and small birds began taking turns.

Something began happening to the little Crab Apple.  The small leaves were getting bigger.  The branches began filling out casting more shade on our patio. The small suckers at the bottom of the tree weren't growing as quickly. Today, the little Crab Apple tree looks better than it has in years. 

As I watched the birds one morning, I noticed how they took turns at the feeder.  Some would wait in the tree while others pecked away.  Eventually, the ones in the tree got tired of waiting and flew in for some seed.  Those in the tree seemed busy though.  They were hoping around, scraping at the bark, and searching through the leaves.  I realized quickly that they were eating the bugs from the tree.  I guess the bugs served as appetizers. The birds didn't know it, but they saved the life of the little Crab Apple tree.

There are many lessons to be learned from this story.  Lessons of CHANGE, working together, innovation, finding answers, paying attention, observing and responding, shifting priorities, perseverance, nurturing, discovering solutions, continual growth and more. If this story makes us all think about our music (or other) programs in a new way, fantastic.  Share your thoughts, your solutions, your innovative ways of creating change and moving forward.

Thanks for reading.


Friday, July 15, 2011

Learning Variation and Immersion

By Mark T. Burke

When I think back to my high school days, one particular class comes to mind, Physics.  I loved Physics class.  Each day we learned something new, in a new way.  We would infrequently just sit at our desks and listen to lectures.  Most often, we sat or stood at our lab stations with various gizmos and measuring devices surrounding us.  I remember wearing white lab coats and those hideously large protective goggles.  The setting is so vivid in my mind.  I can remembers specific labs, including the lab on acceleration.  We used a little car with a red tape attached.  As it accelerated away, it pulled the tape through a machine that kept a constant beat going with two small hammers hitting each other.  As the car accelerated, it pulled the tape faster causing the hammers to leave marks on the tape at an ever growing distances.  When the car stopped, we started the task of measuring the distance between dots.  From those calculations, we determined the car's rate of acceleration. 

Why the memory of Physics class creates such a vivid picture in my mind has become more obvious to me over the last several years.  Today in particular, as I continue my work on an AMAZING course writing project, I am reminded how important Learning Variation and Immersion is. I am also reminded of how little I remember from my high school music classes and lessons.  What I remember most from my music experiences are the marching band bus rides and how much we laughed.  I remember a few marching performances, but, not the educational activities.  Don't get me wrong, I had wonderful teachers.  So, why can't I remember my music educational experiences?

Over the last 12+ years, I've noticed a difference in the way curriculum is built for STEM subjects as compared to music.  Great STEM courses rely on Learning Variation and Immersion (LVI).  LVI is a term I've coined to describe the strategies (and effort) course developers and teachers use to keep students engaged.  STEM courses employ LVI to a high degree, most likely because we feel we MUST keep the kids engaged.  If we don't, they will hate the subject, test scores will decrease, our schools will fail and jobs will be lost.  We put high stakes on gaining student's attention and keeping it. When we develop music courses however, our first approach is drill and practice, repetition and disciplined practice.  While courses rich in LVI keep kids guessing about what they will do in class today, traditional approaches to teaching music ensure students KNOW what they will do in class today.  In college, my music history classes were DROP THE NEEDLE classes.  I HATED those classes and hated the thought of even GOING to class.  As such, I did extremely poorly.  In fact, my teacher seemed to revel in the fact that few people could pass the course.  He grew up with, and was taught that music was about disciple and repetition. So, he taught that way.  My fear is that that legacy still exists.  But, we can change that.

Employing LVI in music classes, like any class is a challenge.  Teachers (and in my case, online course developers), must CREATE more than they have in the past.  So, is there a magic "must do" list to ensure a great LVI level?  Here are a few suggestions.

1.)  Create a unique activity for each topic that provides opportunities for students to THINK
2.)  Create numerous opportunities for students to experiment and demonstrate their results.
3.)  Create situations for students to defend their thoughts and support their opinions with evidence.
4.)  Engage the students in the progression of learning (ie...demonstrate how skills connect to each other and discuss the importance of how one skills enables growth in another).
5.)  Create opportunities where student failure does not result in "punishment" or "belittlement." 
6.)  Create opportunities for students to do REAL work.
7.)  Create opportunities for student to work with students (not just play, WORK).
8.)  Create opportunities for students to build products based on their own CREATIVITY.
9.)  Create opportunities for students to experiment on their own.
10.)  Create opportunities that go beyond your understanding and skills (as the teacher or writer).

What did I miss?  LVI is a new way of thinking for me, so my list is a work in progress.  I believe if we follow this guidance, we can create a variety of activities and immerse the students in the learning process, just like my Physics teacher did for me.  I also believe this approach will ensure more students remember their music education experiences. 

Tell me what you think.


Thursday, July 14, 2011

MMA and Music

By Mark T. Burke

A few days ago, while watching our local news (WNEP), I saw a segment on MMA in our area.  Not familiar with MMA (Mixed Martial Arts)?  There are two sides to MMA, the bouts we see on TV and the training side (for individuals and families).  Certainly, we all know the martial arts have a history spanning centuries and cultures.  The martial arts play a key role in defining certain cultures, and not just Japan, China and Brazil.  However rich and long this history, MMA (a branding of the arts) as a spectator and participatory activity has without question transformed martial arts.  The transformative aspects of MMA on martial arts offer great lessons for other arts, including music.

While the cage fight side of MMA takes center stage on Pay Per View (PPV), MMA has created a resurgence of interest in the study of martial arts.  Look at the success of one school in State College PA (2500 facebook fans, tons of programs, teachers, classes, clothing lines and more). What can music programs learn from martial arts? on.

I am in no way involved in martial arts.  Maybe there's a side of me that has always wanted to learn a martial art, but, I have never explored this path.  What I do see though, is a model for involvement that works.  There are several key components to the martial arts "model" that I believe music programs can embrace. By doing so, I believe we can help those sitting on the musical ropes take a step toward the center of the ring. 

Five martial arts program characteristics to learn from.

1.)  Community is Key:  Too often, we depend on schools to teach everything to kids.  Fact...they can't.  What if the only place kids could learn martial arts was in gym class?  Would we have an upward national trend in involvement in martial arts?  I think not.  Like the schools linked above, community centers, gyms and training centers in our towns and cities are best equipped to provide high quality experiences.  Not just for kids either.  Community based, pay to play and learn programs, bring in the masses, of all ages and abilities, backgrounds and lifestyles.  Martial arts programs even manage to get past the brutality of the MMA cage fights to attract families to the classes.

2.)  Mind and Body Unite:  Martial arts employee the mind and body in all aspects.  A friend of mine, Rich Maye, is an amazing Ju-Jitsu practitioner.  He is also one smart guy.  A few years ago, I went with him to a class he was teaching at the Y to take some photos.  I was simply blown away with how strategy and the power of the mind was stressed in gaining an advantage over an opponent.  Watching Rich submit an opponent, seemingly effortlessly, was amazing.  He later told me how your own strength can be a weakness, especially when you don't know how to apply it.

3.)  Learning, Practicing and Performing As One: Attend any martial arts class and you see an amazing instructional event.  Students learn, practice and perform all in one session.  The group is a powerful aspect of the learning, but when it comes down to demonstrating your skills, opportunities for one on one and on your own demonstrations....those methods are key.  Throughout martial arts classes, these are enjoyed, and not really optional.

4.)  Failure is Expected and Valued:  To have fought with skill and determination while following the guidance of your instructor is victory.  These are values taught through martial arts.  Participants sweat, strain and get hurt.  They show their mental and physical abilities and weaknesses.  When class is over, those who submitted walk out with heads high....not forced, proud. 

5.)  Dynasties Embrace Transformation:  Centuries of martial arts history have not been tossed aside at the expense of MMA.  In fact, an appreciation for that history comes along with the reinvention of this participatory art.  Now, teachers must excel in multiple arts.  Students will learn to recognize the arts by style and purpose.  When doing so, they learn of cultures and values beyond their own and to a breadth not addressed in the past.  The MMA "movement" has in my mind, demonstrated the true value of rethinking the oldest of arts, packaging them into a modern iteration to ensure a continued legacy.

I'll leave you to think about what each of these characteristics can do for your music programs.  The challenge is on us to create programs that mirror those that grew from the exposure to martial arts created by MMA. From my seat, community based programs that stress learning, practice and performance, for all ages, where the mind and body are equally important to improving the art are paramount to ensuring musical arts continue their living legacy.

Now...back in the ring!

Mark Burke is the CEO and Founder of viaAcademies, a division of viaEdTechnologies.  viaEdTechnologies is dedicated to helping organizations build innovative educational solutions in the arts, technology, teacher education and entrepreneurship.  As the creators of viaAcademies, one of the nation's first fully online music academies for K-12, viaEdTechnologies works hand in hand with organizations to re-think educational systems and create engaging learning programs. The viaEdTechnologies moto is "Illuminating Educational Horizons."


Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Working CREATIVE: The Value of Music Education

By Mark T. Burke

I am feeling creative today. Over the last few years, I've learned to pay attention to how the creative process affects me.  Some time ago, I listened to this great podcast (Accidental Creative Podcast with author Stephen Pressfield, author of several novels including The Legend of Bagger Vance). He briefly shares how a mentor of his, Paul Link, taught him to make the creative process more "blue collar."  He also shares a quote from Somerset Maugham.  Maugham was asked if he wrote on a schedule (in reference to creating on demand, on a time line, schedule etc.).  Maugham said,  "I write only when inspiration strilkes me.  Fortunately, it strikes me every day at 9am sharp."  Living by what this quote means has significantly changed my life over the last few years and changed my vision of the value of music education.

This connection to music ed may at first glance seem far fetched.  But I feel connections like this are exactly what has been missing in music education.  Over the years, we've tried to simplify music education's value, dumb it down.  Music education has to be fun, it has to help raise student's math scores, it has to be another team sport.  We've been so eager to "fit in" to education that we've developed advocacy around being "just like the others" so that we don't seem so geeky and strange. 

Yesterday, I met with a group of dedicated folks, eager to bring more music to their community. I will be sharing more on them later. While their mission is a good one, the reason for the mission is often hard to articulate.  I shared the great value of centralizing their missions around the CREATIVE process. I often explain the CREATIVE process's value like this. "Knock on any office door in town and ask for the boss.  Ask the boss, what traits do you want most in your company leaders?  The boss will say, I want CREATIVE problem solves, thinkers, those who can help us CREATE new business.  Most likely, they will use the CREATE word many times in their response.  Then, ask the boss, what are the hardest traits to find in new hires.  They will most likely say, CREATIVITY.  Whooooopppppss.....We have a disconnect, a gap between our needs and reality. Quality music and arts education can and must fill that gap. 

I designed the logo above to highlight a wave of thinking around music education, advocacy and new program development.  This wave needs to go deeper than promoting, "Music helps build CREATIVITY."  This is the flowery language that convinced many educational leaders to kick music to the sounds a bit too dreamy, too soft, too warm and fuzzy.  It also sounds very undefined for those of us who need a deeper connection to educational standards and practical, real life applications. The truest value of music education (and the Arts in general for that matter), comes when students develop the ability to CREATE within multiple domains, within time lines and real deadlines, with goals and focus points as their guides and to create based on someone's, other than their own vision.

As you can imagine, we'll have to rethink weekly lessons, ensembles, general music, concerts and performances and a host of other traditional activities.  This is not to say they all need to go away, not so at all. This wave of thinking will however help guide our decisions on program additions, lesson plans, key underlying concepts and of course music advocacy.

Tell me how your program builds on CREATIVE abilities. I'll be exploring the CREATIVE process over the next few posts.  I look forward to the conversations.