Wednesday, December 28, 2011

KNEX the Musical Parts and Wholes

By Mark T. Burke

Since I was a kid, creating and building things has been a fun activity.  I love seeing objects and ideas take shape from a pile of parts.  The parts I often treat with disregard to be honest.  I shove them around, flicking some aside, digging to find just the right piece.  The end result though, well, I treasure it, holding it gently and admiring it greatly, protecting it from harm. Sound familiar?  A few days ago, as I watched my niece assemble two new K'NEX kits my wife and I gave her for Christmas, I couldn't help but think about the value of "whole / part", instructions, elements of art, disregard and regard.  There are some really powerful musical lessons to be learned from these "toys."

If you haven't been playing with toys lately, I highly recommend a visit to your local store.  Find the K'NEX isle and grab a few sets.  I needed a way to wrap up my thoughts about these amazing toys and how those thoughts related to music, so this post has been floating around my head for a few days.  Finally, the connection came to me this morning.  Take a look at the instructions in the K'NEX kits.  The first thing I noticed was how they focus on the end, the purpose of the assembled parts.  In other words, they spend little to no time addressing the basics of how to assemble pieces.  They jump right to what pieces to connect and how those few parts when connected join with other pieces that are connected to form larger, more complex components.  The end is always kept in sight.  Building skills are honed through a continual process of connecting with a purpose.  While watching my niece, I noticed she struggled with a few basic assembly skills.  However, as she continued to build, her skills improved.  No words from me, no instruction...just improvement. In the end, she developed basics skills not from the act of practicing those basic skills in isolation, but from needing to use those skills to build a finished toy.  She became frustrated when she could not perform a basic task, especially when she realized it kept her from finishing the kit. That frustration led to accomplishment since her sights were firmly set on her desired end result.

Well....what a lesson for us musicians and music teachers.  When we teach basic skills, are we focusing so much on that skill that we forget students will only see a need for that skill once they value the role of that skill in performing a final work?  I say yes.  Think about scales and arpeggios.   Do we want kids who can play scales and arpeggios or do we want kids who can play beautiful music?  Does K'NEX want kids who can put pin A into cog B or kids who can build amazing toys with real function? From my perspective in regards to K'NEX, the ultimate goal is kids who can mix a bunch of K'NEX kits together and create their own toys.  In our musical world, don't we want kids who can make beautiful music through an application of the basic skills and who will eventually create even more amazing music on their own? 

Back to the K'NEX instructions. What I really like about them is how they don't use words.  They show us what to assemble.  They also don't focus on timing.  There is SOME linear work required, but look closely, they provide a lot of flexibility in regards to process.  I think it would be awesome to give kids a project to create a K'NEX "like" set of instructions for learning a new musical composition.  By color coding all scales in red and all arpeggios in green and all dynamics in blue, they could group together whole/parts as a way of learning a new composition.  I would also extend this by using shapes to represent certain types of scales, so a major scale may be represented by a red triangle with equal sides and a minor scale would be represented by a red triangle with only two equal sides and so on. The instructions would look very much like those for a new K'NEX toy when complete.  Anyone who gives this a try, let's post some results....just connect with me and we can make that happen.

Ideas around how to CONNECT students with music are all around.  It's our job to find those connections and learn how to use them.  I saw my niece engaged with her K'NEX kits in a way that brought a smile to my face and created a flow of ideas.  Developing that "wonderment" and engagement in music students is SO needed, and in my view possible with a little creativity and K'NEcting. 

The picture above was taken from the global website. You can also visit for additional information on their fantastic line of construction sets. 

To learn more about viaAcademies, visit our website at Our mission is to provide innovative music curriculum and professional development opportunities to students, schools and teachers.  viaAcademies is a division of viaEdTechnologies, LLC, Illuminating Educational Horizons through Innovation, Creativity and Technology through the power of Partnership Working and Thinking. 

Monday, December 12, 2011

New Year's Resolutions for Teachers, Don't Get too Personal

By Mark T. Burke

Why wait until January 1st of each year to make major commitments to new ways of thinking, working and behaving?  I remember back, around 2000, I had had a rather tough year professionally.  I was feeling under used at work and had no real clear path to growth.  The path I was traveling seemed too planned by others, not natural and based on my interested and talents.  So, I decided after many years to try making a few New Year's resolutions (NYRs). Well, I won't go into what they were, but needless to say I made an impact at work.  Within a few days of the new year's schedule getting into swing, a colleague of mine said, "You've changed....and not for the better."  It has taken me years to realize the real lesson in that comment.  What I had done in 2000 was make work related resolutions for myself without considering my role as a team player.  I had set new expectations for myself and others without filling them in.  I had decided the team needed change so that "I" could experience change. I give myself points though. I had made a mental shift and I was carrying it out.  I was committed on all fronts and change was happening.  For that commitment, I give myself "10" points out of 10.  For execution, I give myself "-10."  So, I earned exactly a "0."

Where educators go wrong with New Year's Resolutions related to our jobs is that we make them too personal.

First, a little background.  The work I do with viaAcademies revolves around two areas, music education and online learning. Seems obvious maybe, but I want to paint a clear picture.  Both areas have their own strengths and struggles.  On one side, keeping music in our schools is a continued and growing struggle.  On the other, integrating online learning into our educational systems is often seen as a surefire way to ruin our schools.  In all that I do, I have to face those challenges head on.  By combining the two, I have learned a ton about teaching, teacher's roles and behaviors, classroom and school management, curriculum, technology and pedagogical practices.

Where educators go wrong with NYRs related to our jobs is that we make them too personal.  We think, "If I set them for myself and I don't achieve them, the only one that will be disappointed is me, and I can live with that."  Does that sound familiar? If we don't set them at a person level, then, like I did in 2000, we fail to let everyone else involved know how they fit in.  In that case, if the resolution fails, we can play the victim role...."my resolutions failed because of someone else."  Again, does that sound familiar?

Here's my guide to increased success with your classroom or school based NYRs.

1.)  Think System Wide....NYRs like "Clean my desk and keep it clean all year," and  "Get a new wardrobe" should just be erased.  Think about systemic change, that's where you'll make real impacts in the lives of your students. Take on traditions and rules that limit student growth and success.  Again, my favorite saying offers guidance. "Continuing to do the same thing and expecting different results is futile." 

2.)  Create a Round Table....With your systemic NYRs in hand, start laying some ground work now.  Talk with your administrators and your colleagues.  Let them know why you are mapping out change, what you will do, where you need help and most importantly, how you will know if you are successful.  Don't settle for the age old..."Oh, if we could wait until after the holidays to talk, things are really busy now" excuse.  Conversations at this point don't have to be epic, they just need to happen. 

3.)  Assemble the Team....Once you've gotten all of the professionals aligned, tell your students.  Let them know what changes are on the horizon.  Create a positive atmosphere around change by involving them in what's to come.  Don't focus on the end game, focus on their immediate role.  Too often we set NYRs and communicate them to students by saying...."You need to be better communicators, you need to practice more, you need to love what you are doing more...."  That message, even if subtle, causes students to equate change with a belief that "I am horrible and now I have to do a bunch of new things to make me less horrible." 

4.)  Circle the Wagons....Often, we do things the way we do them because that is what we know.  So it makes sense that to initiate change, we more often than not need the help of others.  After all, we don't know what we don't know and we can't do what we can't do.  Find individuals or groups that will help you accomplish your NYRs and don't look back.  Form new bonds with organizations, consultants, companies, music stores, colleges, performance venues, and others that will help you.

5.)  Start Filling the Reflecting Pool....All valuable efforts involve measurement.  This is another reason why personal NYRs fail, they're over assessed using personal emotional reactions.  Systemic change requires evaluation based on the very goals that created the change in direction in the first place.  Set a time line for evaluation that includes dates and incremental goals.  As you approach those dates, prepare by reflecting on where the effort lies in terms of real progress using real metrics.  There's no need to over plan at this stage, but starting to think about signs of success is a must.

6.)  Start over with number 1 and work through another round of 1-6.  Continue until satisfied.

In reality, the six points above work at any time of the year, on any effort that is intended to create real, sustainable change.  At this time of the year, having a system to follow relieves us of the burden of creating something from scratch and adding that pressure into our already busy lives.  NYRs can be incredibly positive for us as professionals and for our students. 

Have a NYR to share? Please do. Need help on steps 1-6?  Post your question and the community hear can help.