Oct 18, 2007

educational philosophy: a rant and a rave

First, the rant.

A few weeks ago I wrote that I was trying to be less crusty and cynical about my Ear Training than I was last year. And I really have been trying. As recently as last night, I renewed my dedication to finding the good in the class, viewing the teacher in a positive light, and having fun.

Somehow though, by the end of class today, I was so angry with the class that I had a terrible urge to slam the door on the way out, which, coming from me, is serious. On the bike ride home, I decided that the most positive way to deal with the situation would be to write about why the class irks me, and positive solutions I see to the problems.

Before I begin describing the class, let me first say that I am fully aware that Mrs. X (the teacher, name withheld for obvious reasons) is a well-meaning person who I believe cares about her students. I strongly oppose her methods, but I have no problem with her.

Before teaching at MIT (this is her 2nd year), Mrs. X she taught grade school, and BOY does it show. The atmosphere of the class is stiflingly sincere and slow. No humor is permitted or appreciated. Mrs. X plans the lessons in excruciating detail - to the minute - and does not deviate from her plan, no matter the circumstances.

Mrs. X feels the need to control all the students in the class to a ridiculous degree. However, her manner is extremely gentle. Too gentle, in fact - her demeanor is that of The Kindergarten Teacher, and it doesn't wear well on a bunch of spunky MIT students. This combination of softspokenness and control really rubs me the wrong way.

Case I: In our class, we have one particularly enthusiastic student, "Jimmy". Jimmy loves music, and is always overflowing with tunes and harmonies. He sings loudly, very often above the other students, and not always in tune. Jimmy definitely lacks social graces, but is genuine. He can sometimes be irritating, either because he tends to dominate the class, or because one tends to feel chronically embarrassed on his behalf. Today, we had to practice conducting in class. Unasked, Jimmy brought in a very professional-looking baton. Mrs. X of course noticed, and said, "Yes, it's ok if you use a baton, Jimmy", although she looked a bit ruffled. Then, we began conducting. After a little while, Jimmy began using two hands and adding expression in to his conducting. Mrs. X asked him to stop. She said, "Jimmy, please do not give me more than I asked for."

Case II: After singing one of the assigned melodies today, another student, "Bobby", noticed that the melody sounded a lot like a certain Broadway tune, which he sang quietly. He wasn't interrupting anything. In fact, his 10-second Broadway tune caused no inconvenience of any sort, as far as I can tell. But Mrs. X told him, "you may not sing any music in this class other than what we are working on".

Case III: At the end of class, we were sight reading a Bach chorale. It was sounding dreadful (which is not unexpected) and we were going sharp. In between phrases Mrs. X said, "it's out of tune, please try and fix it." In the midst of singing, I hit my tuning fork twice to figure out how far the pitch had migrated. I was listening very carefully to the other parts and trying to keep the group on pitch without "upsetting the apple cart". When we had finished singing, Mrs. X told me that I am not allowed to use my tuning fork while we are singing. She explained: using the the tuning fork is a visual reminder to the other students that we are out of tune. She said, "I want you all to suffer together until the pitch gets better. Don't try to change it."

Here are the positive responses I would propose.

Case I: So, you have a student who is too enthusiastic? Is there any such thing? Tell Jimmy it's really great that he's learning to use a baton. Ask him to tell the others briefly why he has chosen to use it. If he sings too loudly, say, "Jimmy, you must really love this piece. Let's hear your most soulful rendition. Remember, soulful doesn't necessarily mean forte or piano. This is your chance to put all of your musicality in to play." If he sticks out, let him! He obviously doesn't mind. There's nothing worse than telling a student to give less than their best. And in the case of Jimmy, trying to squash his personality results in overflow.

Case II: It's really cool when a piece of music jogs your memory and brings up another tune. Talk about it for a minute: is the difference an accident? Intentional? Is the chord structure the same? Does talking about this similar tune really detract from your lesson plan? I doubt it. When people make connections between what they are learning and what they already know, isn't that... well, learning? Also, "Bobby" was inspired by the lesson material. I think inspiration is pretty much the best response you can get out of teaching, and to forbid expression (when the expression is totally appropriate) of it is wrong.

Case III: If I had a student who had excellent pitch and could help an ensemble sing better, I would definitely encourage him or her to help, in a sensitive and tasteful way. Today, I would have appreciated a discussion about how to improve pitch constructively. I would have appreciated Mrs. X's acknowledgment that she had already informed us that we were out of tune by the time I began using my tuning fork, and that I was actually doing my best to improve the situation. Lastly, I think that it's crazy to say "I want you all to suffer together" to anybody. This is the mentality about grade school that drives me up the wall. Isn't school supposed to be about learning? Instead, it's all about suffering through it with other children your age, so you can grow up and tell stories about how much you hated it. It's akin to prison bonding, and that's no joke. Should children suffer through classes that are not useful or interesting to them (or that are at the wrong level) until the other children catch up? Should adults? Absolutely not.

The last thing I want to say about Mrs. X is that she has repeatedly told the class that the reason she teaches Ear Training at MIT is for her personal growth. She says that she's getting better every day at arranging music, sight reading, and solfege. She is becoming a better musician and she is enriching her life by teaching us the concepts of musicianship. She conveys this in a very intimate, humble tone, and I think she means to say that she isn't perfect, and that teaching benefits her, too. BUT! Never once have I heard her say that she teaches because she loves to, or because she believes in and cares about her students. Not once. Perhaps she thinks this is obvious... but every time she tells us that she's really "growing musically" (maybe 4 times this semester), I become more and more convinced that her attitude towards teaching is really too self-serving. This isn't to say that she doesn't care about her students - it just seems that her motivation for teaching was unrelated to her students.

Rather than ending here, I want to rave about my main music class, 21M.303. It is AWESOME. Our professor (Shadle) is a witty, smart guy who is willing to completely abandon his plan for the day in favor of exploring hidden music diversions. Last class, we talked mainly about a Mozart quartet, but somehow ended up talking about The Phantom of the Opera, the fight music from boss scenes in Super Mario, Brahms, descending diminished 7th chord patterns, and goodness knows what else. The students (most of whom are also in the Ear Training class) are totally awake and alive and making connections all over the place. Every time a student has an idea that differs from Shadle's idea, he takes it seriously and we discuss. He almost always ends up saying, "I can see that working. I can see where you're coming from. That interpretation is just fine." Even better, Shadle says he's learning a lot from our class - but not because it serves him personally to cement his musical knowledge - because the class is full of smart people from a different backgrounds who honestly want to contribute.

1 comment:

David Glasser said...

Heh, after your first sentence I thought you were talking about pika Ear stuff :)

Yeah, Shadle rocks. Had 23M.302 with him; wish I had had time to continue...