Integrating Music into Your Course

I cannot remember when I did not try to integrate music in some way into my history, ethics, or political science courses. Music can enliven a course in more ways than one. In addition to providing a change of pace  during classes, it can get the attention of students who are drifting, light up a different part of the students’ brains, and help to reinforce important learning outcomes.

While it was quite easy to find the opportunity to play music in a US History or Modern European History course, I had a genuine challenge when I began to teach early Western Civilization, a course that began with homo sapiens and ended with the Black Death of the 14th century. After all, we have only about 40 fragments of music from the entire ancient period. This would be a challenge.

The ray of light came as we were marching through Ancient Greece. (My course text was These Were the Greeks by H.D. Amos & A.G.P. Lang.) We covered “People and the Land,” “Homer,” and “City-States;” “Sparta,” “Wars with Persia,” and “Religion;” “Imperial Athens,” “Constitution and Law,” and “Every Day” society.

The Ah-Ha moment came as I was preparing my lesson plan for the next lesson on “Education.” We compared the educational systems of Athens and Sparta and then addressed the role of the paidagogos, corporal punishment, and rote memory. Greek boys studied not only “academic” subjects but also had required physical training, to develop their own bodies and also to prepare to defend their city-states.

The insight came when we covered the important role music played in the education of Greek boys. The Greeks believed that music was important for the character development of the boy, who was expected to learn to sing and to play the lyre and also perhaps an instrument similar to oboe. They also believed it could balance the body, promoting an inner harmony. The Iliad and the Odyssey were generally recited with such music accompaniment.

I took this material and transformed it into a question: Can music develop character? In the first instance, this demonstrated to the students the higher order principle that education is not simply the acquisition of facts.

I then played Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Boxer.” I let it play until the words: “I am leaving, I am leaving, but the fighter still remains.” After stopping the music, we explored the song’s meaning.

I then held up a copy of Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea and discussed my initial experience with it. I related how I thought it was a pleasant little story until I hit the simple but very powerful statement which jumped off the page at me: “A man can be destroyed but not defeated.”

I then with my Power Point showed several famous individuals and their quotes: Maya Angelou-“You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated.” Frederick Douglass-“The soul that is within me no man can degrade.” Napoleon Bonaparte-“Death is nothing: but to live defeated and inglorious is to die daily.” Abigail Adams in referring to her husband John- “…he is made of oak instead of willow. He may be torn up by the roots, or break, but he will never bend.”

As the buzzer rang, I challenged the students to find pieces of music that might develop character. Throughout the remainder of the course, we played selections of music—songs as well as instrumental pieces. These I played either at the start of class as a warm-up and attention getter, or latter as a pace-breaker.

When I encounter former students, it is very gratifying to hear them speak so fondly of the music we played in class. Give it a try.

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Advice to New Teachers: You Can’t “Touch” Every Student

Last week, as we approached the end of the trimester, Jacob came to me dejected. He was frustrated at his lack of success in his first trimester of teaching. Too many students seemed to be falling short of his goals for them. Too many of his goals were not met. I tried to console him.

As a new teacher you cannot be too hard on yourself. Your frustration at not “getting to” all your students shows that you have very high standards for yourself. That’s good. However, do not take it too far. You are not going to touch all your students. Rather, you should strive to have a positive effect on some, perhaps most, of your students.

The superior students will grasp the concepts and material easily and reinforce your worth. There will also be students who are simply not interested in your course. (Jacob teaches a required course at our school.) Try to identify and focus your energy on those students who wish to learn and with whom you believe you may have a genuinely positive impact–a genuine “delta” of improvement. Nurture these students as best you can in class but also in one-on-one sessions on the margins of the formal classes–the few minutes before and after classes, and during extra help sessions.

If you focus on your impact with these motivated and interested students, you will feel a genuine and justified sense of accomplishment at the end of the trimester.

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Advice for New Teachers: The First Parent-Teacher Conferences

With Parents’ Weekend looming, Jacob came to me today, seeking guidance. To prepare for these short, ten-minute conferences, the most fundamental requirement is first to center yourself and overcome your fears. The vast majority of parents take the time to attend these conferences because they want to meet you, learn about their child, and support you in your efforts to educate him or her. They do not come to attack and criticize. So the first principle is to relax and to have confidence in yourself and what you are doing.

Begin the short conference with your grade book closed. Make direct eye contact with them and state calmly and positively some of the more salient characteristics of their child that you have observed. Be sure to state any critical comments in a positive manner. Project an image of genuine caring for their child.

Only after you have shared some general observations about their child should you then open your grade and talk numbers. Be sure to have their child’s latest average and perhaps their last graded requirement on hand. Identify any trends you see. Showing them a sample of their child’s work can help to reinforce your more general comments on him or her.

Inform them of the times you are available for extra help, if their child needs it.

Finally, try to offer a few recommendations on how the student may improve. Again, try to end on a positive note.

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Advice for New Teachers: Power Points

Power Point software was a tremendous boon for teachers who grew up in the age of overhead projectors and acetate Vu-graphs. Praise God! For many years I tried to pack as much content into my Power Points as possible. Eventually I realized that the “more is not better” principle applied.

          I enjoyed the creative challenge of summarizing the important points of a lesson and adding visual and audio media to the presentation. It was also comforting to know that I could fire up the Power Point and everything was there for the entire period. I would talk, embellish, ask them questions, tell my jokes, and my students would write.

          In hindsight, I can see that I was too teacher-centered in my approach. With my longer presentations, my students wrote feverishly and developed writer’s cramp by the end of the 50-minute class. The more self-confident students would respectfully comment on the quantity of info they had to transcribe and ask for mercy!

          For a 50-minute class, I now do my best to hold the number of slides to 8-12, including a Cover slide, a Review slide, an Overview slide, and a Conclusion slide. In addition, I have found that it helps my students if the content on my slides is incomplete, just the key concepts and the initial words of a sentence. At the Smart Board, I fill in the blanks manually. This allows them a more reasonable amount of time to transcribe the truly important content.

          A word about the Overview slide: I have come to place much emphasis on this. I prepare this slide at the very end of my preparation of the entire lesson. Only then can I make a good judgment on what it should contain. I sit back and ask myself: If I have only five minutes to teach this class and one slide, what should I put on the slide?

          Another step I take to be fully prepared for class is to synchronize my lesson plan with my Power Point. My lesson plan can be a summary of the entire reading. I cannot possibly cover all the material in the lesson. With a highlighter I highlight the words that I place into the Power Point. With a second different highlighter, I designate that material I shall manually write onto the slide during class.

          I have found that making my Power Points more reasonable in length—trying not to cram extraordinary amounts of content into them—has helped my students to transcribe the truly important content. It forces me to distill the lesson into the most important points, themes, concepts, and essential questions. With this approach, I am getting fewer complaints about writer’s cramp. Overall, I feel my teaching format is much more student-centered.

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Advice for New Teachers: Crashing the Boards for Test Prep

Today Jacob entered my classroom shortly after I had dismissed my students. They have their first test tomorrow, and so I used most of the period for a group exercise at the blackboards. Jacob gazed at the blackboards filled with outlines of answers to short essay questions which the students in groups had prepared.

After giving the students guidance on what to study, I had sent them to the boards to outline answers to the possible short essay questions. I required them, using their books and notes, to list four to eight details which would serve as the contents of the paragraph. After they had completed this, I required them to draft a Topic Sentence. The key to writing a good paragraph is to start with a general statement—the TS—and to follow this with details. This is the fundamental principle, or “science,” of good expository writing. The art of the writing comes into play by deciding which details are necessary to develop the TS, in what order should they be written, how many details are sufficient, and the best possible words to choose for the TS. There is no one perfect TS for a given body of details; however, there are many poor TSs that are possible. A concluding summary sentence is not necessary. Also, be sure to answer the entire question.

I have found that this teaching format serves a number of objectives. It:

Forces the students to review the important content

Helps prepare them for the test

Gets students talking to each other and teaching each other.

It gets their bodies moving, stirring them from their seats.

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Advice for New Teachers: Striving for Balance

When Jacob and I sat down to talk yesterday, I could see that he had on his desk a stack of papers to grade. With the first two weeks of classes behind us, we have both given quizzes–quizzes that must be graded. I realized that we needed to talk about balance–specifically, balance between his professional and personal life.

The first time teaching a course in your first teaching position, you clearly are eager to prepare thoroughly for every possible contingency for every lesson. This shows that you are conscientious and hard-working and are striving to be a professional–very laudable. However, if you have a family–like Jacob–you cannot simply be a full-time teacher. You have responsibilities to your spouse and children, and these take time and your physical and emotional presence. Strive to strike a healthy balance between the two. You may have many different teaching positions in your life; however, you have only one family, and it needs daily tending. There will be times when most of your energy must be devoted to your professional life; however, there are also times when your family will need all of you–physically, mentally, and emotionally.

In practical terms, this means you must use judgment in assigning homework and conducting assessments, all of which take time to grade. Space these out over the semester so that you have several days between them to grade them properly. For major assessments (e.g., tests) you may not be able to grade them completely until the weekend. Better to assign less and grade them rigorously than to assign more and give only superficial feedback to your students.

I finished our talk by telling him that I never get a course right the very first time through. During that first run, I am trying to read all the material carefully, summarize the readings, and fashion good–perhaps not perfect–lesson plans. It generally takes me three times through a course before I have the syllabus and lesson schedule the way I like it. Individual lesson plans are always a “work in progress.” A teacher should always be ready to try new ideas and formats to achieve the objectives of the lesson.


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Advice for New Teachers: Lesson Plan Format

In my last post I described the most important issue a teacher must face when organizing a course. In contrast to that strategic advice, Jacob and I met today to discuss the format of a good lesson plan. This year we are both teaching courses within the general field of Humanities and Religion.

I began  by repeating what I had already told him. A new teacher is often so concerned about preparing for every possible question in class that midnight may come , and yet he or she still has not formulated a lesson plan. Eventually the background reading must come to an end, and the teacher must decide on the specific activities for class the next day: how the teacher will use the class time.

This is the lesson plan format I have developed over many years which I gave to Jacob.  The main components:

Aids (What things do you need to bring to class, such as, a Power Point, visual aids, maps, music selections, and books)

Admin (Such as quiz and test reminders, general info announcements, classroom procedure)

Next time (Briefly remind the students of the next lesson; highlight any important info)

Review (Review the key points from the last lesson. Ask some pointed questions. Clear up any fuzzy areas on key points.)

Overview: (Preview the important points, concepts, and themes of the lesson. This component of the lesson plan should be prepared after the entire lesson plan is prepared, not at the beginning. Look at the entire lesson plan and ask: If I had only five minutes to teach this class, what would I say and do?)

MAIN BODY: If a Power Point is to be used, place prompts in the appropriate places in the lesson plan to synchronize your plan with your power point.



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