Christmas concerts on Chanukah and considering issues of cultural sensitivity. . .

Around this time of year, the Music Teachers Facebook Group is full of posts about Christmas concerts, religion and music education, sacred music in schools, and associated issues. The majority of the posts often position Christmas as the default holiday during wintertime and focus of concerts that occur this time of year. Some posts or comments even dismiss perspectives that question this focus or admonish students who are uncomfortable with foci on Christmas and related music. I’m left wondering how well music education is doing at addressing issues of understanding, cultural sensitivity, and meaning making in relation to these types of conversations. The title of this blog post speaks to the specific time of year that these Facebook posts appeared in 2015, but I’m interested in the broader issues and ideas around such conversations. ** You must be a member of the closed Facebook group in order to read the posts or comments.

The other evening I wrote the following on an ongoing Music Teachers Facebook Group Thread:

As music educators, we might want to consider how our choices and actions, regardless of intent, can perpetuate the idea that one group of people is more important, worthy, or valued than another. Music and our choices have power. I think there is value in understanding why we make the choices we do and what informs those choices. Isn’t dialogue an important aspect of our professional life as reflective practitioners? Are we as a field really that disinterested in cultural sensitivity and awareness?

That particular post was prompted by a number of comments on the thread. It is worth reading through all of the comments in the post centering around the choices music educators make when selecting music and a theme or name of public school concerts, in this case “Christmas concerts.” The thread extends beyond more typical conversations about whether we are allowed to include sacred music or NAfME’s policy statement on sacred music in schools. In this other thread you can read some perspectives on why people emphasize Christmas in their programs. In this case, the dialogue centers around why we make particular decisions and what informs those decisions when it comes to issues such as religion and culture in our programs. While some of the responses are a bit vitriolic, many of the comments in this post and other posts are working to develop better understanding among music educators of their perspectives.

A key theme throughout the thread is whether music educators might privilege one religion over others in music programs, such as with concerts, and if so, what the rationale is for favoring one religion over others. This gets particularly tricky when a community is or seems to be representative of mainly one particular religion or when external expectations pressure music teachers to make tough decisions that may not be in the best interest of all students. These types of conversation might help us consider the degree to which we are reflective about the choices we make, the values we hold, and our curricula. For instance, another thread explores the ways that young people experience and make meaning of songs differently in relation to religion and cultural contexts.

After reading through a number of similar conversations on the Music Teacher Facebook Group, I’m perplexed as to why many music educators find it difficult to understand perspectives that do not fit within the dominant narrative of wintertime or winter concerts as a time to celebrate Christmas.

Such conversations can often benefit from nuance and addressing the complexities involved in these types of issues. To add some nuance to related conversations, I highly recommend the MEJ article “Rethinking Religion in Music Education” by Adria Hoffman. Hoffman provides a nuanced discussion on religion and students and gets at issues that are often missing when the conversation focuses solely on sacred music and whether or not we are allowed to include it in programs. She focuses on people, highlighting “the ways in which music teachers relate to students who may not identify with the dominant Christian culture in the United States” and “the ways in which teachers may unintentionally place school and home values in direct conflict with one another, possibly leading students to disengage from school music programs.”  As Hoffman notes, “Perhaps we do not directly tell students that they are not welcome, but our actions might convey that very message.”

Similarly, in his MEJ article “Singing Over the Wall: Legal and Ethical Considerations for Sacred Music in the Public Schools” Tim Drummond argues that “It is also obvious to non-Christian students that a concert program centered upon secularized Christmas songs still recognizes a Christian holiday and still casts them as outsiders. Instead of an isolated piece of music that may come off as trite to your religious minority, sometimes secular music unrelated to any holiday may be the best balance to sacred music.” As the title implies, the article discusses several legal and ethical considerations for addressing sacred music in public schools, but also tackles some cultural issues regarding how sacred music and holiday themes might play out in music programs.

In addition to the thoughtful questions and suggestions posed in the two aforementioned articles, questions surrounding these conversations linger on my mind:

  • If we are including sacred music in schools, are we limiting that music to one or few religions?
  • What informs our choices?
  • To what extent are we considering the impact of our choices on our students, communities, and society at large?
  • What messages are we sending to students, communities, and society by our choices?
  • What long-term impact might our programs have on the ways that students make meaning of the world?
  • Are we able to see beyond our own worldviews and experiences to better understand others’ perspectives?

As a proponent of project-based learning in music education, I can see a number of generative questions that could lead to rich fruitful dialogue and forms of musical engagement around related issues. For instance imagine how music programs could have students engage in questions and related projects (and even aspects of concerts) such as:

  • What roles does music play in religion or spirituality across the world?
  • How does music contribute to celebrations and ceremonies?
  • When might music cause people to feel great or get upset?
  • How might people experience or make meaning of the same music differently?
  • Why do people associate certain music with particular events?
  • What role has/does religion or spirituality played/play in people’s creation or performance of music?

Questions such as these and related projects need not occur during “winter.” In other words, situating the exploration of music in relation to religion, spirituality, or cultural events such as holidays thoughtfully and from diverse perspectives can possibly build deep understanding, awareness, and cultural sensitivity while respecting multiple cultures and traditions in ways that might not occur when focusing more specifically on songs to sing during the Winter concert that may or may not focus on Christmas or associated celebrations. These types of questions might also inform more basic or simplified questions around the selection of repertoire (a topic of the core arts music standards). Of course all of this is highly contextual!

With these issues in mind, consider reading through the comments on this post   , this post , this post ,(or related posts) and adding your perspective. It is a chance to become more aware of music educators’ varied perspectives on these issues. At minimum, consider how the choices we make as music educators are often more complex than they seem on the surface.

By the way, people interested in larger issues of spirituality in music education might want to know about the Spirituality and Music Education Organization. Quite a bit of interesting research and perspectives being generated from members.

What other resources, articles, or organizations might be helpful in developing greater understanding, nuance, and sensitivity around these issues in the context of music teaching and learning?

Bringing curriculum to life: Enacting project-based learning in music programs

Tobias, E. S., Campbell, M. R., & Greco, P. (2015). Bringing curriculum to life: Enacting project-based learning in music programs. Music Educators Journal, 102(2), 39-47. doi:10.1177/0027432115607602

My co-authored article Bringing curriculum to life: Enacting project-based learning in music programs is now published in the Music Educators Journal. I really like how the principles and practical suggestions can be applied in pretty much any music teaching and learning context. The abstract of the article is as follows: 

At its core, project-based learning is based on the idea that real-life problems capture student interest, provoke critical thinking, and develop skills as they engage in and complete complex undertakings that typically result in a realistic product, event, or presentation to an audience. This article offers a starting point for music teachers who might be interested in using project-based learning as a teaching strategy and also interested in “building” student competency and “bringing to life” student engagement in the music curriculum. To help music educators enact project-based learning in their classes and ensembles, we outline a process for designing and facilitating projects, provide vignettes that situate theory in practice, and discuss projects in relation to curriculum, standards, assessment, and teacher evaluation.

Contact me if you would like a copy of the article but do not have access to the MEJ.

This article is the result of years teaching with a project-based teaching and learning approach, reflections on experiences with this type of teaching and learning, and ongoing conversations with co-authors Mark Robin Campbell and Phil Greco, colleagues, and students. A special thank you goes out to pre-service and in-service music educators in the Arizona State University Music Education Program and the SUNY Potsdam Crane School of Music, Music Education Program who have worked with the ideas in this article or the article itself in some form or another for providing feedback in varied ways that helped it take shape.

The article argues that well-designed and well-facilitated projects can provide rich contexts for student growth and learning and even serve as “cornerstone assessments” or aspects of student and teacher evaluations.

The article is designed to be very practical, but also includes conceptual frameworks that inform this type of teaching. It takes music educators step-by-step through 1) choosing a worthy topic, (2) finding a real-life context, (3) creating generative questions, (4) developing critical thinking and cultivating dispositions, (5) deciding the scope, and (6) designing the experience. As with anything else, designing projects and facilitating this type of learning environment takes practice!

We also demonstrate how what some people term “projects” often lacks the key characteristics of what we consider projects and aspects of project-based learning. As Larmer, Mergendoller, & Boss (2015) suggest, “when you’re designing a project, keep in mind that project-based learning is not the same as doing a project” (p. 68).

The MEJ article also addresses the following issues:

  • Situating project-based learning in the context of curriculum and standards
  • Considering cultural relevance in project-based learning
  • Addressing assessment and evaluation through project-based learning

Phil Greco (Co-author and wonderful public school music educator) maintains a Portraits of Practice website with details on implementing project-based learning in his music program. He was kind enough to share some videos that tell the story of what project-based learning brings to his own teaching contexts:

See the Consortium for Innovation and Transformation in Music Education‘s (CITME) curated list of resources related to project-based learning.

I also suggest the following general education books to help with implementing project-based learning (affiliate links below):

As a final note, I am considering opening space for people to join the Inquiry and Project Based Music Teaching and Learning course that I teach at ASU via the web. Contact me if you are interested in taking the course synchronously via the web when it is next offered.

Send an email or comment below if you would like a copy of the article and do not have access to the MEJ.

Reflecting on changes in practice through integrating participatory culture in our classrooms

Tobias, E. S., VanKlompenberg, A., & Reid, C. (2015). Reflecting on changes in practice through integrating participatory culture in our classrooms. Mountain Lake Reader: Conversations On the Study and Practice of Music Teaching, 6, 94-110.

My co-authored article with Abigail VanKlompenberg and Catherine Reid  Reflecting on Changes in Practice Through Integrating Participatory Culture in Our Classrooms is published in The Mountain Lake Reader (in varied formats thanks to the work of Janet Cape).

The article is a result of a collaboration of two music educators (at the time the article was submitted) and the Consortium for Innovation and Transformation in Music Education (CITME). It’s the type of article that works to wed theory to practice and demonstrate how theoretical frameworks can live out in teaching and learning contexts and open spaces to think expansively about what might occur in a music program. The abstract is as follows:

Thiessen and Barrett (2002) speak to the importance of music teacher education programs supporting, partnering with, and learning from reform minded educators as they “renew their practice by engaging in cycles of inquiry, action, and reflection” (p. 776). This article is the result of such a partnership and ongoing inquiry, action, and reflection. After situating ourselves, we, a music teacher educator (Evan) and two practicing music educators (Abbie and Catherine), reflect on how our classrooms and perspectives on general music have evolved in the context of digital and participatory cultures. The following two foci guide our exploration of digital and participatory cultures’ transformative potential in music education: 1) transformation in terms of the structure(s) of the music classroom and program and 2) transformation in terms of our perspectives on music teaching and learning.

Considering transformation and evolution or possible futures of music teaching and learning are recurring themes in The Mountain Lake Colloquia and Mountain Lake Reader. To reflect on potential transformation of secondary music education we look at how our own teaching and thinking were transformed through applying skills, principles, and practices related to digital culture and participatory culture.

We address aspects of digital culture and participatory culture in relation to pedagogy and curriculum by discussing the following media skills (outlined by Jenkins et al. 2009) in the context of music teaching, learning, and engagement:

  • (musical) appropriation
  • performance
  • collective intelligence
  • distributed cognition

We continually discuss the theme of how addressing digital culture and participatory culture played a role in transforming our classrooms, ranging from changing physical classroom structures to support a more student-centered paradigm to “blurring boundaries between singular musical roles or curricular offerings that are traditionally dichotomized in school music programs” (p. 104).

As Abbie describes:

These students are creative individuals capable of performing many musical roles, demonstrating a wide range of skills and abilities, and embodying what it means to be a musician from a holistic perspective.

Towards the end of the article we discuss several challenges of teaching with digital culture and participatory culture and implications for professional development and music teacher education.

The article is free, along with many others, in the Mountain Lake Reader Issue 6.

Perspectives on garageband and musical engagement?

The article Democracy of Sound: Is Gargageband Good for Music by Art Tavana is an interesting read. It’s also the type of article that could surely include the perspective of music educators, but does not.

Coincidentally I had a very productive conversation with students in my Art of Teaching Contemporary Musicians course the other day about how music educators should consider the affordances and constraints of technology when situating them in teaching and learning contexts, another conversation with a music teacher yesterday about his students’ perspectives on whether they would prefer to use ProTools or Garageband, and a dialogue with music ed faculty and doc students in our doctoral seminar today about varied narratives that could, but do not, include the perspectives of K-12 music educators and music teacher educators. Music educators discuss the issues included in the Democracy of sound article on a regular basis whether in classrooms, conferences, or research and can raise some other points that might not be addressed in the original article. The title of the article is interesting though I think many music educators would frame the issues differently given their experiences working with young people.

All of that being said, Democracy of Sound: Is Garageband Good for Music does share some perspectives of musicians that are worth reading and perhaps students might be interested in being included in the conversation as well?

So, for those who work with young people in teaching and learning contexts and have interest in issues surrounding creative musical engagement and technology, what say you and students with whom you work?

Re-imagining Sondheim as a Means of Considering Curricular Possibilities and Limitations

I am often inspired by news items to imagine musical possibilities that could play out in varied teaching and learning contexts. A recent NPR story on pianist Anthony de Mare’s commissioning 36 composers to re-work songs by  Steven Sondheim caught my attention in this way.

Rather than focus on the story (which is fabulous by the way) or the Liaisons project itself, I’m more interested here in making a larger point about curriculum and the ways we do or do not blur boundaries between musics and ways of engaging with music.

Innovative educators can take a news item or aspect of music like this, build connections across eras and genres, link to aspects of curriculum, and then invite people to engage in interesting related projects. Unfortunately, many curricula (intended, taught, and experienced) are designed and enacted in ways that isolate and compartmentalize music and forms of musical engagement.

For instance, consider how many college music courses organize “content” chronologically as if one needs to experience and learn music of the 18th century before music of the 19th or 21st century. Or consider perspectives where only one type of music is addressed in a curricular context at the exclusion of all others. While there are/may be benefits to such curricular organization, this type of compartmentalization can have a powerful impact on how K-12 educators structure curriculum. Many music educators model their own curricula on the structures they experienced while in music school.

Why limit students’ musical experience in these ways? How might we imagine other ways of organizing courses and programs to experience and engage with music?

Consider listening (or reading) the NPR story ‘Re-Imagining Sondheim’: A Pianist And His Peers Deconstruct The Master’ and spending some time with the Liaisons Project as starting points and springboards to imagine any number of related ways to engage young people musically. Now imagine how rich this might be if students experienced a related project through multiple (often overlapping) musical roles such as performer, musicologist, theorist, composer, critic, philosopher, fan, listener among others. Let’s do some re-imagining of what is possible and what might occur in K-12 music programs.

What might you and students do?