Monday, November 30, 2009

Week 7: El Sistema on the Brain - A Meeting of Two Minds

How can the intuitive and elusive spark of El Sistema be translated into more scientific language for the United States where data drives funding priorities and dictates the way in which a program is valued? 

Even though this is a question that I hope to answer throughout my fellowship studies and observations, a recent webinar funded through the Juneau School District and Association of Alaska School Boards started me on my path. The presenter of the webinar, Eric Jensen who is an author of many brain-based books, led a group of Alaskan teachers and administrators through the research referenced in his book Teaching with Poverty in Mind.  With a new lens called El Sistema, I was able to connect many of its principles with Jensen’s findings, as well as with his recommendations for schools to help children in poverty. 

Keep in mind this was a 6-hour webinar, so I will bullet the main points and recommend reading his book for more details.  I hope it will help bridge what El Sistema has discovered intuitively with the scientific research valued by the US.  Here it goes!

Jensen lists the reasons why kids from a low socio-economic status (SES) underperform: 
  • Chronic stressors
  • Lack of positive role model
  • Ineffective teaching
  • Lack of comprehensive support
  • Lack of quality relationships
  • Little or no hope
The good news is that schools can reverse this process by targeting what Jensen calls SHARE or the Poverty Solution Model: Skill-building, Hope, Accommodations, Relationships and Enrichment.  Here are a few specifics for each:

S = SKILL-BUILDING: develop memory, processing and sequencing skills through activities that incorporate student relevance, focused attention, built-in feedback, last 30-90 min/day and occur 3-6 times/week.

H = HOPE for the future through long-term effort, delayed gratification, and setting and getting goals;

A = ACCOMMODATIONS as needed with food, transportation, health care, activities, people and places;

R = RELATIONSHIPS are stable and positive, include mentors and positive role models; and

E = ENRICHMENT is daily, constant, challenging and meaningful with plenty of social interaction.

Jensen's SHARE model easily translates into El Sistema philosophy.  Music-making naturally develops memory, sequencing and processing skills.  In an El Sistema model, this highly motivating activity happens consistently with lots of social interaction, peer mentoring and hope-building through long-term effort.   Accommodations, such as free transportation, instruments and music instruction, make this incredible world accessible to everyone.  Jensen summarizes his presentation with these four powerful statements, which have El Sistema principles written all over them:

  1. Effort and Emotional IQ matters more than IQ in predicting achievement
  2. Schools need to be in the business of building hope and positive social interaction.
  1. High-performing schools excel at developing these three Primary Shapers or Drivers of Achievement::
  • Relationships: intensity and reliability of specific attachments, including adult and peer mentors.
  • Social Status:  differentiating oneself from others and feeling special.
  • Socialization:  gaining the group’s acceptance and feeling part of a team
  1. “Arts support the development of critical neurobiological systems, which enhance improved attentional, social, cognitive, academic and cultural outcomes across ALL subject areas.”

      Saturday, November 21, 2009

      Week 6: On-Site Visits to Boston Music Programs

      This week, as part of our on-site visits to arts programs in Boston, the fellows visited the Conservatory Lab Charter School, which Larry Scripp, faculty member at NEC, helped charter. I shared his model Learning Through Music (LTM) model in my last posting. The school is very interested in starting an El Sistema program there next year and already has music woven throughout their curriculum. The school has a Learning through Music coordinator, general music teacher and a Suzuki string teacher who works with all students grades 1st through 5th grades. 

      The Learning Through Music teacher works very much like the visual arts teacher in our Art is Elementary program at Glacier Valley, but the medium is music. She works collaboratively with the classroom teacher to apply music skills to other content areas as a way to build multiple pathways of understanding and deepen knowledge and comprehension. I'm very interested in following-up with the three music specialists to learn how their work supports each other and how they work with classroom teachers to provide a comprehensive and cohesive music literacy program. Our time was short, but the fellows were able to share a couple of songs and a dance at an informal gathering with several classrooms (see Rebecca Levi's posting which includes a video clip).  

      As part of our site visits to other vibrant arts programs in the Boston community, the Abreu Fellows participated in a Boston City Singers choir and Suzuki violin rehearsal.  This program provides comprehensive music training for students grades K-12 at no cost.  Linda Money, the Artistic Director, and other key members of the program treated the fellows to a homemade dinner afterward, where we could informally share ideas and ask more questions about the program.  Both the rehearsal process and the dinner conveyed a warmth and family feel that explains why so many children remain in the program throughout their K-12 schooling.  Thank you, Linda, and the Boston City Singers community for your generous hospitality.

      Homemade Dinner with Members of the Boston City Singers

      We also visited the Boston Children's Chorus as part of our time with Anthony Trecek-King who taught us basic choral conducting skills and rehearsal techniques.  When observing the choirs, we experienced first-hand how Anthony and his staff lay the foundation for and help their singers achieve musical literacy.

      Michelle Adams prepares the intermediate choirs for their performance at this week's tree-lighting ceremony

      Thank you to Tanya Maggi, Director of NEC's Community Performances and Partnerships program, for arranging our visits to the other inspiring arts programs in Boston:

      The Power of Three: Learning Through Music

      In an earlier post, I shared Yo-Yo Ma’s triangle: Reception, Communication and Content and how the three need to intersect in order for “magic” to happen. The use of triangles to represent conceptual models seems to thread throughout this program.  I decided to explore the symbolism behind this common shape. Interestingly, triangles represent some very important ideals: balance, strength and stability.

      Larry Scripp, faculty member at New England Conservatory, bases his Music in Education model upon the triangular interplay of teacher, artist and scholar. Together all three can help transform education through engaging and authentic learning practices (teacher), aesthetic approaches to communicate learning (artist) and on-going evaluation to document effectiveness (scholar). Larry advocates for schools to hold music literacy as highly as it does language literacy, because the two mutually support each other.

      Larry has built a network throughout the country called the Music in Education National Consortium (MIENC) in which schools are partnering with university and arts organizations to help bring an interdisciplinary approach to teaching through the Learning Through Music (LTM) model.  Here is a short video providing an overview of MIENC:

      The five skills and their corresponding outcomes that Learning Through Music schools teach are:

      1. Listen = Listener/Perceiver
      2. Question = Questioner/Investigator
      3. Create = Creator/Inventor
      4. Perform = Performer/Interpreter
      5. Reflect = Reflective/Thinker
      Fittingly, these five processes help nurture the scholar, teacher and artist in each and every student. What a beautiful goal for a school to have and the kind of citizen a community would want! 

      As part of my work in the Abreu Fellowship, I will be focusing my energies on El Sistema pedagogy, curriculum and how the two translate to music education in the United States.   Larry Scripp's Learning through Music model provides a framework for addressing music literacy, as well as the National Standards for Music Education and will play an important role in the work I do in the area of curriculum development.   Thank you, Larry, for providing the Abreu Fellows with so many resources, research and meeting time to help digest the incredible work you have done.

      Saturday, November 14, 2009

      Week 5: Visiting ORCHKids in Baltimore

      "Start them early!" This El Sistema approach toward instrumental instruction came to life when I visited the ORCHKids program in Baltimore this past week where all kindergartners learn how to play the violin as part of their school day. They first begin with a "Paper Orchestra" (see photo from Sistema Scotland) to help master the physical challenges of holding and playing the instrument without fear of breaking it, but then quickly transition to the real thing.

      Early instrumental instruction accessible to all students is a model that I would like to bring back to Juneau. It ensures access for all students by offering violin instruction during the school day and then transitioning to after-school in the 1st grade. A kindergarten strings class also provides a developmentally appropriate intervention to support mental discipline, focus and improved memory. Research studies show that early musical training affects brain development in young children: "After one year the musically trained children performed better in a memory test that is correlated with general intelligence skills such as literacy, verbal memory, visiospatial processing, mathematics and IQ." Here is the link to the article from ScienceDaily.

      Dan Trahey, the director of the ORCHKids program, shared with the fellows a classroom violin storage unit on wheels that they had custom-made to help cut down on transition time, as well as avoiding those opportunities for violins to break when children are taking them in and out of their cases. This would be a must for Juneau!

      With so much footage from the week, I was inspired to attempt my first video documentation using my new Flip camera, iPhone and newest version of iMovie. This short documentary is posted below.  I hope you like it! I included some information that I learned from Eric Jensen's webinar on Teaching with Poverty in Mind.  The three main components that Jensen recommends all schools include to support children in poverty are evident in both the ORCHKids and El Sistema programs:  Relationships, Socialization and Social Status.  My Abreu Fellow, Dantes Rameau, made several postings about our visit to Batlimore if you'd like to read more.  Thank you, Lockerman-Bundy Elementary School, ORCHKids and World in Motion for welcoming the Abreu Fellows into your program this past week. I can't tell you how gratifying it was to be working with kids again! Hope you enjoy this short video:

      Saturday, November 7, 2009

      Week 4: Yo-Yo Ma and Making Moments Memorable

      Many years ago, I had the opportunity to hear Yo-Yo Ma perform in Beijing when I was an undergraduate student studying Chinese.  I still have the program from that concert with his autograph.  I can remember vividly meeting Yo-Yo Ma backstage, exchanging a few words in Mandarin before spilling into English to try to convey to him how much his performance meant to me. What a memorable moment!

      Who could have guessed that our next meeting would occur 20 years later at NEC through the Abreu Fellows program?  He is as generous and approachable as that time in China, and the moment was just as memorable.  Fittingly, he spoke about the importance of making moments memorable:  both as teachers and performers.  The two are inextricably linked because building trust is at their core. 

      He drew a triangle on the board labeling each vertex with the words Content, Communication and Reception.  When these three things are aligned, he explained, “You get magic.”  They are all interconnected, like a circuit. If the three are not in balance, the electricity won’t flow.  But when all three come together, a new spark or “recreation of a moment” occurs.  His message to us:  make everything you do memorable to help your students become curious, passionate, have disciplined imagination and empathy – the purpose of music.

      I had a chance to see this concept played out in Ben Zander's Music Interpretation class this week, when a NEC cellist performed a Bach prelude for the class.  This talented young musician played beautifully, and I couldn't imagine how her performance could be improved upon.  But Ben, who invites his students to work in the realm of possibility, wanted to help balance her mastery of Content with the other key points in Yo-Yo Ma's triangle:  Communication and Reception.  "Examine the architecture of the music so that you can better communicate the music to your audience. Be open to telling the story of the music; not your story, but the music's story."  He asked her to play the music's story to a guest from Pepperdine University who is enrolled in a doctoral program in Education and Psychology.  Attending one of Ben Zander's classes is part of their leadership course curriculum.

      What transpired was the "spark" or "recreation of a moment" that Yo-Yo Ma had been talking about earlier in the week. Everyone in the class, especially our Pepperdine visitor, heard and felt what Ben later described as "the beauty we achieve when we give up ourselves." Thank you, Yo-Yo Ma and Ben Zander! You are indeed makers of memorable moments.