Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Boogie Children

One of the kindergarten class aides at "my" school has had her maternity leave extended through May. Consequently, I've slated four dates in her absence.

The second was to be Monday. But the school's "conductor" -- forget the principal, this is the person who makes sure the trains run on time -- "promoted" me as soon as I came in.


Now, I love music. Always have. I have very diverse musical tastes, a pretty good collection, and I think I can sing, although I am a little shy about it. When I was in grade school, I took violin lessons for a couple of years, trumpet for a couple more. I wasn't really skilled at either.

I'd met the music teacher and sat in on his class once. He's a giant of a young man, can play guitar and keyboards, and has the right temperament. Just last week we had chatted a bit; Sunday, he was running his first marathon in Rhode Island.

Monday, the marathon had apparently been the victor.

So I was teaching eight classes of music: every second grade, a couple of sections of first grade, one section of K, and some fourth graders.


Fortunately I had a little time. I got to the upstairs music room, and searched for substitute plans. There were two books with printed "plans" that in some ways were just a bit of filler. The previous music sub had sat them down and let them screen half an hour of "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang."

So I could have coasted through the day, reading e-mail and making sure I stayed awake for eight 30-minute bursts of the Dick Van Dyke classic.

No effing way.

Instead I looked around the room and found a media player that I could plug my iPhone into. Bingo! Instant Pandora! In one of the books was a list of qualities of music... was the tempo fast or slow, the sounds loud or soft, the mood happy or sad? I could work with that. But one of the problems I was quickly going to run into with Pandora was being unable to jump through different genres.

I texted home: I'd need a few obviously diverse artists, like Hank Williams, Glenn Miller, classical... of course, I'd need some Beatles. And I figured for the younger kids I could do some participatory music. The "woot-woot-woot-woot" chorus of "I Know What I Know" from Paul Simon's "Graceland" could (and would be) a go-to choice for spirited youngsters.


But for the first two classes, I didn't have those CDs yet. I had a classical CD that had some good choices, and that was a good opening segment. All but the 4th grade class, the last of the day, were only 30 minutes long. So I could milk this, I could do this.

I raced down to the library and ran off a bunch of copies of the worksheet to hand out. The first wave of second graders (I'd have four in a row) were due at 8:55 a.m. I just made it.

The first few minutes was getting them settled, introducing myself and explaining the situation. Substitute teachers in 2013 are probably treated pretty much the same as they have always been: kids know that the structure and routine is going to be different, and they instinctively start pushing the envelope. It's not always easy to keep them reined in. And the music class itself lends itself to a little rowdiness. In addition to the singing we'd wind up doing, some of the kids like dancing, too. All that activity tends to start a bit of a fire. I'm still not sure how firm a tone to take to get things back together, although almost all of the teachers seem OK with being authoritative. I had a few moments were I had to "go there" before the day would be out.

I had plugged in my iPhone -- (ENDORSEMENT: this, or an iPad, can be astonishingly useful teaching implements) -- and dialed up Pandora. I had to be at the ready to move along if something objectionable came along. We are, after all, still talking about pre-teen children. If some Peaches came up, I'd be cooked.

I started with the classical, asking them to look at the sheet and consider the music. Then it was on to the Pandora. In the first class several country songs came on, so I had to move through them. It was rocky, but, that did give me the idea for the Hank Williams that was on the way.

The first class ended, the second class came. I switched Pandora stations after the classical interlude and things got kinda fun.

Alice Cooper's "Caught in a Dream." This is music of MY childhood!

"OK, class, anyone know who this is?" One kid guessed Axl Rose. Shoulda sent that guy to the principal.

I told them it was a guy named Alice. Next up: John Lennon... "Imagine." Pandora was doing a fine job.

Still, it was hard to do it this way, because the selections might not work. But soon the class ended, and I'd been notified that my CD courier (Thanks, M!) had arrived.

Down the stairs, a stack of 10. Now it was on.


I had a loose idea of what I wanted to do. I started with the Hank Williams ("Jambalaya") and asked if any students had been born outside of the U.S. Some had, or had family who had. I asked them if they thought those countries, or other countries, had "country" music.

This allowed me to segue to the Marley, the Xavier Rudd and Simon's homage to African music on "Graceland." On a few times when they just weren't into it, I was able to go to the Beatles as a reliable fall-back.

I kept pushing buttons trying to make something connect. I used Miller's "Pennsylvania 6-5000" as another chance at participatory, where the students could sing the song's only words when prompted by the ringing.

Many of them wanted to dance, so that was allowed as well. Two girls moved to the side of the large room and did some ballet maneuvers. Some kids formed a conga line. Others danced in odd ways; I even saw one guy do the Sprinkler.

It was a little unfocused, but at least they were having some engagement, and hopefully exposure to some new music.


By the time of my lunch break, I had been through five classes. A whirlwind. So I just dimmed the lights and ate some pistachios and tried to catch my breath a bit.

The room looks down a long hallway. A few classes emerged from rooms and headed toward the music room and the adjacent stairs. Some of the kids waved to me. I waved back. That was nice.

A little later, a boy came up the stairs and headed down the hall, skipping.

When do we stop skipping?


The last class was a section of 4th, and I had been looking forward to it. Sometimes it's a little easier to relate to kids who are a little older.

It was a bit of a disaster, really. About half the kids were just happy not to have to watch a movie and interested in a new musical perspective. About a quarter were simply too close to the end of the day and had already checked out as soon as they saw a substitute. The others were just ... obnoxious.

It was the only time all day I had to 'bow up. Two boys in particular seemed to have a beef and were only too happy to use this situation to address their grievances. I had to sentence them to neutral corners.

A few of the kids were decent piano players and took turns going to the keys. At least they weren't otherwise a disturbance.

I had a group of the students come up to me as the class mercifully wound down and apologize. Later, after school, some of them came up to me as I walked outside and expressed the same remorse. That was certainly encouraging. I told them that I understood how a sub as seen as an easy mark, but I felt that I owed it to them to try and bring them something useful.


Just before I had gone outside I touched base with the office and The Conductor. I asked how her day had gone: "Awful. If it's like this tomorrow, I won't be back Wednesday."

She was kidding of course, but there was something about Monday that was just off. I talked to another instructor as I headed out who confirmed that the vibe had been rowdy for a lot of people.

Sometimes you just don't have the best of days.

Still, I enjoyed the day on balance, and I like being there.

Tuesday, I was even specifically requested as a sub for a Thursday class. I'll be there.

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