|Numinous The Music of Joseph C. Phillips Jr.|
The Numinosum Blog
A few weeks ago I said I might give you a window into some of my experiences in my teaching life, so from time to time I'll be writing about various adventures, both present and past in a series called, Notes from the Teaching Field.
As I mentioned in that earlier post, I have been teaching kindergarten music at PS 321 in Park Slope, Brooklyn for a number of years now. PS 321 is one of the most sought after and highly acclaimed public schools in the city (one in which many parents choose to send their kids to instead of the $27,000-a-year private school down the street; boy, that's a whole other topic which I could expound on at length) and I'm very honored to be a part of a community of highly devoted and excellent educators, administration, and families. Besides kindergarten music, I also teach math games to the kindergartens; I see each of the 10 kindergarten classes twice a week: once for music and once for math. In addition to music and math, I am in charge of lunchtime/recess for the 1st graders (almost all of the students whom I had the previous year). This year there are 11! 1st grade classes so, with another teacher and various aides and paraprofessionals, we have to manage about 250 kids in the lunchroom and on the blacktop. If you were to pass by the schoolyard around lunchtime one day, you'd hear me blowing my whistle and loudly projecting my voice (from the diaphragm, of course) over a half-a-city-block school yard to corral all 250 into straight-lines at the end of recess. So I have two full-time jobs: teach the little Jungen und Mädchen by day, composer/business manager/blogger at night. That old saw of "those that can't do, teach" doesn't seem to apply to me and many of today's professional musicians. And while I definitely don't consider myself a kindergarten music teacher but rather a professional musician/composer who happens to teach kindergarten, I do take my teaching responsibilities seriously, as I do I my composing. I am presently reading Peggy Tyre's book The Trouble with Boys and I'm conscious about my being a young-ish, male teacher in an environment which doesn't typically see many male teachers (although we do have 2 of the 10 kindergarten classroom teachers who are male and a number throughout various grades and subjects; all three music teachers me (kindergarten), Frank McGarry (grades 1 and 2), and Adam Lane (grades 3, 4, and 5) are male, for example). And for the students to daily see and have, not only good male teachers and role models, but in my case, a male teacher who also happens to be African-American, can only help imprint positive impressions on all the young boys and girls.
Originally I was going to talk about how teaching little kids has nothing to do with my composing life, but in reality that isn't quite true. Being in the moment while writing music is much like teaching the students, especially the kindergartners. In writing music if you aren't really 'there', the ideas don't flow and you don't see or hear what your piece is (or will become) and your output will be disorganized and not cohesive. In teaching kindergartners, if you aren't fully engaged or engaging then things will also be unorganized and worse; you'll unleash the 24-kids-of-the-apocalypse who will wreak havoc on the classroom in their quest of knee-biter retribution for the sin of causing them boredom.
I mean really, can you see John Adams, Steve Reich, or David Lang dealing with one kid crying about missing their mom, two kids arguing about not having enough space on the meeting rug and being squished, one kid raising their hand to go to the bathroom with three more saying they have to go to the bathroom too because the one kid raised their hand to ask to go to the bathroom (kind of Kafka-esque, right?), the one kid that already went to the bathroom...in their pants, three kids simultaneously trying to tell me about their wiggly tooth or that their father or mom plays piano or that they love Star Wars or that they have a playdate later that day, and all of this at the same time as the class is singing one of our favorite songs, "Mama Don't Allow (No Music Playin' Around Here)"? Hey while a Pulitzer might have cachet with their parents, it gets you no love with a 5-year old! In fact that Pulitzer Prize Medal would make a nice plate in the pretend play center's kitchen.
Seriously, though, do you know how difficult it is to manage and teach a classroom of the students? Anyone with young kids of their own can tell you, just one is a handful. Now imagine having 23 or 24 to deal with! If you don't have respect for any classroom teacher who has to deal with all of the kids all day, every day, then you should! People on the outside of education assume, hey only 6 or 7 hour day and two months off in the summer, that's so cushy. Dealing with the education of kids is no easy ride; figuring out why one little girl isn't reading or writing up to her potential or why one little boy doesn't seem to be connected with other kids is hard work. And not only do teachers have to teach during the day, but also spend many hours after-school and at home, on weekends grading and planning (yes, planning even in the summer) on top of much bureaucratic paperwork and necessary record keeping. I've done many kinds of jobs over the years, and teaching by far is some of the most difficult. Of course it isn't all chaos and tears. There are many lovely moments and overall it can be some of the most rewarding and fun work you could hope for. Where else can you have 24 kids literally light up when you walk into the room or when they see you walking down the hall? where you often get marriage proposals, from boys and girls? or where you'll get an unsolicited hug or "I love you" just because? or where else do you get to see a kid who could barely read and hold a pencil at the beginning of the year, by year's end can read and write their own stories? While their innocence and openness to show their feelings naturally changes as they go up the grade ladder (I was a high school band director and International Baccalaureate music teacher many years ago, which I'll talk about in a future post, and that had different difficulties as well as it's own unique and beautiful charms and joys), it is incredibly wonderful to enjoy while they are in kindergarten and I'm fortunate to have the opportunity to be a little part of their lives.
And this brings me to the reason for this post. As any teacher of young kids could tell you, one thing you often receive from students, besides the hugs and smiles, are personal notes and drawings. And often they are so funny and warm and sincere, that you can't help but feel as if the sun is bursting through your heart.
These drawings above were given to me at the end of last year by one first grade class. I really love these because it is a little peek into how I'm viewed through the prism of first grade eyes. Each of these drawings were accompanied by notes about how the kids enjoyed having me be with them at recess/lunchtime. But what I find interesting is that after seeing all of these drawings I told my wife that, "Gee, I guess I do have a uniform!" Because all of the renderings are some variation of me smiling, wearing my red AC Milan jacket, jeans, baseball cap, and the all-important whistle. In fact I loved the top drawing by a little girl so much (that's her next to me), it is framed and sitting on my bookshelf in a place of honor next to a statuette of me conducting made by one of my high school students many years ago.
One note a few years ago from a 2nd grade girl whom I had back in kindergarten was quite nostalgic with a hint of wistfulness when she wrote, "Remember how much fun we had in kindergarten." In one kindergarten class last year I played the opening to J.S. Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor complete with spooky organ sound. At the end of the prelude, as the rising half-diminished chord builds, I give an 'evil' laugh (think Vincent Price at the end of "Thriller") with screams of delight radiating throughout the class. Well the next week in music class, one little girl comes up to me just as the class is starting and says she has a note for me. Since kindergarten spelling can be hard to decipher (as you'll see below), I asked her to read the note to me. Among a few things the note said was "please don't play that scary music, it gives me nightmares." But on the other side of the note it concluded, perfectly spelled, with, "P.S. But I still love you!" I like the above note because it recognizes that sometimes I have to put people in timeout during lunch/recess and they understand that. This one is a nice thank you, recognizing that I can be a game changer in the lives of the students...well, in the all-important kickball game. Keep checking back for more views into my 'other life' in the next installment of Notes from the Teaching Field.
POSTED BY NUMINOUS AT 7:15 PM
To all things that create a sense of wonder and beauty that inspires and enlightens.