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coming in late at a disadvantage

transitfan's picture

12:40-1:25 Fifth Grade


Ms. Presley warns me before that this particular fifth grade class can be challenging. Like with all of her classes, she likes doing lots of quick 5-7 minute activities each class; it keeps students attentive and allows her to cover lots of ground.

There are about 15 students; about an equal number male-appearing and female-appearing. Two appear to be Black; the rest appear to be white but a couple others could be people of color. One girl, who is black, looks high-school aged. I will refer to her here as Sydney. Ms. Presley introduces me as Mr. Safran and asks if anyone wants to tell me anything about themselves or Shipley. “It's a school,” says one person. No one else adds any detail.

Ms. Presley starts teaching a new song. First they just do rhythms, then add melodies later. In one variation; students get to put “rests” over one beat of the song- everyone wants to be called on to put a rest over a note and make people sing the rhythm with rests. [For this part rather than the words they sing with Kodaly syllables “Ta, tee-tee, and tiki-tiki.” Her younger students use “da, doo-dah, and doo-te-da-te”, which she prefers, but she lets her fifth-graders use the syllables her predecessor taught them in years past rather than switching them. However there may be some confusion here; because one student said they didn't use “tiki-tiki”] The words of the actual song itself are also really nonsense; the point of this is to teach new rhythm, but one line in the song goes “I am your master” which leads Sydney to ask “is this a song about slavery?” “Oh, no, absolutely not” answers Ms. Presley.

Once they have learned the song through rote, they move to the other half of the room to stand in a circle and play a game. I was confused the first time Ms. Presley explained it, and so were the students; the first round was a mess. Ms. Presley gets a little upset and asks one student who seemed to understand to demonstrate. Then they try again and it was a success. Afterward, she asks students what went well and what could have gone better. “You shouldn't have made boys and girls hold hands,” suggests one boy. Ms. Presley responds that it was for five minutes; no one was going to think they were boyfriends and girlfriends.

In the next game, students stand in line and “walk the plank” while clapping an 8-beat rhythm, they get to improvise the rhythm but if it isn't steady they “fall into the ocean.” Some rhythms are clearer and steadier than others; a few people “fall into the ocean”, but Ms. Presley seems to let a few students go whose rhythms weren't perfect.

In the last activity, students sing a song and then as a large group try to assign solfege-syllables to that song. They seem to be struggling but are successful in the end. A couple are lying on the floor and don't seem to be paying attention; Ms. Presley tells them to sit up which they do. Sydney seems genuinely upset when she makes a mistake and says “oh, now I've ruined everyone's day.” (Has someone said that to her in the past.) However, a couple kids seem to be making mistakes on purpose; Ms. Presley tells me after that she thinks they are making the most obvious mistakes on purpose to hide that they are actually anxious about not knowing the right answer.

As we walk the students back to their classroom (Ms. Presley doesn't always do that but says she felt they were a little wild today), she says to me “so, that happened!”

She tells their classroom teacher that in the game she had to re-explain things. “ was a success?” asks the teacher. “After we talked through it again” emphasizes Ms. Presley.

1:30-2:10 prep period

Ms. Presley photo-copies a chart with some music-teaching methods for me.


She tells me that the next fourth grade class is known as a quirky group; overall though they are a musically stronger group than the fifth-grade.

2:10-2:55 Fourth Grade

This class is 17, about equally balanced by gender appearance. One student appears Asian and another maybe Hispanic; the rest appear white.

During the intros, instead of asking if anyone wants to tell me anything about themselves or Shipley, she asks everyone to tell me something about themselves. From that I learn a lot more about their interests. I tell them that I play clarinet and a little piano, write music, and enjoy train-riding. Ms. Presley says she likes trains too.

After that, they do many of the same activities as the fifth-grade class; in the circle game Ms. Presley exclaims to them how they are doing better than the fifth-graders. In the walk-the-plank activity; students are again instructed to give 8-beat rhythms but one student gives a 6-beat rhythm and another a 7-beat rhythm; she doesn't make either “fall-in-the-ocean.”

In the singing activity; Ms. Presley tries having girls and boys sing alternating verses. The girls are much stronger singers. After that, she splits them by which side of the room they are setting on.

The students in this class do one additional activity called the “Boston Tea Party Dance.” I don't think they learn anything about the Boston Tea Party from it, but Ms. Presley told me the fourth graders are learning about that in social studies. The dance is a little wild; there is laughing and squealing and Ms. Presley stops the music twice to let students regroup.

At the end, Ms. Presley asks students to share something they feel they did a good job with today. When one student says he was working on self-control, Ms. Presley says “yes, I could really tell that you were. Then a couple other people say the same thing and Ms. Presley is much less impressed.


1:00-1:20 The fourth grade class was on a field trip today so I came a little later and still was able to talk with Ms. Presley about the upcoming classes before they started. That morning since she is a new teacher she had been observed by the principal. She will be observed again by the principal and once by the head of music at Boatley. I asked if she got feedback from being observed; she said she hadn't received any and wasn't sure whether or not she would. In the past, she had received some really insightful advice and some really useless advice in experiences being observed by non-music teachers... (Interesting in the context of upcoming cross-visitation as well as readings in McEntree et al)

She told me that the third grade class I was about to witness was the most energetic but also the sweetest. One little boy has no impulse control but is full of joy. One child has ADD and may be playing with a play, which is allowed for him. Ms. Presley told their teacher I would be coming and the teacher told them to expect me yesterday; they were disappointed that they had to wait until today to meet me! They will be doing vocal response and aural work, which is like dictation. (I'll refer to this as dictation exercise in the future; but how it works is that Ms. Presley plays a drum and they have to say the “da, doo-dah” Kodaly words that correspond to the rhythm. Or she will sing a melody and they will have to sing it back using solfege (Do, Re, Mi,...) syllables. In a way that seems a little arbitrary but I guess no more so than learning to read music.

The Second Grade class will do similar activities, but they are not yet as proficient, she tells me. They are still developing the idea of hearing a beat.

Ms. Presley tells me that it is easy for kids to walk to a beat when they set the beat themselves. It becomes harder when they have to walk to a beat prescribed by the teacher. That is something they will be working on. (That's an interesting metaphor if thought of like the expression “walks to the beat of a different drummer. Although in that case we wouldn't want to teach kids to conform to the beat of the teacher. In reality, though, in music you do kind of need everyone to be able to feel the same beat together.)

1:20-2:00 Third Grade

The students come in a couple-minutes late led by a substitute. The sub says “we've talked today about consequences for actions” then pulls Ms. Presley aside. Ms. Presley tells me the sub told her the class was having a very rough day. We do intros as in the fourth grade class two years earlier.

The first activity is improvisation sounds and movements. Ms. Presley models a few examples, then the class goes around making sounds and gestures that everyone else copies. Ms. Presley did not make explicit that the gestures should be hand-gestures, and one student tries a full-body gesture that others are not able to copy. She tells them not to try to copy that.

They then do a a rhythmic “dictation exercise” in which the students are nearly perfect in four-beat examples, but struggle in 8-beat examples.

Next Ms. Presley teaches a new song called “John Kanaka.” I know this song but she sings it a little differently and the game that she teaches to play with it is totally different. (I know one with passing sticks around the circle; this one involves clapping and do-see-do-ing with a partner.) The students are inconsistent in their ability to sing back the refrain on-pitch. There is also a lot of giggling and shrieking as the try the dance part.

The students then move to the other part of the room and try to play a new game involving marching to the beat of a classical piece on the computer speakers and stopping at different points in the room to saying out rhythms. Some students run and others crawl; I could have stepped in more to try to get them to move appropriately but I was a little confused myself and wasn't sure that what they were doing wasn't right. Ms. Presley stops the music and expresses frustration with the students. Then they sit down to play a calmer game where only one person is walking while the rest are singing. They game goes well, but some students complain about not being picked. “You think it's unfair? I've never gotten picked in this game” says one student indignantly to another.

The final activity is a melodic dictation, which the students do really well together. However, some are lying on the floor or chatting. One student who has been struggling with self-control says to Ms. Presley “you sound like an opera singer but bad.” Ms. Presley tells him to “stop-and-think.” Stop-and-think is actually a real punishment; the student goes to the corner and writes out a “stop-and-think” card on which they say why they were asked to stop-and-think and how they will fix the problem. Then the card gets sent home to their parent to sign. (Ms. Presley shows me the form; I notice it says “parent signature” rather than “parent/guardian signature.) Of course, stop-and-think is a great thing to do; reflection on our actions is at the heart of our recent texts. It is interesting that here is used as a punishment including contacting parents. However, I really like that students get to fill out the form themselves, rather than having a teacher fill it out for them.

When the sub comes back to pick up the students, she tells them “I know you are all going to ask whether I've heard anything from your teacher yet, and I have not.” Ms. Presley tells me their teacher was there in the morning, and she isn't sure why she left. She also tells me is the that class's roughest day ever. We agree that this could make sense given the circumstances.

I tell Ms. Presley that I thought the class was very impressive in the dictation exercises, but that their singing seemed a bit below what I would have guessed. Ms. Presley tells me that she has actually only had this class from a month, due to a schedule change; prior to that they had general music with a string teacher. That teacher was not an especially strong singer herself, and Ms. Presley had noticed that this class was the best at music notation but less developed in their singing ability.

2:10-2:45 Second Grade (2nd graders only have music for 35 minute periods, while 3rd graders have it for 40 min and 4th and 5th graders have it for 45 min. Due to scheduling constraints and supposedly different attention spans. The lower grades may be even faster moving; as they seem to all to the same number of activities regardless of the length of the period.)


The second grade basically does the same activities; they do struggle more in the melodic dictation, but they are successful in the walking around in rhythm game. Ms. Presley tells them that they are doing much better than the 3rd graders.

Overall, this week it seems like in terms of musical talent the 2nd graders were the best, then the 3rd and 4th graders, then the 5th graders were the weakest. This is Ms. Presley's first year though. Probably the 5th graders have skills from their previous music education that Ms. Presley doesn't take advantage of in her teaching, such as in music technology which was a focus of her predecessor. In allowing them to use different Kodaly words, Ms. Presley is making an attempt to offer them a more continuous education. Even so, one gets the feeling that like the new 6th graders at Harlem Children's Zone, these Boatley 5th graders are coming into a new music educational environment and they are several years behind where they should be academically. Without the pressures of standardized testing and Geoffrey Canada, Ms. Presley can keep her students learning at a good pace, but I wonder how they will fare in future music classes compared to the students who started with Ms. Presley younger. (Of course, if they fare better that would suggest that Ms. Presley's teaching goals are the ones that are misplaced. I suspect though that her emphasis on ear-training will be very useful for students pursuing music.)

Technically, the struggling 5th grade class appeared to have twice as many people of color as the other classes, but the sample size is much too small to say even anecdotally that even at an expensive private school there is still a racial achievement gap, though it's a possible hypothesis.


Anyone taking my mini-course for college students new to chorale do not read music/have a music theory background is also coming in at a disadvantage. There too the stakes are pretty low; a pass/fail 0.5 credit in chorale. I have noticed that the students are disproportionately people of color, although the adult community members who have taken my course have all looked white.


In grading the entry tests to chorale, I had one student who clearly was making mistakes due to a language barrier. (She signed her name in what looked like Chinese characters, so I assume she is an ESL student.) She did things like giving numbers when the directions asks to give letters, and wrote enharmonic names instead of writing the pitches on the staff. This made it hard to decide how to mark her answers.

am not actually assigning the final grade; my job is just to mark things that are wrong to make it easy for the professor to give the final grade. In reality, I do sometimes write notes in the margins when I think someone was on the right track; etc, the professor has never told me to stop doing this. I feel a little weird knowing my grading skills are being watched over; I think I would otherwise be more chatty in my comments.