The Band Plays On (Book Review)

The Band Plays On is filled with important ideas from reading Robert Frost poetry to playing in a band. I know as a teacher I need inspiration sometimes and this book supplies a truck-load.

I recently read The Band Plays On, (Going Home for a Music Man’s Encore) and found it inspiring and motivational. The author is Rick D. Niece, Ph.D and the book is published by Five Star Publications Inc. It is the second book in a series about Niece’s hometown. I have also reviewed Niece’s first book, Side-Yard Superhero here on my blog. This second installment, The Band Plays On, is filled with powerful memories from reading Robert Frost poetry to playing in the school band. Since I am always happy to recall such things, it was a first-class journey for me. I felt honored to be on it. The framework of the book is a tribute to his music-teaching father and that aspect is quite touching. I read many inspiring vignettes that made me want to continue teaching with gusto. Since I teach in the day and teach guitar after school, I am sometimes spent. It can get hard to see the larger vision. Rick Niece, Ph.D is a writer of Americana and teaching and his work helped center me while reading. His books also remind me of what’s important in just plain being human.

GOOD NEWS TO SHARE! In preparation for this review, I had the distinct pleasure of corresponding with the author himself. I did a QnA with him which I’ve pasted below. He provided some great insight to my questions and I thank him for the time he took to do so:

Damien Riley: Hello Dr. Niece, since I am a blogger, I truly appreciate the term you use in your book “automythography.” I think most bloggers struggle with the line between history and fiction. Your term is helpful to me in understanding what I do. How does this genre free you up to expand on your own perceptions and/or limit you to what really occurred?

Rick Niece: I thought that I created the term “automythography,” but then found out it has been around, primarily used in art and dance, since the 1980s. However, I have defined it for literature. An automythography is a work of non-fiction that looks reflectively at what we think we remember and how we think we remember it. It is an iridescent memory based upon the author’s truth and personal narrative.

Most of the autobiographies and memoirs I have read are presented as factual and accurate. I do not doubt their veracity, but I am leery when the author quotes dialogue and describes specific scenes from decades past. I do that as well, but with the caveat that they are how I remember what was said or is being described. Time alters our memories. My favorite part of the term automythography is the “myth,” but not in the sense of something being made up. Myths are also stories that are true and repeated from one generation to the next. Each telling and retelling is slightly different—and that is no doubt the case for me and my stories—but the tellings are based upon true and real incidents. The stories are not made up.

Finally, in my definition for automythography I use the word “iridescent.” I like that word and what it connotes. Soap bubbles are iridescent. As they float away from us, they change shapes and colors. But they are the same soap bubbles. That is true for memories as well. Over the years, as our memories float away from us, they change shapes and colors. But they are the same memories—they are our automythographies.

Damien Riley: My 3 kids attend a school where I teach 4th grade and guitar after school. My kids seem to enjoy having dad at school with them but I imagine they might prefer anonymity. Were there ever times you felt you couldn’t measure up?

Rick Niece: Oh my goodness, yes, there were times when I felt it was difficult to “measure up” on a variety of levels. In Side-Yard Superhero, Book 1 in my series, Fanfare for a Hometown, I describe how I was repeatedly warned not to embarrass my father in front of the superintendent and the other teachers. Although I thought I was a “typical” kid, it was difficult to remain typical when my father was the school’s only music teacher and the superintendent lived across the street from me and my family. There was no anonymity for me, and as a consequence, I was a relatively good kid and student.

My father was one of those teachers students could go to with their problems, big and small. He always had time for students before school, after school, and at home. Because of that, I sometimes felt that I had to wait in line. That is not a complaint, but simply my fact of life. I admired my father even more because of the respect students had for him and that he had for them. I was proud that my parents were a second set of parents for many students.

My father was an exceptional teacher, and because he was so good at what he did and how he did it, I was hesitant to go into education myself. In fact, I did not seek acceptance into Ohio State University’s education program until the end of my sophomore year. I was afraid that, as a teacher, it would be difficult for me to emerge from the long shadow of my father and his success.

Through it all, I felt special and was proud to be in the school where my father taught. I am certain that your children feel that same sense of pride—and pressure—with you being a teacher in the school they attend. In time, we all adjust.

Damien Riley: Do you think it is possible for children today to enjoy the same sort of upbringing as you? Why or why not?

Rick Niece: I hope that children growing up today enjoy the same type of upbringing I did. I do not want to sound too optimistic naively when I say that I think they are experiencing the same joys today that I did decades ago.

However, I also have to be realistic. When I was a boy, four environments provided a positive influence on children: home, school, church, and community. My fear is that far too many youngsters may actually experience none of those today. How sad is that?

Damien Riley: Whom do you think will most enjoy The Band Plays On? What makes it so appealing?

Rick Niece: I think the same readers who enjoyed Side-Yard Superhero will also like The Band Plays On. The writing is vivid and flows easily, and the characters are endearing, interesting, and quite unique. Within the humor and the life lessons, there is also a sad, poignant reality that comes through because of the deaths of close friends.

The books are universally appealing, I believe, because readers like a story with descriptive writing, strong narrative, and appealing characters. I think that readers also enjoy stepping back in time to an age they either lived themselves or wish they had experienced.

The Band Plays On, however, will definitely be enjoyed by anyone who has been a member of a marching band or who has played a musical instrument. We have a shared camaraderie that comes through loud and clear—and in tune—throughout the book.

My (Damien Riley) final word: Again, I thank Rick for his insightful and empathetic words. Educators and musical educators will be first in line to enjoy this masterpiece but all who enjoy great narrative Americana will be moved as well. I want to thank Rick for answering my questions for this review. I’m a bigger fan of his than ever. As of time of posting, I have been informed of something that makes this book yet even more cool please check it out below

Long term Dr. Rick Niece is supporting music education by donating $1 of every book copy of The Band Plays On sold to an organization called Mr. Holland’s Opus Foundation, which donates new and refurbished instruments to school music programs lacking the resources to purchase them. It was inspired by the acclaimed motion picture Mr. Holland’s Opus (the story of the profound effect a dedicated music teacher had on generations of students).

Via this direct link you can read more about and/or purchase The Band Plays on.

Teaching, Inspiration, and Rock ‘n Roll

The world is so full of boring people. It’s important for leaders, teachers, writers, performers, and artists to share an influence that is NOT boring with this starved-for-passion world.

The world is so full of boring people. It’s important for leaders, teachers, writers, performers, and artists to share an influence that is NOT boring with this starved-for-passion world.

I started teaching at age 27. Though I thought I was old then, I look back now and see that I was most assuredly still a very young adult. Back then I was very much a self-starter. After subbing in a district for 3 months I managed to get hired on a year’s teaching contract with NO credential based purely on my wit and candor and my ability to speak Spanish and English. In California, this is called an “emergency credential” and it’s rarely done nowadays . . . for good reason. I had absolutely no classroom management skills, apart from being a sub which is vastly different from being the only grown-up in charge of 36 ten year olds for 185 days. Those first 3 years were very tough, but I got by on the inspiration of my twenties. It seems like my thirties have required more strategy than instinct to find success.

Now, 10 years later with a full credential and a Master’s degree, I still often find myself at a loss for inspiration. I never give up though. On those days that I am discouraged and unmotivated, I try and get away from the daily routine. I put aside the lessons I had planned (as much as is possible to stay within my responsibilities) and I focus on the things that I truly enjoy: guitar, art, poetry, reading, songwriting, nature, etc. Then I tap into that wonder I have for those things and bridge it to the material I have to teach. For example: if I have to teach reading data on a graph, I make a graph about the different guitars there are.

I adapt my lessons that day to whatever is really giving me personal inspiration at that moment. All people (even small ones) are attracted to a leader or performer who is passionate about what he is doing. Kids want to emulate that energy. I remember going to see REM in concert in my 20’s and being so drawn in to what singer Michael Stipe was doing onstage. I didn’t understand the weird symbols on the screen or the strange movements he made, like hitting a metal chair with a wooden rod on the off-beats on “World Leader Pretend,” but I tapped into his passion and energy for what he was doing, and when they left the stage I screamed for an encore. It was like a moth to a lightbulb, the lightbulb was passion. The world is so full of boring people. It’s important for leaders, teachers, writers, performers, and artists to share an influence that is NOT boring with this starved-for-passion world.

Discouragement that saps inspiration is the teacher’s biggest enemy. By tapping into and bridging my passions with my students, I am able to get through those tough days when I have to methodically put one foot in front of the other and keep remembering that I got into the profession to make a difference. With a brief look inward, it works every time.

Opting out of Testing Gaining Favor with Parents? My response

Another educator I follow on Facebook posted a link to an article on this topic. I want to thank him for posting it. Since a comment would have been too long for Facebook, this is my response:

“I think in any profession there are measures that professionals aim for. I have enjoyed the state test as a target most of my 14 year career (I say most because when I first started down in Santa Ana in 1997 it wasn’t yet such a polarized focus). Anyway, I wrote a song called “Get on Board the Standards Train” and did a countdown every year et al. It’s not such a bad thing, you can see it as a sport. When you are running your classroom with that as a corporate goal for improvement, you don’t want parents to opt out. I wouldn’t (and won’t) opt my three kids out because It’s a measurable goal we can celebrate the results of and/or use them to improve given areas. Anyway … I dig all your posts and links so keep em comin’ – just thought I’d give you a perspective where the test is kind of cool and may even be missed. Having said that, I am really looking forward to the transition into common core and the more holistic sort of assessment on a computer that will bring. I agree that the test can produce stress for some kids, that is where the teacher as coach idea comes in. The relaxation of the classroom is just as important as the rigor. A great teacher needs to work at fostering both throughout the year.”

Below is an excerpt from the article that prompted my response:

A small but growing number of local parents are deciding to have their children opt out of the state standardized tests in English and math.

Some parents say they don’t want their children subjected to the stress tied to the tests. Others say they are protesting a school climate they say has become too focused on standardized tests, at the expense of critical thinking, hands-on learning and nontested subjects — from art to social studies.

And some say they don’t believe the tests are even reliable.

“It’s all about the test scores. I’ve seen so much time and so much money spent on this. And they’re not really a valid measure of student progress,” said Chris Cerrone, a social studies teacher who kept his own third-grade daughter home from state tests last week.

via Opting out of testing gaining favor with parents – City of Buffalo – The Buffalo News.

10 Resources for Teachers to Manage Stress

Like any other professionals, teachers get stressed. Here are some links that can help get you back and feeling good again.

I wonder if most people think about teachers as being stressed. I think they do. Ironically, we teachers think it’s not necessary to worry about the health effects of stress? This could not be further from the truth. As teachers, we deal with big stress levels each day. We need management stress training. These levels are proven to cause physical problems like high blood pressure and a slew of other problems touched on in the pages below. As a teacher, I owe it to my family and my students to take my health and stress levels seriously. Prioritizing that can prevent a lot of life complications. These links below are all ones I have read and recommend to you:

Identify Stress – Buffalo Counseling offers this excellent resource for teachers or any other person trying to manage stress.

Empathy and Action for Stress Management – The NEA has put together this “empathetic” and educational page with information and resources about stress management for teachers.

Top 8 Fun Stress Relievers – These stress relievers may be easier to practice – because they’re fun.

Retired Teacher Shares Stress Management Tips – You’d think a retired teacher would know a lot about this topic and you’d be right!

Using Acronyms for Stress Management – An article I wrote a couple years back on personal development but it also works for reducing my stress at work.

Pressure Management for Teachers – An interesting page that focuses on the cause of pressure that is causing stress.

An excellent 8 minute video on this topic:

Time Management for Teachers: Your 7 Minute Guide to Mastering TThe most popular videos are here

Managing Stress to Avoid High Blood Pressure Etc. – This blog page talks about all the many symptoms of stress that teachers are prone to due to the stress of the job. Then it gives tips to deal with it.

Resource Blog for Teachers Dealing with Stress – This well written, close to home, blog gives real life example of stress and offers real solutions.

Recording Dealing with Stress Management in Teaching – This is a telecourse that was recorded and is available as an archive.

Stress management classes are not such a bad idea. Now, go be less-stressed!

Backwards Mapping for Planning Instruction

In planning instruction toward a dynamite lesson plan, one extremely effective form of CFU is called curriculum mapping. It is referred to by many teachers as: “backwards mapping.” This can be used to strategically work toward test goals.

Backwards Mapping Requires Reflection

A Dynamite lesson plan is great, but we musn’t forget that assessment is a key part. In a given lesson plan format, such as EDI, it is often called CFU (Check for Understanding). As teachers, we need to know what stuents know when they know it.. EDI is a form of instruction. Today I am writing to you about planning instruction which is a “whole different animal,” as they say. Before the lesson plan, there must be backwards mapping.

Curriculum Mapping Requires Testing

Backward mapping requires a test. The test becomes the “data” for use in making a “backward map.” The test ideally is calibrated with the same standards as you plan to master with the students. Once you’ve given the test you can analyze the data by noting the percentage of accuracy on each standards. Depending on the teaching situation, you might decide standards that 70% of the class got correctly are no longer needed in your instruction. Whatever your lesson plan format, since we know the brain needs review you can always review that throughout the year.

Make the Map and Take the Road

The items where the students had less than a proficient percentage now become part of your instruction “map.” You then take those standards and create your instruction going forward. Let’s face it: no one wants their students to fail. This is an excellent way to focus on the toughest standards and guide your instruction to mastery of the concepts. This is a big job when you really get into it. That’s why I recommend doing it on a trimester or other periodical basis. Don’t do it nightly or even weekly. Wait for the data to be relevant, over time.

No Instant Gratification but …

Remember also that the brain likes small bites so resist the urge to re-teach it all at once. Teaching is a job of patience and tenacity not instant gratification. However, through setting goals and using strategies like backward mapping, we can experience the rush and satisfaction of seeing goals achieved.

If you use backward mapping or plan to implement it or something like it into your teaching, please let us know in the comments.

5 Altruistic Values of Teaching

These are five things I value above and beyond financial compensation that make me want to come to work as a teacher every day.

Being a teacher is a wonderful career choice if you value the intrinsic rewards it brings. There can be a place for you and there are also online teaching job openings as well. Before you seek employment however, you should examine the reason people become teachers and the nature of the job itself. I’ve always thrived on seeing a student grow in academics or social skills.. This is what I think of as the “human-profit” margin. For example, one of my goals is always to see each kid improve scores over the preceding year. There are many altruistic values of teaching that motivate and keep us on track in our job. If you are a new teacher, take a look at these occupational traits. They are five things I value above and beyond financial compensation that make me want to come to work every day.

  1. Kids are now what we once were and they will one day run society: This can be both exciting and daunting. Knowing one day the child I am teaching long division may one day perform open heart surgery on someone. On the other hand, they could become homeless and jobless if I don’t do my part to give them the skills and motivation to succeed.
  2. Many times you are the only role model of a normal life: I had a parent conference a few years back where the parent had told me right there at the table that all 5 of her kids had different dads. That alone is staggering. I grew up in a house where my dad was always there fore me: tucking me in, coaching my soccer teams, teaching me guitar … I know not everyone has it that good but this was a lighter shade of pale. I felt sad for the confusion the child must live with each day. I couldn’t be that child’s dad (who wasn’t in the picture) but I started paying more attention to him and giving him the best advice I could during that year about life and academics. I hope I made a difference. Each day I have that opportunity as an educator. This one reason you might look for teaching opportunities as your career.
  3. Students need a frame of reference to understand art: We forget sometimes how much kids do not know about the world. Most adults can tell you the difference between classical and pop music … most 4th graders can’t. Unless someone explains the difference between an 18 century painting an something modern my a cubist such as Picasso, or Andy Warhol for that matter … it’s all just blurs of sensation. A person may go their whole life and never appreciate art until someone tells them about it.
  4. Students don’t always know how to be nice: We as adults get a million thoughts in our heads daily that are negative and self-defeating. If we are lucky (as I was lucky) we learn about positive self talk and talk with others. A person can go their whole life and never learn how to speak positively. I get to teach that every day (not always a walk in the park let me tell you).

Finally, kids need to learn respect for authority. A person can get to 15-18 or even 80 without that and suffer greatly because of it. As a teacher you are like a “soft” police officer, or judge. You represent authority and if you don’t teach then what respect is, chances are they will not have it when they are older. I like to think that every child who passes through my classroom in a given year knows how to respect her/his elders and her/his superiors. I know this will save them much trouble.

To close, these are 5 reasons I come to work each day. I am not rich by monetary standards but the reason I don’t feel poor is because each day I get to act on altruistic values. They are what give me the most satisfaction in my career. As a final note, I have found keeping an online teacher journal very helpful in measuring my progress toward altruistic goals, I highly recommend it. At the same time, it isn’t for everyone. Please note there are more online teaching opportunities manifesting daily. This new “tech” kind of teaching may really be worth looking into for the right type. Is teaching for you? Share why in the comments.

Is a Teaching Career a Safe Bet in this Economy?

Below is an excerpt taken from an article I wrote, published at Blogcritics.

With economic woes at the forefront, young people choosing a career have their work cut out for them. A job like teaching, which once seemed to this Gen-Xer to be a solid choice, is now in question because of budget cuts. Not only could it prove difficult to keep a teaching job in the future, but even more likely, the pay could deteriorate below survival amounts. How can a government pay its teachers when it can’t even keep its books straight? The upside of this may be that only those who love teaching and feel “called” to it will apply. That, of course, would benefit the students of America.

Then again, maybe I am wrong. Maybe teachers will retain the decent position they have now on the food chain. Maybe the trade-off of teaching as opposed to working in business will remain a medium income with the security of a contract year after year. While some of my friends after high school sought business degrees and big salaries, I chose education. I have seen some of my friends crash and burn in their quest for the almighty dollar, and I have seen others flourish beyond what I ever believed possible. As for me, I am happy as a teacher, but some months are harder than others at just making ends meet.

Like most of you, I’ve been very concerned about the bailout crisis in American politics. I know we have a deficit in the trillions, and now Bush and others say we must write a $700 billion check from the future to the failed banks. Scary. I can’t help but wonder what will happen to teaching as a career. Our salaries come out of that empty pot from which they are pulling the $700 billion. But isn’t teaching a need of society? Won’t our government make sure that the children have the teachers they need and that the teachers are taken care of?

Read the whole article via A Teaching Career: Safe in this Economy? – Blogcritics Culture.

Tradition vs. Tech as a Teacher

Below is an excerpt from a longer article I published on another blog. I think this concept is highly valuable to teachers.

It does a teacher no good to hang on to methods that are decades old when they don’t produce value. Some examples might be cursive or silent reading time. These have proven of little value in many people’s minds. Today’s teacher needs to use tech to teach explicitly and directly. As an innovative and creative teacher, I must prepare my students for the jobs and create data toward value. It’s not an easy job, but I know I will continue to be successful. I am willing to consider the data and ALL tools be they tech or tradition. The extent to which they add value toward my goals is the extent to which I use them.

via Tradition, Tech, Data and Value at Work.

Dont Over Stuff Your Brain

When it comes to our brains, less is more and quality is better than quantity. Slow down and take more breaks, you’ll be amazed how much more you retain for life!

Whether you are learning or teaching, it’s important to not over stuff your brain. Studies have shown that the mind cannot absorb more than three things at a time. So, if you are writing, don’t make more than 3 main points or they will be wasted on over-fed minds. If you are looking to read and understand something, break it down into three or less main categories. Yellow pads are great for this. You’d do well to “space out” the time you have to study as well. The theory of time spaced learning got me through College Algebra at the junior college. I have always struggled with math and a teacher shared with the class about it. My life has been improved ever since!

The theory goes like this: instead of studying to absorb new material over the course of an hour, break up your time into 15 minute increments. The data shows that memory is strongest when you start and stop a study time. Therefore, instead of having strong memories only twice in an hour, you will have them at the start and stop of each mini session. This equals more knowledge retained! Now this was great news to me, because I loved taking breaks from math!

When it comes to our brains, less is more and quality is better than quantity. Slow down and take more breaks, you’ll be amazed how much more you retain for life!