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My Unexpected "Music" Lesson While Presenting a PD Workshop - Get with the Beat, Mr. Murphy

Written by Joseph Pizzo
August 04, 2015

When the call to present a workshop came from the Fordham University Digital Literacies Collaborative, I immediately thought, “Why, I can do this.  I'm a member of the DLC. My colleagues are wonderfully supportive, and the director Dr. Turner is most encouraging and professional. Besides, I’ve been presenting workshops for at least 30 years.  I know all the dance steps.  Just the music will be a bit different this time. The focus for this workshop is digital literacy.  I can handle it.”

Oh, the music was indeed different - and it needed to be.  For this workshop, I would not be having my colleagues work within some predefined limits from which creativity would spawn.  Rather, I was going to be giving them the opportunity to take their concept and create a digital poem (digi-poem) by using any combination of words, shapes, and colors.  The caveat I would issue would be that any digi-poem without words would need to be explained by the writers to clarify the connection between the significance of their creation and the rationale behind their choices.

The biggest challenge for me was actually being able to completely step out of the role of presenter and create a “classroom” within the workshop where all colleagues would feel secure enough to take reasonable risks.   My endgame was to take the ideas generated by my colleagues and bring these ideas back to my middle school classroom so I would be able to provide my students with digital options that are purposeful and fun.  What tempo of music would be playing in my workshop classroom? Would I be familiar with the tune? Have I ever listened to this type of music before? Would I recognize the melodies being played and the harmonies being created? What kinds of beats would be filling the room?

You see, I’ve been a classroom teacher for 40 years.  The first computer I had ever used in my classroom was a Radio Shack TRS-80.  The computer was booted by a cassette tape that needed to be played at the correct volume level for almost five minutes.  There was no way to tell if the volume level was indeed correct, at least until the five minutes had passed.  If the level was correct, the computer booted up.  If not, then the user needed to adjust the volume slightly and repeat the procedure for as many five-minute segments as it took either to boot up the computer or cause the user to toss his hands in the air in frustration and then grab an old-fashioned sheet of white-lined paper and a yellow number two pencil to begin the task that the computer was supposed to simplify. The music from this task sounded similar to that which one might hear by playing the William Tell Overture at a very slow speed on a phonograph.

Here I am, forty years later, and I’m going to be giving graduate students and highly-competent colleagues the opportunity to share strategies for teaching poetry in the classroom by adding digital options to their writing.  The music that would be produced might be as different as the TRS-80 boot-up music is from the handful of notes that assure us users that our computer has Intel inside.

My students in my middle school integrated language arts classes already are using GoogleDocs to share their work and receive only positive feedback from their peers.  We’ve used some digital options as well.  My students have created voice files using Audioboo, and they have made iMovies and PowToons to put a spin on the old-fashioned book report.  Today it was time to explore some additional digital options, some of which I was hoping to bring back to my classroom to enhance my poetry unit even more.  “I have this challenge under control,” I reassured myself as I hummed a tune that somnehow seemed a little more New Age than I had expected.

I strolled down to the computer lab to begin getting set-up early for my presentation.  I’ve learned over the years never to take even the simplest procedures for granted.  Intuitively I knew that Murphy and his Law had an infamous reputation of introducing glitches to even the most simple tasks while somehow instinctively knowing that these glitches would have the greatest impact by occuring during the most inopportune moments.  Why should this day be any different than any other day for Mr. Murphy and his Law?

Well, the computer that was supposed to project to the screen at the front of the room was not cooperating.  When I tried tightening the connection from the computer to the network, I could feel the presence of Mr. Murphy and his impish grin skipping playfully across the room while sarcastically humming a playful bit of electronica.

While the university's tech person who was summoned by my workshop assistant Lauren surveyed the situation, I began the workshop sans my introductory, tone-setting music.  The workshop is entitled “The Color of Poetry,” and I wanted to play Chicago’s “Color My World” and Vanessa Williams’s “The Colors of the Wind” to establish the proper mood prior to the start of my presentation.  Both pieces include wonderfully bright colors that accentuate the music videos.  Because of Mr, Murphy’s playfulness, however, I would not be able to begin this way.

Undaunted, I drew upon my 40 years of middle school experience.  Those of us who have taught middle school classes know that we plan for the best and stand ready to adapt to any and all circumstances.  Fire and containment drills, unannounced assemblies, extra music rehearsals, and special circumstances are commonplace for us middle school teachers. Therefore, I did what I would normally do with my own students when an unexpected glitch arises:  I explained what was happening.  I assured my fellow professionals that the problem would be solved shortly since help had arrived, and I explained what everyone would have seen had the opening of my presentation been free of this unexpected technological glitch.  My honesty served me well as my colleagues laughed along with me at the circumstances and listened to me as I shared my opening while they logged on to the campus Wi-Fi.  After 10 minutes of my allotted 75 had elapsed, the problem was solved.  Well, not exactly solved but made more manageable. Even so, I could feel the beat of an energetic rhythm bolstering my confidence as I moved ahead assuredly.

It was at this precise moment that I realized how glad I was to have my assistant and highly-respected colleague Lauren helping me.  The Prezi that I was showing appeared clearly on the screen in the room, but not on Lauren’s desktop computer that was located in the back of the room.  Therefore, she attentively changed slides and deftly moved the cursor that appeared on the screen at least 15 feet away from her lab station so I could remain in the front of the room while addressing my colleagues.  With tremendous dexterity, Lauren allowed me to continue with my presentation while she clicked on the arrows to change slides.  Only on two occasions did we have to pause for a moment while she rediscovered the location of the cursor on the distant screen and quickly proceeded to place the cursor in its proper position.

As things began to run more smoothly, I could feel a crescendoing rhythm beginning to drive my presentation.  I began to feel more confident about the upcoming activity I was going to be asking my fellow professionals to complete.  I wanted them to select a color, write down its qualities and traits, associate the color with concrete objects and even abstract ideas, and then form groups of three to combine their information into something that I am calling a “digi-poem.” Rather than simply writing a poem in words, my colleagues were being asked to provide those words with a digital platform that would add more dimensions to the words on the page.

You see, I am looking to expand this project next year in my classroom, and I was hopeful that the creativity that each group would demonstrate would provide me with more digital-based ideas to engage my students.  Not only did each group produce a wonderful project, but they helped me to discover an additional resource or two for my students to explore

The work that was produced was magnificent.  One group used the App Plotagon.  This App allows students to create characters and settings, author their scripts, and watch a movie based on their input.  Another group fashioned an iMovie.  A third used Canva to create a colorful visual poster with words and images that celebrated four colors: green, blue, gold, and red.  A fourth used Googledocs to write a concrete poem in the shape of a tree, and they also added color and type style for visual effect.  The final group created a Google slideshow that celebrated the color turquoise. When the groups had completed their presentations, I shared a PowToon and an iMovie that my students had created when we looked for ways to expand the reporting options in my classroom.

While each group was presenting their project, I could easily distinguish the unique rhythms and melodies that were contained within their works. Concurrently, the music of my own presentation was indeed changing from something up-to-date but familiar to something dynamic, high-energy, and bursting with freshness and creativity. Each group seemed to have taken the music of Chicago and Vanessa Williams and rewritten the melodies to reflect the cutting-edge electronica of Moby and the dub step styles of Skrillex.   

 It was interesting to discover that I was nervous while allowing the groups of my colleagues to choose their Apps, as well as the directions they would be taking.  I would never have the same feeling if I were conducting the lesson with my middle school students, but I guess the reason is simply that I am more familiar with the "music" I am used to having my students create.  Realizing this fact gave me a deeper appreciation of the good fortune with which I have been blessed in the classroom.  My students are almost always cooperative and responsive.  This workshop experience simply reinforced this fact as I soon began to feel the same way about my colleagues in my workshop because the opportunity for creativity in the lesson resulted in the same responses that I am used to observing in my middle school classroom.  My colleagues were given ownership of their choices, and they were busily creating their own styles of music.

 Providing the opportunity to have choices in the creative process does indeed reap great rewards.  Even so, I was exploring new territory by leaving the digital choices completely to each group.  I’m hoping to be able to give my own middle school students a similar open invitation of choice, but I know that I’ll have them conference with me to share their ideas and troubleshoot any potential problem areas before they begin their projects. These conferences, however, will provide my students with opportunities to share their planning strategies, ask questions, justify their choices, and take ownership of their learning. If you listen closely, you may be able to hear the music of this forthcoming experieince already beginning to select the proper melodies, harmonies, and beats.

 Presenting this workshop has provided me with a wonderful opportunity to tap into the creativity demonstrated by my colleagues.  The results of their efforts will serve to enhance not only the poetry unit that I shall be assigning my middle school students, but also the book reports, speeches, and writings that I shall be assigning throughout the upcoming academic year. In fact, I'm already planning ways to infuse digital options into my first project of the year. After reading Gary Soto's short story entitled "Seventh Grade", my students traditionally write a poem about their first day of seventh grade. This year, the poetry will serve as a bridge to the electronic options mentioned earlier and maybe even some that they will help me to discover options that are more diverse and challenging.

 The music to which I “danced” while presenting this workshop and the music to which my colleagues danced as they created their projects was a bit different than the music that I may have been accustomed to. Even so, I was reminded through the efforts of my colleagues that despite the era from which the music may originate or the melodies and harmonies that define it, the need for a catchy beat and a meaningful rhythm remain.  I was able to appreciate the beat of this new music, enjoy this professional “dance” with my colleagues, and even smile playfully at Mr. Murphy and his failed attempts to make me an unwitting victim of his Law. 

 The dance floor is open, Mr. Murphy. Would you care to join us?