Friday, December 11, 2015

The End of another Chapter

Here at the end of all things comes one final moment for reflection of my experience student teaching.  Going into this semester, I can't say I was nervous or excited about it because I had no idea what to expect.  And while not all moments were cheery and delightful, I have to say that I was truly blessed to be given this sort of opportunity.  I know I am ready to move on to the next stage in my life and lead my own choral program.  I have a number of people worth thanking for helping me get this far including my CT's Sarah Covington and Justin Sands (what an INCREDIBLE experience it's been!) as well as the assistant Cheri Brummer.  She certainly had no responsibility to help me improve but she treated me like I was her student teacher which was awesome!  I had so much to learn from these three.  I also think it's worth thanking my high school choir director Byron Schlotterback for inspiring me to teach music -- I'm not so certain I would be in this same situation without his dedication to me and the program in which I grew up.

I also want to thank the other student teachers for this support system we have had for each other.  I've looked forward to reading your blogs and responding with my own comments, as well as hearing from all of you during Seminar.  Unfortunately, I don't know all the names of everyone student teaching (whoops!) but I have been reading blogs outside of the ones assigned.  Even more specifically I gotta thank Sam Vaske and Brianna De Jong for helping me get here too, because I wanted to quit a long time before now, and they made the road a little less lonely, encouraging me to push through.

For the most part, this experience has been great.  It's been awesome to get away from college classes and homework, and to just go out and finally do what I envisioned myself doing years ago.  Although I never envisioned myself teaching elementary music, I had a blast doing it!  I was afraid of kindergarteners until I got in front of them, finally.  I didn't care that they couldn't pronounce McLaughlin and instead called me McWaffle, and man did I love spending time with them at Lunchroom duty!  Little kids are so freaking awesome.

Then wow, what an amazing experience at the high school!  Watching Justin Sands and Cheri Brummer work as a team to lead a spectacular choir program was one hell of an opportunity.  The kids in the choir are awesome!  There is so much talent, hard work, and big personalities all gathered in one room working towards a common goal.  I didn't care that they rarely called me by my last name, either because they mispronounced it as Mc-Lock-Lan, or others who preferred to call me by a nick name like Em-cee, JT, and McLovin (ha!).  It's been awesome to work with students one-on-one for all-state auditions, celebrating with them when nearly all of them got in, and going with them to Ames to spend a weekend together having fun and experiencing something amazing.  It's also been awesome working with them in the show choirs, playing piano for them.  Today I announced to them that it was my last day, and a lot of them were legitimately sad about me leaving, and were wondering if I would be coming back after their concert next week (which I'm conducting at, by the way!!).

If I had to choose between getting a job teaching high school and teaching elementary, I would have to say that I would choose high school.  I loved elementary, but I really think that my passion is with the high school students, and that's where I see myself in the future.  I still have to take my Praxis exams, but otherwise, this is the end of my college career.  I'm ready for my panel on Monday, and I'm ready to come back and conduct the choir concert on Thursday.  Everything seems to be just as it should for me to close this chapter in life and begin the next one.  Good luck to everyone else with all you have left to do, and with your own new chapters in life!

Tuesday, December 8, 2015


I woke up this morning questioning what day it was.  I said, "Dang it, today's Wednesday!  It's going to be such a long day!"  Then I thought about it for a few more moments, and realized it was only Tuesday saying, "Dang it, it's STILL going to be a really long day!"  This is because I've been at school working all day for the last 9 days and still have four more before this weekend comes.  We had show choir rehearsals all weekend and our debut concert last night.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not complaining!  I would rather be doing this than anything else!  I've just lost my sense of time in the string of days and long hours.  I'm also heavily caffeinated right now, too.  But everything that has been going on is so exciting!  We have been working hard to continue improving our choirs and show choirs.  I got the opportunity to play piano for the show choirs' debut concert, too!  So a lot of my week was spent practicing and learning the music so I could play in time.  I think the kids really appreciated me stepping up to play that role, but I'm also a little sad because I couldn't see the final product of our show.

The debut concert last night was a huge success.  Before the show there was definitely lots of excitement in the air from the kids.  It was so rewarding to see how excited they were after the show was over, because they felt so good about themselves and all the hard work they had put into making it happen.  There was a massive crowd!  We estimated over 800 people were in the audience, but it was probably more like 900 to 1000.  It was exciting for me to be a part of the show since I haven't been on stage with a cheering crowd since I was in high school five years ago, so I'd be lying if I didn't say I was excited too.

Putting aside the excitement of show choir, this week was a more laid back week for me in terms of teaching.  I helped out, but we spent a lot more time rehearing music that my CT and the assistant were conducting for the concert we have next week.  Which by the way is something else I still get to look forward to!  Even though our placement ends Friday, and I present my portfolio on Monday, I will get to come back to my placement Wednesday and Thursday next week to rehearse with the choirs before conducting a few songs at their concert that night (Dec. 17)!  This is almost like a debut for me professionally as I've never conducted a piece of music for a real concert before, so I have a lot of excitement and nervousness about that.  I just wish that I could present my portfolio after that concert so I could include a video of me conducting for my panel!

Yesterday before the concert we had no school, and I attended meetings all day.  The second half of the day was all about implementing PBIS at the high school level.  This is something I need to work on in regards to classroom management -- reinforcing positive behavior.  It would tremendously help me build stronger relationships with the students while improving their behavior in class.  The first half of the day was spent in a meeting with all the performing ensemble directors (so the music educators grades 5-12 band and choir).  This was a really awesome meeting, actually, because a lot of us are working towards the same goal.

We are working hard to figure out how to implement proficiency-based grading in what we do.  This meant that we needed to look at what things we wanted our students to learn in our classes by the time they graduated, and how we could grade them on those things.  This is really difficult, though, for a lot of reasons.  Some things are easily graded.  For example, we agreed that we want our students to be able to read music on their own.  We can test them on this, and give them a grade for how accurately they read a passage.  But what about students who join band (for example) in 8th grade?  They are not at the same place as kids who have been in band since 5th grade.  What we would normally do is grade them based on where they are in their development -- but if the bar is the bar, then we technically can't do that.  So that means that the new student will always be behind and get low grades in band, potentially leading him to quit.  On top of that, not all students learn at the same pace.  Someone who is gifted in music and plays at a high level since 6th grade can't be held to the same standard as someone who is struggling to learn the basics even after taking music lessons for years.

We also value the aesthetic experience students gain from performing in music ensembles, and while this tends to be one of the strongest reasons students stay in band and choir, how do we grade on something that is not measurable?  There are a lot of questions in the air about how to grade students, and unfortunately I won't be here to see the end result, but I'm excited about where their grading system is going because I think that in the long run, proficiency-based grading is going to help students develop as musicians better than how they are being graded now.

Sorry for the lengthy post!  There's just a ton to talk about!  Good luck in the last few days!

Monday, November 30, 2015

The Eve of Break

Seeing as last week was Thanksgiving break and we only had two days of rehearsal, I don't have much to blog about.  On Monday, my CT was on vacation in Jamaica, and Mrs. Brummer was sick, so I got the opportunity to run the whole show by myself.  I was actually surprised that they sent me a sub for the day -- but I kind of wish they hadn't.  The guy was totally useless, sitting in the office on his computer while I was teaching students.  Then when I was trying to get a ton of stuff done during my prep time, he wouldn't stop talking to me about his time in Afghanistan and about how he has PTSD...

It was awkward.

Anyway, Monday was a little disheartening because with both of their normal teachers gone, and it being the eve of break, student focus was practically nonexistent.  I realized that I still have a lot to learn about classroom management.  I tried to keep students engaged, but every time I would stop rehearsal to fix something, they would immediately start talking!  It really wore me out trying to be a cheerleader for 100-student classes.  When I talked about it with Mrs. Brummer on Tuesday, she told me that the students wouldn't be like that if I was their actual full-time teacher.  When both of the real teachers are gone, the students don't feel like I have the authority to get them in trouble, and so they don't feel the need to behave.

I guess there is some truth to that, but my advisor came in on Tuesday to observe me, and he  mentioned classroom management in our meeting after I was done teaching.  I told him about how the day before went, and he told me that my biggest issue was that I needed to "put out the brushfires before they engulfed the whole pasture."  This was a great metaphor that changed my perspective on how I approached my next class.  I put an end to any students talking as soon as it happened to keep the ball rolling, and while it wasn't a 100% perfect class, it WAS improved.  This may be one of my final focuses in the last couple weeks of teaching.

In my last few weeks I hope to improve on classroom management (putting out those brushfires while they're still small), and being more relatable to students.  This seems like a great thing to work on in my last days here, because I feel like it should be a balance.  I don't want to be strict and mean in order to keep the class in order -- and instead I would like to still have fun in class and have the students like me while clearly having high expectations for them.  Here's to two weeks left!

Monday, November 23, 2015

An Inspirational Weekend

This weekend was AWESOME.  I wasn't at school Thursday and Friday, because I drove to Ames for the Iowa High School Music Association's Music Educator Conference.  I was there for a few reasons.  First, I was there to chaperone the twenty-some kids who made All State this year, because they have rehearsals all day Friday and Saturday, and then perform a concert Saturday night.  Second, while the kids are rehearsing, I was attending sessions at this big conference for music teachers.  They have sessions talking about all kinds of topics throughout the day, all of which were valuable to me as a greenhorn student teacher.

One of the conferences I attended was a reading session where a music publisher GIVES everyone a big packet full of new music, and then those attending just read through it together.  This was a neat experience because I got to just sing a bunch of new music in 4-part harmony with other professionals for an hour.  Many of the other sessions were lectures given by some very smart people talking about things like the psychology of musical preference, the psychology of teaching, and physical ailments music teachers go through.  There's a ton of research showing that certain personalities gravitate towards certain types of music, and if people like certain genres, they will likely enjoy other genres.  For example, rebellious personalities tend to like hip-hop, but they will also gravitate towards electronic and pop music.

The session on the psychology of teaching was especially interesting because what she explained talked about EXACTLY what has been going on in my head for the last 6 weeks!  She talked about how teachers go through 3 phases when starting teaching.  The first phase is the worry of self.  We as teachers over-worry about how we are perceived, over-thinking things like what we wear, making sure our fly is zipped, etc.  Then we move into phase two, where our main focus is task-oriented.  We have goals in mind, and want to get specific things done at all costs.  Then we move out of that phase and eventually into the third phase where we are focussed on the students, worrying about how well they understand things, and how they are doing overall.  I know that in my short time at the high school, I went through all three of these phases already!  It was reassuring to find out that those are legitimate feelings to have as a teacher.

One other session that was really interesting was the Meaning of the Choral Experience for high school.  The speaker talked about why students choose to join choir, why they choose to sing, and what leads them to stay in choir.  This was just an awesome session because it really spoke to me about what students are looking for in a choir class.  If I want to build a strong choir program someday, I need to know how to recruit and retain students well, so this information was incredibly valuable to me!

When I wasn't attending sessions, I was sitting in on some of the choir rehearsals for All State.  The conductor this year was Dr. Peter Eklund, who happens to be a LEGEND in the vocal music world!  I have always wanted the chance to meet him and introduce myself, which I got the chance to do while I was there!  Our conversation BLEW me away!  I walked up to him and shook his hand saying, "Hi, we've never met before but I've always wanted to meet you!  My name is Jordan McLaughlin --"  He cut me off and said, "Oh you're Justin's brother!"  (He knows my brother).  He continued, "You're student teaching at Prairie High School, aren't you?"

That floored me.  He knew who I was, AND where I was student teaching.  I mean...I was surprised that he even knew who I was, let alone that I was a student teacher at Prairie.  I said to him, "How did you know that?"  And he told me, "I know where ALL the important people are!"

This man is a really cool guy.  I watched him rehearse the All State choir, and somehow the man has this awesome way of commanding the room and drawing all attention to him without even trying.  Plus some of his rehearsal techniques seemed to simple yet revolutionary.  I was taking notes in the back like, "I'm gonna try this out myself when I get back to Cedar Rapids..."  Ha!  On top of all that, he took the music that I had worked with the students for the auditions, and made them sound completely different, and BETTER than I had ever heard.  When I watched the concert, I was amazed at how incredible and engaging the music was.  I was expecting to be bored during the concert because I had heard the music ten thousand times before, but was I wrong!

When I wasn't doing any of the things above, I was with students at the hotel, and out eating at restaurants making a ton of connections and relationships.  I feel like the students are really getting close to me, giving me nick-names like, MC (em-see), JT, and most recently, McLovin (because it sounds like McLaughlin).  They've been asking me if I'd be coming back after I was done student teaching to start working here when Mrs. Brummer retires, but of course I can't count on something like that.  But the fact that they really want me here makes me feel really great!

Oh, and did I mention that the hotel we stayed at offered me a complimentary upgrade in my room?  They sold too many rooms and told me I could have a premium room for free with a jacuzzi in it.  SCORE.  The kids (and teachers) were so jealous!

I learned a TON this weekend, and had so much fun!  I really grew a lot closer to the kids, and did a lot of cool things.  This was a necessary experience for me just because while I was at Coe taking classes, I was beginning to lose sight of why I started this journey.  I was getting burnt out and frustrated with a lot of things.  Now that I'm back in the field meeting other professionals and working with students, I have regained the vision for why I'm doing this, and I am so excited to move forward in this field!

Here is a video I took on my phone of Dr. Eklund conducting the 300 men in a BEAUTIFUL piece.  The end was awesome.  I would upload other videos I took of all 600 singers in the choir singing, but it takes too long to upload videos at Prairie (the wi-fi sucks!).

Monday, November 16, 2015

It's Called a Neapolitan Seventh

I'm going to be honest...I'm not really sure what to blog about.  Nothing particularly exciting happened this week.  I'm not full of great stories -- my students aren't physically abusing me; I'm not having to remove the 93-person choir to the hallway to teach out there because one student is having a melt-down; I'm not playing Choir Survival and building spaghetti towers or making home-made printers out of pencils and Legos; my CT and the assistant director are wonderful and we have an awesome relationship; and just in general, life is good right now!

I did have one awesome success story this last week, though!  I taught the choirs a new warm-up, which they really liked because it has them singing cool-sounding chords.  After class, one of the students came up and asked me about the warm-up.  He said, "What chords were you having us sing? Because something about it didn't sound right."  I was really excited that he asked because it showed that he was interested in learning more, so I said, "Well, I don't know how much music theory you know, but..." and then I showed him at a piano what the chords were.  What I said to him seemed to confuse him because the warm-up doesn't resolve the way one would expect it to, and that gave him the impression that I taught it wrong.  So when I explained that what I did was intentional, he said, "Okay well...I just wanted to make sure you knew what you were doing."

Ha!  Excuse me?  You're doubting my musical knowledge?  Kid.  Do you know who you're talking to.  Haven't you heard of me?  The great, Jordan McLaughlin?  You do not question me as a musician.

That's what went through my head, but I didn't say any of that, obviously.  Instead I just smiled and nodded and thanked him for asking.  Well then the next day he came up to me again, asking about the names of the chords again.  So I told him, Super-tonic minor seventh, Neapolitan seventh, and Tonic ninth.  He started to repeat those names to himself over and over again as he walked away.  This kid is a band kid who happens to be taking choir, and he has a know-it-all attitude, so I'm questioning what his motives are now.  I found out later that he went to his band teacher to ask about the legitimacy of the chords in my warm-up.  Well of course the band teacher backed me up.  Ever since then, this kid has been coming up to me asking about all kinds of deeper-level music topics.  So apparently I passed his test and now he sees me as a reliable, knowledgeable resource and I am not just some bimbo rehearsing his choir.

Speaking of band, the rehearsal space at Prairie is a little disappointing...  The band rehearses during our prep time in the room right next to us, and sound bleed is TERRIBLE.  When we have class, we often do not have enough space to rehearse.  We barely fit the whole choir in one room, and when we split up and run sectionals, we have no where to go other than the hallway or the lobby for the concert hall.  It actually looks sort of funny having show choir risers set up in these places.  It turns out that Prairie has been trying to build more for their school but they can't keep up because the district is growing too fast.

In fact, the story I'm describing to you was on the news a few weeks ago.  I was actually in class rehearsing the Concert Choir when kcrg and their camera crew walked in and started filming.  I will definitely say that I did not expect to be on the news at any student teaching placement!  If you missed it, check it out here.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Hard Work and Tough Choices

I have never been so tired AND pumped up all at the same time before.  This last week I put in an exhausting amount of hours into the week due to show choir rehearsals and conferences.  After it was all said and done, I put in 68 hours last week and (with the aid of coffee) I still feel pumped up to keep going!

I had an incident with a student this last week that I wanted to blog about because I'm curious about your opinions.  On Tuesday we were rehearsing the underclassmen choir where we have one sophomore who, frankly, looks like an oddball.  He doesn't really have friends but he works hard and cares a lot about being in choir.  The two boys standing next to him were making a big deal during rehearsal about having to stand close to him because they thought he had bed bugs.  I guess a rumor got out that he had them or something, but we (the teachers) already knew that he had been checked for bed bugs and that he was clean -- so there was nothing to worry about.  The boys standing next to him didn't seem to be convinced though, and were harassing him about it, disrupting the rehearsal.  They asked if they could move to a different spot so they didn't have to stand next to him.  My CT and I agreed that they had to stay in their spot next to him.  Well this resulted in a huge scene where one of the boys said, "well when we're done here I'm going straight to the principal and getting your asses in trouble."  My CT didn't have much patience for the attitude and said, "Oh you can just go right now, actually, because you're disrupting my rehearsal."  The student left the room saying he was going to talk to all of administration if he had to.

We got an email later that day from administration saying that we had to move him to a new spot in the choir.  We were outraged because that not only meant that this student had won, but it also was encouraging the image that this poor kid being harassed had bed bugs.  If we allow someone to move somewhere else, then someone else has to stand next to him, and of course when nobody wants to stand next to him because they're now convinced he has bed bugs, then how does that make him feel?  We tried fighting it but we were told we had to move him anyway.

I understand that by removing him from the situation he could no longer harass the kid, but on the other hand I just can't agree to encourage the idea that this student has bed bugs to everyone else, leaving him feeling rejected and different.  Maybe we didn't make the right choice, but despite what we wanted to do, administration forced us to do what they wanted.

Otherwise, the week was great!  I feel like I have a harder time engaging high school students than I did engaging elementary students, and I need to figure out how I can be more engaging on the high school level.  It was easy with little kids, because all I had to do was be goofy -- they responded well to that.  But I can't be goofy to teenagers because it just doesn't have the same effect it had on my kindergarteners.  Does anyone have ideas for better ways to lead class in an engaging way?

Also, can I just mention how much I forgot I loved show choir?  It's SO MUCH work on the director's part, but the results are awesome!  And the kids expressed during conferences how much they love it, and how show choir is the only class they look forward to during the day.  I'm glad that all the hard work is having a positive influence on kids.  I'm also proud to be student teaching at a school with an extremely strong show choir program.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Jump on Board!

Lots of positive things are happening with this placement!  I have a FANTASTIC relationship with my CT and the assistant director, I have a strong relationship with a lot of the students (mostly the upper-classmen), and I can see myself having a lot of success leading my own choral program.  The students look up to me as a leader and think I'm musically competent, which is also a plus.  Can you tell that I feel really great about what's going on here?

But this is the strange juxtaposition -- while I feel like so many things are going so well, I also feel like nothing is going well.  Before any of my classes, I get nervous and expect the walls to fall down around me (this was true at the elementary school, too).  The entire morning before I see any students I have anxiety that I'm going to make a fool out of myself and that maybe I'm really not prepared for this kind of responsibility.  But then once I get in front of students and start teaching, I lose the anxiety and get focussed.  I surprise myself by how well I respond to things on the fly.  We get a ton done during class because I pace the class quickly and hold the students to high expectations, and then by the end of the week I can see the results of my time in class by how much more they've learned and how much better they sound.  It's so rewarding to get instant feedback every day, knowing where the students are with their learning, what they still need to learn, and how to take them further.  By the end of it all, I'm the exact opposite of where I started -- I'm  on a high where I feel like I really know my sh*t and am ready to start getting paid for it.

One of my strengths is self-reflection.  I spend a lot of time deep in thought considering what happened, why things happened, and what I can do to make better things happen next time.  My CT doesn't need to spend much time telling me what to improve on because I usually already know and tell him before we even get the chance to discuss it.  This also makes me feel like I'm very self-aware, conscious of everything that I'm doing (and not doing).  

One of the things I'm struggling with this last week is getting the kids to jump on board with me on a few things.  I've spent a lot of time working with the under-classmen's choir on a piece, Festival Sanctus, and they clearly don't like the piece.  I don't understand why they don't like it, though, because I think it's awesome and a ton of fun!  I think the reason they dislike it is because it's difficult (OF COURSE I chose to do a difficult piece of music with them...) and taking longer to learn than the other pieces we've worked on recently.  But it's catchy, fast, and just an intense song overall, so I thought they'd pick it as their favorite!  I need to find out how I can get them to jump on board with me on this song and really perform it the best they can.  

I also don't feel comfortable leading the show choir yet.  I began working with them this last week, and while the rehearsal went alright, I just haven't had much experience leading a rehearsal where we are working on choreography, and not singing.  I'll be doing this a lot more in the next few weeks, and I know I need to improve, so I'm excited for what's to come, but I also have a ton of anxiety about just not knowing what to do to make them better.  We'll see what happens...