Saturday, October 05, 2019

Oversized Music Classes

Last week I went to a class size grievance hearing. There was good news and bad news. The good news is the new process seems to have much improved things. It appears involving the superintendents in the process is a good idea. They tell the principals, their subordinates, to fix the problems and a whole lot of them seem to be doing it. In our school, for example, the only remaining oversized classes were in music.

We had exactly 12 oversized classes. Six were in music performing groups like chorus and band. There is evidently some exception for those classes. I'm sure that bands and choruses can use over 34 members, and I know some music teachers who'd argue the same. I'm not expert on exactly how many voices or instruments you need, but they are, and if they say they need more, they do. The DOE has to rely on an exception, though, and I'd argue if they use it they're still in violation. (I'd further argue that the teachers ought to be compensated in some way for teaching such large groups, even if it's a good idea.)

A more difficult argument is that of the "required music" classes. Required music classes can go up to 50. Why? I don't know. I haven't been around long enough to understand how these rules came about. What genius thought that students, who likely didn't want to take a music class at all, would learn better how to appreciate the arts in classes of 50?

Early in my career, I got bounced to JFK High School as an English teacher. It turned out they didn't need an English teacher, so they made me a music teacher. I taught a few guitar classes, and I also taught a few sections of required music. I had a book about jazz history that I'd been reading, and I made it the textbook. I'll tell you, though, it's a bitch teaching 50 kids at a time. Grading is no picnic either.

How on earth can you successfully encourage an appreciation of music in groups of 50? If you think these classes are worthwhile in any way whatsoever, wouldn't you push back on that? Isn't it plainly cynical to load the kids in like sardines and expect any positive outcome whatsoever? A whole lot of people love music already, whether or not they understand it. There has to be a way to build on that appreciation, to deepen and broaden that appreciation. Anyone who tells you the way to do that is by placing them in classes with 49 other high school students is taking stronger drugs than the ones I'm getting from CVS. Maybe they bought them in music class. How is the teacher supposed to know what's going on with that many kids?

I'm assuming it's the city that's allowed the 50 kids in required music, but it could be the state. There's no shortage of stupid in Albany, and decisions they make affect all of us. There's another flaw, though, in the entire "required music" notion. In fact, no one is required to take that class, at least in our building. We offer guitar classes, for example, and other classes of instrumental instruction. Over the last few years, the DOE has had to cut those classes to a still-too-high but better max of 34.

I don't know about you, but I'd rather learn beginning guitar than sit in a class of 50. And if I have that choice, how can the other class be called "required music." In fact, our school's classes were called "History of Popular Music" until a few days before the hearing, when they were retitled "required music." Now if you were cynical, you'd say they changed the name so they wouldn't be ordered into compliance. Be it far from me to make such lofty determinations.

I'll just say that if you care about these classes, even a little bit, you won't cram 50 kids into them. If your goal is to make students love or appreciate music beyond what little they hear on their own, you won't cram 50 kids into them. If you want to make these classes interesting, worthwhile, or something other than a waste of time for all parties involved, you won't cram 50 kids into them.

Of course, principals all over the city cram  50 kids into them as a matter of course. I'm just a lowly teacher who's never been to principal school, so what could I possibly know? Why do school leaders who care about music instruction cram 50 kids into classes for which they have any regard at all?

You tell me.
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