We welcome you to get to know our faculty better as they share their experiences working with students at Shady Side Academy. Each post is written by a different member of our faculty throughout the school year. Spanning our three schools and teaching a variety of disciplines to students ranging in age from 3-18, each faculty member brings a different perspective to the blog.
Summer provides many opportunities for children to unwind with a good book, whether it’s relaxing on the beach, waiting for a plane, staying up at night in the camp bunk bed or just sitting on a porch swing. While we hope that most students make time to read each day for the sheer pleasure of being whisked away to other worlds and places, some students may find too many distractions and allow those summer reading books to stack up in the corner for days. Creating a schedule for summer reading is one way to insure that quality reading time is not lost in the hustle and bustle of summer activities, but there are easier ways to promote reading during summer vacation.
The easiest way to promote summer reading is for adults in the household to pick up a book, magazine or newspaper and model reading for their children. Children who see the important adults in their lives reading are more likely to emulate this wonderful lifelong habit. Summer is a great time for parents and teachers to take a break from their hectic schedule and relax with a book in hand. Take a trip to your local library and find summer reading books and travel books that will enhance your summer vacation. Parents of older children can choose a book that has been made into a movie, such as The Book Thief by Mark Zuzak or The Fault in Our Stars by John Green; it’s a great way to model reading and share movie time with your children. I know that I am looking forward to reading Goldfinch by Donna Tartt this summer; it’s a book whose density has kept it on my shelf during the school year. A colleague of mine is looking forward to reading Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd, and another colleague can’t wait to start reading Luminaries by Eleanor Catoon.
As you pack your bags this summer and head for your vacation destination, be sure that everyone in the family includes a book or two in their suitcase and carry-on. It will amplify your travel experience and model reading for everyone who’s watching.
Prior to joining the Middle School library staff in 2008, Mary Guering was the children's librarian at Mars Public Library and worked as a library assistant at the SSA Senior School. She also has substituted in the Pine-Richland School District as a library assistant and para-educator for special needs students. Before her career in education, Guering worked at WQED Multimedia, where she produced educational programming and documentaries.
Shady Side Academy’s proximity to world-class research institutions and museums provides an opportunity to access world-renowned experts in their fields. At the Middle School, we have been fortunate to work with Mr. Albert Kollar, an invertebrate paleontologist with the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. For the past 11 years, students from the Middle School have visited Mr. Kollar’s lab in the basement of the museum. Approximately 700 of our Middle School students have had a chance to go “behind the scenes” of the museum during our visits. Through the years, Mr. Kollar and his staff have developed a highly interactive and hands-on set of activities for the students to complete in the lab. These activities have included breaking rocks at a table press looking for invertebrate fossils, making a cast of a latex fossil mold, “smoking” fossils to prepare for photography, discussion of the drilling process for Marcellus shale gas and completing a coloring book on Western Pennsylvania geology.
In addition to his responsibilities at the museum, Mr. Kollar is also president of the Pittsburgh Geological Society (PGS). As part of the PGS educational outreach efforts, Mr. Kollar has visited my sixth grade classes at the Middle School and explained the drilling process used to extract Marcellus shale gas. Students have been able to use their knowledge of the drilling process to help to develop their arguments for and against Marcellus shale drilling in our class debate.
Our partnership with Mr. Kollar has helped me to introduce real-world information to my classes when we are studying fossils and geologic time, and discussing the pros and cons of drilling for Marcellus shale gas. Teachers throughout the Academy are using experts like Mr. Kollar to enrich the curriculum and provide unique experiences to our students.
Matt Brunner has taught sixth grade science at the Middle School since 2005. He previously taught at the Northwood School in Lake Placid, N.Y. In addition to teaching science, he coaches the Middle School girls soccer and track teams, as well as the robotics and rocketry teams.
Even though China seems like such a faraway place for most Middle School students, the faculty at SSA have been working hard to connect our students to the other side of the world.
In social studies we learned about Chinese philosophy and religions, and in the recent Energy Quest we compared the Marcellus Shale Project to the Three Gorges Dam Project across the Yangtze River. In our Chinese and English language classrooms, we not only learned culture and language through books and songs like Red Scarf Girl and Chinese Cinderella, but we also joined the ePals Sharing Cultures Project to exchange emails with students in China. With modern technology, we were even able to have a Skype session with our partner school in China to share cultures. We teachers have tried very hard to open our students’ minds and worldviews through various resources. However, I feel that none of these methods was as powerful as having foreign students living among us, even for a short two weeks.
During two weeks in January and February, the goal of all Middle School administrators, faculty and students was to make sure our eight exchange students from Beijing No. 4 School in China felt as comfortable and welcome as possible. The hosting buddies did a great job taking care of their exchange students during school hours. I was especially proud of our students as they learned to respect one other and be global citizens. Our students were eager to make friends with the exchange students from day one. They did everything to live out our Guiding Principles of kindness and respect, and embodied the Middle School slogan “What you do matters.”
Although not every student had the chance to interact with the Chinese visitors during class time, our students still tried hard to connect with them in some way. Often I was asked by our students to introduce them to the exchange students. During break time, almost everyone was trying to be around them. Many people went out of their way to help out when they saw the exchange students alone on campus. If a hosting buddy was out of school for any reason, there was always someone who would step up to be a guide for the day.
The coming of Chinese exchange students has enriched and provided our Middle School students with real-life experience, no doubt about it. This experience promoted relationship-building and knowledge exchange between the Chinese students and our school community. At our school Chinese New Year celebration, SSA students and exchange students shared culture, talents, small talk, food and fun – but mostly importantly, we shared laughter and great memories. I am sure that the connections made during those two weeks will last a lifetime.
Mandy Fong joined the Middle School faculty in 2011 as a Chinese teacher. A native of Taiwan, she came to the U.S. in 1994 to pursue her M.B.A. Prior to SSA, she taught Chinese for six years in area schools. She is the founder of the All Ages Chinese School, which provides Chinese language and culture instruction to families who have adopted children from China.
by Shannon Sciulli Junior School Pre-Kindergarten Teacher
There are words, moments or experiences that can make one feel connected to something new. For me, it was the words spoken by Ms. McConnell during my first days here at Shady Side Academy. She shared her philosophy, “Nothing Without Joy.” Loris Malaguzzi, the founder of the Reggio Emilia approach, was quoted with saying these words. His words and approach to teaching young children has inspired and influenced who I am as a teacher. Making this immediate connection and having the opportunity to work with my colleagues to transform our pre-kindergarten classrooms using the Reggio approach as our guide made me feel valued. I am fortunate to work with such open-minded and flexible individuals.
I am often asked, “What is the Reggio Emilia approach?” My answer varies in depth depending on who I am speaking with, so as not to overwhelm them with my passion, but to intrigue them enough to get them thinking about ways to incorporate elements of the approach in their classrooms. To me, the Reggio Emilia approach is a way of being with children. The approach has encouraged me to be an attentive, intuitive and mindful educator. With that said, as I walk the halls of the Junior School and observe colleagues teaching in their classrooms, I see many of the principles of the approach present.
The Image of the Child
The students at Shady Side Academy have preparedness, potential and curiosity; they have intent in relationship, in constructing their own learning and in negotiating with everything our environment brings them. Each child is an active citizen and contributing member of his or her family, and of our community. We have weekly all-school assemblies where we come together as a community of learners with the goal of promoting positive behavior, skills and attitudes. It’s always exciting for even the youngest students to listen to what the other grade levels have been learning and to celebrate everyone’s successes.
The Role of Parents
Parents are an essential component of our program and an active part of their child’s learning experiences. Together we are partners in creating lifelong learners. Our classroom doors are always open, and we welcome parent participation. Parents help out in the classroom during morning centers, working alongside teachers and sharing their interests and family traditions. This kind of engagement gives parents the opportunity to gain insight into their child’s world and strengthens our classroom community.
Teachers and Children as Partners in Learning
We view children as active, curious and eager learners. We offer interesting materials and engaging lessons and activities, and give the children thoughtful guidance so that they can engage in quality educational experiences. We are partners with the children, working alongside each child in the classroom. When I have been with my colleagues in their classrooms, I see them sitting next to their students providing guidance and support.
The Power of Documentation
Throughout the Junior School, the work of our students is documented in some way. Whether through photographs, transcripts of a student’s thoughts, visual representations, blog posts or published writing, this documentation shows students the value of their work and their learning processes. These documents also connect parents to their children’s experience and maintain their involvement in our community.
The Environment of the Third Teacher
Each classroom has the potential to inspire children. The physical space fosters communication and relationships. Our environment at the Junior School encourages collaboration, communication, exploration and discovery. When you walk into any classroom in our school, you will feel the warmth and openness, as well as see the learning that takes place in these rooms.
Shady Side Academy’s Guiding Principles (Honesty, Kindness, Responsibility, Respect and Safety), when combined with the Reggio principles, create an amiable school where the children, faculty and parents are happy. Shady Side Academy is truly a special place, and I feel lucky to be able to continue to explore and share my passion with our community.
Shannon Sciulli joined the pre-kindergarten faculty at the Junior School in 2013. She previously taught at an elementary school in Fauquier County, Va., and at Carnegie Mellon University's Cyert Center for Early Education.
by Derek Nussbaum Wagler Senior School Science Teacher
For the first 15 years of my life, I lived on a dairy farm 45 miles south of Indianapolis. I grew up thinking I was going to be a farmer (or veterinarian, or mechanical engineer, or soil scientist, or teacher). One of the best things about living on a farm is that the pace of life is dictated by the season; the most intense periods of work come during spring planting and fall harvest. After a childhood of counting on the yearly recurrence of this natural rhythm, in 1990 we left the farm when my dad returned to school. Suddenly my farming career was over.
Fast-forward 24 years; here I am in my 14th year of teaching and my third year at Shady Side Academy. During this, the coldest part of the year, I find myself thinking about what this year has in store for our own SSA Farm. It is the time of the year when the seed catalogs arrive, and with them a glimpse of what might be just around the corner. With this spring marking the start of the third season of the SSA Farm at the Senior School, it is exciting to think about what this new growing season may hold.
Who will participate in PE Farm?
What will we decide to plant?
Who will the summer interns be?
What will the summer weather look like?
The fascinating thing for me is that these aren't that different from the questions that run through my mind every summer as I anticipate the start of another school year. Not coincidentally, the academic calendar follows a similar rhythm to the agrarian one. Both begin with a great deal of planning, followed by a period of facilitated growth, and culminate in a celebrated eventual harvest; although I hope that my students will continue to grow after their time at SSA.
It also strikes me that in farming, as in teaching, success is not guaranteed. The potential for success is improved by planting a variety of good seeds in nutrient-rich soil and providing the crop with the best growing conditions you can. But every year is slightly different, there are always some things that are outside of your control, and most importantly, you can always find ways to improve and reasons to celebrate.
Besides the interactions I get to have with students, it is this push for continued improvement that I love most about my job. I'm a long way from that 250-acre dairy farm in the hills of Southern Indiana, but I’m still trying to become a better farmer.
Derek Nussbaum Wagler came to SSA in 2011 and was named chair of the Science Department in 2012. Prior to SSA, he taught biology, chemistry and physics at Middleton High School in Wisconsin for seven years and biology and chemistry at Elkhart Central High School in Indiana for three years.
by Molly Braver '94 Middle School Social Studies Teacher
As I reminisce about my four years as a student at Shady Side Academy, I often think about the assemblies we had in the gym. I always loved hearing alumni, outside speakers and teachers address us. I used to carry around a notebook to jot down interesting ideas, and some of those have become fixtures in my memory. I remember, and even use in my classes, how Mr. Diehl would start off by saying that if you don’t swing at any balls, how are you going to hit a home run? I also recall hearing astronaut Jay Apt '67 speak about his science teacher Mr. Sayles, and how much of an inspiration he was to him. These experiences were more than an education to me, they molded how I thought about learning.
As an educator, I have made it integral to my practice to create similar experiences for my students. When I worked at Pittsburgh Public Schools, I collaborated with multiple organizations like the World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh. By connecting to the greater Pittsburgh community, I was able to take students to events and even create a few conferences at Allderdice High School, where I worked. Moreover, I emulated Shady Side’s tradition when I got involved with Allderdice’s Hall of Fame. In addition to planning awards ceremonies, I made it my mission to recruit alumni to speak to students, and so began Allderdice’s Alumni Speaker Series. I recalled all of the times I gleaned something worthwhile from hearing speakers in the SSA gym, and I wanted to provide this opportunity for my students too.
Last year, as I began teaching at the Middle School, I starting thinking about how to impact my students. After getting the lay of the land and conversing with my colleagues, the idea of a service day emerged. I can’t take full credit for this since it was Mr. Brunner’s idea, but I was happy our conversations set this idea in motion. A day of service became a new opportunity for me to create a powerful experience for our students.
On Friday, Dec. 6, the entire Middle School participated in Global Action Conference Day, beginning a new school tradition. Every teacher, staff member and student came together as a whole to learn, act and plan how to make a difference in our world. Our focus this year was children and poverty. As a school we listened to Amiena Mahsoob from the World Affairs Council discuss some challenges children face around the world. Then each grade focused on a specific area of the world and examined the lives of children in that region. Sixth graders learned about Haiti, seventh graders focused on Cameroon and areas hit by disasters, and eighth graders heard about local kids and their needs. As the day continued, students listened to presentations, asked questions and took part in simulation activities. Then the students participated in hands-on service projects. The end of the day was spent in advisory groups discussing ways to continue our service efforts, either by raising awareness or providing continued aid for the organizations.
Many times throughout Global Action Conference Day, students made insightful comments about what they could do to impact change. After learning about the enormous cost a Haitian family must contribute just to provide a basic education, one student told Ms. Nixon that he wanted to support the education of a child there. Another student was inspired to learn more about Malala Yousafzai and try to meet her. My hope is that through this day and the follow-up activities, we can continue to positively influence students just like I was motivated 20 years ago.
SSA alumna Molly Braver '94 has taught social studies at the Middle School since 2012. Previously, she taught at Knoxville Middle School and Taylor Allderdice High School in Pittsburgh, where she created her own comparative religions course and taught world history, civics, AP U.S. history, and philosophy. Braver has also done work with the World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh.
Science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) has garnered much attention in the media over the past few years. The movement gained traction in education circles about 10 years ago. What does STEM mean for our students and what does it mean for educational reform and the future of our country?
If you are to believe the policymakers, STEM is a matter of national security. So much so that an amendment to Senate Bill S. 744, known as the Comprehensive Immigration Reform bill, adds a STEM provision. This amendment would establish a fund for STEM education and support for teachers. Funds would be dispersed to states for the development of STEM programs by individual state education organizations. In a letter to the Senate supporting the amendment, the National Education Association wrote “If the United States is to hold a competitive edge in a rapidly changing global workforce, bolstering the nation’s science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) workforce is essential.” S.744 has been passed by the Senate and sent to the House for consideration. The idea that federal STEM funding is tied up in a bill on immigration reform is odd, you might think. However, it gives perspective as to just how committed – or not committed – our lawmakers are to educational reform.
One of the many terrific aspects of teaching here at the Junior School is that I have the freedom and support to address STEM in my class now. I don’t have to wait for funding or a mandate from an office somewhere in Harrisburg. The core idea of STEM is to put science back into the public schools after many science budgets were cut significantly or all together in the primary grades. What we do here at the Junior School is foster a love of science, technology, engineering and math through experience.
I have been engaging fourth grade students in engineering projects for 11 years. Most notably is the design and construction of toothpick bridges. Groups of three or four students form companies with budgets and bank accounts. Each company must design and construct a bridge that meets several design constraints. Once the bridges are designed, they input their “blueprints” into an iPad simulation that puts their bridge under stress. The app then visualizes the weak sections of the bridge by turning those sections red. Also provided are mathematical representations of how the forces are being distributed across the bridge. After the students analyze the results of the simulation, they can return to their blueprints and shore up their designs.
Third graders will be introduced to Lego Robotics for the first time this year. The Lego NXT robots and software allow even very young students to engage in basic icon-driven programming. As part of the After School Explorers program, I have been teaching programming for six years. One of the best features of the Lego system is that children can work at their own pace. The software allows advanced students to move from icon-based programming to more complex systems within the same software.
STEM is a wonderful initiative, and it will continue to gain footing around the country even if federal funding does not materialize. Our current Junior School students are growing up in a rapidly changing world. New jobs are being created at a remarkable pace. With a continued focus on STEM education, SSA students will be prepared for the unknown jobs that may exist in their futures.
Jeff McCarroll has been teaching science to grades 3-5 at the Junior School since 2003. He also teaches the Junior School's after-school robotics class and coaches the robotics team.
Harold "Buddy" Hendershot Senior School English Teacher
Mr. Harold "Buddy" Hendershot started working at Shady Side in 1973. In 1974 he was hired to teach English and Spanish and coach soccer and track. He has taught a range of courses at the Senior School, including Comparative Religion, The Romantic Experience, Introduction to Psychology, Nature Writing and Photography. He also began the girls soccer program. Mr. Hendershot holds a B.A. from Grove City College and two M.A. degrees, one from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and one from Middlebury College.
I experienced my first Shady Side Homecoming in October 1973. I remember the Friday night Pep Rally – the heat and power of the bonfire, the passion and energy of team cheers led by captains. The cheers got wilder over the years, and eventually the Pep Rally ceased to exist. But back then, for my family and me, Homecoming was about Saturday – crisp fall weather taking over Pittsburgh, a red, yellow and orange hillside, and the games. Field hockey, soccer, football and cross country created the scene for grace, beauty, struggle, heroics, victory and defeat.
My Homecomings changed around 1980. After seven years of teaching, I knew a number of returning alumni. The Pep Rally was still going, but there was also the Alumni Dinner, and with that came great food and drink, saying hello to alumni, listening to speeches about the meaning of Shady Side, and hearing what graduates were up to. I remember an alumnus telling me that after 20 years, his closest friends were still his SSA classmates. It was also great to see Shady Side couples that were married, another insight into the impact of SSA. Some of the best moments of Homecoming years ago came after the games were over. I was living on campus, and for a few years Shawn Flaherty ‘78 would visit my wife Carol and me, and tell me stories about whom he was dating and how his love life was going. When his current interest was one of our beautiful Shady Side Ladies, there was a certain dreamlike tone that overtook the conversation.
This year was my 40th Homecoming. With a little anxiety, I wondered who would say hello. Would I remember the names of students from 10 years ago? How would the conversations go? No worry necessary, as once again my relationships from the past rekindled memories and feelings, all of which have been a source of deep meaning over the years. Standing by the fence at the football field, I was embraced. Hands were shook, stories were retold and information was passed on.
You never know where Homecoming conversations may come from or where they may go. On Friday night I had a great talk with Marc Lhormer ‘78. He told me that he was producing a movie based on the teenage novel Dear Zoe, written by Pittsburgher Philip Beard. I told Marc that I taught this novel in my elective course Psychology of Teens in Literature and Film, and it was a favorite of my students. Later we talked about the possibility of my students helping out in the film, which will be shot in Pittsburgh.
Saturday by the football fence again, Jay Mangold ’06 said hello and told me about marrying his high school sweetheart, whom he used to talk about in our advisee meetings his junior year. Later that evening I ran into Jay again, and he serenaded me, letting me know my Nature Writing class had meant a lot to him. Now that made my night!
At class parties, I had great talks with David Gefsky ’88 and April Castro ‘93, whose souls were woven through a thousand conversations of my various classes. How many ideas had they expressed in essays? How much of their hearts had they opened to me in thousands of journal entries? I got to see family pictures, hear about jobs and find out what siblings were doing. The brick of our Shady Side foundation was strengthened and secured.
Thank you, alumni, for being so kind and for sharing your stories and feelings with me once again. Homecoming 2013 was the source of many hugs, and we all need our hugs!
Lisa Anselmo has been teaching at Shady Side Academy Junior School since 2006, having taught kindergarten, second grade and now fifth grade. She holds a B.A. in general arts and sciences from Penn State University and an M.A.T. from Chatham University.
“Hi, welcome back, how was your summer?” my colleagues typically ask as we pass in the hall during the last few days of August – the time when Junior School teachers return to put the finishing touches on their classrooms and gear up for another exciting year of learning. Usually I answer “Oh, very nice, busy, how was yours?” and get a similar reply. Sometimes someone will share the details of a special trip or a family event, but for the most part we exchange pleasantries and get back to working on our classrooms. This year, however, was a little different. Many of my colleagues shared a common experience with me this summer, and we definitely had something to talk about with each other.
Seven members of the Junior School faculty spent a week at the Columbia University Teachers College Reading and Writing Project (TCRWP). Dan Stern (third grade), Lisa Budd (fourth grade), Marilyn Martens (kindergarten) and Fran Gardiner (kindergarten) ventured to New York in June, while Ellen McConnell (school head), Marci Anderson (fourth grade) and I (fifth grade) made the trip in August. There we attended the TCRWP Summer Institute. This seminar was a five-day program that included small and large group sections designed to help teachers, coaches and administrators establish vibrant, rigorous models of best practices for teaching writing in elementary school classrooms. We spent a week immersed in workshops, lectures and conversations about teaching writing with grade-level colleagues from around the world. In my small group seminar, I partnered one day with a teacher from Singapore and another day with a teacher from Hawaii. On day three, I paired with a teacher from a public school in New York in the morning, and with a teacher from an independent school in Boston in the afternoon. Each contact allowed me to gain insight into the art of teaching writing. For one week my fellow teachers and I became students of writing. I found the whole experience to be challenging and motivational. We kept our own writing notebooks and wrote our own stories throughout the week. We learned how to teach using the Writing Workshop approach and discussed strategies and pitfalls. The days were long and packed with information, and the best part – implementing our learning from the institute into our classrooms – was still ahead.
Once we returned to Pittsburgh and the Junior School, there was still a good bit of work to be done. All of us who teach writing reworked our daily teaching schedules so that we could focus on teaching writing each and every day. We had more reading to do, and we began to read the units of study associated with the Writing Workshop approach.
Now that the school year is in full swing, we have even more to talk about. “How did that lesson go on writing about small moments?” I ask a colleague. “Did you introduce that Narrative Writing Checklist yet?” I ask another. As we talk through the lessons, the structure and the assessments, we continue to support each other as professionals. We’ve set up monthly meetings to discuss our progress with the Writing Workshop. Each month we gather, and each month we become better teachers of writing. The shared experience of the TCRWP Summer Institute was a wonderful foundation for what promises to be a year filled with talking about writing.
Dr. Dan Brill has been teaching music at the Senior School since 1986, directing the choral and strings groups and serving as chair of the Arts Department. He previously taught secondary music in Kansas, Nebraska and Pennsylvania and has taken advantage of numerous professional development opportunities to study, sing and perform under master conductors. Dr. Brill holds a Bachelor of Science degree from Pennsylvania State University, and a Masters of Music degree and a Doctor of Music Arts degree, both from the University of Cincinnati.
Every so often in my professional years I feel compelled to become a student again. I don’t mean to research some topic, or to revisit my old notes from graduate school. I mean to hop to the other side of the desk, sit at the feet of a master teacher, and subject myself to his evaluation of my performance. Sounds intimidating? It is. “It” was master class conducting.
Years ago as a graduate student at the College-Conservatory of Music at the University of Cincinnati, I was introduced to master classes. Every Wednesday morning we grad students would assemble with our three conducting professors and a musicologist. One by one we would conduct the class (serving as our choir) through a choral work we were studying. The goal was to show that we were prepared to conduct something penned by one of the greatest composers. Now understand that the phrase “prepared to conduct” is loaded: someone once told me that if there is another person in the room that knows more about the music than you do, you should sit down and let them conduct. Standing in front of these professors, who knew this music better than I knew my name, was no small task. Being prepared presupposed a thorough knowledge of the score, the historical context of music and the composer, as well as the appropriate stylistic and performance practices associated with the music. In other words, it was “put up or shut up.” Of course, I never knew what aspect of my performance the professors would call into question. It could be a technical issue such as, “it is difficult to discern your third beat in your conducting pattern because your baton grip is full of tension." "What made you decide to pick a tempo for a gigue when the piece is clearly a pastorale?” As you can imagine, everything was fair game. It was a wonderful way to learn.
I’ve sought out similar experiences for professional growth throughout my career. Every few years I attend workshops to study with top-tier conductors to test my skills and continue to improve. After nine years of teaching I enrolled in a doctoral program and went back to the weekly routine. I was also in the master class at the Oregon Bach Festival for three summers with a superb conductor and an international group of instrumentalists and singers that came together to study Bach for two weeks, 12 hours per day.
I often got critiqued. When I was good, I loved it. When I was not good, it was awful. There was pressure to live up to a high standard, to show that I cared enough to invest the time, to show that I was prepared to conduct. Because performances determine my professional credibility, I always need to show my best.
Fast forward to July 2013, when I traveled to the University of Michigan to participate in a choral conducting symposium. I studied under Dr. Jerry Blackstone, a master choral director who consistently produces wonderful choirs and performances of musical masterpieces. He is also a very kind man and a superb teacher. He is always encouraging, supportive, funny and unfailingly committed to helping a student grow.
Before arriving on campus, students in the class were told to prepare to conduct (there’s that phrase again!) a movement from Mendelssohn’s Psalm 42, which is a choral/orchestral multi-movement work. At the first session, Dr. Blackstone and the two other instructors said we would each take a turn conducting a portion of the piece to acquaint us with the various conducting styles and levels in the class. The first person conducted the opening of the piece. The next person elected to do the opening as well. I was third; I assumed we would want to move on with the piece, so I did the next portion. When the next person got up, I was surprised that they wanted to go back and do the beginning again. What really shocked me, though, was that the next 30 people also did the opening section! It got to be ridiculous, but the faculty handled it well and no one felt bad about their work. I took it as a sign that although the people in this class were all capable professionals, there wasn’t a really secure feeling about their preparation to say the least.
When the session concluded, we were given a packet of music containing pieces by Bach, Mozart and Brahms. I was familiar with some of the pieces, but had never heard several others. We were told that we were going to conduct every day that week, and which pieces to prepare for each day. We were divided into three small choirs, and the professors planned to work with a different choir each. In addition, we would be expected to conduct once in the evening with all 35 conductors and three faculty members participating. Sessions started at 9 a.m. and ended at 9 p.m., meaning that after a full day of work, we had to cram the piece for the next day, because we would be expected to be “PREPARED TO CONDUCT” each day, and twice on one of the days.
Without relating the blow-by-blow of my conducting sessions, suffice it to say I got my money’s worth. I was made aware of issues that were creating obstacles to doing my best work. I had to shed a lot of baggage to clean up my conducting. After a torturous Monday and half of Tuesday, I made significant progress by Wednesday. I started to feel like there was a slim chance that I might actually learn how to conduct again with some minor degree of proficiency.
The best lesson, and what I brought back with me to my SSA classroom, is reconnecting what I learned in Michigan with everything my students go through on a daily basis. Specifically, what it is to feel stress or to worry that I am less prepared than I’d like to be for a given performance. I was reminded what it felt like being evaluated in front of my peers, both on good days and bad. I experienced the frustration of not being able to master a skill as quickly as I wanted, and the relief of overcoming the obstacles and getting things to a satisfactory level.
As I get older, and farther away from the age of my students, it is important to reconnect. It will make me a better teacher this year. And no matter what I observe from them in any particular class, I’ll say, “yeah, I know how that feels.”