Learning Something New: Making Eight Connections To Teaching Children

This post is part two of a two-part series on this topic.

Six months ago I brought home a new bass guitar and a little amp to see if I could learn how to play. I set up a little “music studio” in my home office, set the bass in her stand (yes, she is a female bass named Roxanne – 10 points if you get the musical reference) and I stood there looking at Roxie wondering exactly what I was doing. I thought, “how silly is this – a grown man thinking he could be a rock star.” Yet, I was determined to give this new adventure at least six months of my very best effort.

My first private lesson was more than a week away, and I didn’t want to wait that long before playing a note. So, I jumped on YouTube to watch some “how to play the bass guitar” videos. What I immediately realized was that I had no clue about this instrument. I knew that it had a neck and strings, but other than that, I was clueless. My first online lessons were the most basic available – the parts of the bass and how to correctly hold it. This was the moment when I realized that my feelings of inadequacy, ignorance, and incompetence were very similar to what our students might be feeling every time they are introduced to a new, possibly difficult concept in school. This was an “Aha” moment for me as I made the first connection between my new hobby and my life as an educator. The experienced teacher had become the neophyte student.

At my first lesson, my new teacher (I will call him Charlie, because that’s actually his real name!) told me he has had numerous adult students over the years, and with practice, they “have become proficient, sometimes excellent, musicians.” And there was the second connection to my professional life. Based on Charlotte Danielson’s Framework for Teaching, we educators strive to be excellent. As Charlotte would say, we generally live in the world of Proficient and occasionally visit the world of Excellent. I found it prophetic that Charlie would unknowingly use these terms in his first lesson with me. I told myself that I wanted to be excellent.

Charlie gave me an assignment at the end of that first lesson. I was to learn the first two pentatonic blues scales he had written out for me. Scales? I wanted to play tunes!! But, I also realized that I was going to have to learn some basics before I could jump into the fun stuff. Then, after a few days of playing, I could actually sense a little “bluesy” feel in the scales, and all of sudden it became more fun. This is where I made my third connection. Our students also have to learn the basics before moving on to deeper, more complicated learning. Our jobs, as educators, is to make even the most mundane learning as engaging as possible.

At my second lesson, in addition to learning more blues scales, Charlie gave me two songs to play. They were “Iron Man,” the 1970 hit by Black Sabbath and “Working Man,” the 1974 not-a-hit by Rush. According to my teacher, both songs were simple enough for a very beginning student to learn the parts. We went through them a few times, and off I went to rock out at home. Time for my fourth connection – learning something completely new is very hard, super frustrating, and takes a lot of hard work and numerous failures. This is what we tell students, but as adults, how many of us actually experience the kind of frustration and failure that might just make us want to quit? But, we talk about F.A.I.L. (First Attempt in Learning), and we talk about the need for grit, so quitting was not an option.

Week three of bass playing was very tough for me. I practiced and repeated the parts over and over, but I just could not get my fingers to cooperate with my brain. I went to my next lesson with a defeated attitude. Fortunately, my optimistic teacher could tell that I had been trying really hard to master two simple songs. He was empathetic, telling me about his beginnings as a guitar player, how he struggled often, and how he persevered through some dark moments when he wanted to quit. Thus, I made my fifth connection. We must empathize with our students as they struggle to learn new and difficult tasks and skills in school. I want to reiterate that I used the term “empathize” not “sympathize” when thinking of children learning in school. They do not want us to feel sorry for them; they want us to understand what they are going through as they struggle, fail, and then succeed.

Well, a few weeks went by, and I continued to practice at least one hour each night. Then came my sixth connection between learning something new and my work as an educator. During one fateful lesson, Charlie looked at me and asked how much I had been practicing each night. I told him and he said, “Well, it has definitely paid off. Based on how you just played that part of the song (“Another One Bites the Dust” by Queen) I can honestly say that you have made more progress in five weeks than just about any adult student I have had in the last 10 years!” He then went on to explain where I had made progress. Well, I drove home in a daze of happiness, glowing from the honest praise I had just received. The power of praise! It does miracles for someone learning something new. It stimulated and invigorated me, and it made me want to practice more and harder.

Now that six months have passed, I can report that I have learned 14 songs, not perfectly, of course, but well enough that you might be able to recognize them if I played them for you. Last week, I made my seventh connection. I discovered the importance and power of making learning authentic and providing a public forum beyond the classroom. In this case, the connection is directly related to Project Based Learning. According to the Buck Institute for Education, making learning authentic and providing a public forum for students are two major tenets of PBL.

Learning to play an instrument became authentic and public for me when I played in my very first music recital. Although I only played one song (“Message in a Bottle” by The Police), it was in front of an audience of 50 people! By committing to play in the recital, I had chosen to take a huge risk. I could have made a complete fool of myself which might have ended my career as a rock musician. This became my eighth, and final, connection to my professional work. In order to learn something new, we must be willing to take risks and make ourselves vulnerable. The same goes for our students and our teachers. Taking a risk, a leap of faith, is a great way to build character and self-confidence.

So, that’s my story. Most likely, my bass playing will not take me any further than my home, my lessons, and the occasional recital. But, that’s ok, because I have learned so much more in the last six months than just some scales and 14 songs, and I have had so much fun doing it.

By the way, Roxanne is currently in the store for her six month tune-up. I really am missing her, and I hope to see her back home soon!