Police cars pull up to Jackson Middle School to block traffic both ways on 109th Street. Ruth Morgan and I begin to move 657 excited middle school singers across the street (Ruth in the front, I’m bringing up the rear) for a rewarding morning in the Champlin Park High School auditorium. Looking back across this sea of humanity, I marvel once again that the two of us will have the privilege of leading and inspiring these young men and women. The CPHS Concert Choir and Women’s Choir await our arrival.
“Mrs. Lace, Mrs. Lace, I can’t find my row and seat number,” comes at me from three directions at once. We’ve rehearsed this seating arrangement and shared the location of every student a dozen times, but that never stops kids from being kids. As the auditorium quickly fills up and all the choirs are seated and accounted for, we begin our annual Choral Exchange Concert. We do this every year right before Winter Break in partnership with the wonderful choirs of Champlin Park High School, the high school that the majority of our students will attend. During the course of this morning of sharing and listening every grade level choir will perform two songs for all the other students, and our middle school students have a chance to hear the high school choirs. We also join together in a 780 voice mass choir to celebrate another year of music making and relationship building.
Jackson Middle School is in the Anoka-Hennepin School District which serves 39,000 students. Some 248,000 residents make their homes in 13 different suburban communities. Anoka-Hennepin operates 24 elementary schools, six middle schools, and five high schools. Jackson Middle School, part of the Champlin Park High School Cluster, is a specialty school for math and science serving 2,115 students in grades six, seven and eight (My husband calls it Jackson Greatland). Points of interest include course electives in Astronomy, Environmental Science, and Pre-Engineering. Our campus also features an Observatory and Planetarium.
A musical performance class (band, choir, orchestra) is required in sixth grade and offered as an elective in seventh and eighth grade. At Jackson we currently have 1,452 students involved in performing music classes. 657 of these students are in choir. Our performance classes meet every other day all year in sixth and seventh grade and every day all year in eighth grade. Our sixth and seventh grade musicians have three performances every year and our eighth grade ensembles have at least four. I would have to say that one of our strengths is how well we work together as a department. Our bands are led by Mike Park and Tami Lyons and our orchestras by Johnna Lawrence. This year, because of an increase in attendance, Ruth and I will be joined by Kate Grapevine. We all share a passion for teaching music, we all love middle school kids, and we work together with seamless support and collaboration. I would say this is true across our very large district. In fact, the Anoka Hennepin School District was named one of the NAMM 2016 Best Communities for Music Education.
When Bruce Becker contacted me and said that ACDA would like to designate our choral program as a “Star Program” for 2016-17, I was extremely excited for our students and our school. I felt a strange mixture of gratitude and humility. When asked to write this article, my first thought was: “What could I possibly share with colleagues that would be interesting and useful?” As I thought about what we do and how we do it, I realized that hundreds of Jackson Middle School choir students begin their high school years as confident, excited musicians who carry with them the joy of singing and the memories of many magical moments. I truly believe that this would not happen to the level that it does without the collaboration I have with my colleague Ruth Morgan. Ruth and I share the sixth grade students – we do not team teach, but we each have individual sixth grade classes. Ruth teaches all of the seventh graders and I teach all of the eighth graders. Ruth is one of the finest teachers I have ever known. I am so blessed to be working with her, and I believe the combination of what each of us brings to our program benefits the students and the program as a whole. In the following paragraphs, I hope to share what I believe to be the important elements of our program.
If I were to make a list of the things that matter most in my classroom, it would look like this:
- Create Respect (build positive relationships)
- Rehearse and Perform Music with Integrity
- Teach Fundamentals – Quality Singing and Music Theory
- Pursue Excellence
- Have fun
- MAKE EVERY DAY ABOUT THE STUDENTS
I begin the year in Eighth Grade Choir by asking my students to fill out an index card. On one side they share basic information and goals for the year. On the other side, I ask them to list four things: something everyone in the room shares, something most of the class shares, something only a few students share and, finally, one thing that is totally unique to them. I collect these and save them in a random stack. Each day, at the end of warm-ups, before the students sit down, I pull out one card. As I read the four things on the back of the card starting with something everyone shares I ask the students to sit if they don’t match the item shared. At the end, there is one student standing and we get to know that student that day. They love this. So do I. And the class learns to respect everyone for who they are.
Once a week, we ask for a volunteer to share a favorite piece of music with the class. We’ve heard everything from Bach to Zappa over the years but we always demand respect for the music and for the student who chooses it. The student presenter introduces the music, shares why they love it, and everyone else gets a chance to hear something they may never have heard before. A former student shared this in a letter recently: “I will miss our listening which was really cool because it gave you a different way to see and know a person by seeing and hearing what music they like.” If we can create safe and interesting moments for students to reveal themselves, we can help students learn to respect each other. I do everything I can to model respectful behavior with my students and I expect the same from them.
But all the respect in the world will have very little meaning if we don’t put quality music in front of our students and expect them to rehearse with enthusiasm and energy. Warm-up material should also have integrity. To that end, we provide a sight-singing book to each student in every grade. (Patterns of Sound, Vol. 1 for sixth grade, The Choral Approach to Sight-Singing Vol. 1 for seventh grade and Vol. 2 for eighth grade) The students write in this book and/or sing from this book every day. Students are asked to sing using the elements of quality singing and learn about all aspects of the music in front of them. Warm-ups can also be fun. The Choral Warm-Up Collection (Albrecht) and The Complete Choral Warm-Up Book (Robinson/Althouse) are both great resources. The Dr. Seuss ABC Warm-ups (Karle Erickson) are really fun and focus on many different vocal elements. We do a different letter every day during “I love to read” month. A student whose last name begins with the letter of the day reads the text from the book and then the choir sings the warm-up. Believe it or not, they love this.
As I put together concert ideas every year, I try to choose a wide variety of quality music. A normal concert program would include songs from these six genres:
- Classical style
- Folk Song
- Multi-Cultural (usually in another language)
- Musical Theater
Quality music comes from many sources. Listening, talking to colleagues, MMEA and ACDA reading sessions, etc. In addition to the music, Ruth and I, along with the five other middle school directors in our district, have collaborated on learning targets that focus on different elements of learning that we feel are essential to a choir curriculum. First trimester we focus on navigating a choral octavo and the elements of quality singing. Second trimester we focus on rhythm and elements of performance. Third trimester we focus on different styles of music and music vocabulary. Together we have created course understandings that align with Minnesota State Standards and formative and summative assessments that address these learning targets and are sequential as the students move from grade to grade.
Ruth and I also collaborate on our school’s musical theater program. We co-direct two shows every year – a sixth grade show in the fall and a seventh and eighth grade show in the spring. We will generally have a cast of around sixty sixth graders in the fall and a cast of around eighty seventh and eighth graders in the spring. We take everyone who auditions in sixth grade, but unfortunately we have to audition the seventh and eighth grade students – just so many kids! We have found Hal Leonard’s Broadway Jr. series to be outstanding. We have also found that the extra-curricular musical theater program directly benefits our choral program, and this works both ways. Our choral students have another chance to use their talents in musical theater, and some students who participate in a production decide to take choir during the school day because they love the experience. These musicals have become a very important part of our Jackson community and they have also become another great way of connecting to the greater community. We have many people who continue to attend these performances even though their children have moved on to high school and college.
The pursuit of excellence can mean many different things to different people. In addition to singing quality music with serious intent, students need to be inspired. One of my favorite ways to push students to become better musicians is to help them audition for All-State Choir. This process requires quite a bit of time and energy on my part but the rewards are substantial. Last year, ten students from Jackson were invited to participate in the All-State experience. Every one of these students came back to my choir with renewed enthusiasm and a deeper appreciation for quality choral performance. I am so thankful to all of the people who work so hard to make this experience happen.
As often as possible, we need to create our own inspiring moments. In 2013, the Jackson Middle School Eighth Grade Choir auditioned for the MMEA Mid-Winter In-Service Clinic. We were fortunate to be selected and we decided to take all 180 of our eighth grade singers to perform. This provided many challenges but also created an excitement and energy all year in the classroom. Every day, five classes averaging 36 eighth grade students worked as hard as any students I have ever taught. Not only did they bring the music to a level they were extremely proud of, they also held themselves to a standard of behavior that allowed 180 eighth graders to work together and pull off what many people told me was impossible. “Are you going to bring ALL of them?” is a question I received more than once. Who would I leave behind? We had a mass rehearsal during advisory at the end of the day before the convention, and it went well. We had another rehearsal scheduled, and one of my baritones (a very popular young man who just loved to sing) came up to me and said, “Mrs. Lace, that was good, but for the next rehearsal, I think that when we enter the auditorium, everyone should just completely stop talking.” I’m thinking, sure Myles, that’s going to work. But I told him that I would present his idea to all of the classes and lo and behold, they did it! Then they decided that when four buses loaded with eighth graders arrived at Central Lutheran for their performance, they would stop talking the minute they got off the bus and walk silently to warm-up and then on stage. This actually happened. Of course, I was extremely proud of how beautifully they sang that day, but I have to say that I was even more proud of how they decided to handle themselves and the respect they showed to the occasion. It is something I will always treasure.
On behalf of Ruth Morgan and myself, I would like to thank ACDA for the honor they have given our students, our choral program and our school. I would like to wish everyone a fabulous 2016-17 school year!
Jackson Middle School
My Pick 6
Bottom line, music with integrity is at the heart of everything we do in the classroom. I am including a new “Pick Six” of pieces we have found that really work with middle school students along with a “Pick Six” I presented at ACDA Summer Dialogue in 2014.