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Writing, Teaching, and Promoting the Humanities

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    Many years ago I did my student teaching under MikeThayer and could not have asked for a better mentor. Of all the people I have know in education, Mr. Thayer is quite simply one of the best. Mr. Thayer, who is now retired from teaching, is a former New Mexico Teacher of the Year.

    After 27 years teaching social studies in junior high, middle school, and high school, I spent three years creating and leading a beginning teacher induction program. In recent years I’ve continued working with pre-service and beginning teachers.

    Beginning teachers often ask me what a well-run classroom looks like. Naturally, there are many answers, but let me suggest six elements of a quality classroom. The list is not inclusive, and I’m sure that experienced teachers could add more to the list.
    1. Furniture arrangement and seating. Many teachers are taught in college to place students in groups, but when they get into the schools they find most classes are arranged in traditional rows. For most teachers classroom management is easier when students are sitting in rows. Group seating (surprise-surprise!) encourages students to “talk” and pay less attention to the teacher. So, what to do? I recommend that students be seated according to the purpose of the lesson planned for the day. Group work and cooperative learning are important teaching tools and furniture should be moved to accommodate the day’s lesson. It seems like common sense to me. 
    2. Announcements. “What are we doing today?” “Are we doing anything today?” Teachers hear these words all the time and can expend plenty of energy trying to provide answers. Many master teachers post a daily, or weekly agenda on their board or overhead projector in the same place every day. Students are then taught simply to check the agenda, and most of the annoying questions should eventually stop. In addition to an agenda, I recommend teachers post assignments and due dates to help students stay organized. I also recommend a daily warm-up to start class with the warm-up posted daily in a regular location.  
    3. Taking roll. I see it all the time — an experienced teacher stands in front of a class and calls roll aloud. Name after name is called with various answers being received. Sometimes, when silence follows a called name, the teacher will stop and seem confused, often calling the name again. What a waste of time, and students know this. The professional teacher has a seating chart for every class and quietly takes roll by noting which seats are empty. It should be invisible. What a help this is to substitute teachers too.  
    4. Time management. This is always a struggle for beginning teachers, but will improve with experience. Time on task is what we see in a master teacher’s classroom. Class begins quickly and the transitions between activities are smooth. A teacher’s job is to teach (I didn’t say lecture) “bell-to-bell." Classroom observers should see little wasted time and students deeply involved in learning.
    5. Lesson planning. Many master teachers will tell you that an interesting, relevant, fast-paced, and even fun lesson will eliminate most of your management problems. Oh, it sounds so easy. I don’t argue with this, but it takes most teachers several years (3-5 usually) to become a quality lesson planner. Too many beginning teachers think they can make everything right if they simply create better lesson plans. In the mean time, they experience many long difficult days. Some teachers never recover and leave the profession in frustration.
    6. Establishing procedures and reinforcing them often. There are many important procedures used by master teachers. Here are a few to start the discussion.
      • Procedure 1: Beginning class immediately when students enter the classroom and getting right to work. A good warm-up assignment should see students quietly working, even before class begins, with no more shouts of “sit down and be quiet” from frustrated angry teachers. This procedure alone has changed the career of many fine teachers.
      • Procedure 2: Establishing a make-up work center for absent students. I also recommend setting up a few file folders in the corner of the room with daily assignments and handouts so students can collect missed work without direct teacher assistance. This is a big time saver.
      • Procedure 3: Student dismissal at the end of the period. In so many classrooms I find students crowding around the door anxious to leave long before the bell rings. Sometimes I see some students sneaking out early in the mob. Master teachers, however, control the dismissal. They have students seated quietly, ready to be released in an orderly way (by rows, groups, or all at once). A safe and well-ordered dismissal is a sure sign of an effective teacher.

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    A few years ago I was asked to write an article about the similarities between between teaching and acting. The article, originally titled "You Are Who You Pretend To Be," was published in the second edition of Acting Lessons for Teachers: Using Performance Skills in the Classroom by Robert T. Tauber and  Cathy Sargent (Praeger, 2006). With a few minor revisions, here's a copy of that article and it's tribute to Frank Dooley, a master teacher who left an indelible mark on a multitude of New Mexico math students and basketball players.

    It’s been forty since I took an algebra class, and I have long forgotten the process of solving algebraic equations. However, I have never forgotten the other lessons I learned from my math teacher Mr. Dooley, lessons that went far beyond learning algebra.

    Mr. Dooley did not tolerate foolishness. His class was designed to help students learn, and he used time productively. He had a sense of humor, but his humor was geared toward the task of learning algebra. He could tell good stories, but the stories led to a math problem that needed solving. He was relaxed, but his students never wasted time. I knew to show up ready to learn or confront his disapproval. I felt compelled to do my best because I knew he would never accept a second-rate effort.

    I am no longer be able to solve the algebra problems I conquered in Mr. Dooley’ class. I am certain, however, that if my studies in math had continued in college, I would have been prepared for success. After all, I had a great math teacher in high school. Mr. Dooley not only taught me to solve algebraic equations, but also to take learning seriously. He made sure I excelled at every task.

    The fact that Mr. Dooley was able to make such a difference in my life — and in the lives of many other students — came from something intangible. His success did not come from the textbook he used or the teaching strategies he learned at a university. He was a successful teacher because of who he was as a person. Indeed, it may be that the secret to good teaching is found in one simple idea: Good teaching stems from good people.

    Students will work hard for a person they respect. Students know whether a teacher is in the classroom for reasons of the heart. They know whether the teacher loves the subject and has faith in students. If students sense that a teacher is working hard for their benefit, they are more likely to put a little extra effort into an assignment. They are more likely to try to learn something new. Mr. Dooley was such a teacher. Students sensed that if they did what he said, they would succeed. Students sensed he was on their side.

    Deming High School, Deming, NM
    When I was in high school, I thought of Mr. Dooley as a mythical figure, a character larger than life. He was the basketball coach at my high school and had already won several state championships. Even so, I now realize something I would never have imagined in high school — Mr. Dooley was just a man, a human being like the rest of us. After spending thirty-five years as an educator, I now understand that the mythical Mr. Dooley that inspired me to do my best was in large part a role assumed by a man who understood the responsibilities of his profession. Teachers, like actors on a stage, assume a role to play. Mr. Dooley played his role well and, in the process, helped many students.

    Success in the classroom depends, in large part, on the role a teacher plays in front of students. Can the teacher inspire students and ignite flames of curiosity? Is the teacher the type of person who challenges students to do their best? Good teachers, like good actors, know they must create a well-defined character for an audience.

    Good teachers also know that teaching demands full immersion in the role they are playing. The teacher must continue to play the role in the hallways between classes, at the Saturday night basketball game, and when running into students at the mall. After all, it might not be what a teacher does in the classroom that most affects a student’s life. It might be the words a teacher speaks while talking with someone at the grocery store or in the waiting room at the dentist’s office that inspires that person to work a little harder or be a better person. Teachers might even find themselves playing a role in front of a former student several years after the student has left the classroom.

    New teachers must be aware that once they enter the classroom their profession will require them to play a role. Whether in the classroom or at the department store, teachers have a deep and profound responsibility to serve the needs of their students. Teachers have an ethical obligation to find a way to inspire their students, and they must never abandon that obligation.

    Success as a teacher demands that the character a teacher develops must seem authentic to students. In the same way that a movie audience can spot a bad actor in the first reel, students can detect a fraudulent teacher on the first day of school. Teachers must therefore draw on the imagination of an actor to capture a sense of authenticity in the role they play. Students know whether their teacher is dedicated to the profession or is just marking time until the bell rings at the end of the day.

    Teachers, like actors, must find elements of their own personality in the role they are playing. Teachers must find the part of their spirit that wants to help students and then bring that spirit into the classroom. They must accentuate the part of their personality that is honest, caring, and full of love. They must shine a spotlight upon the part of their soul that wants to give students a bright future and make the world a better place.

    As Kurt Vonnegut said, “Be careful what you pretend to be because you are what you pretend to be.” Teachers who might be distracted by circumstances in their personal lives must pretend to be focused on the concerns of the students. Teachers should hope that no matter where students end up after leaving school they will always remember their teachers as the people who never gave up on them.

    Teachers are human beings, and they make mistakes. Like anyone else, a teacher might not always be the person he or she would like to be. Every teacher should try, however, to pretend to be the person who motivates students. Every teacher should try to act the part. Even if a teacher has played the part for several years, he or she can assume the attitude of a good actor and know that this year’s students have never seen the performance. Each teacher must play the part well. Nothing more than the success and well being of our children is at stake.

    For me, nobody ever played the role better than Mr. Dooley.

    Note: One of Bill Richardson's last proclamations as Governor of New Mexico was to declare November 15, 2010 as "Frank Dooley Day."
    © 2005 James L. Smith

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    On Tuesday, October 22, I gave a speech to the Discover El Paso Association of El Paso, Texas. Although I spoke extemporaneously, the general text of what I said is provided below. 

    The Discover El Paso Association of El Paso, TX
    I was told that the Discover El Paso Association is composed of people who love this community and that the association was established to help introduce people to El Paso and the surrounding area. If so, I’ve got the perfect topic for you today, because Billy the Kid is probably the most famous person who ever lived in this part of the world. In fact, I challenge you to think of anyone from this area who is as well known throughout the world as Billy the Kid. People in other nations may have never heard of famous people from this area like John Wesley Hardin, Lee Trevino, F. Murray Abraham, or Neil Patrick Harris, but the odds are high that they’ve heard of Billy the Kid.

    If you live in El Paso or southern New Mexico, you know that the iconic image of Billy the Kid standing with his rifle next to him is ubiquitous. You simply cannot avoid bumping into something to do with Billy the Kid. The Kid is our claim to fame. We cannot escape him. People from all over the world fly into the El Paso airport and rent a car to visit Billy the Kid country.

    I have lived in southern New Mexico for over fifty years, and there’s no way to count the number of times I have eaten and shopped in businesses named after Billy the Kid. Like thousands of other people who grew up in this part of the world, I wrote reports about Billy the Kid when I was in school. For me, and probably everyone else in this room, Billy the Kid is part of our cultural DNA.

    I’ll also say that my personal interest in Billy the Kid comes from my experiences as a high school teacher. Over my thirty years in the classroom, I taught lots of Billy the Kids. Those of you who are teachers can probably relate to what I am saying, especially if you look at what those who knew Billy the Kid in Silver City said about him in later years. Keep in mind that when he moved to Silver City he was only thirteen years old

    Those who knew him at that time generally described him as a well-mannered and likable young man. He enjoyed music and performed in musical theater. He enjoyed reading. It was said he wasn’t as bad as the other boys in town and that he came from a good American home. His teacher said he always helped with chores around the school. She also said he had an artistic nature. He evidently loved his mother, and those who knew her described her as a jolly Irish woman who would do anything for her sons. The Kid’s mother died of consumption when he was only fourteen years old — and the rest is history. Without the guidance of a loving mother he ended up on the wrong side of the law.

    I’m certain that those of you who have taught school have known students who were smart, likable, and cooperative, students who could have done something good with their lives, but circumstances sent sent down the wrong path.

    And that’s the story I’ve tried to tell in my book Catherine’s Son. I wanted to tell the story of what might happen to make a good boy go bad. I used the historical record dealing with the years the Kid lived in Silver City as the skeleton of my book and then I fleshed out the story by simply making stuff up, which I assume is the approach any writer takes when writing historical fiction.

    And I make no bones about my book being a work of fiction.

    In the end, it’s difficult for the scholars to write about Billy the Kid, because we actually know so little about most of his life, and what we do know is often nothing more than myth.

    Even so, the myths about Billy the Kid are endlessly fascinating.

    For those of you who don’t know his story, let me take a moment and go over it. Even though much of what happened to the Kid is open to debate, what I’ll tell you is the standard, traditional story that has served as a foundation for an uncountable number of other stories created from his life.
    • William Henry McCarty was born in New York in 1859. Nothing is known about his father, but, as the story goes, his widowed mother took him and his brother west after the Civil War. His mother then raised him and his brother on her own while running her own businesses in Indiana and Kansas before she moved to Silver City in the New Mexico Territory.
    • While living in Silver City, the Kid’s mother died of consumption. He was fourteen and was left alone to survive a lawless and violent society. He got into trouble after his mother died and got arrested for stealing from a laundry. He then escaped from his jail cell by crawling up a chimney and heading toward Arizona. He was only fifteen when he left Silver City.
    • In Arizona, he became a horse thief. He also killed his first man in a bar fight, probably in self defense. He then returned to New Mexico and joined a gang of cattle rustlers and thieves. He also changed his name to William H. Bonney. Those who knew him called him "Billy" or "Kid." He wasn’t known as Billy the Kid until the newspapers created that name for him about six months before he died.
    • Within a few weeks after returning to New Mexico, he moved to Lincoln County in the eastern part of the Territory. In Lincoln, he was given an opportunity to make an honest living when an Englishman named John Tunstall gave him a job as a ranch hand.
    • The Kid worked for Tunstall only a few months before Tunstall was assassinated by men working for an organization called the The House. The House was a ruthless group of businessmen who had monopolized almost all business activity in Lincoln County. The House also had the support of a group of powerful businessmen and politicians who ran the entire New Mexico Territory, a group that was known as the Santa Fe Ring. After The House assassinated John Tunstall, the Kid found himself fighting in a war of revenge those who ran Lincoln County and the New Mexico Territory.
    • After the Lincoln County war seemingly ended with the defeat of Tunstall’s forces, the Kid would not give up and kept fighting, making himself a nuisance by rustling livestock from his enemies. In an attempt to put his life on the right side of the law, however, the Kid made a deal with the Governor of New Mexico, agreeing to testify in open court against allies of The House. In return, the governor offered him a pardon for any crimes he had committed. The Kid kept his part of the bargain and testified. Even so, the governor never granted the Kid a pardon.
    • Meanwhile, newspapers, in cahoots with The Santa Fe Ring, began portraying the Kid as the worst of the worst in the New Mexico Territory. The Kid became a scapegoat for everything wrong in New Mexico and a symbol for the lawlessness of the American West.
    • The Kid was eventually arrested and sentenced to hang, making him the only person convicted of a crime for actions committed during the Lincoln County War. However, in a daring escape in which he killed two guards, the Kid left his jail cell in Lincoln only a few days before his execution. He then found refuge among his friends and supporters near Fort Sumner.
    • Three months after he escaped from jail the Kid walked into a dark room at midnight where he was ambushed and shot dead by Sheriff Pat Garrett. The story goes that Billy the Kid was only twenty-one years old when he died, but historians are not certain. He may have been as young as nineteen.

    All told, the Kid gave us one heck of a story! What happened to him has provided novelists, filmmakers, playwrights, and artists of all types with a mythic tale that can take a variety of forms. The Kid can be portrayed as a good boy gone bad or a boy who was born bad — bad to the bone. He can be portrayed as a cowardly punk, a black-hearted villain, a rebel without a cause, or a young hero — the American Robin Hood. His myth works any way you want to tell it, and his myth is as strong today as when he died 132 years ago.

    Since my retirement from teaching high school, I have made my living as an education consultant. In short, I have become a person who teaches teachers. I train teachers to teach history, and a central theme of my workshops is that history teachers should not only provide students with historical information, they should also help students learn to think historically. It may sound odd, but Billy the Kid has become an essential element in the workshops I lead. The Kid’s story is perfectly designed to help students learn to think historically.

    Historical thinking involves much more than I can really explain today, but let me give you an example of a few ways that I use Billy the Kid to teach historical thinking.

    First, historical thinking entails the ability to ask questions. All historical research begins with a question of curiosity. History teachers should therefore routinely ask students, “What questions do you have? What do you wish you knew more about?”

    And there’s no better way to help students learn to ask questions than to tell them about Billy the Kid. Almost anything you say about Billy the Kid generates more questions than historians can possibly answer. Our knowledge and understanding of the Kid’s life is so incomplete that students quickly learn to understand a standard rule for all historians — you must be able to tolerate uncertainty.

    For historical thinkers, the Kid’s life is also a good lesson in contextual thinking. Good historians learn to place documents and artifacts from the past in historical context. Historians know that to understand the people of the past they must place them in the context of the world in which they lived. Billy the Kid lived in New Mexico in the 1870s, and it is impossible to understand him without understanding the society in which he lived.

    During the Lincoln County War Billy the Kid was only eighteen years old and the men allied against him were the wealthiest and most powerful men in New Mexico. He also lived in New Mexico at a time when it had the highest murder rate of any state or territory in the nation. New Mexico had .2% of the population of the United States and 15% of the murders, and most of those murders were never prosecuted or punished. At least, they were not punished within the law. Billy the Kid certainly killed his share of men, but he also lived in an environment where killing was commonplace.

    Another element of learning to think historically is learning to recognize how things change over time. Documents from the past change meanings according to the time in which they are studied. If you read a book from the 1920s about the Civil War, it will reveal more to you more about the 1920s than the Civil War. It will certainly give you a different version of the Civil War than books written in the twenty-first century.

    The story we tell about Billy the Kid, like any story from the past, has gone through several transformations. The stories told about the Kid in the 1890s are much different than the stories we tell today. What’s important to keep in mind is that whenever the stories are told they always reflect the time in which they are created.

    Let’s take an innocuous historical statement such as “Pat Garrett killed Billy the Kid,” and let’s examine how responses to that statement might have changed over the last 130 years.

    If I had made that statement in the 1890s, I probably would have received responses that were variations on one theme: “The Kid got what he deserved.”

    In the 1890s, people had been exposed to numerous newspaper reports, dime novels, and books that generally portrayed the Kid as a cold-hearted killer. The Kid represented the old ways of settling problems in the American West with a gun. Many Americans at the end of the nineteenth century were looking forward to an end of the Code of the West and the development of a modern and civilized urban society. Americans wanted nothing to do with people like Billy the Kid who settled their problems through anarchy and violence.

    If I had said, “Garrett killed the Kid,” in the late-1920s or 1930s, I would have received a much different response. During that time, the Kid was generally portrayed as a hero. On the jacket of a bestselling book about the Kid, published in 1926, the Kid was described as the “Robin Hood of the Mesas.” In 1930, a movie film about Billy the Kid starring Johnny Mack, an All-American football player was shown to test audiences who were so disturbed by the Kid’s death that the producers were forced to change the ending. In the version released to the public, Pat Garrett fakes the Kid’s death and lets him escape to Mexico with the girl he loves.

    The way the Kid’s story was told in the late-1920s and 1930s tells us more about that time in history than it does about Billy the Kid. At a time of gangsterism, financial corruption, and economic depression, the Kid was portrayed as a romantic hero fighting against the corrupt business forces of his time. In short, he was a heroic figure.

    If I said “Garrett killed the Kid” in the 1950s or 1960s, I would probably get a response that provided some version of how the “system” or the “establishment” always wins — some version of how the good die young. During that time, the Kid was portrayed as a rebel without a cause, a James Dean or Marlon Brando of the Old West.

    And what happens when I say “Garrett killed the Kid” in modern times? I have made several presentations and taught classes on Billy the Kid, and the reaction is often the same. It either sets off an argument over whether the Kid was a hero or villain or questions about where the Kid actually died in 1981. Someone always asks me, “Didn’t Billy the Kid die in Hico, Texas, in the 1950s?” To me, these reactions reflect how polarized we seem to be in modern times over every issue. The reactions also reflect how many people are likely to see conspiracy and coverup in any official story.

    As I said before, I find Billy the Kid endlessly fascinating. For those of us who live in this part of the world, he is part of our culture and we cannot escape his presence.

    As for where the Kid’s myth goes next, your guess is as good as mine. Wherever it goes, the new myths created from the Kid’s story will certainly reflect the changes in our world.

    I am also certain that wherever the myth of Billy the Kid goes, it will not go away. Long after all of us in this room are gone, people will still be telling stories about Billy the Kid.

    For more about Billy the Kid, read articles I have previously posted on this blog.

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    Teaching is an art form, and the artistry in teaching can never be measured through standardized test scores or administrative evaluations. Great teaching can only be recognized in the same way that great art is recognized — you know it when you see it.

    Students and their parents recognize when they have been blessed with a good teacher. Indeed, they can probably sense it on the first day of school.

    Good teachers care about their students and know how to motivate them. It sometimes matters little to students what their teacher is teaching or how the subject is being taught. However, it will always matter why their teacher is teaching. Students have a sixth sense for whether their teacher cares about them and whether their teacher is dedicated to the profession. Above all, it will matter to students who their teacher is as a person. Students will work hard for a teacher they respect, and they will always remember their best teachers as the one who never gave up on them.

    “You need one person to believe in you in your entire life, just one. Often, that one person is a teacher.”
    Teacher Top 5 by T. Nick Ip
    That quote comes from a Spirit magazine headline for an article about America’s Best Teachers 2011. I share the quote via T. Nick Ip’s just-published book, Teacher Top 5. Ip spent nearly fifteen years in finance and strategy before becoming an elementary school teacher to “find the poetry in his life.” Ip’s book, which is obviously a labor of love, has certainly found the poetry in those who have dedicated their lives to teaching.

    Teacher Top 5 profiles twenty-five nationally recognized teachers and their Top 5 strategies for successful teaching. The book includes chapters on teachers who have been recognized as members of the National Teachers Hall of Fame, National Teachers of the Year, State Teachers of the Year, and numerous other awards. Each chapter in the book profiles individual teachers, exploring their backgrounds, their reasons for becoming a teacher, their desire for changes in the educational system, and, of course, their Top 5 recommendations for successful teaching.

    The book should serve as a guiding light for young teachers and experienced teachers looking to revitalize their careers. Public education might also be well-served by placing the book in the hands of administrators and policy makers attempting to standardize and centralize how good teaching is measured.

    Standardization and centralization often strangle the creativity and innovation that allows good teaching to thrive. Standardization and centralization are also cutting the heart out of a noble profession.

    As Ip’s book makes clear, the nation's best teachers went into the profession for reasons of the heart, and they certainly remain in the profession for reasons of the heart. Policy makers might learn from Ip's book how they can avoid cutting the heart out of teaching.

    Ip’s book is accompanied by a website at, which contains information about the teachers profiled in the book. If you are a teacher, you can also share your Top 5 strategies for successful teaching and possibly be featured on the website.

    The website also offers a means of purchasing Teacher Top 5. As one of the twenty-five teachers profiled in the book I can send a percentage of the sales price to an organization of my choice.

    If you buy the book through my referral, 10% of the sales price will go to the Arts Program at Canutillo ISD in Canutillo, Texas. For your donation to help promote an arts program in public education, you will need to purchase the book from and enter a referral code — JSTT5NM— in the “Notes” section during checkout. (I make no personal profit from sales of the book.)

    Teacher Top 5 is also available through Barnes and Noble and Amazon

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  • 08/22/14--11:54: Creating a MOOC
  • The first time I heard the word “MOOC” someone was asking me if I was interested in creating a MOOC for the Center for College Readiness at Rice University. Even after it was explained to me that a MOOC was a “Massive Open Online Course” I wasn’t sure what I would be getting myself into. In any case, I thought about the sign that hangs over my desk — leap and the net will appear” — and I accepted the offer. I would create a MOOC.

    For those who don’t know, a MOOC is a short course that educational institutions place online. The classes are offered free of charge, accessible to anyone who has an Internet connection. A MOOC can take several forms, but the students who take them generally fall under the category of people “learning for the sake of learning.” What a great concept!

    "MOOC poster mathplourde" by Mathieu Plourde (Mathplourde on Flickr)

    In preparing to create my MOOC I registered for a couple of classes through Coursera to see what MOOCs looked like. I took a class titled “Archeology’s Dirty Little Secrets” from Brown University and another titled “Art and Inquiry” from the Museum of Modern Art. Both were taught well, and I learned much. I couldn’t help but think that MOOCs were a wonderful development in education — one that makes learning accessible at no cost to students.

    In learning about MOOCs I discovered that although the number of students who register for a class might be quite large (as high as 230,000), the percentage of students completing most MOOCs is quite low, sometimes as low as 13%. In my opinion this low percentage does not necessarily mean that a MOOC has failed, as the completion rate is based on the number of students who pass a class or receive a certificate. I suspect that many students learn what they want from a MOOC and move on, unconcerned with whether they complete the formal assignments or receive a certificate.

    The request for me to create a MOOC came in July 2013 and my MOOC is now “in the can” and ready for launch this September. What an adventure it has been.

    In creating my MOOC, I found it wasn’t much different than creating any new class. I went through the same process that is familiar to every teacher. I wrote a course description and created a syllabus. I made decisions about specific content and the tasks I would require from students. I created rubrics for evaluating students.

    Delivering the curriculum, however, was much different, and I faced quite a learning curve.

    First, I had to find a way to condense the 60-90 minute presentations that I had been making for several years into a manageable length of time for an online course. Online students are more likely to watch a 6-7 minute video presentation than one that lasts an extended length of time. I therefore had to radically reduce the length of my presentations. This was quite a task and much more difficult than it sounds.

    I approached the problem by creating written documents to accompany my video presentations. For example, if I wanted to bring up ten points about a specific topic, I created a document outlining those ten points. I then used my video presentation to introduce the topic and talk about two or three of the ten points. I’ve left it up to the students taking the class to read the documents if they want to learn more. I consider it my role as a MOOC teacher to highlight significant issues in the curriculum and then let students explore what interests them in greater depth.

    A second problem I faced was learning how to teach to a camera. I had never realized just how much  teaching depends on the ability to see my students, to look into their eyes and monitor their body language to gauge the effectiveness of what I am doing. I’ve long known that teaching can be described as a constant state of “monitoring and adjusting.” However, I never completely understood that concept until I began teaching to a camera lens. The camera provides no feedback. Say something clearly and the camera doesn’t show its approval. Make a dubious statement and the camera doesn’t blink.

    I became more comfortable with the process as I filmed more and more videos. I only hope that the awkwardness I felt in the first videos I filmed is not so evident that it causes students to abandon the class. I taught high school for 30 years, and in many ways I wish I had my first 10-15 years back. The same is true in teaching my first MOOC — I wish I had an opportunity to reshoot the first few videos.

    My MOOC is titled “The Art of Teaching History,” and it will go online through Coursera on September 22.

    The essence of the class can be seen seen in its title. Teaching any subject, especially history, is an art form. There is no single right way to do it well. I therefore approached my MOOC not as an all-knowing sage who would tell others how to teach history, but as someone who would simply introduce issues that every history teacher confronts.

    The central idea of my MOOC is found in the online forum that will accompany the class. Students taking the class will watch the videos and read the documents. They will then be asked to answer reflection questions stating their ideas about teaching history. Those reflections will be used to start an online conversation with history teachers from all over the world about what it means to teach history well.

    It should be a fascinating conversation. As I write this blog the class has already registered almost 2200 students from 110 nations. Imagine that!

    If you are interested in taking “The Art of Teaching History,” you will need to got to Coursera, create a login and password, and then register for the class. The class, which is sponsored by the Center for College Readiness at Rice University'sGlasscock School of Continuing Studies is offered free of charge. You can find the class and information about registering for it at the following link:


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    When listening to Chopin’s Polonaise in A Major we are told the music represents the sound of Poland. We are also told that Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 provides a musical slice of Hungarian culture, and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Russian Easter Overture takes us into the sound of Czarist Russia. But what classical composer best provides the sound of America? What is the sound that best represents the United States? These are not easy questions to answer.

    Since the 1890s, when Americans were beginning to develop their own traditions in classical music, composers have recognized the dilemma of creating the American sound. In 1892 the Czech composer Antonín Dvořák became the director of the newly formed National Conservatory of Music in New York City and was paid a sizable wage to help create an American school of composition. The problem confronting Dvořák stemmed from the absence of a unified American culture. Quite simply, there were too many different types of people living in the United States to create a sound that was distinctly American. (Like Dvořák, Gustav Mahler, the great Bohemian composer and conductor, also believed the United States was too culturally diverse to be represented by one type of music.)

    Dvořák’s solution to the problem can be heard in the cultural diversity evident in his Symphony No. 9 in E minor ("From theNew World"). The symphony includes original themes that sound somewhat like Stephen Foster tunes, African-American spirituals, and Native American music. Although From the New World has been accused of having too much of an eastern European accent to truly sound American, Dvořák did get the process of creating an American sound started, a process that has been forced to consider the diversity of American culture. 

    Antonín Dvořák, Symphony No. 9 in E minor, Fourth Movement (1893)

    After Dvořák left the United States in 1895, various classical composers have been associated with the creation of an American national sound — most notably Charles Ives, Aaron Copland, and Elliot Carter. 

    Charles Ives (1874-1954) is best known for composing his memories of a pre-industrial, small-town America. Although his music ranks with the greatest composed by any American, the nationalism in his music did not acknowledge the tremendous ethnic, racial, and cultural diversity that defined the United States. Ives looked at America primarily through the eyes of someone who grew up in a small New England town in the late nineteenth century.

    Charles Ives, Country Band March  (1903)

    Aaron Copland (1900-1990) is probably most associated in the public's mind with the American sound, creating music that defined an ideal America. Copland’s music romanticized the United States and celebrated the best in the American Spirit. In general, he also avoided the complexities and diversity of the American experience.

    Aaron Copland, Appalachian Spring, "Simple Gifts"(1944)

    The composer, in my opinion, who best captures the complexities of America — and therefore the true American sound — is Elliot Carter (1908-2012). I make that declaration, however, with a confession that I don't always understand his music, and I cannot overstate the challenges of listening to his compositions.

    Carter was an intellectual composer, and the music he created is among the most cerebral that any of us will ever confront. Although he composed in a variety of musical styles, he was best known for the masterworks that did not romanticize the American experience and seemed designed to avoid any desire to evoke emotional reactions from listeners. His music is best understood on a purely intellectual level.  

    What helps me understand Carter’s compositions is to think about the diversity of American culture and the reality of what that diversity should sound like when represented musically. I think about the “salad bowl” of humanity that defines the United States — the variety of religious, cultural, and philosophical beliefs, as well as the cultural gaps too often separate the American people according to their ethnic, racial, and other differences. I think about how America is home to almost all types of people. I then think about what all those various types of people would sound like if they were all expressing their differences at the same time. 

    That, in a nutshell, is how to think about Carter’s music. It’s a type of music that celebrates democracy, freedom, and diversity. It's classical music's version of Martin Luther King's "Beloved Community," a society in which people of all types live together in peace.

    In describing the complexity of his music, Carter used these words to describe his Variations for Orchestra:

    I have tried to give musical expression to experiences anyone living today must have when confronted by so many remarkable examples of unexpected types of changes and relationships of character uncovered in the human sphere by psychologists and novelists.… The old notion of unity in diversity presents itself to us in an entirely different guise than it did to people living even a short while ago."

    Carter's music may not be easy listening, but it challenges us to recognize the prodigious diversity that defines American culture.

    Elliot Carter, Variations for Orchestra (1955)

    Elliot Carter, Double Concerto for Harpsichord and Piano (1961)

    © 2012 James L. Smith

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    There's an old saying that talking about music is like dancing about architecture, which makes me wonder if the person who first said that (the source is unknown) ever considered using drawings to "talk" about music.

    Take a look at the seven-minute video below and see how illustrations can serve as an introduction to music history. (A little better than dancing about architecture, I'd say.)

    I'm amazed at how many styles of music and significant composers the video found time to include.

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    “See how cruel the whites look. Their lips are thin, their noses sharp, their faces furrowed and distorted by folds. Their eyes have a staring expression; they are always seeking something. What are they seeking? The whites always want something; they are always uneasy and restless. We do not know what they want. We do not understand them. We think they are mad.”

    A New Mexican Indian chief spoke those words to analytical psychologist Carl Jung in 1925. Jung’s encounters with Native Americans at the Taos pueblo raised his awareness of how the Pueblos viewed the people who had destroyed their ancient culture and deepened his belief that humans need a sense of their individual and cultural significance to be psychologically healthy.

    For more information read “Carl Jung’s Experience in New Mexico with the Pueblo Indians.”

    Santa Fe’s Palace of the Governors, which was attacked by the Pueblos in August 1680

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    Miguel Cervantes wrote Don Quixote to tell the fictional story an old shepherd who had read too many books about chivalrous knights and imagined himself as the personification of chivalry. In the finale of Richard Strauss’s musical version of the story, the Don dies and says farewell to his dreams.The cello, representing Don Quixote, grows fainter — and finally silent — as the Don dies.

    Yo-Yo Ma, cello (Christoph Eschenbach conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra)

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    “Everybody loves classical music, they just haven't found out about it yet.”– Benjamin Zander

    Embedded in this posting is a must-see TED talk by Benjamin Zander, the conductor and music director of the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra

    I hope Zander's lecture will give tyros a reason to give classical music a chance. His moving performance of Chopin's Prelude in E minor should be enough to persuade people to begin a journey into the world of classical music.

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  • 08/25/16--20:07: Debussy, Syrinx (1913)
  • When Claude Debussy composed Syrinx in 1913 it was the first significant work for solo flute composed since C.P.E Bach’s Sonata in A Minor in 1763. The technical improvements added to the flute by Theobald Boehm in the mid-1800s made the piece possible, allowing Debussy to showcase what could be done with the new and improved flute. As a flute player myself, I have played the piece often and enjoyed the flexibility in how it can be interpreted. 

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    "Ah, music! A magic far beyond all we do here!" 
    – J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
    Music can cleanse a melancholy soul and calm a cluttered mind. It can cause you to weep tears of joy, and you won’t even know what is affecting you so deeply. 

    None of that is hyperbole. The power of music is mystical — especially classical music.

    A listener might know nothing about classical music and still feel an emotional rush when listening to the crescendo at the end of a symphony. However, classical music is more enjoyable when the listener possesses some fundamental knowledge of music and the “story” it is telling. All told, the more someone knows, the better the music will sound.

    As an example, listen to the video I’ve embedded below and follow the time indicators. What you will hear can be classified as sonata form, but there’s no reason at this time to get too technical. Simply think of each theme as a “character” in a story and then follow that story’s narrative as if you were reading a book or watching a movie.

    Prokofiev, Symphony No. 1, First Movement (1917) conducted by Leo Siberski

    0:07– Theme 1: The opening theme begins in the key of D major. Since it is in a major key, it should sound bright and upbeat. (A minor key would probably sound dark and downbeat.)  

    1:04– Theme 2:  Think of this theme, composed in A major, as the second character in the story.

    1:57– Development: Think of this section as one containing much action. Something is happening. Close your eyes and imagine the movie in your head. You should be able to hear bits and pieces of the first two themes. 

    3:08– Theme 1 Returns in C Major: Notice that this theme has emerged from the development in a major key (happy and upbeat). It looks like everything will end on a positive note. (No pun intended.) 

    3:43– Theme 2 Returns in D Major: Hearing this theme in D major should make you feel that you are back where you began. All is well. 

    4:13– Coda: This section tells us that the piece is over. (The word “coda” is Italian for “tail.”)

    Not so bad, eh? Watch this video more than once. Watch it often enough that you become so familiar with the music that you will know what is coming next. Indeed, the more you listen, the better the music will sound. 

    It’s been said that we use art to decorate space and music to decorate time. The time spent understanding this short piece should provide you with time that has been well decorated.

    © 2015 James L. Smith

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  • 09/02/16--20:33: The Empathic Civilization
  • Several years ago I attended a presentation at Rice University on nanotechnology. During a fascinating discussion about the most recent research on that subject, a Rice professor identified what he thought were the top ten problems facing humanity in the next fifty years.
    1. Energy
    2. Water
    3. Food
    4. Environment
    5. Poverty
    6. Terrorism and War
    7. Disease
    8. Education
    9. Democracy
    10. Population 
    He then explained that the solutions to most of those problems could be traced directly or indirectly to energy. He also explained that many of the solutions to the energy problem would come from nanotechnology. Addressing the young people in the audience he said, “Be a scientist and save the world.”

    I have spent my professional life in the humanities — music, art, and history are my forte. I don’t know enough about science to comment on what I learned that day about nanotechnology. However, I liked the tone of the presentation. I liked hearing someone encouraging young people to get into science, into any field for that matter, with the goal of trying to make a difference. I see no harm in spreading a little idealism and asking young people to do something to “save the world.”

    In any case, I hope the people who promote science never forget the humanities. The humanities, after all, add a little empathy to scientific pursuits. 

    And I am not alone in thinking this. The merging of empathy and science has its proponents, as can be seen in the video I have embedded below, a video that features Jeremy Rifkin speaking about the “The Empathic Civilization.” (Rifkin is president of the Foundation on Economic Trends and has written books about the impact of scientific and technological changes on the economy, the workforce, society and the environment.)

    According to Rifkin, “[Our brains] are soft-wired to experience another’s plight as if we our experiencing it ourselves.”

    That quote from Rifkin describes what teachers in the humanities are trying to achieve every day in the classroom. The challenge of teaching students to appreciate great art, music, or literature may be little more than trying to help them learn to see the world through someone else’s eyes. 

    By teaching students to avoid “presentism,” to understand the past by divorcing themselves from the world in which the live, humanities teachers help students get inside the minds of people from 2000 years ago, 200 years ago, or 20 years ago. Students who do this well can learn to understand people today who are different from them — people living on the other side of town or the other side of the world. In other words, the humanities help students, for a time, leave the world in which the live and learn to understand others, promoting Rifkin’s idea of an “empathic civilization.”

    "For kids of a certain age, home is everything, the center of the world. But over the rainbow, dimly guessed at, is the wide earth, fascinating and terrifying. There is a deep fundamental fear that events might conspire to transport the child from the safety of home and strand him far away in a strange land. And what would he hope to find there? Why, new friends, to advise and protect him. And Toto, of course, because children have such a strong symbiotic relationship with their pets that they assume they would get lost together. … They're touching on the key lesson of childhood, which is that someday the child will not be a child, that home will no longer exist, that adults will be no help because now the child is an adult and must face the challenges of life alone. But that you can ask friends to help you. And that even the Wizard of Oz is only human, and has problems of his own."
    – Roger Ebert, writing about The Wizard of Oz

    © 2013 James L. Smith

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  • 09/04/16--20:33: The Elements of Teaching
  • I have not found a better description of what it takes to succeed in the classroom than what I first read almost twenty years ago in The Elements of Teaching  by James M. Banner and Harold C. Cannon.

    According to Banner and Cannon, good teaching contains eight essential elements.

    1. Learning: A good teacher loves learning. They have mastered the subject, and their love of learning for the sake of learning is infectious.

    2. Authority: A good teacher has authority in the classroom, an authority that comes from the knowledge and character of the teacher. If the teacher is not respected, the teacher’s desire to help students learn is pointless.

    3. Order: A good teacher has effective classroom management skills. Good classroom management takes many forms: routine procedures, high expectations, reasonable rules of conduct, realistic expectations, equitable rewards and penalties. An orderly classroom is the place where good teaching begins.

    4. Ethics: A good teacher is an ethical person who understands the responsibilities of the profession. An ethical teacher is one who puts the needs of the students before anything else. An ethical teacher is one who is sensitive to the beliefs and culture of every student.

    5. Imagination: Good teachers are imaginative. They possess the ability to approach their subject in a way that captures the attention of their students and enhances learning. Good teachers find a way to engage students.

    6. Compassion: Good teachers care about their students. They care about making the world better.

    7. Character: Good teachers are good people. Good teaching stems from the character and personality of the teacher.
    • Good teachers are authentic human beings. They are the author of their own words.
    • Good teachers are consistent.
    • Good teachers are emotionally stable. Students allow little tolerance for moodiness or emotional outbursts from their teacher.
    • Good teachers are willing and able to acknowledge mistakes.
    • Good teachers are able to strike a balance between being a student’s friend and maintaining an icy detachment from students.
    8. Pleasure: Good teachers make learning enjoyable. They find joy in being with students and helping students learn. Good teachers bring a sense of playfulness and fun into the classroom.

    Teaching is not an easy job to conquer, and I applaud the teachers who go to work every day doing their best to create a better future for our children and our nation.

    © 2012 James L. Smith

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    Aaron Copland finished composing his ballet suite about Billy the Kid in 1938. The music portrayed the Kid in a sympathetic light, and I suspect that had Copland composed it a dozen years earlier, he would have used a different musical style and presented an entirely different version of the Kid's story. 

    I say this, in part, because Copland had reinvented himself as composer during the decade after he left Paris and returned to America in 1924. After he finished his studies at the Fontainebleau School of Music, he came home determined to create music that was “as recognizably American as Mussorgsky and Stravinsky were Russian.” He then embraced modernist dissonance and tone clusters, composing avant-garde music that seemed intentionally designed to provoke audiences. His music may have sounded “American,” but it was music that would never find a wide — or let’s say, “democratic” — audience.

    Not until 1936, when he composed El Salon Mexico, did Copland begin to develop the “populist” style for which he is so well known, a style that often incorporates the simplicity of folk songs.

    The change in Copland’s compositional style came partially from the social and political changes stemming from the Great Depression, as well as the rise of fascism in Europe. He wanted to expand his audience and create music that was accessible and inspirational. He wanted to give Americans a sense of ownership and pride in their nation’s heritage. He wanted to help people feel good about being American.

    Copland's change in philosophy should lead to an obvious question: If he was so determined to celebrate what was good about America, why did he choose to compose music about an outlaw like Billy the Kid?

    To answer that question we must begin by understanding that music and art are a product of the time in which they are produced. Copland's version of Billy the Kid, in many ways, was nothing more than a product of its time. 

    When Billy the Kid was shot dead by Pat Garrett in 1881 (over fifty years before Copland's ballet), he was portrayed by the media as a black-hearted villain and cold-hearted killer. The Kid represented anarchy and lawlessness and throughout the late 1800s became a symbol for everything wrong with the American West. After he was killed, one newspaper even referred to him as the “devil’s meat." By the early 1900s, the Kid began to disappear from American media and history books, having become a character from the past who Americans wanted to ignore and forget. 

    Then, in 1926, a Chicago journalist named Walter Noble Burns published The Saga of Billy the Kid. Burns had visited New Mexico and heard firsthand accounts of the Kid that changed his view of the boy outlaw. Burns interviewed people who had known the Kid and used those interviews to write a book that was eventually listed as a main selection of the Book of the Month Club. In short, Burns had written a bestseller that resurrected and redefined the Kid in popular culture.

    In The Saga of Billy the Kid, Burns portrayed the Kid as a young boy fighting against a powerful and corrupt political machine. According to Burns, the Kid was a noble and charming champion of the oppressed. The Kid may have been a violent young man, but his actions were justified, and he personified a type of individualism that was disappearing in America. All told, Burns created a hero for an America that felt betrayed by the financial corruption of the 1920s and economic depression of the 1930s.

    During the 1930s, the Kid was at the height of his popularity as a hero in popular culture. In 1930, MGM made a movie titled Billy the Kid that showed the young outlaw fighting for the powerless and downtrodden, a heroic character at war with villainous bankers and big landowners. Preview audiences for the film reacted so negatively to the Kid’s death at the end of the film that MGM was forced to create a new ending, showing Pat Garrett shooting at the Kid and intentionally missing. The Kid then fled on horseback across the border into Mexico.

    As for Aaron Copland’s Billy the Kid, the music did nothing more than conform to the popular image of Billy the Kid that was widespread during the 1930s. Had Copland composed Billy the Kid in 1925 it might have been a dissonant portrayal of a villainous desperado. The version composed in 1938, however, provided a folksy depiction of a young boy who was muy simpático.

    Today, Copland’s Billy the Kid can be heard as a timeless piece of music, a composition that represents much more than a milestone in Copland’s evolving compositional style. It is also much more than an artifact of the 1930s. Despite the changes that are sure to come in how music is composed or how Billy the Kid is portrayed in popular culture, Copland’s Billy the Kid will remain an emotional and romantic portrait of an American icon. 

    Kevin Noe conducting the Michigan State University Symphony Orchestra

    0:04 Part 1— The story begins with Sheriff Pat Garrett leading pioneers westward across the open prairie.

    3:38 Part 2— The story shifts to Silver City, NM, a small frontier town where the young wide-eyed and innocent Billy lives with his mother. Toward the end of this section Billy’s mother is killed by a stray bullet during a gunfight (9:44). Billy then kills the man responsible for his mother’s death and goes on the run, living the life of an outlaw.

    10:37 Part 3— The scene shifts to several years in the future. Billy is an outlaw living in the desert, playing cards with his companions at night. The solo trumpet (12:41) portrays the Kid as a lonely character.

    14:09 Part 4 — Billy finds himself in a gunfight with a posse charged with arresting him. Billy is captured and taken to jail.

    16:11 Part 5— People celebrate the capture of Billy the Kid. During the celebration, the Kid kills two guards (18:30) and escapes from jail.

    18:45 Part 6— Billy, alone on the prairie, is hunted by Pat Garrett and shot dead.

    20:28 Part 7— The opening theme returns with Sheriff Pat Garrett leading pioneers westward across the open prairie.

    Support this blog by using the links below to purchase books and recordings from Amazon. The book Catherine's Son is a novel written by the author of this blog and tells the story of Billy the Kid during the years he lived in Silver City, NM.

    © 2013 James L. Smith

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    “You need one person to believe in you in your entire life, just one. Often, that one person is a teacher.”

    That quote comes from a Spirit magazine headline for a 2011 article about America’s Best Teachers, and I share the quote via T. Nick Ip’s book, Teacher Top 5. Ip spent fifteen years in finance and strategy before becoming an elementary school teacher to “find the poetry in his life.” Ip’s book, which is obviously a labor of love, has certainly found the poetry in those who have dedicated their lives to teaching.

    Teacher Top 5 profiles twenty-five nationally recognized teachers and their Top 5 strategies for successful teaching. The book includes chapters on teachers who have been recognized as members of the National Teachers Hall of Fame, National Teachers of the Year, State Teachers of the Year, and numerous other awards. Each chapter in the book profiles individual teachers, exploring their backgrounds, their reasons for becoming a teacher, their desire for changes in the educational system, and, of course, their Top 5 recommendations for successful teaching.

    The book should serve as a guiding light for young teachers and experienced teachers looking to revitalize their careers. Public education might also be well-served by placing Ip's book in the hands of administrators and policy makers attempting to standardize and centralize how good teaching should be measured. Standardization and centralization of curriculum are destroying the art of teaching and strangling the creativity and innovation that allows good teaching to thrive. I hope that people making educational policy would recognize this after reading Ip's book.

    As the book makes clear, the nation's best teachers went into the profession for reasons of the heart, and they certainly remain in the profession for reasons of the heart. Policy makers might learn from Ip's book how they can avoid cutting the heart out of the art of teaching.

    Ip’s book is accompanied by a website at, which contains information about teachers profiled in the book. If you are a teacher, you can also share your Top 5 strategies for successful teaching and possibly be featured on the website.

    The website also offers a means of purchasing Teacher Top 5. As one of the twenty-five teachers profiled in the book I can send a percentage of the sales price to an organization of my choice. If you purchase the book through my referral, 10% of the sales price will go to the Arts Program at Canutillo ISD in Canutillo, Texas. For your donation to help promote an arts program in public education, you will need to purchase the book from and enter a referral code — JSTT5NM— in the “Order Notes” section during checkout. (I make no personal profit from sales of the book.)

    Teacher Top 5 is also available from Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

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    “The best schools are the ones where administrators create an atmosphere where good teachers can thrive, giving teachers some autonomy and trusting them as professionals to do what’s best for students.”

    And that is how I am quoted in the book Teacher Top 5 by Nick Ip. The book profiles teachers from across the nation and includes their Top 5 suggestions for successful teaching. Nick Ip honored me as one of the 25 teachers chosen for the book. (Imagine that!)

    In a nutshell, here’s my Top 5 suggestions:
    1. Never Enter a Classroom Unprepared.
    2. Find a Way to Motivate and Inspire Students.
    3. Never Quit Learning and Growing as a Teacher.
    4. Bring a Sense of Playfulness into the Classroom.
    5. Have Faith in Youth.

    The book includes longer explanations of how I describe those Top 5, as well as some information about my career and what inspired me to become a teacher.

    In short, I believe that it sometimes matters little to students what subject their we are teaching or how that subject is being taught. However, it will always matter why we are teaching. Students have a sixth sense for whether their teacher cares about them and whether their teacher is dedicated to the profession. Above all, it will matter to students who their teacher is as a person. Students will work hard for a teacher they respect, and they will always remember their best teachers as the one who never gave up on them.

    More information about the book Teacher Top 5 is available at, and the book is available in paperback from Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

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    Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687) is credited with founding French opera and developing the French Baroque style in music. His service in the court of Louis XIV made him the most famous musician and composer of his time, and his work as a musician was much appreciated by the king who turned a blind eye to his homosexuality and protected him from the Catholic church. 

    In music history, however, Lully is too often best known for how he died. Poor Jean-Baptiste was conducting his own composition, Te Deum, and while keeping time by pounding the floor with a wooden staff he hit his own toe. After gangrene set in, he refused to have his toe amputated and died on March 22. Weird, but true.

    Lully, Te Deum (William Christie conducting Les Arts Florissants)

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    With the two E-flat major chords that begin this symphony Beethoven started a revolution in music. This first movement alone was almost as long as entire symphonies of the time, the traditional third movement minuet became a scherzo, and, unlike previous symphonies, this symphony follows a dramatic narrative through all four movements. In my music history classes I normally place this symphony in the “Classical” category but could easily tag it as “Romantic.”

    Gustavo Dudamel conducting the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra

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    World War I represents a breakdown in civilization that might lead some to think of the national leaders who caused it as “marching morons.”

    In August 1914 the nations of Europe stumbled into a four-year conflict that killed over 16 million people. In one battle alone, the Battle of the Somme, over one million soldiers died, and the combatants of that battle might have been hard-pressed to explain what they were trying to achieve.

    World War I can be seen as even more disastrous considering the decades of relative peace and prosperity that preceded it. (I stress the word “relative.”) For Europe, the late nineteenth century was a time of tranquility and economic growth that fostered much scientific and artistic innovation (think Darwin and Monet). Then came  World War I, the war that achieved little beyond causing a second world war and the deaths of another 60 million people. They called World War I the “war to end war.” Marching morons, indeed.

    Countless works of art, including many films and literary works, have attempted to describe the insanity and destructiveness of World War I. A piece of orchestral music that many put into that category is Maurice Ravel’s La Valse, a piece composed in 1919 that some hear as a tone poem depicting European civilization descending into barbarism. Ravel denied this interpretation and stated, "This dance may seem tragic, like any other emotion pushed to the extreme. But one should only see in it what the music expresses: an ascending progression of sonority, to which the stage comes along to add light and movement."

    Ravel completed La Valse shortly after World War I, and it's easy to see how some might have heard the brutality of the war in Ravel's "ascending progression of sonority." In composing music that clearly portrays the decay and destruction of the Viennese waltz, Ravel created what many can't help but hear as a metaphor for what happened in Europe from 1850 to 1918.

    Follow the time indicators listed below and listen to how the elegant Viennese waltz heard at the beginning of La Valse moves through several episodes before deteriorating into confusion and despair. Even though Ravel said he did not intend to describe what had happened to Europe during World War I, it's easy to hear how some people might have heard it that way. (After listening to the orchestral version, don't forget to listen to the encore embedded at the end — a terrific version of La Valse for solo piano by Steven Osborne.)

    Myung-Whun Chung conducting the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France

    0:00 – The Mist
    The music begins with a rumbling in the basses as an elegant Viennese waltz slowly emerges from the fog.

    2:05 – Viennese Waltz
    The waltz, played in its purest form, is introduced by the violins and eventually taken over by the full orchestra. The waltz then evolves through several episodes of its development, from graceful, sweet, and gentle to joyful and grandiose

    2:49 – Episode 1
    4:01 – Episode 2
    4:32 – Episode 3
    5:02 – Episode 4
    5:52 – Episode 5
    7:33 – Episode 6

    8:03 – The Mist
    We return to the fog from the beginning (a rebirth of the waltz) that takes us toward …

    8:20 – Confusion, Part 1
    A variety of instruments playing fragments of the Viennese waltz. Each fragment is played with unexpected modulations and instrumentation.

    9:50 – Confusion, Part 2
    The waltz begins to whirl out of control.

    10:09 – Despair, Part 1
    The waltz turns gloomy and gradually builds toward …

    11:09 – Despair, Part 2

    12:15 – Coda
    The waltz dies as the music changes from three beats per measure (waltz time) to two beats per measure (march time).

    As an encore, here's a version of La Valse for solo piano.

    Steven Osborne, piano

    © 2011 James L. Smith

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