What the Guitar Taught Me about Learning

Earlier this year, I took up the challenge of “FREd Talks” – an Ignite-style presentation. Twenty slides, auto-advanced every 15 seconds. Five minutes to deliver a message.

I love this format because it forces me to answer the tough question, “What is my central message here?”

This one is titled “What the Guitar Taught Me about Learning,” and it tells the story of me trying to learn something and quitting.

[Link to video.]

Hope you enjoy it!

And, if you want to see how I’m doing with it, check out MikeBuford.com! Thanks!

“Prospects for Success”

My son, Quenton, and I are long-time fans of Prospect League baseball. The Prospect League is a summer collegiate wood-bat league. Their season lasts ten weeks.

Quenton loves sports, and talking about sports. So, for a summer project this year, we decided to launch “Prospects for Success,” a podcast about our experiences with Prospect League baseball.

We are especially proud of episode 9, our interview with Lafayette Aviators’ player Jack Lang! Check it out! The podcast is available on many popular podcast services and YouTube!

Prospects for Success podcast.

The Green Dragon Classroom

Planning is important, but imagination is what makes the extraordinary possible.

I’ve quoted that snippet many times, but I had a remarkable opportunity to experience it during my recent trip to Florida for FETC (the Future of Education Technology Conference).

As I was planning for the trip, I was trying to think of a way I might still get in some guitar practice while I was away from home. If I don’t practice a little every day or two, I feel like I start losing some of what little skill I have, and this was going to have me away for a week. I put out a request on Twitter… anyone at/near FETC have a guitar I can use?

Someone replied and tagged another Twitter friend of mine, fellow educator and Maker-enthusiast, Mr. Dennis Dill.

Mr. Dill teaches at the Jewett School of the Arts in Winter Haven, Florida. I don’t have the foggiest idea what his class is called. I didn’t even think to ask. I just know his space is filled with equipment and supplies for students to make a lot of cool things.

Part of his classroom space is set aside for some musical instruments – drums, keyboard, and… …guitars!

I was heading to Florida early before FETC, because I had a couple of “I’m going to be in the area, so this may be the best chance I ever have to…” items on my list. So, what would adding one more hurt? I found the nerve to ask Mr. Dill if I could visit his classroom.

He was more than gracious in allowing me to visit, and I took away a wealth of ideas for the makerspace I work with in Felicity, Ohio!

There were no “assignments” being handed out, just “design challenges.” Some of them would require a pretty significant use of technology. Some would not. Some students worked independently on their chosen challenge. Some worked in groups. Nothing that was aimed at meeting a challenge was off-limits.

As students worked, I just sorta wandered around and observed what they were doing. At one table, a group of students had a special clay and hardware for making custom earrings. I asked where the idea for the project came from, and one student replied, “I saw these on Etsy, but they were pretty expensive. So, I thought, I can probably make them myself.”

First time in my life I ever wished I had pierced ears.

“Well, we got these clips, so we can make keychains, too,” another student offered, to help me avoid squeezing in a jewelry store trip to my Florida travels.

Students were choosing and working on the whole range of different projects. They were learning what they needed to learn in the moment about the software or equipment or devices that would get them further in their challenge.

If a student wanted their “My Word For 2022” image to be poster-sized, that was a great time to learn some new skills in Photoshop. If a student wanted to design a “flying machine” in Minecraft, that was a great time to learn some new blocks and tools.

And, if a student really just wasn’t feelin’ it that day, there were plenty of books and cozy places to sit… and I don’t really see anything wrong with affording students the same grace I sometimes wish I could find for myself.

I still want to know whether the special roll of hydrodip film really wasn’t any better than spray paint, as several of the students strongly contended.

It wasn’t part of any of their challenges for the week, but I did get to work in a few licks with the in-house electric guitar. Big thanks to “G” for adding the percussion for me on the electronic drums!

An old golf cart that was being stripped down to turn it into a flight simulator. A homemade pool table doubling as a group workstation. And a RetroPi video game emulator set into a hand-built arcade game cabinet – which I didn’t see one student touch the entire time I was there. They were too busy doing other things.

“What’s wrong with students today? Why are they so lazy? Why do they always say they’re bored? Why are they just staring at their phones all the time?” I dare say none of those questions have ever been asked in Mr. Dill’s classroom. His is the kind of classroom that provides the sort of experiences for kids that helps them be better students in all of their classes, and will result in people who have the kind of mindset and approach to problem-solving and trying new things that we desperately need for a brighter future.

Before I ever stepped foot in the Orange County Convention Center for the “Future of Education Technology Conference,” I saw what is possible in the present with educational technology.

And it’s pretty freakin’ awesome.

“Twitch”

The campus radio station was a cool place to hang out. In my undergrad years at KCC (now KCU), there was a radio station. The 10-watt (maybe?) antenna was just about enough to reach the edges of campus and a little into the town of Grayson. The student DJ’s were paid from work-study funds, and were given some latitude on what they played and when from the station’s library. This was at the very beginning of the 90s, and “streaming music” hadn’t been experienced yet.

I wanted to like “contemporary Christian music.” But, I just didn’t. Too much of it sounded like the pop music of the day, which I didn’t really listen to much anyway. However, there were a few whose work I found to be particularly interesting. I really enjoyed the work of artists like Rich Mullins, Charlie Peacock, Steve Taylor, and Scott Anderson.

Scott’s debut album, “Somebody Loves You” was a real thoughtfully-assembled album in a dearth of attempts at commercial success by other artists. Eleven songs that told a story. I played it a lot.

That album came out 30 years ago. I still play it. So, one day I started wondering whatever might have become of Scott Anderson. Some internet searching revealed a lead that he was still performing, living in the Tampa/St. Pete area. You can find him at his website, twitch.us. I highly recommend the thoughtful “On My Way.”

As fortunes would have it, I am typing this from the state of Florida, where I will be attending a work conference this week. Two hours away from where Scott regularly provides some entertainment at an outdoor cafe. Two measly hours. Life had presented me the option of a side-quest, and I clicked “accept.”

It was unusually cool on Saturday, January 22, 2022, in Treasure Island, Florida. But, Twitch was there, at Coffee Grounds, playing and singing. I got there before a crowd would straggle in from the street – with the chilly weather, there wasn’t going to be much of a crowd anyway. Scott indulged me by playing a few of my old favorites of his. He also played some excellent covers of popular singer-songwriter tunes. I love playing… well, trying to play… Somebody Loves You and I Belong to You… and having Scott’s personal “go for it!” means an awful lot to me.

I tried not to be too much of a “fanboy,” but I did bring along the CD liner notes from “Somebody Loves You” and Scott graciously signed it for me. He also posed with me for a selfie. Twitch and me

Is there a lesson or a moral in all this? Maybe just this…. If there is someone who has been a positive influence on your life… someone who (whether they knew it or not) motivated you to do something special, no matter how small it may seem… reach out and let them know. You might not get a response, but that doesn’t lessen the value of the positive you are putting in the world.

And, if by chance they do respond? You might end up sitting at an outdoor coffee shop in Florida listening to some of your favorites performed live.

Florida in January

I am going to the “Future of Education Technology Conference” in Orlando, FL. The conference is 1/24-1/28.

Now, Orlando in January is typically a very nice place to spend time, but I will be tied up most of the time with the conference. Plus, my family will be back in Ohio, so trying to go to a bunch of the usual Orlando touristy places just wouldn’t be any fun without them.

I do have two or three stops I want to make in the region. Stay tuned for more updates on my adventures. Will I meet a CCM singer-songwriter from the 90s who I loved listening to? Will I find any of my biological father’s old belongings? Will I eat a sauerkraut pizza? Will I visit a classroom with a music studio?

Kid Creole and the Coconuts – “Doppelgänger”

It’s November 15, 1980. Ronald Reagan has just won the presidential election, so the Carter administration is coming to an end. Elliott Gould is hosting his 5th episode of Saturday Night Live… the first of season 6. Big changes are starting with new writers and cast members… and a wider variety of musical acts. Tonight’s musical guest is “Kid Creole and the Coconuts”.

Did I see this episode in its first run? I honestly can’t remember. Elliott Gould was a popular host, so it may have been a rerun in later years when I first saw this episode. Whatever the case, I instantly became a fan of KC&tC. “Mister Softee” and “Grace of God” were never to be found on my radio, but I wanted more than the memory of seeing them live from New York late one Saturday night.

Enter “Doppelgänger”.

Kid Creole and the Coconuts was not built for the era before music videos. I’ll link you to some concert footage in the comments and you’ll see what I mean. Hot Latin rhythms, sharp threads, and the simply-yet-effectively-choreographed (but way more than just visually stunning) backup singing Coconuts. A party band experience a la The New York Dolls, with the stage-filling energy of a Miami Sound Machine. Imagine Lou Bega and The Spice Girls had a bunch of children. And those kids started a band. That’s Kid Creole and the Coconuts.

Musically, this isn’t even Kid’s best work, but the opening track, “The Lifeboat Party,” is a banger! And Island Records didn’t put out discs in the early 80s just to fill slots in record stores. If you dig Desi Arnaz, Tito Puente, and Celia Cruz, there is plenty here to enjoy, while waiting for the torch to be passed to Gloria Estefan and the soundtrack from Jim Carrey’s “The Mask”.

Side one has fun, and invites you along. The Coconuts get their turn on the lead mic on “Distractions”, and prove they have the skills to do more than shake in triplicate. August “Kid Creole” Darnell has plenty of vocal power to front the other tracks’ fully-orchestrated brass and percussion licks.

Side two turns up the heat like you might expect in a South Beach nightclub. The Cuban influences are more focused here, and the “feel good” lyrics from side one (which border on silly in “If You Wanna Be Happy”) give way to some more socially observant fare in side two’s “There’s Something Wrong in Paradise” and “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Daryl Hall lends a hand on “Bongo Eddie’s Lament,” and we’re all left playing Six Degrees of Separation to figure out how THAT collaboration came about. By the time you get to the closing track, “Seven Year Itch,” you might just believe it’s 3AM and you have to walk the palm-tree-lined streets back to your hotel on the beach… after one more dance under the lights.

This isn’t a set to spin when you have no intention of getting out of your recliner. Expect the kids to bounce around with a stuffed animal dance partner. This one is from an era when an album was an opportunity to tell a story, and Doppelgänger tells a cogent story – both in the tracks and on the liner notes!

Kid Creole and the Coconuts album, "Doppelgänger"

Barry Manilow – 2:00 AM Paradise CaFé

If you were a cool jazz fan, and I told you that I had a recording of a combo including Gerry Mulligan on sax, George Duvivier on bass, and Bill Mays on keys, and guest vocal performances by Sarah Vaughn and Mel Torme, you might say “Hey, that sounds pretty good.”

Now imagine the front man for that combo is Barry Manilow.

Yes, that Barry Manilow.

The two sides of the record are called “Set 1” and “Set 2,” and that’s how they play, like cocktail lounge sets. There are instrumental segues between the tracks that smell like cigarettes and cheap liquor, so that each side is about 20 minutes of continuous performance. The accomplished jazz musicians take turns with improv licks around Barry’s vocals. In Set 1, Sarah Vaughn steps in to duet on “Blue”. On the flipside, Mel Torme shines on the beautifully simple “Big City Blues”. Those two performances are worth the purchase, but “What Am I Doin’ Here” stands as a powerful opener for the second set to go beyond the “Is that really Manilow?” mystique.

https://youtu.be/OLJnmqPT_4M

Some of the chords seem unnecessarily forced to sound so jazzy they force you to consider the “anti-Manilow” depth of the performance, but there is nothing experimental about this jazz offering. It’s exactly what you’d expect from that hot little club just far enough from the tourist spots and the airport to remain a locals’ secret, where pros still show up occasionally to remember what it was like before they were packing serious concert halls.

Not to diminish Manilow’s performance at all. He’s got the chops to stay in these careful selections. And the result is a nice way to spend 45 minutes in your easy chair, late at night, and have another scotch-on-the-rocks to wash away the hassles of the daytime.

Barry Manilow's album, "2:00 AM Paradise Café”

What We Can Fix about Testing

It wasn’t always so.

There was a time, not so long ago, when students in public K-12’s in the United States didn’t take annual tests in English and math. Ask teachers, administrators, and even a lot of parents what one thing they would get rid of first from schools, and you’ll hear that word a lot. Testing. It’s too high-stakes. It’s too prone to inaccuracies. It takes up too much valuable time. But it’s a fact of life in education – we can’t do anything about it.

Or can we?

A test provides, at best, a single point-in-time snapshot of what an individual is able to do. Honestly, that’s what tests are supposed to do. To that extent, they can be a useful instructional tool. But when an array of such scores begins to be used to draw conclusions about educator efficacy, district efficacy, and acceptable subgroup progress, we have injected them with far more weight than they deserve.

If test scores get too much attention at the state board of education, that’s their shame. If test scores get too much attention in the superintendent’s office, that’s a travesty. But, if test scores are the only thing that we talk about in the classroom when “testing season” comes, we have completely let go of the steering wheel.

Garry Marshall has directed a long list of popular TV sit-coms: “Happy Days,” “Laverne and Shirley,” he even directed 6 episodes of “The Odd Couple.” But he struck gold the day he decided to cast Robin Williams’ guest shot as an alien visitor on “Happy Days” into a new series, “Mork & Mindy”. The show was a vehicle for Mr. Williams to do his thing, wild improv comedy.

In those days, TV shows were shot in front of a live studio audience, with three cameras fixed on the key points of action. Robin Williams, who honed his skills playing in every direction to street corner crowds, would dart about the set, doubling the crews over with laughter and blinding them with their own hysterical tears.

When he was finally able to draw a breath, Marshall would ask the cameraman, “Did you get that?”

“Get what?” came the stoic reply of the camerman.

“THAT!” Marshall would respond, gesturing emphatically at Williams. “That was genius!”

“If he’s such a genius,” replied the expert cameraman, never looking up from his viewfinder, “tell him to hit his mark.”

Garry Marshall could have tried to retrain the octogenarian camera operators to follow Williams’ madcap hijinx (bad idea). He could have reined Williams in and got him to work solely from his X taped on the stage (worse idea). Instead, he came up with an innovation that changed studio-audience recording – the fourth camera. Marshall left the three existing cameras where they were, but brought in a fourth, freely-roaming, camera. And that camera operator’s instructions were simple – “Record everything Robin does.”

Nationally-normed standardized tests are a stationary camera. They record what they’re intended to see, and nothing more. And the camera operator never-mind’s everything else.

If we want students to believe that tests aren’t necessarily an indicator of their hard work – and not at all a measure of their worth as a person – we had better show them. That initiative will not come from the top, outside of the local district. This one is totally under our control. And we don’t do it by continuing to harp about the tests, even when we’re parroting that they’re not that important. (When your kid mentions the newest video game console ten times a day and keeps telling you it isn’t important, what message do you get?)

Every student in your class/grade/school/district can deliver a genius performance at something. If you don’t know what it is for one of your students, find out. Ask their previous teachers, their siblings, their guardians. If they don’t have any of those, just getting to school is a stroke of genius. Our job is to make sure there is a “fourth camera” there to catch those genius performances, for everyone.

Be that kid’s fourth camera.

Jim Messina – “Messina”

I really like this Messina disc, but it’s so all over the place. It’s Messina, but it’s also got tracks that are uncharacteristically disco influenced. And some latin flavored bits? But the folksy roots are still there, and “Child of My Dreams” and “Whispering Waters” stuck hard in my brain since I first bought a cassette of this one from a bargain bin at Camelot Music in the mid-to-late 80s.

“Money Alone” is a ripper, with some funk undertones that don’t feel out of place at all. You won’t remember any of this disc from hearing it overplayed on the radio, but once you give this collection a full hearing, you’ll want to keep it handy for the occasional long car ride or background music for a hobby project.

“Messina” by Jim Messina

COVID-19 and School Re-opening

What will “school” look like in the Fall?

This question has been in the minds of administrators, teachers, staff, and students. Will schools be able to go back to the way they were before (and should we?), will we still be operating under “remote learning”, or will we have some combination?

If the current (Ohio) Department of Health recommendations hold until school resumes for the 2020-2021 school year, here are my thoughts on how to best make use of available resources while taking steps to provide a safe environment for all.

— Some of your students will do just fine under “remote learning”. They have the skill, the means, and the support to achieve expected outcomes without setting foot in the building. Let those students stay home and learn with remote feedback and support.

— Take the rest of your students, and put them in 3 or 4 groups. No, don’t “ability group” or “level” them. Mix them up. Let’s say you have 3 groups, and we’ll call them “A”, “B”, and “C”. Bring Group A in for the first week of school. All day, all week. The “core” subject teachers should expose the students to new material, and preview what they will learn for the next two weeks. Arts and other specialized subjects should be a big part of students’ experience. Groups B and C will stay home this week and participate in online instruction. For Week 2, Group B comes to the building and Groups A and C participate in online instruction.

— For a small percentage of your students, uninterrupted daily presence in the building is essential. These students need the most support, and depend on many specialized services they receive at school. These students should be scheduled to be in school every day. Every. Day. Scheduling them for two days a week while scheduling the gifted honors dual-credit senior two days a week sounds “equal”, but it is by no means equitable or fair.

— Allow students to have more than whatever the minimum state requirement is for lunch.

— Forget the seven or eight equal-timed class periods. Divide the day into twenty-minute segments and have a different small group of students moving at those twenty-minute intervals. Some classes may only meet for 40 minutes (two twenty-minute segments). Some may meet for three or four. Just don’t put all of your students in the hallway at the same time. Teachers in “departmentalized” schedules shouldn’t have to be in class with students for more than half of the school day under this system. The rest of their day can be used to provide feedback and assistance to remote learners. Students in self-contained classrooms should still have about half of their day in specialized courses, recess, literacy/library support,

— Most of all, remember that the system is supposed to be there to support the students. The students aren’t there to support our system. We must not try to force our comfortable routines to fit an extraordinary situation, and then complain that the job can’t be done when we find that we can’t do things the way we’ve always done them.

We can do this. We can do things we’ve never been able to do before, if we are willing to make the best use possible of what we have available.