Friday, September 1, 2017

A Full Cup - How Far I'll Go

Good evening readers,

Today was special. Let me tell you, how I know...

Every Friday, at about 8:30 am, I get to teach a special needs general music class. Well, last year, these students really like Disney songs, and the current song is from the movie Moana. The song we began class with How Far I'll Go. The song talks about the main character's desire, no, need, to move beyond barriers and constructs set by her situation and cultural norms. If you haven't picked up why it was important for these students to sing this song, or follow along - let me tell you. These students have been given challenges, these challenges have and may continue to get in the way of their lives, but they were singing out, so very strong. It wasn't correct in pitch necessarily, but it was a raw, carefree sound. These students will go far, I am helping them more confident in motor skills and maintaining, if not improving mental function. It fills me heart with so much joy.

After that class the joys to celebrate are:

  • roughly 30 bass voices in 8th grade choir, singing the star-spangled banner on their own parts.
  • Many males that are cool with their voices being high or low, as long as they can sing
  • OPUS choir audition students coming in before and after school to improve their chances at a successful audition
  • Students supporting each other in their learning through small group peer interventions
  • 6th grade males sight singing so well their first time, with hand signs, and correct pitches
  • World Drumming is a great way to make music a really fun class. I had a student yesterday upset with me because he was messing around during class and his consequence was a lunch detention with me/my 7th grade treble choir. The student returned to class today and fully participated. I loved every minute of that class - check it out on my Twitter account @traviszinnel. 
Something I want to touch on, a first for me, I am a minority in my 10th hour male/bass voice choir. It is the coolest thing in the world. For me, I was scared... why? Because, as a white male, I hope to be seen as authentically invested in my students' education. Many of these students have a societal deck, stacked against them, but not in my class. I have had so much fun getting to work with these boys so far. They have taught me, "I'm going to dance, all of the time, but I'm still singing. If I weren't moving, then I'm not engaged." More to come on that front, but I wanted to share this exciting moment.

Readers - I am working to begin the Cedar Valley's first Justice Choir Chapter. This will take place on Sunday, September 17th, 4 pm, First Baptist Church in Waterloo, Iowa. This movement, joins people from all walks of life to use singing, as a means to begin discourse about justice issues in our country and more specifically our neighborhoods. I will be reporting on this as we go, but please, check out the Justice Choir's webpage. There will be social media posts about this soon! For our e-vite, go here


Saturday, August 12, 2017

Fight with Tools

Recently I attended the Iowa Choral Director's Association's Summer Symposium. I type here, right now to discuss something I found intriguing and very important. The Justice Choir is a movement, originating up in the Twin Cities of Minnesota by Tesfa Wondemagegnehu. This choir is lead by a songbook that urges its singers to "Start Local, Stay Vocal". The vision of the Justice Choir reads:

"Justice Choir isn't actually one choir. It's a template for bringing local communities together to inspire strength, unity, and policy change in situations that demand social, economic, and environmental justice, and for amplifying that messages peacefully, on the local and national level through singing."

During the session at the symposium, Tesfa took us through the song book. The subject matter of each song related to social inequality, the need to recognize that we can do more for our planet, and sharing this message in nonviolent ways. We began with song 8. Courage to Be Who We Are, the text reminds us that we are 1. Here, 2. Standing, and 3. Singing for those who have fallen, and for the courage to be who we are. What I realized what that we need to be here. We need to be present in this current world that forces us to not accept others, and we choose to accept ourselves, and allowing our privilege to transfer to those that weren't given that at their birth. We do this by standing with them, and singing allows us to deliver that message.

I am working to start this kind of movement in my city of residence, I am beginning to let me students know that I am with them. I have students that are Black, White, Hispanic, and a slew of others that are new to the country - fleeing a country and a government that hates them. I have White students, the students that are born with privilege, but they are only racially white - they are Bosnian. Individuals from Bosnia typically practice Christianity or Islam. You can imagine that beginning on November 9th, these students and their families were afraid. This is not something that one can stop them from feeling. I heard someone say, "Well, they're legal citizens." They were right, they were completely right, but this doesn't have to do with a legal status. This has to do with their religion, that terrifies individuals who wish to not seek first to understand, then be understood.

Another piece in this songbook is #13 the Intro to "Fight with Tools". The lyrics read as follows:
"Our minds are our weapons,
Our souls our protection,
And our feet will never up root.

One body,
One Mind,
We will all stand in line and proclaim the once unspeakable truth.

So we pay our debts to the damage we share,
Underneath we are all flesh and blood.
Slowly we rise with our voices entwined,
The revival has only just begun"

After this section, individuals are welcome to chant "Fight with, fight with, fight with tools!" This is the start, or rather an intro to the Flobot song, "Fight with Tools".

Tesfa did an event of singing the songbook and then provided a survey at the end. Tesfa gave us the idea of a chart with 4 different quadrants and a circle that connects them in the middle.

You can see each quadrant is a representation of each person, or of categories that people can fit into. Tesfa shared it and I was clearly so in awe that I didn't write down any more notes. The believers - believe in the work that is required, in the choir. The thinker will think of ways to act, perhaps with no follow through. The feeler is drawn by emotion to action, or are empathetic and sympathetic to the oppressed. The actors are the doers. They do the work, perhaps without thinking about the big pictures. Each one of these players contribute in their own way to the work of social justice. We want to have individuals fitting into that circle. Believe in the important work, think about the action, feel for the right reasons, and do the work. If you witness avoidance, there is no connection to the work.

Another goal of the justice choir is to begin the conversation. Something that I found very interesting is that one should not let their badge of "woke" (individuals that are tuned into these issues of race etc.) to show what you know or what you don't know. This is a marathon race together. Yes you read that correctly. This is a race that we are running together. We all lose if we don't work together. If you are white and you are silence, that is the same as being the oppressor. That should be our true "privilege". This privilege is to share it, take what circumstances of your birth have granted to you and transfer that to the oppressed.

Whoa, right? Powerful. What are our tools? The educator in me asks, what tools do you impart to your students? I have learned that literacy is power. I have learned that speech is power. I have learned that giving students a voice, is their power. I have learned that teaching people's history with help of the Zinn Ed Project, gives students power.

I have read the disturbing news of an "alt right" group protesting in Virginia. This protest was done because of the removing a General Robert E. Lee statue. There was a counter protest going on, and a car purposefully ran into them. Peaceful protest is important, how about dialogue? There is so much hate in this world, and I want us to check our privilege at the door. Why are we here? What has allowed us to become this way? I leave with more questions.

I have been reading Ta-Nehisi Coates' Between the World and Me. The opening chapter (all the further I am at this point) has the author writing to his son. Explaining how unjust the American Dream is. Did we realize that the American may not have been sought out from African slaves? There are a slew of issues where we enable stereotypes to control us. Police officers are gunning down innocent Black men. You can refute that - they had cause and such, I see that, and I raise you, did they have to kill them?

Let me share a recent story of witnessing racism. My mother has been ill, and I've either met, or taken her to a few doctor's appointments. One time, as we're sitting in a serious wing of the hospital, and an officer comes in with an inmate. Several people tensed up at seeing the inmate. The officer had to use the restroom, so the inmate was shown to a chair and the officer attended to his bladder. Holy cow, people were nervous because it wasn't only an inmate, but he was Black. People... we're in a serious part of the hospital - he's got much worse things to worry about.

So to conclude,
Educators - how do you fight systematic oppression, systems that prevent individuals from moving through a glass ceiling? How do you try to level the playing field? Are you teaching ALL students everyone's history, or just a White man's?

I am sorry for the smattering of words, but we can do better. I've been trying to figure out the words to say/write. You need to "fight with tools". I am there with you. Much love.


Sunday, June 4, 2017

Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in School

Readers, something you should know about me, I'm white - like ghost white. I share this because a struggle I always have with helping marginalized groups, is that I'm trying to do the good work without having it appear as charity. So the musings below have to do with some of the work, I'm starting - educating myself through literature by experts in their fields.  This may read as very scattered, there is so much to think about and I am overwhelmed as I write this. Please read and engage in dialogue, we can learn from each other.

Monique W Morris @MoniqueWMorris is the author of the book, Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools. Throughout the book is I went through a number of emotions: grief, anger (at the system), hopeful, driven, and many more. Morris gave her readers a glimpse of what it means to be a Black girl in many different contexts, especially girls that understand education is powerful tool to help them break through the glass ceiling.

At one point in my read through, Morris brings up the thought, that instead of a regular glass ceiling that many White women experience, Black girls experience a stained glass ceiling. Meaning that that they can see what's beyond, but it's distorted. To that, I make another step, what if the stained glass ceiling has been busted through, things are going well, and we regress, we rebuild the ceiling on top of them? What if this ceiling is not only distorted, but had once been experienced?

I continued to ponder these thoughts and further as I read... How are these happening/why are they happening?

The deck is stacked against our Black girls, even more than their male counterparts. Many classrooms, especially in urban settings are filled with a diverse students and a Caucasian teacher. I know that's not always the case, and for those of you that are reading this and are of Color, thank you. I appreciate your existence and you are a powerful asset to our students. These teachers aren't used to what Morris points out as the Black girl "attitude". What I've learned here is that Black girls can be strong, independent women, and will do whatever they can to advocate for themselves, in particular their education. If a Black girl were to ask multiple questions and begin to raise the tensions, they are not intentionally trying to undermine your authority, or prevent you from teaching them, but rather seek further explanation.

This is something that I actually recently experienced, with a Black male student, but I found it to be a reflective moment after I read this book. My student was asking a question, and would not stop, I was beyond the point of frustration, but then something in me clicked and I began to think, "Have I not answered his question?" After my other students were working on an activity, I went up to him and asked how I could help? It was eye opening! The student just said, "Like, I don't understand. I'm just asking a question." Whoa. Mind blown. We continued our conversation and it provided a teachable moment, I was able to answer the question and then explain why I didn't get to it right away. Then we had more dialogue about how we could improve our communication in the future. I strengthened our relationship. It was so powerful. He smiled and told me "Thank You".

These escalated events don't always happen like mine did. Instead, they push Black girls out of classrooms, into the office, or out the door. Many institutions have a zero tolerance policy on discipline, meaning 1 and done - you're out. This is such a disservice to our students, especially Black girls, because the consequences for being outside of school are far greater than her being a thorn in your side.

"Did they choose to grow up in poverty? Did they choose sexual abuse? Did they choose to get raped, some of them before they could walk? Did they choose to grow up in a world where women and girls are not safe?" (Morris, 2016)

Black girls, live a life I could never imagine. Black girls are targeted for human trafficking. Some live in a world of scarcity, meaning that they don't know when their next meal is coming. This puts them in a place that they need to find someone that can provide. Do you know who can provide? An older "boyfriend", which can become a pimp or a john. These individuals will support the girls for certain favors, but for a price. Typically that price prevents them from going to school, and leads them to selling their bodies, lives of addiction, and juvenile detention centers.

These detention centers are a new home to Black girls that know education is necessary. They find they need to get through their stint and move on, but what systems are in place to help rehabilitate their charges? In the book, Morris interviews many girls and discovers that many things are not in place, one of them being credit recovery. If Black girls leave in the middle of a school year for detention and don't get out until the next year, they may be behind. What? Yes, you read that correctly, they may not be up to standard by the time they return to the general education setting. Other concerns were brought up in the text, those questions related to grade/age-level appropriate curriculum, and what specifically the worth of a credit is. Another situation that can arise, according to the text relates to these girls still living with a zero tolerance discipline plan. This means that regardless behavior, the student may be forced to leave, allowing them to be further behind.

As I look through the Central Iowa Juvenile Detention Center website, I see little about education, but I cannot speak for sure - this requires further investigation.

I feel it's time to close this post. This post was in fact scattered, but some gems may be shared from Morris' work.

A big take away may seem harsh, but ultimately it's beneficial... Teachers, it is all about relationships. We need to get over ourselves, let our students help us create the culture and climate of our classroom.

Yes, I'm guilty of this... every single day, but ultimately, I have found reflection keeps me honest. When it comes to Black girls specifically, we need to be diligent to meet them halfway, we need to try to understand and engage in the dialogue that allows for them to be heard. These voices are too often stifled because they have two points of oppression against them 1. They are Black, 2. They are women. Two strikes in a world that allows them to fail in comparison to their White counterparts. Hold the standard high, force them to keep moving forward, but you better be walking beside them. They need an advocate. In this world of resegregation, we need to ally ourselves with our Black sisters and raise the bar for society. We will, as a mass, break through that ceiling and it will never be rebuilt, and if it does - our work is not done. Push yourself to support these Black girls and understand that they are not your White norm.

With that I leave you with this - What choices will you make to help your students, even the pains in the rear, succeed? Will you strive for excellence, or allow them to fail, without trying again? The ball is in your court, better get moving.


For Monique W. Morris' book -

Monique - you have opened my eyes and for that I am grateful. The pasty, White guy, is going to continue doing the work to benefit our marginalized groups. Thank you.

Morris, M. W. (2015). Pushout The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools. New York: New Press.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Inspired to Write - Waterloo Writing Project

This evening I had the opportunity to attend a performance at Sidecar Coffee, a small coffee shop on "The Hill" in Cedar Falls, Iowa. Below are some of my thoughts, not shared as eloquently as WWP, but rather musings from this white guy, that believes in student voice, sharing your world, and recognizing that whatever your feelings are, put the human race first and listen.

Tonight I heard student voice, and through that voice:
I heard - joy, sadness, passion, beauty, feelings of being marginalized.

I heard that a student is an imposter in some of their settings of learning.

I heard love from a sister to another as she was introduced.

I heard that being a woman can be rough.

I heard that the color of skin means a lot, to every side of this messed up equation.

To that I say:
Students you are important, you are valued, you are necessary, YOUR VOICE NEEDS TO BE HEARD. You are talented. You are__________________. And your job is to fill in that blank with whatever you want to be and however you wish to express yourself.

We are Waterloo
We are the Cedar Valley
We are Black Hawk County
We are the state of Iowa
We are the Midwest
We are the USA
We are the World

We are different
We are the same
We are every adjective you can think of, good, bad, on our best and worst days
We are motivated
We are striving for a greater world

I sing because you sing
I play because you play
I write because you have written

Your story needs to be continued to be told
You need to continue pushing boundaries to improve the world
You need to be present
You need to be unique
You need to hold on

Not everyone is what they seem
Not everyone wishes to be unkind
Not everyone is going to understand the first time, be kind in turn, and lead by a strong example

All need to listen
All need to listen
Listen so hard that even the silence speaks, because it does, even louder, through actions and deeds
All need to speak for groups that aren't represented, for groups that aren't heard

To these students again,
Strive to rise above oppression - we are here for you - The glory is us, united as one, fighting as one...

This is nowhere as great as WWP, but I offer you their words, their mission, please seek out this project, and help individuals continue to write.

Sorry again that this is disjunct and perhaps hard to digest. I was so moved and could not find a way to articulate the powerful messages I heard tonight. Reach out, help, and share.

Like them on Facebook -

Peace my friends,

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Programs for Social Justice

It has been some time since I last posted and I have a heavy topic to discuss. Social justice is a topic that many throw around to discuss the inequities of our society. Typically those are talked through issues or race, ethnic background, religion, poverty, lifestyle, and a slew of other topics. I recently attended the American Choral Director's Association National Conference and was given the pleasure of attending a session entitled, "A Voice of Reason: Social Justice, the Greater Good, and Why We Sing". This was presented by Dr. Kristina Caswell MacMullen, with the Ohio State University.

Before we get into a thought about religious groups and the negative ideals associated with social justice, we need to first recognize that social justice was originally an effort of the church. The thought of life and dignity for all was important, and the poor and vulnerable were the focus of these groups.

Dr. MacMullen introduced the session to a number of contemporary choruses and their social justice iterations. The two that I will discuss in this post are related to those with a mission related to social justice.

The first that I want to discuss is "The Seven Last Words of the Unarmed" by Joel Thompson. The University of Michigan Men's Glee Club, under the direction of Dr. Eugene Rogers, performed this very powerful work. There are seven specific movements, dedicated to men of color, black men, that had encountered with police and were shot at, or were racially identified. This is truly powerful, because some things that are said, are not what you would expect. One that strikes out to me is, "Mom, I'm going to college." Amadou Diallo, age 23, said those words. This movement opens with a solo, sung by an African American student, with the most simple piano and strings accompaniment. There is no malice. Beautifully sung, the image of peace is present, but clearly is not, was not, in that circumstance.

I have been listening to this on repeat because I think there are a few things that are crucial to society moving on - people make mistakes on either side of race. If you're reading this right now, I need to tell you, I am not well versed on these cases, so cannot speak to them specifically, but can speak to the music performed. Another thing to share is that this is not a cause for a blanket statement that all police men and women are evil, or do not do their jobs, because they do. The idea is to address what police brutality may be out there, or is out there.

The second social justice program, we were introduced to, was the Ohio State University Women's Glee Club. Their program dealt with another hefty issue, one that addresses human trafficking and its implications. When discussing this, I never realized what an issue this actually is. This program was based on a book entitle Girls Like Us by Rachel Lloyd. The concert was entitled "Concert: Freedom". The program was comprised of different pieces to depict the life of an individual that was trafficked, that struggle they endure, and eventually the freedom that can come through perseverance and assistance. Ultimately, the Women's Glee Club raised money through this performance to help remove the brands from women, breaking the shackles of their pimp. This process would allow the individual that was trafficked to go to a tattoo artist and have their brand morphed into a sign of freedom.

Well, there it is. I am daring to venture out, and I'm not entirely prepared for the criticism, but we need to have conversations. Do not assume anything, unless you are assuming the best intention. I want to move forward from here thinking that we instead of dividing, are growing stronger. This forces us to get over ourselves, look past our political affiliations, our racial biases (PS. Everyone has them, even if you don't want to admit it), and do what's best for marginalized groups. If you have privilege, you better use it... because if you don't, the tables may turn and you may be in need of assistance.

Thank you for reading this emotionally charged smattering of words. Be kind, friends.


Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Community, Family, and Life Updates

Hello readers,
Let me set the scene for you - I am currently with my mother, a woman that has been dealt a rough hand, not always been able to play to her strengths, in the hospital. The post surgery recovery has been rough and she has been up here in Mason City for about 24 hours now. I am in scrubs and gloves to protect me from the contagious bacteria that could be in my mothers system.

I set that stage for you because I'm learning a lot about this thing we call being an adult. A couple of weeks ago, I had a fantastic opportunity to attend 7 Habits of Highly Effective People training, offered through the Leader Valley Program. I need to tell all of you, how truly beneficial and life changing that training was. Some of you may know that Stephen Covey researched and pooled resources, creating the 7 habits. These habits are extremely beneficial and the first three - Be Proactive, Begin with the End in Mind, and Put First Things First, put things into perspective for me.

As an educator, I typically put my students, my family, my job, and everything else before me, but that shouldn't be the case. Think to yourself, be brutally honest, how much of what you do is for you? How much of what happens in life, do you have control over. That is the most freeing, yet terrifying prospect we have...

Habits 4-6, relate to our interactions with our colleagues, our families, our friends, and everyone else. They are "Think Win-Win", "Seek 1st to understand, then be understood", and "Synergize". How often when we are working in a collaborative setting do you think about what allows all parties to win? This is definitely not compromise, but rather, it's consensus to a degree. The next habit is very tricky for me... My class sizes are anywhere from 30 to 7- students in a period and it can be hard to take time to truly listen. Active listening is a skill that is necessary for us to get the whole picture and not just snippets. There can be a better chance to students or other adults understanding your side if you listen without planning what your "comeback" or "last word" will be. Synergy is putting things together in a collaborative way. In my classes, we have to work together, otherwise, we cannot make the choral sound we desire/need.

Habit 7, is another struggle for me. Sharpening the saw relates to health, spiritual, mental, physical, and more. This means to not do things in excess, instead budget daily time to take a walk, read a book, meditate, and whatever makes you happy and renews your energy. Dear teachers... the struggle is real... we are at the driver's seat of that struggle bus and we can't get off sometimes... Get an accountability partner, do something! I took the time to leave my house this past weekend, which is rare. I felt so extremely refreshed!

I left that 2 day training, exhausted, mentally and emotionally. It was worth every minute though. I loved it. I have been working on a specific habit as I can to ensure balance within me and my life. Take the time - it is self help, but it is even more related to your lifestyle. Pick up the Seven Habits book that fits you and take some time to make you better.

Thanks for reading my musings... More to come after this hospital visit is over.


Wednesday, October 12, 2016

How to "Close Read" in Chorus

Hello friends!

In the Waterloo Schools, we are fortunate enough to have the accessibility to technology when we need it, and we have recently begun a 1:1 device program with our 6th grade students.

As a Leader in Me Lighthouse School, students lead a lot of their learning and their communications of their learning. Students are expected to run their own conferences. This is done through a binder that has an artifact of learning from their courses, and a reflection of their work in the course so far. They are also expected to meet during Lead Time (homeroom) to discuss the 7 Habits that go with Leader in Me, work to build their binder, and to goal set/check on the progress of those goals.

In an attempt to save paper and costs (music teachers pay out of their budgets for concert programs), I decided I needed to become creative. Instead of having students in 8th grade fill out a formal reflection sheet and have a worksheet to demonstrate their learning/progress, I have decided that students in chorus need to be singing and can record themselves individually singing within a group. On Monday and Tuesday this week, I had students either bring their device to chorus, or use my phone to record them individually singing the Star-Spangled Banner. I wanted to have them sing together as a group, but be able to pick up their specific voice for the recording. After they completed the recording they emailed those to me, I added them to Google Drive, and I shared them with the students.

Today was our day to perform some close reading. After having some MISIC training and working on ways to authentically integrate literacy into the music classroom I think I found a way for it to work. Students were given a set of questions to ask, but had to listen to their own recording 3 specific times. We went to our computer lab and students listened and responded to their recordings. To access that specific assignment, you may view a copy here. As I was instructed by Nancy Lockett, text can be anything and in this case it's a recording that students have to close "read" or rather listen to.

The reactions of students were priceless - many students were ashamed of their recordings, or happy with them, or freaked out saying, "You're not going to like, make us have our parents listen to this, right?" To put their minds at ease, I said, "It's up to you if you want to share that. Is it your best product?" The instant growth mindset moment was awesome! Students are begging to re-record, but that's my goal... To build a sound profile for the students and show the growth with instruction. The more we can help students realize that literacy in a meaningful way is everyone's job. I want to make sure that students become reflective, can articulate effectively, and begin to think critically about performance.

I cannot take the full credit for this... Lauren Fladland from College Community Schools suggested using student devices to record students individually while they sing in a group setting. Kayla Becker, our literacy coach, helped me frame the close reading. James Healy provided the arrangement of the banner. Nancy Lockett and all of the MISIC training team, for pushing me to improve my instruction.

Thanks for reading!