Teachers for Teachers | Slice of Life: We Know Our Song
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Slice of Life: We Know Our Song

11454297503_e27946e4ff_h“I know I am preaching to the choir. Preaching to the choir is not such a bad thing; the choir needs to know the song best.”                                                                                                                                                                       Kylene Beers

Kylene said these words last November at NCTE. I immediately put them on a “stickie” on my computer desktop. They are with me every day. While I write, plan and think at home. While I present, lead and co-teach in schools. While I model, observe and scaffold in classrooms. I don’t know why I reread them again and again. They speak to me and I am not sure why.

Recently I was coaching in a classroom and noticed a conductor’s stand in the front of the room like this one:


At first, I thought what a great idea! Papers won’t slip off, you can clip things to the side, it doesn’t take up much room…

and then the quote hit me. I turned to the teacher.

I love this stand. I love everything about it.

He was trying to be polite and agree that it is helpful and practical.

No, no. I mean I love this stand. What it represents – it is like a symbol.

Now, we had just been talking with small groups of students about layers of meaning in text and I think he thought I might have been joking but I wasn’t. I truly made a new connection to that quote.

As teachers we are not just members of the choir, we orchestrate the choir. We need to know the song so well, in our hearts and in our minds, if we are going to bring it to life for our students. It is not enough to just post the lyrics, put the lyrics in a plan book or sing the lyrics word for word. As teachers we consider the rhythm, how the music adds layers of meaning and the message intended in the composition. As teachers we need to know the song best so we can consider how we are going to lead our students to understand the purpose of our teaching and of their learning. Teaching is not a list of objectives or a weekly plan. We need to orchestrate how we are going to bring those objectives to life in a way that is meaningful, engaging and exciting. When programs, curriculum and mandates are constantly changing how can we feel like we know our song?

If we were to hand the conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra a 375-page book filled with new material, could he conduct it with the same passion and confidence as the songs he knew by heart? Even if the orchestra played the notes, would he be conducting? Would the audience be moved by the performance? If not, would it be due to the conductor’s level of expertise? Would the members of the orchestra be considered at-risk?

Purchased curriculum, units of study and mentor lessons are merely some lyrics. So many new resources can make us feel that we no longer know the words. The stress and doubt I feel among teachers in so many schools makes we wonder if teachers do believe they know the song best. Do they believe Kylene is preaching to them? Can you imagine trying to conduct a song you believe you don’t know (and our orchestra doesn’t even sit still)?

Teaching is an art and a science. Teaching is knowing how students learn and how to bring curriculum to life. We need to remember that is our song. Teachers are both in the choir and conductors of a choir. Teachers have to both learn and teach simultaneously. We don’t get a week, a month or a year to learn and then try to teach. We are expected to learn and then immediately teach. It can makes us feel like we don’t know our song.

We need to remember to hold on to what we know is true in teaching and learning as we are also learning new standards.  We are in the choir, but we also conduct the choir. We need to conduct our choir in way that is developmentally appropriate, engaging and fun!  We need to give ourselves time to learn, grow and perfect our practice. We are getting some new lyrics, but we know our song.  Kylene’s quote has layers of meaning for me and yes, I do believe – even if we may not feel it right now – she is preaching to us and we are in the choir!


Thank you to StaceyTaraDanaBetsyAnnaBeth, Kathleen, and Deb for this space for us to share our stories each day in March.  Be sure to visit Two Writing Teachers to read more Slice of Life posts and consider joining this community.

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    Posted at 14:48h, 19 March Reply

    This post just makes me want to sing. I have never heard that quote by Kylene, but it is perfect….as
    are your words that follow. I don’t think teachers feel like conductors anymore. When I watch a true musician play I am always struck by how they seem to become one with the piece. When we are comfortable with the music and believe in the selection, there is a difference in the work we do. It’s such important work. We need to know it by heart.


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      Posted at 15:20h, 19 March Reply

      Wow! Thank you so much for this piece! You helped me realize today what has been missing in many of my lessons this year. The fact that I don’t know what I am teaching by heart. We are in the midst of using two new resource materials this year and I am using bits and bobbles and lessons that don’t ring true to what I know a love by heart. (new reading and math materials) The lessons that I have had the most success with this year have been lessons that come from what I know by heart. The lessons that my students and I both struggled with have been the ones where I tried something new, something different, something that I wasn’t 100% sure about, something that came from the new resources.

      Now, with all of this being said, I am hopeful that after using these new resources this year and spending more time with them this summer, they will become part of my repertoire and that I will be able to navigate with them much better in the future. I need more time with them, more time understand them, more time to make connections to them, more time!

      I would love to share this post with some of my teaching partners.

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    Laurie Ryan
    Posted at 15:04h, 19 March Reply

    You have beautifully articulated the struggles many of my colleagues and I have as we strive to be the best teachers for the students (choir) sitting in front of us. We often lose sight of the fact that “We need to give ourselves time to learn, grow and perfect our practice.” We feel the pressures of learning new standards and forget the what we know about teaching and learning is still true. The art of conducting remains the same, we just need to give ourselves time to perfect a new song. Thanks!

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    Judy Jester
    Posted at 15:09h, 19 March Reply

    Clare. This is incredibly rich. As teachers we not only orchestrate the choir, we need to be singers ourselves. The only ones who can truly teach kids to read and write well are teachers who read and write themselves. What an essential lesson. Well done!

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    Kathleen Sokolowski
    Posted at 15:36h, 19 March Reply

    This post… Speaks so much to my teaching heart and soul. I need to reread it and reread it again. Thank you!!

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    Posted at 15:49h, 19 March Reply

    This is such a powerful piece Clare. I am meeting with some teachers for dinner this week md plan to share it with them. It says so Michael! Thank you for being such a wise and caring educator.

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    Bonnie Kaplan
    Posted at 15:49h, 19 March Reply

    Perfect… that music stand sets the stage for us as educators! I’m not in the classroom teaching kids but my heart is there and I can’t look away from what needs to happen so we can return to the song we need to write and sing with power.
    Bravo to your wonderfully inspired Slice!!!!

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    Krista Schmidt
    Posted at 15:51h, 19 March Reply

    This post makes me think and rethink. I love the musical metaphor, yet you’ve extended it beyond what I may have thought about before. I agree with Kathleen, this is a post to reread again and again. Thank you!

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    Shari Daniels
    Posted at 16:00h, 19 March Reply

    Such a beautiful quote ~ I’m printing it off and onto some image for my bulletin board. I love deep reflections such as this, and when words stay etched in our brains so that what we see all connect to them.

    I think about those words, “preaching to the choir”, but they are also pressure filled, don’t you think? I mean, they give the implication that we already know this stuff, and much we do. But, I like to also think I don’t know much and am reminded of that every day when I step into my classroom

    I guess I need the conductors, and quite often those are the kids.

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    Carrie Gelson
    Posted at 16:06h, 19 March Reply

    I love this – from the huge sense in that quote, to your absolute excitement over the conductor’s stand to your rolling out your thinking.

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    Jennifer Laffin
    Posted at 20:50h, 19 March Reply

    “We need to know the song so well, in our hearts and in our minds, if we are going to bring it to life for our students.” One of the best lines I’ve read all day.


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    Posted at 10:51h, 20 March Reply

    This post is so true. I finally feel that I know what I’m doing. I feel like I’ve become the conductor. I know my lessons, my strategies, what I want my students to learn by heart. Of course I’m always growing and continuing to learn, so that sure feeling doesn’t last long, but when I teach those things I know in my heart and soul, things go well!

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    Anna Cockerille
    Posted at 13:29h, 20 March Reply

    Yes yes yes! x a million, This:
    Purchased curriculum, units of study and mentor lessons are merely some lyrics. So many new resources can make us feel that we no longer know the words.

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    Bev Baird
    Posted at 00:02h, 21 March Reply

    Such a powerful, thoughtful piece. Love the analogy of teaching to cnoducting a choir.

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    Posted at 03:07h, 21 March Reply

    Amen! This is exactly what i have been thinking about this past week. Thank you for writing it so eloquently. As someone who incessantly thinks and talks in analogies and is the daughter of a music educator, I truly connected with this slice. I have been trying to write this post this week, but you have done it beautifully! Teachers have to be the best act in town in a series of one act improvs that connect from day to day. To follow your analogy, sometimes we are the audience and sometimes we are the actors.

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    Posted at 13:34h, 25 March Reply

    Thanks for this wonderful post. I know that at this time of year many middle school teachers like myself are struggling to hold on to our batons let alone actually conduct our “orchestra”. We struggle to balance being a good conductor with an ever increasing need to be a babysitter to a room full of tweens and teens whose hormones have run amok. It is nice to remember that we are supposed to be the conductors.

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    MIchele Hamilton
    Posted at 15:58h, 25 March Reply

    Thank you for this insightful post that speaks directly to what I have been feeling lately, as a teacher of ELA who continually strives to know her material deeply and to construct meaningful learning experiences for her students. I understand there is value in some of the new expectations and ideas of the past 5+ years, but the stream of information and demands is often overwhelming, and detracts from my ability to do what I believe is at the heart of being a good teacher. Your words are so encouraging, a touchstone to come back to!

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