By mid-October I felt fairly comfortable in meeting the demands of my job. True I had all but abandoned the Urban Sketching Club I had started and did almost nothing on the weekends but the absolutely necessary chores. My job consumed my life. But I was doing a good job. I was writing good lesson plans and submitting them early. I was creating activities for my students that helped them meet the standards for the National Music Curriculum of England. These activities were engaging and fun so that without even realizing it, they were developing a variety of musical skills. Slowly but surely I was creating my own music manipulatives such as laminated solfeggi circles for sight singing, laminated quarter notes and eighth notes for rhythm practice, and individual repeat sign cards for listening exercises. I don’t have an assistant so I do everything myself. And the laminating machine is in the main building across the street, so I need a large block of prep time for those projects. I only have a couple such blocks of time each week. Though I requested instruments in August, I received nothing. Nor was I reimbursed for the class set of shakers I bought which I used with nearly every class. The shakers and claves (rhythm sticks) were the two instruments I had enough of where each child could have an instrument. So wow did I make good use of those two instruments. Claves were excellent for rhythm practice. I would tap a rhythm using some combination of quarter notes and eighth notes and all the children would echo my rhythm—in unison. Then each child would have an opportunity to be the leader and the rest of us would echo that student’s rhythm pattern. This is excellent practice in working together as an ensemble. Laying the foundation for future participation in a band or orchestra when they are older. The shakers were especially good for my nursery and KG classes. I would play a variety of music and allow my young students to shake to the music in whatever way they chose. They could also get up and dance while playing their shaker. I gave a model for the children to follow if they chose, generally a steady beat or repeated pattern that matched the rhythm of the music. Smiles abound when they get the shakers and I turn on the music. They think they are just having fun. But actually they are learning to respond to a variety of music with movement and improvise with an instrument—two standards in the curriculum. :)
I love the challenge of taking curriculum standards and translating them into fun and engaging activities for kids. I love to make learning fun. Because it is! But it does take a lot of effort and by the end of October I was extremely ready for a break.
We got a full week off the last week of October for the Buddhist holiday Thadingyut Festival, or Lighting Festival. MIS had a half day before the break and everyone spent the morning in ceremony. In the Lower Primary building, specialist teachers for music, art, PE, and Myanmar studies went to each classroom so the children of each class could apologize for any sins or wrongdoings they may have committed and the teachers could offer their forgiveness and good wishes as is the tradition of the religious holiday. It was my first exposure to the holiday and the particular practices of my school and yet, in the very first nursery class where we started I was asked to speak first. I smiled at the room full of nursery children and expectant parents and said a few words wishing them good health and happiness. When I stopped speaking the nursery teacher clearly wanted me to say more but I had nothing else. I got better at my little speech as we moved from class to class adding words of forgiveness and elaborating on all the good things I wished for them.
It was a special day for the children to get to come to school dressed in colorful traditional Myanmar clothes instead of their customary red school uniform. Even the children who aren’t Buddhist or Myanmar dressed up. I didn’t have a traditional outfit made so I wore one of my skirts made out of traditional cloth.
After the asking for and receiving of forgiveness, the children present their teachers with gifts. As a specialist I have 175 students and I received so many bags of gifts I couldn't possible carry them all. Two of the women who clean our school noticed me staring at all the bags and saw that I needed help. They kindly offered to carry my bags to the street where I could catch a taxi home. Gifts of cookies, coffee, towels, blankets and yards of beautiful fabric. This pre-holiday ceremony was the first time I was able to engage with some of the parents of my students. It made the day a lovely send off to the much needed break.
As I wrote in my previous post we spent the week relaxing on the beach. I booked the trip knowing full well I would be exhausted by that point. Little did I know what was coming after the break would be the most taxing part of the semester!
The Wednesday before our week off, my principal said I needed to start thinking about “costumes” for my classes for the Holiday Program. Every year (since the school opened in 2009 I presume) the music teacher has hired a tailor to make unique costumes for all the children to perform in on stage during the big holiday program. I wasn’t quite sure just what this holiday program was so I did some searching and found a video of the 2014 program. In the US there is usually a band concert or choir concert for the upper grades. Younger children generally sing songs and play simple patterns on percussion instruments. What I mostly saw on the video was class after class doing some rehearsed movements to pop music and in some cases lip-syncing too. Some classes had quite elaborate costumes. I knew before watching the video that I wanted my classes to sing and for the older grades to play percussion instruments to accompany themselves. But after watching the video I realized that people would not be expecting this and might not welcome the change that I would bring to the program. But I was really proud of the music skills I was teaching my students. They love to sing and can sing well, in tune and in unison. They enjoy playing instruments even more and love every opportunity I give them to try each new instrument I introduce. I really wanted to share all this with their parents. To instead teach them dance moves to some professional recording artist’s song, seemed to deprive my students of the opportunity to share their own musical skills.
So I decided to stick with my original concept of a concert for my portion of the holiday program. All my classes would sing songs. So the music was decided but I still had to figure out the “costumes”. The Holiday Program was scheduled for December 4 which meant when I returned from the break I would have basically 1 month to get custom made clothes for 175 children! When I asked my tailor over the summer to make my skirts, she took a week to make 4! I was in a panic. How in the world could I get all these tailor-made clothes made in time??? I didn’t even have a pattern to work from yet!
Stephen suggested I just have choir robes made. Fit wouldn’t matter so much, so in theory sewing could be faster. So I tried that idea. I found a few pictures of choir robes online. I measured my students and took photos of a few. With the drawing tool in my photo editing program I drew a crude drawing of a robe onto the photo of one of the boys. And I took all of these things to my tailor.
Complete disaster. She just kept shaking her head. Remember, she speaks very little English and I speak no Myanmar language. As best as I could understand, she had never seen a choir robe and had no idea how to make one, particularly not from pictures and without an actual garment to work from.
My principal told me to ask some of the homeroom teachers about the tailors they had used in the past. The Holiday Program is a major production and major showpiece for the school. It happens at a big hotel owned by the owner of our school. Fancy lighting and sound systems are brought in. Dinner is provided for everyone—all 650 students and their relatives, all teachers and assistant teachers. It lasts for hours. And it’s done every single year! You would think, at least I did, that the school would have found a lead tailor for this yearly project. But when I asked, the response was, “No, I don’t have a tailor.” and “No, I don’t know a tailor.” or worse "Last year's tailor really messed up the costumes." So I decided to use my tailor and ask the assistant teachers in my building to help translate for me.
The robe idea was out. So I went to Ocean market and looked at the children’s clothes. I found a sweet little princess dress, a pair of boys short pants, and a shirt. Now I had actual garments, I just needed to get the right colors of fabric and then get measurements for all the students. Just that! Good golly!!!
Finally my tailor Oh Ma came to my school and some of the assistant teachers started helping me explain what I wanted her to do for me. Think about how hard communication is when people speak the same language! Now add to that that I was feeling the intense time crunch we were under! Many of the questions I needed answers to and instructions I needed to give Oh Ma were lost in translation. But the major message was successfully communicated that I needed Oh Ma to be the lead tailor for my project and find tailors to help share the load of work. Also that I had wanted to use the same basic pattern for the clothes, but that I needed a unique color scheme for each of my 10 classes. There wasn’t time enough to find 10 unique patterns so I wanted the colors alone to meet the criteria my principal gave me of something different for every single class.
Oh Ma left that first meeting with the job of finding tailors to help her and she needed to get back to me as soon as possible with whether or not she could do what I was asking in the time frame we had to work with.
She did get back to me quickly with the answer that yes she could get everything done, but the soonest was December 10. By this point, my principal was working to get the program changed to a later date. But it had not been finalized. I decided I needed to find more tailors if I could, just in case the program could not be switched to the later date. With the assistance of one of the homeroom teachers, I found one more tailor. The manager of this tailor department was wonderful to work with. Because she was fluent in English, I could easily explain to her exactly what I envisioned. She also had a wonderful eye for detail and added things I wanted for the clothes that I just could not communicate to Oh Ma with the language barrier. Sadly this new tailor department could only handle one class. But at least it was one class less for Oh Ma.
Amazingly, Oh Ma delivered. Though everything was not perfect (fit could have been better, color choices could have been different, etc.), all the children had color coordinated clothes to wear on stage. And she even made the December 4 deadline! I demanded a lot from her but I gave her a big job and I think she came out financially better off for it. There were a number of misunderstandings and mistakes made that had to be corrected, and frustrations were high on both our parts. But I hope in the end she benefitted at least as much as I did from our work relationship.
The costumes project took a huge chunk of time out of my weeks: not just my prep time but also after school and during the classes with my students. Class time that should have been spent practicing music. Originally, my principal said that I needed one song for each class. That’s what I had planned and practice for. But when he learned that the songs my students were singing were only 1 minute songs and not the 3 minute songs of the pop type that they have danced to in the past, he said I need 2 songs for each class.
My students are young, the oldest classes are 6-year-olds. And add to that they are ALL English language learners. They need more time to fully learn the lyrics of new songs. Some of the classes had been working on their songs for months. Now I had to add new songs to each class and we had 3 weeks to learn them. When the program date was changed, I saw a much needed opportunity to focus on the music side of the program. Finally the presentation side was in hand. It was necessary, but for me the most important part was the music. So I made CDs of each class’s songs and typed out the lyrics, gave these to the homeroom teachers and asked them if they wouldn’t mind taking a few minutes of their day to quickly run through the songs. I used music with the lyrics to support reading skills when I had my own homeroom classes, so I thought this would not only be a help for me but could be added to the homeroom teachers’ reading lessons.
The final week of school was almost all about the Holiday program. Monday was rehearsal in the assembly hall at the school. Tuesday was rehearsal at the hotel. Wednesday was a half day with the Holiday Program commencing at 3pm. For the entire week I ran on adrenaline. By 3 pm on Wednesday afternoon I was calm and ready. I had never worked so hard to prepare for a production. And in the end I did it. All the details came together. My kids looked great and there were some authentic musical moments. My nursery and KG classes sang songs and did movements that either supported the lyrics or some musical aspect of the songs. My Y1 and Y2 students sang songs with hand motions too. But every class sang at least one sang where they also played an instrumental accompaniment. I used all the percussion instruments I had in my classroom (drums, guiros, claves, shakers, ring bells, and castanets) plus a set of bells I bought in Singapore in early November when I realized I was not going to get the hand bells I had ordered from the school. I managed to do what I set out to do despite many hurdles.
So here are the photos from my program, thanks to my Kiwi friend and fellow teacher, Kimberly.