Confessions of a Mid-Career Music Teacher:
How a Chocolate Chip Cookie Episode Refreshed My Teaching Strategies
By Amelia Armstrong, WMEA Vice President, Southwest District
This is not a misprint: my teaching perspective was refreshed by a television episode about chocolate chip cookies. I’d reached the middle of my career in music education. This means I kept my head above water for the first few years, attended lots of workshops, and tried lots of tools and tricks to feel like I’d hit my stride. It also means I was finding myself stuck in a rut, and getting a bit too comfortable with how my classroom operated. I became concerned that I was already change-resistant, afraid of new methods, ideas and technology.
When I was an early-career teacher, I was trying to assemble my bag of ideas, eagerly adopting new practices and soaking up knowledge from veteran educators. By the time I hit years 8-10, I felt like I had hit my stride, and had the majority of my teaching practices feeling comfortable. I had been making really good cookies for a long time, and everyone liked them. As I approach year 15, I think, “Hmm, I’ve got 15-20 more years of cookies to make, and maybe there are better recipes and methods out there.” Enter the chocolate chip cookie.
One day while flipping through channels, a famous television food scientist featured an episode about all chocolate chip cookies. As a cook and baker, I’m partial to food metaphors, but this episode truly blew my mind. The gist is to deconstruct your recipe, and examine variations on the flours, shortenings and leavenings. Depending on whether you prefer chewy, crispy or cake-like, there are many different ways to get to the same end result, and they are all delicious.
Consider this: I had been using the same sight-singing method, the same general warm-ups, the same technology and the same classroom routine for several years. I had a rotation of mini-units that I squeezed into my curriculum between concerts. The general flow of the year was predictable and stable. I made my cookies with butter and all-purpose flour, and I liked them that way.
Imagine my surprise when I learned that bread flour or pastry flour can change the cookie texture. Instead of butter, I could use margarine, Crisco® or even applesauce. I could adjust the amounts of baking soda or powder, and could select from milk, semi-sweet, dark or white chocolate chips. I could make a few small adjustments, and end up with a brand new, but equally scrumptious cookie.
It really made me think: how could I change a few elements of our classroom structure and make a completely new music experience that was still challenging and fulfilling? I had been using similar tools to teach choir for a while. Aural skills, sight-reading, solfege, movement/dance, metaphors, props, the list goes on.
What about a new app or web-based platform to complete an assignment I’ve done paper and pencil? Might I develop a new two-week unit for the days of class following our spring concert? Could I switch out my sight-singing method, have my students write and lead their own warm-ups, challenge my guitar class by teaching improvisation in a new way?
When you reach the middle of your career, starting from scratch with any teaching material might seem like an overwhelming task. Making small adjustments, however, is less intimidating. Varying an ingredient or two could yield an even better cookie that I’ve never before considered. Student vocal portfolios, new practice software, student-led groups, could open up new learning and collaboration amongst my students.
Whenever I try something new in my classroom, I feel a bit nervous, but also very energized. The art and science of teaching is dynamic; every day music educators create and innovate. Regardless of the years of service we have given, swapping out a few elements each year, like an ingredient in a recipe, can help keep my classroom ‘cookies’ new and fresh.