Drumming from Death to Life


“Mr Feller, can we get sick and die?”

The question was a legitimate one.  Here I was taking a group of 7th graders to the hospital to perform for pediatric patients; most of my students lived in poverty and had never performed volunteer work – and their experiences with the hospital were anything but positive.

“No, you won’t get sick and die.  Honestly, they’re more at risk of getting sick from you than you are from them.  These kids will all be fighting serious diseases – cancer, leukemia, stuff like that.  Diseases you can’t catch by breathing the same air or being in the same room.  But their bodies, because they are so sick, are at danger of catching colds or the flu from you guys, which is why the hospital won’t let someone come and perform if you’ve been sick recently.” I tried to both re-assure them they would be okay, and at the same time give them a glimpse of what these children were suffering from – and how severe it was.

In 1999 my sister, then 20 years old, died of leukemia.  The Thanksgiving after her high school graduation she was diagnosed with a rare form of bone cancer in her knee.  After 18 months of intense chemo and multiple surgeries – including having a fake knee installed and 18” of her femur removed – she was doing well and it appeared the cancer was gone.  Because of her age at diagnoses Erin was chosen as a recipient of a wish from the Starlight Foundation, so in the summer of 1999 we – my parents, her, and myself – all traveled to Alaska and spent 7 days on an Alaska cruise.  Unbeknownst to me, that was the last time I would see her alive.  After the cruise I returned to my home in Florida and she returned to her home outside Chicago; I had made plans to see her that Christmas, but, unfortunately, that didn’t materialize as I had expected.  Instead of coming home for the holidays to go Christmas shopping and enjoy each other’s company, I came home and held the hand of her comatose body and sat next to her as she breathed her final breaths.

I remember visiting her in the hospital and seeing all the kids there, and how depressed they were, and I vowed to do whatever I could to try and bring a little happiness and joy into their lives.  So when I became a music teacher I started partnering with an area hospital and would take my students to perform for the pediatric patients.  Today was the day we were preparing to take this particular class for the first time.  They were both nervous and excited – and so was I.

We spent the class reviewing policies and procedures given to us by the hospital; we talked about what it would mean for the patients; but, mostly, we practiced our songs.  I knew that the learning they were going to have as a result of interacting with these patients was not something I could prepare them for.  So I simply prepared them for what they were expecting – performing music.

The next day we arrived at the hospital and setup in a small auditorium.  The kids were excited to be showing off what they learned, and you could feel the excitement as they chatted and rehearsed their numbers.  As the patients began arriving, though, something changed.  My students were used to performing for healthy people – and even though I had told them about what they would see, nothing could really prepare them for it.  Kids being brought in in wheel chairs, some walked on crutches, and almost every single one was attached to an IV cart.  Kids as young as 3 years old, some who had to be held because they were so sick.  My students looked at me with eyes of concern and fear; I smiled at them, nodded, and simply said, “This is why we are here – it will be alright.”

By the time we started playing there were probably 75 patients in the auditorium.  At first the students struggled to focus, but eventually they found their rhythm and started playing.  As they played you could hear the patients clapping, and I knew from the looks on my kids faces that the patients behind me were smiling and having a good time.


After the first 20 minutes of performance we invited patients up to play with us.  This was actually the heart of the volunteer program – we weren’t here just to perform for these patients, we were here to drum with them.  My students knew this would happen, but they looked at me with concern in my eyes as some of the patients came up and had IVs sticking out of their hands.  “Will they be okay, Mr. Feller?”  “Will they get blood on my drum?”  All sorts of questions – questions I had anticipated from previous visits; questions birthed in what was becoming true concern for their well-being rather than fear.  My students were starting to build not just sympathy for these patients, but empathy with them.

“They’ll be fine,” I assured them, “The nurses are only picking kids who are healthy enough to come up here.”  My students stood up from their chairs so that the patients could sit in them, and then they were assigned to teach the patient the part for the song we were doing.  In class my kids hated – absolutely hated – sharing a drum; but here, something had changed in them.  They were excited to share, and they willingly offered the drum to the patients.  We started to drum – I taught the patterns, we modeled, and, within just a few minutes, we were making music, only this time the patients were making music instead of watching it.

An hour later we were back on the bus.  The mood on the bus was different than on the ride over, though.  What had been chatty excitement had turned to quiet contemplation.  A couple of my students were crying.  As we rode I stood at the front of the bus to debrief with my students what had just happened.  One looked at me and said, “My Feller, where did they go after the performance?”

“What do you mean, where did they go?”

“After they left the auditorium, where did they go?  Did they go back home?  Did they go to another performance?  What did they do?” the student asked.

Even with everything that had happened, my students still struggled to grasp the severity of it all.  “They went back to their rooms,” I replied.  “This is all they get to do – because they are so sick they spend all day, every day, for months in their rooms – laying in a bed, maybe watching TV or playing video games.  But they only time they leave is for treatment, or to come see us.”

“You mean they spend 23 hours a day in their bed, and the one time they got to leave they came to see us?” one of them exclaimed?

“More or less,” I responded.  “It’s not like they’re in prison, but because they’re so sick they can’t go out and interact much.  So, yes, they spend almost all day in their room, and today they got to come do something special – and that something special was to play drums with you.”


“That’s so sad,” one of them commented.  “I wish I could do more.”

“It is sad,” I said, “But you also need to realize how much you did do.”

At which point they started talking about the looks on the patients’ faces, how much fun they had playing with the patients, how cool it was to teach them songs.  I sat down, thankful that my students were, for the briefest of moments, seeing beyond themselves, and experiencing something bigger than their own lives.


Be Thankful for Your Teacher and a Vet

Recently I received an email from my Aunt who lives in Arizona.  She likes to forward those emails that everyone gets, but one caught my eye and, upon further investigation, it actually appears to be true.  Below is a copy of the email she sent:

 Back in September of 2005, on the first day of school, Martha Cothren, a social studies school teacher at Robinson High School in Little Rock , did something not to be forgotten. On the first day of school, with the permission of the school superintendent, the principal and the building supervisor, she removed all of the desks out of her classroom.  When the first period kids entered the room they discovered that there were no desks.

‘Ms. Cothren, where’re our desks?’

She replied, ‘You can’t have a desk until you tell me how you earn the right to sit at a desk.’

They thought, ‘Well, maybe it’s our grades.’

‘No,’ she said.

‘Maybe it’s our behavior.’

She told them, ‘No, it’s not even your behavior.’

And so, they came and went, the first period, second period, third period. Still no desks in the classroom.  By early afternoon television news crews had started gathering in Ms. Cothren’s classroom to report about this crazy teacher who had taken all the desks out of her room.

The final period of the day came and as the puzzled students found seats on the floor of the deskless classroom, Martha Cothren said, ‘Throughout the day no one has been able to tell me just what he/she has done to earn the right to sit at the desks that are ordinarily found in this classroom. Now I am going to tell you.’

At this point, Martha Cothren went over to the door of her classroom and opened it.  Twenty-seven (27) U.S. Veterans, all in uniforms, walked into that classroom, each one carrying a school desk. The Vets began placing the school desks in rows, and then they would walk over and stand alongside the wall. By the time the last soldier had set the final desk in place, those kids started to understand, perhaps for the first time in their lives, just how the right to sit at those desks had been earned..

Martha said, ‘You didn’t earn the right to sit at these desks. These heroes did it for you. They placed the desks here for you. Now, it’s up to you to sit in them. It is your responsibility to learn, to be good students, to be good citizens. They paid the price so that you could have the freedom to get an education. Don’t ever forget it.’

By the way, this is a true story. And this teacher was awarded Teacher of the Year for the state of Arkansas in 2006.

Here’s why I share this story (one that honestly brought tears to my eyes as I read it).  The power and influence teachers have over children is absolutely astronomical – teachers can single-handedly chance the course of a child’s life, for good or bad.  Recently I was on vacation and was lucky enough to spend a day at Sea World – one of my absolute favorite places.  While I was there I kept thinking to myself, “Wow – what a cool place to work!”  That thought was immediately followed by, “But I’m not a science person, this isn’t the job for me.”

But that’s the funny part – when I was a kid I absolutely loved science – it was my favorite subject.  There was one teacher in particular who made the world come alive for me in a way I had never experienced – everything was hands-on and inquiry-based.  We asked questions and solved problems.  And we learned – if you asked me to identify the different types of clouds I can still recall laying on my back in the middle of the field during class as we looked up and learned about the types of clouds back in elementary school (much more interesting and engaging that learning it from a textbook).

Then I got to a new school – I was so excited to go to science, but once I got there my excitement quickly faded, in large part because the teachers just didn’t cut it.  They were boring, had low (and I mean LOW) expectations, and didn’t challenge me to learn.  The same is true in the field of art for me.  My wife loves the visual arts (her grandmother was an artist).  But me?  Not so much.  For the very reason I don’t understand it.  When we visit art museums I get bored, because I don’t understand what I’m looking at, and I can’t appreciate it.  But when I go with her and she explains it to me I enjoy it much more.  And guess what – my visual art teachers weren’t always the best, they were unable to connect with me (in all fairness, there was one in particular who did a great job, but by the time I got to him I was already turned off to art so I just didn’t work as hard as I could have for me).

But then there were teachers I absolutely loved – teachers whose class I didn’t want to miss for anything – teachers I worked hard for and invested time in because they did challenge and engage me.  Those teachers were ones I signed up to take extra classes with when I could, because I knew my time would be rewarded.  Choir, music, photography, English (I still remember my Lit G class to this day!), and history – all classes where the teachers taught me to think for myself, encouraged (and expected) me to ask questions, and helped me find answers.  When one of those teachers first said to me, “I could picture you as a teacher one day.”  It was the first time that thought had ever crossed my mind, but it’s the thought that stayed with me and helped direct and entire career path that’s brought me to where I am today.

Which gets out back to where I started… For those teachers out there who follow this blog, look for ways to engage and encourage your students – which will often require a dramatic shift in how you think about education (that’s what the story above demonstrates, a dramatic shift!).  And for you Vets out there who served and sacrificed so that I and others could go to school, thank you.

Every year I create a list of what I’m thankful for.  This year you can believe that teachers (some very specific ones) and Vets (again, some very specific ones) are on my list.  Happy Thanksgiving!

The Worst Teacher You Ever Had

I’m not sure how many people use Plinky or even know what it is, but last week they had an interesting prompt. Plinky is a website that offers writing prompts to help people, well, write stuff. Last week one prompt was “Describe the worst teacher you ever had.”

I was rather depressed and discouraged that this was even a prompt. Call me an optimist, but I prefer to focus discussions on the good rather than the bad. I would have preferred “Describe the best teacher” instead of the “worst” teacher, but that’s just me. I did, however, read through some of the posts – and there were 297 people who responded (though I only looked at about 60 posts) (how many people would have responded to talking about “the best”? Would it have been more, less, or the same?)

There were several common threads through many of the posts, and some are the traditional rants and raves that we as educators have heard time and time again. Like this post that describes the teacher who “talks AT us”, “didn’t listen” or ask questions, and who made “learning boring.” But the key phrase in this author’s post is that the teacher, “didn’t know us. didn’t care to know us.” How about the this one who “was apathetic towards his job and his students,” or the one who “lectured all day about things we don’t care about.”? Or even the author who gives us the generic “The worst teacher is the one who gives up.”

If you’re not easily discouraged read the author who starts his post by saying he had “more ignorant, apathetic, lazy, opinionated and biased teachers than one can shake a stick at.” The thing that saddens and discourages me is not that this person used bad examples to inspire himself to become a good teacher, but that one student can actually truthfully write that line! How can a student go 12 years in an educational system where it is acceptable that he experience more bad teachers than “one can shake a stick at”? That’s what’s discouraging!

And this isn’t a new problem – Dom Belmonte wrote in this article from October of 1999, “The teaching profession has been…masterful in the perpetuation of incompetence,” and that “teaching has become the egalitarian wasteland, where the primary purpose of its unions is perpetuation of membership.” Ouch – those are hard words to swallow.

So here’s the question: how do we change the image that is out there? I hear plenty of teachers blame everything from the students to the parents to the government. (After all – isn’t it because of NCLB that schools (and as a result teachers and administrators) are labeled as “failing”?)

We need a better way to not only identify good teachers but acknowledge them as well. It’s obvious that the teacher “who gives up” or who “doesn’t care” is ineffective and needs to go. But what about the teachers who care a whole lot but just aren’t any good at their jobs? Just because someone loves to sing doesn’t make them a good singer; just because someone loves basketball doesn’t make them a good player; and just because someone loves kids and education doesn’t make them a good teacher. Teaching is both science and art – the two go hand-in-hand.

What makes a good teacher? To start, it’s the one who is the opposite of all the above complaints – one who actually cares, who connects with kids makes learning fun, who doesn’t spend the day lecturing, and who doesn’t give up. But it’s more than just passion, it’s good technique, too. Teachers need to have a good command of their content area, yes, but they more importantly need a comprehensive command of how to teach. Good teaching should be defined by good learning, and that is a completely different concept than many people have today.

I spent eight years teaching music, and my biggest complaint about my music education program was that it focused more on music than on education – and I still have that criticism of most undergraduate and graduate programs I come in contact with today! Our universities seem to believe (based on course requirements for teachers) that in order to be an effective teacher one has to have a vast storehouse of knowledge from which to draw. That may have been appropriate and acceptable in a culture where teaching was primarily focused on the transfer of information from one person to another, where learning was defined by how much one knew.

But that’s not the case anymore. Teaching requires so much more than simply transferring knowledge because learning requires more than simple memorization. In the 21st century students need to know how to apply what they know; they need to be able to create solutions to questions that have not even been asked before they are asked. Shoot, they need to know how to ask the right questions. They don’t need to know more, they need to know how to do more; they need to know how to find information when they don’t know it.

What all these people are saying is that the worst teachers they had were the ones that were out-of-step with what they needed to learn. Who cares if a student knows that William the Conqueror won the Battle of Hastings in 1066? Life isn’t Jeopardy and we don’t need people who can walk around as “Encyclopedias of useless knowledge” (as one of my college roommates used to call me). What students need to understand is how to apply the knowledge of the Battle of Hastings to their present day lives; they need to understand not only how it impacts them today but how they can use it to build a better tomorrow.

And the sooner we accept that and adjust ourselves the sooner we will become the great educators we all long to be.

Just have to share this…

Cross posted on the Tar River Educator Blog

Okay, I just have to share this post from another blog… I have said for years that Smartboards are a great tool but they’re also not all they’re cracked up to be. I have seen too many teachers use Smartboards as an expensive whiteboard – and it drives me CRAZY. Here’s another person’s thoughts on the whole thing, and I think I have to agree with him…

Why Smartboards Are a Dumb Initiative

Defining "Student Engagement"

Cross-Posted on Tar River Educator

Yesterday I read an interesting article from NASSP entittled Recognizing Rigorous and Engaging Teaching and Learning. The article made the following statement:

“What would an observer expect to see in an engaging classroom? How does an administrator know when teachers and students are performing at a rigorous level? Having clear expectations and knowing what engaging instructional practices look like enables leaders to identify rigorous teaching and learning. When teachers know more specifically what to look for in their teaching and student learning, they are able to assess and reflect upon their own practice. These “look fors” identify what might be observed during a highly engaging, rigorous lesson. They also provide a deeper understanding of the expectations for a highly engaging, rigorous classroom. Let’s look at the indicator “Engages students in learning.” If the teacher is engaging students in learning, the teacher might begin a new lesson with an activity such as an anticipation guide to develop student knowledge and thinking. During the lesson, the teacher might provide opportunities for students to question and challenge each others’ ideas, using well-reasoned arguments. These “look fors” identify what might be observed during a highly engaging, rigorous lesson.

“It is essential that administrators and staff members have the knowledge and understanding of each component within the framework and know how to use the indicators and “look fors” to improve rigorous teaching and learning.”

Here are some of the look-fors the article mentioned:

  1. Develops students’ background knowledge
  2. Activates student knowledge and thinking
  3. Makes connections and integrates new learning with previous learning
  4. Models and thinks aloud the thinking and learning processes
  5. Provides opportunities for students to use and create graphic organizers to facilitate their learning before, during, and after instruction
  6. Uses instructional materials that appeal to diverse backgrounds and cultures
  7. Provides opportunities for students to apply complex concepts and processes
  8. Provides opportunities for students to reflect upon and summarize their learning
  9. Checks for understanding in a variety of ways and modifies instruction to meet student needs
  10. Provides opportunities for all students to think and discuss their ideas with other students
  11. Integrates a variety of technology tools and applications into instructional design and implementation
  12. Uses a variety of techniques that provide for total student response to learning.

Which made me think, what do others look for in classrooms to recognize student engagement when you walk in a classroom? I know for me I’m always looking at #3, 5, 6, and 11 (among others), but I thought maybe this would be an opportunity for other people to chime in on what they look for.

For the original post, click here.