Revisit and Evaluate a Strings Change

I know this topic is discussed every year but I want to re-visit the success of the administrative change to 4/5 strings based on budgetary demands versus academic demands.
The 4/5 strings was changed to once a week this year from twice a week last year. The choices the board juggled was no strings in 4/5, twice a week 5th only, or once a week 4/5 strings due to the budget cuts. While I applaud the board for trying to work with the community I would love some feedback on how the once a week 4/5 decision is working at other schools.
For my daughter, and I can only speak for her and a few of her friends, this is what we have experienced………

In fourth grade, my daughter and several of her friends loved strings once they got the hang of it. She practiced all the time, played for her 95 year old grandmother in Texas on her birthday, took a summer strings camp provided by MSCR, and even (with not much whining)talked me into renting a violin over the summer so she could play.
In her fifth grade class, there are 35 kids in her strings class, twice as many as last year. She also only has class on Thursday. This month she has had a Teacher Conference, field trip, testing, and Thanksgiving break on Thursday and therefore she has not had strings in a month. Due to the class size half of the time is spend tuning the instruments and the other half seems frustrating to my daughter as there are so many kids and so little time.
I do not want to see 4/5 strings eliminated but would like to re-evaluate. If we only have limited funds perhaps I was wrong and it should just be for 5th graders twice a week, or perhaps it is just my child’s class that is unrewarding to her as each teacher/school has its own style. I miss listening to her enthusiatic practice as she hardly ever plays her violin anymore. What is happening at other schools? The district makes so many decisions (like pairing schools, combining classes, etc..) based on economics and not academic studies and I wonder if we are EVALUATING the success of these decisions along the way.

10 thoughts on “Revisit and Evaluate a Strings Change”

  1. Ms. Battaglia:
    Thank you for this posting. I actually was thinking of this last week when I had the opportunity to read to 4 & 5 grade students at Chavez. The students and teacher told me about the Strings scheduling challenges/problems. I will be happy to forward this posting to the Superintendent, Assistant Superintendent of Elementary Education and the Fine Arts Coordinator.

  2. I agree that it would be useful to revisit the ramifications of this change. My 4th grader is very much enjoying the cello. She would not have this experience without 4th grade strings. The process is problematic, as Mary points out.

  3. Our own fourth-grade daughter loves strings too. But she is definitely disappointed to only have it once per week. It took them until well into November to even pick up a bow at all. Literally. And that in spite of the fact that we have not had a lot of no-school days on days she is supposed to have strings. There is a lot of tuning time, no time to play with grades togther at all (but last year, the combined fourth and fifth grade pieces in our school’s WInter concert were a huge hit), and the kids don’t even have rosin (is that spelled right?) for their bows. The parents need to buy that if they want any, apparently. Well, I am an educated and supportive (if busy) parent with access to transportation, and I have not had a chance to buy any. How do others do it? Our daughter literally cannot practice anything but plucking, because a bow that needs rosin sounds squeaky and scratchy, and simply unpleasant.
    I also do not know what the solution would be. Fourth grade access has been so important for so many of our students. But only having it once per week has taken away a lot of that enthusiasm, it seems to me. I also hope that these questions are being looked at in terms of what is working and what is not, and not just what the program costs.

  4. Message from Julie Palkowski, Fine Arts Coordinator:
    Thank you for forwarding this. A few parents have also contacted me with their concerns about the current program. Several of their comments echo the email you have shared below. The strings program is being looked at in several ways including types of instructional models, schedules, curriculum development, and staffing. I have been collecting information from the strings staff to see what challenges they have met
    with the 4th and 5th grade strings program changes. In addition, the string staff and I have been reviewing past models and models from other districts to see what may best fit our student’s needs. The hope is to find and implement a strings program that helps our students gain a quality education.
    Given the current parameters, the challenge is to utilize a model that educates our students, while also respecting the instructional, curricular, and fiscal boundaries. I realize the strings program provides several complicated issues. In order to address these issues, I will continue to meet with strings staff, and to talk with those involved in the challenges. I will be preparing a summary with ideas to help our district develop a longterm strategy for this issue.
    I look forward to any input that may be available. If you have any additional information, please forward your ideas. I am hopeful that a longterm solution focused on the quality education of our students will surface. Thank you for your committment and energy to help our students thrive in the arts.
    Julie A. Palkowski
    Coordinator of Fine Arts
    Madison Metropolitan School District
    545 W. Dayton Street
    Madison, WI 53703
    (608) 663-5227; Fax (608)442-3471

  5. Thanks for getting the information and posting it Johnny.
    Several people have asked the district to create a partnership committee to explore ways the entire community can mobilize to support fine arts in the MMSD.
    Do you have any sense of why the board and administration have not yet established a committee?

  6. As a parent of an 8th grade daughter, I am concerned about the total amount of school time my daughter missed from the week of October 24th through the week of November 21st. This period covers five weeks, which is 25 school days. During these five weeks, there was no school on 6 of those days for middle school students. Three of these five weeks were only 3 days long. Additionally, there were several days of testing during this period, which disrupted continuity in class periods.
    All in all there is a loss of continuity in learning during these 5 weeks. For those classes that meet only once a week and fall on the days there is no school, this is even harder on kids’ learning, especially if it’s a class children enjoy and have fun learning in, such as strings. That loss of class time can lead to loss of progress in the class, which will affect learning and kids’ motivation to learn.
    Some of the days off are legal holidays, such as Thanksgiving, but can’t something be done on those days where there might be some control, either at the local or state level. For example, does the teacher’s conference need to be held in late October? Obviously, a tremendous amount of planning goes into this event and this conference is for teachers in the entire state, but would another date be possible to consider over time? Also, it’s nice to have two days tied to the weekend, but could the two dates be different dates in the week so that children are not missing the same two days of the week three times in a short time period? For example, could the teacher conferences be held on different days of the week? What else could be done?
    Specifically, as to strings. All the strings’ teachers use a two-year book for teaching strings. At the beginning of the book there is a lot of time devoted to playing pizzicato (plucking the strings) on the stringed instruments. Many teachers follow the curriculum book, especially if they are new teachers, while other teachers work on the bow grip right away. String teachers have not been given curriculum planning time to meet to work together as a team on changes to the curriculum that will work with the new schedule change. This planning time is important to have so that consistency can be established, problems can be worked out, etc.
    Teachers have asked for this time, but string teachers are also being asked by the administration at the same time they are making adjustments to a new schedule of teaching to develop different delivery models for teaching strings that will work in the current district financial situation. What this means is that progress will take time, which is both frustrating for children and teachers.

  7. I have to agree with Barb about the days off in the last month. I don’t remember it being this bad before but the middle school kids have only had one full week since the middle of October. The kid’s weeks are so broken up with A/B schedules that I wonder that they are learning anything in music or foreign language. But also it seems difficult to get any momentum going in the core classes when you have only 3 days of school a week for so many weeks running.

  8. I will echo the many comments about the minimal strings teaching this year (due to the reduction to one day/week and that day falling on no-school days). My 4th grade daughter is very frustrated at how little she has learned (and she compares herself to her brother who had more than double the teaching time by this point in the semester). She thinks the teacher is moving much too fast in order to cram material into the limited amount of time. Her 6th grade brother continues to love his instrument.

  9. I appreciate hearing some more details about why they spend so much time plucking, Barb. Thank you! But I also agree with you that it is frustrating to have lost so much teaching time (for all subjects, much less for the “specials” my kids love so much, but have few times during the week – art, music, strings, library (!), and so on. I know this concern with spreading out the days is part of why the kids sometimes have Tuesdays off for development days, and the like, but that means for some families, that they take Monday off too, and their kids just miss even more school than anyone else. IN our family, if you have a Tuesday off, or a Thursday off, then that is the only day you have off. But for some others I know of, those dates off are just an invitation to set up long weekends many more times per year than they are scheduled. WHich means that the kids who are there for school on those days get rooked too. AFter all, if one-third of the class is missing on Monday, and everyone has Tuesday off, the class is usually stuck going over the same thing Wednesday that they did MOnday, because too many kids missed it. Which means that the kids who were there and did get it the first time, just have more “boring review” and are more likely to act up or tune out, distracting other kids in the process.
    Even as we do try to deal with the problem of always having the same day of the week off (or seeming to), so the students with specials on those days miss them consistently, maybe it would be possible to look at overall scheduling of those days off, as was also suggested above. Missing 6 of 25 schools days since mid-October for scheduled days off is not very productive, and I know our elementary school students missed even more productive days than that due to massive amounts of testing (especially for fourth graders). That might have been even worse for us, since our fourth graders are all in 4/5 classes, so all that testing affects all the fifth graders too.
    We have a relatively short Winter Break, which I have no problem with. But all the days off in the Fall, and then almost nothing in January, February and early March, the most depressing days of the year weather-wise as well? That doesn’t seem very productive either. I am all for spreading around the development days or state teacher conference scheduling across the year a bit better.

  10. millie,
    re. rosin – my husband buys the rosin in bulk and then he sells it in class when a student needs some. Cost is about $2 plus or minus a bit. If a student cannot afford to buy rosin, he gives the student rosin, so every child in strings will have their own rosin, which they will need.
    My husband buys bulk rosin from Biehoff Music, and the sales rep makes the delivery to my husband. He buys about 40-60 pieces of rosin at once.

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