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Recent Blogs & Online Sources by Cathy DePentu

Cathy DePentu: Career-long Learning

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I have been in school for 58 of my 63 years. Granted, I’ve switched roles a few times and moved back and forth from the front of the room to behind a desk (...

I have been in school for 58 of my 63 years. Granted, I’ve switched roles a few times and moved back and forth from the front of the room to behind a desk (or music stand), but still, the end of August is a turning point of each year.   Even after all these years, I still toss and turn the night before school starts wondering what the year will bring. Much of my excitement is the same as when I was in elementary school: Who will I see the first day? What adventures we will share about summer?  Will the people I work with be kind? Will they like me?

Every year, I am privileged to share my passion for music and music-making with a new group of students. We work together and learn from each other. Even though only a few of these students will choose the Arts as a career, I know that the thought processes and learning strategies involved in the performing arts classroom will benefit them all throughout their life.

We learn patience, collaboration, cooperation and persistence. When we fail, we try again. We value each others contributions and celebrate our differences. We are accepting and welcoming; our classrooms are safe spaces. Of course we will encounter obstacles to success–perhaps budget, administrative or legislative. While we may not be able to control the situation, we CAN control of how we choose to respond to it.

I say “we learn” because after all of these years, I truly feel once the unique process of teaching and learning through the Arts is shared, we are all both students and teachers.

Being willing to adapt and continue to learn while I teach keeps me from teaching the same year, over and over again…and so every year can be exciting and fresh.

Have a great year everyone, and remember that MAEIA is just a click away!


On that note, we’d like to invite MAEIA-informed community members to join the Facebook closed group: MAEIA PLC. Look for us under “groups”. Request to join and share in professional dialogue with like-minds about MAEIA and arts education. 

Cathy DePentu is a MAEIA Leadership Fellow and serves as Director of Orchestras for Plymouth Canton Community Schools.

A downloadable pdf of this article is available here: CathyDePentu_Career-long Learning.



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Cathy DePentu: Developing Whole, Productive, Creative Humans

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Simon Sinek’s “Golden Circle” resonates with many arts educators. The concept “Start with...

Simon Sinek’s “Golden Circle” resonates with many arts educators. The concept “Start with Why?” is how we approach every project, every rehearsal and every performance. Starting with the reason, or goal for the performance is an “art-centric” learning and teaching process. Surprisingly, when I returned to school last fall, my district had shifted their focus to the “Why” from our previous data-driven, test-focused, “show me the numbers” improvement plan. We were directed to look for unique, creative ways to engage our classes—to “Start with Why?” Wow.

My first thought was that the district should go to the people who have been teaching this way for years…the arts educators. Perhaps WE could be a resource to assist all teachers as they begin to think about a new approach to how they work in their classroom. Our ability to keep classes of 60-80 (or more) students engaged, collaborative, focused and learning every day could be a valuable addition to those endless professional development days…

Recently, I went to the interactive Pixar exhibit at the Henry Ford Museum. I went with a friend who teaches science, and it was fascinating to see things from her perspective. Obviously, Pixar films are made using the most advanced computer technology, and the programmers are experts in math and science. As we walked through the exhibit, I was struck by how our subject areas were linked in virtually every step of the creation of the movies! The exhibit featured videos of many of the programmers and technicians responsible for creating the characters and the storylines. I was very surprised (and pleased) at what I heard from many of the videos.

Virtually all of the programmers saw their work as using their math and science as a way to honor the artist’s vision of the characters. One of the programmers had played the cello as a student, and cited using the process of practicing—doing things over and over again, using self-analysis and a willingness to fail and continue to try, as being characteristics that are exceedingly valuable to him now in his work.

The collaboration between the technicians, programmers and artists was so inspiring. I was impressed by the collective desire to use technology to honor an artist’s vision. I hope that my fellow teachers will unite to value every subject and its importance in the development of whole, productive, creative humans.

Cathy Depentu is a MAEIA Leadership Fellow and serves as Director of Orchestras for Plymouth Canton Community Schools.

A downloadable pdf of this post is available here: Cathy DePentu_Developing Whole, Productive, Creative Humans.

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Cathy Depentu: The Benefits of Pushing Out of Your Comfort Zone

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I believe in the importance of MAEIA and its resources. I always try to set aside my ego and throw myself into difficult challenges or situations in order to improve, from an advanced violin class (...

I believe in the importance of MAEIA and its resources. I always try to set aside my ego and throw myself into difficult challenges or situations in order to improve, from an advanced violin class (I am anything but advanced on the violin) to a challenging yoga pose (headstands anyone?). Technology can bring me to my knees. By the time I figure out how to do something, it’s obsolete. As I have prepared for my first solo MAEIA presentation, my MAEIA colleagues have been unfailingly patient while trying to teach an old dog new tricks. I am slowly getting better, which means a lot more obsolescence is on the way, but that is another story.

Stepping Out: Fears, Firsts, and Following
I am a talker–no one who knows me would dispute that. I am fearless in front of my students or with people I know, but generally not eager to speak formally in front of large groups. In fact, that is one of my fears. Another major fear is using technology, it hates me. So why is this what I am doing? What do I hope to gain? What do I hope to give people?

So, I made my PowerPoint and my Process Agenda, Heather Vaughan-Southard (my MAEIA guru) proofread it and I rehearsed it over and over in my head. I knew my content and knew my audience (another big fear). I was ready!

The Professional Development day got off to a roaring start. We had one of the best keynote speakers I have ever heard! Dr. Adolph Brown talked (and danced and sang) about how to truly reach every student and make a positive difference. Cornerstones of his inspiring words were the Four “F’s”: Be Fun, Fair, Flexible and have Faith. At the same time as I was devouring every word, a little voice spoke to me: ”How will you compare to this? You’re not even close to his fluid, choreographed delivery style. They won’t like you.”

Processing in Real Time
Time to present! I got there 30 minutes before my session to set up and scope out the space. When I got to the room, I discovered that the room was too small for the anticipated audience. From now on I will double check with organizers to make sure we coordinate details! The computer and hook-ups were on the teacher’s desk, in a corner of the room. This was awkward as I had to be positioned behind that desk to access my notes. I felt like I was hiding from my audience from there! As being able to move freely about while presenting and interacting with your audience can “make or break” the vibe in the room, I will carry a set of notecards, or a printout of my notes so that I am no longer “trapped”. Of course, when I become as adept a presenter as Dr. Brown, I will be able to get this all done as easily as a casual conversation with friends (dare to dream!)

Once I began my presentation I noticed I was covering material much more quickly than I had anticipated on my Process Agenda. This could have been due to being trapped behind that desk! I started with the background of MAEIA and the website, but think I may move that until later in the session, as a few participants would have preferred to follow along with me on the website (or break off and explore on their own). Later in my session, I was moving around the room assisting people and realized I had skipped a couple of things that needed to be added, particularly our next project, Collaborative Scoring.

The last thing we did was break into small groups and explore the assessments. Each person found one or two they liked, and shared with each other and then with the entire group. I had stressed throughout the presentation that the assessments were just tools to be used as is or modified to suit the class or situation, so our next step was to take an assessment and modify it for use at a different grade level. As I walked around, I heard comments like “Look at this!”, “I could use this!”, “This is great!”. One group of art teachers stepped out of the room to work on ways to incorporate the assessments into their SLOs right away!

As we finished up, I asked my colleagues to fill out the Quality Quadrant and leave it for me when they left. Regardless, only about 60% completed the form. I am not sure what to do about that, maybe I will use them as “Exit Slips” and stand by the door to collect them and say thank you and goodbye as people leave. In the week following the presentation, I have received several emails and notes from colleagues who are excited about MAEIA and all of our resources , and are eager to work together to incorporate some of the assessments into their classroom.

Finally, I am deeply appreciative to colleagues who shared these words of wisdom as I was preparing my session. I list them twice because of their importance.

Chocolate and a break are GREAT ideas!
Chocolate and a break are GREAT ideas!

Flexibility as a Practice
The focus of our PD this year is, “Take Chances, Try Something New, Start With “Why?”. For years, we as arts teachers have had to “build bridges” from the content of Professional Development to our own subject area. At general PD the next day, I was seated with a group of math, science, and business teachers focusing on technology in the classroom. I typically sit, listen to them and try to build those bridges. But I jumped out of my comfort zone, took a chance and asked if we could also address the use of technology to better suit the needs of the arts or solitary teacher. We had a great discussion, and I think we all learned something. I thanked them for being willing to be flexible and I think we all benefited from the session. I know I did.

I plan to present this session again to the K-5 music folks who couldn’t attend this one. I have also offered to present to colleagues in the Michigan American String Teachers Association (MASTA). I know as I continue to work with the sessions I am creating, my delivery will become more natural and intuitive. I’m not Adolph Brown yet, but I’ll get there (he has a crew to do all his tech)!

Cathy Depentu is a MAEIA Leadership Fellow and serves as Director of Orchestras for Plymouth Canton Community Schools.

A downloadable pdf of this post is available here. MAEIA blog: CathyDepentu_ComfortZones

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Cathy DePentu: Excited and Engaged in Teaching After 35 Years!

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Thirty-five years ago a guidance counselor asked me, “Why should we schedule a student all four years in Orchestra? Aren’t students just repeating the same class?” I attempted to explain that students continue to...

Thirty-five years ago a guidance counselor asked me, “Why should we schedule a student all four years in Orchestra? Aren’t students just repeating the same class?” I attempted to explain that students continue to grow musically and build greater facility and technique. He asked, “How do you know?” Hmmm.

Although I was able to describe the changes I saw and heard, and knew I was modifying the assignments for students at differing levels of experience, I had no way of producing concrete data. I can’t say I was too concerned about it at that stage of my life…I was a young, inexperienced teacher busy refining my classroom teaching skills, and as the kids were playing well. I thought I was all set.

Fast-forward twenty-five years. I met Ana Luisa Cardona and began my journey through formalized assessments and student directed learning. However it was not until I became a part of the MAEIA project that I began to see a transformation in both my teaching and my ability to assess and collect meaningful data. Over the past several years I have immersed myself in writing and editing assessments, field-testing and content review, demonstrating educator effectiveness/tracking student growth and am honored to be one of the Leadership Fellows. I look forward to delving into collaborative scoring next fall.

Many (okay, all) of these diverse roles have pushed me out of my comfort zone and forced me to reflect on my teaching. Starting with the basic—“what do I want them to know, how will I know when they have learned it, and how will I teach it”—I find myself moving more towards how can I measure an individual students growth and how will I teach them so that the material and the process of learning becomes “theirs”. I am trying to take myself out of the equation and empowering students to assume ownership for their individual and group process. The MAEIA tasks and events have helped guide my efforts, both as assessments and teaching tools.

Throughout this journey I have not seen a drop in performance quality, despite the fact that I do not direct the entire class period. Through sectionals and teacher assigned chamber ensembles, students are able to collaborate and contribute to their own rehearsal strategies and techniques. Many days I am a facilitator rather than a director, moving from room to room to observe rehearsals and occasionally offer a suggestion. It has been so exciting and rewarding to observe how a shift to seemingly “do less” has helped create empowered, independent musicians. As we debrief from these activities, students are surprised to realize they have created a learning process that can work in all areas of their life.

Using an assessment as a teaching tool: “Listen to our concert recording!”

We all remember hearing or giving those instructions. It usually resulted in a casual “hearing” of the piece while students chatted with their friends.

What was actually learned?

What was the directors’ implied goal for the activity?

Of course, the intent was to have everyone listen critically to the recording and objectively critique and analyze the performance. As teachers in the performing arts, this sort of listening and analysis is what we do every time we are on the podium, but have we taken the time to dissect what we are doing so that we can teach our students to successfully execute this multi-layered task?

So I asked myself, do students know how to listen? I know they can hear, but are they able to listen?

Can they accurately identify and evaluate the characteristics of tone, intonation and expression?

Can they construct and implement appropriate strategies to adjust and correct any problems they discover?

I have used M.T 421: Performance Critique for several years first in its newly written, untested form, subsequently as a field tester and beyond. I have modified it for use in grades 6-12 and use it as both a teaching tool and an assessment. For use as an assessment, I follow the directions as described in the teacher booklet. Modifications to the task to teach critical listening at all levels are described below.

Suggested Total Time:
This lesson can be completed in one 50-minute class period including time for discussion.

List of Materials Required:
-Recording of a short piece or excerpt of a longer piece from a recent performance and playback equipment

-The sheet music being performed

-Sufficient copies of the rubric/answer sheet for each student (I run two-sided copies, but you could project the rubric onto a white board).

-Pencils and a writing surface for each student.

Lesson Procedure:
All levels, lesson introduction: Direct students to listen to the recording and read the rubric. Play the recording.

Subsequently, have students listen to the piece and evaluate one element each time. You will listen a minimum of six times. (My students actually enjoy listening while they complete their evaluations, I just keep playing it as they write)

Modification for more advanced ensembles:
As students become comfortable with critical listening/analysis, they can be directed to evaluate two or more elements simultaneously and correspondingly, become more facile with appropriate music terminology. The number of “listenings” will also be reduced. (I explain to the classes that the goal is to listen/analyze while they play and apply these techniques to their role as an individual musician, member of their section and role in the ensemble)

Using this assessment has completely changed the way the ensembles listen to their performance recordings (even the 6th graders!) Most side conversations have stopped and students remain engaged and focused. Their developing ability to evaluate what they hear and create strategies and techniques to self-correct shifts the responsibility from the director (“Fix that!” “Too loud!” You’re sharp!”) to the students and empowers them to be independent musicians.
A Bonus Discovery! As I completed grading my three orchestras’ papers according to the teachers’ rubric, I wondered if the students were actually learning to hear/analyze to the same standard. I pulled a random sample from each ensemble and tallied responses.

All three ensembles used the top three categories…no one used the lowest standard (which made me happy, as this was a performance recording). The Middle School ensemble used all three of the remaining categories, fairly evenly spread. The Concert Orchestra also used the top three categories but clustered around ratings of 3 and 4. The Symphony (the most advanced ensemble) only used 2 and 3, demonstrating more developed critical listening skills. No one in the advanced ensemble was willing to give the top rating, while younger ensembles were less critical. This is VERY informal data collection, but it did lead to some interesting discussions in class.

I encourage all arts teachers to take a look at the MAEIA resources. Pick one or two and give them a try with one of your classes. Modify them as you see fit, share them with your colleagues and administrators. These amazing resources can provide so much to benefit our teaching and our students, take advantage of our work!


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