Zebra Question

Zebra Question

I asked the zebra,
Are you black with white stripes?
Or white with black stripes?
And the zebra asked me,
Are you good with bad habits?
Or are you bad with good habits?
Are you noisy with quiet times?
Or quiet with noisy times?
Are you happy with some sad days?
Or are you sad with some happy days?
Are you neat with some sloppy ways?
Or are you sloppy with some neat ways?
And on and on and on and on
And on and on he went.
I’ll never ask a zebra
About stripes

-Shel Silverstein

I was reading this poem to my daughter recently (it’s in a book called “The Little Big Book for Dads”) and it made me think about both my teaching and my students in a new light. This poem crystallized something for me, something that I have always felt deep inside.

As a teacher, I look for patterns rather than occurrences. For instance, let’s take a simple rehearsal standard like looking at the music, which sadly does not always happen in beginning choirs. Let’s say Bobby usually looks at his music (trying his best to read it), and Julie usually looks around the room (trying to sing everything from memory). As I see these patterns develop, it changes the way I treat the students. If by some fluke Bobby is off-task, I will likely let it go unmentioned. I know that he will resume his regular behavior quickly. On the other hand, Julie’s bad habits begin to become more and more obvious. Every time my eyes pass over her, I’m immediately looking to see if she will again be distracted. It is difficult to consider giving her praise for breaking out of her normal state and doing “what she is supposed to do anyway.”

We could then consider for this exercise that good behaviors are white and bad behaviors are black. Bobby is a white zebra with black stripes, meaning that he is typically doing the right thing and sometimes makes mistakes. Julie is a black zebra with white stripes – she is normally performing poorly but will occasionally put forth a burst of solid effort. After all, even a broken clock is right twice a day!

Think about each of the following student classroom behaviors as Shel Silverstein would.

  • Do you have good posture but sometimes slouch, or are you a sloucher who sometimes has good posture?
  • Do you read your music and sometimes get distracted, or do you try to sing everything from memory, only looking at your music to avoid discipline?
  • Do you mark your music appropriately during rehearsal but sometimes forget, or do you never mark your music unless directly told?
  • Do you sing with good technique and sometimes miss the mark, or do you just sing what comes out, only applying technique when put on the spot?

Can you come up with more Shel-like versions of rehearsal behaviors?

And… what kind of zebra is the director?

  • Do you start class on time, but sometimes have an emergency arise, or do you let the start time drift from day-to-day, starting at the bell only when you feel the pressure of an upcoming concert?
  • Do you regularly assess your students and provide feedback, sometimes slipping during a busy season, or do you forego such actions until you realize grades are due and you need at least a couple assignments in your grade book?

And of course, you could continue the teacher version of the zebra list on and on and on and on also.

The good news is that unlike Zebras, we can change our stripes. To be fair, it is difficult to fundamentally change our nature, but we can act “as if!” You might normally be a singer without much facial energy, but you can choose to act “as if” you have it. If you are a black zebra with only a few white stripes, get some white paint! We can choose to add more white to our coats simply by choosing to do more and more good work. Even a white zebra needs paint – the hope is that someday we will look like white horses, with so little black showing as to be negligible.

While you are working with your students, don’t forget to explain to them that you value patterns, not events. Let them know that you don’t expect them to be white horses, but you do expect that they will show they are moving in that direction.

UPDATE/EDIT: After I read this article to my 7th grade choir, they said they didn’t want to be white horses… they wanted to be unicorns, because unicorns are even more rare, more magical, and more special than horses. That was a neat moment!


2 comments to Zebra Question

  • Bethany- Age V member  says:

    This is my favorite article!!! I never really thought about if i do stuff sometimes or all time and if i am really. This helped me to want to be a white with black stripes. 🙂

  • Missey Rivers Graville  says:

    Way to think “outside the box”! Thanks for opening my eyes.

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