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  • Kevin Vuong

Final Thoughts: My CEL Experience at the Toronto Symphony

My placement with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra E-team finished exactly how it started - on Friday, December 3rd at 9:30AM on Zoom with the E-Team daily check-in. And yes, with a coffee in hand.


It has been an interesting month with the Toronto Symphony Education department - having started in a place of worry and out of my comfort zone, and moving towards a place of accomplishment and new learning. It really has been a transformative experience in many ways - redefining for me what it meant to be a teacher, being able to apply the skills of a teacher in this classroom adjacent role, but also in my own working and learning habits. Undertaking a lot of self-directed learning and assuming the role of the mentee has been a different and beneficial medium of learning.


As mentioned in Blog #2 of my CEL experience, my main project for my month of placement was to create resources for Zoophony - the Toronto Symphony's collaboration with the Toronto Zoo to explore "the musical side of animal noises" and the "animal side of musical noises". I was initially caught off guard by the audience and curriculum connections of these resources - STEM and Music, Literacy and Music, etc. connections for Kindergarten - Grade 4. I am an I/S Teacher Candidate, and my experiences in the Kindergarten to Grade 4 age range didn't extend much past being a former Kindergarten to Grade 4 aged student in elementary school. However, with mentorship and guidance from my colleagues and supervisors, self-directed research and learning, the wisdom of friends and teacher colleagues, and applying fundamentals and strategies which were transferable (and which I had already once used in practice!), I was able to overcome this initial insecurity of mine.


By the end of this placement, I helped create the Zoophony Early Bird Quickstart Guide - developing classroom activities for teachers to use to extend the viewing experience. In this sense, I believe I met the organizations needs' - providing an important insight as someone who has recently been in the classroom and is "up to date" on all of the relevant and "new age" pedagogies, and I am happy and satisfied with the way I was able to apply these skills and the knowledge in a different context (and age group!).

The Zoophony Early Bird Quickstart Guide - created by Pierre Rivard and Kevin Vuong


Some Final Thoughts


On Experiential Education...


The one thing that stood out to me throughout my CEL experience was the authenticity of the experience for both myself and for the TSO, something that may carry implications for classroom teachers as well.


I speak of authenticity in the context of assessment and learning tasks, but perhaps a better word for it was how genuine it was. I was given a genuine task and responsibility, this task I was treated like a genuine member of the team, and it was a genuine, authentic experience of applying my knowledge and skillsets in a real-world context with real-world impacts.


To me, this shows how CEL could be positioned as an extension of traditional classroom-based instruction - in particular the task with a genuine audience. We learned of authentic assessment and authentic learning tasks in our Assessment course during the intersession with Garfield Gini-Newman. Authentic tasks require the students to combine knowledge from the classroom/subject area content and critical, creative and collaborative thinking to create a "product" for a specific audience that is assessed, revised and reassessed over time. The specific audience requires the use of critical thinking - developing a criteria and using reasoning skills to create a product that best fits the audience. Sure, we can create these in the classroom (Letters to the MP, a composition task, a debate, etc.), but CEL allows there to be a real, authentic, context for this product to exist and be created.


I loved the idea of authentic assessment when it was introduced to us because it gave students (and me) develop skills and apply/assess subject area content but also to present it in an engaging, frequently fun way. Like hiding veggies in a fruit smoothie à la Booster Juice!


CEL also has connections, in my view, with another one of my favourite takeaways from Garfield Gini-Newman's course, which was that assessment must "Sustain, Inform and Inspire" learning in the classroom. If I were to view my CEL experience at the TSO through that lens - I would certainly say that through the challenge of working through the product I produced (the resources) was able to achieve these three goals: it inspired me to reach the goal of being able to produce the resource, what I needed to learn and where I needed to look was informed by the challenge I faced, and my colleague's mentorship and the goal of continually revising the resources was able to sustain my learning through the entire process. I see a clear connection between the learning and assessment processes implicit in CEL, and these three goals.


On Social Justice and Global Citizenship in CEL...


One of my learning goals for my CEL placement was to explore social justice as it pertains to the Toronto Symphony Orchestra - an organization which is rooted in the Eurocentric, hierarchical art form of Western classical music, and which has had a long history of elitism, racism, sexism and ableism. Over my four weeks at the TSO, I saw an organization and a department dedicated engaging its community and audience members - especially those who were traditionally under-represented in its audiences. Specific efforts to provide relaxed performances for neurodiverse audience members, reaching out to its community to share joy, etc. There is good to be done, I believe.


However, I am still struggling with the idea of representation within the orchestra itself - no matter how many diverse audiences you serve, there is still the issue of an orchestra that still (ethnically, culturally, socio-economically) does not reflect the community it serves. Thus, there might also be a certain power dynamic at play - at what point do teachers (or indeed, orchestra education programs) use classical music as a tool for "civilizing" or colonizing, in the sense that students need to experience the orchestra because it is the upper echelon of music? A tension that I am still exploring.


However, CEL has helped me explore these issues by observing first hand and at the grassroots level. CEL gives students the opportunity to engage with the stories at the centre of their placements, the opportunity to tell their own stories and to engage in work that can make a different and affect the community around them. Being immersed in the culture of an organization/community/placement and making meaning out of that experience (beyond the tangible learning takeaways) is unique to CEL, and can be extended by reflecting on our experiences through the lens of our own identities and intersectionalities.


On my own practice...


If there is one thing my CEL placement has taught me to do, it is to expand my horizons. As I finished high school and entered my undergraduate music degree, I had a very rigid definition of "music" and of what I wanted to be (a conductor and band teacher, full stop). After I finished that degree, embarked on a gap year and began my MT, I began expanding my field of vision as to what music could be and what role I could play in the classroom. As I finish my MT and this placement, I now wonder: is there more to music education than just in the classroom? Could there be an interesting career/passion for me to explore in terms of classroom-adjacent roles?


I have also noted that as I expand my horizons and field of vision, what I value and what my foundations are seems to get ever clearer. I know I want to make a difference and leave a lasting legacy, I know I want to create a relevant, engaging and educational experience for my students, and I know I want to have community be a big part of my practice - in and out of the classroom. I am beginning to see that these values are the ones driving my career and passions, not the specific job or position.


If I were to undertake this CEL placement again, I would have so relished the chance to do this placement in-person in the office. As much as I was made to feel welcome as part of a valuable team member, it was difficult to feel this at times because I wasn't in the physical environment - much of the mentorship was undertaken by email or Zoom call, questions were asked by email and responded to formally, and I think I could have been further immersed in the culture of an organization by observing how the office operates and how colleagues work with each other across departments as well.


Who knows what's next? :)

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