By Brendan Lai-Tong
Today we had the opportunity to interview Phyllis Thomas, co-author of the Interactive Now! series published by Heritage Music Press.
Phyllis, born and raised in Colorado, has had an extensive career in music as a performer and music educator. She graduated with a M.M. degree from the University of North Texas with a major in vocal performance. Phyllis has sung in productions with the Dallas Opera, Fort Worth Opera and other regional opera companies. Her years of experience as an elementary music teacher in Texas is what eventually led her to co-author the Interactive Now! series with Debbie Anderson, music teacher friend and colleague.
Each volume of the Interactive Now! series, previously known as SMARTBoardNow, is a collection of ten interactive lessons designed specifically for use in the K–5 music education classroom. The most exciting aspect of this series is that it is designed for use with an interactive whiteboard or IWB. Using an IWB is tested and proven to be effective in teaching music concepts, greatly enhancing the student’s learning experience. See video below:
Let’s find out more about Phyllis and the Interactive Now! series.
What inspired you to start a career in music?
I have always been active in music, from the time I was little. My mother arranged for me to stay after kindergarten every day for a piano lesson. I grew up singing and playing the piano. When I got to college I wanted to be a junior high math teacher, but I was there on a music scholarship, so carried a double major until I decided to focus entirely on music. I had a work-study scholarship in accompanying at Adams State College in Alamosa, Colorado, where I played for voice lessons in two voice studios. I started graduate school there and began teaching voice lessons. When I came to North Texas State University (now UNT) I was a teaching fellow in voice for several years and took an audition for a chorus position with the Dallas Opera. That audition resulted not only in a spot in the chorus, but three small roles the first season, and several other roles for the following two seasons. That’s where I met my husband, a bass who had sung for some years in the chorus. I went to Graz, in Austria, for the AIMS program, to prepare for European auditions, and took several, but missed my husband and returned to Texas. I finished my Master’s Degree at UNT and sang with the Fort Worth Opera, both during its regular season and with two touring productions of a newly-commissioned children’s opera, The Goose Girl, by Thomas Pasatieri. During this time I had a church job in Richardson, TX, and volunteered to teach a children’s choir, which I loved. The Director of Music encouraged all the children’s choir directors to get some Kodály training, and I completed three levels of Kodály and one level of Orff at UNT. Although I was still singing in regional opera productions, I decided to turn my focus to teaching, as I loved working with children. I taught for nine years at a private school in Lewisville, TX, where I got to see all of the 120 pre-school through fifth grade students every day. Since my degrees are in vocal performance (no education classes apart from my Kodály and Orff training), I got my emergency certification to teach in public school and was fortunate to open Bridlewood Elementary, in Flower Mound, TX, where I teach music to kindergarten-fifth grade students today.
Who are some of your role models?
Royal Collard, junior high band director (I played percussion); Carrie Spitzer, high school choir director; Merle Whaley, high school math teacher; Ed Richmond, college voice teacher, Randolph Jones, college choir director; Roberto Benaglio, Dallas Opera Chorus Master; Julian Patrick, operatic baritone; Charles Nelson, operatic baritone; Evelyn Lear, operatic soprano; Dr. Jill Trinka; Dr. Artie Almeida
How did you meet Debbie Anderson, co-author of the book?
Debbie opened a new school just a few miles from mine in Flower Mound, Texas, in 2002. She and I became friends, and were both invited to take part in a SMART Board training event. We began sharing our SMART Board files, and collaborating on lessons for our music classes. When our Get SMART! session proposal was accepted for the 2010 TMEA (Texas Music Educators Assn.) convention, we put together and self-published a group of ten of our SMART Board lessons under the title of SMARTBoardNow, Volume 1. We completed and self-published Volumes 2-4 for sale after our 2011 TMEA session, Get SMART! 2.
What was your inspiration for creating the Interactive Now! series?
At the 2009 TMEA convention, Debbie and I attended a session by a lady who sold a CD of her SMART Board presentation for $10. We went to a workshop presented by Dr. Artie Almeida in Amarillo, invited our colleagues to our 2010 TMEA session, and they asked if our lessons would be available for sale. There was very little material available for purchase for SMART Boards for elementary music, so we thought we could produce something that would be useful for elementary music teachers. After our 2011 TMEA session, we were approached by the good folks at Heritage Music Press, a division of the Lorenz Corporation based in Dayton, Ohio, about publishing our volumes. They reworked our lessons for Promethean Boards, changed the name to Interactive Now!, and publish Volumes 1-4 for both SMART Boards and Promethean Boards. The lessons in Volumes 5-6 and beyond are available only in Flash format, which enables them to be used on any computer that can open a Flash file, whether it is projected on an IWB or not. The interactive lessons in Volumes 5 and above also work well on all brands of IWBs.
How is the series structured? Do teachers have to use the books sequentially or can they be used in any order?
Each volume contains ten lessons written for a variety of grade levels. We wanted to make the volumes usable, so each volume contains lessons that we use for kindergarten as well as lessons for fifth graders, and all levels in between. Grade level designations are suggestions, so that teachers can pick and choose lessons and tailor the content to their own teaching situations. There are some activities that are part of a series that increases in difficulty, like the rhythm and melody flash cards, and the What Do You Hear? (rhythm) and What Melody Do You Hear? files. We encourage teachers to use our lessons to supplement their curriculum.
Which is your favorite volume in the series and why?
Oh, my! That’s like asking me to choose between my children! I like all of our volumes, and Heritage has taken our work to a higher level! I love the lessons written specifically for SMART board, which is my preferred presentation format, and I’m also very excited about the volumes that are written in the Flash format!
What is the best way to utilize the series? Do you have any tips for teachers looking to implement this in their classroom?
If a teacher has access to a computer, projector, and SMART board or Promethean board, great! Everything in our volumes will work on the SMART board and Promethean board. If a teacher has a computer, projector and another type of IWB, and access to SMART Notebook software or Promethean software, the files in Volumes 1-4 may be useable on the IWB, and the Flash files in Volumes 5 and above certainly will work just fine as long as a current version of Flash is installed on the computer. For classrooms with a computer with SMART or Promethean software installed, and a projector, but no IWB, we suggest that the students come to the computer and operate the software using the mouse. As an alternative in this situation, the teacher may wish to purchase a wireless mouse, place it on a flat surface such as a desk or clipboard, and pass the mouse around the room for students to manipulate the material projected on the board. If there is a computer (with a current version of Flash) available for student use, but no projector or IWB, we recommend Volumes 5 and above in Flash format. We suggest that a teacher take a look a list of the lessons in each volume, choose one volume that contains material that is suitable to the particular teaching situation, and give it a try.
How do interactive whiteboards benefit classroom learning, should more teachers be pushing to adapt the technology?
As more and more states require the use of technology as part of our yearly professional development evaluations, I believe that music teachers should have access to the same technology applications, including IWBs, that general classroom teachers have. I use my SMART board in every music class, every day, with varying degrees of interactivity: from a static display that takes the place of a poster or writing on the whiteboard, to a fully interactive lesson run totally by the students. The thing about any piece of technology is that there is a learning curve, particularly for the teacher, and some applications are more intuitive than others. As musicians, however, we are uniquely qualified, having spent years in the practice room, to persevere and do what it takes to learn to use the software or technology application. In my opinion, the IWB is one of the tools in my arsenal of many, that I use to present and teach the material in my curriculum. We teachers must reach our 21st century learners, and technology is one way to do it. Something magical happens when a student can come up and touch the board and physically interact with the material. I can most definitely teach without an IWB, but would rather not. Using an IWB can make the material more accessible, engaging, and exciting for each and every one of my students in ways that it would not be, if presented in a more traditional setting.
We hear that you are planning to release a new volume for middle school choir. Could you tell us a little more about how this will be structured and potential topics it will cover?
I am currently working on a volume of lessons and activities for use by middle school/junior high choirs. The volume will be published in Flash format and will include a general review of basic music theory and lessons that focus on sight-reading and sight-singing, with lots of activities, printable worksheets, and quizzes.