Our students bring a variety of inhibitions into a class, most of which will influence the their responses during learning activities. Some students, especially young children, will be very withdrawn and reticent to do anything alone with others watching, and the teacher may not know the reason. Yet music cannot be taught by group response alone. Edwin Gordon observed that just as reading could never be taught with group recitation alone, neither can music be taught by group singing alone. Each child must practice and develop singing independently by singing alone in addition to practicing and developing other aspects of musicianship by singing with others.
I have had a very withdrawn child in one of my pre-kindergarten music classes. The child was three years old when I started teaching him in a class of three olds, and he is now in a class with other four-year-old children. He regularly sits in the group, avoiding eye contact and avoiding participation in most class activities, both in music and in the Pre-K classroom where his class is located most of the day. He was withdrawn all last year and up to today. I have always invited him to participate, given him plenty of eye contact and verbal encouragement, but except for an occasional willingness to sing or clap with the group, could not draw him out. But I waited and kept trying. Today, the children were playing “Charlie Over the Ocean.” One child walks around the circle of children and sings the calls, and the class repeats what the leader has sung. At the end, the leader taps a child on the head, and is chased around the circle trying to get back to his or her spot before being tagged. This withdrawn child was tapped. He was delighted to run around the circle, but then when he realized he would be next to lead, he stood there and put his head on his hand, trying to convince me he was too tired to do anything more. I walked over to him and said, “You’re not that tired. I’ll walk with you, and you do the singing.” I took his hand, and to my delight he came with me, and began singing out like a champion. That was the first time in two years he’s done anything like that. Afterward, he was all smiles, and so was the teaching assistant that comes with the class to music.
There are some important points to be made from this story. First, children sometimes need to develop in their own time. We can help them along with encouragement and good teaching, but some things cannot be rushed. We mustn’t be too quick to conclude that a child cannot develop any further, but instead be steadfast in continuing to provide the best teaching possible, and be willing to wait for that moment when everything in an area comes together. Second, classrooms must be a place where children feel it is safe to try and safe to fail; a place where they can be certain the teacher will not give up, and the other students will be supportive. Third, teachers must offer the non-participating student just as many requests to join in what the class or other individual students are doing as are offered to students who are eager to participate. Teachers should develop a culture wherein everyone participates and non-participation is not something you will accept. That’s where the repeated requests come in.
Other students will try to avoid participation because they have not yet reached proficiency they are comfortable putting on display to their peers. These are students who need to participate in order to raise their proficiency, but who don’t want to participant because their proficiency has not been raised. The solution for the teacher is to have the same patience for the child’s time to arrive. Planning a variety of learning activities that utilize the same skill set gives these students multiple opportunities to practice the skill and “get it.” Even if the lesson isn’t specifically geared toward the skill set, if it is needed to complete the activity, it may be of great value to the student struggling with that skill set. In this context, the student will one day smile and say “Oh, I get it” and not be referring to what you are teaching, or to what your objective is for him/her that day, but to the concept or skill that s/he has been struggling with for some time. It will be that difficulty that will have been just overcome. The teacher must be ready for such unexpected and welcome connections every day. One final point. The kind of gains I have described do not come from lectures or repetitive worksheet assignments. They come from student-centered teaching strategies that give students opportunities to do, not learn about. There is a place for learning about, usually at the beginning of a unit, where information is needed to know what to do and how to do it. But proficiency comes from doing. When students are active in the music classrooms, learning increases, and success becomes the dominant culture.