Everything has a starting point; an order of doing things that must be followed if the undertaking is going to succeed. When building a house, one must start with the foundation. In teaching, the starting point is having your students’ attention. Nothing else matters in the classroom if the students are not putting their attention on what you are doing or having them do. This is particularly challenging for music teachers because of the nature of our discipline. Our classrooms are not (or should not be) quiet places. Music making requires generating sound, and creativity requires a degree of spontaneity. In spite of this, students must not be distracted from their goals, or left in a position of doing without knowing what they are supposed to be learning. Today, I’d like to suggest some ways music teachers can keep students’ attention, and create a classroom where observable learning is taken place, even in a class that only meets an hour or less a week.
There are two things that must happen in an effective classroom: students must be focused on the right thing, and there must be some clearly defined thing that the students know they are supposed to focus on. There are some practical steps to accomplishing both. The first is to remember you are always teaching to the entire class. Use the word everyone often. Everyone listen. Everyone look at the person who is speaking. Everyone sit up. Everyone nod if you understand. “Everyone” goes to the top of the list of your expectations. When everyone doesn’t participate, stop and remind the class that your direction was for everyone. Make it inviting. No one really likes to be left out. Many times, students don’t participate because they’re afraid of being found out. They don’t want anyone to know they are struggling. But when a chronic non-participator finally does participate, those around him who are used to him doing little celebrate his victory with him. A student who makes the effort will improve.
Related to this is the importance of making participation low-risk. Students need to believe that they have nothing to lose and everything to gain by trying. Value the effort, and always help a student make a connection between their effort and their achievement. The idea is to change reluctant students’ attitude from one of avoiding failure to pursuing success. Students who learn there is value in participating will participate. With everyone participating, all are potential sources of answers to questions and problems. Build on partial answers. Involve other students in finishing what one student has started, until the complete answer is found. This sets the bar higher for what answers are considered complete, and it builds esprit de corps.
A second strategy is to avoid beginning or going on if you don’t have everyone’s attention. This one has always been hard for me, but my mismanagement of this has taught students some bad habits. Have everyone’s attention and eye contact before starting or going on, and get everyone’s attention calmly with a pre-arranged signal that does not require raising your voice. When everyone is not focused properly, pause, even if mid word, and teach the class to recognize that when you stop abruptly it is because everyone is not attentive. You may feel like you are wasting a lot of class time waiting, and sometimes consequences will be needed to stop negative behavior, but overall, your class will learn to make those pauses unnecessary, or at least rarely necessary, and you will gain more time than you initially lost.
Teach students that they are to manage their time efficiently, and to value their time to learn in your class. This is only possible if they know and understand what they are supposed to be doing, and what they are supposed to be learning. They must know what exemplars of the work you have given them to do looks like, and they must know what the purpose of the activity is—what they are learning. If a visitor comes into your classroom and asks one of your students what they are learning, any student should be able to give a concise answer on the spot. It is only with clarity of work and goals that efficient use of time can be expected.
Finally, use your entire classroom. While the students have assigned seats or places to stand, it’s your classroom so you can go anywhere you want. Arrange the room so that there is nothing between you and every student. You should be able to walk anywhere among your class and stand right next to anyone—no desks, backpacks, instrument cases or attitudes in the way. You must never give a students the opportunity to claim a spot in your room as theirs. If you do, it will not be long before they believe they can do whatever they want in “their” space. Move among all students, not just those prone to going off-task. Monitor everyone’s work at any time. Students will become accustomed to you checking their progress, and will work at a higher level because of it. No one should get lost in the crowd. Employing these suggestions consistently will result in more on-task students, and greater gains in proficiency.