A Strategy For Improving Student Engagement

2011Symposium_1_2When an entire class is singing or playing musical instruments, having everyone actively participating is a given. There is no waiting to be called on and no hoping not to get called on. Music ensembles involve everyone all the time. Every student is either singing, playing, or tracking measures of rest so they will make their correct entrance. But once the music stops, and the director addresses a section, what happens to the engagement of the students not being addressed? I have written elsewhere about things students can be doing during those “down” times, but how can a director keep them engaged in the class without relegating them to these other tasks? The answer is to use the students to do at least part of what the director usually does; evaluate and suggest a way to correct deficiencies.
Five point rating scales are useful for rehearsal and classroom use. People have five fingers, so anything can be evaluated by holding up any number of fingers between 0 and 5. Instead of having most of the ensemble listen to the director work with one section, the director can identify a specific criteria, have the section play or sing the measures that need attention, and then have everyone else evaluate the performance on the given criteria with a show of fingers. For example, suppose that a director wants to rehearse a long crescendo. He or she has taught the ensemble how to make a long crescendo by not getting too loud too quickly, and by making a noticeable change in dynamics from the start to the finish of the crescendo. Students, once they know this, can evaluate how the section did making the crescendo. It is just a matter of indicating on a scale of one to five how well the crescendo was done. If there is disagreement, students who give markedly differing evaluations can be asked to support their evaluation with a brief description of what they heard. By involving otherwise idle students in this kind of evaluation and dialogue, they are learning as much, or possible more, than the students who were actually playing or singing.
This strategy also works well in general music classes. The other day, I was continuing to teach my sixthclassroom grades about phrases. On this day, I was teaching them to hear tension or stress at the ends of phrases. At first I used a song with phrases that ended just on ^5 or ^1. There was either tension or relaxation. Told them to point up if they heard tension and down if they heard relaxing. Because these are non-verbal responses, all students could continuously respond at once.
Next, I chose a song that had different degrees of tension at the ends of phrases. Phrases ended on ^6, ^2, ^3, ^5 and ^1. For this, I had the students decide how much tension they heard at the end of each phrase as the listened, and respond by holding up 0-5 fingers. Again, all could respond at once and continually. It’s one thing to tell students they always have something to do because they should be listening to their classmates’ responses and forming their own response, and quite another thing to give all students a way to respond all the time. It makes it harder for students to decide not to participate and easier for the teacher to assess students and hold them accountable throughout class. For times when the teacher wants words or phrases for a response, each student can be given a small white board and marker. Students write their response and then hold up the whiteboard so the teacher can see it. if the students are seated in rows, they won’t be influenced by their peers’ answers because holding the whiteboards up facing the front of the class,they will have a hard time seeing each other’s answers. much of our success as teachers depends to a large extent on frequent student engagement. These strategies are helpful in this area.

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