Making Music Classrooms More Student-Centered


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The longer I teach, the less I want to direct my students’ learning. By this I mean that the least effective teaching I do is when I am most in control of what is being taught. When students have no say in what or how material is taught, they are far less apt to be interested, engaged, and ultimately successful. This is not to say that we should all chuck the curriculum and let students do whatever they want in class, but they should have many more opportunities to choose materials that interest them and methods that suit them than they are often given.

Typically, the least productive class of the year is the last day of school. Knowing this, I enjoy just giving the reins over to the students on this day. They and I have been together long enough for them to know that no matter what, I expect them to do something musical in my room, so given the chance, out come the phones and the ear phones. Some will just listen to music privately, but it is the students who share and participate that I really enjoy watching and listening to. These students will gather themselves in a small group, usually three or four of them together, choose a song they all know and like, set it to playing on one of their phones, and then sing and drum along. Because the song is often a rap song, some will rap while others drum, depending on which a student is more comfortable with. One or two others may be drawn over and sit on the outskirts of the group and listen, beginning to move to the beat, and quickly welcomed into the group as a participant-listener. In this group of now five or six people, one song has engaged every student by affording each the opportunity to choose how they will engage and participate; as singers, rappers, drummers, or listeners. For me, this is the ideal scenario for a music class. On those occasions when I can prime the context with the musical context I want to teach that day, students leave at the end of class excited, having engaged with music and through their engagement and enjoyment having learned the curricular content for the day.

Starr Stackstein provided some excellent tips for producing great student led discussions in class. I have adopted them for music, and present them here.

  • Start by reviewing small group protocols that include speaking and listening, always adding value  ideas rooted in the music.
  • Provide time for students to think about what is to be discussed first. When a performance for you is the means for assessment, students will want to go back and get it right. Evaluation and discussion will be an important piece in this, and the best ideas come when students have “think time” before someone else takes over the conversation.
  • Suggest having students develop questions while they listen or prepare as conversation starters. This is a great way to involve the listeners who have chosen not to perform.
  • Allow students to have a discussion without raising hands, thereby learning how to listen and wait, deferring to each other where necessary.
  • Create a Twitter backchannel so that more reticent students can be heard. This can be a great way to also get other questions dropped into the fray by students. If one or two students are monopolizing, create a protocol where they need to practice listening for a little while and then they can write down their thoughts and post them to Twitter afterward.
  • Encourage students to piggy-back off ideas of each other. “I agree with ________ when he/she said… because…” or “I disagree with ________________ when he/she said… because…”
  • Encourage students to feel comfortable disagreeing as long as there is evidence to back up ideas.
  • Foster an open environment where everyone’s ideas are welcomed and considered.
  • Allow kids to make connections to other learned information not just in your class, but anything applicable.
  • Give every child an opportunity to hold the floor.

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