The Nuts & Bolts of Running a Classroom

2011 Symposium2

A school classroom is a complex environment. There are many students in a room together and within that group of students their are varying interests, abilities, attitudes, and life circumstances, all of which impact what and how students learn. Imposed on these classrooms of students are expectations that every student can succeed, and every student can achieve college readiness by the time they graduate from high school, even if they all don’t want to go to college. While this view of public education can be debated, it is not my purpose to do so here. Instead, I will discuss strategies that can help teachers, all teachers, not just music teachers, be more effective.

The first strategy I’d like to discuss is to allow each student to learn in a way in which he or she is most comfortable. Traditionalists may view this as giving students too much control, but some students simply can’t learn the way some of their teachers teach. Let me give you an example. Yesterday, I taught a lesson on generating musical ideas from five given rhythms. Students copied five one-beat rhythms from the board onto paper, and then were given the task of arranging them in any order they wanted, including repeating rhythms, so that they formed an eight beat rhythm they liked. They worked in small groups. After the groups completed their 8-beat rhythm they played it for another group. The other group then had to take the rhythm played for them, and develop and extend it using unity and variety. I did not specify whether or not they had to write anything down, or what form their work would take except that they needed to be able to play their rhythm made out of the five rhythms provided.

What I got was a fascinating variety of learning styles. One student copied classroomthe rhythms arranged in her desired order onto a single line, and then wrote rhythm syllables, but not the ones I had taught her, under each note so that she would know how to play her idea. Other students just wrote out the notes with no rhythm syllables. The original five rhythms were numbered 1-5, so , some students wrote the numbers of the original rhythms in the order they wanted them. These students discovered that looking back and forth between their numbers and the notated rhythms made playing eight beats at a steady tempo difficult, and subsequently went back and wrote out the rhythms in the order they wanted. By allowing the students to use whatever format they chose to accomplish the task, I got completed work from all but two students. Compare that to another lesson with the same class when I required that everyone use the same format, and received completed work from only a little more than half of the students. Offering students multiple ways to learn is a key strategy in keeping them engaged and motivated to learn.

The second strategy is to provide procedural structure to everything you have your students do. On the surface, this may sound like a contradiction to the first strategy, but it really isn’t. The first procedure addresses how to learn, whereas this procedure addresses how to work. I start each class with a “do now.” The work they do for the “do now” usually will carry over into the lesson. In the first strategy, the “do now” was to copy the five rhythms from the board onto paper. When students come in, they know where to go to get paper, a pencil if they need one, and they know to look on the board for what to do, with little or no help from me. I set a timer, and when the time is up, papers are collected, whether they are done or not. Incomplete “do now” work lowers the student’s daily grade. This time limit is essential; it teaches students to complete work to a deadline, and it assures that what is essentially a warm-up activity does not drag on into what should be more substantive instructional time.

In music, their has to be sound. I don’t believe in a silent music classroom. There has to be music, and music is not silent. But their have to be procedures to keep that sound making musical. An example of this is when I do a drumming lesson. I have four rules:

  1. Drums out when you’re not playing, drums in when you are asked to play.
  2. Respect the drum and each other.
  3. Respond only in a way that is appropriate to the activity you are given to do.
  4. Listen before and while you play.

When I need to give instruction or directions, drums are moved away in front of the student. When they are going to play again, they move their drums back into playing position. This kind of structure does not prevent students from learning in personalized ways, but it does keep the class moving smoothly, and the activity organized and efficient.

The third strategy is to provide feedback that is consistent and personalized. Getting the balance right between these two can be challenging. Rules and procedures apply equally to everyone, but not everyone is capable of following them with the same precision. Just like with learning, personalization is needed. Some students have learned how to handle their emotions, words, and actions, and fall into lapses of bad judgement. For these, reminders of what they should have done, and a “do-over” to reinforce the right way is effective and appropriate. Others have not learned how to handle their emotions, words, and actions, and must be taught empathy, self-control, and how to get help with a situation they feel they are not equipped to handle.  I like to acknowledge progress these students have made and then give instruction for further improvement.  Because personalization can be seen as inconsistency, I try to be clear about my motives and goals when responding to a student in a way they perceive to be unfair.    In the end, if you keep each individual student as a priority, even over content and test scores, the whole learning process will nearly always succeed.






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