I’m not sure when I realized it, but I am certain that this is true: I will never entirely stop my middle school students from talking in class. It is like telling an ice cube to stop melting while it is in an empty glass on a picnic table on a warm summer day. Instead of trying the impossible–stopping all the talking–I use it to my advantage. Here’s an example. I used this activity in my first class of the year with my 7th graders. I had three questions on the board I knew they would like to talk about: What is your favorite song, who is your favorite musical artist or band, and what is your favorite musical thing to do? I gave them all a half sheet of composition paper and told them to write their answers but not to tell anyone what their answers were (Yes, they did manage to keep their answers to themselves). Once they had their answers, they next had to get up out of their seats, walk around, and find out what other students answered, and try to find matches with their own answers. If a match was found, they were to write the matching student’s name next to their answer.
I’ll explain what happened next in a moment, but first, let me mention the rationale behind what has transpired so far. After initially sitting (relatively) quietly while writing their answers, the students were given something to do that required them to talk to lots of people in the room. This is especially good for the beginning of the year because it serves as a “mixer” and gets students out of sitting next to the same couple of friends. Because the talking is part of the learning, everybody gets what they want. They get to talk and I get learning to take place. Students are learning about each other and some are receiving affirmation by finding that others have the same interests as they. The other helpful thing about this activity is that the students have a reason to get up and move around. Building movement into a class helps keep them from getting fidgety and inattentive. Later, when I was ready for them to sit down, they were ready to settle in.
Once this part of the lesson is complete, I had the students re-seat themselves so that they would be sitting next to other students with whom they found a match. Again, this gets students working with different collaborators than when they always work just with those seated around them, and it also is helpful to get students with similar musical interests together, so that they will be more invested in turning those interests into created music.
This brings me to the next segment of the lesson, which ultimately is about developing creative thinking skills. In their new groups, each group receives a card with three words or phrases written that can describe music. For example, one card might have “staccato, piano, allegro” written on it. The students’ task is to create a short (10 seconds) musical example that is accurately described by everything written on their card. The group that received the example card above would create music that was staccato, soft, and fast. They can use voice, body percussion, or tapping on their chair. Because students are grouped by musical interest, they tend to arrive at grooves, styles, rather quickly. The longest discussions are usually about sound sources–to sing or not to sing. Some of the cards have “low pitched” or “high pitched” on them, so if the group decides to use body percussion and/or tapping on their chair, they must explore those sources to find a way of making relatively high, low or high and low sounds. The creative thinking comes in through finding sound sources and performance methods that will produce sounds that match what is on their card.
There are other, secondary reasons for doing this activity as well. The cards are loaded with musical vocabulary. In order to carry out the task, the students need to know what those words mean. If they don’t know, an opportunity and necessity for learning them is present. Students will immediately ask what “polyphonic” or “staccato” means. You can handle these questions in one of two ways. You can outright tell them, with a demonstration, or you can have them search for a classmate that knows the answer, and only come to you if they can’t find one. In this instance, I outright defined the words, because I also wanted to cover procedures, it being the beginning of the school year. But often I will require them to ask at least one peer first, and if the peer doesn’t know, they both must come to me for the answer. This holds the first student accountable for asking a peer first, and it assures that I have taught the definition to two students, rather than only one. Then, if (when) another student comes looking for the same definition, I can refer him or her to the two other students I know have the answer.
Another secondary reason for doing this activity is to work on cooperation and collaboration. These can always be improved, and getting students to be cooperative and collaborative with each other early in the year is well worth the investment of time. Students who work well together and productively together will make a much more successful and pleasant class for you to teach all year, and will raise the level of learning that occurs.
The final piece to this lesson is to have students listen to a song, and to listen in it for the elements they created with, the ones that were on their cards. In our example from above, those students will listen for staccato notes, piano dynamic, and allegro tempo. Of course, not every word on every card will be heard in a single musical work, so the students can also contrast the music to which they are listening with the music they created. This reinforces the vocabulary learning, and applies the learning to a new situation, which, for all you Learning by Design folks, is the definition of understanding.
You won’t always be able to build student talking into lessons as I have done here, but as long as there are a fair amount of “talking allowed” lessons, students will be okay with those times that you need them to be silent. Just tell them, “last time I had a lesson that allowed you talk with each other, but not so today. Today, I need you to listen quietly, and participate by responding to my cues and questions.” As long as students know this in advance, and know that there will be another music lesson soon in which talking will be needed, they will be fine with the times when it isn’t.