Games in the Elementary Music Classroom

Version 2My students love to play games. No matter what else I may have for them to do on a given day, as soon as I mention that we will be playing a game that day, they all smile and get excited. Music games are fun, yes, but there is also a learning goal to be met that must not be overlooked amid all the fun, or left not communicated to the students.  For example, in Pre-kindergarten or kindergarten, you might use the song “Charlie Over the Ocean.” The song is an echo song, and the game is played as a version of duck, duck, goose. One child walks around the outside of the circle while the song is sung, then taps the nearest child in the circle at the end of the song. The child who tapped chases the child who was tapped. If tagged, the he becomes the new chaser, if not, the chaser must chase again. With all the running and chasing, it is easy to let that excitement become the focus of the game. But there are opportunities for more learning.

Because the song is an echo song, the chaser is a solo singer as he or she walks around the circle. It is important for children to sing alone, not always in a group, to develop independent audiation and singing skills. This can also be an excellent opportunity for the teacher to assess singing while the children are at the same time doing something they enjoy and that doesn’t “feel” like an assessment. Thirdly, the chaser should also be walking around the circle to the beat of the song he or she is singing, so the child is performing a beat motion. Fourthly, traveling around the circle when being chased and returning to the same location in the circle requires that the student move his or her body in space to a determined location. This is a variety of movement exploration, training students to understand and interpret music through movement of the body. Feierabend has presented many similar activities that teach children to explore space with their bodies. If one wanted to calm the game down, it could be played so that the child tapped needed to reach a location in the circle in a given number of steps. If more or fewer steps were taken, the child would be “caught.” If the exact number of steps were taken to reach the destination, the child avoided being “caught.”

When the class is about to play a game such as “Charlie Over The Ocean,” the teacher who states upfront that the goals to be achieved while playing is accurate solo singing, exploring movement, and accurate keeping of the beat by walking, is focusing students on desired learning, even as they are having fun playing a game. Students are also more likely to manage their behavior and successfully learn concepts when they are goal directed. Students should know what they are learning at all times during a classroom activity.

“Charlie Over The Ocean” is a kind of game that doesn’t have winners and losers. Other games do. In these situations, the learning objective must be kept in mind, more so than winning the game. A good example of this is Feierabend’s “forbidden rhythm.” This game is very useful for teaching music literacy, both at the aural and reading stages. I use three different rhythms. The three rhythm patterns have been taught so that they are familiar to the children. The game is played as a variation of a familiar activity, that of echoing rhythm patterns. I chant a rhythm, and the class chants it back to me. The twist is one of the three rhythms is “forbidden.” If I chant the forbidden rhythm, the class must remain silent. If the class stays silent, they get a point. If anyone chants the rhythm out loud, I get a point, so the two teams are the class and me. The first team to get 3 points wins. In order to avoid one student being blamed for awarding me a point, I give the class the point if only one student chants the forbidden rhythm, but if two or more chant it, I get the point.

This can be done orally, or the rhythms can be written on the board, and the students play the game by reading the rhythms I’m chanting, avoiding the one that is marked “forbidden.” The students are focused on winning, but in order to do so they must remain proficient at audiating rhythm patterns and deciding which ones to chant out loud and which ones to just audiate but not chant. They also must practice reading music if the patterns have been written on the board. That is the learning objective they are working on while they are having fun trying to win the game. The game can also be played by having a student lead, chanting the rhythm patterns for the class to echo or keep silent on. In that case, the student leading becomes one team, and the class is still the other. This arrangement gives students a chance to practice leadership skills and solo chanting, furthering the learning possibilities from playing the game.

Games are a useful tool in teaching music (and other disciplines). They are motivating and provide a context that make learning meaningful.” Games help engage students in activities that have an educational purpose and which in another presentational mode would be less interesting and engaging. Games, because they are played by all students at once, also encourage socialization and teach the community aspects of music making. Whether students are moving in a circle, clapping, passing an object to the beat, or singing or chanting patterns, they are doing those things as a community and for a purpose beyond a teacher’s expectation. Every action that produces musical sound is done for, perhaps among other reasons, the purpose of making music. Combining music making with the fun of playing the game is developing enjoyment of music itself.

 

 

 

Using Student Feedback to Plan Music Instruction

Version 2When it comes to teaching, I’m a pretty old school kind of guy. Many teachers, and I count myself among them, tend to teach the way we were taught, especially if we were generally successful in school. For me and I would guess most others of my generation, we accepted what the teacher told us to do, and did things their way. If we didn’t, we either got bad grades, got in trouble, or both, and we could count on negative consequences as a result when we got home. A lot of research and reforms have come to education since then, many of them good. Among the positive change is the recognition that not all students learn the same, and even more importantly, teachers can be guided by their students on the best ways to instruct individual in a class.

The issue isn’t just whether a student is a visual, aural, or kinesthetic learner, nor is it just which of the multiple intelligences is a student’s strength or weakness. No, the issue also must include how a student responds, manages and utilizes his or her internal world of emotions, physical health, language, cognition, relationships with others, and self-worth. These all affect achievement in school and are separate from learning style. Many if not most times, the condition of any of these can only be known by soliciting student feedback. Often times, this kind of feedback will only be offered to a teacher with whom the student has developed and trusting relationship, so relationship building must precede the effect use of student feedback to effectively improve teaching and learning.

It is important to understand that the type of feedback I am writing about is focused on making the learning situation for the student better. I am not referring to student reflections on negative behavior. While such reflections may have their place and helping a student realize that he or she could have handled a situation in a more positive way, and learning what they way might be for next time, improving the learning environment for that student probably will remove the reason the student acted negatively in the first place. For example, if a student is struggling to stay focused and is becoming distracted and engaging in off-task behavior, and if usual strategies for redirection have been ineffective through the class, feedback from that student could be a successful tact.

The teacher might slip the student a note that in effect says, “Today I was pleased to notice that you tried to complete your work. I also noticed that even so, you became distracted from your work and ended up not finishing. How can I help you overcome the distractions so you can finish your work?” A note like this is personal because it is about something specific to that one student, it shows that you noticed that child, and that you care about his or her success enough to seek them out and work for a solution that will bring better results. It is positive because it acknowledges a success (effort), and offers support in making improvement. It avoids negative consequences for being distracted and off-task, and replaces them with positive action to replace the off-task behavior with something more productive and ultimately rewarding.

There are also times, perhaps once every six weeks or so, when seeking feedback from an entire class can be effective and helpful. Mendler  (2000) suggests that “questions like the following can lead to helpful information.

  1. What can I do to be a better teacher for you?
  2. How can I help you be successful?
  3. Two things I say or do that you think I should continue doing are ________________.
  4. Two things I say or do that you wish I would do less of are _______________________.

If students answer these questions anonymously, the results can be analyzed as data, with the most frequently given answers driving changes or reinforcing current practice in instruction. If students answer these questions and put their names on their papers, then the results can be used to differentiate instruction for individuals. Students will be willing to put their names to their answers if a relationship of trust has been established between students and teacher.

There is also much good that can come from just observing groups of students at work. For example, there may be a small group of students in a class who typically are less engaged than the others, who tend to want to socialize rather than stay on-task, or who simply refuse to do assigned tasks. By observing these students over several class meetings during which they are asked to do different types of learning activities, it is possible to observe them becoming more engaged in certain types of activities than others. In a music classroom, some students may work diligently at a response to music activity that is primarily writing, where as those same students may be reticent to play or sing music. From this observation, it may be possible to replace one kind of response (demonstrate by performing) with another kind of response (explain in writing) as the means by which those student demonstrate learning. Then, during subsequent lessons, the teacher continues to build on the strength (writing) while gradually building confidence and competence in the weakness (performing) until the latter also becomes a viable kind of response.

Typically, with a group of students who tend to talk too much to each other, the teacher would respond by separating those students. However, if that is the group that prefers verbal responding to performance responding, it may be more effective to put them together and give them the opportunity to use their preference (talking) to verbally respond and then perhaps record their responses in writing. This is not to say that unwanted talking should be encouraged, only that it is often possible to channel it into a more productive purpose.

It really all comes back to building relationships. The longer one teaches, the more difficult it can become to put ourselves in our students place. But we were all elementary, middle and high school students at one time. When we felt unsure of ourselves, how did we get helpful encouragement from others? What did they say to us or do that put us at ease and freed us up to proceed with confidence and to succeed? When we walk into a room of peers, even peers who are familiar to us or friends, what do other people do to make us feel accepted and comfortable? Are students doing those things for each other in our classroom? Do our students feel that our classroom is a socially safe place for them to be and in which to learn and even take risks such as volunteering an answer, or even singing for the class? We can obtain answers to these questions and more by gathering student feedback from students who are convinced they can trust us with their struggles and obstacles. That is the necessity of building trusting relationships, and the payoff that student feedback from trusting students offers.

Mendler, A. N. (2000). Motivating students who don’t care: Successful techniques for educators. Bloomington: Solution Tree.