What Do You Do?

Version 2When striking up a new acquaintance, sharing what we do for work is nearly always one of the first things we talk about. I have always responded by saying that I’m a music teacher, an answer no one who knows me would dispute. But lately I began to wonder just how accurate that really is. After all, I’m not teaching the music anything, I’m teaching children–teaching music to children. That makes me a children teacher.

While the distinction may seem nit-picky or like a bad pun, I believe it reveals something I have from time to time lost track of. If I am principally concerned with teaching music, then I am less likely to be concerned with those to whom I am teaching it. I am interested in covering material, and transferring knowledge or skills from me to my students. To be sure, this is an important part of teaching and learning, the imparting and receiving of knowledge and skills, but it is apt to be accomplished with limited success if more attention is given to the content than to the learner.

Even on my most successful days, when my students have done well playing or singing repertoire, or have demonstrated knowledge on an assessment, if I have not taught them something that they want to use in their daily lives, they will at best tolerate my class, and then quickly lay aside what I have taught them. The fact is that most children, and I include adolescents, enjoy music in some fashion, and have willingly made it part of their daily lives. For many, this involves listening to recorded music, and responding in some way to what they are listening to, be it moving, dancing, singing, drumming, or just taking emotional pleasure. Honestly, they can do these things without much or maybe any help from me. So I ask myself, what value can I add to their musical experience that will amplify their lifelong interactions with music?

One way is to teach them to play musical instruments on which they can play the music they enjoy. Band and orchestra are great for those who enjoy it, and there are plenty who do, but for the rest who make up a majority, as long as there are rarely if ever trumpets or clarinets, violins or timpani in the latest hip-hop or pop hits, there is little interest in learning “orchestral” instruments. There just isn’t a connection between playing these instruments and what the students want to do with their music, nor the incentive to invest the time needed to sound good playing music that is perhaps of marginal interest. But present the opportunity to play the guitar or keyboard, and suddenly there is immense interest in learning a musical instrument. These are the instruments they hear in the music they enjoy and encounter daily. This will add value to their moving, dancing, singing, and drumming. This will also draw students together in a new way, as one plays a guitar, another the drums, another a keyboard, and still another sings. It is discovering for them, and rediscovering for us the joy of making music with friends, as families and friends were apt to do in a time that preceded recorded music.

Part of succeeding at this rediscovery is showing students that they do not have to make exact reproductions of the recordings they know. Just consider all the remixes being done today. Their remix can be a simpler way of playing and singing, one that suits their present technical ability on an instrument or voice. Students can divide chords among themselves where chord changes come to quickly for one player. They can eliminate chords or slow down strums to give them more time to get their fingers to the nextthis-approach-to chord. They can move a complex strumming pattern onto a drum kit where the rhythms are easier to play. These accommodations don’t in the end spoil the musical experience. On the contrary they bring it within the reach of all students, and open up the world of playing in a band to those who have not achieved the skill to play the original versions. Unlike transcriptions for wind ensemble or orchestra, the modified versions of popular music still have enough of the original sound and feel to satisfy the students, and make it fun for them to play there favorite songs. It also brings to the fore what is perhaps the most attractive part of making music–that of doing it together with friends.

This approach to teaching music to kids is a natural by-product of putting relationship building first. It recalibrates how we think of ourselves as teachers and how we think of our students. Yes, we are the experts, the ones with the college education and conservatory musicianship, but the students are our equals in terms of who they are as people, and what they are about to do, feel, cherish and be. Rather than considering ourselves as lauded overseers of our students learning, it is more respectful of them and effective to see ourselves as collaborators who bring indispensable resources into the collaboration, but who are as eager to make music and learn from them as we want them to be those things toward us. So we demonstrate, teach, explain, but we also listen, encourage, and at times just step back, out of the way, and let them take what we have given them and let them run with it through what now can be a self-directed musical experience.

It is something like teaching your child to ride a bicycle. They are the ones seated on the bike and pedaling and steering, and maybe holding on for dear life, and you are the one holding the bike so they don’t fall, running along beside but not hopping on and taking over, and then when they are able to go, you let go and watch them ride ahead, unaware that they are doing it all their own now, until they look and see you’re not needed to hold them up. That is what good music teaching should be like. Train them as long as they need it, but then get out of the way and let them go it alone. At that point, you are the proud teacher, applauding their accomplishments, and enjoying their success right along with them. That moment of bringing them to the point of independence is something they never forget. It is born out of the relationship that grows from collaboration, which is the working together of equals, not from sitting at the “feet” of a presiding pundit, a relationship that demands superiority over students. Teachers must retain their academic and scholarly superiority, while allowing students to be equal in other ways so that the learning I’ve described will flourish. I am a children teacher. I teach children music.

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.