Collaborative relationships (1)

“How do you work together with the literacy teacher– is some of the musical alphabet work woven into her lessons, and are you starting to see if this work results in any tangible literacy outcomes?”

This question was posted recently following my description of my Musical Alphabets project with Middle Primary students. The quick answer to my reader’s question is, “Not really, no. As far as I know, the material we work on in music doesn’t get developed further in the classroom, and so literacy outcomes as a result of the Musical Alphabets work would be difficult to isolate.”

Given that I designed the project task with a link to literacy in mind, this seems a fairly unsatisfactory answer to offer, so I thought it would be valuable to look at the question of collaborative relationships with teachers when you are an artist-in-residence or a specialist teacher.

Let’s look at the latter part of the question first, because it requires some more details about the school environment. This is a Language School for newly-arrived students of primary school age (see the above tab for a more detailed description). They come here to build up their English Language skills before moving on to mainstream school. There is therefore a BIG focus on literacy and on familiarisation with Australian school culture, and everything that takes place in school supports that focus in some way. Literacy outcomes are being monitored and tested all the time so it would be hard to identify which outcomes or successes could be attributed to the Musical Alphabets project specifically.

However, I should confess that I haven’t actually asked the class teacher if she has noticed any particular student developments in literacy that could be linked to this music task! I should, because teachers are the people best placed to notice small changes in student response or engagement, as well as development in skills and understanding.

Teachers at this school often do offer their observations about the role music plays in the students’ development. In another Middle Primary composition project, we have developed word phrases about the cold. One of them lists the kinds of clothes we wear in winter – jacket, jumper, socks and shoes. The children used this phrase in a chant, and it gets repeated multiple times in music classes. Their teacher told me some weeks later that it was “one of the best things we’ve done in music!” because the children immediately used the words (and indeed the whole phrase), when discussing together an excursion to a City Farm, which was to take place on a very cold day, for which they would need to dress appropriately.

Has the Musical Alphabets work been followed up at all in the classroom by the class teacher? I don’t know. It isn’t something she and I have talked about or planned. Students have been invited to draw pictures of the different alphabet moves, so that we can make a display in the music room, but this is happening in their own time, rather than in class time. Students have also been encouraged to try to dance the letters of their own name, but again, this was suggested as something for their own time.

Perhaps I haven’t been assertive enough with the teacher as to the probable benefits of exploring this concept further in class time. I think there would be tremendous value in it, so what stops me suggesting it? I’m trying to reflect on this very honestly, and here are some of my current thoughts:

  • I know how crowded the curriculum is. I don’t think she would find time.
  • Planning – I am incredibly thorough in the planning I do for each day I spend in the school. I do this from week to week (in order to respond to student input as it arises each week) rather than pre-determining the whole project at the start of the term, so the teachers and I would have to find time at the end of the school day to talk through what was required before the next music lesson. And before doing that I would need to plan the next week’s classes. Which would have to happen after I had finished teaching… On one day a week this kind of scenario gets difficult…
  • Am I a bit uncomfortable about imposing one of my ideas on her? After all, I developed this project without her input. She is the literacy expert! (But this is a bit crazy. I know, and she knows, how much music work can benefit student learning in all sorts of different areas. It doesn’t seem likely that the project idea wouldn’t be welcome.)
  • I think in the past, in other projects and other schools, asking teachers to work on something in between lessons has proved a bit of a battleground, and one that ultimately leaves me a bit frustrated or disappointed. I value my good relationships with the teachers enormously. I think I am a bit reluctant to upset the balance. (This is a bit wussy of me, I think, as I write it here, and unreliable as a reason, as I am projecting a certain reaction onto the teachers that may well be incorrect!)
  • The ongoing nature of the program means that I would either be asking for this kind of input all the time, or identifying certain projects that would benefit from in-class reinforcement or continuation.
  • In a good collaboration there is a willingness on the part of all parties to be changed somewhat, or influenced by the input of the other. Am I resistant to my ideas being changed by someone else? And further to that…
  • Trust – do I trust the teacher to offer helpful reinforcement? (As it happens, with this teacher I do!) Some of my music projects are quite complex, so a rehearsal taken without me present might not be very helpful. It could be harmful in terms of dampening confidence or causing confusion among the students. Therefore, I could identify key things that the teacher could do in my absence (such as revise with the students the Alphabet moves, or try spelling out a ‘word of the week’ each morning for the week).

Follow-up from the teacher needn’t be music based. Last term, the Language School students were invited to perform at a special concert for Refugee Week. The Lower Primary children wrote a song, called “There’s a Heart inside my House” which they sang from memory, and accompanied on different percussion instruments. As part of their preparation, in the fortnight before the concert, their class teacher used the song words as their literacy focus for that week. I asked her what that meant, and she told me,

“We used words from the song for spelling that week; our handwriting task that week used the song lyrics; we made a worksheet and drew pictures to illustrate what the song described; we read it aloud, and we practised singing it!”

Unsurprisingly, the class of 5 to 7 year-olds was word-perfect in the song, but even more importantly, was confident and sure in their performance of it. The immersion they had had in the words of the song had been so thorough that it created space for us to refine other aspects of the performance. They sang in strong and confident voices, they smiled as they sang, and gave one of the best performances the teachers in the school had ever seen from that age group of students.

Answering this question suggests to me that this is an aspect of my work I avoid somewhat, because I find it a difficult relationship to negotiate. I guess I don’t want to be seen to add to the workload of my teaching colleagues. But this assumes that the teachers would not be enthusiastic in their response to a request to follow-up music work in the classroom in some way, and to actively feed back observations about different student responses or improvements. I need to have a bit more faith in the good relationships I have built, and in the trust and esteem within which my work there is already held, and build more collaboration into my projects.

I will make this a focus for Term 4 and report back!

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3 comments so far

  1. Maria on

    I’m thinking you could approach this the other way around– by asking the literacy teachers how you can assist them in reinforcing their classroom work with what you’re doing in the musical alphabet. The more you can help the kids make connections the better, as you illustrated with the winter clothing example– so by reinforcing what they’re doing in the other class, they’ll have even more opportunities to do that.

  2. Maria on

    I’ve posted something on my own blog about your work with the musical alphabet: http://atimetodance.wordpress.com/2007/09/06/using-dance-as-a-tool-for-child-literacy/

  3. musicwork on

    Hi Maria,
    Wow thanks for the link. How exciting! My first…

    We had a cracker of a day today – the Alphabets dance gets its performance in a couple of weeks and we ran it today . More detail in the next post I write.

    You’re right, I could be approaching the collaboration the other way around. And every reinforcement is mutually beneficial, for the students, the teachers and for me, and the work we are all wanting to cover. I did that a couple of terms ago with the Lower Primary children. They had a term-long unit on Hygiene, teaching them about basic personal hygiene, washing hands etc, so in music we wrote a song. One of our best I think.. it caused lots of giggles, and enthusiastic singing. (The chorus went, “Germs live on your hands, germs live in your bottom, germs live in your ears, germs live up your nose.”)

    There were actions too. Makes me smile just thinking about it. Needless to say, the children came up with the words – I just wrote them on the white board:-). The verses contained various chants – cautionary words mostly about remembering to ‘wash your hands’, ‘put your hand over your mouth’, and so on.

    But more to the point, it had a strong link back to the classroom work. They were drawing lots of pictures and building sentences all on the theme of germs and hygiene. The music work would have supported that, and given them catch-phrases of hygiene rules to remember.

    I think planning is the big issue – time to plan together, or to catch up on what they (the teachers) are planning to focus on, and for me to build some project frameworks that can be determined in advance, and therefore shared with the teachers ahead of time.


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