Collaboration with ESL teachers

Last term one of my readers suggested I could set about building projects around work that my colleague teachers might already have underway in the classroom, as a way of encouraging further follow-through and reinforcement of some of the music-literacy tasks I have been developing.

It came as a timely reminder. I feel this is an approach I have tried before, and found frustrating in the lack of time there was available to properly plan with teachers, or communicate effectively about current work and goals for the class. We try, and have tried, but despite loads of good will and efforts, a true collaboration often proved elusive.

This term at the Language School I cannot teach up until the end of term (because I am going overseas – yee ha!). This means I won’t be around to lead the end-of-term performances that are such a significant and much-loved part of the term’s work.

Therefore, the teachers and I have concocted a plan – I will set about creating performance projects with the students that the teachers can continue when I am gone, that they will take through to the end of term. I need to plan composition tasks that take the teachers’ current skills into consideration, build in some in-class opportunities for teachers to lead and develop their musical skills, and work with material that is suitable for visiting in class by the teachers, during the week.

I have asked each teacher to select a book for their class to focus on for their music composition work – a book that was interesting enough to be read over and over again, and that contained useful literacy goals and vocabulary for the students. In the first week of term the books were chosen, and yesterday I started working with text from the books.

Here are some of our composition starting points:

  • Middle Primary’s book contains lists of colours. In Week 1, using syllables of names to develop rhythmic and melodic phrases, we had composed a 3-phrase song. In Week 2, we listed all the colours in the book, compared the number of syllables in the different words, then re-wrote our song substituting colours for names with the same number of syllables. (I think we all found the song far more catchy and memorable when we used the names – but hopefully the colours will soon settle in our heads).
  • Lower Primary practiced saying key sentences from the book using a big range of pitches and vocal colours. We also sang a repetitive section from the book, (“On Monday he ate through [CLAP] one apple, But he was still hungry [DUM-DE-DUM-DE-DUM]”) using a melody that I invented and taught them. I think this will become a chorus for our piece.
  • Upper Primary improvised ways of singing the final line of their book, one by one as a call-and-response, where the rest of the class repeated each phrase they sang back to them. This was wonderfully successful and affirming for the students. They were very uninhibited and open to this task. Their teacher and I noted how culturally stylistic the offers were, in terms of melodic material and phrasing, and vocal colour. The Vietnamese girl sang in a much more piercing tone than the Sudanese students, for example. Mel (our intern from Melbourne Uni) and I notated all of their ideas as rapidly as we could, and during the next week I will go through them all and see if a larger melody can be constructed from each of these short examples.

The Upper Primary teacher also confided in me how gorgeous it was to hear the Vietnamese girl singing. She is a new student, and the only Vietnamese speaker in the school at the moment, so she has no-one to speak to in her own language. This was one of the first times her teacher has heard her voice!

At the end of the day, I made notes for each of the class teachers on what we had done in class, any chants or songs that had been invented, and suggestions for follow-up activities. All three were keen to work some more during the week, and happily, all are very enthusiastic about this project idea. The Lower Primary teacher was making a workshop for her students using the words from their ‘chorus’ when I dropped in to see her at the end of the day, and was thinking they would cover each of the days of the week in the book, one each day, between now and my next day in the school.

As for me, I am filled with ideas of ways to perform these books. I am not at school next week, due to Hunger performances, so am looking forward to seeing them in Week 4. I think the books have been an excellent starting point for these students and teachers. We will be able to make quite explicit links to literacy and language development. It would be great if we can find a way to measure any developments that take place during the project period, acknowledging of course, that we cannot control for any other influences on student learning.

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