Looking for ‘engagement’

I was at Language School today, and this post is about something I have noticed for the last few weeks – the way that the students show their engagement in different ways and how valuable it is to be open to seeing ‘engagement’ manifest itself in a big range of behaviour.

Here are some student snapshots:

Assunta, a Sudanese girl in Upper Primary, is really struggling to cope at school. There is all kinds of crazy upheaval going on at home, and so she is experiencing lots of confusion, distress and anger, and this is being played out at school. In class, if she decides to sit out awhile, or lie on the floor, I usually let her without commenting or questioning it, as it seems like ‘time out’ is often just what she needs. In music she can be very focused and engaged on what we are doing (watching, listening, joining in, working cooperatively with the teacher and other students), but often switches, all of a sudden, to far more disruptive, aggressive behaviour.

Most recently we saw this when we were doing glockenspiel work. The whole class (13) had a glockenspiel each, so it was going to get very noisy. I reminded them to use the rubber ends of the mallets, rather than the wooden ends. Assunta used the wooden ends, and hit her instrument very, very hard. This proceeded for a while, and I took her sticks from her every now and then when I needed to talk to the class. She didn’t protest. Towards the end of the lesson, though, she asked for her sticks back. “I promise,” she said, looking me in the eye, meaning, ‘not to hit the instrument so hard’. I looked back at her, and said,

“You know that if you say ‘promise’ to me, and then you do the wrong thing, I can’t believe the promise again.”

“I know,” she said. I gave her back her sticks, and she proceeded to play beautifully – quietly, sensitively, accurately. Not only that, she was singing the song we were working on to herself as she played. The class started to pack up, but Assunta kept playing to herself until the last possible minute.

So, clearly she was engaged in what we were doing. She was acting out, needing something more on an emotional level (I am not sure what), but somehow too, by the end, she wanted to take part. She took part, she was focused, she was contributing to what we were doing. And she needed me to notice.

Mandy is a girl from China in Upper Primary. She is new to the school, so doesn’t have much English. She is very withdrawn in class, in the way she carries herself and closes off her body to the group. She doesn’t seem to interact much with the other Chinese children (usually they stick together), and seems quite shy and unconfident. It is hard to tell how much she understands of what we are doing. Upper Primary work more independently, so there is a bit more explanation of tasks than I would use in other classes. While she joins in every task, she does so with very little facial expression, eye contact, or other usual ‘clues’ suggesting engagement with the task.

Today we were working with the tuned percussion – most were on glockenspiels, and two were on the bass xylophone. Mandy devised a part for herself on the glockenspiel that was quite simple, but proved to be something of an ‘anchor’ to the other ostinati being played by the other children in her group. I got Mandy to be the first musical ‘layer’ in her group, with others joining in every 4 bars. She seemed to be following this process.

Then we took a break and most of the class went outside to get a drink of water or go to the toilet. The two boys (both Chinese) playing the xylophone stayed inside – they wanted to keep practising their part, and were working very hard to get it right. I went to the cupboard to get the metronome for them, and when I came back I saw that Mandy had taken the place of one of them at the xylophone, and was playing their part (quite a complicated part with three chord changes in it). One of them was giving her some instructions in Chinese, but she didn’t seem to need much help. She took the sticks, and played their part with great accuracy. When she gave them back the sticks her face was all smiles.

She had spent most of the lesson sitting on the other side of the room to the xylophone – she wouldn’t have been able to watch them learning the part. She was playing it aurally, and learning it quickly from them, after just a short explanation.

Clearly Mandy was highly engaged in the class, despite her apparent reticence and reluctant body language.

Sarah, a Sudanese girl I have written about before (who has now sadly had to leave the school due to being relocated in emergency housing) often refused to take active part in music lessons. But I noticed that while she was sitting off to the side, she would nearly always be singing along, tapping in time, actively watching what her peers are doing, and often doing the task more accurately than them, but quietly, under her breath.

These observations remind me to keep an open mind about what student engagement looks like. It is easy in music classes to feel your stress levels rise with the noise levels, to find yourself being overly structured or strict as a way of avoiding chaos, and so wanting the students to be doing the same thing, all the time. It is easy to see some students who are not participating the way you expect them to in a particular task, as being disengaged from it. But I find that when I look a little closer (and keep my cool, and maintain a sunny disposition upper most in all my reactions) there are all sorts of signs of the students’ active participation and engagement.

So much is new for the students in this school. There is a lot to negotiate and make sense of, a lot of stimulation and a lot of confusing messages – due to language barriers and cultural differences/expectations. My best days are when I keep looking for the best in all of them, however they choose to show it on that particular day.


3 comments so far

  1. ladyperfection on

    Interesting observation. May be they do it cause they want to get atention? People like to be in the center of attention, especially younger ones.

  2. musicwork on

    Definitely, I think attention, and the want or need for it is a big part of it, particularly with the more disruptive behaviours. With the Sudanese children in particular, I find it is helpful to keep in mind how totally alien and foreign and new so many of our structures, systems and environments are for them. They are often struggling internally with a whole load of battles to do with… oh, so many things! from self-esteem, to trauma from terrible things they have experienced or witnessed, to missing a parent or family members who are still in another country, or to missing affection and noticing, because they are living with family who are themselves suffering from trauma and displacement and anxiet … so the children’s need for attention, and to be noticed, is often pretty valid. And it doesn’t always make sense, at this early stage in their transition, to expect them to be able to slip into our Western culture. Often, I think they just can’t. Not yet.

  3. Rebecca on

    Finally a mad moment to sit at your blog after a mad and long day out with the boy.

    I wanted to comment on what you said today at the PD at ArtPlay. You made a comment about artists asking for what they wanted in schools. A very important point, I think. How are we all to enter into meaningful partnerships if we do not communicate the requirements appropriate for our artforms. I think often both teachers and artists assume a lot about each others needs and practice, which is all very well meaning but does not challenge the status quo enough in regards to artists working in schools. my experience in schools has generally been to be very well accommodated but it takes negotiation. and i think that negotiations will only get easier and more fruitful the more artists and teachers work together and develop further understanding of the strengths each can contribute to artistic projects.

    This needs much further discussion but my brain is stopping now.

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