One of the Sudanese girls in one of my classes – Edwina – had a tricky time in music today, and ended up leaving the class (her choice) to go and lie down. She is usually very enthusiastic, so I am reflecting a bit on what to took place today, to see what I can make of it. We started the class in a fairly focused way, with a game called Read The Circle. Here is how we played it:
- Everyone sits on the floor in a circle. I ask a few random people to go grab a chair, bring it back to the circle and sit on that instead.
- Once everyone is ready, I explained to the group that I was going to do some clapping and I wanted them to listen and look carefully. Sometimes they would hear 2 claps, sometimes only 1. They had to try to work out what the rule was.
- Their class teacher figured it out first, so I asked her to give the class a clue. “You have to watch G’s eyes,” she said.
- I clapped the pattern again. There were a few “oh!s” around the group as they started to form their ideas. I asked a couple what they thought the rule might be. The 2nd or 3rd child worked it out – that all those sitting on the floor got one clap, all those in a chair got two claps. And, I added, we start ‘reading the circle’ with me, and we finish with me.
- Now that the rule was explained, we clapped the circle together, slowly. We did it a few times. The group was pretty accurate. I noticed that one or two were not quite getting it – one of the Chinese girls, who simply wasn’t looking at anyone in the circle (so trying to guess, or memorise), and Edwina, who was watching me intently, and copying what I did, reading my gestures in order to know when to clap once or twice. She wasn’t looking around the circle – she was only watching me.
- We added a third element – several people standing up. They were worth three claps. We read the circle again, and after a few fairly accurate read-throughs stopped the game at that point.
Edwina struggled in this task. I could see how hard she was trying, and engaging, but she just couldn’t do it. I’m not sure if it was because it didn’t fully make sense to her, or if she couldn’t keep up, or … something else. I guess I don’t know what barriers there are to reading for some kids in any particular detail, and it is not something I have ever talked about with her teacher.
We moved on then to our songwriting activity, brainstorming words and sentences about the journeys the students took to come to Australia from their countries of origin. Edwina spoke up quite early on in the discussion, giving a very detailed story about her journey, with lots of poignant and gentle descriptions. I wrote everything she said on the board. (I always do this for all the students when we brainstorm. Even if they cannot read, they know which words I wrote while they were speaking, and they know when I use them).
Then, as a class, we started to work with the material – finding patterns, rhymes, melodies. It was around this time that Edwina started to withdraw. First she went to sit in one of the chairs, then later, she took herself even further from the group, huddling against the wall, turning her face away from us and not joining in anything. Her teacher tried to encourage her in different ways, as did I. Our tactics change in this kind of situation. We use words of gentle encouragement, as well as just accepting the desire for time-out, so leaving her be.
Our song was starting to form and we divided into two groups to sing it through. Edwina didn’t want to take part in either group. After a time, she got up and left the room. Her teacher got up and went after her. After a few minutes they both came back. However, Edwina soon left again, near the end of the lesson, and went to lie down in the Sick Bay until lunch time.
Another teacher – the one who looks after a lot of the Welfare issues in the school, talked to me at lunchtime about what was probably going on, recognising a pattern of behaviour that the teachers are seeing a lot among the children with a history of interrupted schooling and trauma, who struggle to cope academically.
“They are very aware of what they can’t do. They are constantly comparing themselves to the other children, noticing others succeeding where they see themselves to be failing. They know too, that they are not the youngest (often they are among the older children in the class), that others who are younger are progressing faster. So they talk harshly to themselves and fall into a spiral of negativity, which can come out as anger, or tummy ache, or in Edwina’s case today, a head ache, and just needing to shut down.”
When I reflect on the lesson, I can see that frustration set in for Edwina in the circle-reading game right at the beginning of the lesson. She coped, developing her own strategy to join in what we were doing, and the activity didn’t last long. When the next activity commenced, she started by contributing generously and thoughtfully. However, as the white board filled up with ideas from the brainstorming, perhaps this began to raise her awareness again of the trouble she has with reading, and following words. I make the task as visual as possible, with the colours I choose, and the way I highlight the words we are singing; but if Edwina was experiencing a growing sense of self-doubt, and losing confidence in herself, we might have been moving too fast for her. So she eventually removed herself from the group.