Identity, improvisation and ESL

I have started experimenting with a new strategy at the Language School this week (I know, I said I was going to ‘keep it simple’ – it never works out that way in the end!), a music unit on Identity, in which I want to get all of the students improvising, and feeling confident to improvise and invent.

As I commented in last week’s post, there are a lot of new students at the Language School this term, so the majority of the children in each of the classes have very little English – spoken or understood. Whenever I start teaching something new from scratch, I have to work out what words I am going to use to explain it, what vocabulary I will introduce in order to give some convenient labels, and what is best demonstrated and taught implicitly.

The improvisation task I set up today involved each of the children playing tuned percussion. We located the octave from C to C’. I asked them to start on one of the Cs, and finish on the other of the Cs. They had 10-12 counts each to fill.

That was a lot of language for them to take in. Some understood, and managed. Others worked it out as we went around the circle, one child having a turn at a time. I counted the numbers 1-10 out loud for each person, hoping that, for those that hadn’t understood the instruction, the consistency of the counted numbers and children stopping on or just after 10, would make the time length clear to them.

In between each solo we had a chorus that they all played together. This was a way to keep them all engaged, with a task to perform in the near future.

However, the concept of improvisation was a new and challenging concept for most of them. I started by writing the word on the board, spelling it out for them. The we wrote a definition of it on the board as well – ‘making up our own music’.  Already, at this point we were losing the focus of the non-English speakers. However, I needed to get this explanation out of the way, demonstrate it, and then set them to task, so that the non-English speakers would have someone to copy, as quickly as possible.

They all struggled a bit with the idea of making up their own music. Some just waved their hands in the air, looking completely stumped. We don’t have enough common language to be able to reassure them that it is okay just to try, to just playing something and see what they think of it. We (the class teacher and I) said all this, but I don’t expect it was really understood.

Therefore, it really highlights either the relationship of trust between the students, the music program, and me – or perhaps it highlights the power relationship, that at some point they will just do what they think they are being asked to do, without knowing if they have understood correctly or not, because that is what is expected of them at school. It must feel a very vulnerable position to be in.

I decided (in working out my teaching vocab) to call their improvisation ‘[name]-music’. As in, ‘Jane-music’, or ‘Ajak-music’, trying to emphasise that all of their improvisations will sound different to each other. This, later, will be our link back to the overall theme of Identity. We would sing and play the chorus together, then I would call for an improvisation from someone by saying, ‘Maya-music!’, inserting the appropriate name. Using this structure and labelling, everyone in the class had a turn.


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