Back to square one

I had a challenging day at the Language School this week. Each class presented me with situations that required more patience and open-mindedness than I was expecting, so the next few posts will try to examine what happened, and what the learning is. This post focuses on Lower Primary, the chaos that we experienced, and observations on individual student needs, and strategies to help new students make sense of what is going on.

With all three classes that I teach there, there has been a big influx of new students. This creates a kind of instability/transition in any classroom, but the impact in Language School is even more dramatic because it drastically shifts the balance between those in the class who have already established some English language skills,  and are familiar with the classroom routine, and those who have neither language skills, nor an understanding of how school works.

The Lower Primary class has only 2 or 3 students in it who have stayed on from last term. Everyone else is new. The new children include at least 3 students who have no prior experience of school – 2 Sudanese (Achol and Humphrey) who have grown up in refugee camps where there is little access to school, and 1 Chinese boy (Tzu), who is too young to have attended school before (he doesn’t act like he has been to kindergarten either).

As soon as the class entered the music room I had difficulty drawing them into a group focus. Tzu and Achol immediately began to move around the room, Achol climbing on the seating bank, Tzu crawling under a row of chairs. Their regular teacher wasn’t with them, the substitute teacher not taking a particularly active role. I had planned a very quiet start to the lesson as my wonderful volunteer Mel, violinist, has returned from overseas, and I had asked her to play as the children entered the room.

This didn’t work! Those two children running around was completely distracting for all the others. I signalled to Mel to stop, and tried to bring them all into the circle. It took some coaxing… I asked the substitute teacher to step in as often and as much as she could (in fact my role is not classroom management – this is supposed tobe handled by the teacher – but when a substitute teacher is in the room, it can be the case that the children are more familiar with me than they are with her. So we have to work out thebalance of authority together, as we go).

The lesson progressed…. Achol moved in and out of the circle at will. Humphrey, the other Sudanese boy, who clearly has no English, and tends to mime to you when he wants something, also started to leave the circle, copying Achol by climbing on the chairs. However, he was easily brought back in with some encouraging smiles. Meanwhile, Tzu was lying on the floor, refusing to participate, poking the children near him. I found he was more responsive to a stern face and a no-nonsene tone.

The plan became one of not sticking on any one ativity too long, to keep things moving so as to hold the attention of these three students in particular who were resisting the focus. We did our usual routine of call-and-response, songs, and conductor instructions with instruments.

Achol came to join the circle again. The substitute teacher had gone to fetch the school interpreter, as it seemed really clear that Achol had very little idea what was going on in this lesson.

Observations, and strategies that worked

Humphrey needed encouragement. His eyes light up when he sees the instruments. The familiarity of some of the things we do, now that he is in his third week of school, give him confidence, and he puts his hand up to take leading roles in our conducting games. He wants to be part of everything. However, I think he feels frustrated that he can’t speak, or make himself understood. In fact, we understand more than he realises (in terms of the things he clearly wants to do, or is asking to do more of), because we have taught students making these kinds of signals for a long time, but he doesn’t know this. Several times on Wednesday Humphrey would approach me, point vigorously to something in the room (for example, the piano), and then to himself. It was clear he was asking to play it. I would say no, gently, kindly, because there were other things we needed to do. But I wonder if Humphrey just assumed I had said no because I hadn’t understood him.

So long as Humphrey can hold out his patience long enough, he gets to see that he always gets a turn at everything. But I can’t tell him this, so I need him to just hold out, not give up hope!

Achol is slightly different. He too, has a strong anxiety about getting to do the things he wants, the things he sees other children doing, or the opportunities he senses are in the offing. If he doesn’t get to do what he wants straight away, he loses his temper, or sulks, or runs off from the group, very quickly.

It’s tricky. Because there are other children in the room who are learning to do the right thing, to take turns, to wait, we can’t let Achol’s demanding behaviour result in him getting what he wants every time. However, we know that his demands and pushiness are underpinned by learned survival skills, in which ‘he who waits, misses out’. Achol has learned through his previous experiences, that waiting patiently means you miss out – on food, excursions, presents, attention. He has high-level scarcity thinking and this isn’t going to switch off quickly.

Therefore, the interpreter was really important on Wednesday. We had three different instruments circulating the room, (Achol only wanted to play the drum), and I asked her to explain to Achol that he would get to play everything, but one at a time. He would play the tambourine first, then the drum, then the rhythm sticks. We wanted him to try everything. Other children were also going to try everything. Achol became calmer, and participated much better. He was focused, and started to watch the way the class was organised.

At the end of the lesson, I asked one of the children to collect up the ‘black sticks’ and another to collect the ‘red sticks’. (They are getting to know their colours, so I deliberately used this information to give an instruction that they all could understand and succeed in). Achol was given the task of collecting the red sticks. He did this, and then he helped put glockenspiels back in their boxes and carried them to the cupboard to be put away. He then picked a book up off the floor and gave it to me to be put away as well. It showed me that Achol wants to cooperate and be part of the class. He just doesn’t always know how to, or doesn’t understand what is going on, and through frustration and impatience he takes himself out of the group and does his own thing.

Tzu’s behaviour is probably more driven by immaturity and spoiled-ness than any kind of confusion! However, I discovered something important about him by the end of the lesson too. We were working with glockenspiels and xylophones. I wanted to teach them to start and stop playing on my hand signals (an essential discipline if you want to use musical instruments in a classroom). All were doing this pretty well, but when they all played, they just played loudly and ramndomly, without any real awareness or listening.

However, one time, Tzu ignored the hand signal to stop, and kept playing. He switched from mad, random playing to ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’. He was figuring out the notes as he went, playing slowly. I didn’t cue the group back in, and we all listened until he was finished.

What did this teach me? It told me that Tzu has learned music before, or has a strong intrinsic understanding of music. He is all over this stuff! He’s probably bored. That doesn’t mean he’s not also immature in his approach to school (not unusual in this class when kids come in who haven’t been to kindergarten before – they are often extremely indulged, only children), but it shows me a way to engage with him, to offer him challenges, and have expectations of him in music.

Consistent routines and visual cues

This puts a reponsibility back on to me, while these children are new, that they do get a turn at eveything, before the class finishes. I have to keep an eye on the time, and make sure things keep moving. I also have to make my routines and systems consistent, so that, week after week, they start to make sense to the children, and become predictable and trustworthy. Those routines and familiarity give a child like Achol the space to relax.

I’ve written in the past on visual cues, and how important they are in an ESL music setting. (You can search for these using the ‘visual cues’ link in the Categories list on the right). I need to set all of these up again for this new group of students. Visual cues for Achol will include things like setting all the instruments up in a line (so that all the students can see there are plenty to go around) and then walking each child by the hand, one by one, to the next instrument in the line. It doesn’t give them free choice, but it does encourage them to enjoy each of the different instruments, to learn to appraoch the instruments calmly and without competition, and to see that each week they will play something different.

I think I will arm myself with some rolls of coloured sticky tape, and divide the floor up into lines. I can then organise the children to ‘sit on the blue line’ or ‘stand on the red line’. I will also make a pile of small fabric mats, in bright colours. The children can have one each, and they will help us organise the children in the space in a strongly visual way.

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