Taming the Lower Primaries – again

After the madness and borderline chaos of last week’s class, I approached the Lower Primaries this week with a steely plan in mind. First, I would make things as visual as possible, and try to ensure we kept things moving along (to avoid anyone slipping into distraction because of an inability to concentrate for more than 30 seconds at a time). Second, I needed to maintain a serene, calm, smiling mindset – hang in there with that serenity even in the face of wild revolution. And be sure to notice the small moments of engagement that can be very easy to miss.

The children arrived in relative calm. Their usual teacher was with this week, and that always helps. We went through our warm-up routine:

  • Standing up in a circle, copying small movements and gestures, in quick succession – eg. hand on head, hand on nose, move one hand to knee, move other hand to ear, etc. It gets them looking and focused, and they enjoy this simple kind of game very much.
  • Sit down super slowly, no hands (arms crossed over chest, legs crossed from the start). The aim is to sit down, cross-legged, as slowly as possible, without touching the floor with your hands. “Who will be the slowest?” I ask them, as we try this task together. Why do we do this? Again, it maintains their focus, it is a physical challenge, it requires coordination, it encourages concentration (in trying to be the slowest), and it is easy for everyone to see who is last, therefore they can copy and be inspired by each other.
  • Pass sounds around the circle one by one. This gets them used to taking turns. I also used this game to introduce the word ‘waiting’. Everyone has to wait for their turn to pass the sound on. There is a lot of waiting in music – when you are not playing, at this age, you usually feel like you are waiting! (because you are of course dying to play!)

Then I asked them to stand up and come to the piano. We sang the song we have learned this term – ‘Dham Dham Dham’ – a call-and-response song from India that we repeat several times, getting progressively faster each time.

Then I asked them to sit down in the chairs (arranged in a long line at one side of the room) and told them that Mel and I would get the instruments out now, so they needed to wait.

Mel and I had already talked through this task – we would set a range of instruments out in a line, from big to small. We would then walk the children (taking them by the hand) one by one to the next instrument in the line. Once everyone was seated, we would play set rhythms, using the hand signals for ‘stop’, ‘start’, ‘pick up’, and put down’. Then the person at the small instrument end of the line would be walked to the opposite end of the line (to the biggest instrument) and everyone would shuffle along one place, and do the exercise again playing a new instrument.

There were a few aims with this task, which are worth spelling out, because as tasks go, this line of instruments wasn’t the most exciting thing in the world!

  • We counted the number of instruments out loud, and the number of children out loud, before moving the children into position. This, I hope, showed them that there was an instrument for everyone. We also talked about the biggest, and the smallest instruments, hoping to show them that there were lots of different things in the line, and that they would play lots of different things this lesson (as opposed to just their favourite).
  • Walking them into place one by one showed them the way to walk (around, rather than stepping over the instruments) and showed them how to move towards the instruments in a calm way. We put them in place in strict order, and they would have been able to see this too.
  • We reiterated the instructions each time: “Jane [at the end of the line] stand up. Come with me. Everyone, move your bottoms to the next instrument!” It’s funny to write it out like that, sounds kind of rude, but this age group know about sitting on their bottoms (they are often told to sit this way) and we wanted them to shuffle along rather than stand up and walk to the next instrument in the line.

As an exercise in building up a bit more discipline in the class, it worked quite well. their teacher congratulated me, she thought it was wonderful. As a music lesson I thought it was a bit on the dry side. The actual playing of the instruments was not very exciting, nor particularly demanding. Rather, I was focused on them following the instructions of when to stop and start playing, and to get used to the idea of changing instruments in an orderly way.

Of the problem children from last week, they all coped a lot better. One of the Sudanese boys, Achol, didn’t participate at all at the beginning (he had been seated behind a tambourine) but he joined in once he got to change places to another instrument. So that was good. Little Tsu, from China, again wanted to play Twinkle Twinkle as soon as he moved into position behind the xylophone. I am trying to find out a bit more about his musical history. I think he must have played piano before. On his own then, he has transferred that knowledge and information to the diatonic glockenspiel.

That was the first lesson of the morning. I saw the Lower Primaries again after recess, as we had a visiting musician in the school, a wonderful Sudanese singer named Ajak Kwai. She did a workshop with each of the primary classes, teaching them a Sudanese song and talking with them about Sudanese culture.

Lower Primary were unfortunately a little feral in her workshop. They were particularly unfocused, much more so than in the morning, with one or two of them always move away from the group to climb on or under the chairs.

It shows me perhaps that all of these tactics I am writing about here, and strategies that I am developing, including the way I use my voice, use language, and give instructions and information to the class, have enabled me to (1) build a rapport (however tenuous) with them, and (2) are clearly pretty effective. Probably every teacher who works with these children regularly develops their own ‘bag of tricks’. Someone coming new into the environment needs to develop their own. Every now and then I think to myself, this ESL work is probably not nearly as challenging as some other schools and other environments. And I am sure it isn’t, because I know there are some really tough schools out there to teach in. But there are definitely challenges here too, and I just notice them a bit less now, because I figured out effective ways to work here, and had time to observe the class teachers in action, and learn from their expertise too.

But I digress… Once on the chairs, young Achol was participating in his own way (and this is something I have observed before with the Sudanese children who take themselves out of an activity). He was lying across three of the chairs (something we three adults had all tacitly decided to ignore for the moment), but I could see his lips ever so slightly moving – he was joinng in the singing!

I see these small moments of engagement as incredibly important – they are what we have to build on, and they show us that there is some interest and goodwill there, just lots of layers blocking the student’s access to it. Patience, patience, and yet more patience.

Photo of Ajak Kwai in action.



1 comment so far

  1. sfrack on

    This sounds like an amazing job you have! I love the international aspect. I teach music class in NY and Suzuki piano (for about 20 years). My blogs are on educational too. I will add you to my blog roll. Hope you would like to reciprocate.
    Good luck; I’ll follow your progress.

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