A strong start

In writing this blog I’ve been reflecting on what it is I do when I teach music to ESL children, and generate music compositions with them. Up until this term, these reflections have been specific to the Language School setting that I’ve been in since 2005. The blog has helped me identify some of the key strategies and approaches I use, and I am gradually working these into a more defined pedagogy, that will be the subject of some of my forthcoming research papers. Now that I am also working at Pelican Primary School, where the majority of children are ESL, but not/no longer newly arrived, I’m starting to compare the modifications I make to my approach between the two different sites. Over the next few months I plan to start defining those elements of the pedagogy that remain the same across both sites, and those that I can change.

Some key differences between the Language School and Pelican PS:

  • Language School has smaller classes
  • Language School lessons go for twice the amount of time each week (double periods instead of single periods)
  • Language School teachers (generally) play a more active role in the music classes, and more follow-up work takes place between lessons (this may chance at Pelican, as I am still establishing my relationships with the teachers there).
  • Pelican students have way more English! I talk more there, and give more explicit descriptions and explanations with some things.

This week, I identified one key part of my approach that doesn’t change from school to school. That is the importance of a strong start. The Strong Start is about the lesson having a clear beginning, where the whole group gathers together, and the musical environment is created. At the same time, hopefully, a safe and supportive environment is also created, so that people’s creative and imaginative contributions are encouraged and endorsed by the group.

Music therapists also use this technique. I’ve heard it described as a kind of ‘frame’ for the lesson. MTs will often start the session exactly the same way each week, so that the opening activity (a song, maybe a game or another particular activity or task) acts as a kind of ‘cue’ for the participants: “now we’re in music… now I am engaging my music self… etc”.

The importance that this kind of stablising routine has for me as a music teacher was highlighted this week with one of the classes at Pelican. One of the teachers asked, when she brought her class down to music, (a prep class, in the last period of the day), if they could complete something they hadn’t yet had time to do, that needed to be done that day. Wanting to be flexible and easy to work with, I agreed. But the thing she wanted to do involved one child talking through some work she had done, answering the teachers questions while the other children listened. Unsurprisingly (for this time of day, and, I suspect, because we were in the music room environment) the other children didn’t listen very well, and got pretty restless.

The same teacher gave out fruit to all her students at the start of the music lesson. They had been out of school on an excursion all day and probably needed the snack to keep them going, but it meant that their hands and mouths were completely occupied for the first fifteen minutes of the music lesson, so there wasn’t really anything I could do with them!

In both of these lessons, the strange, unclear, unstructured start to the music period meant that the children’s focus dissipated, and I never got it back. I realised this week how important it is that I recognise the way the Strong Start to the lesson ensures some good work gets done, that the same starting activity, if undertaken sometime into the lesson period, won’t work to pull together their focus.

This isn’t a criticism of the teacher, more a note to self about recognising the strategies I have in place that are essential, that lead to my lessons being effective, fun and smooth-running. The strong start to lessons is one of these, and is a constant in all the lessons and workshops I run, with all groups.

(This earlier post lists the many disciplines and approaches that have had a strong influence on my music pedagogy).

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