Directed or creative?

My teaching style usually emphasises creative projects with children where they are actively engaged in inventing music, and seeking out solutions to musical problems or challenges. However, it needs to be said that this approach (which I believe to be far richer pedagogically, leading to deep musical understanding among children) can be very demanding on the teacher:

  • It requires you to think on your feet, constantly ready to respond to the music as it emerges from the children’s efforts;
  • My creative projects often span several weeks, if not the whole term, so there can be quite a lot of planning and developing that needs to take place between each lesson;
  • When children get over-excited through the freedom of the process (which can happen, and is quite an issue at Pelican PS), then a huge amount of energy needs go into simply containing them and keeping the process on track. It is this last point that I think I find the most debilitating sometimes.

By the time Term 4 started, I knew I was feeling pretty weary. It has been a busy year of projects! The children were too, so I decided to develop a number of ‘directed’ projects for us all, projects that would involve playing and singing, but primarily through learning material, rather than inventing it.

It has proved a good tactic. At the Language School, the Middle Primary class with its very particular group of demanding, narcissistic boys has really benefited from learning specific, pre-existing material. There had been too much hijacking of creative tasks in previous terms, in terms of disruptive behaviour, and tantrums when collaborative processes didn’t go their way, and things felt much calmer this term.

Here’s a rundown of the kinds of things we’ve done:

Lower Primary – Learning the song Ho ho watanay and developing accompaniments (some learned, some invented). Lots of instruments, and detailed structure to memorise.

Middle Primary – Learning the song Ah ya zahn (traditional song in Arabic from Lebanon) with various learned instrumental accompaniments. This song introduced the children to thefull chromatic glockenspiels, and they learned to play the melody, with its wonderfully twisting, middle-eastern mode.

Upper Primary – Learning the song Sakura form Japan (both in Japanese and in the English translation that I wrote some years ago). The UP students also created new melodic material on glockenspiels, using a Japanese mode (take off all the Gs and Ds so that you are left with F-A-B-C-E). I asked them to think of a flower or plant that is special to the country they come from. From these suggestions we developed three spoken phrases, with rhythms implied by the syllables of the words. Then, working in teams, they selected notes from the mode in order to make a melody to this rhythm. Their words included:

Hababa flower, many colours (from Ethiopia, Oromo people)

Some big, some small, pink, purple, white and blue

Yellow sunflower, follows the sun (suggested by an Assyrian boy from Iraq)

Shishke on the Christmas tree, all the year round (from a Russian girl)

At Pelican Primary School, things have been similarly structured:

Preps and Grade Ones have invented their own simple version of the song Driving in my car (originally by the UK pop group Madness). These are very cute songs. We’re trying to add instruments, and on a good day, it all comes together.

Grade ones and Twos are singing The Earth is our mother and have created several melodic phrases inspired by sentences that describe ways to keep the planet healthy.

Grades 3 and 4 have learned to sing Ah Ya Zahn and developed similar accompaniments to those that I’ve taught at the Language School.

However, my Pelican Primary School experiences are making me re-think a lot of the creative work that I do. These children have so much creative energy, but zero internal discipline (as a group) to hold their focus long enough to make something work. In my experience, this kind of constant distraction, or distractedness, is quite common in schools where there are high numbers of refugee-background students. These kids have so much to gain from well-managed, clearly-structured creative processes. However, many of the tactics I have developed at the Language School have been proving too loose for the children at Pelican PS.

I’ve spoken about this with some of the other teachers, and they confirm that this lack of capacity to engage well with creative tasks occurs in other classes too. “Even just having a discussion about something with the class is very difficult in this school,” one teacher admitted. The disciplines of listening to each other, taking turns, not interrupting or shouting another person down, aren’t really present.

In music too, more open tasks make many of the students feel uncertain about what is expected of them, and this uncertainty (coupled perhaps with general insecurities, and the abstract nature of music in the first place) sees them go off-task very quickly, and just make random noise.

I’ve written before (see here) about the way the Pelican students seem to respond to noise in general, and specifically to multiple sources of sound in music. Little by little I am realising that the strategies I’ve been developing for ESL/ELL students in the Language School can’t be transferred here automatically. The students in the Language School have a far greater capacity to focus and remain engaged.  Perhaps the length of general classroom focus is always determined by the shortest attention span – or the shortest attention span among the more dominant class members!

There are lots of children from refugee backgrounds at Pelican Primary School. If we think about survival skills – being able to stand up for yourself, and get what you need for you and your family, making sure your voice is heard over the top of many other voices, making sure you are never at the end of a line, no matter what, being quick to react to any new potential threats around you, and learning to respond to a constantly chaotic environment – then we can see a kind of progression from those survival tactics to the common strategies employed by many students in the school. Lots of shouting over each other, interrupting conversations (often not noticing if said conversation is even taking place!), turning heads to watch whatever is taking place elsewhere in the room, and so on.

I feel very sure that music can offer these children opportunities  and motivation to break some of these patterns, and to experience themselves as learners in a different way. Creative music-making offers the additional benefit of a sense of ownership over the music, a validation and endorsement of one’s own contributions to the process, a deep understanding of the music from the inside out, and a powerful means of self-expression and individual voice. But I do need to figure out some new and powerful ways into creative music that scaffold each of the smallest of steps, and offer tangible experiences of success and delight to the students in as short a period of time as possible, due to those peskily short attention spans. Those experiences of success and delight are the key to their motivation to continue working cooperatively with me and with each other.

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1 comment so far

  1. […] groups to solve a problem together, and where they can help each other make progress. In general, they are not very good at this kind of work at Pelican – it causes quite a lot of […]


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