Archive for December, 2009|Monthly archive page

Children’s voice – choosing new instruments

When the Pelican Primary School Choir sang at the Mayor’s Christmas event last week, we received a performance fee of $400, to put towards new instruments. There are lots of instruments I wanted to buy, and to have in the music room – and with the current excellent Christmas sales on at the moment, it seemed a perfect time to stock up on djembes for the school.

However, I was inspired by the half-day conference that I attended last Friday on Children’s Rights, and decided to let the Choir members decide how the money should be spent. These are not children who engage well in discussion (they tend to get fairly boisterous, fairly quickly), but I decided to give it a go.

Initially, I’d hoped to get a representative from the music shop to visit the school during choir time, with a van full of instruments for them to inspect and choose from. I’d imagined how I would prepare a kind of Preference Sheet for them, with pictures of the instruments, and price per unit, so that they could mark the ones they liked best and see if they could make their choices add up to $400. It would have been a nice integrated class for them, draing aupon an authentic task.

However, it was too close to the end of the year to organise something like this.

Part of me just wanted to order five djembes and be done with it. I know they will get used, I know the kids will like them…. I really had to wrestle with this side of myself, as I knew it was driven partly by convenience and simplicity.

In the end, I concocted the following plan:

  • I drew a list of 6 instrument options on the board (all things that I knew we didn’t have and could make great use of), and placed alongside each picture the instrument cost.
  • I told them they had $400 to spend.
  • We talked about how the small djembes were half the price of the big djembes, that the big ones might sound better, but that the small ones were a good size for the younger students and still sounded pretty good;
  • We talked about how we could buy a new xylophone or metallaphone, but that this would use up all of our money on one instrument (but that this was a very popular instrument for all the students).
  • We tried out some combinations of instruments and costs on the board as examples.
  • Then I gave each child a piece of paper, and asked them to list their three favourite instruments, numbered 1-3. They could propose how many of each instrument they would like to buy too.
  • I then placed a mark beside each instrument that was voted for. We looked at the most popular choices and worked out some possible combinations of instruments and quantities. We voted on our favourite and emerged with a clear winner.

The adding up proved too hard for most of them. But that didn’t matter. I am also not sure how many of them understood that they were being asked to choose the instruments because they had sung in a special concert and been paid. (Having said that some of them understood. They kept asking why they couldn’t just have the money).

In the end, they chose:

  • three small djembes
  • a vibraslap
  • a large cabassa
  • a pair of juju shakers (made from seed pods).

I think they were very money-conscious in their choices – most made a point of choosing the less expensive instruments. However, they all liked the idea of a new metallaphone – they just didn’t understand that this would use up all their budget.

It was a great exercise and I’m glad I asked for their input. It’s the right way to make these choices, I’m sure. Here are some examples of their ballot papers:

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Children’s rights, and children participating

2009 is the 20 year anniversary of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRoC), and celebrate this, the University of Melbourne held an interdisciplinary half-day conference on Moving the Children’s Rights Agenda Forward.

My interest in this area has several strands. Firstly, my arts practice is a participatory one, in particular directing collaborations between professional musicians and young people, and in bringing children’s musical ideas and voices into the foreground of music-making. Secondly, my recently-completed Masters research was focused on the perceptions and thoughts of newly-arrived immigrant and refugee children, and their responses to music-learning in Australia. (You can read about my research in a little more detail here).

Thus, the skills involved in drawing out children’s voices and ideas, and the issues surrounding ethical use of their voice, and the arguments for (and against) this, have been areas of focus for me, which has drawn me into the larger arena of children’s rights in many different contexts.

Children’s rights, as enshrined in the UNCRoC, are a balance between freedom (autonomy rights) and protective rights (the right to protection, and acknowledgement of their vulnerability). Margaret Coady, in giving a historical overview, described early critics of the Declaration (1959) and subsequent Convention (1989), in particular the child liberationists (including such eminent scholars as John Holt), who objected to the UNCRoC becuase it was protective, and took away rights from children. (Book to read: Escape from Childhood by John Holt).

The rights of children to be heard in matters which affect them (for example, matters before the courts) have been hard-won (if they could be considered ‘won’ in the current times. Perhaps it is more accurate to say “gradually gaining tiny footholds and prominence in the minds of a growing number of decision-makers”…). Article 12 of the CRoC is concerned with the child’s right to express views, and for these views to be given appropriate weight according to the age and capacity of the child. How this is interpreted in different fields, and in different countries (compare, for example, Noway, Germany and New Zealand with Australia or the UK) can vary quite a lot.

The children’s righs movement has been growing steadily, but ironically, is in danger of being dominated by adults.

Coady finished with a reminder about autonomy – adult or child autonomy. Quoting Kymlicka, she said, “No lives go better being led from the outside according to values the person doesn’t endorse…” Humans live their lives from the inside, according to their understandings of what makes life valuable. This is true for people of any age. Children, like adults, are constantly forming their understanding of what makes life valuable for them.

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Schools without music

I have started some preparatory work on a new community outreach program for one of the training institutions here for young musicians. One part of the program will be the development of partnerships between the academy and local primary schools, so the program coordinator and I set off this week to visit a couple of the schools and fill them in on the program as it is shaping up.

It is well-known here in Australia that many primary schools do not have music specialist teachers. In fact, there are lots of specialist teachers that they don’t have – ‘specialists’ can include visual arts, library, PE, drama… and people rarely mention dance, but that too, could and should be taught by specialists. It is well-known… but as a music teacher, I tend to work in schools that DO have a specialist – they have me!

When I think of this well-known fact, I think there is a part of my brain that equates “no music specialist” to “disadvantaged school with limited resources, who are stretched in every capacity, and who have to prioritise things like additional Teacher Aides ahead of specialist teachers to support their students’ additional needs”. So it was quite a shock ad an eye-opener to visit two fairly well-off schools (if their parent population is any indication) and to hear that there was virtually no arts learning taking place with specialist teachers at all.

“Our parent group is very … professional“, one principal told us, meaning that, they tend to have high-powered, corporate jobs, are highly-educated, and apparently very quick to give the school feedback if they feel something is amis in their child’s education. Music as a specialist subject option rated highly on a recent parent survey (though got pipped at the post by Physical Education). Yet the principal thought he could “count on one hand” the number of children who might learn an instrument outside of school.I found myself shocked that such a parent group would not more actively seek out music experiences and learning opportunities for their children.

At another school, we were told that in the past, students had had the opportunity to learn an instrument during the school day, coming out of classroom work to have a 30 minute private or small-group lesson once a week. However, this system was now considered “inappropriate”, as it meant children were missing too much school work (I am tempted to insert the word “real” here… but I’m not sure the principal actual said “real school work”, even if it seemed implied). The school population was scoring low in  numeracy tests, and something had to be done about this.

What seems amazing is that numeracy targets not be met, and music or the arts be seen as the culprit! “The test results are bad – we must have spent too much time on music!” I have read about these attitudes, but perhaps it is the first time I’ve heard someone in a senior position speak openly about it. (Clearly I have led a sheltered life).

Another teacher said they didn’t see it as their role to help students develop actual skills in any of the arts. The simply aimed to give them some exposure and hope that a spark of passion or interest might be lit, that would lead the child to explore the area further outside of school. I found this alarming too. These subjects are mandated parts of the curriculum.

How much of this is about teachers’ own comfort levels, I wonder? Many of my older teaching colleagues tell me about how, when they were are teachers’ college, they all had to learn the guitar, and the recorder, to be a generalist classroom teacher! One principal admitted that this discomfort on the part of teachers was a big part of the problem – the three areas that the majority of teachers feel weakest in, he said, are music, art, and science.

It would not have been appropriate for us to challenge or question any of the decisions these schools had taken – that wasn’t the purpose of our meetings, and the teachers we met with were honest and direct with us about what they felt they would like to gain from a partnership with our program. Changing attitudes is a slow process, but hopefully, by building valuable and enriching partnerships, we will be able to demonstrate the way that powerful, demanding arts experience with integrity can bring about a diverse range of positive student outcomes.

The learning trajectory

Often at the Language School, it feels quite hard to get a full understanding of how things make sense to the children, and what things they retain. When they first arrive, they figure out what to do in each class by observing the other children and joining in by copying. They have very little idea behind the intentions of the tasks. They are also silent, or pretty well silent. They are working incredibly hard just to listen and keep track of this new, alien environment.

Later, perhaps after a term or so, they become more confident in the class routines, and may begin to speak or offer one- or two- word comments in response to questions, or sometimes on their own initiative. Around this time, as their language skills increase, I think the many tasks they do in music, as well as in their general classroom work, make a bit more sense, and the intention behind the activity, or the learning objective/focus, becomes clearer.

It is coming to the end of term and students in each class – usually those who have been at the school three terms, although this can vary – are getting ready to leave the school and make the transition to a mainstream school. It’s an exciting time, but also, I imagine, an anxious time, as they worry about whether they know enough, and how they will feel, and if they will find friends, and what it will be like to be new and confused all over again.

So it gave me great pleasure in class this week when one of my Upper Primary students suggested at the end of the lesson that we sing People Get Ready, a song we had learned the previous term. Those who knew it (most of the class) sang with confidence and enthusiasm.

“Let’s sing … the one about swimming to Australia!” suggested another student. This was a song that we had composed together in th previous term. I ended up not being very convinced by it, as there were a lot of words to learn, and I’d given the students a lot of input into the melodic shape, which meant it didn’t have quite the contour that I’d have liked.

Australia is an island

With water all around

You have to go by plane or ship

If you tried to swim you’d drown!

No you can’t swim to Australia….

I started up this song, and again, all that knew it sang it with gusto. There was no faltering over the fast words, or the awkward melody. Afterwards their teacher raised her eyebrows at me.

“That was pretty good singing,” she said, impressed. “All those words remembered!”

Then Michael, a good-natured but often distracted boy from Liberia suggested yet another song that he remembered from his time in the school – “that one about… just arrived… new country…”

When you’ve just arrived in a new country (When you’ve just arrived in a new country)

Some things are very hard for you…

I began to sing it, and Michael joined it. At the end of the first verse I smiled at him, and told the rest of the class, “This is a song we wrote in Middle Primary. Michael knows it because he was in Middle Primary before Upper Primary.”

“Me too!” said another boy, Tan. “I know it too.” That’s right. Tan had also changed classes during his time in the school.

We sang another verse. I wasn’t sure I could remember any others. The boys paused and thought.

“There was another one, a hard one, with very fast words,” Tan remembered. Ah yes…

Your heart is full of many feelings (heart is full of many feelings)

Some things are very hard for you

Tan’s comment really touched me. Those words are fast. But now he can sing them. And he remembers that, earlier, when we were singing this song, he used to find them too fast, and very difficult. Of course there will be times in the students’ experience at this school when they struggle in particular with one thing or another. But it is rare that I hear them comment on this.

I think about Michael, when he first arrived in the school, how withdrawn he had been, and then unfocused. Or Tan, who had seemed so floppy and vague and disconnected. Now they are leaders in their class, singing solos, and knowing all the words. That day, I felt so proud for Tan, and Michael, and all the other exiting students, for the progress they have made, and for their memories of their younger, struggling selves.