Archive for May, 2011|Monthly archive page

A new approach in a challenging school

I’m trying out some new ideas in my teaching at Pelican Primary School this term, influenced by some of my current reading. The two books I have on the go at the moment are Teaching for Musical Understanding (2nd edition) by Jackie Wiggins, and Music, Informal Learning, and the School: A new classroom pedagogy by Lucy Green.

A recommendation in Teaching for Musical Understanding, concerns the proposition that all music-learning experiences need to take place in the context of authentic, whole musical works (as opposed to music that has been contrived in order to demonstrate or explain something). These musical works – songs, orchestral pieces, solo works, world music, jazz, etc – are selected by the teacher because they demonstrate a particular idea or musical dimension that will act as a ‘doorway in’ for the students’ practical learning experiences. Meanwhile, an early stage in the pedagogy described in Green’s book has students working to reproduce songs of their own choice, working with CD recordings, in small groups, and independently of teacher guidance.**

Thus, I’ve selected a piece of recorded music for all but two of the middle and upper primary classes at Pelican Primary School to use as a stimulus for a range of learning experiences. I’ve used a mix of student suggestions and my own choices to come up with songs like Fireflies (Owl City), California Dreamin’ (Mamas and the Papas), and Three Little Birds  (Bob Marley).

One thing I’ve loved observing is how eagerly the students take hold of the song sheets and sing along. This is a high-level ESL [English as a Second Language] school with a large refugee  and new immigrant intake, and it is not unusual for some students to have a much lower reading level than is standard for their age group. However, following the words on the song sheet and singing along with the recording is a huge motivation for reading. They were completely engaged and inspired, this first week, keen to sing along with the words they could recognise, and keen to have their own copy of the words to take home.

With a song like California Dreamin’, I’ve asked them to notice the 2 groups of singers in the recording – the main group (or soloist) and the backing singers, who sing the ‘echo’ of each line. I get them to sing along with one part or the other, and suddenly they are having their first experience of part-singing, something that they have not been able to manage yet, when it is just them on their own with me and the guitar.

Pelican Primary School is not a straight-forward school environment – it is probably the most challenging school I teach in, and have ever taught in! It is challenging for all sorts of reasons – to do with behavioural issues and the way that the students engage with learning, and with each other. Their capacity to listen, to stay on task, and not seek distraction is incredibly limited, something that still can take me by surprise even now, after two years at the school.

Music is sometimes just too ‘invisible’ and abstract for them. They actually work best with very structured, formal, directed teaching with only a small amount of creative thinking or applying knowledge in a variety of contexts. By contrast, my approach as a teaching artist is to facilitate rich, multi-layered experiences, through a process of collaborative inquiry and exploration. I use a lot of informal learning approaches – building skills and understanding through a range of games, tasks, and creative projects that run across many weeks. This doesn’t really work at Pelican!

Therefore, perhaps the biggest challenge for me is in figuring out the most effective way to create meaningful music learning experiences for these students that work to their learning strengths. I’m always open to trying out new things, and always trying to deepen my understanding of this cohort and what they need from me. I’m cautiously optimistic about this new approach with CDs providing the musical context for our creative work and understanding of concepts and theory. I’ll describe more of what we do, and how it goes, further into the term.

**Of course both books have far more to say than this, and are inspiring, thought-provoking reading – highly recommended! However, I’ve limited myself to these points for the purposes of this blog post.

From small groups and stories to large-scale ensemble

This week saw the second instalment of the City Beats project, a music program from students from schools with high levels of ESL and financial disadvantage. I’ve been working with four different groups of students aged 8 to 12, from four different schools. In their first visit, they wrote a short, three-part story and composed music to depict those stories, organised into three sections (you can read about that first set of projects here). This week’s visit was their second to the City Beats project, and the focus was now on building up their compositions for percussion instruments, section by section, into whole-ensemble pieces, with strong structural coherence and a student-composed part for each child.

It was an intense and noisy couple of days! I realised at the end of the first day that we were asking them to do something far more challenging than we had the first time round.  No more break-out groups. Fewer opportunities for lots of individual attention. Instead, the focus was on arranging, and working together as a large ensemble of players, learning your part,  only playing when you need to, and so on. Sure, there was still room for surprises and further creative additions to the music, and some new ideas and developments definitely came forward. But mostly, this second workshop was about being part of a group, and playing your part.

Some of the groups found this pretty challenging. This is an exciting project for them, and they come in ready to PLAY! The process sounded confusing to them when I first explained it, I suspect. They needed to experience just how we would put the pieces together in order to understand the process. And the process works. By the end of each session, we had completed a five-minute arrangement of one of their compositions, some with quite complex structures and section transitions, in which everyone had an instrument and a part to play.

It was particularly satisfying seeing the students start to ‘get it’. One grade 5 boy caught my attention in the final workshop of the two days. He hadn’t seemed that engaged, and, along with his group of friends, had to be reminded to stay on task. However, by the end of the workshop, as we started to put all the layers of music together, his demeanour completely changed. Suddenly, he could make sense of what we were planning to do with all this music, all these riffs. He understood how it all fitted together now. From then on, he was the first to respond when I raised my hand for quiet. He gestured sternly to people in his section when they started playing their part at the wrong time. He kept his eyes glued to me – absolutely glued. A transformation of understanding and meaning had taken place for him in the two hours we worked together.

There were others like him, in each group. And at the end of their two hours, despite having worked incredibly hard, and with considerable focus required of them, the buzz from the groups was that they didn’t want to leave! I imagine that, when we see them again in Term 3, ready to arrange another section of music from their Term 1 compositions, they will have a much clearer understanding of the creative and collaborative process that we’re using.

Words about friends

With the Middle Primary children at Language School this term, we are creating music about friendship. Today, after getting the feel-good vibes working with a rendition of Bob Marley’s One Love, and discussing the general characteristics of friends and friendships, I asked the students to draw a picture of themselves and their friend, or friends. It could show their friendships here in Australia, or depict a friendship from their country of origin.

When they finished their drawing I engaged each child in conversation, asking about their picture and about their friends. I wrote down all their words – their phrases and sentences will go on to form the core lyrics for our class composition.

Their descriptions were vivid, and often poignant:

This is me in Honduras, at the beach that I like the most. I am with my brother and sisters and lots of friends. One is my best friend. We share things, we give things to each other, we play together, we sleep in each other’s houses. We read books, we like almost the same things. I don’t have a friend like this in Australia. Not yet.

This is me and my friend in Ethiopia. She comes to my house to play. Then in school-time, she gives me a flower, and I give to her a flower – a flower from Ethiopia.

In Australia, all in the school are my friends, but my sister is my good friend. The school here gives us good friends, and I’m not speaking my language, they are not speaking their language. We all talk in English.

This is my friend – he is Australian but he knows Vietnamese language. He gives me a hug when I am sad and sitting under a tree. Sometimes I give him a flower. Now some leaves in the tree are falling down but the sun is shining.

In Australia and in Ethiopia, my sister is my best friend. We go to school together, we [are] eating together, playing together, going everywhere together. She is my two times friend – she is my sister and my friend!

In Syria we can only go to school. No places to play. In school we can just sit and talk. Or play in the street hide and seek. I miss my friends in Syria. I have best friend, Yusef. He taught me to read Arabic, and now I know how to read and write.

Friends who share things, help each other, and – quite frequently – give each other flowers as an expression of friendship. Four of the eleven children I spoke to mentioned giving a flower to their friend, including one boy. There is a sweet innocence about this that I find very touching indeed.

Big fish, small fish

I’ve discovered a new workshop warm-up game recently, a circle game called Big Fish, Small Fish. It’s very quick, and quite silly, but I’ve found that it lightens everyone’s moods and at the same time creates a good focus among the group.

To teach it, get everyone to copy these two moves – they can say “Big Fish!” and hold their two hands together very close (about 10cm apart), or “Small Fish!” and hold their hands wide apart (about 60cm). Each person says one of these two (with the correct gesture) one by one around the circle. If someone makes a mistake (eg. says “Big Fish!” and holds their hands wide apart), they need to perform some kind of forfeit. The last few groups have suggested doing push-ups or star jumps in the centre of the circle.

Big Fish, Small Fish appears simple enough, but it’s a little more complex than it seems. It usually takes the first person after me a couple of attempts to get it right.

But it also produces lots of smiles and relaxed faces. I played it with all three classes at the Language School today. With Lower Primary, where there are quite a few new students, I wondered if it was a bit too tricky – did these children even know what the words ‘big’ and ‘small’ meant? Was I confusing them for the next few weeks? I am not sure how exactly they made sense of the game; however, judging from the cheeky smiles of delight on their faces when they pronounced the words and held their hands in the opposite shape, I think they may well have understood the joke.

Video of the Toka Bo’ot event, East Timor

I’ve just uploaded another video from my East TImor residency. You can view it here:

This one was a true labour of love to edit – you’ll have to forgive a few odd transitions, and please admire all the segues that line up the musical phrases without skipping a beat, as I was working with very fragmented raw footage for this project!

What does engagement look like?

Today in the grade 1/2 class at Pelican Primary School I had an interesting exchange. The last child into the class, Ali, was in a very bad mood. He threw himself into the chair, and sat with his arms tightly crossed and his face screwed up in a dark scowl. There had clearly been trouble before coming into music. He snapped a response at his teacher and she whipped around, “Don’t talk like that to me! That is very impolite!” He scowled even more, and sank even lower into his chair. He was not happy.

Meanwhile, we started our class warm-up. After some initial work with names and rhythms I introduced them to my ‘magic chalk’, as I call it. I held an imaginary piece of chalk in my fingers, and explained that we were going to pass it around the class, and each person could draw something with it. Numbers, or letters, or a picture or shape – anything you like, I explained. It’s a lovely game for building a really quiet, intense focus in a group.

When it got to Ali he leaped out of his chair, threw the imaginary chalk on the ground and stomped on it, then looked at me, watching for my reaction. As if he hadn’t done this, the child who was passing him the chalk leaned over him, offered a new piece of chalk with his fingers, and passed it on to the next child. The game continued – but only for a moment. Ali watched the next child, but as it got passed along again, he darted out of his chair, intercepted it, and mimed throwing it across the room. “There!” he said. “It’s gone!”

I looked at him and smiled, but with my eyebrows raised. “You’re a good actor, Ali,” I said. “I like how you’re showing us everything. But you also need to stay sitting in your seat during this game. ” A look of pleasure flashed briefly across his face as he resumed his seat (and his previous facial expression) – I think he liked being acknowledged as a good actor, especially when he was having such a bad day. I think it came out of the blue for him.

What I love about this interaction is that all of Ali’s gestures were offers. He ‘accepted’ the chalk, rather than blocking it or denying it. He didn’t want to play, so he mimed actions that would put the chalk out of action. Which meant that he was playing. Or that he wanted to play, wanted to connect and participate, but didn’t know how to.

Sadly he got withdrawn from the class only a short-time later (his teacher following up whatever had happened immediately before music class, I suspect). But I hope that I’ll be able to build on this small glimmer of engagement and participation from him in my class.

My newest school

Last week was the first week of Term 2 and I started all my weekly school-based projects. One of the schools is new – Darling Secondary College (a pseudonym) in the western suburbs of Melbourne. Another is an old friend – Pelican Primary School, just around the corner from where I live. This school had a lot of renovations and other disruptions going on in Term 1, so held off starting the music program until Term 2. My third school is ‘Melbourne English Language School’, which I usually refer to as the Language School, and I’ve been working there steadily since 2005.

New schools mean going in with an open mind, and taking a bit of time to get a sense of the territory. At Darling SC, I’m working closely with the specialist music teacher and her year 7 and 8 classes. We talked at length on the phone before I started there.

“Never give them a choice!” she warned me emphatically. “What ever you do, don’t even think about asking them what they want to do! Because they won’t give you anything!” Steely and essential advice from her point of view perhaps, no doubt gleaned from experience, but pretty eyebrow-raising for me, given that my work is all about giving young people ownership of the music they play, and engaging with their ideas.

Therefore it was a relief for me to start at Darling last week and meet two groups of pleasant and responsive young people, who’ve already got a good grounding in music literacy. I enjoyed seeing my colleague in teaching action and getting a sense of how she likes the class to work. Now to get them playing and working with their music knowledge creatively. So far, so good.

New music, new audience

Last night I went to the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s last concert in the Metropolis Festival of contemporary music at the Malthouse Theatre. Members of the current MSO ArtPlay Ensemble, who worked with me last month on a composition project inspired by Brett Dean’s Beggars and Angels, were also there in the audience. Good on them! They came along to Brett’s pre-concert interview (“Our youngest-ever pre-concert talk audience!” the Director of Artistic Planning told me delightedly) and then stayed for the concert – 2 hours of it. All contemporary music, where Webern was the most old-school of the composers presented.

“What did you think of the music?” I asked one of the youngsters, who was admittedly looking a little dazed at interval.

“Pretty good,” he told me earnestly, adding shyly, “It was a bit loud sometimes.” It certainly was, I agreed. This was the young violinist who had repeatedly, sweetly, raised in his hand during the workshops in April to ask, “Umm, Gillian, can we take a break now?” I felt impressed at his fortitude at what must have been a late-night concert for him.

However, I’m not imagining any great fortitude was required for the concert repertoire. I love seeing this age group (8-12) at contemporary music concerts. There is so much for them to experience – the huge range of unconventional sounds, the awesome virtuosity of some of the performers (last night we were treated to not one but two performances by pianist Michael Kieran Harvey, who is incapable of not making every single one of the notes he plays utterly compelling), the intensity and activity of the percussion section, the detail of the stage moves between pieces… it’s such a complete, alive, dynamic experience for them.

As I sat there, I found myself listening with two sets of ears and imaginations. One was for myself, but the other was imagining what the children were experiencing and noticing.  I’m looking forward to seeing them again in June when we remount our Beggars and Angels piece. I’m hoping they will bring lots of ideas from this concert experience with them.

The difference a stage makes

The multi-purpose room I teach in at the Language School has acquired a stage over the holidays. It’s about half-a-meter off the floor, with red carpet, and red satin curtains around its base. Very cabaret! It makes you want to run up the stairs and start show-dancing.

When each of the three classes arrived for their lesson I got them to go straight up those stairs and stand on the stage. Some started dancing or ‘performing’ straight away. Others automatically stood in a line across the front. We played with ‘position’ words for a while – “Stand at the front of the stage… stand at the back… in the middle…” – in order to get them experiencing the space, and the view they have from up there.

Having a space that is clearly a performance space brings out the performer in lots of kids. Like having access to a microphone – they can have a taste of themselves as a performer or a star.

One class didn’t want to come down. At the end of the lesson I put on a CD of different tracks and invited them to dance. Their teacher and I just watched. They were so inventive! We had characters, we had slapstick, we had dancing to make others laugh, and dancing that was the child’s natural, joyous expression. At first only the boys were dancing, but by the third song, they had come down the stairs and taken their female classmates by the hand and brought them up on the stage. Everyone dancing to Bob Marley singing One Love – you can’t ask for more than that on the first day back for Term 2! “It’s a good song,” one child from Brazil beamed as she grooved with her friends.