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.