Archive for the ‘ESL’ Category

Three strategies for songwriting

Songwriting is a regular feature in my workshops and projects. Creating their own songs gives participants a very tangible, share-able outcome of their musical creativity, is an experience that offers infinite creative choice and highlights participants’ voices, and can be a vehicle for exploring themes of particular relevance or importance to the group. In this post I share three ways into songwriting – creating initial melodies and lyrics that establish the feel and sentiment of the song –  – that I have used in some recent projects. Continue reading

Children’s art on display

Last Thursday night was Pelican Primary School’s first ever Art Show. An artwork by every child in the school was framed and on display. It was a huge effort by the staff team to get all the framing done in time. The year 5 and 6 students were in charge of hospitality, and walked around with platters of finger food for everyone to try, some made by the students in the Kitchen Garden classes, some made and donated by local restaurants.

These events are important for many reasons – they display the talents and visual expression of the children and show the range of interests and ideas, and they bring the parent community into the school. It can be difficult to draw refugee and immigrant families to the school on a regular, ‘helping-out-in-the-classroom’, ‘running-the-sausage-sizzle-on-election-day’ kind of way, because for many of them, school is about their children and expectations of their children. Building stronger community links and parent involvement can be a big challenge. Events like the art show encourage the parents to participate, make them feel welcome, and hopefully make them feel proud of their children, and connected to the school community.

There are some true artistic souls in the school, children who have a way of expressing the complexities of their feelings and sense of identity. I loved the two artworks pictured below, both by girls in grade 4/5. The upper picture is incredibly detailed and my snapshot will not do it justice. Notice the items she is holding – pencils, a book, dolls. And notice her hair is in fact strands of tape measure. And the look in her eyes – I see a desire for challenges and extension and opportunities, and at the same time an anxiety about the future. The lower picture has a wonderful insouciant energy – I love the sense of defiance and sense of lightness and possibility she conjures up with her choice and positioning of images.

Parents had the first option to buy their children’s work ($5 each). The parents of the child who did the painting above weren’t present. A bidding war started up among the other adults present – it was a very popular work! In the end it was bought for $50 by the parent of one of the girl’s friends. But she took the young artist aside to tell her, “Do you want this picture? I bought it for you – you can take it home with you.” But the child decided she wanted it to go home with her friend’s mum.

I fell in love with a picture by one of the Prep children – a child I don’t teach. His parents weren’t present so I got to buy it at the end of the evening. It is leaning against the wall in my study, a pastel blend of rich orange and yellow, merging into a lower strip of blue (mixed with glimmers of yellow), with an angular pink shape in the middle of the yellow, and the child’s name – YUSUF – written down the right hand side of the page. “I asked them to do a picture of something lying on the sand at the beach,” the art teacher told me. “The pink thing is a shell.” I love it.

Preparing to Culture Jam again

This Friday I return to Elsternwick Primary School for the second stage in our Culture Jamming project, part of this year’s Artists in Schools program. Culture Jamming is all about using music to develop skills in another language and to explore different cultures – at Elsternwick the language of choice is Mandarin. During the four-week first stage last term, we prepared a performance of a Chinese folk song that I’d learned in 2010 in Hangzhou (see video footage below of this lesson in singing the Love Song of Kangding), learned to use Audacity‘s recording features, and made a field trip to the ‘Melbourne English Language School’ (where I teach on a different day) to do a music workshop with the students there and record interviews and conversations with the Chinese students.

It felt like a rather rushed beginning as we had a number of challenges to contend with, but the 15 grade 4 students who are working with me are bright, fun, curious and thoughtful, and we’ll have more time this term to stretch out into our project.

Our overarching question is, how can music help us and other students improve our Mandarin language skills? We are going to use our field recordings (from the language school interviews and another planned field trip to a restaurant in China Town) in compositions. The plan is for each child to make at least 2 individual projects and for us to collaborate on a third project that will use classroom instruments rather than computers.The children have access to NetBooks and iPads at school, though some also own iPod Touches, iPhones and other technology at home.

Project 1: Introductions

Our first task this term is to go through all the Chinese interviews from the language school and make short clips of phrases like, “what is your name?”, “my name is…”, “how old are you?”, “I am ten years old”, etc. We’ll then create tracks (using loop-based software) that repeat one of these phrases, with as many different speakers as we have recordings of, setting the phrases to a beat. That’s one project – each child can make one (or more) Introduction pieces. Continue reading

Discovering the magic of books

Recently I put together what is probably my last Timor-Leste video – and my first iPad movie creation! It shows the book-making project that my friend Victoria Ryle (from Kidsown Publishing) led on the veranda of the Lospalos house in November 2010, with a group of local children.

 

Timor-Leste is a country with extremely low levels of literacy, particularly among the adult population (though there are now improved stats coming in for school-age children, which is very good news and testament to the hard work in building up the school education provision across the country in the last decade). There is not a strong book culture among the general population as far as I could tell – what books are available for sale are in Indonesian, and hardly any books are published in the national language of Tetun. The Alola Foundation has published/sells a small number of children’s books (3-4?, possibly a few more) in the national language of Tetun which I bought in Dili and took with me to Lospalos. Beautiful classic children’s books by wonderful authors like Mem Fox (you’ll see an image of one little girl pouring over a copy of Whoever You Are, as if she is trying climb into the pages). But the lack of books for children to look at means that children rarely get to see their national language in print, telling stories that are relevant to their own lives. A children’s book in their local language, Fataluku, is almost unheard of!

When Victoria and her husband Simon came to stay with me in Lospalos we decided to hold an impromptu book-making workshop. Children came along and were invited to draw pictures of things they liked, to paint and colour them, and to have their photograph taken. All of this visual material went back to Melbourne with Victoria, and less than 2 months later, two books had been created. You can see examples of the books on the Kidsown website here and here.

When the books arrived at the end of January, we held an impromptu Reading Club on my veranda. Children gathered together to read the new books, and the books I’d bought in Dili. Those who knew how to read, read to their younger peers. Children read aloud to patient, listening adults. The youngest children watched and listened, and many of them held books for the first time, learning to turn the pages when prompted.

The video shows photos of this book-making and book-discovery experience. The great news is that Kidsown Publishing has continued to work and run workshops in Timor-Leste, working in partnership with the Alola Foundation, Ministry of Education (Government of Timor-Leste), Many Hands International and World Vision. The books are part of a larger literacy and children’s literature initiative, and the flexibility of community publishing is giving the possibility of publishing books in local languages, supporting young children to develop literacy in their mother tongue first.

A face for every minute

As a child I can remember an ad on TV that featured a woman whose facial expressions were particularly animated. My sisters and I used to call her The Expressions Lady, and she appeared on a number of different ads. We got used to looking out for her, and sniggering at her over-the-top expressions that seemed so out of proportion to the rest of the action.

Looking at some of the photos of me from the New Music Express project at ArtPlay 2 weeks ago, I think I may be turning into The Expressions Lady.

In my early days as a project leader, no-one ever seemed to capture me in poses like these. Nowadays, they are the norm. Do I mind? Nah! They make me smile. They remind me of how involved I get in these projects, the stories I tell, the images I try and conjure, and the fun I’m having.

Here are some other images from the project:

Survival skills in music class

There are a number of common traits that I’ve observed among new-arrival and ESL students over the past years that I’ve been working in this field, particularly among those of refugee backgrounds, or whose parents are from refugee/war-torn backgrounds.

One is to do with gripping and grabbing – they often take such a firm and intense physical hold of instruments or mallets or bows that it is almost impossible to help them adjust their hold in order to successfully make a sound on the instrument.

Another is to do with listening – the children are often ready and accurate mimics, and they are quick to join in with a rhythm, song or melody once they have heard it. However, if I add another instrument or contrasting/complementary voice to the mix however, they get confused and falter on the initial line. A common response is to start playing louder and faster – effectively blocking the new sound(s) from earshot but making ensemble playing very difficult.

Then there is the ‘high-speed chase’ – the tendency to play things as fast as possible. The speed means that the child has less control over their hands, and a small number of sounds in relatively quick succession – two fast claps in a longer rhythm, for example – will become 4 or 5 very fast claps. A rhythmic pattern involving left and right hands ‘patsching’ the thighs in turn becomes a waggle of left then right hands, in quick succession, too fast to keep track of or monitor in order to stop in time.

(This determination to be speedy is not just in music – it tends to apply to all ‘transitions’ throughout the day – choosing equipment, putting things away, making lines, changing spaces, etc).

I know that many of these traits and tendencies are common across many cohorts, and are certainly not outside any mainstream music teachers’ experiences. However, in mainstream settings, the tendencies get balanced out across a class, and while there might a few ‘grippers’ in the class, they won’t be in the majority. The traits I’m describing are common to nearly all the refugee-background children I’ve taught who arrived Australia with very little prior schooling, and generally no literacy skills in their mother tongue.

I think there are strong parallels between many of these characteristic traits in music and the survival skills a child quickly learns in a volatile, unsafe environment like a refugee camp or conflict zone:

  • You learn to hold things with all your strength.
  • You learn to take what you want as quickly as you can, especially if you are in competition with others around you.
  • You learn to respond extremely quickly to new things going on around you, turning your head to look at all movement, or to follow all sounds. However, multiple sounds or movements create a sense of chaos, so you start to lock onto just one at this point, taking refuge in as small and predictable an environment as possible.
  • You learn to do things quickly because you might not get much time before someone grabs the toy or equipment from you. You don’t give too much attention to taking care for the same reason. You operate with a sense of urgency all the time.

From the music teacher’s point of view, here in the safer environment of a classroom where there is time for everyone to have a turn, and opportunities are not determined by survival of the fittest, which of these tendencies is it safe (in terms of the child’s sense of emotional safety) to challenge? And for the child, what does it feel like to experience music with the different set of sensations to those that are familiar? Continue reading

“Mud-brick… cow-dung…”

What: Fits of the giggles among the sopranos

Where: Choir rehearsal at Pelican Primary School

When: Thursday afternoon, last 30 minutes of the day

I look up with irritation. “What, Hafsa?? What is so funny?”

Hafsa looks a bit embarrassed to be singled out, but says in a small voice, “It’s because of cow-dung!” and she and all her friends all start giggling again.

We’re at Pelican Primary School and singing a song called Shelter that I wrote with students from the English Language School at the end of last year. It’s a very upbeat, catchy, danceable song and it’s become part of the Pelican Choir’s repertoire in 2012. The song is all about the right to housing, and at one point lists all the different things a house can be made from – in the experience of the Language School students who come from all parts of the world. At the time that we wrote the song, one boy from Ethiopia spoke with great excitement and confidence about houses made from cow-dung in his country and so that phrase made its way into the song – have a listen:

Brick. Plant. Rock. Concrete. Glass. Cow-dung. Mud-brick. Bamboo… Tarpaulin. Steel and wood.

Normally at Pelican Primary School’s choir practices, we keep strictly to task. At that time of day, too many transitions or moments of ‘down’ time can mean the end of any concentration, so I keep the teacher-talk to a minimum. But on this day, the question of cow-dung gave us the opportunity to have a really interesting conversation.

“Why do you think all these words are in the song?” I asked the children. “What are they referring to?”

A few people offered their thoughts, and one identified the common theme – these are all things you can build a house with.

“A house from cow-dung? That’s disgusting!” they all chorused in delight and disgust.

“Well,” I said, ever the practical one, “It’s probably really sensible if you live somewhere where there aren’t enough trees to chop down for wood for your house, because everyone needs some kind of shelter. In lots of countries, people build their homes from whatever is available nearby.”

I described some of the houses I’d seen in Timor-Leste, where all the different parts of the bamboo plant were used – the sturdy trunks would be used for the frame, thinner trunks or branches sliced longways would be tied tightly side-by-side to make the walls, and the long stringy leaves would be intricately woven and thatched to make a strong water-proof roof. They were fascinated by this description and sat quietly, picturing these houses.

“But Gillian, how could you make the bamboo house strong enough to stop people getting in?” one boy asked me. I thought about this, and explained that the doors could close, and they could probably be locked with a padlock but that if someone really wanted to break in, they probably could. The boy looked worried at the thought of this, but I went on,

“But the people live in small communities, where they know everyone. They all work together and help each other, and so they trust each other. The moment someone new arrives in the village, they would all know about it, and be watching carefully. Knowing each other well like this helps to keep their houses safe,” I explained.

One boy at the back of the altos then shared a story about helping to build his family’s mud-brick house when he was living “in Africa” (he’s lived in Burundi and Kenya as a refugee and maybe some other African countries as well).

“And best of all,” I said, in closing, “That cow of yours is going to keep doing droppings every single day! This means that you could build your cow-dung house for free! It might take you a long time – I’d be getting my kids to make the bricks everyday when they came home from school, as part of their chores – but it wouldn’t cost you a lot of money!”

By now, they were all completely sold on the idea of a cow-dung house and they sang their hearts out for the last few minutes of the day. I think this was my favourite choir practice of the year so far.

‘Culture Jam’ – Music and Mandarin

In just a couple of weeks I’ll be starting my artist residency at Elsternwick Primary School (EPS), a state primary school in the inner southern suburbs of Melbourne. EPS has very well-established music program and a strong performance tradition; they also take languages very seriously and have a full-time teacher of Mandarin (the school has almost no students of non-English speaking backgrounds).

The aim of the residency is to explore ways that voice and speech can be embedded and integrated into music compositions. I’ll be working with just 15 grade 4 students across terms 2, 3 and 4 to create an original music outcome that has Mandarin language in it (in all sorts of ways) and that could be used as a tool to help other students in the school improve their Mandarin.

Our creative music efforts will be focused around a number of field trips and visits to Mandarin-speaking people. The first visit is to my other students at the English Language School – after playing some music games and ice-breakers together, the EPS children and the Language School children will engage in conversations about culture and knowledge from their countries of origin. The EPS children will speak in Mandarin for the conversations with the Chinese children (they’ll speak in English with the children from other countries), and record their conversations on small voice recorders.

Rules for harmonious living: Found near the entrance to a communal living area, Shanghai, 2010.

In Term 3, they will visit China Town in Melbourne CBD, where they will record themselves buying things from the shops in Chinese, ordering food in a dumpling restaurant, and talking with the Chinese people they meet (elderly people, working people, and quite possibly some university students), and recording all of these conversations too. Lastly, they will meet with a Chinese musician who lives very near the school – he will play his traditional instruments for the children and answer their questions. All this will be recorded too.

Meanwhile, we’ll be exploring different ways of using voice and speech in music compositions – anything from songs, to speech melody, to electronic music, to iPad apps (this means I have to buy an iPad – yes!) to compositions with a mix of live and recorded sounds… Excerpts from the field recordings will find their way into the children’s creations (or at least, that’s our intention at the outset). I’m gathering examples of music to listen to and discuss, and we’ll also do a lot of group-composing workshops to get the composition ideas flowing.

The project is called Culture Jamming, and I’ll be sharing its progress (and its challenges) with you over the coming months. What do you think of the project idea? What music would you play to your students to get them inspired with a project like this? Have you explored using recorded speech in any student composition work or music technology? Please share your ideas and experiences!

Journeys to Australia

When I started my residency at the English Language School (back in 2005) my first projects were focused on journeys, and the stories and music that the students had brought with them from their countries of origin. Their teachers and I wanted to encourage them to speak about their experiences, and recognise what they had in common with each other.

I’ve just uploaded some of these projects to my Soundcloud account – please have a listen and add your comments!

Some projects focused on vocabulary for transport and modes of travel…

 

some demonstrated the range of countries the children come from,

 

and all of them involved every child speaking on their own about their experiences and being recorded (a great oral language outcome). At the end of each project the children were given a CD recording of their stories and music – I liked to think that they would find this CD in a few years time, listen to it, and recognise how far they’d come in their transition journey.

 

Update on pitch work

Back at Pelican Primary School for Term 2, and the year 4/5 class are continuing to develop their arrangement of Gotye’s Somebody I used to know. This first week back, we revised what they remembered of the opening melody, and started to develop an accompaniment figure.

There were a couple of interesting developments this week. One occurred when we were revising the melody. We did this as a group, away from instruments, with me at the whiteboard asking questions like, “What note does the melody start on? What note is next – does it go up or down in pitch?”

Whenever the group hesitated or seemed unsure, we sang the melody together. We used the words from Baa Baa Black Sheep:

Baa baa black sheep, have you any wool?

Yes sir, yes sir, three bags full.

Baa baa black sheep, have you any wool?

Yes sir, I’ve got some. [Gliss!] (We invented this last line to match the fourth phrase of the introductory melody)

I stopped the singing on the word/syllable immediately before the pitch we were trying to identify. There was an exciting moment when I realised they were all hearing the missing note in their heads and starting to visualise or ‘map’ its direction. It was suggested in the way a large number of them all called out the right answer at the same time, after a moment of silence that was as long as the missing note would have been. I was so thrilled by this development!

For the accompaniment, I’ve created a marimba line:

D – AD – C – G (ta ti-ti ta ta)

I decided to teach it using the body-pitching approach I’ve used in the body. I taught it to the group, rather than asking them to figure a version out for themselves. They sang the note-names while patting each body part in turn:

D (knees – left hand) G (head – right hand) D (knees – left hand) C (floor – left hand) G (shoulders – right hand)

I knew that the challenge on the marimbas would be to go from the note D to C with the left hand – I anticipated that they would instinctively continue a left-right-left-right mallet pattern and would thus struggle to find the C. Therefore, I told them to use their left hands to touch D and C, and the right hand for A and G, and got them to practise this in a focused way on their bodies.

We practised the gestures together as a group. Then I set up the xylophones and marimbas and a small number of students got try out the accompaniment pattern.

This time around though, I added an explicit instruction:

“Your aim now is to transfer the information about notes and hands, up and down, from your bodies to the instruments. Keep the same hand pattern, and same pattern of up-and-down gestures, as you have on your bodies.”

I think this proved to be a helpful step. In any case, with this kind of group task, we only need one person to figure it out – they can then model it for the others, they will learn by watching, the watching will also help create a visual memory for them, and hopefully the body-contour work will help create a physical memory. We’ll see!

This class is such an interesting group. They always come in scowling, sneering, and with a lot of bravado towards me, my co-teachers, and especially towards each other. But they do take their learning quite seriously. Enough of them are motivated to create something of a critical mass, so we make progress, most weeks. My plan is for this Gotye piece to be ready to perform in 3 lessons time.