Archive for the ‘Language School’ Category

Risking creativity

This week The Age published an article* by Melbourne author Alice Pung. She wrote about a creative writing and publishing program for children called the 100 Story Building, and wove in observations of the place of cultivated creativity in the lives of young migrant and refugee children.

Photo Credit: STARSFoundation via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: STARSFoundation via Compfight cc

She was writing from experience – Pung and her immediate family are survivors of Pol Pot’s genocidal regime in Cambodia. She grew up in Braybrook, one of the most culturally-diverse and disadvantaged suburbs in the whole of Australia, where many children must assume adult duties and responsibilities, translating for parents, and helping them navigate an unfamiliar world.

One section of her article jumped out at me, when she wrote of the priorities of parents who have suffered and risked everything in order to bring their family to safety. For them, the ultimate goal for their children is that they have comfortable lives, safe and predictable employment, a home that is calm, secure, and ordered, and where there is space to grow.

Engaging in creativity – acts of engagement and production that are risky, open-ended, unpredictable, and that could fail just as easily as they could succeed – is a frightening option for the risk-averse.

Reading Pung’s words (she is a luminous writer, her prose is such a joy!) made me think of the children I have worked with in the English Language Schools in Melbourne, and their often complex relationships with creating and making their own work.

Some arrive at school in Melbourne with very little, or extremely interrupted, prior schooling. They feel behind the eight-ball in many things in school. For some, this creates a sense of anxiety to learn the right way to do things. Some may have had access to regular schooling, but in a harsh, punitive, and strongly authoritarian environment. Getting things right and not making mistakes in school is very important to these children too. Making up their own stuff can therefore feel like a threatening thing to do, because it is not clear what the “right” or required response will be.

Some children are alarmed or puzzled by the playfulness that is often part of cultivating creativity and freeing the imagination. Why is the teacher being silly? Will I get in trouble if I laugh? Will people laugh at me, and shame me or humiliate me?

Some children struggle deeply with how to reconcile and integrate their school experiences with their home lives. This used to generate a lot of anxiety for some children, particularly those who came from very strict Muslim families. I remember one family of three sisters. In their first couple of music lessons, they joined in everything. They were new in school, new to English, and followed all the class activities by observing and copying what they saw other children doing. But then, they began to remove themselves. Each week they would announce a new thing that they were not allowed to do. They were not allowed to hold their hands in a certain way in the warm-up. They were not allowed to dance. They were not allowed to clap or stamp. They were not allowed to sing. In the end, they were not allowed to take part in the end-of-term performance with their classmates either. They became more and more withdrawn and tense, living in worlds that were contracting while those of their classmates were expanding with new experiences.

Once the children become comfortable with the risks of creativity, they are often bursting to express themselves in these different ways. We see these children in the City Beats workshops too (which I led last week for the MSO and ArtPlay) – once they feel clear on the parameters and possibilities, they are filled with so many ambitions and ideas to share that it seems a shame to contain them in a 2-hour workshop.

In many ways, as Pung describes it, these children can be voiceless in our societies. They often speak for their parents, but their own voices are silenced in the striving to find the comfortable place that is their parents’ dream. And yet the stories they have to share have importance beyond the voice and platform provided to them. These are children that know many of the harsh realities of life, across many different generations.

This was poignantly and memorably demonstrated in the 2013 publication Donkeys Can’t Fly on Planes, (you can read my review of this beautiful book here) with its stories of war, survival, family, and place written by young refugees from South Sudan, now living in country Victoria. Donkeys was published by Kids Own Publishing, a publishing house that, like 100 Story Building, supports children and diverse communities to write their own stories and publish them in books. Child-centred and community-centred publishing creates access for the young writers – by providing a platform for their stories and ideas, and cultivating their creativity – but also access for the potential audience for their stories, by illuminating worlds (real and imaginary) that might otherwise remain in the shadows.

*I couldn’t find an online version of the article. Look for The Age, 6 May 2014, Alice Pung ‘A book in every child’. Section: Focus. Page: 12-13.

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When the beat in the street makes you feel complete

City Beats 2013 workshops drew to a close last week. We finished off this year’s Landscapes theme by creating music inspired by the sounds and rhythms of the city – City Beats. (It was only after I’d planned the project that I realised this third workshop would have the same name as the whole program).

Can you feel the heat rising up from the street?

It’s the City Beat – Aha, Aha

It’s the City Beat.

For this city-focused workshop, the whole-group composition consisted of a short rap linked to a vocal soundscape depicting all sorts of sounds of the city.  I asked the groups to think about words that rhyme – like ‘street’ and ‘beat’ and ‘feet’ – and that would fit well with our theme. The children brainstormed rhyming words, putting them into sentences, and these came together pretty quickly to form the rap. You can see some of their words in the images below.

We created the soundscape using a Grid Score, setting it up over a cycle of ten beats. Why ten? At first I thought I’d do twelve, but then thought that might be too long. So I thought about doing an eight-beat cycle – but eight seemed too square, too solid and grounded. Ten was the perfect cycle length – uneven enough to give the sounds a sense of never quite landing, and short enough to be achievable (and to fit across the width of the white board).

Grid Score, City Beats G. Howell 2013

I brought along a few bells and whistles to get the soundscape started – we had a bicycle bell, a honky horn, a train whistle, and a strange siren-like whoopee whistle (I don’t know what it is called, it is the kind of thing that might accompany a clown act. The children loved it). We chose numbers in the cycle for these sounds to land on and practiced that first.

Bells and Whistles, City Beats G. Howell 2013

Then, working in small groups, the children decided on other sounds that they would hear in the city that they could depict with their voices or body percussion, and decided where they should appear in the cycle of ten beats, and how many numbers they should cover. Once all the decisions had been made and the relevant squares on the grid had been filled with appropriate symbols (you can see below why I am a musician and not a visual artist), we rehearsed it until it was memorised and ready to record.

Grid score and Gillian, City Beats 2013 G. Howell

The choices of city sounds varied somewhat between the groups, but it was the children from the English Language School who really created something unique. Their city soundscape was influenced by the cities they knew well – like Quetta, and Kabul, and Bangkok. They included the sounds of goats and sheep bleating, of the loudspeakers on the minarets of city mosques calling the faithful to prayers, and a traditional song/chant that street sellers from Afghanistan sing. All the children from Afghanistan knew this chant (perhaps it embeds itself into the vernacular the way “Mind the Gap” does in London). The child who sang the ‘call to prayer’ sang it into a loudhailer, in imitation of the thin, slightly tinny sound that the minaret speakers can have. Yes indeed, the city soundscape from the Language School children was an evocative and energetic affair!

With the whole-group chorus finished, we divided into groups of 6, each accompanied by a musician from the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, to create additional sections of music. One group took xylophones and created melodic material based on the rhythms in our rap chorus. Another group extended the chorus with further verses and some drumming.

Drums City Beats ArtPlay 2013

The third group worked with a fabulous array of orchestral percussion and ‘found sounds’ – bass drum, pitched tom-toms, a tam-tam, a suspended cymbal and two suspended brake drums) – to create a rhythmic city groove, working with interlocking patterns, dynamics, and cues.

Brake Drums City Beats G. Howell 2013

Then, in the last ten minutes of the workshop, we gathered together again, performed our music to each other, recorded the performances, and said good-bye.

City Beats days are probably some of my favourite days in the year! There is so much to love. The children come along to ArtPlay thinking they will get to learn a bit of music, and they leave at the end of each 2-hour workshop just buzzing with excitement and energy at all the music that they have created with us. Their teachers are constantly amazed at how much they achieve, and how quickly. And the MSO musicians, ArtPlay staff and I get to spend two glorious days a term hanging out with fabulously creative children, composing and playing original music. Everyone leaves at the end of each day with all sorts of infectious earworms buzzing in our heads.

The schools that take part in City Beats each year are ‘disadvantaged’ schools – schools without music specialist teachers, or that have student cohorts from less advantaged circumstances. They may have high numbers of families in receipt of the Education Maintenance Allowance, or who are from refugee backgrounds, or who, because of financial circumstances, never get to take part in any ‘extras’. The program is fully-funded, including travel subsidies, thanks to the generousity of wonderfully supportive and visionary funders, who know that for young people to recognise their talents, they have to have the chance to explore and discover them first.

City Beats was part of the ArtPlay/University of Melbourne’s Mapping Engagement 4-year research project at ArtPlay. You can read/download a report of the City Beats program here.

Drawing a bit of space into music workshops

Music workshops can be very leader-focused, even when the creative content is child-generated, and the process is child-centred. There is a practical reason for this – music-making is noisy, and to facilitate group music-making you need the group to be working together for much of the time. It would be lovely to be able to give everyone time to do their own free explorations – as can happen in a visual arts workshop or lesson – but realistically, this requires lots of separate work spaces, or distance between each of the individuals. Otherwise, everyone would soon find themselves exhausted by the effort of blocking out other people’s sounds in order to focus on their own. And that kind of exhaustion makes people cranky. Or wired. Or both.

Quiet time to explore (One Arm Point, G. Howell)

We all know that taking a bit of quiet, self-focused time is a beautiful way to retreat from the demands of the world and recharge energy. When I worked as a music workshop artist at the English Language School I saw how the children were often at their most contented and peaceful during drawing and construction activities. Being able to focus on their own creative efforts meant they could retreat into their own thoughts – in their own language! Keeping up with a whole day of lessons in English could be very exhausting for the students, especially the most recently-arrived children, and the refugee children who had had limited prior schooling. Teachers also reported that art activities were the times that some students  would quietly disclose troubling thoughts or worries. Children felt safe and acknowledged during the art activities, and responded to the opportunity to process their thoughts while giving their outward attention to the tactile, personal experience of creating marks and visual gestures.

Therefore, I often used drawing tasks as a way of starting creative projects at the Language School. Children would draw as a way of exploring a particular topic and sharing their knowledge and experiences in a non-verbal way. Drawing seemed like a meditation for many of the children.

In my recent composition workshops at the remote community schools on Dampier Peninsula we began by inviting the children to draw ‘maps of the heart’. These maps showed the things in the children’s lives that were most important to them. They also established some other principles – the importance of each person’s contributions, the importance of having time to develop your thoughts, and the importance sharing only what you want to share. We did this drawing activity towards the end of the first workshop day, having spent the morning drumming, singing, and working with rhythms and counting. It served two functions – providing possible content for the development of musical content, and giving the individuals a bit of ‘time out’ from the noise and intense group focus of music-making.

At One Arm Point Community School, we also turned to drawing at the end of the second-last workshop day. We’d been working hard and everyone was ready for a break. And we wanted to spread the word about our concert the next day among people in the town who might not hear about it through the school. So we gathered up some paper and textas and made some posters.

People sat with their friends. Two of the older girls sang quietly away to themselves while they drew. Other children gathered around Tony and me, checking spelling and getting our input on things to include on their posters (some included sponsor messages!), or ways of drawing particular instruments. One or two were less engaged by the drawing task, and they wandered around the room, playing instruments occasionally, but also organising things (putting things away, tidying the space), and enjoying the quiet time.

Sometimes in a creative music workshop, we can feel so time-poor that we give all the available time over to the music. This is important, but I urge people never to overlook the importance of a little bit of space for individuals to retreat into their own heads for a while. Drawing is a way of doing this, while still developing project content and maintaining a sense of group ownership over the work.

Poster in the Community Shop, One Arm Point (G. Howell)

Endings; and the momentum of the beginning

2012 was a big year for me. I had more freelance projects booked in than ever before, a fairly full load of regular teaching gigs, and three overseas conference presentations . If you take a look at my Project Diary page you can scroll down and see what was on in 2012 – and this list doesn’t include teaching full days in 2 schools and 2 universities (I taught one of the university courses online and in the evenings, as my students were in the USA and Canada). It was a very satisfying year professionally, with a number of new ventures, including the opportunity to work in north-western Australia with the Australian Chamber Orchestra, and running my own series of workshops at ArtPlay. But it was a tricky year in terms of finding balance. I felt like I never stopped working!

'Farewell' flowers given to me at the end of term by my two schools.

‘Farewell’ flowers given to me at the end of term by my two schools.

I am looking forward to a different pace and focus in 2013. The big change is that I am starting my PhD this year. Next week I will be heading up to Brisbane to meet with my supervisors and will officially be a student again. To make space for full-time study, I resigned from my two primary schools at the end of 2012. In some ways it was sad to say good-bye – I’d been at the Language School since 2005, and even though students were constantly arriving and leaving (it is a transitional school), I’d developed longterm relationships with the teachers, and built a really lovely, hand-picked collection of instruments. I’d been teaching at Pelican Primary School since 2009 for 2 days a week, and the children who’d been in the younger years when I started were now heading into the senior classes in the school. It is a wonderful thing to observe a cohort of children growing  like this. I’d built relationships with parents as well as with teachers, and it was sad to let those go.

At the same time, I was feeling restless. I’d started the year feeling that I’d “done lots of this before”. I found it more and more difficult to feel patient with the kind of frustrating timetabling issues that arise in primary schools everywhere that can really impact specialist programs. I loved the children, and loved playing music with them, but no longer felt as energised by the teaching work. Moving on at the end of the year therefore felt quite liberating.

There is a great momentum that comes with being at the beginning of something. I’m excited about my PhD topic (looking at music education and participation in post-conflict countries around the world), and about starting a new research project, which I find stimulating and inspiring in similar ways to creative project development (I’ve blogged about the commonalities here). And even though all of those who have already been through the PhD journey or know someone who has, shake their heads and say things like, “I hope you survive, it’s a lot of work!”, I feel undeterred. In fact, I feel relieved to think that no matter how much work it is, it will at least be just one big project, rather than the many multiples of projects I had in my head in 2012, all unrelated to each other, each needing their own amount of space and time. Having one thing to focus on for the next 3-4 years seems like a really straightforward proposition at this point. (Though perhaps I should revisit the optimism of this notion in 6 months time!).

 

Dance me to the end of term

Dancing Waka Waka (Gillian Howell)

Term 4 2012 finished with flash mobs and slick moves at two of my schools last December. Searching for some straightforward choreography to teach some year 1 & 2 students I came across this dance video, uploaded as a tutorial for a flash mob in Milan in 2010. It was perfect – a song the students would already know and like (‘Waka Waka (This Time for Africa)” by Shakira), lots of repetition, simple steps, and a few more challenging moves that would keep them on their toes (excuse the pun) and give them goals to last across the 10-week term.

For weeks before the end of term, you would hear strange chants and incantations echoing down the corridor from the music room:

“Up, up, helicopter! Down, down washing machine!”

“Clap, clap shimmy back”

I didn’t start with the intention of giving each of the dance moves a label. It was a spontaneous addition one week at the Language School to help the children differentiate between two different moves, but the labels proved so effective I soon included them in the lessons with the grade 1&2s at Pelican Primary School. I’d call the labels out in turn if we were running through the whole dance, or we would work on specific dance moves one at a time, identifying them by the given label. Check out “pick the fruit” at 0’31”,   “up, up helicopter, down, down washing machine” at 01’15”, “clap clap shimmy back” at 1’07’’ in the video above!

For these 6-8 year olds learning a choreographed routine for the first time, there were  many reasons why labelling the dance moves was such an effective strategy:

  • They contained visual information (eg. the word ‘helicopter’ indicated two arms overhead making circles) which helped the students recollect the move)
  • The labels were quite silly and light-hearted, which made the students and the teachers laugh and not take it all too seriously – and this kept them motivated if they were finding the dance steps challenging
  • The labels also gave some of the more hip-swivelling moves an innocence and childishness. Thus, a twisting turn straight out of belly-dancing became more focused in the overhead arm movement, and was given the visual label of “lasso the cow!”, introduced via a description of cowboys catching cows by lassoing their horns,  (see the move at 02’31’’).

We worked a lot with the video tutorial. English language learners (especially some of those from refugee backgrounds) can spend so much of their time being only in the present moment, responding to the most immediate stimuli (or responding to the present while holding anxious thoughts about what might happen in the unpredictable future, or the past), and sometimes they struggle to retain sequences of information in their memories alone. Any kind of visual reinforcement is beneficial, and in the past I’ve used diagrams, stick figure pictures, grid scores and charts to map out how the individual components of a project that they have developed will fit together. Having a video is another way of doing this.

While having students glued to video materials might not at first seem like the most appropriate way to engage them in a dance project (“shouldn’t we be getting them away from video?”), there were a number of reasons why I think this was a big part of the project’s success:

  • It allowed the students to see the whole dance in its entirety. Right from Day One, they could see what they were aiming for.
  • The video included both men and women – demonstrating that this was an activity for both genders (important when many of the students come from backgrounds where men’s and women’s activities are more delineated) and giving so everyone in the class a role model to choose and copy.
  • It reduced self-consciousness and the potential for criticism of each other. They were so busy watching the screen and keeping up with the moves they didn’t have time to think about (a) what they looked like or (b) what anyone else looked like.
  • It also gave the children a visual representation of how to stand slightly apart from each other in rows, or neat formation. Lots of children in Language School find the many variations of standing in lines (e.g. sometimes behind each other, sometimes beside each other, sometimes squashed close together, sometimes spaced apart, etc) quite confusing.

Here is a back-of-heads view of the children at the Language School (all the primary school children) dancing to Waka Waka with me on my last day at the school for the year.

If you’d like the full list of labels I used for this dance leave me a comment below and I’ll send it to you.

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

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

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.

 

What’s in a name?

When a child first arrives in a new school, one of the first questions they will be asked is, “What is your name?” If the child is a recently-arrived immigrant or refugee from a non-English-speaking background, that question is one they will quickly learn to recognise and answer.

Names can help enormously in the settling-in process for a recently-arrived child. In Language School, I do a lot of games and warm-up activities using names. It’s a way for me to establish that in this environment, each person is important, each person is noticed, each person has something to contribute. Frequently, new students take their time to use their voice in the strange new environment they find themselves in at Language School. But names are words they know how to say, especially when motivated by the fun of taking part in a game (it’s also a way for new students to learn and practice saying the names of other students in the class). In this way, the name games become a way to build up new children’s oral language confidence. Continue reading

Is this the best name game ever?

The following warm-up game is one that I have been using since I first started training in musical leadership at the Guildhall, oh-so-many years ago. It is a simple name game, but its simplicity belies the depth of its messages I suspect! I call it Names in the Space.

Names in the Space establishes all sorts of skills and values:

  • taking turns,
  • the importance of contributing as an individual,
  • the importance of responding as a group and working in unison,
  • a call-and-response structure
  • the skill of maintaining a pulse and a rhythm,
  • the skill of timing your voice to land at a certain point in the rhythm.

But more importantly perhaps, it is a demonstration that every voice here is important. Everyone has a chance to speak. Everyone’s contributions will be affirmed by the group. It also establishes a group focus and settles the group.

'Names in the Space' being played at the recent Music Construction Site workshop.

Continue reading