Archive for the ‘new arrivals’ Tag

Getting ready to leave

We are at the end of term, and at the Language School where I lead music workshops each week, students are preparing to leave. Some will return again in Term 4, but others will be moving on to new schools, scattered across all parts of Melbourne.

You see, the Language School is a transitional school – students enrol for between 6 months and a year (generally children from refugee backgrounds are eligible to stay for a year) before moving on to mainstream school. For some children, Language School is the only school they have ever known, and they thrive in this environment that is geared towards bringing out the best in them. For many, it represents a place of kindness, encouragement and stability when the rest of their world is in a state of flux and stress. In addition to teaching English, Language Schools in Victoria are also helping students learn how school in Australia works, and aim to give them a positive and successful experience of school-based learning.

It’s a time of mixed emotions. There is much to celebrate in their achievements – these students have learned so much and have made great headway during their months at this school. They are ready to move on. However, it is a sad or anxious time for some of the students, reluctant to leave a place where they have been happy and have thrived.

I can see this playing out in some of my students at the moment. Two girls in Middle Primary have, in the last few weeks, regressed. They need more assistance and reassurance, and sometimes get things wrong that we know they know very well.

“They don’t want to leave,” their class teacher told me. “So they are starting to do some things badly, or to make mistakes, as a way to prove they need to stay.”

Years ago, in my first project in a Language School, I remember a student in secondary school explaining her anxiety this way:

“Here, I have friends, I am confident, I am a leader. But when I go to the new school I won’t know anyone, and I will feel shy and scared again. I’m going to lose everything all over again, and be right back at the bottom of the pile.”

Our songs this term are about houses and homes. The children are singing about their previous homes, and their lives there, and also about their new homes in Australia. Resettlement is an enormous, stressful undertaking for a child, in which they get very little say. They spend years in this state of transition.

“You are wonderful,” I tell the students in music class each week. “You’ve done so well. You’ve worked so hard and learned so much, and you are strong and brave. It’s hard to change schools again, but I know you’re going to be okay.”

And they look down at their laps, or away, and consider this.

Improvisation and ESL

I’ve written in the past about improvisation and newly-arrived ESL [English as a Second Language] students. I’m always looking for ways to encourage them to play freely, exploratively, spontaneously and responsively, rather than waiting to be told or shown exactly what to do. The challenge is that for new arrivals with only a beginning grasp of English, and only minimal confidence in their understanding of all that goes on in Australian classrooms, being shown what to do is the principal way that they set about learning, and making sense of their new environment. New arrivals are often careful and cautious about doing things that they haven’t seen someone else already doing. No-one likes to get things wrong, and it is difficult to explain in words that the whole point of improvising is to develop new ideas each time, and to try new things out every time you play.

Last week at the Language School we were developing melodic ideas for a riff we had invented. Every child had a glockenspiel to play. I wanted them to stick to a particular rhythm (which they had developed from words relating to their Integrated Studies topic for the term – food) but to play quite freely with the notes.

I set up a guitar accompaniment of C – Am – F – F – G (our starting riff is in 5/4), and initially asked them to play the rhythm on the note C, but to finish the riff on G. In other words, all the beats would be on C, apart from the last note, which would be G.

We started by playing all together. Several students gave a kind of start of surprise when they heard our good their C-G riffs sounded with the guitar accompaniment. They were inspired, and those that understood the task played with confidence, so that those with less English who needed a guide had someone to copy.

Next, I told them that they now could play whatever notes they chose, so long as they kept to the same rhythm, and that their first not was always C and their last note was always G. In this way, I knew that their ideas would continue to work well with the guitar accompaniment. And, I reminded them, anyone who would prefer to keep playing the C-G riff we have just been playing, can choose to do that any time they want.

Again we played all together. Now the students had choices to make. They could invent their own, or they could stick to the simple riff we had all learned. I find that in the ESL music context, too much choice can be overwhelming for some students, so I always ensure they know they can continue to play the music they already know, so that they feel safe and able to participate. Other students however, will thrive on the new possibilities that the choice offers them.

Our last stage in this improvisation task was to hear what each person was doing, one by one. We established a pattern where we would begin by playing all together, four times through the chord progression. Then, four people would play their improvisation or riff, one by one. Then we would play four repetitions together again, then hear the next four soloists, and continue on in this way until all in the group have played a solo. As expected, some chose to play the taught riff on C and G for their solo. Others improvised. All kept to the rule of starting on C and finishing on G, which meant that they all understood that instruction, or worked it out aurally by hearing what other people were doing.

Next week, we’ll do this task again. I plan to suggest they can now vary their start note between C, E or G, and we may then vary the pitches options for the final note too. Ultimately, I hope that we will generate 1-4 different melodies through this process. However, ‘one step at a time is a good rule for ESL students’ – they appreciate having time to consolidate and demonstrate what they know, rather than constantly having a new challenge to surmount.


Composing with the musical alphabet (again)

For the first four weeks of term I took on some extra classes at MELS (the Language School), teaching three of the secondary classes. With one, I decided to revisit a project I have done before, where the students and I brainstorm all the words we can spell with the letters A to G (the white notes of the musical alphabet – see here for a comprehensive list of possible words). I then asked them to string two or three of the words together to make a melodic phrase. This is an interesting task for English Language Learners, as they get to transfer their emerging written-language knowledge into the music classroom.

I then helped them arrange these different melodic phrases into a structure, worked out some suitable accompanying chords on the guitar, their class teacher wrote some (nonsensical, but fun) lyrics, and we had a song!

Here is some of our brainstorming:


Update on Language School project – lower primary

Today is the start of Week 5, Term 3. Which has gone pretty quickly (especially when I consider that I’d planned to start on this blog during the end-of-term holidays). So here’s an update on where I am up to.

I have three classes at the Language School – a lower primary class (ages 5-7, usually), a middle primary class (ages 7-11) and a secondary class (ages 12-15). Each class has their own project focus for music – I think these up at the start of each term, sometimes in collaboration with the class teachers, and sometimes based on my own observations of what they are likely to respond to well.

Lower Primaries are working with the idea of Question-and-Answer in music. We have a set Q&A pair of phrases that we have repeated vocally. We then take the rhythm suggested by the syllables of the phrases, and apply this to instruments. By varying pitch, tone colour, dynamics, etc, we can start to get quite an interesting piece of music going.

According to their class teacher, this kind of task (working with syllables) has some direct correlation with their literacy, in addition to oral language and pronunciation. I need to explore this more – those students that are developing their literacy skills steadily are also able to clap/play the rhythm of the q&a phrases accurately. Those that are struggling with reading and literacy (who often have a history of heavily interrupted schooling and/or no literacy in their mother tongue) cannot imitate/clap the rhythms accurately. They can approximate them, but not imitate.

For the purpose of the music project this is no big deal – there are many layers in a piece of group-devised music! We are in the process of composing it, so there will be authentic and satisfying roles for everyone in the class (I am not very keen on the whole wrong note/right note style of music education). But I think this observation by the teacher has implications for my research project, so I am noting it.

I wonder if this correlation continues in the older age groups?