Archive for the ‘student engagement’ Tag

“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.

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.

Musical Futures

I attended David Price’s Musical Futures workshop at the University of Melbourne this week. Musical Futures is a UK program that brings non-formal and informal learning approaches into the more formal context of schools, and gets young people engaged in making the music that they like and choose, and are most engaged by.

The approach includes the kinds of creative workshops – social, spontaneous and creative musical experiences that develop aural and inventive skills – that I focus on in my practice as a music leader and educator, and taps into the worlds of popular, rock, classical and world music in its content. It embeds theory and notation into the act of music-making, so that those particular skills and techniques are developed in context, as required.

However, the characterising element of the Musical Futures approach is not one of content, but one of teaching and learning – the level of responsibility that the students are asked to take for their own learning is all-encompassing. The students direct many – probably the majority – of their choices of what to play, what to work on, what skills they need to develop, what help they need from the teacher. Extra-curricular options quickly become part of the program as the students’ interests and engagement expands beyond the confines of the timetable.

It seems to me that Musical Futures offers teachers a comprehensive, well-documented, backed-by-research approach to teaching and learning that gives them ‘permission’ to approach classroom music in a different, less formal way, or legitimises the creative, informal work they have already been doing. For those teachers already using many of these techniques and approaches, the support that a network of like-minded teachers and industry allies can offer them may be of particular benefit. Or, the suggestions in the resource materials (notes, content ideas, DVDs with video examples – all available online) may encourage them to develop their approach further, try some new ideas, hand even greater control over to students, make bolder choices about content. The references to the research into how popular musicians learn (by Professor Lucy Green) ground this approach in thoroughly documented outcomes, and so can support teachers to advocate for greater access to funds and resources in their school.

If you are not a familiar with Musical Futures, it’s a really interesting program, worth getting to know. The ten schools that have been part of the pilot programs in Australia have declared that it has transformed their teaching, and had greater impact than they’d ever have anticipated. Something is going on here that is pretty exciting, I’d say. – heaps of ideas, free downloads of publications, case studies, and more. – a safe music sharing community that schools can join for free. Students can upload and share their music (you don’t have to be a Musical Futures school to sign up with NUMU); the most-listened-to music ends up in the NUMU charts.


Presenting music for children

I am not often convinced by orchestral concerts for children. It’s not that I think they don’t engage – they are often highly engaging and fun – it is more that I am not sure they provide a lasting impact on the children. Often, these concerts are designed – at least in part – to introduce children to instruments of the orchestra, or to focus their listening on aspects of music that is possibly completely unfamiliar to them. I’m not convinced that this outcome of knowledge or familiarity/recognition is retained by the children. I am more interested in interactive, participatory environments where children make their own discoveries and feel a sense of agency and input over what takes place in the musical space.

When I sat down with the student representatives from the Academy of Music (where I am directing the Community and Outreach program this year) I was a little dismayed to find them clinging so steadfastly to the idea of presenting a concert to children. I’d hoped we might move a little beyond that format in this program. However, their argument was strong: they are engaged in music-making and concerts as their principal activity at the Academy, so that is where their attentions and energies are being placed. Quite a number of them already have prior experience in presenting music to children in different formats, and they felt this was something they’d like to do as part of their community and outreach commitments this year.

So we set about planning a concert. We talked about repertoire (it needed to be based on music the students had already performed this year in the public concerts, due to limited rehearsal time), audience size (60 was deemed a good number to aim for, not too large, not too small), and options for staging the concert (we had a large, fairly flexible space to perform in, and the musicians liked the idea of performing in the round, with children quite close to them).

Establishing a dialogue

The concerts are going to be preceded by classroom visits, with the musicians going into the participating school in groups of 2 or 3 to meet the students and engage them in some kind of dialogue. The might play to them, they might lead them in some music-based games or activities, and they can also give them a heads-up about the concert and some of the music that will be performed. In this way, every child attending the concert will have met up to 12 of the musicians they see performing that day. They will know their names, will know about their instrument, and will have shared some kind of exchange with them.

Playing with the space

This project, of school visits followed by a concert, is taking place this week, and I am feeling very excited by what we have planned. The concert program starts with solo music, moving through duets, trios, quartets etc, until there is a full chamber orchestra performing. The music being performed is not typical ‘children’s concert’ music – there is quite a lot of contemporary music being performed, including a piece for amplified solo flute, interspersed with pieces from the 18th and 19th centuries. The Academy’s slogan this year is “Music is everywhere”, and we are creating a very flexible performance space with the help of 16 ‘baffles’ (large space-dividers on wheels) that will start in the shape of a closed octagon, but with individual baffles being wheeled open to reveal different performers so that the music is indeed coming from every direction, and in unexpected ways. The children will be sitting on pillows and cushions (which they’ll bring with them) inside the baffles.

Participation and inclusion

Between each set, the children in the audience will be led by one of the musicians to create a soundscape that will flow into the opening of the next piece. These will be simple (such as asking everyone to lightly one finger onto the palm of the hand) and will relate in sound to the number of players they are about to hear (eg. quiet sounds prior to the solo instruments, slightly louder for the duos, etc).

I’m really looking forward to working on this project with the students this week. I feel like a lot of the misgivings I usually have about concerts for children have been addressed in this project plan, and I am keen to see how the children respond to the experience. Will they enjoy making soundscapes and hearing their sounds get taken up by the musicians? Will they go along with the flow of the concert that is designed not to need any speaking or instruction for the children? Will they be able to fall into the music, and be carried along by it? Will they be excited and engaged by the musicians’ visits to their classrooms and have lots of questions? What will the musicians take from the experience that is different to what they take from the standard performance program?

We’re documenting it. I’ll put a link up to any photos that get posted after the event.

Slow progress in songwriting (1)

I’m going to write a series of posts (starting here) that follow the songwriting process at Pelican Primary School, and compare it to a similar project at the Language School. I was at Pelican today, and felt very aware of the baby steps we take each week as the songwriting progresses. Things feel faster at the Language School with the same age group (Lower Primary) so I thought I’d keep a log of what takes place, just to see what is really going on.

First, a couple of important differences between the two schools:

  • At the Language School there is a maximum of 13 students, and the teacher is actively involved. We have music for around 45 mins each week, but can stretch that to 60 mins if the students are engaged. The children are all new arrivals, so have minimal English language skills
  • At Pelican, there are around 17 students in the class. It is a Grade 1/2 composite class. We have music each week for 45 mins, and their teacher is in the room with us, but doesn’t play an active role, remaining on the sidelines and monitoring what is going on. Lots of the children in the class are from Language Backgrounds Other Than English (ESL, therefore).

At Pelican, the class topic for the term is on simple machines. I liked the idea of some of the verbs that could be used (hammering, cutting, twisting, pushing, etc), and the idea of a machine that is made up of many simple components, so that was our initial starting point.

Lesson 1

I asked the students to list all the different simple machines they could think of. The list included hammers, saws, levers, springs, and so on.

Then we began to organise these into lists and phrases, chanting,

It’s got… 5 wheels, and

Two axles, and

Ten cranks and

One lever!

A tune began to emerge from the children (I let them chant it, and listen for any pitches that emerge through the repetition – it’s quite an effective way of finding a melody with this age group, as there are always one or two who naturally and unselfconsciously move towards singing from chanting). Later, I realised it was possibly channelling a Shania Twain song. Don’t know the name of it, but I think it is Shania. From ages ago. I’ve no idea how that happened.

Continue reading

Research ideas

I started my Masters last semester with a Research Methodologies subject -specific to research in arts education. Loved it, loved it, loved it. For the assessment I had to complete a small research study, so I undertook that at the Language School, and did a detailed observation of the Middle Primary class, asking, “is there a difference in student engagement in music class, compared to other areas of learning?”

It was fascinating. I thought I had a pretty good understanding of the students and the way they learn and engage, but following classes as an outsider revealed many new understandings for me.

This semester I needed to set up a Negotiated Study (Advanced Project Studies in the Arts) and to tell the truth I’ve been feeling pretty vague about it. Not sure where to start, aware of huge gaps in my knowledge, aware of the need also to start my Ethics application, which brings with it the need to know a bit more about the shape of my research design for my thesis… and on … and on…

But today I had an excellent meeting with my supervisor. Things are a lot clearer. I’m going to continue with the reading I am doing but also undertake an examination of where my music practice sits within the current thinking about multi-literacies.

So I shall continue reading “The Music and Literacy Connection” but also start looking at literacy through the arts, as well as broader definitions of “literacy”. Find out what I am already doing, how my approach to teaching coincides – or doesn’t – with these concepts.

I love being a student.