Archive for the ‘students’ Tag

How do we know what children have learned?

Back in August I blogged about a forum for artists, educators, and arts organisations that took place in Melbourne with Arnie Aprill from the Chicago Arts Partnership in Education. One of the discussion topics was documentation and the importance of using the video documentation to record what is being learned by students when they engage in open-ended, contemporary arts collaborations.

“How do we know what children have learned in an arts project? We ask them!” Arnie declared, and as soon as he said it, we all realised it was true. Simple, true and brilliant. “And,” he went on, “We film them talking about it, and use this footage to document the growth and development of their thinking and understanding, and to demonstrate to others the value of the projects in terms of student learning.”

Studentswriting in reflective journals (Gillian Howell, Culture Jam)Therefore, throughout the Culture Jam project (my artist-in-residence project at Elsternwick Primary School in 2012) I included interviews with students as part of the ongoing project reflections, and filmed these interviews. I also gave them questions to consider and respond to in the reflective journals they wrote each week. These inclusions gave useful insights to me and the coordinating teacher throughout the project, but they also served as a form of student assessment.

I’ve now finished editing that footage and you can watch it in the clip below. Head to my Youtube channel to see footage of the other compositions – their work in progress and their performances.

To learn more from the vast experiences, expertise and wisdom of Arnie Aprill, you can pay a visit to his blog here, or via the Music Work blogroll.

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.


“But I want it to be good!”

I was talking ‘community participation’ project design with one of my young music performance students recently, and brainstorming the possibility of his community project having a performance outcome as part of one of his own gigs. I was enthusing about the benefits of this kind of model – the boost to audience numbers and increased support for his music, the impact that a larger-scale number can have in a smaller band’s gig, and so on – but I could see he was wrestling with the idea. Eventually he raised his hands, shrugged, and said,

“Yeah, but I want it to be good!”

I was surprised – it hadn’t occurred to me that the outcome wouldn’t be good. “Surely that is up to you,” I countered. “You will have the musical challenge of working out what it is that this group will be able to do so that it does sound good – just as you would do for any group that you lead.”

So much of what takes place in a community music project (or a creative music project) is built upon the musicianship and communication skills of the musical leader. But you also have to believe in the group, and what is possible for them to achieve, why they might want to achieve it, and how to help them get there so that it is an enjoyable and satisfying experience.

One of the skills that comes with experience is knowing the right questions to ask, or what to give your attention to. Even very young children are capable of playing a sound all together, in perfect unison. It isn’t easy – it requires all of them to be giving the task all of their focus at the same time… but they can do it. The musical leader has to work out what will motivate them to do it – what questions, or what kind of environment you need to create for them to inspire that response.

Sometimes it comes down to time and space. If you have enough time you can give attention to everything that you want! It can be frustrating, as a project leader, to have to focus on some musical elements and not others, due to restrictions of time and space. However, this frustration is not exclusive to community settings – it is also the case with professional ensembles. They just get better at working quickly – there is a base level of competence that can be assumed so that attention can go straight to other areas.

I hope my student will just try it out. Perhaps a performance outcome is too risky an idea for him to take on at this time, but I hope he will gather a group of amateurs and start to lead them in some ensemble work. I have a feeling he will be pleasantly surprised by what they are capable of, and what he can facilitate with them.

I’m really, really sorry…

The other day at Pelican PS there was a fight between two of the boys. They ended up being taken out of the class by their teacher, and to be honest, in the midst of lots of small-group instrumental playing, all I really registered was that there was some kind of problem going on that then seemed to stop.

Later in the day, one of the two boys came back to the music room with another class. “Ali has something for you,” the teacher told me dryly. And young Ali, looking slightly self-conscious, handed me a folded-up note.

I love the bouncing train of thought in this letter! So many things bursting out of him that he wants to ask me and say to me! This is a student I’ve known for many years, actually – I taught him when he first arrived in Australia and was enrolled at the Language School. He’s quite naughty – but perhaps because he is spoiled and a bit immature for his age, rather than because he is disengaged or angry.

What do you say in response to such a rambling stream of consciousness? I folded the note, and smiled at Ali. “That’s a lot of questions!” I said. “I’ll have to answer these later on. Thank you for your note,” I added, and put it in my pocket.

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.

Pelican pavement art

With all the students from grades prep to 6 now required to play in the one playground area, the Pelican Primary School students have less room to run around than they used to have, and all the big kids and little kids have to share the playing space. It’s resulted in some lovely collaborative play, where the older students have been invited to lead playground activities for the younger students.

Today I witnessed some gorgeous scenes of grade 6 boys encouraging little Preppies to jump rope with them, or try hula-hooping, or kick a soft, squashy soccer ball to each other. Two girls had the idea of setting up a chalk art competition (with a chocolate frog for the winning piece of art). More and more of the school was drawn to this activity so that by the end of lunchtime the drawings covered a large part of the yard. As I walked through, excited children called for me to come and admire their work. Here are some of the winning entries:

It was such a happy  lunchtime. I found it heartwarming, I have to say, especially when I remember how much fighting there used to be in the playground in the past. This is a good, healthy and happy place to be at school, I thought to myself as I took these photographs.


I am in the middle of marking at the moment. Students often find it difficult to articulate their ideas about teaching music and integrated arts, especially when they are new to these subjects, and are grappling with how to set about teaching them in their own classes (as generalist teachers, not specialists). There can be a lot of paraphrasing of the set text, albeit in a very haphazard, two-unrelated-sentences/phrases-thrown-together way, joined by a conjunction and little else… that’s when whole chunks aren’t being copied verbatim. Sometimes it is hard to know exactly what they are on about:

(The additional time required for planning an integrated arts unit) may challenge teachers as the concept of time within the curriculum is a difficult notion to grasp. Time is a continuous changing matter…

Hmm. Last time I looked, time was not ‘matter’ at all (though I agree it is continuously changing. I’d be worried if it wasn’t). Though I wasn’t aware that teachers in general struggle with the concept of time. Most people come to grips with the notion of time sometime during their early childhood (I think my student means that there is never enough time to fit everything into your teaching day – it requires constant management).

Her comment reminds me of a quote from Mike The Cool Person of The Young Ones, who, when asked by Helen Mucous the Escaped Murderess “Is that the time?”, answers smoothly:

No, time is an abstract concept. This is a wristwatch.

Another thing that made me giggle was one student’s list of the range of creative decisions students can make when they are involved in an integrated arts unit:

The artistic benefits… allow students to become creative in their work. Depending on the task, students may need to consider instruments, props, colour, paper, costumes, pencils etc.

It was the inclusion of pencils in this list that made me smile. From broad concepts to the very specific… Still, perhaps this is because I am a musician, rather than a visual artist.

Ten more of these papers to go. Nearly done.

Language School, week 4

Some good things to report this week after my tossing and turning last week. Had a great lesson with Middle Primary… I went in hard, making sure I kept things moving the whole time, transitioning slickly from one task to the next. I tackled an apparent attempt from Oscar to extract himself from the action for a period (which, as I pointed out to his teacher, he has done a number of times already, and it creates challenges when he needs to insert himself back into a piece that has been created without the input of his considerable musical skills). And Volodya seemed a bit calmer than he has done in previous weeks, able to stop and listen more often, and to be less (visibly) anxious about being heard.

I have decided to build beatboxing (Oscar’s forte) and dance (a great love of Volodya’s) into this project. We wrote a rap about travelling to and from school, and how the school day passes, and Oscar accompanied this to great effect. The rap is quite funny – it mentions ‘lining up’ so many times it is quite an insight into how dominant the whole notion of ‘lining up’ is for students at this school, and how much time they perceive is spent doing it. Their teacher and I were chuckling by its third mention.

I asked for individual students to dance in front of the class, to show what they could do. (I’d already got a sense that there were some keen dancers in the class). Those of us watching accompanied them with the traditional We will rock you rhythm, stomping on the floor then clapping on the third beat. Then, I asked both Oscar and Volodya if they knew any steps that would be easy enough for their classmates to do, and that they could explain slowly.

Volodya took this task on with great intent and seriousness. He concentrated incredibly hard to slow one of his dance steps down so that he could teach it to the others. And he painstakingly found the English he needed:

You just… turn your foot… a little bit! Just a little.

The teaching was particularly impressive as many students who arrive with well-developed routines or performance pieces (either dancing or drumming) frequently have difficulty altering the tempi within which they perform, or with slowing things down so that they can be shared by the whole class. I rewarded everyone with some feather-balancing work (which they absolutely love), and at this too, they all really shone. So… phew. I’m happy to report some improvements, on my part as well as theirs.

Slowly coming to understanding

We finished the music term at the Language School last week, and presented our compositions to parents and friends. Only two students were graduating on to mainstream schools this term, which means we will have lots of the same students returning next term.

It was an interesting term. It seemed to take a while to get settled. I suspect I was more distracted by things outside the school for much of the term – redundancy, and the intensive thesis-writing mode I was in, in particular. Each class have lots of new arrivals, so the level of English understanding was almost zilch.

Interesting things to observe were the different ways students started to show their understanding of what was going on. ‘Experiences of success’ can come in many different ways. For example, I see them taking pride and care in knowing how to put the instruments away at the end of the lesson. This sounds like a small thing, but it is probably an act that is familiar, that they can figure out on their own. These newest students – boys and girls – will pass me the instruments one by one, then scout the room for anything further.

In terms of musical development, things happen at their own pace. Middle Primary has a new student from Ethiopia (I think, or maybe Somalia) who has had very little prior schooling. She spent the first couple of weeks positioning herself next to the teacher and looking very lost. She joined in everything until she had to do something on her own (such as say her name in time to a shared beat), at which point she would get very quiet and shy, understandably so. In the class composition she chose to play the glockenspiel, one of a group of four who were all playing the same melody. She never quite got the hand of it. Her teacher sat beside her, guiding her hand, and saying the rhythmic syllables (based on different fruits) out loud. Then she seemed to invent her own part, which we encouraged her to do; musically, harmonically, it worked, but her rhythm was never quite accurate enough to make it truly fit with the other parts, and for a few weeks there, we were all just tolerating it, and those others in her group got progessively louder (and therefore progressively faster) in order to drown her out!

So it was with great delight in our concert that I noticed her making small adjustments in her music, so that it fit better with the other parts around her. Gradually, she was building confidence in what it was she was to play, and therefore slowly getting to a point where she could let the other sounds into her ear, and be guided by them. My sense was that she had dropped into a new level in music, that I think will allow her to experience even greater awareness and success in the lessons next term.

The presence of lots of new students highlights for me the importance of patience, of trusting that understanding comes slowly, or at different speeds for different children, but that it does come. As with their English learning, it is first about exposure to the new language (sounds) and a slow absorbing of the rules and syntax, through experiencing them, rather than having them explained. If the environment is consistent, then understanding grows, and actual abilities can flurish, and start to be developed further.