Archive for the ‘teaching’ Tag

When is a teacher not a teacher?

A friend told me that his job had recently been retitled. Employed as a salaried Head of Strings at a well-to-do private school, he and his colleagues, once known as instrumental music teachers, were now to be called Music Tuition Service Providers.


Photo Credit: nadia_the_witch via Compfight cc

Needless to say, he was bemused by the weasel words of the title. He thought service providers were companies, operating in multiple sites.

“The maintenance company that cares for the gardens – that’s a service provider!” he pointed out. “Someone handing out food at a catered event – that’s a service provider. One person can substitute for another without any real difference in output being noticed. The same isn’t true for one-on-one instrumental music tuition or ensemble direction.”

The adoption of new, multi-word, pompous albeit empty titles seems like bureaucracy gone mad, or smacks of someone wanting to be seen to be creating change. All bemusement aside though, my friend was also angry about the subtext, which he perceived as an undermining and devaluing of a skilled group of professionals, and reducing their status within the school structure. The downgrading of skilled positions in schools is a real problem, and part of a contemporary context in which ‘teacher-blaming’ and ‘school-bashing’ is rife. Despite the fact that my friend, and many of his colleagues, are trained and qualified teachers as well as highly-skilled professional musicians, “teachers” are increasingly understood as only being those that stand in front of a classroom, chalk in hand, working with large and predictable groups of students.

I would also be curious to know what other curriculum areas were having specialist teachers’ jobs retitled. I suspect that this decision may also reflect a downgrading of the value of arts education within this particular school, and within school education in general.

Some might say, what’s in a name? Nothing much at all – until that job title is what is used to exclude people from organisational dialogue, or to determine what people are paid. Can you see “Service providers” sitting at the same level as “teachers” on the school’s organisational map? During the next round of Enterprise Bargaining Agreements, can you imagine “service providers” being paid the same as “teachers”? I can’t.

We brainstormed some more weasel word retitling:

Schools become Education Service Providers

Students become Education Recipients (or maybe Education Service Recipients)

Parents become Education Recipient Support Workers

That last one is my favourite. Please share any other new titles you think of in the comments!

In the end, we wondered if he should just call himself an “expert consultant”, and charge accordingly.

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!).


New takes on teaching recorder

All of these ideas about reconnecting with oral traditions of music pedagogy are playing out at the moment at Pelican Primary School, where for the last term and a half I have been teaching the two Year 3/4 classes to play the recorder. It’s been interesting to see how, despite my preference for informal learning environments, self-discovery, creativity and experiences of success through connecting with innate musical understanding, I still leaned quite heavily in those first weeks towards the more formal approach for learning recorder – introducing students to the notes, introducing first rhythmic notation then pitch-notation, and working with a tutor book. The tutor book was fun and irreverent, and they play along with an accompanying CD which they love, but it was still quite a big step away from the way I’d approach a music project with this class using percussion instruments.

There are a couple of reasons why I started by going down this path.The main one was the sense I had that they wanted to learn the associated skills like reading music. They are intrigued by this. I think that a lot of the students at this school automatically assume they probably won’t be as successful in tasks like learning to read music as students in other (more ‘mainstream’) schools might be. I wanted to be able to say to them, “You can do this. And I can teach you.”

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Thoughts about Refugee Week compositions

Every year I create work with students for performance during Refugee Week (20-26 June in Australia, with June 20 being World Refugee Day). We’ve created songs, instrumental pieces, music inspired by individual students’ stories of flight and sanctuary, recorded pieces, and live performances. Some of the songwriting has been particularly memorable and can still bring a choked-up feeling to my throat when I think of the sincerity and emotion the children perform them with.

Some of the students I teach have been through unimaginably awful experiences. At the Language School they are learning alongside other newly-arrived students, who may be immigrants or in Australia on temporary visas, relocated here due to their parents’ work. Not everyone is a refugee, but everyone has come from somewhere else and shares the experience of being in a new country, and of leaving another home behind.

One of my first Refugee Week projects was Lingua Franca, in 2001. The range of prior experiences that the students had was summarised beautifully by one Chilean girl, who wrote:

Some people leave their homes and it’s as if it is just light rain. Some other people though, HAVE to leave! As if it is a big and terrible storm.

This poetic comparison, using the weather as a metaphor for human experiences, became a song, Some People:

Some people leave their home in light rain.

Some people leave in a storm

Some people choose when to come or to go.

And some people have no choice at all.

One year, the class teachers and I decided to focus on people’s homes in their countries of origin. First we asked all the students to draw pictures of their homes. This yielded some very vivid images – from skyscrapers and technological advancement (China) to planes dropping bombs on houses and people (Afghanistan). Then we interviewed them about their picture, pointing to different details and asking what they represented. We wrote down every word the students said, and used these words and sentences to create songs.

One five-year-old boy from Sudan drew a picture of a lion and described the way a lion tried to come inside their hut one day! His classmate, a young girl from Denmark, drew a picture of a house with a large love-heart taking up most of the ground floor, and flowers in pots on the window sill. These images, and others from the class, became the following song:

There’s a heart inside my house, with a ribbon that I lost.

There are flowers in the window at the top.

There’s a swing on a branch on a tree,

And good friends live next door.

Lions want to come inside, but the heart will protect me.

This is a song that still brings a lump to my throat – the last line in particular, with “the heart” a metaphor for the protection that adults and family provide for children.

Maps of the heart

In this year’s project, I started by brainstorming “the most important things” with students. I asked them to draw a “map of their heart”, showing all the things they cared about, and giving greater portions of the heart to the most important things, and correspondingly less space to less important things.  I introduced the idea that hearts sometimes get broken, or cracked. If you have lost something important you might have a hole or a gap in your heart, a piece that you have left somewhere else, or with somewhere else. The students (all upper primary students) found this a compelling thing to think about representing.

I found that their responses could be divided into categories about friends, family, small cracks and holes, and the future. Many of them included future plans, hopes and dreams in their hearts. In response to what these “heart maps” revealed, we’ve developed three pieces of music – one about cracks in the heart (the pain of leaving a country, and saying good-bye to people you care about), the importance of your family and friends when you change countries, and the future – all the things they hope to be and become.

Risk and fragility

But this focus on what for many may be quite raw and traumatic experiences is risky. I don’t know what it will reveal, and I need to move the projects forward very gently, and very carefully. Sometimes I wonder if I am too careful, and if my efforts to avoid too much examination of danger and terrifying experiences is ignoring a reality for some students. For example, our song about friends and family is in the relatively peaceful key of G-mixolydian (G major with a flattened 7th), and declares:

I miss my country, it’s far away from here.

But I’m lucky, because my family’s with me,

And I have good friends.

Friends and family

Taking care of me.

We wrote it in one lesson, using the words that had come up in their brainstorm in response to their heart-maps. As we sang it through at the end of the class, one of the Somali students said to his class teacher (who was sitting beside him),

“But I don’t miss my country. It was a bad place, very danger, very sad…” and he mimed shooting a machine gun across the heads of the other children in the class.

“That’s true,” said his teacher immediately. “The things that happened there were very bad, and you don’t miss them. Maybe though, you can think about the place, and the things that happened there, as different. The place itself was not bad, but many bad things happened and you couldn’t stay.”

At this point I asked them what they were talking about, and we discussed this issue with the whole class. Not many students contributed – perhaps because they didn’t have the language, perhaps because we were at the end of the lesson. I wanted to find a way to include that student’s comments and concerns in our song. We wondered if he could perhaps speak at the end of the song (prior to the next piece in the cycle – this project had become a 3-part song cycle). But he didn’t really respond to the suggestion. He was happy to play the instruments in the song, and perhaps didn’t want further scrutiny over his prior experiences. Or perhaps he did. It’s difficult for me to know for sure, and I only see the students once a week.

Ultimately, I believe these creative process are important for the students on several levels. The ownership they feel when they help to create music that they later perform to others is incredibly important to them, and they feel very proud of their efforts. Every step in the composition process takes place in class, so they know exactly how each piece came into being. It is also significant that through writing songs, they get to tell their stories to a larger audience. The challenge for me is making sure the stories we tell are indeed their stories, including the uncomfortable ones… or not.

Pitch, implicit learning, and innate understanding

I had another ‘moment’ in my exploration of teaching pitch concepts today. (I’ve been posting on this topic, see below). Today at Pelican Primary School I introduced the Slit Drum to the prep class.

I invited one of the children to come to the front to play. She wasn’t sure what to do, so I suggested she hit each of the ‘tongues’ of wood, one by one, and see if they sound the same or different.

“Hit this long one, and then this short one,” I suggested, pointing to the tongues I meant. So she did that, and one of the boys in the class called out happily, “I can hear that it is short-long-short-long!” And as she continued to play, he sang along with her – “short-long-short-long” – and some others in the class did the same.

It was a happy moment for me. I have been puzzling over ways to build students’ understanding about the concept of pitch, highs and lows. I try to find ways, in the musical environment I create in the lesson, for these concepts to be available to those children who are ready to connect them to their own innate understanding about how music works. Young Will, calling out his observation to me, was doing exactly that. After the puzzles of the recent weeks it was satisfying to be reminded that some children are ready to work with these concepts, and will make the necessary initial links in their own time, if I provide the right environment. I think of this as providing strong environmental scaffolds.

Concert preparation – visual map

It’s been a short term and a fast one. Very busy for me too – since my last post I’ve been back up to Sydney for another project, and started my new job (training young musicians in teaching-artist approaches) at a Music Academy, and taught several one-off classes up at the University, and… got really stressed trying to fit it all in!

This post is about my Lower Primary students at the Language School. About 60% of the students are new arrivals this term, so not much English among them. They’ve been a very sweet class to work with, and, responding to their teacher’s ‘theme’ of the term on health and hygiene, we have composed a song about Germs.

Here are the lyrics:

If you touch something dirty you have to wash your hands

If you paint or your draw, you have to wash your hands

Touch a cat or a dog, you have to wash your hands

If you go to the toilet you have to WASH YOUR HANDS!

(Chorus) Germs can make you sick!

Germs can be Anywhere!

You have to put soap on your hands

And the germs will go away! Yeah!

(Vocal percussion bridge)

Scrubbing… and rubbing… and shaking… and drying….

They came up with the words, I hasten to add. Their teacher has clearly indoctrinated them well – they could think of heaps more occasions where it is necessary to wash your hands. It’s quite a folksy tune that we’ve written too – I sound a bit like Patsy Biscoe on the recording I made for them to listen to in the classroom.

We have a percussion section in the song, which they play sitting down. But they sing the verse and chorus, and bridge, standing up. In last week’s lesson we tried to introduce the concept of the end-of-term concert (performance to parents and other students), and I drew the following map to explain to them the order of the different song sections, and whether they are standing or sitting for them.

1= singing (verse & chorus)

2= instruments

3= singing (verse & chorus)

4= bridge (with hand-shaking actions).

I pointed to each number and they had to do the appropriate action (stand/sit/sing/play instruments/hand-shaking actions). I played around with the order of the numbers to encourage them to read the symbols on the board. It was like a game and they loved it.

As you can see, drawing is not my forte.

First day back at Language School

Both my schools wanted to delay the start of music lessons until Week 4 of term – this week. Today I was at Language School and I had a great day – I was reminded of how much love teaching there!

The school is divided into three classes, with 13 children in each – lower primary, middle primary, and upper primary.

With the Lower Primary class, we had a hit on our hands with the song Mobakomeenofway. (I have not idea if this is how you write the words, but that is how they are pronounced!) It is a call-and-response song, with a chorus that we all sing together. The rough translation is:

Teacher – “Hey everyone, do you want to come out and play?” (Oh wenne makolay, mobakomeenofway)

Everyone – “yeah, yeah, we want to come and play!” (Yeah, yeah, mobakomeenofway)

The chorus repeats mobakomeenofway four times. It’s a catchy tune, and I’ve added quite vigorous actions to it. I’ll try and record it next week so that I can add a sound file here. It is a winner of a song for that age group.

With Middle Primary, we are going to be exploring songs from their countries. I started things off with a Somali song (roughly a quarter of each class is Somali this term). It is the song that my friend Duncan Foster collected and transcribed from students and parents in another Melbourne school, Heybaad Waxaad. It is apparently quite a well-known song, lots of the Somali students recognise it.

I’ve chosen this song for several reasons:

  • It’s a fun and catchy song and I love singing it
  • It gives the Somali children a little bit of additional ‘status’ or pride in themselves and their culture, within the classroom. This was something the class teacher commented on today. She felt that it gave them confidence… there are also sometimes problems with other children rejecting or isolating the African children, and their teacher felt that celebrating a song from Africa was an important way of demonstrating that there is no tolerance at the school for that kind of exclusion.
  • It acted as a useful demonstration of the kind of song they could introduce as being from their country. It let me say, this is a song from Somalia. Who can remember a song that they learned in their country?

This suggestion led to two children (two Somali boys, as it happened) demonstrating clapping games and chants from their country, which they taught all of us. We’ll continue to gather clapping games and other children’s songs next week. I think they left our music lesson on a high.

In Upper Primary, we did some work with instruments. I passed various hand percussion around the circle one at a time, asking the students to demonstrate a sound or rhythm on it – either a rhythm they already knew, or one they improvised on the spot. One boy played a rhythm that reminded me of the opening riff of Dicholo by Ayub Ogada (which I first heard on the soundtrack to the film The Constant Gardener). We developed a four-bar phrase based on his riff, and played in on a range of different instruments, building some different sounds and techniques into the playing. We then finished the lesson by listening to Dicholo, and their eyes widened as they heard the opening riff and recognised its similarity to their own.

Something interesting – the students tend to giggle as soon as the vocals start – I think they hear all unfamiliar languages as sounding quite silly or funny. They all collapsed into giggles and started to roll around on the floor. Well, it was the end of the lesson – they were probably also tired. They only giggle like this the first and second time they hear the vocals. They usually calm down by the third time.

Children’s voice – choosing new instruments

When the Pelican Primary School Choir sang at the Mayor’s Christmas event last week, we received a performance fee of $400, to put towards new instruments. There are lots of instruments I wanted to buy, and to have in the music room – and with the current excellent Christmas sales on at the moment, it seemed a perfect time to stock up on djembes for the school.

However, I was inspired by the half-day conference that I attended last Friday on Children’s Rights, and decided to let the Choir members decide how the money should be spent. These are not children who engage well in discussion (they tend to get fairly boisterous, fairly quickly), but I decided to give it a go.

Initially, I’d hoped to get a representative from the music shop to visit the school during choir time, with a van full of instruments for them to inspect and choose from. I’d imagined how I would prepare a kind of Preference Sheet for them, with pictures of the instruments, and price per unit, so that they could mark the ones they liked best and see if they could make their choices add up to $400. It would have been a nice integrated class for them, draing aupon an authentic task.

However, it was too close to the end of the year to organise something like this.

Part of me just wanted to order five djembes and be done with it. I know they will get used, I know the kids will like them…. I really had to wrestle with this side of myself, as I knew it was driven partly by convenience and simplicity.

In the end, I concocted the following plan:

  • I drew a list of 6 instrument options on the board (all things that I knew we didn’t have and could make great use of), and placed alongside each picture the instrument cost.
  • I told them they had $400 to spend.
  • We talked about how the small djembes were half the price of the big djembes, that the big ones might sound better, but that the small ones were a good size for the younger students and still sounded pretty good;
  • We talked about how we could buy a new xylophone or metallaphone, but that this would use up all of our money on one instrument (but that this was a very popular instrument for all the students).
  • We tried out some combinations of instruments and costs on the board as examples.
  • Then I gave each child a piece of paper, and asked them to list their three favourite instruments, numbered 1-3. They could propose how many of each instrument they would like to buy too.
  • I then placed a mark beside each instrument that was voted for. We looked at the most popular choices and worked out some possible combinations of instruments and quantities. We voted on our favourite and emerged with a clear winner.

The adding up proved too hard for most of them. But that didn’t matter. I am also not sure how many of them understood that they were being asked to choose the instruments because they had sung in a special concert and been paid. (Having said that some of them understood. They kept asking why they couldn’t just have the money).

In the end, they chose:

  • three small djembes
  • a vibraslap
  • a large cabassa
  • a pair of juju shakers (made from seed pods).

I think they were very money-conscious in their choices – most made a point of choosing the less expensive instruments. However, they all liked the idea of a new metallaphone – they just didn’t understand that this would use up all their budget.

It was a great exercise and I’m glad I asked for their input. It’s the right way to make these choices, I’m sure. Here are some examples of their ballot papers:

The learning trajectory

Often at the Language School, it feels quite hard to get a full understanding of how things make sense to the children, and what things they retain. When they first arrive, they figure out what to do in each class by observing the other children and joining in by copying. They have very little idea behind the intentions of the tasks. They are also silent, or pretty well silent. They are working incredibly hard just to listen and keep track of this new, alien environment.

Later, perhaps after a term or so, they become more confident in the class routines, and may begin to speak or offer one- or two- word comments in response to questions, or sometimes on their own initiative. Around this time, as their language skills increase, I think the many tasks they do in music, as well as in their general classroom work, make a bit more sense, and the intention behind the activity, or the learning objective/focus, becomes clearer.

It is coming to the end of term and students in each class – usually those who have been at the school three terms, although this can vary – are getting ready to leave the school and make the transition to a mainstream school. It’s an exciting time, but also, I imagine, an anxious time, as they worry about whether they know enough, and how they will feel, and if they will find friends, and what it will be like to be new and confused all over again.

So it gave me great pleasure in class this week when one of my Upper Primary students suggested at the end of the lesson that we sing People Get Ready, a song we had learned the previous term. Those who knew it (most of the class) sang with confidence and enthusiasm.

“Let’s sing … the one about swimming to Australia!” suggested another student. This was a song that we had composed together in th previous term. I ended up not being very convinced by it, as there were a lot of words to learn, and I’d given the students a lot of input into the melodic shape, which meant it didn’t have quite the contour that I’d have liked.

Australia is an island

With water all around

You have to go by plane or ship

If you tried to swim you’d drown!

No you can’t swim to Australia….

I started up this song, and again, all that knew it sang it with gusto. There was no faltering over the fast words, or the awkward melody. Afterwards their teacher raised her eyebrows at me.

“That was pretty good singing,” she said, impressed. “All those words remembered!”

Then Michael, a good-natured but often distracted boy from Liberia suggested yet another song that he remembered from his time in the school – “that one about… just arrived… new country…”

When you’ve just arrived in a new country (When you’ve just arrived in a new country)

Some things are very hard for you…

I began to sing it, and Michael joined it. At the end of the first verse I smiled at him, and told the rest of the class, “This is a song we wrote in Middle Primary. Michael knows it because he was in Middle Primary before Upper Primary.”

“Me too!” said another boy, Tan. “I know it too.” That’s right. Tan had also changed classes during his time in the school.

We sang another verse. I wasn’t sure I could remember any others. The boys paused and thought.

“There was another one, a hard one, with very fast words,” Tan remembered. Ah yes…

Your heart is full of many feelings (heart is full of many feelings)

Some things are very hard for you

Tan’s comment really touched me. Those words are fast. But now he can sing them. And he remembers that, earlier, when we were singing this song, he used to find them too fast, and very difficult. Of course there will be times in the students’ experience at this school when they struggle in particular with one thing or another. But it is rare that I hear them comment on this.

I think about Michael, when he first arrived in the school, how withdrawn he had been, and then unfocused. Or Tan, who had seemed so floppy and vague and disconnected. Now they are leaders in their class, singing solos, and knowing all the words. That day, I felt so proud for Tan, and Michael, and all the other exiting students, for the progress they have made, and for their memories of their younger, struggling selves.

Air guitar

It’s End-Of-Year Concert time at Pelican Primary School so I am busy working with each class to prepare an item. With one class  I offered them a choice- we could either learn a song by Green Day, or we could write a song together. They chose to write a song together (though the following week told me that, really, this has been their teacher’s choice, and they had really wanted to do the Green Day song. But by then it was too late, our song was written).

The song we’ve written is a classic rock song called Long Summer Holiday. It has two verses, two pre-chorus ‘ramps’ that build up our energy, a rockin’ out chorus that most of us need to sing in a seventies falsetto, and a raging guitar solo in the instrumental break.

The best thing is, it’s going to be an air guitar solo. This started out as a joke, a bit of hamming up by one of the students. But then I thought, why not? It will be vocal improvising, it will be theatrical, and it will be a fabulously original piece of content in the concert.

Yesterday, we made a rough recording of the song so that they could keep the CD in their classroom and start working on some staging ideas (backing singers, drum kits, dancers, etc). I recorded the air guitar solos too. Two boys wanted to have a try, so I got them to take it in turns. I was surprised by how well it worked (oh ye of little faith, G) – they had an excellent feel for the kind of melodic and rhythmic motifs that could be used, they both ended up on their knees, and they got the hang of tag-teaming the solos so that there were no gaps in between.

Go home and google ‘air guitar’ I suggested at the end of the class. “I bet you’ll be able to find some great clips of people…. watch what they do with their hands and face and body… and listen to how they use their voice.” Study these to get more ideas, I suggested to the boys.

Without a doubt though, the real enthusiasm for this rock song project came about when their teacher suggested they could dress up, put gel in their hair, make mohawks, etc. That’s when they started to grab hold of the project with both hands.

I’m really delighted with this air guitar thing. Of course, it could all go horribly wrong. Pelican students aren’t known for their ability to recognise the fine line between funny performance and just being silly (‘being giddy’, my mother used to call it, that level of giggling silliness that kids get into and have difficulty breaking out of). So I need to be quite stern and serious, to make sure they instill it with some performance discipline so that they don’t crack up laughing when they are in front of their peers, and some strong musical qualities.

I think they’ll get there. The two boys who’ve volunteered are pretty committed to the whole idea, with one following up on the google idea the moment he got home.