Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Feel the Noise. Multi-Group teaching in a Music Classroom

One of the most daunting things I've done in my short career as a music teacher is to switch from whole class teaching to operating 2-3 groups at one time.

Good primary teachers, (and I suspect, a few secondary teachers too) are adept at this, realising that there are great educational benefits to working with smaller groups while encouraging independent work habits elsewhere in the class.
It's not a model that always sits comfortably in a music room because there are always noise considerations. If I am working with one group of students, playing instruments along to backing tracks, how are the rest of the class supposed to get on with anything without being distracted too much and just what are they supposed to do in this time? They can't practice quietly on their own unless they move to another space where they will be unsupervised and liable to drift off task very quickly.

I learnt this very quickly when I started out last year, trying to utilise an empty room next door to my classroom.

Computer based tasks are ideal. They tend to have high student engagement and it means that students can listen to music on headphones while they work, shutting out the sound from the other side of the classroom. of course, there are two big considerations here:

  1. What is and isn't appropriate content for students to be listening to while working? 
  2. How do I ensure that students do not spend their whole time assembling, changing and sharing playlists when they should be working on projects?

In the first instance, I put a lot of faith in both the digital citizenship agreements that all students sign at school, coupled with the web filtering package that our school uses. It's something I discuss with classes before they are allowed on headphones. We have a mutual understanding that they are privileged in being able to listen to music while working and their responsibility is to only choose content that is "Safe for School". That understanding, and the fact that our web filtering will block access to the worst means that I have very few problems in this regard.
I also think it's good to be vigilant but not too puritanical when it comes to song lyrics. I'm careful in the choices of songs I am using for whole group teaching, I am very conservative in the choice  of material for public use- school singing, school band etc.
But 12 and 13  year olds maybe hearing a sweary word while on busy working on headphones? I don't think it's that big a deal.

To answer question two, I need to go back to my primary teaching background when I would be working fairly intensively with one group while ensuring that everyone else remained on task. Having interesting and relevant tasks is important but is not the entire solution. Kids will always find something even more interesting and relevant to them, especially when they have a broadband connection, and once one student has opened up a funny video, or Minecraft, it won't be long before the rest of the group follow along.
So I'm constantly on the move. I'll teach a skill, perhaps a guitar chord. Show the group how I want them to practice than move across the room for a quick check up on the others. Not for too long- I don't want my instrumental group drifting off task either.

(First rule of guitar teaching. Give a group of kids a guitar each and within 30 second, guaranteed, someone will be playing Smoke on The Water, badly.)

90 seconds is long enough to check progress (more importantly, be seen to check progress), and answer any questions, no matter how daft they are. My favourite from the last week was "How do you type a capital 3?"

Giving regular time checks is  a good way of keeping everyone on the right page too:
"I'm going to give you 2 minutes to do that, then we're moving on"
"We're changing over at 11.50 so make sure you've got to the end of task 2"

I also make sure that the groups have task sheets that give clear instructions on what to do.

This year I have focused on 3 Chromebook tasks. As I discussed in a previous post, I make use of Poster My Wall Creating a music poster is a great way to teach a bit of layout/ graphics, motivate the students and decorate the room for next to nothing.

Although the room is quickly becoming a shrine to Ariana Grande.

The other tasks I've had success with this year is a simple video viewer utilising Google slides. The students embed You Tube videos onto pages (Google slides makes this a very simple task), following a theme of their choosing. They also create a menu page with links to each video. This task has huge buy in because they are assembling a playlist but it also introduces them to creating an interactive presentation.

We also use Soundation, a simple but effective music studio where you can just drag and drop sound clips and create some startlingly good music very easily.

I'll write in more detail about each of these tasks another time.

So that's my approach to multi-group teaching. It does require a bit of juggling, access to enough devices to allow 1-1 for one group, and an ongoing budget for headphones.

 But it works.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Killing Bono

How much does the Internet hate U2 right now? Let me count the ways....

So since every other blogger has beaten me to it, I won't continue to flog the proverbial dead horse that has been U2's career for the best part of quarter of a century.

Instead, I'm going to give them some credit.

U2 were a school band. They weren't called U2 then. They were Feedback, then The Hype,  but it was the same four lads from Mount Temple School, Dublin who are now the multimillionaires who are now foisting their latest album on your iTunes account.
And despite the feeling that I lost touch with U2 sometime after Achtung Baby, I am in awe of the fact that these 4 guys have stayed together since they were teenagers.  This was beautifully articulated in the book and film, Killing Bono, which you should read and watch right now. Go ahead, I'll wait.

I can't  think of another band who started out as a school band, never changed their line up and ended  up as global superstars. Can you?

It was another place and another time for sure, but when I work with school bands these days I occasionally get glimpse of what might be the future. 
For a start, kids today are a lot more proficient in guitar and vocals than they were, even ten years ago.
Well in two words, You Tube.
If you want to learn how to play a riff or guitar solo, chances are that someone has posted a tutorial on YouTube. If not, the tab will definitely be out there.
For non guitarists, tab, short for tablature, is a form of music notation that shows  a guitarist where to place his/her fingers on the fretboard.

Fun Fact! Tablature developed in the medieval period, predating conventional notation by a few hundred years.

Similarly, aspiring vocalists today no longer have to wait until their song comes on the radio to sing along. Every song, ever recorded is available 24/7 and backing tracks for any popular song are a click away. The proliferation of TV singing contests over the past 15 years has to be a contributing factor too.
The illusion is that anybody with a great voice can become a sensation and perhaps, kids today are buying into that, listening to the judges and actually trying to sing. I'm not a fan of these shows at all, but maybe, just maybe, they are teaching a new generation of singers that you have to get the basics of performance and pitch right. 

 In the last year I've been involved with a project that aims to encourage great singing called the IT Factor. It's a talent contest, for sure, but the team at Te Aroha Noa who have put this together have found a way to nurture talent too.
Here's a clip of the 2013 semi finalists recording a Christmas staple and getting some studio experience at the same time.

I'm in awe of these kids. At the same age I wouldn't dare to sing out loud for fear of ridicule. When I was at Intermediate School,  being good at singing was not something to be proud of.

But around the same time my ears began to change. Having been consumed by the frothy pop of Wham! for much of 1984 and 85, I turned on the TV for our weekly music video show RTR, to hear this ethereal guitar chime. Then the drums came in. I was mesmerized. Then the vocal... "Ice... Your only rivers run cold..." I was completely hooked.

One of the first songs I ever learned was Bad, from the Unforgettable Fire.
I bought that album on LP and listened to it obsessively on my Dad's stereo system and headphones. By the time The Joshua Tree came out, I had my own ancient stereogram to play it on and a cheap electric guitar to play along with it. 
Within a few months I was in my first band. Although, funnily enough, we never played any U2 covers and even to this date, I cant recall ever playing a U2 song in a band. 

And though we've parted company some 20 years ago,  those 4 kids from a Dublin high school are still the inspiration for who I am today.

And for that, I am eternally grateful.

For the free album on iTunes, not so much.