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.

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