August 2022: This blog post has gotten a much-needed update! Whether you are about to start the school year or a few weeks in, hopefully it will provide you with simple ways to empower your music students.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of believing that you can only empower music students later in the school year. That students can only take ownership after you’ve provided specific information, they’ve learned specific skills, or have achieved certain milestones. There is some validity to this thought process – students can’t take over a task until they know what it is! But there are things you can do at the beginning of the year to get the ball rolling and establishing this as your “norm” sets the stage for great things throughout the year.
In 2019, I began the year in a brand new school starting a brand new music program. Middle school students came from multiple elementary schools and three different middle schools to make up my new band program. This was both wonderful stressful all at the same time. While we now know how that school year ended, one thing I believed from the start was that I wanted students to feel ownership of their band program and ownership of their learning.
We Are a Team
The first step required students to think of themselves as a team—not as members of their old bands forced together, but members of this great new ensemble. Students needed to feel safe and welcome in their new band room, and to feel as though it truly was their band room! To make this happen, we started with multiple team-building exercises. Students worked within their section to create section handshakes, get to know each other, and even solve an escape room game! It was important to me that students saw themselves as valued members of their new band team. Students cannot take ownership of something they don’t feel they are a part of.
That was 2019. Now, in 2022, I might exchange the section handshakes for a no-contact dance move or chant. Sections could even consider creating a section logo, or mascot! After students establish whatever will bond them as a group, remember to incorporate that at various times throughout the school year. If sections have mascots, could students dress up the mascot for various holidays? Could sections say their chant right before demonstrating a passage of music during rehearsal? Be creative! The sky’s the limit.
As students work in their sections, you can observe and take notes. Who are the natural leaders in each group? Which students are more shy, and not participating as much? Take this opportunity to learn preliminary information about your students.
Another great thing to do at the beginning of the year is to have students work together to set the expectations for the class. In the past, I’ve had students write three expectations they felt were necessary for a successful band. The students then gathered in sections to compare their ideas and come to a consensus on the three most important expectations. Each section created a visual representation, using both words and images, that we displayed around the room for a gallery walk. All students viewed each section’s work before a class discussion to determine the most important expectations that we all agreed to follow that school year.
This exercise gave students the opportunity to share their voices. As individuals, they shared their voices with their sections. As sections, they shared their voices with the entire ensemble. All students contributed to final product.
This can also work in non-ensemble classes. Instead of gathering in sections, students could meet in small groups. For younger students, maybe you have them discuss in groups and then share out to the entire class. Scaffold the activity to fit the needs of your class, but know students will appreciate being part of the process.
Since in 2019 I was working at a brand new school, every aspect of the band program was a blank slate. I learned about the band programs students came from so they could feel small aspects of normalcy, but in reality, each program is unique. To embrace the uniqueness of our program, I gave students the opportunity to design a logo. Interested students had one week to work on their designs outside of school, either hand drawing the logos or designing them digitally. Once all designs were collected, the students voted on the favorite design. We used the logo on concert programs, posters, flyers, and anything else we could think of. I even had stickers printed with the logo on them. In the end, anyone who submitted a design for the logo contest got to see their work in print somewhere – we hung them on bulletin boards and displayed them at the winter concert.
Other Ways To Give Students Ownership
Co-creating the Syllabus
Consider working with students to create the course syllabus, or even just some aspects of it. Ask students what they want to learn and accomplish this year. Allow them to suggest assessments and how they will demonstrate mastery of skills. As the teacher, you obviously have the final say, but it can be eye-opening to get student’s input. You may even consider providing specific categories that students contribute ideas to, or a link to the National Core Music Standards to act as a guide.
During the first few weeks of school, students also completed learner profiles, to help me get to know them better as musicians. This encouraged students to think about how they learn best, prefer to learn, and identify their current strengths and areas needing growth. I asked students questions like, do you prefer to learn new music by hearing it or by looking at the music? Do you prefer to figure out new things alone, with a friend, or with the teacher? Do you enjoy writing your own music? Do you enjoy performing with a group or as a soloist? I also asked students to identify their strengths in music and areas they would like to improve this year. By learning this information about my students, I could help them grow as musicians.
Reflection and Goal Setting
Even if you don’t have student complete learner profiles, encourage them to reflect on where they are as musicians and where they want to go. Have students identify what some of their personal next-steps are, and then look back at this information at least quarterly. Are students making progress? Do they need to re-evaluate and re-adjust their goals? Reflection and goal setting are part of a continuous cycle. We can model this for our students and support them on their own journeys.
If You Only Do One Thing
If you only do one thing at the beginning of the year, build relationships. Build relationships with your students, and give them the opportunity to build relationships with each other. Music making is personal. It requires vulnerability. Students need to feel they are in a safe place. This can only happen when they feel comfortable with the teacher and their classmates. If you listen to the Pass the Baton podcast, this comes up a lot in Episode 27 with Dr. Scott Edgar, The Connection Between SEL and Student Empowerment.
When we ask students to share their voices, make musical decisions, and take ownership of their learning, they must feel comfortable doing so. Start the year showing students that their voices matter, showing them you value them as learners, musicians, and humans. Then you will build the relationships necessary to do this work.