This blog post has been a few weeks in the making – back-to-school this year was an exciting yet exhausting experience. Whether you are a few weeks into your school year or a few months, hopefully this post will provide you with simple ways to empower 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 you must wait until X, Y, and Z have been accomplished first. While sometimes there is validity to this thought, there are still things you can do at the beginning of the year to empower your music students!
For me, 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 program. This is wonderful and stressful all at the same time. However, one thing I believed from the start is that I wanted students to feel ownership of their band program and ownership of their learning. Being on a block schedule for the first time for both myself and the students, having several non-playing activities to scatter throughout the first week was also beneficial. 83-minutes of playing can be a challenge right away for middle school students!
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 need to feel safe and welcome in their new band room, and to feel as though it truly is their band room! To make this happen, we started with multiple team-building exercises. Students worked with in their section to create section handshakes, get to know each other, and even solve an escape room! It was important to me that students saw themselves as valued members of their new band team. Students cannot take ownership of something they do not feel they are a part of.
Next, students worked to set the expectations for the ensemble. Each student wrote 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. They 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 this 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 had a say in the final product.
Student leaders assisted with learning podium procedures. First I taught students to be silent when the conductor stepped on the podium, and raise their instruments when the conductor raises her baton. Then they practiced the skill using student leaders. This gave the ensemble extra time and extra opportunities to practice, and using a student leader put ownership on the ensemble members.
Since this is a brand new school, every aspect of the band program is a blank slate. I am learning about the band programs students came from so they can feel some 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 for our band program. Interested students had one week to work on their designs outside of school, either hand drawing the logos or design them digitally. Once all designs were collected, the students voted on the favorite design. We will use the logo on concert programs, posters, flyers, and anything else we can think of. The students even suggested stickers, magnets, and T-shirts! In the end, anyone who submits a design for the logo contest will get to see their work in print somewhere throughout the year. Another example of showcasing student voice.
Students are completing learner profiles, to help me get to know them better as musicians. It will also encourage 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 getting to know this information about my students, I hope I can help them grow as musicians.
I struggled when completing the grading expectations for my band classes. My goal isn’t for every student to play a concert B-flat scale at a specific tempo. My goal is for students to grow. For students to all move from their own point A to their most appropriate point B. It will not look the same for every student. By giving students a voice to share their learning preferences and goals, hopefully we can make this happen.
This school year will be a new experience for all of us. While I know there will be growing pains along the way, empowering students from the start will make this a place we all want to be! I am excited to learn and grow along with the students!