Week 2 Reflection

I managed to finish the second week of the school year, which because of the way that my Middle School Jazz Band is scheduled, is really the first week of what will be my normal schedule the rest of the year. I’ll admit that it already feels a bit hectic, but I’m sure once the kids and I are more used to the routine things will start to calm down.

Things that went well

Overall, this week has been a pretty strong one. Most of my classes are going pretty smoothly to start, and the kids are having a lot of fun (and also seem to be learning something). If I had to pick the thing I’m most excited about from this week, though, it would be the strategy I chose to give sight reading tests in my IB Music Class.

Though sight singing isn’t explicitly assessed in IB Music the way it is in AP Music Theory, I still think it’s an essential skill for students in that class–not to mention for musicians in general. As a result, every year I’ve taught the course I’ve given the kids regular sight singing practice and assessments.

Because IB Music is a 2-year course and I’ve got a mix of second year and first year students, the skills spread in that class is pretty wide. There are some who’ve already been taking the course for a year, there are some who are completely new to it. If that weren’t enough diversity in my group of learners, there’s also an enormous spread in terms of how experienced students are at sight reading: there are a few classically trained pianists on the one hand, but also a rock guitarist and a student whose only musical training is in the Indian Classical style. So when it comes to the specific skill of sight reading, my students are really all over the map.

My normal strategy to approach a group of students like this would be to do one of two things: either start everyone at the most basic and try to move quickly (practicing basic skills is good no matter how advanced you are!), or try to find something that’s adequately challenging for everybody. Because the skills spread this year is so wide, though, I didn’t think either of these approaches would work. So I chose a third way.

At the start of class on Wednesday, I passed out the sight singing books we use (Ottman’s Music for Sight Singing) and told the students they were going to be tested. Their instructions were to start at the beginning of the book (the exercises are all skill-graded somewhat) and find the first exercise that they’re likely to fail at.

I then gave them two minutes to practice and at that point started going around the room, having each student perform their chosen exercise. When they failed–which almost everyone did on the first try–I then said something along the lines of “All right! Good job! You failed.” Then we worked together as a class to perform whatever exercise the students had chosen.

Though this was initially a strategy for differentiation–you know, letting every kid find something that was in their personal zone of challenge–it wound up having some really beneficial side effects.

The first was that every kid ended up doing something harder than I think they otherwise would have done. In ten years of teaching sight singing out of Ottman books, I’ve never really gotten past chapter 10 or so. Some of the more advanced students in the class were choosing to sight sing exercises out of chapter 17 or later.

The second positive side effect–and this is the one I’m most excited about–is the way it seemed to completely shift my students’ relationship to failure. Since failure was the goal, not an undesirable outcome, everybody worked harder to master the most difficult material they could, and even the least-experienced students in the class felt no shame in their lack of skill. Since everyone was failing at something, there was no reason to be embarrassed about not being successful.

Eventually, by the end of the class, every student had successfully completed at least one exercise–even the ones who had never done any sight singing before.

Future Concerns

Looking back on the week, I can’t say there’s anything that went particularly badly–in most of my classes, we’re still in the introductory phase in which I’m assessing the students’ skills and prior knowledge of the subject. But there are a few things I’m going to have to keep an eye on in the future.

First is the schedule. I’m extremely grateful this year that my school has scheduled me with no first period classes–this means that I can drop off my son at school every morning before coming in. That’s really, really great, but the cost of it is that I’m generally not done with my teaching day until around 5:15, and I haven’t really got a lot of prep time built in to my schedule. This means I’m going to have make sure that what prep time I do have I use extremely well. I’ve never been terrific at using my prep time extremely well, so we’ll see how that goes.

Second is my beginner Jazz Band. This year I traded one period of prep time so that I could split that group into three sectionals that each meet once a week. I’ve got my horn sectional on Mondays, keyboardists on Wednesdays, and then drummers and guitarists on Fridays. So far, I’m extremely encouraged by this arrangement–but I will have to look out for the combination of skills spread and different instruments in my Friday group. Of the eight kids (or so) in that group, most of them have some prior experience on their instruments–but there are also two pretty complete beginners. Combine that with the fact that there are two very, very different instruments present, and I think I’m going to have my hands full with that class.

Random Thoughts

This year, I traded teaching an Advisory for doing after school private lessons with individual students. So far, this seems to have been a really, really good decision. I’ll miss the relationships I’d formed with my advisees, but spending an extra three to four hours giving private lessons to my beginners is going to make my life a lot easier in the long run. I can already tell.

Most of my classes this year are smaller than usual. On the one hand, this is a bit of a bummer because it means less music is happening at the school. But on the other, the quality of music is going to be much, much higher. I can already tell just from the first week or so of rehearsals in the middle school bands that things are going to sound better than they probably ever have in my career there. But we’ll see.


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