In at the deep end: sink or swim? #MFLearn19

I have so many thoughts on student choice, student voice and (insert dramatic music) ‘group work!‘ that I’ve gathered through 17 years of teaching in an array of different environments ranging from the ‘very, very challenging’ to the ‘pinch me is this really teaching?’ that it’s hard to know where to begin. But begin I shall.

I’m going to say it out loud, the biggest hurdle to embracing informal learning as a teacher is the fear of  losing control and being faced with a class ‘mucking around’ (and let’s face it, in music that mucking around can be louder than any other subject area) just when senior management are on a walk round to ensure that behaviour expectations are being met across the school (facepalm). We all know, because we’ve been there, that any teacher starting out on their chosen career path has to work their butt off to learn how to manage and inspire class after class of unique individuals whilst ensuring that they learn something along the way. I thank Sue Cowley and her  ‘Getting the Buggers to Behave’ for continually providing food for thought during my teaching career (Tip No.100: Even in your worst lesson, nobody died). It therefore seems like a leap of faith to relinquish your hard won control and sense of order to explore something more ‘chaotic’.

When it comes to Musical Futures informal ‘In at the deep end’ approach to learning you’re not just going to meet a class for the first time and declare ‘hey guys, grab some instruments, find your friends and go play any piece of music you like in any space you can find!’. You’re going to dig some skill foundations into your curriculum, lay some lovely strong ground work in terms of using space and equipment and scaffold some learning experiences whilst getting to really know your students before letting rip. You’ll also think about building collaboration skills.

Collaboration is inherent in the Arts. I like the fact that Tom Sherrington says ‘in the Arts it’s not a question of whether to do group work but how much freedom to give groups’. This leads me into my thinking about students choosing their own groups, a key facet of Lucy Green’s research and which Anna Marragudi uses as the starting point for her own phd research which she’s shared with us this week . My own quest to be an expert group work facilitator is a continual work in progress as I move schools around the globe and find myself in very different teaching and cultural environments. I believe strongly in students having a voice (Tip No.80: You can’t build trust without handing over responsibility) and outlined below is my own approach to letting them have one (spoiler alert, it’s not new or ground breaking).

For me, preparation for informal learning will always begin with whole class teacher led workshopping, questioning, explaining, and modelling. I get to know my students, they get to know me and expectations for learning and handling of equipment are firmly established. As my old university tutor John Finney says, if students are to participate then the rules of the game need to be understood by everyone.

When the students first head into group work they do so with a short, very specific performance/composition task with clearly demarcated roles (Tip No.91: Targets and deadlines are a wonderful way to focus the mind). I’ll use random grouping, such as numbering off and then putting like numbers together, and then observe how students interact with the group they have ended up in. How is the conversation flowing? Who’s taking charge? Who’s sitting back? Which instruments have people gravitated towards? Who’s happy in the group? Who is overwhelmed? Who’s trying to throw in some sticks of dynamite to burst the work asunder? At the end of the group work session I have students reflect (have their say) on how this grouping panned about: How did you feel? Was your voice heard in the group? What was surprising? Ok, this group was ‘disastrous’ but what can we do differently?

There will usually be 4 or 5 students in a group. In my experience, this is usually what practice spaces and equipment allows in music departments. More than 5 in a group and that is when I notice the free riding/Ringelmann effect/Hagan’s cogs and logs kicking in.

In the next phase of group working students choose a friend and then I’ll match one friendship pair with another using all the knowledge I gained from observing previously. What skills do these students have to share with one another? (Tip No.89: Harness the power of positive peer pressure. Help children learn to support each other). There will now be more room for creativity in the task with a freer choice of instruments and possibly their own choice of music (depending on the unit) so I can see which direction the students want to head in with my starting points. I’ll observe the groups working and ask myself “do I need to carry out more direct instruction or have the students ‘got it’?

In the final phase of group working, with plenty of skills and a deeper understanding of who is who in their music class, students can now choose whoever they want to work with to complete the summative task. The group can be as small as a pair but no bigger than 5. Generally students seem to have a good idea about who they feel comfortable with and the process is smooth. However, if I have some exclusion problems I’ll intervene swiftly to find an acceptable solution to all parties.

Helping students to collaborate and work in groups can be exhilarating as you watch things come together, see the students take pride in their work and with any luck observe a creative direction you hadn’t quite foreseen. But there’s no denying that it’s b**** exhausting! Setting the spaces, sorting the equipment, rotating around the practice rooms, helping to mediate ‘artistic differences’ before the s*** hits the fan, being the ever seeing eye and confirming the belief in your students that yes, you do indeed have eyes in the back of your head and they can see through walls! It’s much, much harder than teaching one circle of students in one room who all have their eyes on you. But the final thought I finish with is that research tells us that the most valuable skills in the workplace (now and in the future) are communication, collaboration, self management, creative and critical thinking. All of that you’ll find in my Music classroom, day in and day out. No need to thank me, it’s my pleasure (most of the time).

‘Hip Hop Hippie’: The opportunities and challenges hip hop presents in the Music Classroom. #MFLearn19

I am one of those teachers who has embraced hip hop in the classroom and was therefore super excited to engage with Ethan Hein’s presentation as part of #MFLearn19. I’m definitely not a native to the music. Whereas Hein at least grew up in Brooklyn alongside the birth of hip hop music, I stand before my students a white, classically trained musician from the north of England. Many a student has shaken their head despairingly at my attempts to ‘spit some rhymes’ and at my jokes about there being nothing quite so ‘gangsta’ as virtuosic recorder playing. But I grew up watching ‘Top of the Pops’ every week on the BBC and listening to the Top 40 countdown religiously each Sunday which presented me with a real diversity of listening material. Run DMC, Salt and Peppa, The Beastie Boys, Busta Rhymes and Nas were all featured. At the school disco we knew the words to Will Smith’s ‘Parents Just Don’t Understand’, ‘Ice Ice Baby’, MC Hammer’s ‘U Can’t Touch This’ and House of Pain’s ‘Jump Around’. I also listened to Classic FM, created dance routines to my parent’s Abba records and the first cassette I bought with my own money was Guns and Roses ‘Use Your Illusion’ so I guess I’ve always been eclectic in my tastes.

I was fortunate to come across teachers unafraid to use hip hop early on in my music teaching career. It was in 2001 during teacher training in the Cambridgeshire countryside that one of my mentors used ‘Rapper’s Delight’ by the Sugar Hill gang in her Y9 music class. She’d also created a little booklet of graffiti art and we watched a Newsround program on breakdancing. There was no music technology suite in the school (definitely no garageband) for us to compose with, just all the beats you’d find programmed into a casio keyboard and the ‘About Me’ poems the students had written in English class. We added chord patterns and other sound effects we could find on the keyboard. Hein says in his video that ‘100% of kids can rap’. They can. It was fun.

During my first teaching gig in West London we had an old set of computers running Cubase. There we were using Coolio’s ‘C U When u Get There’, with its Pachelbel ground bass as the starting point for composition. I asked students to write and rap their own original verse about life in West London. We talked about school appropriate language and I laid down the ground rules. I have no doubt there were more colourful versions performed outside of school (or behind my back in the practice rooms) but the ones they delivered in class were clean(ish) and rapped way better than I could. It was the kids here who introduced me to The Streets and Dizzie Rascal. Hein has a slide in his phd presentation that talks about Hip Hop’s ‘scavenger ethos’. In this school we also used Punjabi MC’s ‘Mudian to Bach Ke’ with its sampled bassline from 80s television show ‘Knight Rider’ (also sampled by Busta Rhymes in ‘Fire it Up’) as a starting point for composition. The tabla and dhol teacher bought his kit in to drum live for us in class whilst we experimented with rap vocals. It was fun.

In Mozambique I had a group of students who wanted to set up an after school group called ‘Word Art’ where kids could come together and write original verse (in a wide range of languages) to rap over whatever backing we could muster from our haphazard collection of instruments. Hein talks in the video about hip hop being created via trial and error. I had an apple mac at home with an early version of garageband so I’d throw some samples together, download the tracks to my ipod and play them for the kids during the session (they were pretty brutal with their feedback). The rap group joined a rock band and my 40 strong cast of STOMPers to provide the soundtrack to our production of ‘Romeo and Juliet’. It was fun.

On my return to London I was thrilled to discover that the rapper Akala had established The Hip Hop Shakespeare Company. Hip Hop dance was also huge with shows like ‘Into The Hoods’ drawing sellout audiences. In my school here (an all boys state school) I was really focussed on having the boys use their voices (all that community singing I’d experienced living in Africa where singing was just part and parcel of everyday life). Rap was an obvious way in and then we all went a bit beatbox (and body percussive) mad. This guy was our starting point and then the students would throw in samples from any song they knew the melody to. Hein in his video talks about ‘keeping it fresh’. I did and it was fun.

My stint in The Netherlands and my foray into the world of baby and toddler music, although heavy in the sheer joy of how tiny people interact with music, were light in terms of hip hop references. So I shall skip forward to the present day in Bangkok where @alisonmusicblog and I have been working Hip Hop with Y9. Here’s an insight. In a nutshell, the kids explore how hip hop emerged, discuss concerns that this culture can raise, sample music they choose themselves and write original rap lyrics about what’s it like to be a teenager in Bangkok (thank you Ethan Hein for the term ‘ speak your own reality’). One of my girl duos took to the stage on International Women’s Day with their original take on girlhood with samples taken from Billie Ellish (Bury a Friend), BTS (DNA) and Black Eyed Peas (Where is the love). ‘Hip Hop Evolution’ on Netflix is brilliant as is ‘The Get Down’. Personally I’m hugely influenced by the work of Kate Tempest . I’m still having fun.

“My whole thing is to inspire, to better people, to better myself forever in this thing we call rap, this thing we call hip hop” Kendrick Lemar.

A drum roll please for my first blog……

EARCOS 2019. Getting Ready to ‘Play the Dance and Move the Rhythm’ with Kofi Gbolonyo.

Blogging is an idea I’ve toyed with on and off for a long while. In fact, my husband reminded me that in those pre-Facebook and pre Twitter days he set up a blog during our first overseas posting to Mozambique. My contribution to the  blog was to share the text from my email diary, the fortnightly messages in which I’d regale family and friends with the trials and tribulations of a 20 something Brit adapting to life in sub saharan Africa, trying to master Portuguese whilst building a secondary school music department from scratch in a country where supplies were very limited and power cuts part and parcel of everyday life. My husband would then add photos and write sensible dialogue about big important issues. Alas, that blog ended as we left Maputo and is now deeply buried in the websphere never to be found again.

Fast forward 4 house moves, 3 countries, 2 kids and 2 more languages and here I am in 2019 trying to get to grips with WordPress so I can share some thoughts about my 17 years of teaching and learning in the world of music education and most importantly, learn from others as passionate as me about making music accessible for everyone. I was launched into the world of classroom music teaching by the legendary John Finney at Cambridge University and still draw plenty of inspiration from his wise and thought provoking blog posts. I’ve taken a Musical Futures approach to teaching and learning from before I even realised it had a name and that others were on this path too (the going was tough in my first London Secondary School and I needed to think outside the box if I was going to survive). #MFLearn19? Let’s do this!