Once a week, I have the privilege of working with my district's most special learners in a self-contained setting. I have LOVED teaching and learning in this environment. Here are a few things I have learned that are REQUIRED:
1) Creativity - there are so many musical activities that are possible with the appropriate modifications. I have to constantly work to challenge my students while offering them the support they need to be successful.
2) Thoughtful planning - each week doesn't require a whole list of new activities. In fact, my students find that quite frustrating. Typically 1-2 brand new songs are okay - the rest of the lesson plan is repetition and extensions on familiar activities. However, the time consuming part of the planning process is to really think carefully about how many different steps are involved in a single activity and to layer those in throughout the year. For example, starting and stopping music making or movement was challenging at first. By building these skills into nearly every activity throughout the school year, many of my students have become successful. The others are still working toward that goal! Also, by breaking down each activity into incremental steps, my students could be successful each week on the step they're on and their teachers and TAs get to celebrate every success with us.
3) Energy and responsivity - both my students and their supportive adults at school all feed on energy and enthusiasm. If I am excited about what we're doing, typically they'll be there with me. But if they aren't, am I really making the right repertoire choice? I've tried to be responsive to all adults who make music lessons possible. Their support has been invaluable.
I had someone ask me about this placement - if what I'm doing is really "Kodaly-inspired". As the end of the year approaches, I would say, most definitely. I could understand the frustration of someone wanting to begin with kindergarten level skills and move forward at the pace of a typically developing student's curriculum. However, I remember Phyllis King telling me several years ago, "You meet your students where they are, and you take them forward from there."
I've taken beat keeping and vocal exploration and wound them back to the appropriate place for each of my students with vastly different abilities and strengths and worked forward with each one of them incrementally and with support. As the school year wraps up, I have to say - I have learned more from my students and their amazing teachers and support staff than they have possibly learned from me. My gratitude for their patience, wisdom and enthusiasm runs deep and wide.
This project was inspired by a fifth grader. Well - a fifth grader, Dr. Jacki Kelly-McHale at DePaul, and "Pete Seeger and the Power of Song" documentary - which I never would have known or cared about if it weren't for my teachers in the North Texas Kodaly training program...
For Black History Month, my students learned and performed spirituals, Civil Rights songs, the Black National Anthem and a jazz tune. We discussed the importance of celebration African American history and heritage and we addressed the facts - that more work needs to be done in our country in order to secure equality for all. Two African American fifth graders wrote and performed this introduction:
STUDENT 1: Welcome to our Brotherhood-Sisterhood Assembly. We will be singing songs celebrating African American heritage and culture.
STUDENT 2: In Fifth Grade, we recently studied the Civil Rights Movement. We learned that the bus boycott, started by Rosa Parks, began the whole Civil Rights Movement. If that would have never happened, we would still be living in a segregated world of darkness.
STUDENT 1: We’re grateful that all the African American children of the world do not have to see African American people right now being hurt and enslaved just because of their color.
STUDENT 2: It’s not what matters about the color but the size of your heart and different cultures you have.
BOTH: On this day we say thank you to all our African American heroes. We know there is more work to be done. We hope this assembly will bring the United States to a new world of friendship, peace and justice.
They wanted to read the last few lines together because that's what they both believe.
In third and fifth grade, we discussed the significance of "We Shall Overcome" - its origins and continued relevance. This NPR broadcast had a huge impact on our discussion.
At the conclusion of our performance preparations I asked my students, "Do you think music has the power to change the world?" A fifth grade student told me, "That's like they're using rap to stop gun violence in Chicago." That stopped me in my tracks - I had to know more, and offer all of my students the opportunity to explore other issues and how music is being used as a tool to make a dent in these issues.
The next class I showed them several videos that demonstrate the point with a diverse array of social issues and had them identify what the social issue was.
"Same Love" - Macklemore & Ryan Lewis: gay rights
"Clouds" - Zach Sobiech: inspire hope and fund raise for children's cancers
"Gonna be an Engineer" by Peggy Seeger: gender equality
"My Dirty Hudson" by Pete Seeger: environmental protection
Then we did a "sharing circle". If you've never heard of them - look them up. If you school talks about implementing them - encourage it LOUDLY. They are the coolest thing and when teachers are practicing them regularly, it is so easy to bring one into the music classroom. The prompt, "What issue do you think our world needs to work on?" A "sharing object" (like a beanbag) is passed around the circle. Students have the option to say "pass" if they aren't ready to share.
Students then found peers to group up with - peers who shared their interest and passion. I encouraged them to work alone, with a partner or a group of up to four. During this session, they each wrote their social issue worked on brainstorming all the different ways music could address this issue.
The next session, I introduced them to Google Slides and Soundation.com. [My district has a Google account for every student so both of these were a breeze to explain. We also have several Chromebook carts - so they've just walked down to their auditorium, Chromebook in hand.]
Then I sent them off to either: find a song that already exists addressing their problem or write a rap or song about the issue. They can also organize a rally or protest and select several songs they want to include and/or select a performer to hire to be at their rally. I told them - they may not be able to pull something like this off now, but someday some of them are going to be CEOs of big companies with a non-profit budget. I want them to dream big and remember their dreams when they're older. If they choose to write a song, they can record it at home and play the recording in class for presentations, or they can perform live. They can create a music video or audio recording.
Next week, they'll "finish" their projects and present whatever they have so far. They can use a Google Slideshow to guide their presentation; they can create a poster. They can also just show what they've worked on and explain its significance without those things.
One student read an excerpt from the internet about fracking and played this video for us. She drew a diagram of fracking on the white board.
One student will be performing an Islamic song he's known since he was "very very small" because "people don't understand Islam and they make fun of us and they think we're crazy." He wants his peers to know more about his religion so they can respect it more.
Another student wrote lyrics to a song in about 15 minutes about her experiences as a young child in the foster care system.
One female student sent me this video that she'll be presenting.
I'm overwhelmed already. Most won't present their projects until next week - I know there will be more magical moments as students speak their truth through music and share with their peers what they care about the most. Lastly, I'll leave you with these lyrics from a rap written by two fifth grade boys. They were sitting on my desk when I got to work yesterday.