What’s going on in my classroom right now

One of the problems with music teaching is that we so often work in very small departments that we rarely see other music teachers teach. So we plough on, reinventing our wheels on a weekly basis.

In the spirit of glasnost I just thought I’d share what I’m doing in my classroom right now, in case you’re interested, or just plain nosey. Nothing here is remotely my own idea, but I’ve magpied stuff from all over (there’s nothing I like more than stealing a good idea).

Musical Futures Just Play

Yes, yes, yes! Get some of this. Head on over to the MF website and have a look at the sample resources if you haven’t come across it before (you can create a free account so you can access everything on the website). Basically what it’s about is getting students playing chords on keyboards, ukuleles and guitars, and beginning to play bass guitar too, by just doing it. Along the way students learn about chords, bass notes, major and minor, rhythm notation and reading chord boxes, all by showing/doing rather than talking about it. It’s the ultimate musical music lesson. There are special cards you can print and laminate to help students play major and minor chords with any root note. To access all of the resources you’ll need to go on a MF training course, but if you can squeeze some training money out of your school it’ll be the best thing you go to this year.

Chair drumming

This is an offshoot of Just Play. Each student has a pair of drumsticks. They stand in front of a standard plastic classroom chair and practise all the rhythm skills and coordination they need for playing a real kit. Along the way it’s all about beats of the bar, layers of sound and drumming along to some classic rock tracks (which need to be turned up really loud to be heard over the chair drumming). Some of the best times you can have in a classroom. If you buy drumsticks in bulk they work out really reasonable. There is nothing not to like about this. Unless you have a headache.

Iconic rhythm notation

I had not come across this term before (perhaps it’s an American thing), but it’s part of a goldmine of resources I discovered on the Little Kids Rock website. All it is is rhythms represented using numbers, like this:

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So with this one, you would clap/drum/click/jump/whatever on the first beat of the bar. You quickly get to syncopated rhythms:

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It’s also easy to set up multi-part polyrhythms, just by having several on the board at once. There is enough stuff on the LKR website to keep you going for years.

Learning riff-based pieces by ear

Hear, Listen, Play! by Lucy Green is one of the books I wish I’d written. Why didn’t I think of creating riff-based pieces, with individual audio tracks (all easily differentiatable, if that’s a real word – it is now), to get students working simple stuff out by ear! Once I’d got over an overwhelming feeling of DOH! That’s so obvious! it is blindingly brilliant. The book includes all the audio. You have to order it from OUP in America, slightly weirdly, but it’s well worth the expense (and the wait for it to arrive). There are some classical pieces in there as well, which I’m going to use with GCSE classes.

Video help desks

There are so many great tutorial videos on YouTube, so I thought I’d make my own for the pieces we’re doing in class. I use Explain Everything on my iPad to combine video footage (made on my phone or iPad) with notation. Here’s an example:

I use this for the initial modelling of whatever we’re playing, but then make it available via two iPads for students to have in front of them while they practise, should they need this (they often do).

I’ve also found the Acapella iPad app is great for creating visual playalong vids: here’s the one for all parts of Toca Bonito:

Body Percussion

Since going to a fantastic CPD session led by Ollie from Beat Goes On,  we have been body-percussion-tastic in many of our lessons. Co-ordination, imagination, ensemble awareness, improvisation, it’s all there. No resources required, no expenditure – again, there is absolutely nothing not to like!

Top purchase – a plectrum cutter

One of the best fifteen quids I’ve ever spent has been a plectrum cutter. Credit/gift cards and sturdy bottles recycled into guitar picks, plastic milk bottles into softer picks for ukuleles. Doesn’t matter if they get lost. Also quite therapeutic!

Knowledge organisers

This is a KS4/5 thing. There are some things they just have to learn – factual stuff, terminology – and rather than waste time on any ‘discovery learning’ type activities (sorry, there just isn’t time) – I present this to my students in the form of a knowledge organiser. There is a great blog describing exactly how they work here. Here is a knowledge organiser I’ve just made for OCR GCSE (‘old’ spec) for the tango topic:

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This forms the basis for explanations, listening questions, read/cover/write learning activities, frequent low-stakes testing (just give them the organiser with half the boxes blank as a quick test). Memory is the residue of thought, as someone once said, so thinking about this stuff, often, is what is going to make it stick. Once it’s there, you can hone exam technique and aural recognition of musical features.

Shitistics and progress in music

I have been very heartened by the enthusiasm for the concept of shitistics. Shitistics fans, you will not be disappointed for long – I will return to this in my next post.

Assessment, reporting and shitistics

Hmmm. This topic slooshes in and out of my consciousness on a regular basis, and I have been prompted to write a post on it today by some questions from my venerable friend John Kelleher and re-reading of this blog post by the colossus that is Dr Fautley. Plus a few people asking me how I get from what gets put on my radar diagrams (described here and here) to the what gets put into SIMS for reports/reviews.

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Martin very usefully separates out for us various ways that are/can be used to mark students’ work. When I fill in my radar diagrams (see above – the different coloured blobs are done on different days) I have come to the conclusion that my decisions are mostly comparative, based on what I have seen and heard from the students in all my classes. It’s sort of holistic, based on my guild knowledge of music and experience as a musician – ‘trust me, I’m a musician – I know quality when I see it’ – that might sound like bull but there’s something in it, I think. But then again it’s not at all holistic because I’m doing this in twelve different categories.

Aside from all of that, though, and this is where Martin identifies a problem, is how we get from this rather (in my opinion) beautifully-crafted mark out of 60 to something that my school – the ‘system’ – requires me to enter onto a spreadsheet. This is where shitistics come in.

My school – sadly, but hopefully not for much longer – has gone down the ‘let’s give everything a 9-1 grade’ route. So every student has a 9-1 grade as a benchmark for GCSE, and also for the end of each year. So mark out of 60 has to become a 9-1 fine grade. In this process of translation pretty much all idea of validity is lost, Chinese whispers style. Ask me for a number and I’ll give you one (a number that is). And I’ll make damned sure, by the power of shitistics, that it is the kind of number that you want. That is, one that shows progress from the last time you asked.

So, I’ll look at the kids’ results and set some grade boundaries so at least, for what it’s worth, there is consistency between teachers and from student to student. I’m not actually pulling a number completely out of thin air. But I’ll make sure that, for the majority of students, the number is what the ‘system’ wants. I’ll see what the average mark out of 60 is, have a look to see what the average current grade is ‘supposed’ to be, and work from there. At its best, it is a very blunt tool that might tell you who has done well and not-so-well this term. But not about why. If someone has done badly, it might be because they’re lazy, because I’m a crap teacher, or because they’ve missed 10 lessons this term for whatever reason. If only I had the opportunity just to say, they got 18/60 this term, but they were only in 2 of the lessons so that’s actually pretty good…

The other problem with translating marks into grades for reporting is that the grades themselves need explaining. ‘Dad, I got a 3a in music!’ ‘Oh, is that good?’ Surely ‘Dad, I got 56/60 this term in music’ is much easier all round?

Cut the shitistics, give ’em raw data.

 

 

So many ways of thinking about music

I can’t think of any other subject where there is so much variation in the way that people think about it.

This video from Adam Neely, my current favourite musical YouTuber, has formalised something that I’ve been thinking about for a while.

A little while ago I said, during the course of a lesson with my Year 12s, ‘think of a G major chord’. Many of them had a physical reaction to this instruction. Some played piano on the table, one made a guitar chord shape on his ruler, and one shut his eyes and played an imaginary saxophone.

A couple of years ago I began playing in a covers band. There are eight of us in the band: two with music degrees, one ex-Junior Academy student, and the other five the products of informal learning. Sometimes we tie ourselves in knots over what we’re playing. I say ‘it’s on the fourth beat of the bar!’ or ‘no, that’s not a pause – it’s just a longer note’ and get blank responses. The way that I’m thinking about the music just doesn’t always tie in with the way my bandmates are thinking.

The knowledge and experience that we have gives us ways of creating mental constructs that allow us to make sense of the world around us. This is – of course – as true in music as in any other area. But there are just so many different ways of thinking about music. Some musicians think harmonically, others melodically, others predominantly rhythmically. Some (or maybe a lot) of your musical thinking won’t involve words.

Is this why it’s so bloody hard to teach? But so brilliant?

 

 

What is KS3 music homework for, exactly?

I have never quite made up my mind about homework.

Sometimes I think it is entirely pointless, and having seen the unnecessary strain it can put on family life, think that children would be best left alone in their non-school hours to fill their time as they wish. What is a certain truth is that homework for the sake of homework is a criminal waste of time.

So, what is homework for? Especially in music, when the majority of what we’re doing in class is (hopefully) practical. We can’t expect students to practise what they’ve done in class at home, as we can’t assume that they have the necessary instruments, or the opportunity to work together as they might need to.

Homework policies generally state something about homework having to consolidate and extend work in lessons. In music, we do this in a somewhat oblique way: we invent a whole range of tasks that have a range of possible purposes:

  • to fulfil the school’s homework policy (this, in itself, is not a good enough reason to set homework, in my opinion)
  • to keep up with other subjects, especially at a time when music’s place in the curriculum feels threatened
  • to cover some background information that there isn’t time for in lessons
  • to give an opportunity for some written work/give music an ‘academic’ side
  • to keep students in touch with their music work between lessons
  • to make links between what students do in class and their personal musical lives
  • to provide opportunities for students to do prep for lessons, or listen back to and reflect on work in progress

What follows are some rambling thoughts about how my approach to homework has evolved over the last few years, and an explanation of where I am at now.

A journey through formats

What has become very apparent over the last few years is that a good platform for sharing words, music, pictures, and documents online is immensely helpful for everyone concerned in the business of homework.

Our dallyings with Moodle – our school’s choice of VLE platform – were short and unsatisfactory. It was ugly, clunky, and just didn’t do what we wanted it to do. Uploading anything bigger than the smallest mp3 file took about a week, and students couldn’t navigate around it easily. As our SLT promoted it, we spurned it heartlessly and looked elsewhere.

As many forward-looking music departments did at the time, we hit upon NUMU as a safe and free online platform that looked like it would do what we wanted it to do. But, still clunky, and uploading stuff could be fiddly. I never did get the hang of uploading video. Spurned again after a year of enthusiasm.

So, we decided to set up our own WordPress blogs, having seen the great examples of people like Anna Gower and Jackie Schneider, who have got the art of music class blogging down to a very fine art. Being tarts, we all forked out for a dotcom domain name, and misswerrysclasses was born. I could make it look pretty, and organise it exactly how I wanted to. We ran into problems with uploading audio files as space soon ran out. Soundcloud was nice for a bit, and then they took the record button off their app (plus free accounts were limited) so Audioboom was our saviour for uploading audio. It took a bit of effort to get students to leave all but the most basic feedback on their work, but everything like that needs a bit of training…

Now our school has forsaken Moodle (finally) for the green pastures of Office 365. A one-stop shop of multi-media sharing. Woop woop!

There are teething problems, of course. We are still getting Sharepoint to do exactly what we want it to do, and struggle to make it as visually appealing and simple to navigate as we want it to be. But with unlimited storage, we can upload audio to our hearts’ content. Video is more tricky and needs to go via a link to an unlisted YouTube clip – but this is easy enough (I have never really understood the fuss some schools make about YouTube – if kids are not identified by name, surely it’s not a problem? And unlisting videos makes them impossible to find without a link…).

Yammer

Year 7, in particular, have taken to Yammer – 365’s own, institution-based (and wonderfully square) version of Facebook. In Yammer, you can set up groups for your classes, publish homework, establish dialogue about recordings of work in progress, all that. Kids need to be taught how to use it – just saying ‘it’s just like Facebook’ doesn’t really do the trick, especially when it comes to them uploading their own work. But the best times are when they are genuinely chatting about their work, asking for and receiving help from each other. Or, alternatively, casting judgement – this is my favourite example:

did you copy and paste that?

Homework content

I went through a phase of setting really meaty, research-based projects for homework. So, for example, a term-long project on 12-bar blues would have a research project all about the civil rights movement, segregation, and the evolution of musical styles in C20th America.

The most academic students lapped this up, and the work they produced was amazing. For everyone else, though, it was a complete ball-ache, and they hated it. Marking it was laborious, and ultimately I had to make a decision as to whether all that effort was actually worth it. Despite the plus points, the eventual answer was no.

The illusion of choice

One of the most successful aspects of the way I ‘do’ homework now – apart from the reduced time it takes me to mark it – is students’ positive response to the illusion of choice. They pick their tasks from a ‘menu’ of possibilities – all of which are completely acceptable, obviously – which cover a range of things from research-based writing tasks to performing and composing. Here is an example from Year 7:

Year 7 autumn term takeaway homework

The work I have got back has been nearly all excellent, and students love it. (By the way, if you haven’t discovered incredibox.com as an easy way for students to engage with music between lessons, especially texture and structure, try it now!). I have been surprised and thrilled by the performances that they produce when they are recording in privacy. They have been inspired by the possibilities of using the ever-burgeoning number of musical apps to create their own music (MadPad and A Capella are the current favourites). Coming up with the ‘menu’ is infinitely less hassle than constructing a weighty directed research project.

Until I change my mind again, there is nothing not to like about all of this.

You can’t play cajon in a pencil skirt

I was reading John Kelleher’s blog about his relationship with PowerPoint and it made me think about furniture and clothes. Much has been said about tables in music classrooms, and converts (including me) have made claims about the inverse proportion of furniture to the amount of music in a lesson. Just like John draws a parallel between the demise of his PowerPoint fixation and the practical musicking in his lessons. 

A shift to fashion blogging is not about to occur here, but I have noticed a correlation between changes in the way I teach and my school wardrobe. 

 
I used to be a heels-and-pencil-skirt kind of teacher (the general sartorial tone at my school is very suited-and-booted). However, in the last couple of years, the tables have gone, the drum kit is in permanent residence, I have learned the bass guitar and things are just very different in my classroom. The simple fact is that I spend a lot of time sitting on the carpet, or playing the cajon. Neither of which can be done easily in a pencil skirt. 

So, my school wardrobe has changed. Black trousers every day, with my penchant for colour having to pop out in jackets and shoes. The silver brogues and pink DMs above are part of the whole thing. My music teacher friends over at Harris Academy Greenwich have a uniform of performing arts hoody and trousers. What a great idea (although I might still want to wear pink shoes). 

I guess the bottom line is that I would rather be the music teacher with the pink lace-ups and the cajon than the one with the pencil skirt and the PowerPoint. Funny how all these things fit together.