Playing in Tune, We Must

The thoughtful teacher who ponders the following image by Robert Harrell will be able to get a more complete response in her class. More will happen. The business of how we interact with our “voices/instruments” in our classroom is of huge importance to our success as the (choir) directors of our classes:

Yesterday morning I was having difficulty getting 100% engagement with one of my classes, so I kept repeating the question. The ones who were participating kept getting louder (which to a point was a good thing), but the rest remained silent. Finally, I stopped and told them that I needed them to get louder like an organ rather than like a piano. (I told them in German because they already know those words.) They understood what I said but didn’t understand what I meant, so I explained:

A piano gets louder by pushing the keys down with increasing force. The quality of sound doesn’t really change, it just gets louder with greater force. An organ gets louder by adding voices. I can hold a key down and then start pulling out stops. Each time I pull out a new stop, the sound changes in both volume and quality. The organ plays at its loudest when I have pulled out all of the stops and all of the voices are sounding. (Yes, that’s where we get our phrase “pull out al the stops”, btw.) I am looking for all of my students to have a voice in the response, so I want my class to be loud like an organ, not like a piano. They got it, and the ones who hadn’t been participating began to do so.

As I thought about this later, I came up with the idea of making this a metaphor or analogy. First, the idea of getting louder like an organ remains valid. Beyond that, though, an organ does not have voices that are all the same or even in the same family. There are flutes, strings, reeds and solo stops, perhaps even specialty stops like harp and carillon. Each one has its place in the register of the instrument, and each student’s voice has its place in the classroom. Just as I would not want to play every piece of music with the same registration – or even use the same registration throughout the same piece – I don’t want the same amount of response from the class at all times. So here are some ideas (subject to revision):
Full Organ = total class response; this is for the times that I want students to reinforce each other and help each other comprehend and show that comprehension
Flutes = the quieter students; just as the flutes are the quietest family on the organ but still need to be heard, I need to be certain that my quiet students are heard and recognized
Strings = the mellow, go with the flow students; strings are the “foundation chorus” for other voices; together they can overpower other voices, especially the flutes, but they also provide the solid background that allows other voices/students to shine
Reeds = the “edgy” students; I’m not talking about uncooperative students, but these are the ones who bring a certain edge to the class, and you have to be careful about how and when you use them; sometimes it’s important for them to remain silent so that others can be heard
Solo stops = the superstars; they need their moments, but they also need to get out of the way most of the time; it can’t always be about them
Specialty stops = students with special skills that have very specific notes to add; these often take up a lot more of our time than we would like

If you play a pipe organ, you have to deal with the many things that can go wrong. If your air supply isn’t working properly, there’s no energy for the pipes to sound; some days are like that in class. If there is a tuning problem, you have to fix it. I think this relates to student behavior and attitude. While external factors constantly affect how in tune a pipe is (heat, cold, dampness, etc.), if it is out of tune, you have to either silence it or get it back in tune. A couple of years ago the voix celeste on the organ I play went out of tune; it was horrible. Until we could get it fixed, I had to avoid that stop. Many people didn’t notice, but I was very aware that I could not use that voice, and there were some pieces where I wanted it. My students are the same way: if they are “out of tune” with the class, I need to silence them or re-tune them. If the whole instrument goes out of tune, you have to silence the whole thing until you can get it re-tuned – a process that consists of bringing a few pipes at a time back into play. As laborious as it is on the organ, that is still far easier than re-tuning an entire class. However, for the sake of the player (teacher), instrument (class) and listeners (everyone else), it has to be done.

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15 thoughts on “Playing in Tune, We Must”

  1. My comment is that years and years ago in St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields Episcopal Church in Columbia, SC I was the “edgy” reed. I didn’t pay much attention to my choir director because the tenor I sat next to in our Wednesday nite rehearsals was too funny. I didn’t respect the process. However, my choir director didn’t stop me from bringing this “edge” to the choir and she should have. So what we can learn from this is that we are indeed in charge of what happens in the “music” we create in our classrooms. We get control over it; the “instrument” that our students actually are MUST BE DIRECTED by us. That should strike a chord with some of us, who shy away from the hard work of confronting kids who play out of tune. But what will happen if we allow such behaviors? Our music will not be good. We have to challenge our musicians. We have to.

    1. Sorry, Ben, but you weren’t just an “edgy reed”, you were an out of tune edgy reed, and the director should have re-tuned you. πŸ™‚

      1. I like to think I was an in tune edgy reed. But I wasn’t. I just thought I was. I was out of tune. And yes, our choir director said nothing. And she should have. We must learn from this. We teach children and they don’t know. We must tell them.

  2. Hi Ben,
    Just read where you were at St. Martin’s in the Fields. So was I, as a child, as I attended there from 1969-1979, and my grandparents were founding members! My mom and dad were not able to be very involved, and neither was I, but I did sing in the children’s choir a few times and get confirmed there. Small world, wonder if we were there at the same time! !
    I am sure that you would have been a “star student” in any class you attended, even the choir at St. Martins!
    God bless and thank you for this blog,
    Michel Baker

  3. Right, I have a solo stop that seems to think that most of the other students just don’t participate. She gets very frustrated when I don’t accept her response as the lead for the class. I’m afraid I’ve made the mistake of giving her room to take the lead in the past, and now when I try to pull her back, those students that have followed her also pull back. I’ve created this dynamic, or, at least allowed this dynamic to grow in my class. I should have made sure at the beginning of the year that all students have some experience with giving a response that guides the story so that they don’t feel like their role is always going to be the follower or leader role.

  4. …I should have made sure at the beginning of the year….

    Probably not possible. We naturally gravitate to any support we can get in the early months. Over the kids have learned well their roles in school and these kids have just played out the ugliness of Rule 1 of The Modern American Classroom: Some people speak and the others listen.

    What to do now? Be frank. Get that group aside and tell them what has happened. Tell a lie that your employers are concerned that the slower processors are not involved and can they help you with that at all? Of course, since you are your own employer, really, it wouldn’t be a lie. Somehow get them to think of the others in the room. Then have another side conversation with some of the slower ones and tell them what is happening and how you need their help.

    Then, having privately sought out both parties for help, teach that way, and, slowly, balance may be able to come in even now. I know what you mean. This happens to all of us I would bet but this is the first time it’s been described in clear terms. What I do personally is make sure that I go slowly enough and I keep returning to the slower processors, a constant checking in with them that has not been easy but who wants a split class, all the while making clear to my faster ones that I appreciate their patience. This is a conscious effort I make born of years of having split classes when I first started teaching this way.

    Now, if the slower ones won’t go with you, you must leave them. Some are so beat down by the lie that they have absorbed that they are slower learners that they won’t be able to respond to your request. (They have been made to think that they are stupid by a very subtle and dark dynamic over decades if not centuries in education.) You have to let them go and let their stone faces crack later in other classes or when they are adults.

    The thing is to convince the fast processors in no uncertain terms that they are learning wonderful amounts of language when they get all those reps that they wouldn’t have gotten had you ridden your pony too fast through the classroom.

    I suppose you could do this publicly as a class, discuss the whole thing with them. I’m not sure it would be the best way, however. Kids are so competitive that the idea of replacing the classroom dynamic with a sense of cooperation might be too much for them.

    1. This hits at problems I’m having with my 6th graders. Small group! 4 or 5 are doing well; the other 3 or 4 are really slow processors. Mainly 2 of them – one is regularly telling me if he doesn’t understand, and he’s trying; the other one not so much. It’s a class of 6 boys and 2 girls which adds to the dynamic.

      I do have the need to convince one of those girls (or, perhaps just her mother!) that the slow & reps are good for her. But I also am a bit concerned that I am over-accommodating the (especially) low 2. Out of this small group, 4 boys are chatty, disruptive, and distracted as a natural starting point. It takes tremendous amount of energy and constant guidance over them to maintain the direction of the class — to the point that I am distracted from how I’m circling, or interesting details, or asking higher-level questions of the quicker students. It’s frustrating!

      Today I’m starting with the jGR grade for yesterday. They don’t get it yet how bad they are messing up class. (I don’t mean the need for slow, I mean the talking in English or off-task, and loss of focused listening.) I give them a brain break mid-class which is critical for them. I also have this class right after lunch. Ugh!

      1. Competition vs cooperation and all… I can do a better job at “fishing for answers”. And I can do a better job at talking with individual kids about how fishing for answer is important for everyone.

        Many students don’t care about being competitive. And when you see the interest in their eyes (as you often refer to, Ben… seeing the sparkle of understanding and curiosity happening in their eyes) it is such a beautiful thing. I think it’s important, no matter how much of a fight you have to put in, to calm those competitive students down so they may breath in what is really happening around them; the building of community.

        Diane, it’s interesting how inhibiting it can be having a small class. I kinda think that 15 kids is something like a perfect size. The smaller the class, the more intimate the class. The more intimate the class, the more you have to be like their parent and discipline them. Yet, your hands are tied behind your back as to how much you can discipline them since your a teacher in a school and all, and not their parent at the home.

        1. It is more like a family dynamic for sure. That class was sobered and for 2/3 of the time, much, much improved yesterday after receiving their jGR grades. We talked about how important what they do in class is (b/c in this school, it’s often believed that quiz grades are the only thing that matters) and therefore how much of their grade comes from their use of the language during class. I openly praised them for their big improvement and noted how much we got to do as a result. We did some fun TPR with action verbs that I would NOT have done if I sensed no cooperation.

          1. These small classes are definitely different. I have two of them and three larger classes. They are young 6th graders, and the whole vibe of the class is different, more intimate as Sean said, more relaxed. We do things more spontaneously. They both are very quirky groups with serious eccentricities. I love them! Maybe they are more like a jug band than an organ.
            I never even think about jGR, even though some behaviors need some redirecting pretty often. I just take their quirkiness in stride, and actually enjoy it.

            Just the other day, I thought that maybe I should think a bit more about “training” them to be good little TPRS/CI students. After all they will be 7th graders next year and maybe configured into one larger class with other kids as well. But then I think that what is the most important thing is that we are just all there grooving on the language and the silly stories and the repetitions that never seem to be enough, with some of them forgetting half of everything, at least, and others creating their own simple but perfect sentences from all they remember. And we’re happy. I want them to love French. That’s my goal.
            I guess I’ll need to make sure that my relaxed attitude in those classes doesn’t allow any of the quirkiness to get in the way of anyone’s acquisition. That might sneak up on me. Gotta find a balance.

          2. Yep, my other small class is much more like yours! But they work hard, too – highly motivated. They are really, really fun. It seems that my 5th grade class is likely to become like them. I’m blessed.

          3. …we did some fun TPR with action verbs that I would NOT have done if I sensed no cooperation….

            I’m glad you said this. TPR must be fun. They are only going to remember the verb if it is fun. Too often, TPR becomes some kind of academic exercise. Not fun. And they won’t remember the verb. It’s got to be fun and real physical.

            ….we talked about how important what they do in class is….

            Often, in class, if I see a kid drifting, I say, rather abruptly, “You’re being graded right now.” Then I point to the jGR poster. It works.

  5. In Irish pub sessions, half the skill is knowing the tunes, and the other half is knowing how (and how not) to play along, when to drop in and out, etc. One person out of time/tune etc messes up the flow. Class like that too: I have to build an organic way for all to fit in and it evolves diffeently each year, but in each year the “harmonic rules” remain: no social talking, phones, or English.

    This year I have these two soccer player girls, best friends, fast processors. They are my “we” girls: PQA is addressed to them in the “you guys” form and they always answer in the “we” form. That’s my “we” horn section πŸ˜‰

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