Keeping Students Engaged in Music
By Monica Attell, Teaching PreK-8
I have been a music teacher for eight years. To keep my teaching fresh and exciting, I also need to perform as a musician, actor and dancer each day. Early in my teaching career, I realized that this was important in order to engage students in my lessons. In essence, I started doing some shtick. The kids remembered my shtick so I began incorporating it into some classroom routines. I’ve always loved funny eyeglasses, hats and props, and I was thrilled to have found a way to use them to grab and keep students’ attention. Here are some of my favorite ways of getting kids focused.
Warm it up
Every day for 10 half-hour classes, I begin each session with a game I call the “warm-up.” This is essentially a game of copycat. From the moment the students walk in the door, I give them a ticket. They find their spot in the circle and I walk around and collect their “tickets.” I use the same dialogue each time – “Tickets for the show, please!” Then I walk around to students and blow bubbles in front of them. The kids love the bubbles and it’s a reminder for them to “put on their personal bubble” at the conclusion of the warm-up. I incorporate movement, folk songs, commercial jingles, vocal warm-ups and funny faces into this warm-up that I improvise each time. The students copy me until I sing, “Let’s put on our bubbles, and our listening ears.”
The “personal bubble” is a technique that I use to explain to students that they need to create their own personal space. If someone pops your “personal bubble,” you need to create another one using your imagination. Now I have their attention and I am ready to proceed to the lesson objective.
In my classroom, the word “game” evokes a specific reaction from my students. When I say the word “game,” students are required to show their antennas on top of their heads. This is another way that I can assess that my students are ready to listen. Many of the games that I use in the classroom are from the book The Galaxy of Games for the Music Class by Margaret Athey and Gwen Hotchkiss (Prentice Hall, 1998). I also highly recommend 101 Movement Games for Children: Fun and Learning with Playful Moving by Huberta Wiertsema (Hunter House Publishers, 2001). Through these games, I am able to teach musical concepts such as beat, rhythm, facts about composers and the ability to take creative risks. The class gets so engrossed in the game that they hardly know they are learning about music.
My love for puppetry goes back to my childhood love for the Muppets, Shari Lewis and Mister Rogers. Kids love puppets and using them as a learning tool makes a lesson memorable. For example, when I give directions I will say them once as myself, then I will have Professor Parrot, a puppet, repeat the directions in a funny voice. Often, I will have Professor Parrot repeat the direction incorrectly so that the students can correct him. For older children, you could select a child to be Professor Parrot, or any other character you care to create, and use the puppet to repeat directions.
Creating characters As a music teacher, I use many different methods to achieve the same goal – that students understand the importance and basic elements of music. One of my most effective strategies has been to personify and create living and breathing characters out of musical symbols. For example, when teaching about the staff, notes and clefs, I don’t refer to them as Treble Clef, Bass Clef, Quarter Note and Eighth Note because this language may not be memorable enough. Instead, I call Treble Clef “Mama G” – she’s the mother of all the notes and inside of her belly is the note G. Bass Clef is referred to as “Papa F” – he wears a bow tie that ties around the note F. These two clefs live together with all the notes, their children, in the Grand Staff. By creating characters, students will be more likely to remember key aspects of music theory. Any teacher in any subject can create inventive and funny names for the symbols or strategies used in math, English, science or other areas.
When a class arrives for music, I tell them that they will receive five jokes. I usually tell knock-knocks or riddles at the end of the class, assuming that they behave appropriately. If I have to remind the class to listen, pay attention or to behave appropriately, I take away a joke. This has been a very effective tool in managing my classroom. The students know that the jokes will be different each time and they look forward to this part of class. I highly recommend joke books by Craig Yoe, who writes for www.riddles4kids.com
Personality is as important as good teaching techniques. We all strive to be a teacher who makes an impact on a child’s education. How can we get students excited about the subject we are teaching, if we don’t show excitement about teaching that subject? There’s an actor in all of us and the classroom is a perfect forum to use our personality as a teaching tool. I have encountered many special colleagues during my eight years of teaching, including a history professor who composed songs with his students to help them remember special events and facts, and my own elementary school band director who composed songs for our band based on topics we loved such as computers, sports and toys. These are just two teachers I’ll never forget. Children are bombarded with millions of images each and every day through the media. They are yearning for a more lasting connection with the subjects and people in their world. You don’t have to wear a silly hat – just make your presence in a child’s life memorable by sharing a little bit of what makes you a unique teacher. Finding something to laugh about with another person is what connects us to each other in the world.
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