Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Assessment in the Orff Classroom

(In my life B.B. [Before Blogs], I used to write articles. Mostly just to clarify my thinking about my craft, but sometimes they were published in various Orff/ Music Education magazines. Yesterday I wrote one for an international Orff gathering in the summer. And I liked it. And since I have nothing to say about today other than I’m out of my mind to think I can prepare 32 6th graders to play music for, decorate and be judges for our annual Samba Contest at school in just two 45 minute classes (one of them was today), I thought I’d share the article. Part I as follows:)

Bringing an Orff Schulwerk program into schools is reason for celebration. It gives children who might not otherwise be exposed to any kind of music education the opportunity to meet their musical self and discover how to speak and express themselves through song and sound and movement and more. When taught in the full spirit of faith not only in each child’s innate musicality, but also his or her creative faculties and humanistic promise, an Orff program can change a child’s life for the better, can change a school culture for the better, can do its part to refresh and even heal a troubled world.

But schools often have very different agendas that are not always friendly to children’s flowering, that care little about healing the world, that are more concerned with the right answers than the right questions, that often care for tests scores more than the students. To negotiate the conversation between two sometimes opposing cultures, there must be clear and careful thought. Consider the following scenario:

A Model Class
Children are seated in a circle of instruments—bass xylophones, altos, sopranos, cowbell, conga, hi-hat, ride cymbal, bass drum. Each instruments has a different part to play in a multi-layered arrangement of a children’s game, Boom Chick a Boom. In-between each instrument is a child watching, listening and studying the player to his or her right. All play until the teacher signals, “Uh-huh! Oh yeah! All right! Move on!” and during the next 8 beats, all move one place to the right. The children who had been studying now play, the children who had played now watch to learn the next part. And so it goes, until all have traveled around the circle.

The atmosphere is relaxed, the music is swinging, the kids are clearly having fun and so is the teacher. When someone is struggling with a part, the person next to them leans over to help them. Not because the teacher told them, but because it’s the natural thing to do—it feels good to help people and things are more fun when the music sounds good. If the time is up before they get all the way around, you might hear kids groan and one might even exclaim (as once happened), “This is more fun than recess!!”

Notice the high level of education and the model of healthy community here:

1). Kids are motivated without threats or promises of reward. The excitement of great music that is playable by them at their developmental level is enough.

2) The kids are happy.

3) The kids are relaxed, willing and able to try out new things, take a risk within the circle of community.

4) The kids are connected to each other, each individual part joining to make a yet more glorious whole. They are part of a venture larger than themselves of which they contribute a necessary and beautiful part.

5) The music sounds great.

6) The kids get to hear it from a different vantage point as they move around the circle and play each of the separate parts, thus getting a round and complete understanding of how it works.

7) The kids discover what they can initially do well, what’s challenging. They’re ready to keep working on it in the classes to come.

Who can argue with that? Wouldn’t any music teacher be thrilled to have a class filled with happy, helpful, motivated children who are playing great music?

Trouble in Paradise
Now imagine if we bring the traditional school culture into the above activity, grading the children on their performance on each instrument in the circle. What would happen?

1)   Now the kids are not motivated by the innate pleasure of striving for mastery and instead or focused on doing what the teacher want to get a good grade. The grade becomes more important than the music and the process of learning it.

2)   The kids are stressed, knowing they are being judged and that their grade will (theoretically) indicate their future success in society. They’re not happy.

3)   They will be unwilling to take risks because they might fail on their first time and be punished with a bad grade. When there’s stress, the brain gets stuck down in the lowest part—flight, fight or freeze—and kids can’t access higher level thinking skills nor the body master the needed techniques.

4)   The kids are now in competition with each other. Since most grading systems are based on the curve—all can’t get A’s—one child’s “failure” is thus a cause of celebration for another child’s chance for “success.” Instead of helping, kids are pitted against each other.

5)   Nervous, stressed musicians don’t make good music.

6)   The kids are not listening to the whole, more worried about their success with their part.

7)   When kids discover something is challenging and their grade will decrease as a result, they add an extra layer of feeling like they failed or they’re stupid or they’re not talented instead of recognizing, “Hey, I’ve never done this before. Of course it will take a while to feel comfortable.”

In short, the wrong kind of assessment, even with the intention of holding teachers and children accountable for successful learning, ends up doing the opposite. And if we’re serious about “successful” learning, it means we have to entirely re-think the way we assess kids.

And I have. Starting with some essential principles and then moving on to the specifics of how, here’s a look at a kind of assessment that supports the feeling of joy, inclusion, risk, community and belonging that a good Orff classroom cultivates.

(Stay tuned for Part II tomorrow.)

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