Thursday, May 9, 2019

No Child Left Behind

A student from my Orff Institut Special Course class is doing a review of an article I wrote 15 years ago and asked if I had anything new to add. I had completely forgotten about this article, so I re-read it and hey, it held up! Indeed, I had nothing new to add for nothing had changed in these timeless truths except the political climate referred to in the opening paragraph. And in fact, that hasn't changed either, just different buzzwords to name the catastrophe. So I offer the article again here for those curious: 

“No Child Left Behind” is the current buzz phrase for our nation’s educational plan and while teachers struggle to adjust their curriculums to the same old stupid plan of teaching to meaningless tests, the children suffer. “No child left behind” is the sugar pill given to parents who want to believe that their child will be a winner, like Lake Wobegon’s mythical children who are all above average, But in a school system based on competition, someone must be below average for someone present system, you can’t give A’s to everyone. An A loses its value if no one gets a B, C, or D. 

When education is built on a different cornerstone—that students are not to be pitted against each other’s achievements, but rather against their own talent and genius—“no child left out” is a more appropriate slogan. The idea that everyone should excel in every subject or else be considered failing in school is based on a fantasy directly opposed to the reality of daily life. Difficulty in some subjects is one of the things that leads towards our own strengths. My dismal inability to understand the first thing about what goes on in a car engine saved me hours of tinkering with cars that were better spent practicing piano. My car mechanic’s failure in piano lessons led him to search for his own form of intelligence. I can now give piano lessons to his child and both he and I are quite happy that he can fix my car. The adult world is based on people following the star of their own native intelligence. 

This is not to suggest that students not be required to encounter all the different disciplines that call forth their intelligences. A more enlightened school would not necessarily excuse me from mechanics class (I wish that had been a required study!) or my car mechanic from the history of symphonic music. But it strongly suggests that a teacher figure out how to explain the fugue of rods and pistons to me and explain the engine of Beethoven to my mechanic. And that after we gave it the old college try, we be excused from the stigma of failure because we didn’t choose to analyze the 5th or rebuild the engine in our spare time.

My subject of area of music has been traditionally given the status of an elective reserved for that mysterious population, “the talented.” Yet at my school, it is a required subject for each of the 11 years between three years old through 8th grade. If we went through high school. I would lobby strongly for it to continue to be a required subject for all. I enter class each day with the assumption that each child is inherently musical and that every human being loves music unless neglected by a school system that doesn’t recognize its value or wounded by a music teacher searching for some students to win prizes for him. Every class is a challenge for me to prove my assumption and to date—some 30 years of teaching—I have not been disappointed. 

The reason I feel so confident that every child will feel successful on some basic level is that my teaching is informed by an ingenious approach known as Orff Schulwerk, with over eight decades of practice in discovering where each person’s musical genious lies. For some, it is singing, for others dancing, still others listening and analyzing. Some find their muse through instrumental play—and here it gets very specific. Third-rate violinist Art Tatum finally tries the piano and makes more progress in two weeks than he did in four years. He takes the hint to abandon violin and pursue piano and becomes one of the most remarkable technicians in the history of jazz piano—and perhaps all piano. That muse not only hides behind instruments, but musical styles as well. The failed concert pianist discovers Balinese gamelan and becomes a virtuoso player in a distinctly different tradition. 

Good teachers have always searched for the ways to engage their students specific to their interests and capacities for understanding. Now that approach has been summarized in a thinking called Differentiated Instruction and teaching training courses are preparing future teachers with a wide range of ideas and techniques to help them reach students who don’t fit the fantasy mold of the “normal”—which in my experience, is every student. Much attention is given these days to those with special learning needs and there are indeed some students that are struggling with the tasks of school that need special attention and strategies and compensations. However, the truer statement is that every student has special learning needs. Witness me in car mechanics. Or my car mechanic in music. 

Differentiated Instruction is a new name for an old practice in Orff Schulwerk. Because most Orff teachers teach General Music, they automatically must accommodate a wide variety of backgrounds, talents and interests. Naturally, the same is true for language arts, science, math, art and P.E. teachers as well. Music, however, may represent one of the more challenging disciplines for inclusion, since every ensemble piece is only as strong as its proverbial missing link. Traditional music teachers solve this problem with damaging “mouth the words” strategies. Some innovative teachers refuse to sacrifice their student’s self-esteem to the musical performance. And yet when the performance itself suffers, the students as a group are not uplifted and the music doesn’t complete its possibility. How can we produce beautiful music and still elicit successful participation from every student? Below are some strategies, none foolproof, but all useful in creating an inclusive musical community.

1.   WORK IN A WIDE SCOPE OF MEDIA: Everyone must play, sing, dance, act, recite poetry, slap their body and more. By offering a wide range of means to musically express oneself, the students have more opportunities to encounter their preferred musical modality. The student struggling with singing or lost in music theory may well be the best shaker player to come down the pike in a while. The frustrated xylophone player will be delighted to make up a dance to the piece. The timid singer feels just fine reciting the dramatic poem. In short, there are multiple ways in which to contribute decisively to a performance.

The democracy of Orff instruments—everyone at the same level of practice and exposure— allows for learning each part of the music, from the bass to supporting rhythms to melodies. By learning all parts, students not only hear the music more fully, but get to find what suits their fancy. “The melody is too difficult in this piece? I think I’ll choose that simple rocking bass. Bass too boring? I’m going for that hot conga drum part.”

      3. SIMPLIFY PARTS—PLAY MELODIC FRAGMENTS: Since Orff ensembles often 
have  children doubling parts, it is not only fine, but often aesthetically better to have some children play fragments of melodies while others play the whole melody. From playing the accented notes to the answer part of a question-answer melody, a few well-chosen notes can add a lot, help the student relax, yet also feel an integral part.

      4.   CREATE AT YOUR LEVEL OF COMFORT: Orff classes abound in opportunities to 
             improvise and compose. The cardinal rule of creation is that students can only 
             create at their level of skill and understanding. Any student can have a hard time
             learning someone else’s  music, but no one improvises music too difficult for him 
             or herself to do. Of course, students improvising don’t always feel successful or 
              musical and may need some guidance. But experience shows that everyone can 
              create something that is of value to the group, be it a motion, a choice of an 
              instrument, an accompanying pattern or new words to a song.

Ours is a star-obsessed culture, but Michael Jordan is nothing without his teammates that pass him the ball and every performance by Meryl Streep has hundreds of unseen hands behind it. The music class will have its moments as well where the talents of a few will come to center stage and be properly appreciated, but the foundation of the whole show is the group ensemble work. “No Child Left Behind” runs on the fantasy of everyone as a superstar, but “no child left out” means that everyone contributes from his or her own interest and capability and every contribution is valuable.

DISCOVERY: When I took a group of students to perform at a big music education conference, I created the show with particular students in mind. This song would be good for this student’s voice, that song for another’s. This student should improvise here, that student should dance there. Sometimes we neglect talent in the name of “fairness,” afraid that no one should shine brighter than another. The answer is not to dull their brilliance, but to keep searching for material in which other students can show theirs. And at the same time, we must keep encouraging all students to try new things that are difficult for them. For one piece, I had our “star singer” try the drums and he later wrote that that was one of his favorite moments in the year of music!

This is where Differentiated Instruction scares teachers and seems overwhelming.
How can one teach the same material differently to each student? Again, multiple strategies are crucial here. In my case, I might have everyone sing a melody and go off to the xylophones to try to “find it.” Those with trained ears can work things out on their own while I go sit next to others and play a phrase at a time on their xylophone. Some may ask to see it written. Some may ask if they can play triangle on this piece. This process is made easier when the student comes to understand his or her preferred strategy and can articulate it to the teacher.

The above guidelines should help both music and other teachers navigate through the difficult waters of true teaching. Those who find it too much work may choose to teach at on-line universities where learning is simply disembodied facts flying through screens. But for those of us who are called to this noble profession of teaching, teaching each student one at a time in the group is what makes our life interesting, challenging and rewarding. And most importantly, it makes the children happy. 

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