Monday, August 24, 2020

Getting In Line

My computer keeps telling me my storage space is almost full. This became the motivation to start deleting outdated files, an enormous undertaking perfect for the retired life. I decided to start, logically enough, with my school files, which dated back to 1999 or so. I got to around 2007 before I stopped (to be resumed later), but it was pretty fascinating. Here were notes from school meetings talking about the same things we talked about last year in school meetings. Makes you wonder if there really is such a thing as progress. 

But also some interesting things I wrote that I had forgotten about. Like an unsolicited answer to a question the then Middle School head posed: “How can we get kids in line?” Of course, he meant, “How do we get them to behave the way we want them to?” And here’s what I came up with. Same answer from 15 years ago that I would give today:


  1. First, I try to make sure that the line is an interesting place for them to be. I work hard to find musical pieces that are easy enough to give some feeling of instant success, while challenging enough to engage the students. I have to love the piece of music and hope that my enthusiasm for it will be infectious. With my 8thgrade curriculum, for example, kids mostly seem thrilled to get a chance to get inside the skin of Jazz and find out how to play it. They sense—rightly so— that it has something to do with their identity as Americans. It also has something to do with their own identity, as I give them a chance to solo and they find out what they have to say within the given structure of jazz. Hence they get to do more than replicate someone else’s discoveries—they get to make and publicly share their own. A big motivation for getting in line! In short, the more engaging, active and relevant the line is, the less time I need to spend convincing them to get “in line”—they line up by themselves. And they sense that the reward at the end is worth the wait in line.


  1. Secondly, I try to notice where they stand in line and what other lines they would 

more naturally gravitate to. Within the music class, there are many different places to stand—the drums, the bass, the chords, the melody, the solo, singing and occasionally, dancing and acting. At the beginning of the year, they write down their strengths and challenges and state what area they’d like to develop. I keep an eye out for opportunities to both follow their desires—“Can I sing in the next piece?” and push them a bit by suggesting some myself “Can you play cello in this piece?” This makes it more interesting for everyone to get in line, because in each piece, they often stand in a different part of the line. When the kids feel me stretching to discover their particular genius, they see that I’m interested in much more than teaching them how to play interesting combinations of notes and more eagerly get in line when it’s time for music class. 


   3.       Finally, another strategy for keeping them in-line is to set them free so that there is 

no line. Or rather, they have to create the line.  I recently left them alone for half a 

class to work out a jazz version of a simple piece they all knew. After the initial 

chaos of free exploration. they discovered they had to form their own line to make 

something coherent.


This had a different tone to it than simply getting in my line. As the adult in charge, I accept the responsibility to create interesting and meaningful lines for them and that is 95% of my work. But once in a while, it is great to turn it all over to them and this is another strategy that has proven successful.


How to get kids in line? Great question! These are the things that have worked best for me. 


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