You Can’t Do Anything With These Kids

The outgoing music teacher at a school I was starting at gave me a tour of the music closet, where all the music teaching materials were kept. She had several boxes of files of photocopied sheets with musical crossword puzzles, composer biographies followed by fill-in-the-blanks sentences, and other paperwork assignments (but not much in the way of instruments for the students to play). She showed me the materials she had for the youngest classes, and then the next grade and the next. Lastly, she showed me a shelf of VHS tapes and said, “Now, the sixth, seventh and eighth graders–you can’t do anything with these kids; here are the videos.” I felt a wave of sadness well up from my stomach. I wondered, what leads a teacher to give up on students like that?

My first day of teaching the 8th graders, the multipurpose room was not available, so I had to teach in the classroom. Knowing their reputation for being a challenge when it came to music class, and knowing that the other classes looked up to them, I felt there was a lot riding on this first class, and I had come up with a plan. Almost instinctively, I grabbed an armful of photocopied worksheets and a bag of pencils and went up to the eighth grade classroom. I smiled at the class as the teacher introduced me. Then I proceeded to hand out the papers and pencils. The teacher stood guard to make sure none of her charges stepped
out of line in trying to break in the new teacher. The students dutifully, silently and emptily picked up their pencils and started to fill out the papers. After a short while I said, “Excuse me, but I haven’t asked you to write anything yet.” There were a few frustrated sighs as they readjusted their bodies and waited for their orders. Looking back, I see this as a very sad moment, as it tells how low their expectations were for the class, a kind of hopelessness. Perhaps they had given up because they felt they had been given up on?

I ended the hollow silence by asking everyone on one half of the room to hold their papers horizontally with a hand on each side and, following my rhythm, crunch the paper in and out. When the crunching rhythm was pretty solid, I asked the other half of the room to pick up their pencils and tap on the legs of their desks to a complementary rhythm. On top of these I added yet another rhythm by clapping my hands. It was fun, it sounded good, and with this I had them.

This was a reinforcing lesson on how active participation and experience were keys to engaged learning. It was this sort of teaching experience that set the stage for my affinity with theorists I would come to know well in my study of KT/L, such as Bateson, Campbell, Dewey, Elliott, Jaques-Dalcroze and Small.