Engagement, Policy, Teaching

Find Your Voice

How an extraordinary online community changed my vision of how to teach – and learn – music

As a music educator I have taken a pledge:

I pledge to facilitate more than I instruct.

I pledge to honour students’ choice in their learning.

I pledge to give them all of the tools they need to create music at school that resembles the music they so love, and are emotionally connected to, outside of school.

 As participants in Musical Future’s international pilot project, “Find Your Voice,” we were challenged to make a pledge at the conclusion of our year-end sharing session in 2013. At first I wondered: Could I really take a pledge? Did I really agree that this is the way to teach music all of the time? I felt I was in transition to this new approach, but not completely converted.

It wasn’t until the fall of 2014, when I went to a more conventional music educators’ conference, that I realized how completely I had moved away from the traditional model of teaching and adopted a Musical Futures (MF) approach (see sidebar, Musical Futures). I no longer wanted to be the teacher expert, choosing all of the content for learning and seeing my students as the vessels waiting to be filled with musical knowledge. I was committed to the inquiry approach promoted by MF, where students lead their own learning by choosing their own friendship groups in which to work, by choosing the music they love to recreate, and by making musical choices about how best to create that music.

What had changed my approach to teaching so profoundly?

Finding my voice

 It all began on a snowy Sunday afternoon in January, 2013. I was teaching in a new school and struggling with a Grade 6 class. The students were not at all engaged in Music and were becoming behaviour problems, and the Grade 8 class was not much better. When I pulled out my old tried-and-true instructional ideas, like bucket drumming, these students were disinterested, uninspired and would not “buy into” anything I was trying to teach them. I was confused by this and was left to question myself: Was I too old for this gig? Was I losing it? It was time for something new.

So that Sunday I turned to Google, searching for inspiration, and I stumbled upon a You Tube video interview with Professor Lucy Green, of the Institute of Education at the University of London, entitled, “What can teachers learn from popular musicians?1 I listened, amazed, at the simple logic of finding ways to align school music more closely with the music that students listen to outside of school (see sidebar below: Informal Music Learning).

Adolescents, including my Grade 6 class, are very passionate about music and, in fact, most consistently rank it within the three most important aspects of their lives. Yet many adolescents do not enjoy learning music in school, with a mere 20 percent continuing to pursue music in secondary school in North America. There is something shockingly wrong with this picture.

In the video, Lucy Green made reference to “Musical Futures,” which led me to musicalfutures.org. There I read as much as I could about how to imbed what they referred to as “informal” music learning practices into the formal setting of the music classroom. On the website I also found a call for teachers to join in an international pilot project called “Find Your Voice,” to study the impact of combining vocal music and mobile technology at the Year 7 level. Year 7 is significant in the U.K. in that it is the entrance year for high school; it was significant for me because in Canadian terms it is Grade 6 – my challenging class.

Although I had experienced many professional learning scenarios in the past, most were principal- or system-driven. This was a new experience, characterized by international and online collaboration, and in which I had complete control and autonomy in my choice of professional learning community. My principal was very supportive as ours was the only school in Canada to initially join this project, with the majority of schools being in the U.K. Other professional learning opportunities often involve submitting a great deal of data or writing lengthy reports at the conclusion of the work, which can upset the delicate balance between the cost of time and effort put in, and the learning benefit received, that makes these opportunities worthwhile. However, the Musical Futures invitation assured me that I was free to use their ideas in any way that I saw fit – to leave what I did not want, to take what I needed, and to make changes to suit my own purposes – as long as I then shared it back with the group. With this kind of an offer, what did I have to lose?

The project received funding from the Paul Hamlyn Foundation to allow 15 schools in the U.K. to send their teachers to regular professional training sessions. These sessions were documented in digital video and uploaded to websites and blogs. This is how teachers like me, who were international “co-pilots” in the study, benefited from their live workshops. We watched them and learned the material and then shared with our students – a fascinating process. My earliest connections with the group involved commenting in our closed Facebook group, where we could easily upload videos and other forms of media. I was accustomed to sharing ideas online with other teachers and offering suggestions for useful resources, etc., but this experience added a new dimension that was exhilarating: we saw learning in action, and the immediate evidence of risks, failures and many successes. Teachers regularly challenged each others’ perceptions and encouraged one another to try new things.

As I engaged in this process, I realized that I no longer felt isolated as the only music/arts teacher in my school, because every day I was in online contact with any number of teachers from Australia, the U.K. and the U.S. who were engaged in the same process and interested in a similar outcome. Teachers in the U.K., in particular, were using sharing walls such as Padlet to upload video of their students working on warm-ups and vocal mash-ups that the teachers themselves had recently worked through in their training sessions. I could instantly observe and assess the results, adopt what I liked, try it with one of my classes, record the outcome (with consent of the parents of course) and then go on to share the results on the sharing wall. The other revelation was – and I cannot stress enough how reassuring this was to me – that every video or comment post and publication, whether judged by its creators as a success or failure, could seed a spark of memory, intuition or inspiration.

Music teachers are accustomed to sharing their students’ work only when it is up to the highest performance standards. We do not commonly share work in progress or always appreciate the value in the development process. This project blew that precept out of the water. Here is one of my early Facebook posts:

 “Just want to say that I am really appreciating the feeling of being so connected to music teachers in other parts of the world. It does my heart good to watch the videos and hear kids in the U.K. singing the same songs we are singing here in Canada. I also hear the musical strengths and struggles and I feel a connection to those teachers. I love this project and I’ve barely started!”

 The connections among the online community of teachers grew as we progressed from cautiously and politely sharing our work to challenging one anothers’ perceptions of ourselves and our students. For example, on one occasion I expressed my frustration at trying to learn beatboxing in a second-hand way and wished I was able to attend the live sessions. The facilitator, Rob Kitchen, suggested that my lack of confidence might come from my need to be expert in the art form rather than expert in facilitating learning. That was a very challenging statement. He further suggested that I watch the video tutorials with my students and learn along with them. That is, in fact, what I did and have done on many occasions since. In facilitating music workshops I have also encouraged other teachers to co-learn with their students. This experience highlights one of the most interesting aspects of the Musical Futures approach for me: it places all learners – students and teachers – at various points along what can be conceived of as a learning-teaching continuum. There is neither a direct nor a constant hierarchy – all participants are free to experiment, create, learn and teach as needed, moving back and forth along this continuum.

 My students’ learning was aligned very closely with my own on this project. They were diving into the deep end to produce vocal mash-ups and recreate songs using their voices and mobile technology, adding beatboxing and body percussion in new and exciting ways. Students have been turned on to learning music in ways I never dreamed possible. Some have created their own bands, others have developed their own hybrid form of beatboxing and dance, and most have started to perceive themselves as musicians capable of taking a song they like and recreating it in their own way. They now have a strong voice in the music program and are able to articulate their musical learning goals and desires.

 The gains my students and I have made in music over the last year and half would have been unlikely had we not embraced the new challenge of learning online through social media and opened our hearts and minds to a new way of approaching music in our elementary school in Ontario. Our relationship to music will never be the same.

Informal music learning

Professor Lucy Green outlines five principles of informal music learning:2

  1. Learning always starts with music students choose.
  2. Learning is primarily aural and happens by listening and imitating recordings.
  3. Learning takes place alongside friends through self-directed, peer-directed and group learning.
  4. Learning is idiosyncratic and happens without structured guidance.
  5. Listening, performing, improvising and composing are integrated throughout the learning process with a focus on personal creativity.

Musical Futures

Musical Futures is a movement to reshape music education, driven by teachers for teachers. At its heart is a set of pedagogies that bring non-formal teaching and informal learning approaches into more formal contexts, in an attempt to provide engaging, sustainable and relevant music making activities for all young people.

For more information and a wealth of resources, see www.musicalfutures.org

For news on Musical Futures in Canada: www.musicalfuturescanada.org

En Bref – Cherchant de l’inspiration pour motiver sa classe de musique de 6e année, Sandie Heckel a adhéré au projet pilote international Find Your Voice de Musical Futures. Contrairement à de nombreux cadres d’apprentissage professionnel qu’elle avait connus, ce projet caractérisé par une collaboration internationale en ligne accordait toute la maîtrise et toute l’autonomie voulues aux participants, qui pouvaient utiliser à leur gré les idées offertes – à condition de partager à leur tour avec le groupe. Les idées novatrices, le soutien et la possibilité de partager l’apprentissage en cours ont été transformateurs, changeant profondément l’approche de l’auteure face à l’enseignement – et à l’apprentissage – de la musique.

Photo: Sandie Heckel

First published in Education Canada, March 2015

1 Lucy Green, Institute of Education, University of London, interviewed by Flávia Narita. “What Can Teachers Learn from Popular Musicians?” www.youtube.com/watch?v=4r8zoHT4ExY&feature=youtu.be

 2 Lucy Green, “What Can Teachers Learn from Popular Musicians?”

Meet the Expert(s)

Sandie Heckel

Sandie Heckel is a full-time elementary music teacher in the District School Board of Niagara (Ont.) and is pursuing her Master’s degree in Music Education at Western University. Sandie facilitates teacher professional learning workshops for school boards and faculties of education. @SandieHeckel

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