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Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Problem- Solving Circles in Elementary Music: Giving Students Ownership

I'm returning to the topic of circles today to explain how I plan to implement "problem-solving circles" in my elementary music classes to help students take more ownership in dealing with larger group issues that negatively impact our classroom climate and/or the smooth running of our lessons. If you missed it, be sure to go back and read last week's post where I introduced the concept of circles in general and talked about how I will be using "community-building" circles more regularly this year as well- I'll leave a link to that post at the bottom of this one. Today though, we're focusing on circles that target problems that are sure to arise at one point or another in music class.

First let's talk about when I plan to use problem-solving circles.

I do NOT intend to use these circles to address specific incidents with specific individuals in the class that are bothering a few specific people. I tried it last year, and upon reflection, I don't think it's very effective in the music room- these are best saved for homeroom classes in my opinion (for a number of reasons). I also don't want anyone to think that is something they can do without proper training- it took quite a bit of intensive practice and study for me to learn how to mediate that type of discussion effectively. So we'll set those issues aside.

What I DO plan to address are patterns of behavior within the class as a whole that are negatively impacting our class time. Some examples of this type of problem that I've seen in my classes in the past:

1. the class as a whole has a negative opinion of music class in general, or certain types of activities (like dancing, writing, or listening)
2. the class as a whole consistently takes too long to start or end class and/or activities within the class period
3. the majority of the class has trouble choosing their own group members / partner to work with

These are all patterns of behavior that the majority of the class, if not all, contributes to. 

Now that we know what we're talking about, let's talk about how I will run these circles. Again, it's important to note that to really gain a good understanding of how to run these circles in your own classroom, you should look into training in Restorative Practices- here's the link to find something in your area.

The first step is the same as in the community-building circles: everyone (myself included) sits in a circle. I pick an item (an unplugged microphone or puppet/ stuffed animal works well) and establish the ground rules: 
  • we will go around the circle in order until everyone has a turn
  • only the person with the item is allowed to speak- this means even you as the teacher are not allowed to comment or ask follow-up questions when someone speaks (unless you need to intervene to avoid hurt feelings/ misunderstandings/ arguments)
  • we will only go around the circle once- each person will get 1 turn only
  • anyone can choose to "pass"- if they change their mind before the end of the circle they can ask to reclaim their turn at the end
Once the ground rules are established, I present the problem to them by stating what I see happening and how it is negatively affecting them and their learning (so I might say something like, "I've noticed that we often lose a lot of class time because of our transition into the music room"). Then I'll ask them to share their thoughts in 1 of a few ways:
  • offer suggestions on why they think the problem is happening (without pointing out any specific individuals)
  • offer suggestions on how to improve or fix the problem (without placing the responsibility solely on others- they need to include themselves in the solution)
  • share how the problem has negatively impacted them personally (again, without pointing out any specific individuals)
Depending on the group, I might limit it to only the second option, so we are only focusing on solutions. But if I think it's appropriate and the students can handle it, it's nice to give students a chance to process and analyze the problem- sometimes giving them a chance to share how the problem is affecting them and why helps them find a solution!

Once we've gone around the circle and given everyone a turn, I'll sometimes ask specific students a follow-up question. Once we've discussed it, I will try to consolidate their suggestions into a workable solution to the problem. If we can (like in the case of poor transitions), we'll practice our solutions a few times to help us remember and see if it works. Then we'll try to come to a consensus on the best steps for improving.

One thing I also do is to make sure to alert any other teachers that might be involved so that I can get them to reinforce our solutions- often that's the homeroom teacher, but it might also be the principal, the other specialists, or someone else who might be involved. And I always make a note about our conversation on that class' seating chart so I remember for next time too!

This process will definitely be more time-consuming than simply telling students what to do, but I believe in the long run it will instill a greater sense of responsibility and ownership in students and make the positive behaviors more sustainable. 

If you want to read more about circles in general, and about the community-building circles I hope to use more regularly in my classes this year, here's last week's post:

What are your thoughts on problem-solving circles in elementary music class? I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments! Read more of my thoughts on behavior management here

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