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Tuesday, August 8, 2023

Empowering Students to Feel Successful in Elementary Music

I've been writing over the last few weeks about the core need I see students having for a greater sense of agency, and how we can foster agency for our students in the elementary music room. In my previous article I shared my top ways to foster student ownership in elementary music. Giving students a sense of agency is obviously a complex, multifaceted issue with no one clear solution, but ownership of the space, the supplies, and of their learning is a big part of that. Another key component I see is feeling successful. Today I'm sharing my top strategies for giving students the belief that they are and can continue to be successful in my elementary music classroom.

It's the irony of elementary education especially: success breeds more success. If students feel like they can't do something, they won't be motivated to try harder to learn how. The more students experience being successful, the more they believe in themselves and want to learn more to continue to be successful. And giving students a belief in their ability to succeed is critical to ownership as well- we can give students the opportunity to take ownership all we want but if they feel like a failure they won't want to. Which leads us back to a lack of a sense of agency, no matter how much ownership we try to give them. So finding ways to make students be successful, no matter how little they know or can do in the beginning, is critical to student learning.

1. warmups/ hand signals

The biggest key I've found to fostering a feeling of success is building "easy wins" into how I run my classroom. I have mentioned a few times already how powerful my student-led warmups have been for fostering agency and ownership, but they are also a great way to start class with something in which students can immediately be successful so they all start off feeling like they are doing well. 

I learned early on that easier is better than harder, simpler is better than complex, when it comes to these warmups. I used to try to push it a little with notation reading practice etc on things they had just learned, but now I use activities that I know most of them are already comfortable with. It's still valuable learning time, but I'm using it to maintain concepts that need frequent review rather than working on something new, as well as more foundational, fun things like moving with the beat of music from a variety of genres.

I use hand signals to cue students to stand up/ sit down/ sit up (read about my hand signals here- highly recommend). It's mostly a way to save me from repeating directions but I also use it when I feel a class starting to fall apart. I just stop what we're doing and do the signal for the opposite of whatever position they were just in, and keep switching signals until everyone is doing it.

It serves as an attention-getter, because I have established that they are supposed to move silently and it requires everyone to look at me to follow, but it also gets them to all work together to do something right, however inconsequential the task of sitting/ standing may seem. Sometimes I make a comment (especially with the younger ones) like, "Oh OK good, I knew we were still awesome", most of the time I just give them a letter (see next section) and move on. But it works almost every time!

2. whole class systems

One of the reasons I continue to believe in some type of concrete system of whole class "behavior management" is because I need an easy way to acknowledge their success in a way that concretely reinforces it for them without disrupting the flow of the lesson. You can read the full details of what I do in this post but the key to any type of system is having a way to recognize incremental success, and for classes to "recover" when they get off-track.

I use a system of letters where each class starts off with the word "MUSIC" and I add or remove letters based on how the class is doing. The great thing about this system is it happens in real time, it's completely nonverbal, and classes can quickly "earn back" what they lose. In the scenario I mentioned before where a class is falling apart, I silently take off a letter while holding up the hand signal, then stand there holding the letter in my hand. When the class can all stand up/ sit down, I put it back. It's not punitive, it's a concrete way of holding kids accountable and showing kids there is always an opportunity to try again.

At the end of class, the number of letters they have translates to them moving up a certain number of keys on the piano (read the post linked above for a detailed explanation). Again, I try to make sure they are always moving forward and making progress, no matter how small, and I also make sure the first goal is attained as quickly as possible- I have classes go up the black keys first, then white, then all of them chromatically so that they get that feeling of success more quickly. Once they have that success they are more motivated to work a little harder and a little longer for the next one, and so on. 

3. happy notes

The final key component in giving each and every student the experience of being successful is through happy notes. I give one happy note at the end of every class period, but as I explain to my students, it's not like the "star student" system I often hear about other teachers doing where I'm picking "the best" student of the day. I keep track of the date I give each student a happy note on my seating chart and I rotate through the entire class, making sure every student gets an individual, specific compliment from me. Every student needs to know that they are doing something right, even (and especially) while I'm holding them accountable for the things they need to improve. Sometimes, especially in the older grades, I will give a happy note to a student who had a tough day and they will all, including the one I gave it to, protest my choice. But I reiterate the specific compliment (which I say out loud) that I gave them, whether it was playing a specific instrument well, or being brave and trying something new, and ask them if it's a fair statement and they agree. It really helps reframe everyone's perspective of what it means to be successful, and it can have a dramatic impact on students' self-perception of whether or not they are "good at music" or "a music person". 

I've recently added all of the materials and visuals I use for all of the systems mentioned in this post to this "rules and procedures" poster set download if you're hoping to implement any of them in your own classroom. I hope this helps give someone else some food for thought, and I would love to hear your own thoughts and ideas on this in the comments!

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