Students were given voice, choice and ownership in a Grade 3 – 5 Music Concert for the school community. In planning the concert, students were motivated to choose the playlist and songs they would participate in, their instruments for each song and how they would play it. Students were completely engaged and loved the experience.
Nĭ hăo from Shanghai. I am currently teaching music at Shanghai Community International School, having left my music-teaching positions in Wellington, New Zealand.
It has been a year of stretching myself and my teaching, and the job is extremely busy. There are two of us in the Lower School delivering a music program to 27 classes of children, Grades 1-5. I see the students for 40-minute lessons every alternate day.
Recently, my co-teacher, and I presented a Grade 3-5 concert for the school and the community. We decided to hand many decisions over to the students, giving them ‘the power to act’, and the results were so empowering, I wanted to write about it. This concept of learner agency is a strong component of the primary years’ programme in an IB school.
The school requires us to put together a Fall concert in November, and a Spring concert in May before the year finishes, for all year groups. Being new to the school last August, I followed the tradition of prior concerts, and each level presented their learning: Grade 4’s playing recorders and Grade 5’s demonstrating their newly acquired ukulele skills, and so on. After the concert, however, when the students reflected on their learning, they said: ‘We would like to choose the songs’; ‘we want to play instruments that we pick’.
And so, for this May concert, we teachers stepped back. Students flooded the wall with wish-lists of song titles. Naturally, not all songs could be played, and they had to be age-appropriate, so there was some elimination. We started teaching them the six to eight songs most popular, including ‘Happier’ by Marshmello; ‘High Hopes’ by Panic! At the Disco; ‘Fight Song’ by Rachel Platten; ‘Alone’ by Alan Walker and even the YouTube craze, ‘Baby Shark’.
Grades 3 and 4 students wanted to learn the ukulele instead of waiting for the usual timeframe of being Grade 5. Other Grade 3 students who had started learning recorders were soon scratching out raw notes of the tunes as well. Students started asking for opportunities to play their instruments. ‘Can I play my violin in ‘Fight Song’?’ ‘Can I play the piano please?’
Every student, no matter what year group, was able to choose what songs they wanted to sing, what instruments they would play, and which ones they didn’t want to participate in at all.
The students were amazed. The choices in front of them felt like a party. The music concert took on a life of its own we could never have foreseen.
Twelve songs rose to the top of the list. Then some students asked for more drumming opportunities, so Stacey wrote ‘The Argument’ – a drumming piece for as many students who committed to learning it. A Grade 5 flute player asked to join two violinists and two ukulele players on a ‘softer’ piece, and I arranged ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’, Hawaiian-style. ‘Baby Shark’ proved to be very popular: 70 recorder players signed up, with four cellists learning a Jaws-theme opening.
The idea of a concert of vertical groupings as opposed to year groupings was entirely new. Grade 3 students played glockenspiels next to Grade 5 students – purely based on their choice of song and instrument.
We had decided to listen to the students and allow them voice, choice and ownership, but we also saw there needed to be parameters. Some students were starting to change their minds and not commit to learning anything. Others were learning too many songs and not achieving as they should.
We drew up some guidelines: Every student would play or sing in ‘Happier’, our opening song, and up to a maximum of five songs in total. And they had to choose at least one song in which they played an instrument – making them accountable in demonstrating some musical learning.
The students understood the parameters. The stage could not fit 260 students, xylophones, drums, cellos and more, for every song. It also allowed for some songs to be smaller, to create balance. Each student wrote a cue card with their personal list of songs and when to appear on stage. Some opted to write small speaking parts and they were given their moment with the microphone.
As many of you know, organizing 16 classes to come on and off stage, sing musically, play instruments, and generally focus and behave is a huge task. Backstage, signs were needed everywhere. ‘‘Baby Shark’ recorder players: wait here’; ‘‘Fight Song’ drummers: wait here’. The homeroom teachers were tasked with maintaining order as the crowds of students waited to come on at their correct time.
I can truly say that giving students this agency over what is often a teacher-directed event has had hugely positive effects. The students’ motivation was as high as I have ever seen it in my 20 years of teaching. They were serious learner agents. Music went home to be practiced, lyrics were memorized, and students eagerly came out of lunchtimes for extra rehearsals.
The reflections following the concert have also been heart-warming. For example, Lila, Grade 3 said: ‘I chose those songs because they make me feel happy and they just feel right for me to sing.’ ‘During the concert I felt excited, happy and at the beginning, a little nervous,’ said Ali, a Grade 4 student.
We ‘opened the lid’ on student agency. And we can’t put it back on – and neither do we want to.
Jane Coles (BMus, LRSM, Dip Tchg,) is Lower School music teacher from New Zealand. She is in her second year teaching Grade 1 to 5 Music at Shanghai Community International School in China. Jane has an interest in inquiry-based teaching and learner agency in the music classroom.