Saturday, January 28, 2012

Play is Okay!

Play is okay! Children learn and have learned for ages and ages through play—engaging, joyful, creative action. For some reason, however, teachers sometimes get it in their heads that learning requires work and that work is not play—is not fun. I suggest two points relative to this misunderstanding:

First, play is NOT the opposite of work. Think of someone who has a passion for hiking—researching to discover the best gear (shoes, backpack, sleeping bag, food) and places to hike—a set of crystal clear mountain lakes, for example. The actually hiking trip takes considerable effort; the path is steep and full of rocks. Somehow, though, the hiker enjoys the entire trip, both the challenge of the hike and the view of the lakes. This is play, recreation, fun. It is also a lot of work. Similarly, singing games are fun AND require considerable cognitive, kinesthetic, and social engagement. In fact, they likely would not be as fun if they didn’t require significant effort.

Second, many people enjoy their work.  Sometimes people say, “I can’t believe I get paid for this!” Some vocations allow significant levels of autonomy, creativity, and social interaction. Some people even have a knack for making the most mundane tasks, such as yard work or household chores, interesting and fun (this is called autotelic personality, by the way).  Work doesn’t have to be unpleasant or boring. In fact, if the work of learning is unpleasant or boring it will likely be less effective than if it involves ample opportunity for physical, social, and creative engagement.

The reason that children’s singing games have endured over time is that they naturally engage students in meaningful musicing and musical learning. In the process students learn far more about music and develop musical skills at levels far surpassing anything that could be accomplished through a music worksheet, for instance. Of course, a music worksheet might have a place once in a while, but if learning is the aim (and, of course, we all know it is), we will allow the joyful and creative play/work or work/play of traditional singing games.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Lesson Plans

It's important to plan instruction. However, you simply cannot plan everything that kids will learn; some might "get it" and some might not and kids will potentially learn much that wasn't even outlined in the lesson plan. Also, concepts such as dynamics and tempo terminology can be taught quickly if the children have already experienced the concepts musically (i.e. have sung songs in various tempos with variations in dynamics). Then, it's just a matter of naming what they already know first-hand. This reasoning can also apply to reading bubble (staff or "standard") notation in that students need to experience and name pitch patterns (solfege) prior to reading them or discussing things like rhythm trees and fractions. So, basically, identifying (naming) concepts is an important process, but can constitute maybe 5 percent of the lesson . . . if that much. The bulk of the lesson should be skill development--skills in singing on pitch and in rhythm, playing instruments, and moving/dancing ("rhythming"). Kids learn these complex skills over extended periods of time by singing/playing/moving to complex/engaging/memorable songs and singing games. This portion of the lesson (learning, exploring, and transforming songs) should take up to 80-90 percent of the time! The remaining 5-10 percent is some type of warm-up--something that focuses the children and drills skills. For example, echo rhythms, echo rhythm solfege, echo melodic patterns, echo melodic solfege, create rhythm patterns, guess songs from the rhythm or hand signs, imitate movements, or even engage kids in traditional choral and physical warm-ups. So, a typical 30-minute lesson plan for second graders might look like this:

Warm-up (5-10 minutes)

  • Echo teacher-led rhythm patterns (common time)
  • Answer teacher-led rhythm patterns (do something different from the teacher, still in common time)
  • Echo student-led rhythm patterns (common time); students initiate three rhythms and then choose another student to take a turn

Learn a new singing game or dance.

Explore the rhythm in a familiar song using classroom instruments. Discuss specific rhythm concepts (tempo, isolate specific rhythmic patterns, etc.).

Play a familiar singing game if there is time remaining.

It is not difficult to connect the musical actions in this sequence to skills and concepts in any given elementary music curriculum guide. The key, of course, is to find interesting, authentic, engaging singing games and to be creative in exploring songs (see 100 Ways to Repeat a Song).