I recently had the opportunity to be a student in my own classroom. A small group of fourth graders had earned a reward of their choice and they decided that they wanted to be teachers for the day. I may have had a moment of panic at the thought of nine-year-olds running my classroom, but my only requirement was that the reward be music-related. A deal is a deal. As it turned out, it was an enlightening, empowering, and delightful experience for my students and for me.
On the day of the lesson, the teachers lined up in front of the class to introduce their lesson while I settled into a chair in the middle of the room. Although I considered engaging in all of my favorite disruptive student behaviors, I fought the temptation. Seeing this role reversal was strange enough for the kids.
The teachers were surprisingly well-prepared with a group composition competition activity. They assigned us to groups of three or four and sent us off to come up with “a rhythm or a song” using any of the classroom instruments. After some work time, we would be called together to hear performances. In each of several rounds, the teachers would judge which groups’ compositions would go on to the next round and which would be eliminated. The final round’s winner would be determined by a class vote. I had been expecting it to be a barely educational day, but this was actually a creative, musical, and standards-based activity!
My group decided to use the xylophone for our piece. I let my two teammates make the creative decisions in our composition, and they came up with a short melodic pattern. We each took a different octave and played the pattern one after another, from low to high. We also tried improvising our own short melodies following the same low to high format. As we advanced in the competition, we changed our piece for each performance.
The choice of activity was fantastic, but the class period was not without problems. I don’t know of any teachers, no matter how experienced they are, who don’t occasionally (or frequently) struggle with classroom management issues. Nine-year-old teachers are no different. Once they set us free to work on our pieces, the sound of nearly thirty students playing classroom percussion instruments became overwhelmingly noisy. When the teachers needed to get the class’s attention, they realized that they didn’t have the tools to do so. One student shouted to the students that when they heard him bang a cymbal, that meant that they should be quiet. Of course, nobody could hear that cymbal over the cacophony. The teachers became increasingly frustrated with us, as evidenced by the one who walked by me exclaiming, “Ugh, when’s my coffee break?!” I tried to let the teachers deal with managing the class themselves, but stepped in once or twice to help them get the students’ attention.
As we progressed through rounds, more and more students were left without anything to do while groups who remained in the competition practiced for their next performance. The teachers realized that students were not going to sit quietly and wait, so they came up with a quieter activity to keep those who weren’t performing entertained. Although Simon Says may not have anything to do with music, it fulfilled its purpose. I was impressed by how quickly the teachers identified a classroom management problem and came up with a solution. And I was reminded of how fun playing Simon Says can be!
As a participant-observer in this student-led class, I learned more than I expected about my students, about myself, and about how I can be a more effective teacher for my students.
• I can trust my students with big responsibilities. They used their freedom and power during that class period to take control of their own education, not to waste it.
• Classroom management really is tough! It’s easy for me to feel like I am failing when I have troubles managing a class. Shouldn’t I have this down after several years of experience in the classroom? Seeing this group of fourth graders struggling to manage their class of peers reminded me that I take for granted all of the strategies I’ve developed over the years that actually do work well. No system is perfect, but we should all give ourselves credit for techniques we use that do work.
• Setting up routines in advance is much more effective than adding routines as you go. I could see how difficult it was for the teachers to try to implement routines, like using the cymbal to indicate that everyone should be quiet, after the activity had begun. Whether teaching for one class period or for a whole school year, it’s worth investing the time at the beginning to set up routines.
• Trying to get attention using sound doesn’t work well in a classroom full of sounds. Setting up attention-getting cues that are nonverbal or that use very specific sounds can be more effective in a music classroom.
• Doing small group work encourages lots of learning and creativity, but it’s very challenging to manage. How can groups figure out how to make music together when the room is full of the noise of other groups doing the same? How can a teacher work with one group and expect the rest of the group to remain engaged in some quieter educational activity when there isn’t enough time to pass out materials like worksheets and pencils? I was a little disappointed that the fourth grader teachers didn’t come up with a magic solution to this problem for me.
• It’s not my classroom, it’s my students’ classroom. Being a part of this reward day has motivated me to continue to find opportunities for my students to take ownership of their own education, no matter who is leading the class.
Giving my students freedom and responsibility showed me what they’re capable of and what they want from music class. Being a student for a day has made me a better teacher.