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There was a marking review in school this week and it threw into light yet again the clash between meeting the requirements of school policy and trying to deliver musical lessons and help students make progress musically. Over the course of this term I have gradually withdrawn the hoops I have constructed for myself to jump through to evidence to anyone that’s looking that I am doing what I am supposed to and focussed on strategies which I feel support the aims I hold at the heart of my approach in the classroom.

Issue 1: Do they know what they are doing and why? How do you know? In some subjects you could set one objective and show how everyone is working towards this. In music they set their own, not only that but the objectives change in response to what happens in the lesson as they react and flex accordingly. So do I.

Feedback from my appraisal observation this term raised this issue and it has continued to play on my mind. I have a line manager who has worked really hard with the department to understand how Musical Futures works in this school. Because our results are good, we have been given freedom to explore and try out new things in the classroom and that’s been fantastic in enabling us to think more deeply about what music learning is and how we feel we it is working for us. he doesn’t expect to see written work and seating plans and is willing to look to find what he needs to tick his boxes. His feedback was that when he questioned students, although it was clear they knew what they were doing and why (because otherwise they wouldn’t have been so engaged and on task) some couldn’t articulate this. He gave me the benefit of the doubt-the lesson was graded outstanding but it made me think. Do I need to help students define musical progress? If so how and what might these be? Should we be coaching students about how they can express their aims and visions for their work more articulately if we are going to rely on verbal feedback and how can we do this without interrupting the flow of learning?

Issue 2: Literacy

This week is SALAD week. For one day each half term there is a focus on speaking and listening. In addition to this, departments have been challenged to come up with new approaches to literacy and these are shared regularly. The thing is, in music every day is a SALAD day. So when we are asked to share what we are doing there’s not much to add other than we are doing what we always do, trying to engage in meaningful learning conversations with students as often as we can. My blog about key words has more on this and the dangers of reducing literacy to a set of key words that students are expected to be able to recite on demand in music.

I think my answer to this lies in modelling. I want to try to model how to use musical language as I work with students and try to encourage them gently to do the same.

Issue 3: Marking

School policy is that each student will have a piece of work marked every 3 weeks with any feedback clearly identifiable by a yellow sticker. 3 weeks in music equates to just 3 hours work (if you’re lucky) and in the overall scheme of a project it’s not a lot. Do I invent a written task for them to do so that I have something to stick a yellow sticker on? Or do I hope that the feedback they get from me is worth more than that, despite it being difficult to evidence and difficult to pin down? At KS4 and 5 I absolutely see the value of our school marking policy and for most other subjects it works really well. But is there any point marking something before you have created it? The  journey through music learning is a long one, creating something, rehearsing and refining it in an hour a week takes a while. Surely the assessment schedule should fit the project not the other way around?

Today I decided to do something I have thought about for a while. I pressed record on my phone for the last 20 minutes of a lesson with year 9. This group are on week 2 of a project designed to get them thinking about

a) Composing with purpose

b) Developing musical ideas

c) Understanding how using the characteristics of relevant musical styles can convey a message and provide a useful starting point for a composition.

I haven’t told them that yet. What they think is that they are composing music to accompany an advert. In their art lessons they will design the story board or logo for their product putting what they are visualising down on paper. I have suggested 3 start points.

1. A ‘logo’ sound, one that when you hear it you KNOW which product or logo it represents (think McDonalds).

2. A jingle that uses the logo pattern but develops it

3. Some underscore to set the scene of their advert.

Last week I worried that I hadn’t given them enough structure. We simply listened to a few examples and then they were gone. But as I worked my way around the groups, armed with suggestions for what they could do, I noticed that these weren’t welcomed. In fact they had already decided within seconds what they wanted to do. Here’s what we have:

  • A parody of the Barbie song to represent the dangers to girls of promoting a certain kind of body image
  • Music for an app where each student is a character that you ‘unlock’ at the end of each level. Each character will have a different version of a basic musical idea playing for that level
  • An advert for ‘Tyler’s Toys’, set to music influenced by a Mexican theme. This idea came from a photo that one student had on his phone of himself in Mexican fancy dress that they decided would be the logo for their product
  • A holiday advert featuring music from round the world
  • A parody of the Leli Kelli advert which a group would like to set to heavy rock music
  • A clothing range with a space theme based on a tiny riff from a song that one girl got stuck in her head.

The last 20 minutes of any lesson are the hardest. Students are usually on task and what they need from me can be anything and everything. Because they are in groups across the department I circulate and try make sure I’m giving the right support to the right people. What I wanted to do was listen to the verbal feedback I gave. Is it valuable, focussed, necessary, what they need?

Of course, what you don’t hear here is the music. That’s going on when I’m not in the room. But with 6 groups and one me, that short time I have with them is precious so I need to be sure I’m getting it right.

I’ve listened back and I know how I can do this better. My constant nagging about prep is a result of the school expectation that I set it and they write it down. But actually I know they are doing prep because each week, they arrive and get straight to work, they are ready to learn. Is that another ‘non negotiable’ getting in the way of their learning?

And what also comes across is the reality of teaching this way. It’s fast, frenetic and demanding and I need to be realistic about my own limits in terms of I can do in a lesson like this.

I still haven’t found answers to all my issues. But I want to record myself again and see what I can do to look for the answers there. Does anyone want to join me? Oh and I know I mixed up Pastiche and parody but if you listen very carefully you will hear one of them quietly put me right!!

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