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Archive for November, 2011


Analogies #1: Footie Focus

Sometimes trying your best can make you look a little stupid

Teaching utilises a creative talent of mine that untill now has been pretty useless. It dawned on me when reading Sir Ken Robinson’s book ‘Out of our minds’, where he outlines his theory on what creativity is. Amongst other things, he says it is the ability to form links and analogies between different seemingly unrelated subjects or ideas.

This is my bag. It is my satchel, backpack, utility belt and wallet, so in a series of posts, I aim to lay out some of my more successful  musical analogies. I may be flawed as a teacher in many, many ways, but this skill has served as one of my most powerful teaching tools in getting pupils to understand or visualise what we are covering in lessons. You may have heard them before, and if so, I would love to know the source of them. They may also be obvious to those who have tried something similar.  An agile mind can be a very powerful asset in a classroom full of pupils who can be looking at you and thinking, ‘what the HELL is this guy on about?’
First up, behaviour, attitude and group support illustrated through football.  Now, my use of football analogies has been an ongoing journey and one that keeps developing in depth and complexity, but the reason I use this is it is easily understood by the pupils, and both boys and girls can relate to the message I’m trying to convey.

One issue I have had is when pupils are asked to answer a question or perform, and other pupils burst out in laughter at the first slip, mistake or mispronounced word. I cannot abide this behaviour in a music class, given the socially binding purpose of the art form, so I use this story to emphasise the importance that pupils support each other when learning.

Firstly, as a group we are all a team. We are on the same side, and therefore we must support each other. We all have different strengths or roles within the group, such as defender, goalie, winger etc. We might not know yet where we best fit, but we have to try it all out to find where we best play.

If we are in the middle of a game and I am a defender, I will at some point have to chase down a striker if they are breaking towards our goal. To do this, I’ll probably look a bit silly, my face will be contorted while I go hell for leather to catch up with him. The attacker stops, holds the ball up and in an effort to tackle him, I fall flat on my arse and he’s off again.

Now, in the heat of the game, do the rest of the team laugh at me for falling over? Consider the effect if this were to happen. The second time the opposition break forward, I am likely to feel so self conscious that I won’t try that hard again for fear of getting the same degrading reaction from my team mates.

Instead, in the real game, my team mates pick me up, applaud me for my hard effort in chasing the ball down, and encourage me to do it again. Even if they are all thinking I am as cack footed and useless as Michael Owen’s spell at Newcastle. (I think I am nearly over this, however he was an ungrateful money grabbing wus)

The positive effect of this allows me to continue to play with confidence, and gives me a chance to rectify the error and redeem myself. This is at the heart of effective team work, and is crucial for allowing people to flourish in an environment where all progress and development is seen so publicly.

This has helped me create a learning environment where pupils are becoming increasingly more confident to push themselves out of their comfort zones and into the terrifying yet inspiring realm of puplic performance.


Prezi, SOLO and techno

I’ve seen a lot of SOLO taxonomy around the blogosphere recently and the little reading I’ve done on it would suggest it as a pretty useful approach. My understanding of it, my very limited understanding of it, is it helps pupils view their learning in a larger context. Pupils acquire the knowledge, piece it together, and form new ideas and views. For a more informed and articulate view on this, visit Learning Spy’s blog. It was this that first put me onto the idea, and it fitted well with some other ideas I’d been having on where to go with my classes.

With this idea half formed in my head, I rushed off to plan some lessons around this ‘bigger picture’. With this going round and round in my head, and having been using the presentation tool PREZI all year, I fell across a perfect partnership.  If you are not familiar with Prezi, it really is worth checking out. It can do wonders in a classroom and has potential I am still on the fringes of. With the ability to shift focus around an issue, idea or subject, the pupils can visually be taken around various ideas that all connect to this big picture.

Learning is about making connections, or at least creative learning is and making new connections is part of the joy of music. Combining ideas from different styles, playing around with moods and textures, putting instruments and sounds together. It is a creative playground as liberating as any canvas or physical space. Another benefit is in helping pupils feel the stuff they have already learned is of value. It is after all the reason I tried to teach them it in the first place. If what we are teaching pupils cannot be taken and applied in a new context, then it is pretty useless. What use is knowing the tuning of a violin? None. It doesn’t help me or the pupil at all. It might be a good question to ask for 4 marks in a test, but who cares? They can look it up.

On the other hand, if a pupil were to learn that the tuning of a violin was in 5th’s (an interval that is found everywhere in nature, and has a scientific and mathimatical property that makes it sound so nice and open) and that this is the same interval to the beginning of Ba-Ba Black Sheep, and countless other songs, then he/she can find this interval on the piano, sing it, recognise it and even approach playing the violin in an ensemble.  That is real learning.

I’m not teaching my pupils either of the above, but I am trying to engage them in a bit of dance music production. The first lesson’s prezi can be found here. It’s aims are to show pupils that a drum beat they have already learned in the past can be found in all kinds of modern music style

s. This then leads them on to question what other conventions might be found in other instruments that make up the band…and so on. It is very early days having only just taught this first lesson, so I’m looking forward to seeing what the pupils can recall next week. It has renewed my vigour for my Year 8′s and given me a focus that I am at risk of getting very carried away with. Dance tracks. Get in.

Shut up Fergie, just please, SHUT UP!!

You went out and you lost me Maaarrney! You're fired!!

The levies have broken and Ofsed paranoia has ripped through out school like a N’awlins flood. With all this  panicked rushing around and frantic paper work, it is easy as a front line teacher to start asking where are the pupils in all this?

I was compelled by all of this to try and balance the karma and make sure I am trying out some new ideas with my classes. I am grooming my Y7′s for a disco-licious Christmas with Billie Jean and hopefully get enough recordings and clips to edit a video with the whole year group performing. Not sure yet how I’ll pull this one off. Maybe if I just put it to the back of my mind for now……

My other brain wave came after reading the first chapter of Ian Beadle’s incredible book, Dancing About Arcitecture. I actually had to stop reading after only a few pages as his words started filling me with the kind of passion and militant motivation that got me into teaching in the first place. It was his line about who we actually work for, and that is the pupils. So simple, so obvious, but given the current system, easily forgotten.

It reminded me that the music our pupils are making should always be validated and viewed in a real situation. This may be in the context of a live performance, even if it’s within the classroom, it may be a recording that can be shared with others, made to accompany an image or video etc. All of these applications allow pupils to experience seeing their work in a more meaningful way.

Taking this, and the ideas Ian discusses about the importance of dance and music  in the curriculum, I set out to find the dance teacher in our school. My idea is to get my Y8′s and 9′s to plan some dance riffs and beats for the dance classes to put their own choreography to. If this were to come off it’ll make strong links between the departments, links within the pupils own learning, and a valuable experience for all involved. (I managed to write that without referring to ofsted frameworks once…..oh what? Damn it!)

This won’t be possible without me doing all the production on the tracks. There is no chance of getting the pupils recording a 3 min dance track live. This much I have learned. I have no problem with this extra work load, but I often question the value any work really has if it relies so much on the teacher’s own input. This is however, a very acurate depiction of the music industry. Artists who credit themselves as ‘song writers’ often do so in the loosest sense of the word. You only have to look as far as the Black Eyes Peas to see Fergie demonstrate her mastery of this art form with her contributions

What a talented, clasy lady you are

“‘Cos of my hump, my hump my hump my hump
My hump my hump my hump, my lovely lady lumps
Check it out”


“I’m so three thousand and eight
You so two thousand and late

I got that boom boom boom
That future boom boom boom
Let me get it now”

Wow. Just…..Wow.

If they can do it, and lets face it, BEP have nothing more to do than sit and try to actually contribute something, just one thing positive and of value to our collective musical heritage, then my pupils can get a leg up. They deserve it, poor blighters.



How Musical Futures (and an iPhone) saved my week

As first weeks back after holiday’s go, this has been a whopper. Adjusting back to the rigors of actual work after a week of self indulgence and slobbery is always difficult, and this week I fell foul of that most dangerous of teaching pitfalls, complacency. This is  a story of redemption, however, so I will not delve into the reasons or excuses why I was complacent (I will carry the shame of this reflection alone) but suffice to say I over estimated my pupils and underestimated the importance of planning.

I had spent time over the half term going through the Musical Futures Resource Pack and found some excellent ideas in Tim Steiner’s work. The material on the DVD that accompanies the resources is very useful for showing what this work should look like in a classroom, and watching Tim conduct the group and lead them through the piece was all the more inspiring given the issues I covered in my last post. I have been using the whole class workshop model with my Y8′s this week to finish off their ‘Hu-Ta-Nay’ track. It has lead to some good results and by working with some of the warm up ideas shown in the Musical Futures resources, a high level of performance and understanding was achieved.

Then came my Y9 Btec lot and I really dropped the ball on this one. I had set them a load of research homework designed to set them up with the resources to move on with their group work. this is where my complacency became apparent. I had assumed too much and planned to little, and as a result I had the worst lesson with them all year. I left the lesson feeling hugely disappointed in myself and them, but determined to get us all back on track in the following lesson.

To achieve this feat I turned to MF’s Classroom Workshop material and knew that if this worked I would not only have my retribution, but they would have a new insight into group music making.

How did the iPhone help? Well, I have been struggling with finding the right guitar resources for this kind of activity.Google image searches always come up with some pretty ugly looking charts, and being someone who likes nice looking resources, it was clearly going to take some time.  I remembered the guitar tool kit app I had on my phone which can be set to show nicely any chord or scale on the fingerboard. I simply grabbed a screenshot of the notes and chords separately, emailed them to myself. Copy & Paste. Print. Done. Genius!

I also have a Prezi that I used that helped me build up from just using Riffs using D, to get to the full Dm chord.

Once it was clear that the task had taken off and the group were successfully working through a conducted performance, it would have been a crime to not get a recording of it for assessment in a later lesson. It’s also an important addition to the class blog I am trying to set up for the group, so again I grabbed for the iPhone, switched it to camera, and got one for the pupils to record the performance.

Here it is!


The show(ing off) must go on?

How much of a musician should I be in the classroom? This is a question I ask myself and I mustn’t be to pleased with my own answers. In the classroom of my imagination I face the class with the kind of silence reserved for a great conductor about to raise his baton, the pupils looking on with antisipation to what musical wonders they might experience in the next hour. My dream is quickly shattered when [pupil A]  accidently addresses me as ‘Miss’, leading[Pupil B] to punch him in the arm, while [pupil C] has a severe attack of hay-fever all over her and her neighbour’s desk.

Ooh, look at what he can do!

Away from the drama and chaos of the real world, I long to be a musician and facilitator. A musician in a classroom helping, encouraging and inspiring young people to engage in the creative process of music making and performance.  I agree that this is a hugely important part of teaching the arts. I agree that it is the best way to model a task, but it isn’t working in my current post. So what has gone wrong that means this isn’t the primary focus of my work? Where has that ambition gone?

A conversation with another music teacher over the half term presented me with an answer. One that should put off asking this question again, at least for a while.

An honest review of my teaching practice to date shows me I have not been ‘showing off’ as a musician in the job.   I find this very odd given my background. Despite years of performing to the public, and wanting nothing more than their admiration (and cash!), when in the school setting, where you have captive audience, in a very literal sense, I can’t do it. I can’t show my performing chops. I got into teaching to show off. That’s what musicians like to do. That’s why we put the hours into practicing and refining our skills. we take a huge amount of personal pleasure  from learning and refining our skills, but we want, even NEED to share our music.

It comes down to this. I have to be a Teacher first and a musician second. This has not been something that I have consciously come to, but rather an approach that has been born out of necessity. I am lucky enough to get to teach one on one instrumental and vocal tuition at my school, and this is when I can let the teacher act down a bit and become a musician, but in the classroom, it’s not going to happen.

I made attempts last year to show off. I set up a loop pedal, bought in various pieces of kit,  but I felt largely most of this missed the spot and didn’t actually leave any other impression on the pupils other than ‘Oh, Mr Hutchinson can play those.’ I still get on the piano and shoot out some licks from time to time and I’ll play and sing any songs they are learning. I’ll lead whole class music making as a musician with the same enthusiasm, but I am not performing it. I am being careful to keep my cards very close to my chest.

Much as I have struggled to address this issue, the classroom is just not a place for performance. I serves a perpose, but it is not the kind of environment that any musician is going to be comfortable performing in. It just isn’t. The kids are going to laugh at anything, at least in my school, no matter how acomplished, technical or entertaining it might be. ‘It’s the Laughing, always laughing!’

With the progress I have been making this year with the informal learning model, things could be turning a corner, but until the pupils have earned it, they ain’t going to see what I’m capable of. sorry.