My Elementary Numbers Epiphany!

If you read this blog or my twitter very often, then you know that I have been recently stuggling with my elementary numbers.  If not, you can read about it here.  Anyway, to make a long story short, my elementary numbers have been declining since hitting a high point of 137 students in 2006-2007.  After looking at the list of those students from 06-07, I realized that only 10% of those 137 are still playing.  So, for about 2 weeks, I have been searching for an answer to this predicament.

Last week, I had an epiphany. You know those moments when the clouds part, and the sun breaks through, and you hear Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus?  This was one of those moments.  During a break in my classes, I thought I would stop by and observe a little of our new choir director’s 8th grade rehearsal.  I made my way to the back of the class and had a seat.  At the time, the students were singing some silly nursery-rhyme-type song.  When they knew the words, the director taught the students another verse with different lyrics and a different melody line.  Then, they sang that a few times until they knew it.  Finally, the director split the group into two, and they sang the two different parts together.

As I was looking at the students throughout the room, I had two startling revelations: 1. The students were smiling and laughing, and having fun.  2. They were learning an introductory lesson about harmony.  They were learning important concepts, and they didn’t even know it!!  Then and there, I knew that this was the solution to my elementary woes!

I have never considered myself to have the right personality for elementary students.  Don’t get me wrong, I like those students a whole lot, and I really enjoy working with them.  But, I just don’t have the energetic-type personality that works best with this age group.  So, I realized that the reason that students were not staying in the program was that band was not FUN!  Students (especially at the elementary level) need to enjoy being in band.  Unlike older students, they do not yet play in band simply for the aesthetic experience of playing music.  They want to play because their friends are there, and they get out of class, etc.  So, I realized that I needed to make band an activity that they really wanted to participate in.

So, my new mantra is “What will keep the kids coming back?”  My elementary band students should be looking forward to their band time each week.  I want them to not be able to wait until that time.  It should be better than recess for them.  They should want to be there as much as possible.  I think if I approach elementary band this way, it will keep them coming back.  Then, the students will “talk it up.”  I can hear it now – “Oh man, we had so much fun in band today.”, etc.  That’s what will build the program.  I also think I need to promote things like our band trips in high school and how much fun the students have at the football games.  This gets the elementary students thinking long-term.

So, veteran elementary teachers, I am looking for input.  I need ideas.  What fun things do you do in your classes that gets them coming back for more?  For those of you that remember Short Circuit, in the words of Number 5, “Input, more input!”


8 thoughts on “My Elementary Numbers Epiphany!

  1. Hey Doug,

    The one thing that some of my students have commented to me is that “rehearsals are enjoyable”. I think there is a difference between fun and enjoyable – and if I get down to the semantic level and figure it out I will let you know! But for the past year I have been viewing every rehearsal as a chance to do several things 1)Help the students realize a short term musical goal 2) Make them feel productive by doing it, and 3) Let them see my passion and excitement for their growth. I have never worried about being over the top in that regard – I look at like this: If a professional athlete can dance badly after scoring a touchdown, why can’t I get fired up about a 4-3 suspension or playing in 7/8 time?

    I have played musical battleship with my middle school students. Using a board made up of scales, tonal patterns (in solfeg) and rhythm combinations, they try to blow each other out of the water. I get to reinforce major and minor scales, rhythms related to the music we are working on, and getting them to transpose pitches in their head. There are always winners and losers – but the losers generally a) don’t take it too hard, and b) practice the fundamentals a little harder for the next time it comes around.

    The other thing I think is vital for young musicians to see is someone closer to their age performing well. I love bringing in a college group to the band show – it is recruitment for them, but it gives my students a live role model both aural and visual for them to aspire. I make sure the middle school watches the high school groups at the concerts. As far as getting the elementary band to continue at the middle school – one thing I have done is invite them to concerts and shows as often as possible.

    Hope these ideas help you. As always it is pleasure visiting and reading at your blog. You continue to evolve as a forward thinker in our profession!

  2. Doug, I don’t pretend to know a whole lot about either teaching or the specific age range you’re dealing with, but my general experience is that variety never hurts. I’d say try not to find the one thing that’s fun and stick with it. I think that’s a trap I fall into often in photography. I’ve found something fun the kid likes to do, and before you know it, not only are they out of their shell, but they’re also bored and acting up.
    Sometimes I try thinking like that age. What would I think is fun? For me, never knowing what to expect other than something way different than any of my other classes is fun. And that would keep me coming back for more while I developed habits that would stick with me into high school (without realizing it).
    I think you’re on the right track though. Going into high school, if your friends quit band, you’re surely not going to stay in it. It’s easier to be an individual the older you get, so I think those first few years are always going to be your toughest with peer pressure.

    Good luck!

  3. Great conversation, I really started thinking about this right before I read this at lunch today. I was concerned that my MSers would suffer the same, “band is not enjoyable” type of attitude and not get to the HS level. I am also not sure I work best with where I am, but I’m trying to develop so I can help them be there best. I tried the battleship type game with my 7th graders today (thanks there Mr. Weller!). The kids had more joy and enjoyment, and still were able to learn and practice rhythms and pitches.

  4. Good stuff, and good questions. It could be that you might just not be wired for elementary music. I’ve known HS band director who would have a really hard time connecting with 10 year olds, and elementary teachers who probably wouldn’t make a connection with teenagers. Does any of that apply to you?

    The other element that makes a huge impact on elementary students is a personal connection between the teacher and student. Do your students feel special because of what they experience in your class? Do they know how proud you are when they reach little goals?

    You are asking all the right questions, and I totally agree with the other commenters’ input. (You go, Travis!) 🙂

  5. Doug,
    I say fun, fun, fun. True, TJ, let’s not hash over semantics-let’s just get to the fun. Kids sign up for Band because they want to feel like rock stars.

    These questions may or may not help, but give them a test-drive:
    1. Is class based on “the students doing” or “the teacher covering”? Do you plan lessons and tests around what you will tell them or around what they will do? Kids (everybody for that matter) have a need TO DO, not a need TO KNOW.
    2. Do you talk too much in class? Do the kids spend 90-95% of their time with their horns on their faces or in their laps? Band directors are notorious. (I’m certainly guilty!)
    3. Do you know the skill you are teaching this week, and exactly how they will prove their ability? Do you have plan B (and C and D) ready if thing don’t go right, or if they go extra well?
    4. When is the last time you played something totally unrelated to your next concert (or the method book) that was just for the kids? Iron Man is a popular recent movie…have you written it out for your kids to jam?
    5. Do the kids know what to expect from you? Do they know when to buy reeds, show you repairs, ask a question, get extra help, what happens if they are off task?

    Best of luck!

  6. I know, this is an old post… I just had a few minutes to read through your blog and caught this. It’s funny, this topic came up at an inservice recently, and a colleague (she teaches middle school in our district) posted about it on the MENC forums:

    Here’s my take on your question: I do not worry too much about smiling, laughing and having fun (or however anyone wishes to describe it). That’s just not my personality; I am kind of deadpan/sarcastic/honest; I can’t do the namby-pamby stereotypical elementary teacher ga-ga stuff, if that makes sense.

    I am very much into setting really high goals for the students and providing whatever I can (in terms of instruction or scaffoldling) to help them get there. I like to guide them toward ways to fix problems, and I suppose (in administrivia jargon), I do a ton of differentiating with my students. If one kid needs to count using ta/ti-ti and another is ready for 1 2+, I am fine with that.

    No matter what, when they get “there”, I offer whatever sincere and enthusiastic praise I can. I have a bunch of extrinsic rewards in place, but I make a much bigger deal about a shocked/happy face and a “whoa, that high C was smokin!” when a goal is reached.

    Another component is that I work really hard to do everything I can to be assured that kids are on the *right* instrument for them. I try to make sure that band is out there and part of the school, and that every kid in grades K-3 has heard all the instruments… that they see band as a positive thing. That when they walk in my class in 4th grade, they have chosen an instrument that they like; with a sound that they enjoy, that they are likely to practice.

    For me and my teaching, that is what seems to work. I assign more than I think they can do and I tell them that I purposely push them hard… I keep building my toolbox of ways to help them get there… and I throw a ticker tape parade when they do. Some kids quit, some do not go on, my instrumentation isn’t perfect, but while the kids are in my class, I am fairly certain that they are achieving and moving forward. Most importantly, I think they know when they have succeeded and how they got there; my hope is that they can use those skills tomorrow and next year, and for the rest of their lives.

    That was a pretty long-winded reply… sorry about that. It’s a hard question to answer briefly, KWIM?

  7. Linda,

    Great thoughts! I really appreciate the comments, as I am also a “deadpan/sarcastic/honest” person myself. I have never felt like I had the “right” personality to be an elementary teacher. I am glad to see that you can still be successful with this type of personality. There is hope for me yet!

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