It was a rough year in Fourth Grade music class this year. I never gave up, but I wonder if different choices on my part would have yielded different results. I tried a series of paradigms, working to connect with the group and get them working. But did I sacrifice creating a safe and predictable environment by continually changing the rules? I am very curious what you will think.
First, some context. When I had these students in Second Grade, music was their last class of the day and problems in music class were similar. Last year, their Third Grade music class was first period and we had a blast: behavior issues were at a minimum, musical work was a joy and the culture of the room was positive and productive. This year, music was again their last class. They showed up to my room having already packed their bags and were prepared to go home. It seemed that the school day was over for them and many had a hard time focusing and following expectations.
I tried several games to motivate them. In one, I had a daily score tracker where they could get points for following expectations, or I gained points if they didn’t. If at the end of class they were ahead or the game was tied, they won a letter in the word MUSIC. When they completed the word they won a free recess. This was beneficial for a while, but poor behavior resurfaced and slowed progress in letter-earning. This was discouraging for the group and I ultimately abandoned the practice.
In another game, we engaged in “Karate Recorder”. My goal was to have the group be more self-driven, working together and engaging each other in practicing recorder songs. Students could earn their next “belt” when they were ready to play for me. The core group that could always we counted on to do their work was incredibly motivated and engaged, but the disrupters continued to make progress difficult. I resisted the temptation to send them from the room, trying to get them plugged into the fun of the activity, but it was a struggle to keep the game going. I let Spring Break be the natural end to that unit.
Building on the limited success of extra recess as a motivator, I let each class period have an opportunity for some free time. If they gave me two thirds of the class engaged in productive work, I would give them one third of the class outside. If they wasted our time, I would take a minute off their recess time. This was the most successful thing I tried. The immediacy of the imminent reward was key. The frustrating thing was that as we got closer to the year-end performance, productive work time was too short. The reduced learning time did not give opportunity for excellence.
I was frustrated with myself for not finding “the right way” to interact with this group, but had predictable validation from my fellow specialist teachers that they were having the same trouble. Further, I drew personal validation from noting that every other grade level was doing just fine. There were more than the usual number of students in Fourth Grade determined to get negative attention and show off for their friends. If I’m honest, I wonder if I was more distracted by them than their peers who lived with the behavior all day. I suspect that if I did a more determined job of ignoring the behavior, they may have given up, though I remember several occasions when I attempted to do just that and they just turned up the volume until I couldn’t ignore them anymore.
Moving forward, I have hope. As Fifth Graders, music will be their second class of the day and I hope we can get back to the success we had two years ago. Also, next year the schedule is allowing for a final 15 minutes back in home rooms to wrap up, which means that students will not be packing up before the final specialist class of the day, which I believe was a key part of our problem this year. Further, there is always the benefit of a fresh start with students who are a little older and a touch more mature, which can make a difference.
I am committed to appreciating my students, so I intend to focus more on the in-action majority. I am determined to set clear expectations at the beginning of this year and hold to them, so I continue to reflect on what worked and plan lessons to move in those directions. Similarly, I will reteach and practice our class routines, welcoming new students into the group. Further I will focus on the thing I have most control over: my lesson plans. I will work to make them engaging for all of us, including me. If I’m not excited about what we are doing, how can I expect them to be?
What are you committed to for next year? What was your one area where you think you fell flat? Let’s pick ourselves back up!