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Playing our Parts, Together

Welcome to another entry of Sistema Toronto’s Curriculum Blog. This time we will be discussing two topics near and dear to music educators: responsibility and harmony. In a music program, these concepts can be seen as closely related. Responsibility has to do with how we all do our part, and harmony with how those parts fit together.

Social Curriculum: Responsibility

Taking on new responsibilities is an essential part of growing up. From the very beginning of their first day, our students start by learning to enter the classroom, take their places, raise their hands, and keep their hands and feet to themselves. They learn to take on their role as students. Over time, their role develops as they become responsible for more and more: unpacking and taking care of their instruments, learning their music, listening to their colleagues, watching the conductor, performing, and composing music, and so on.

Responsibility can be its own reward. In the activity “Getting Ready to Play”, for example, students are offered the opportunity to take on the role of teacher and lead the class in a warm up. It can also be helpful to recognize responsibility, as in the “Get a Job!” activity, which rewards students with a job title for taking on a new role.

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Responsibility Activity Cards for Action, Sistema Toronto 2022

Theory and Musicianship Curriculum: Harmony

Harmony has to do with how things fit together. In music it can refer to groups of notes that all happen at the same time, like chords, or to how these groups of notes are organized over time into phrases, sections, and movements, and even whole works. In western music, harmony is fundamental to understanding musical form, melodic phrasing, and intonation. For young students just learning to play, starting to notice and hear harmonies is an important first step. “Walking Bass”, for example, challenges students to notice chord changes and follow along with their bodies, to draw a kinaesthetic connection with the moving harmonies.

Harmony Activity Card for Perception, Sistema Toronto 2022

Classroom Management: Rules, Roles, and Responsibilities

Two significant tools are often used to help students keep track of their responsibilities in the classroom: rules and roles.

Rules are a way of formalizing responsibilities. Any experienced teacher can tell you that rules have no power of their own, much as we might wish they did. Rules exist only to the extent that teachers and students work to uphold them. They are a kind of contract that defines the roles and responsibilities undertaken by teachers and students in the classroom.

For a classroom to function, only three rules are necessary:

  1. Listen to the teacher

  2. Participate in class activities

  3. Treat everyone with kindness and respect

Each of these rules explicitly describes a responsibility the students agree to take on, and implicitly differentiates the roles of student and teacher in important ways.

  1. Listen to the teacher

Even though on some days it feels like this rule is more honoured in the breach than the observance, this describes the most fundamental division between students and teachers. The teacher is the person you listen to. The student has to wait their turn.

The implication of this rule is that the student is there to learn, and the teacher has something to say that is worth listening to. Students therefore agree to wait for their turn to speak, pay attention to what the teacher says, and follow the teacher’s instructions, and the teacher takes on a leadership role and manages who gets to speak when.

Tempting as it may be to lean on the idea that “listening” to the teacher means “obeying” the teacher, the true power of this rule is in the privilege of directing the attention of the class, deciding who they will be paying attention to and for how long. If both parties embrace their roles and carry out their responsibilities, the class will go well.

  1. Treat everyone with kindness and respect

Unlike the first rule, this one treats the teacher and student as equal. This is important! Students deserve every bit as much respect as teachers, and teachers deserve as much kindness and empathy as students.

Phrasing the rule positively is also important! Any rule prohibiting teasing, name-calling, cruelty, or other exclusive social behaviours is an invitation for students to debate whether they have violated the letter of the rule, but simply being able to ask “were you being kind?” can save a lot of time and energy.

Even though the explicit wording of this rule treats everyone equally, it relies on an implied division between the roles of student and teacher. Students who agree to this rule take on the responsibility of managing their own behaviour and language, and learning self-regulation. Teachers take responsibility not only for their own behaviour, but for developing a welcoming and respectful classroom culture, where everyone feels heard and understood.

In addition to their role as speaker, the person who has the right to command the attention of the class and takes responsibility for directing this attention, teachers also take on the role of referee: interpreting the rules and arbitrating disputes. As speaker, they have the power to present the class with an explicit vision of kindness and respect, through modelling, activities, class materials, and as referee, they have the power to subtly shape and develop this vision over time, and give their students an experience of kind, equitable, thoughtful treatment that meets their needs.

Both parties benefit from this. Students who truly feel secure in the teacher’s willingness and ability to enforce this rule don’t need to worry about being teased, excluded, or hurt. They can focus on their role as learners. Teachers who enforce this rule not only help their students feel safe and protected, but help create a calmer, more positive learning environment which makes it easier to focus on their role as teachers. 

  1. Participate in class activities

This rule speaks to another fundamental division between students and teachers: participant vs. planner. The student agrees to take part in the class, and the teacher agrees to give them something to do. Like the other rules, this one relies on both parties doing their part.

Reluctant students who do not participate in the activities fall behind, and get frustrated by their lack of progress. Enthusiastic students make progress, and are encouraged by their success to continue participating. Explicitly requiring participation is a way to confront this head on, and insist that students give themselves the chance to succeed in the classroom.

Treating this as a rule also puts the onus on the teacher to make sure that all students are participating consistently. If all students are required to participate, then the teacher must plan activities that are suitable for all students to take part in. Activities that are too difficult, too complicated, too easy, or too boring, will inevitably lead to students giving up or getting distracted, no matter how good their intentions. Conversely, however well the teacher does at choosing class activities to meet their students’ needs, they will find it correspondingly easy to keep the class engaged and productive.

The role of planner is just as important as speaker and referee. The role of speaker gives us the right to command the attention of the class and determine where they will be directing their attention. The role of referee helps us influence how they will be listening and engaging with activities. The role of planner gives us the responsibility for determining what they will be paying attention to.

Planning activities is where the day-to-day craft of classroom management intersects with the long-term art of lesson planning. Good classroom management and a positive classroom culture make it possible for learning to happen, but the activities themselves are going to determine what the students learn and how well they understand it.

Next time

In our next blog entry we’ll look at two more topics in our curriculum: Community and Beat.