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Kagan and 4th Graders Make Beautiful Music Together

Laurie Cunningham,
Adrian Public Schools

To cite this article: Cunningham, L. Kagan and 4th Graders Make Beautiful Music Together. San Clemente, CA: Kagan Publishing. Kagan Online Magazine, Fall 2007. www.KaganOnline.com

If you were to walk by my fourth grade general music class at Lincoln Elementary School, you would most likely wonder two things: how could any learning possibly be taking place, and how in the world can she stand all that noise? But behind the closed door (tightly closed!), students are fully engaged, motivated, and excited to have thirty minutes to practice their recorders,which are instruments that help prepare students for beginning performing groups in fifth grade and beyond.

Lincoln Elementary School is the smallest of four public elementary schools in Adrian, Michigan, a highly diverse city of about 30,000 in southeast Michigan. In spite of significant budget cuts, Adrian Public Schools has managed to maintain a well rounded program of elementary and secondary music and art classes, drama, debate, foreign languages, etc. Our students come from a variety of living situations, from very poor to upper middle class, and many have at least one parent incarcerated in the nearby state prison or county jail. Many of the children come from homes with parents/grandparents who speak little or no English, so learning the language factors heavily into our curriculum. Adrian's high poverty rate is a blatant indicator of the flailing auto industry; still, much of the local population benefits from several successful corporations, a community college, a liberal arts college and another university.

I have been teaching elementary music in Adrian for about seven years, after spending a few years as a secondary vocal music teacher in a nearby district. My teacher certification includes K-12 vocal music, but I also have several years of training on piano and woodwinds, which sufficiently prepared me for teaching recorder, the oldest woodwind instrument. (A recorder sounds like a flute, although it's played vertically like a clarinet rather than horizontally.) The Kagan Cooperative Learning training that our administration offered us has been extremely valuable in helping my students achieve all they can in the few months we focus on playing recorders each year!

To teach recorder playing to my fourth graders, I use a method by elementary music teacher Barbara Philipak called Recorder Karate. Basically, this method is a positive rewards system in which students earn "karate belts" to hang from their recorders (or zipper pull rings on their recorder cases). Colors range from white to black as in karate, earned one color at a time for playing progressively more difficult tunes. I post a chart of song names and the corresponding karate belt colors, nine in all, on a bulletin board in the music room. I've noticed kids studying that chart similar to a Christmas catalog! For example, a white belt (signifying birth or beginning, as a seed) is earned by successfully playing a three-note song, "Hot Cross Buns." The second song, for a yellow belt (the first ray of sunshine for growth of the seed), adds a new music symbol, and subsequently, each new song requires the students to learn at least one new music symbol or concept. The "belt" is actually a piece of yarn approximately two feet long.

For the first few music classes with the recorders, I teach basics (hand positions, tricks for not squeaking, the first three notes, etc.) Students remind each other that the left hand goes on top, watching for "flat, flabby fingers" totally covering holes, etc. By the second week (I see my students every other day), some students are ready to fly on their own (many have older brothers/sisters helping them progress at home!), but some are still struggling with rigid fingers or reading the music. In order to meet everyone's needs, I have found the strategies of Kagan Cooperative Learning to be enormously helpful!

The basic routine of our thirty-minute class that worked wonderfully this year began with one or two students implementing the Stand Up strategy (usually one at a time), performing a song he/she practiced since the previous class, feeling confident that a belt could be earned for the performance. This gave everyone in the class an opportunity to practice reading the notes from his/her own songsheets, or to practice the fingerings silently while reading along, or for more aural learners to hear the song again. Next we might study and rehearse a new rhythm or note from the next song the majority was ready to attempt. It was then time to break up into groups for RallyCoach. Some would find a partner to practice a song together. Sometimes I'd ask for a student who'd already passed the red belt song, for example, to assist another student who was struggling with that song. The coach was allowed to assess the other student's performance and present a belt to that student if the student could play the song reasonably well. As the students succeeded at one song after another, their dangling colors (I always buy the brightest shades) were displayed proudly to and from school, to family and friends, etc. I would often see them smoothing them out and sometimes braiding them like prized possessions.

One day I was thrilled to witness an otherwise quiet, reserved student who caught on to playing a new song quickly then confidently assist another who did not. Another day I had to look twice when I noticed a student who struggles both academically and behaviorally in the regular classroom coaching another student with a new fingering. What an achievement it was for him to know he could guide a student who usually catches on to schoolwork much faster than he does. Seldom was any time wasted by anyone during class. Seldom did I have to take away playing privileges for the day because of misuse of the instrument. Students were almost always fully engaged in individual or group work, encouraging one another, assessing one another, making beautiful music together.

Years ago my recorder instruction was mostly traditional. I would begin with basics, and as a whole class we would practice a few drills repeatedly for a couple of weeks, gradually working into the first song. Most students would conquer "Hot Cross Buns," but after that I'd gradually lose one or two students with each new song. Only 25%, 13 of 52, achieved black belt status last year. It was extremely difficult to find time outside of music class to tutor those who were getting discouraged and falling behind the rest. And those who caught on quickly were not being challenged at all. Now, when most of the class is fully engaged either practicing individually or with a partner, I'm free to assess and answer questions one or two at a time. Thus, very rarely does a student give up, frustrated and discouraged.

We concluded the school year with a recorder recital, inviting parents, grandparents and available staff to the music room to hear their students' accomplishments. I allowed students to form small ensembles on their own, and we decided together what songs would be most appropriate for which groups. Even previously reluctant students excitedly prepared for the recital. The excitement was palpable! It was quite apparent that each student felt successful and confident in his/her performance.

This year more students achieved black belt status than ever before, 35 out of 41 in two classes. (The black belt song is Beethoven's "Ode to Joy," from his ninth symphony, and it truly was joyful to hear!) All students could play several songs. No one ever gave up. Because of their competence and confidence, students will be much more prepared to make a rewarding choice regarding further music education when their middle school years begin after summer vacation.

85% of students achieve blackbelt status with the Kagan approach to teaching compared to only 25% with tradional teaching.

Thanks, Kagan Cooperative Learning! Your ideas and direction helped Adrian fourth graders turn their squeaks and diligence into beautiful and meaningful music!