Classroom Cantatas at Mather and Mendell Elementary (Post #1)

Shadowing two small groups at Mendell Elementary and leading my own small group at Mather Elementary has begun! The idea of this project is that, in collaboration with teaching artists from Cantata Singers, I go in and lead a group of 4-5 second graders at these schools (though I am only observing at Mendell). The first few weeks are spent creating a melody for the given poem, while the next few weeks are spent creating an accompaniment, and the final few weeks are spent rehearsing their self-composed song, and a final performance is given at the Children’s Museum on April 11.

I noticed that each of the two group leaders I have observed at Mendell have unique teaching styles. One is very melodically oriented and is always trying to spark the student’s creative minds by singing what they have written and asking them to finish the line – thus creating the next part of the melody – or asking them “Now what should come after that?” When two students have two different ideas, they vote. This method gets him very far in the composition process. The second leader that I observe takes a different approach. She finds the important words in her text and asks how to bring them out in the melody, though no context has been given (melody surrounding these words has not yet been written as she does this). Because the students seem to have trouble staying in one key – they start on a random note when creating a new line – the resulting melody is so far in different “keys.” If two students have an idea she will often incorporate both ideas. Energy levels at these schools seem to have lacked the past two weeks, likely because it is the end of the day and lunch was a long time ago.

At the Mather I have led my own small group for one session (approx 25 minutes). This. Was. So. Much. Fun. I first established the one and only rule that we listen when someone else is speaking or singing. I encouraged them to raise their hand (though there are only 3 students in the group) when they want to share a great idea, and emphasized that they ALL have great ideas and we want to hear them. As a result, one girl always has her hand raised…. How do I tone that down while not ignoring her or making her feel like not everything she says is important?

Keyboards are used by the TAs for harmonic support or so the students can hear their melody (especially useful as I am not a singer), but since I have no keyboard to use at Mather I have downloaded a piano app for my iPad and yes, I did bring the iPad to a public elem school in Dorchester. The kids loved it! At first I used the device to play their small melody and told them that it was a “grown up tool.” One boy wanted to hold the poster of words but I thought this would keep him from composing with the rest so I insisted that I hold it where he could also see it. But the boy thought the activity was stupid if he couldn’t hold the poster, turned away from the group, buried his face in a chair and would not participate with us. I then asked if he would help with the piano by teaching the other two girls the melody (I quickly taught him how to play it – just two notes). He like playing on the iPad and taught the melody to the girl next to him, who then taught her friend next to her.

My question is: How safe is it to bring an expensive tool into the classroom in this context. The iPad is a great solution to not having a portable keyboard. Obviously they will want to play on the piano all the time, so am I at risk for losing their respect if I, a temporary teacher to them, don’t let them play with the keyboard when they want?

~Stephen G

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