Coaching to Collaboration
One of the most important soft-skills in the 21st-century is the ability to collaborate. As problems become more complex and projects become more intertwined, it is important that students understand how to work effective with others. This makes it an important skill for educators to develop throughout their students’ school careers. Here are three ways that I am working on developing their collaborative abilities.
With students learning to compose their own music, it is important that they learn to give and receive feedback. As such, a major part of our curriculum is for students to listen to each other’s projects and provide feedback, both as a class and one-on-one. This isn’t something that happens at a high quality immediately, so we build up to it over the course of the first semester. To start, I have the students recommend a song for the class to listen to. The student that made the recommendation has to note one thing that they enjoy about the song, and after we finish listening to the song the floor for others to note what they liked or disliked about the song. At this point, we talk about making sure we are being respectful in our comments and learning that we can find something we enjoy in everything (even if we don’t like it as a whole). As the students become more comfortable doing this, we begin listening to their projects in class and discussing them in a similar way. For each project, at least five students note one thing that they thought went well and one thing that they would change. Through this process, they begin to understand that their peers are only trying to help them and become much more open to giving and receiving feedback. These discussions spill out into the day-to-day of the class where students become open to letting their peers listen to works in progress.
For many careers in the 21st-century, a lot of work happens in a collaborative workspace with many people working on a single project. In a professional music studio, there is typically a single workstation with one person running the computer and four or five others in the room just spit-balling ideas. There is a natural ebb and flow to the conversations and creative process that is incited by this working environment. I am fortunate enough to have two side rooms which work great to establish this same kind of collaborative workspace. Within our main lab, students must use headphones so that they do not disturb others working. In the workspace, there are studio monitors which the students can use to work out loud – adding to the collaborative feel. As a class, we discuss that this workspace is open to any student at any time for the purpose of collaboration and group work. We set ground rules that it is a workspace, so anyone that is in the room needs to be an active participant in the project – not just hanging out. As more and more groups want to utilize the space, they have to start reserving their studio space to make sure everyone has an equal opportunity to utilize the room. The workspace has been great in allowing students to work through the create process together and also be able to pull in their friends to get quick feedback, or to ask them to add something to their song.
For many careers, collaboration looks different. It isn’t simply everyone working on a single project, but various departments relying on the resources developed by another team to succeed. This is especially true in careers where everyone is working on a big project, such as a TV show, video game, or movie. Each individual department contributes their assets so the next group can utilize them for their assignments. To help encourage and develop this type of collaboration, I do a variety of projects which ask students to develop and create shared resources that their peers will use. One of these projects involves students recording random sounds around their house and then using those sounds to write a piece of music. Each student is assigned a particular kind of sound to find (metal, wood, plastic, etc) and they upload those sounds to a shared Google Drive. Then the students use a discussion board to talk about what sounds they plan on using, what modifications they might need to make to them, and what sounds they wish they had. Students are able to read each other’s posts for ideas on good sounds, or to help identify (or record) sounds that their peers need. Through this project, the students learn to use each other as resources to find things they need in the over 400 different sounds, as well as to help each other with creating new sounds if they have an idea of how to create it.
Collecting Real-Time Feedback
One of the fantastic things about education is that no school year, even school day for that matter, is exactly the same making it truly an art. Just like any other art, education is influenced by the current culture in the community. As such, it is important that educators have a way to collect real-time feedback from stakeholders. There are two particular strategies that I quite frequently to inform my teaching.
In an ideal world, educators would have the ability to read the minds of their students, but we know that this is a rare ability. Fortunately, surveys are essentially a step-down and I believe that educators can find power in surveying their students. The further that educators get away from being a student themselves, the less they truly understand about what their students may or may not be thinking. Surveys allow educators to provide students with an anonymous way to provide feedback on teaching, learning, or other classroom procedures. If the educator has a particular thing they are interested in, they can simply add it to the survey, otherwise they can ask what is working and what is not working. These surveys can extend beyond the classroom to acquire data on parents and community members that may be able to assist with class.
Each year, I utilize a variety of surveys with my students. At the start of the school year, the students receive a survey asking for basic information such as their musical and technology experience, in addition to, what they are most interested in learning about in this class. I am able to use this information to adjust the curriculum pacing to allow more time on topics they are more interested in. Additionally, I can gauge their current knowledge and experience to determine overall pacing of the course. I also take note of their musical interests so that I can adjust the musical examples I use throughout class. Beyond this survey at the start of the school year, I survey the students every seven to nine weeks to see what is working and what isn’t working. I give them the option to put their name on the survey so that they can feel free to be honest. These surveys are the most important to me as it gives us the chance to get to know each other, and then it allows me to make changes to my class to better serve them depending on their thoughts thus far.
The ability to survey students and make large/long-term changes to pacing and learning activities is fantastic, but these large-scale issues won’t occur until weeks or months into the school year. If educators wait until this point, then instruction may have slowed, or students may have never understood part of the content. This is where educators can take advantage of a having a quick rating problems and solutions won’t surface until weeks or months into the school year. This is where educators need some way for students to quickly self-evaluate that can inform instruction.
To get instant feedback from my students, I utilize a 3-finger rating system that I learned from my mentor during student teaching, Dr. Andrew Poor. If there is a point during instruction where I want the students to self-assess of if I just want to take a pulse check, I ask the students to close their eyes and rate themselves (1) Struggling, (2) Understanding, or (3) Mastering. This allows the students the chance to really think on how confident they are on a topic while also giving me the chance to see how the class is doing as a whole. If I see lots of 3s then I know that we are ready to move on, or if I see lots of 1s then I know that we need to take a completely different approach. The best thing about this is that it doesn’t matter where we are or what we are doing, my students can use a single hand to inform our instruction.
In order to foster collaboration with the community, it is important that educators work to develop a relationship with all stakeholders. They includes those outside of the school building that might be able to help create learning opportunities. With this in mind, there are a variety of ways that I work to build those relationships. Here are three that I find to be very effective for my situation.
The easiest way to build relationships with the students’ parents is to communicate with them, and the easiest way to do that is through email. As the school year gets tough for students, I try to increase the frequency of my emails. I organize these emails in a variety of ways depending on the situation, but I try to always make it clear and easy to skim for busy parents. The example above is one of the emails that I sent to the parents and students after we discovered our COVID-19 shutdown would extend beyond spring break. I decided to talk about my own struggles with the shutdown and extend some ideas to students (and parents) about how I was keeping my sanity. I received much positive feedback from the parents.
Kendall Finley was one of twelve students in the State of Georgia to have their music creations selected and showcased at a recording studio in Athens, GA during the state music educators' conference. Feel free to listen to her piece at https://t.co/Siwae6RHeK. pic.twitter.com/imKvhBBmuH— Lanier High School GA (@lanierhsga) February 10, 2020
While parents will receive emails from teachers, which is great, that is typically the limit on email reach. This is where social media shines. Not only can students and parents see it, but they can also share it with relatives and the rest of the community. This helps everyone in the community feel more involved with the school, and it helps demonstrate the quality learning experiences happening in the school. Any time a student does well in a competition, or create an excellent project, I do my best to push it to the appropriate social media channels. This not only brings awareness to the school, but also the program.
Many educators focus on developing relationships with students and parents, but they often forget that the relationships with their colleagues is just as important. At our school, we have tons of concerts from our band, chorus, and orchestra. Of course, these programs would like to listen and evaluate their performance afterwards and to do this they need high-quality recordings. That is where my class steps in. Our students actively record and produce archival recordings of all musical performances at our school. This gives my students a meaningful learning experience through setting up, recording, and editing a performance, while also giving our music department a way to showcase their work to the community or contests they would like to submit to. We have even branched out into recording sweetener tracks for our musical theatre program to use during their performances.
Above all else, it is important that educators help foster a personal relationship with each student. Not only will this make them more open to working with you and giving their best effort, but it helps develop a mutual understanding among all students when completing collaborative work. In order to facilitate and nurture these relationships, I try to make sure I active have personal conversations with each student, and here are three ways that I have found effective thus far.
At the start of this year, a couple of students approached me about creating a music technology group chat. I was, of course, skeptical at first due to the potential headache it could cause, but I figured we would give it a shot after talking to another teacher that utilized IM for their class. I am so glad I did because it has been a fantastic way to not only build community, but create an authentic experience and allow me more individualized interaction with students that flourish digitally. The students use the chat pretty actively to talk about their projects and ask for feedback. Other students frequently respond, but I chime in as well. Where it has been really great is students wanting to ask me a quick question about a project or a gear purchase they are considering and me being able to respond to them relatively quickly, even outside of school hours.
Through my Master’s Degree program at Kennesaw State University, I have learned to love co-planning for having longer and focused interaction with each student. This year, I decided to implement it with my third-year students while they work on their capstone. For their capstone project, the students do a deep dive into a personal project and topic that they are most interested in relating to music technology. They create portfolio blog to showcase their work and actively research on their own. In order to facilitate these extremely varied projects, the students have to sign-up for times to meet with me one-on-one so we can discuss what they have learned, what they are working on, and what are some ideas onw where to go next. These meetings happen at least once a week, though some students sign-up for more. It has been fantastic for getting to know them and increase the depth of their work.
Damon Thomas is a music producer, who has shared the workplace with the countless A-class recording artists. He is imparting his wisdoms and experience with the LHS Music Tech students! #hookemhorns pic.twitter.com/poHDT0BAJR— Lanier High School GA (@lanierhsga) September 19, 2019
Since my class is vocational, I think it is important that I tailor my curriculum to what interests my students and how they could turn my class into a career (or side gig) for themselves. Often, the students are extremely interested in a certain topic or career that I may not have a lot of knowledge of, so I try to connect them with professionals to discuss more in depth. Of course we often have music producers come to class to talk to everyone, but for many of my students that is not the side of music they are interested in. Over the past few years, I have been able to connect a student interested in audio for film with a foley artist and a few students interested in video game music with a video game composer. More recently, I had a student that was very interested in being a mechanical or electrical engineer working with musical or audio gear. Fortunately, I have a friend who works for Google who had built his own electronic musical instrument, so I was able to have that student talk with someone who understood better what they wanted to do.