Likely not a conscious choice, the garden at Symonds is an unofficial symbol of nourishment, connection, and being part of something greater in our world. Tom Julius, Director of the teacher certification program at Antioch New England Graduate School has referred to the ideal educational setting as an elaborate ecosystem. One main idea being that like an ecosystem, if the system is functional, it is open to positive growth and can withstand various negative external forces. If one person comes or goes, the ecosystem shifts to accommodate but if there is real trauma such as years of budgetary and administrative stress on the system, then a downward spiral can occur. This ecosystem begins with administration and teachers being caring, supportive, and respectful of one another. This occurs parallel to (and trickling down to) a respectful classroom environment in which students are given intentional, often orchestrated opportunities to show respect for one another. Music, Art, Library, and PE are places in which students have opportunities to interact in very different ways than the classroom environment, thus there are more opportunities to reinforce the core components of a healthy ecosystem.
It’s October in music and up to this point in the school year we’ve basically been working hard to remind and teach our children how we function in a formal and informal setting with other humans. We continue to stress (this really never ends) being a whole body listener as the most basic method of showing respect for one another; adults and children alike. In the music room we’ve been engaged in more of what could perhaps be described as tweaking the ecosystem by urging, perhaps even say (rein)FORCING positive interaction through dance, song, and group instrumental work. All classes have participated in singing, dancing, and other whole-group activities such as games and loose instrumental ensembles. Here are a couple of specific examples of some of what we do to inspire positive interactions between one another:
Contra/ Square/ Folk dancing
I am super fortunate to live in the Brattleboro, Vermont area, home of Peter and Mary Alice Amidon, Andy Davis, and Mary Cay Brass. These four folks are the founders of New England Dancing Masters. (The featured photo of folks dancing is from their website). This is a collection of some of the finest team building (mostly) traditional dances and singing games ever known to educators. Here in Southern Vermont, Western Massachusetts where I tend to perform a lot of this music, and New Hampshire where I teach, these dance traditions are not just presented in the classroom, they are part of the woodwork in local grange halls, churches, libraries, and community centers. I have been taking these dances into the classroom for the last 14 years. This:
A) Allows students to practice how to choose and dance with a partner and large group respectfully
B) Helps in the practice of safely moving your body around others, demonstrating self control AND creativity and
C) Instills confidence, leadership, and community participation.
YES! Lots of this stuff is dorky, old fashioned, and anti pop-culture and it’s downright fun and gives kids the chance to be at once goofy and respectful in ways they don’t get to practice in a home environment.
School wide songs:
While many music classrooms are cut off from the rest of the school culture, I (and I know many other music teachers) attempt to foster school wide intergenerational unity by making sure that each week, the entire school learns one common song to be sung in the following all-school assembly. The song can be seasonal, serious, eco, goofy- basically any flavor. Here’s an example of me singing at assembly last week. A common song makes kids and staff feel “in it together” and motivates school wide learning. The video is taken sans children–for legal and safety reasons we cannot show kids’ faces.
School wide and music room Rituals:
We have many. These are opportunities for interaction that foster group pride. Here are a few examples:
-Our Turkey Trot gets the whole school physically active around Thanksgiving, running and walking around the perimeter of the playground and collecting food for the local food bank.
-Our Halloween parade gives kids the opportunity to dress up for an hour and March around the playground showing off their costumes.
-Dancing around the Maypole around May Day (seen in photo). Demonstrating this form of visual art and music in an ancient ritual requires intense listening and cooperating skills. Students need to pay close attention to each other in order to create beautiful patterns.
– 5th grade traditional English Longsword (Morris) dancing to commemorate the spring.
Makeshift instrument ensembles:
In order to prepare kids for really playing music together in band, strings, chorus, and the classroom, I often have kids beat on drums, improvise, and create “sound carpets” somewhat more freely than perhaps I should at the beginning of the year. Kids’ interpersonal skills are developed through negotiation over conducting, arrangements and improvisation. Below is an example of how one group came together to create something above and beyond expectations when given the instructions to set a group of instruments to a Haiku:
Deep in the jungle
Big, grey, fat, elephants live
Snorting and grunting
Social skill development is the most important part of this exercise. Again, faces are excluded. Watch it until the end- they do something really cool:
I am always working to maintain my classroom ecosystem but I will stress that I am so thankful for and couldn’t do it without our healthy school wide environment. None of this would be possible without great leadership within our school and a seasoned staff, many of whom have been around and working together for years. An ecosystem takes thousands of years to develop and can be destroyed in very short period of time. A school is no different– Symonds didn’t become like this over night, yet it could be destroyed in an instant. Warning?