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Any advice on "dead-eyed" kids?(High school)

So, I'm going into my third year of teaching.  My "Come one, come all" choir is rather sizeable, but there is a large portion of kids each year who show up and it's clear from the second they're in, that they don't want to be there.  They have shut down on the first day, and from then on, it becomes more about managing their behaviour, which takes up rehearsal time.  I understand that there are kids you can't save, though I know I've tried.
In your experiences, have you ever found a management technique that breaks them of their jaded extremism and opens them up to the cool stuff that's happening around them?  Thanks guys.
Replies (4): Threaded | Chronological
on August 29, 2013 7:57am
Honestly, it's going to come down to your personality engaging them.  You have to make it fun and socially safe for them to show an interest.  It's not so much that they aren't interested, for that type of kid, it's that they worry that other people will make fun of them if they show an interest.  And they are right to worry.  If you've been lucky enough not to experience the sort of persistant, targeted hate campaign kids can be subjected to in middle and high school, lucky you.  It is the sort of behavior that would never be tolerated in the adult world, that includes threats, violence, and sexual harrassment.  When you are an adult, you can report someone else's behavior and they will be fired or arrested, and you probably will never see them again.  When you are a child and you report someone's behavior, they are still at your school, or in your house, and now they have a grudge.  It is much safer to avoid eye contact and interaction that draws attention to you than risk becoming the target of that abuse.  
You have to get ALL of them to buy in to make it safe for any of them to buy in.  Your choir has to be a safe group where everyone is completely welcome.  Rule with a light touch.  Set the example of a positive attitude.  Don't tolerate even the smallest instances of disrespect early on to keep a situation from escalating through the year.  Keep kids moving around and interacting with different groups so that no one is isolated, everyone gets to know everyone, and the kids at the top of the pecking order can't just hang out with their chosen few friends.  Tell them that you want to be sure that they are really listening for blend and move everyone's seats once a week.  Tell them you want to be sure that they can hold their parts when they aren't in the middle of their section and mix them around further for five minutes every rehearsal.  Put students in charge of little things regularly, and pick different students every time.  (Handing out music, checking an attendance list, grabbing the pencil jar off your desk...)  Have quirky, interactive demonstrations to teach musical concepts that are funny and put people in funny situations.  Make your classroom a place where it's safe to fly your dork flag high.  You need to be the first person to be a big dork and have a good time, with absolutely no fear of what your students think of you, while keeping a lid on the energy so the classroom isn't a zoo.  It's a tricky balance.  The great teachers at my high school were constantly discussed by the students.  "Oh my God!  So in 5th period Mr. So-and-so tap danced!  Can you believe it!"  We thought they were big dorks, but we thought it with great love and respect, and if they were the coolest person and yet simultaneously the biggest dork in the classroom, it was safe for the rest of us to sit back and enjoy ourselves.  
Applauded by an audience of 2
on September 5, 2013 10:47pm
Can you be more specific? Are these students who get put into choir against their will? Or are these students who chose to be in choir but are resistant to what you're trying to do?
on March 13, 2014 11:56am
When I first started teaching (I'm a third year director, too), I was an assistant director at a large high school with a very successful program already in place. It was a fantastic training ground for me, and for 2 years I was able to see a lot of things that worked when it came to inspiring kids and getting kids in even a non-auditioned choir to be excellent. None of the choirs at our school were auditioned, and the jr/sr choir travelled internationally, sang at state choral director conventions, and recieved high scores at most all state ensemble contests. Now, that success was not my doing, but I witnessed how it worked. 
Even if students don't want to be in choir in the beginning, you have to make them want to do it. You have to make the beginners see that it can be fun and exciting, and that learning new music is something they look forward to. Once you do that, you eventually have to challenge them to be good as a group, and that if they're going to do something at all they might as well do it really well. You have to push them, and challenge them while also knowing when it's time to pull back and just have fun with them. If you show that you want excellence, and you show them how to start achieving that, a lot of them will be hooked. Start small, give them attainable goals. When they reach those goals, you have to be the biggest cheerleader for them. 
Also, I find that having time with your choirs to talk about or do something besides choir music helps build the group's camaraderie and their desire to work together. If they feel like choir is a safe place where they are viewed as important, and can see that you as a teacher care about them as individuals, many times even if the music isn't that fun for them, they will buy in because they love the community. Start discussions with your kids about things they find important. Let them share their ideas or thoughts. Every kid wants to be needed. If you show them they are needed, they'll have more fun and they'll work for you. 
I am in NO WAY an expert, but these are some things I've seen be successful, and things I am doing now that I'm the only director at my own school, and I find that they work with a lot of kids. Good luck, hope your year is going well!
Leigh Anderson
Applauded by an audience of 1
on April 26, 2014 7:51am
Leigh, I couldn't agree more with what you have said. Alex, I am a choir director at a k-8 school in Phoenix, Az. I have been teaching for four years and also have the same issue from time to time. I agree with Leigh, push those "dead-eyed" students just as hard as you do the other students who really want to be there. Kids like to put on a strong front, but deep down, they want to be pushed and valued. 
Camaraderie is extremely important in a choral ensemble. What I do from time to time is do some sort of community building activity. It lets the kids have fun but at the same time, get to know each other. Once I have broken the ice with them, I have found that I begin to gain their trust and we can begin to really work hard. If you have any questions, please feel free to ask. 
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