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GUEST BLOG: “New Teachers: I Love to Hear You Sing,” by Emily Hackethorn

       Have you read the “Six Words You Should Say,” circling around with parents and educators on social media?  It started with this article.  The gist: the most important words you can say to your child aren’t, “good job” or “I am proud of you.”  Nope, kids just want to know that you love to watch them play. 
       Thinking back on times of my life that I’ve been the most disappointed, many of them seem to be a lack of recognition or encouragement from someone I looked up to.  Yes, I will admit that I like more attention than most, but I think that’s something many performers can identify with. 
       When I first arrived my 6-12 Choir position, many of my classes barely sang- especially in performance!  It would be so stressful, up on that stage, in front of a class that I’d practiced and practiced with, to have them barely make a peep.  Of course, everyone would tell me, “You have to get those boys (or girls) to sing louder!  They are so quiet!”
       Sometimes, I feel I don’t know how to do this well.  A well-trained, experienced pianist, I tend to play too much.  I perch at the piano, listen, and work myself into the music as we make it.  Maybe I was intimidating, having just spent 10 years as very serious music student, and trying to teach a bunch of kids who just want to have fun.  Correcting and working, striving to make them the best they can be. 
       Recently, Z. Randall Stroope visited Missoula to conduct U of M’s first annual Honor Choir.  One of my beloved seniors had the honor to participate and she soaked up his musicality and passion.  “He told us that sometimes, he just walks off the stage while his choir is performing!  Can you believe that?  He leaves his choir with the reigns, because he trusts them.”  Well, Rachel hasn’t seen me trust a choir that much ever.  Sometimes, we feel unprepared.  Sometimes, I’ve been their crutch on the piano for too long, then anxious as they move on without me.  Anyway, I’m learning.  After the Honor Choir’s performance, the first thing she asked me was, “Did you see how he just walked away during ‘O Soldier’?  He knew we had it.”  As a part of that group, she was so honored by his trust.  Confidence, he gave her more confidence! 
       I’m reflecting on weaknesses in my rehearsal technique, striving to be a good example for my student teacher. I see that I’m constantly helping my students, listening for weaknesses and leading them through.  Being too much of a crutch instead of prompting them to do the work and to pull their weight.  Last month, we sold Singing Valentines as a Fundraiser.  I gave my kids the reigns: choosing music, making small groups, rehearsing acapella and adding movement. 
       I was amazed, as we walked into classrooms around the school, and they really delivered. 
       As we dive into our Annual Dessert Show and Festival Season, the sentiment I want to most strongly express in my teaching is:  “I Love to Hear You Sing.”  At a recent professional development day at my school, we were prompted to use more positives in our teaching.  The leader of our training said the one thing that changes classroom behavior the most is positive reinforcement.
       In these weeks before I go on maternity leave, I am going be more positive in my choir room!  Challenge myself to compliment and teach them at the same time.  Phrases like, “Altos, beautiful tone.  Tenors, can you mimic that?” 
       How do you incorporate positivity and encouragement into your rehearsal technique?
on March 11, 2014 8:51am
I teach elementary general music K-5 as well as direct an elementary choir of 95 students in grades 3, 4, and 5 in my building.  I devised a feedback/encouragement system in my classroom and rehearsals years ago that was completely off the cuff at the time, but that I have molded into something that I use to my advantage every day.  It is so simple it is almost laughable.  
I draw stars on my whiteboard every single time following my students' singing - the more impressive the job, the bigger the star.  If the effort was not particularly impressive, the star is small.  My students know that this is my way of giving them feedback, and like all human beings, they enjoy recognition and want that "big star."  They will work harder for a bigger star.  For a really fantastic job, I will use TWO markers and make a "double star" - wow!  That is really great!! 
The stars also have smiley faces in them, and ... the students must "help" me draw the star and smiley face by using their voices to "trace" what I draw.  It is a pitch exploration activity built into the feedback system multiple times per day.
My favorite use of this is the "personal star" - students who give really wonderful answers, or ask really thoughtful and thought-provoking questions, receive a personal star - a star with their initials in it.  Many of their own classroom teachers will walk into the room when they come to pick up the students, recognize the student(s) who have personal stars, ask them to explain how they received it, and reward them in their own classrooms for such great work.
A simple idea but effective for us.
on March 12, 2014 8:50am
Amazing at how encouraging something as simple as stars can be!  Thank you for sharing, Suzanne!
on March 11, 2014 2:32pm
I just want to say that I loved your story, Emily.  Thanks for sharing!
on March 12, 2014 8:49am
Thank you, Stephania!
on March 11, 2014 11:05pm
After 23 years of teaching, I love to be reminded of our role in sharing the Choral Art....I really needed your post today, Thank you!!  I keep learning everyday!
Applauded by an audience of 1
on March 20, 2014 3:41pm
Learning everyday- one of the great pleasures of life.  Thanks for reading, Michael!
on March 17, 2014 7:24am
A wonderful director here says to his choir: Do something with that what you want to do with it.
Personal double-star for Ms. Suzanne Walters and Ms. Emily Hackethorn!
And for all that we can do toward positive reinforcement for all our students, choir members, feeding teachers, and colleagues!
on March 20, 2014 3:41pm
I like that!  Thank you, Lucy!  Positive reinforcement is important to make a community, for sure.