Here in Georgia, I lead classes for all three grades of the middle school years-sixth, seventh and eighth. I love getting to experience their growth during the three years, but my teaching improved a lot when I really this important fact:
6th, 7th and 8th graders are vastly different.
For sixth graders, the world of middle school is new and exciting, but it is also incredibly frightening for many. Most middle schools in my state include well over 1400 children. Most of the elementary schools contain fewer than 400 children.
There are so many new things for 6th graders to deal with.
Lockers…Teachers with many varied expectations…Accountability in ways they’ve never encountered before…Children from other schools who are from different socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds. The list is long.
It’s a huge transition.
Each year, I see the stress in their faces. In the first weeks of school, I always encounter tears. I almost always teach children who struggle to survive in this new world of middle school, and they start racking up absences as their mental and/or physical well-being take a hit from all of the stress.
When they walk into my room each day, I look into their faces and say hello and try to assess how they are feeling and what they’ve faced before walking through my door.
I want my chorus classroom to bring some light into their day.
Does that mean that I am easy on them?
Far from it…We work bell-to-bell, and my expectations are high.
But, I work to make them smile and laugh with silly humor at least once per day whenever I can.
They can be an energy-sucking challenge when we don’t recognize how their brains work, so I want to share three strategies that have helped me.
They thrive on structure, and they need answers!
“What will a 6th grader want to know that I have not covered?”
8th graders don’t raise their hands to ask 15 questions, but 6th graders do. It’s just where they are in their learning curve, but if you are careful and thoughtful and clear, you can avoid lots of these issues.
When I am explaining the procedures for concert night, for example, I try to think like a sixth grader. In order to keep them from raising their hands before I finish explaining something and interrupting and delaying the work we are doing, I have to make sure I’ve thought of every single detail.
I don’t allow my 6th graders to ask questions until I’m finished explaining everything about whatever I’m talking about. If they raise their hand to interrupt, I politely say, “Put the hand down.” Then, when I’ve finished, I allow for a brief question/answer session. I don’t let it go too long because they lose focus quickly and inappropriate behaviors will begin or they’ll start to ask questions about lunch or something else totally unrelated. I cut off the question/answer session and allow them to come up to me after class to ask the remaining questions one-on-one as they are exiting the room.
They need a change of routine every few minutes.
When it comes to learning singing in the group setting, Sixth Graders cannot bear to sit in the same location doing the same thing for very long. They need you to change it up way more frequently than their older peers. Get them up out of the chairs. Find physical ways to do teach your lesson when you can, but do it in a very clear and structured way.
Then, find a silent way to teach the next concept.
The roller coaster ride keeps them interested.
When they get bored, they start tattling and talking.
Teach them how to listen while they sing
They don’t know how when they arrive in your classroom. They’ve only had music once per week in their previous school. It is nearly impossible to develop great listening skills in a 30 minute music lesson once per week. The elementary teacher did the best they could with the time they had to do it.
Ear-training is up to you. You have to teach them how to listen while they sing, and it takes time. Doing it while they are so young will serve you beautifully over the next two years, so make it happen!
1) They almost never sing DO in tune when they try to sing a scale. They sing DO and 3/4. We have to help them realize that. Don’t ignore it. It won’t go away. Give them DO when you want them to sing a scale and ask them to sing the DO back to you before they sing the scale.
2) On the descending scale, TI is always a hot mess. It sounds like chopsticks. Teach them to hear it. Sing it back to them the way you hear it…they’ll laugh…
3) And MI/FA? Wow. It’s always going to be FA and 3/4 unless you fix it.
In their repertoire, if there is any passage that includes “MI/FA” or “TI/DO” or other chromatic pitch, they are going to struggle, so teach it carefully! I like to use a solfege preview before they actually try to sing the song that includes the tricky passages. This helps to get them centered on the pitch before they get distracted by the words and symbols on the page of music.
Ear development takes time! We didn’t develop ours overnight either! 🙂
For more ideas for teaching in the middle school choral music classroom, check out my blog.