A Fairfax Band Director Encourages Her Students to Take Ownership of their Learning
December 13, 2023
December 13, 2023
By Kathleen Jacoby
A favorite video clip I show my students depicts people stuck on an escalator. As the mechanism comes to a sudden, jarring halt, the people riding the escalator begin shouting for rescue and lamenting, “There’s nothing to be done until help arrives!” This metaphor comically applies to our mission of empowering young people to take ownership of their learning. That ownership can only be achieved if students can think critically beyond “the correct answer.”
Every teacher is aware of student learning gaps since the pandemic. While many point to test scores as evidence, we know that children are so much more than multiple-choice assessments. But do they know that?
My high school band classroom is designed to build trust and help students look beyond the need to find a singular, correct answer. I’m teaching them how to not get stuck on an escalator waiting for help.
Educators recognize that we have a generation of learners who view the world through a test-taking lens, having been taught to look for the best multiple-choice answer. While our profession has made great strides to fight this mindset, the pandemic dramatically set back student confidence. Many of my students would have rather melted into an anonymous puddle than share an “incorrect” observation in an online class chat.
The assessment students face in my band class is within a group, performing live for judges they’ve never met. They also must perform numerous times in front of family and community, at football games, weekend competitions, and community concerts and parades. Issues of self-confidence and self-reflection are as important as the mechanics of playing their instruments, because without them, the product of the ensemble—its performance—suffers.
Our students didn’t reach this mental state in a vacuum. When everything one says can be shared and stored digitally, with no expiration date, and living in a world of curated images, young people are under constant pressure for social perfection, both inside and outside the digital environment. Building a culture of trust has always takes time, but without trust, students will not explore freely or speak without the constant worry of being “wrong.”
Building that community of trust, of self-reflection and self-assessment, makes for a learning environment in which there are no multiple-choice answers.
Regardless of a lesson’s goal or what piece we are playing – warm-ups, tuning exercises, literature – the same process applies.
Prepping what to evaluate. A critical facet to group discussion is teaching students how to make critiques that aren’t personal to the player but specific to the product as a separate, inanimate entity. (My personal analogy: homeless vs. unhoused.) I begin with one or two parameters to consider before listening critically. We brainstorm descriptors we might use. Instead of value-laden words like “good” or “bad,” we make a word bank with items such as “clean,” “accurate,” “fuzzy,” “bright,” and “consistent.”
Creating the product. I teach my students that it’s easier to hear the accuracy of someone else’s playing than to hear it in their own. This is partially true—only listening is easier than listening while also trying to think about tone production, technique, and playing an instrument. But the real reason I say this is to remove the stigma from making mistakes. An attitude of, “Of course you won’t be able to hear what needs correcting—you’re the demo person!” encourages students to play without fear and accept corrections from their peers. Now it’s not personal; it’s just a fact of how things work. Without fail, within a few weeks students are playing without self-consciousness and have also found the capacity to self-evaluate in front of the class.
When the entire group is performing, I record the audio so we can listen immediately. The same principles apply as for individual performance – no one needs to feel embarrassed because of course it’s easier to hear what needs fixing on the recording than when you were performing in real time.
The ensemble members will soon become strong self-evaluators and begin to fix themselves in real time…but I don’t tell them that part yet!
The evaluation. Dr. Tim Robblee of Shenandoah University codifies the evaluation process beautifully. The first words out of his mouth after the music stops are, “What did you hear?” Students use descriptors from the vocabulary list. The next question is, “Do we need to change it?” If the answer is no, the teacher moves onto the next part of the lesson. If the answer is yes, he asks them what needs to change, and subsequently, how we might make that change. Rinse and repeat.
My personal teaching goal is to go as long as possible without offering my own answers or suggestions, although I’ve been known to raise a questioning eyebrow.
The product. Ultimately, training students to both diagnose and problem-solve means they absorb and apply content much faster than when they were delayed waiting for teacher direction (and frankly, often not very engaged with the material). Active listening demands far more of their brain than passive listening.
Cross-curricular applications. These same principles apply to any classroom regardless of content area. Math and computer programming require constant error analysis and trying multiple approaches to solve the problem. Most scientific study occurs as part of a collective and requires regular revision of methodology after review. The peer-edit writing process succeeds when empathy and critical thinking skills are engaged. In any subject, the more our students are active participants in the learning process, the more interested they are in delving past a singular solution.
Several summers ago, I was on staff with an American student honor band that toured Europe. One of our day trips was to an Austrian glacier. There were three chair lifts to get to the top; the first went to the ski lodge, the second to an industrial-like layover stop, and the last to six feet of snow and an unimpeded view of the Alpine chain. When we met up with students after several hours, a few teenagers told me how nonplussed they were with the whole experience. I was stunned. After some questioning, I realized that none of these very musically accomplished students made it past the second stop. Not once did they look up to see the signs directing them to the final lift, nor did they wander around the corner and see the other passengers continuing on.
“But you didn’t tell us what to do!” they complained. Teacher extraordinaire Don Magee recited what would become one of my favorite mantras: “Pay attention – it will change your life.” Even when we got to Paris a few days later, I had to coach those same students to look up at the city around them instead of waiting to blindly follow another group of tourists around. But, by the end of the trip, they gleefully told me of a small chocolate store they found on an Italian backstreet and how they found a way to communicate with the owner.
As educators, we’re in a position to help students pay attention, to build community, and to be trusting as well as fearless. Life is not multiple choice. Life is more than our curated social media personas. We must help our students discover and accept their authentic, imperfect selves. And that, for me, is perfection.
Kathleen Jacoby, a member of the Fairfax Education Association, is the band director at Herndon High School. She was named a finalist for the 2023 Washington Post Teacher of the Year Award.