When I watched the announcements about lockdown on March 23rd 2020 from a hard metal seat in Glasgow International Airport, I’d already made ten trips to Scotland and it felt so frustrating that the project would be interrupted when we were so close to its completion. Throughout the lockdown and the summer months, I hoped very much that we would have a chance to salvage and finish off the work. In the past two weeks it has been an absolute privilege to return to the schools with ‘refresher sessions’ and follow-up testing. So much has changed. The teachers vigorously spray, clean and ventilate the classrooms. Everyone is vigilant and determined to keep their community safe. It is obvious that this goal is shared and held dear by all. Even young children immediately take all their books and pencils with them when they sit on the floor while their tables and chairs are disinfected. Absolutely nobody needs to be reminded to do this.
In one of the schools, particular spaces are filled with food and clothing. The leadership team came into the school every single day of the lockdown, as well as throughout the summer months to keep everyone on track; teachers worked face-to-face with the children throughout this period. Stunning new displays made by the parents now explode out from the staffroom walls and thank you cards are pinned to the noticeboard of a beautiful new community room.
Rhythm for Reading has been modified to keep everyone safe. I visit only one school in a single day and wear a mask. The children remain in their ‘bubbles’ when they take part, and stand at least two metres away from me. In between each session, I ventilate and vigorously disinfect the teaching area. Of course, there is plenty of time for cleaning as each Rhythm for Reading session is, as always, only ten minutes in duration. Actually, this level of flexibility fits in very well with the dynamic teaching that I’m seeing in the schools - and the children are loving that they are being taught in small groups and in an increasingly nuanced way.
Robust, energetic chanting has always been an important part of the Rhythm for Reading programme, but chanting, like singing is strictly prohibited. For quite some time I have been resigned to mothballing the programme for this reason. Eventually however, a neat solution popped into my mind. With a bit of experimentation, I realised that it is possible to vocalise safely and precisely, whilst keeping the volume level below that of normal speaking. All that is required to make this modification fun, is a little imagination. Most children know how to squeak like a mouse - these high pitched sounds are made in the throat and involve minimal breath - far less than speech. So, my solution has now been ‘road-tested’ by the squeaky teams in Scotland and I’m happy to have found a safe and new way to offer the programme without diluting it.
I would like to say a huge thank you to these children, teachers and school leaders for the opportunity to come back and complete the programme. It has been utterly inspiring, humbling and uplifting to visit your schools these past two weeks.
Mastering a musical instrument takes years of dedication. A music teacher who has already spent a lifetime on this journey, is the guide along the way and travels the path to mastery with every student. She knows exactly where each student is in terms of making progress and can describe in great detail what is happening in the music lessons.
Given that the music teacher offers a path to mastery and has lived that path every day for decades- why would goal-setting really matter?
Here are seven reasons why:
1. Goal-setting renews the relationship between the teacher and student. This is a life-affirming conversation in which the teacher can welcome each student back after a break and say to them, “I believe in you…I know you can do this”. Goal-setting offers the most uplifting start to the new term and can inspire a fresh new wave of commitment to making music with passion and vitality.
2. Goal-setting can alleviate stress. If I was a teenager right now, I would be feeling very sad without my musical ensembles - I adored being immersed in music with my friends and we had so much fun during the summer. Our students are likely to be suffering the loss of their musical ensembles and missing the buzz of group music-making. Organising remote concerts on a weekly basis as an important part of goal-setting will offset musical isolation.
3. Goal-setting clarifies the context. September is always a month of change. Perhaps your student has a new school, new travel arrangements, new responsibilities, or new musical or sports opportunities. With the excitement of a fresh new start, there will also be a demanding process of transition to consider. Settling into a new school takes at least six months - relationships with teachers and friends need to be built gradually over time. Being aware of your student’s challenges and opportunities this September clarifies what’s possible. This matters because it’s essential that goals are realistic and can be reached.
4. Goal-setting sets the tone for the term. Aspirational students like to set up a new routine at the begin of the school year. When and where have they scheduled their music practice? Whether your students are aspirational or not, a goal-setting conversation is the perfect way to guide them in choosing the best possible time for music practice. Take care to cultivate their ownership of this process, but also to protect them from feeling overwhelmed or sliding towards perfectionism.
5. Goal-setting warmly embraces parental expectations. This conversation allows the teacher to share with the parent a timely segment of their over-arching vision for the student. Each goal is anchored to the teacher’s expertise - and here’s a gentle reminder that this expertise often has a lineage reaching back through generations of dedicated teachers. Parents want to be informed and guided by an expert teacher; confidence in goal-setting allows a music teacher to demonstrate that their expertise is grounded within an organised and methodical system.
6. Goal-setting helps to align our teaching practice with our musical purpose. Stephen Covey is know for recommending that we ‘Begin with the end in mind’ - this is the second habit from his book, ‘The 7 habits of highly effective people’. This phrase applies to goal-setting. All the goals we set for music-making lead us to the very centre of our musical aims - our ‘why’ - our inspiration. It might be the memory of attending a special performance, a vision for playing with ultimate freedom of expression, or simply to feel the sublime expansion of pure creativity. The ‘why’ is our purpose. It inspires our musical values. These influence the way that we teach by guiding our decisions, our priorities and our aspirations for all our students.
7. Goal-setting strengthens the musical landscape at grassroots level. Since our musical world contracted in 2020, with socially-distanced concerts at the tip of a rapidly melting iceberg, the role that music teachers now play in cultivating the next generation of performers and audiences is of huge importance. We are responsible for ‘holding space’ for music and musicians. We are helping to sustain vibrant music making in our students’ homes, as well as lighting up musical horizons in every community through the transformational power of our teaching. We are not on our own. Music examination boards such as ABRSM are still supporting music teachers by offering practical and theory exams during the pandemic.
I hope these ideas about goal-setting offer some encouragement as we continue remote and socially-distanced teaching. If this post has resonated and you would like to explore these ideas a little further, I’ve created a three short videos about setting-goals. Click here for the videos and to leave a comment or ask a question click here .
1. Let Schools be Schools
Many schools in the UK are also food banks; their classrooms are filled with donated clothes and toys. The generosity is heart-warming, but growing child poverty is a crisis of grim-realities and long-term consequences.
4.5 million children are living in poverty in the UK (trusselltrust.org) and teachers have had no choice, but to feed hungry pupils. They are constantly buying food for children to take home because the fridge and food cupboard are empty. Hungry children cannot concentrate for a single minute - I have seen young people in school faint from hunger.
For economically disadvantaged children and young people to gain the qualifications that will secure a prosperous future, a great deal of educational impetus is required. Teachers play a vital role in nurturing children’s capacity for learning and building trajectories for academic achievement, but at present, this role is diluted by having to think about hunger day after day.
Schools are highly responsive in tailoring their resources to meet the needs of their communities. However, school budgets have had to stretch to feed the growing numbers of children living in poverty. It is a matter of grave concern that resources are being diverted away from education to meet the children’s most basic survival needs.
2. Take action to prevent exclusions
A wave of redundancies due to cuts to school budgets, has been mirrored by an increase in the rate of school exclusions, undermining inclusivity and equality in the education system. Pupils who have benefited from close support and mentoring from teaching assistants in mainstream classrooms, but have been unable to manage unaided, have found themselves removed from school or placed in alternative provision. These disruptions have compromised not only their access to the curriculum, but also their chances of gaining qualifications.
3. Schools need modern educational values and larger budgets in 2020
Modern educational values and larger budgets are needed to inspire the learning of all children and young people. These should be delivered across complementary disciplines, and through effective systems that:
The energy of a new school year is incredibly positive and also very demanding. Some students will begin the term refreshed, starting the year with high aspirations, new stationery in their new school bags, others will be anxious or even angry that the work ahead of them will be even more difficult to understand than it was the year before. Many will look forward to seeing classmates again, but socially less well-adjusted children, will dread a return to taunts and jibes and loneliness.
Many will be beginning the new school year with the best of intentions, wanting to please teachers, trying to better organise themselves and to contribute in lessons. Some will lack motivation, and for complex reasons, will continue to struggle, as despite everyone’s best efforts the school system does not really appear to help them.
I am frequently inspired by children who do not understand what they read, but trust that with more reading practice, their experience of reading will become more rewarding. Unfortunately, practising reading in this way is not going to help them to improve. Unless word recognition skills are fully integrated with the child’s understanding of language, a profound disconnection between these processes will persist.
Equally inspiring are the teachers and classroom practitioners who are faced with the enormous task of teaching children with extraordinarily wide-ranging attitudes to learning. I see consistently wonderful teaching in classrooms week after week, year after year. We really should celebrate that we have such a high calibre workforce in our schools.
There are new case studies on our website, illustrating how the Rhythm for Reading programme continues to support teachers in resolving the difficulties that children experience with reading comprehension. Click the link to read more.
By nine years of age, children have assimilated a vast amount of information about their culture simply by learning through experience. Enculturation is a particularly powerful form of deep learning that shapes children’s attitudes and perceptions of the world in which they are growing up. Through working in many schools, I’ve observed that by the age of nine years, children have, through this process of enculturation developed a strong emotive response to the concept of ‘teamwork’.
A few months ago, I sat down on the floor of the school hall with ten children as they embarked on their first Rhythm for Reading session. I explained that we would be doing lots of teamwork. Four of the children said “Yessss” in a loud stage whisper and wriggled in delight, huddling cosily together. The others looked at me in complete horror. Although they sat quietly, their sharply drawn breath, their tense shoulders and stunned faces communicated their utter dread of teamwork clearly enough.Obviously, when a teacher chooses two team captains and tells them to pick teams in front of the class for a games lesson, each child’s worth or ‘value’ to their peers is revealed. To be picked first for a team is a deep honour and to be picked last, a deep humiliation. Presumably, these feelings have an enhancing or diminishing influence on the child’s performance in the team, but these experiences will over time impact on a child’s self-esteem. This harmful practice can be avoided by asking the team captains to privately pick their teams from a list of names at the teacher’s desk.
Musical teamwork on the other hand is highly inclusive and ensures that nobody is first and nobody is last. In the same way that every fish in a shoal will suddenly change direction at exactly the same time, musical teamwork requires that all students contribute in the appropriate way and at exactly the right time. In the Rhythm for Reading programme, the main priority is that the students work together confidently, collectively and synchronously, an approach that is underpinned by published research (Long, 2008; Long & Hallam, 2012; Long, 2014). Neuroscientists (Bhide, Power & Goswami, 2013) confirm that learning collectively in this way, i.e. via ‘entrainment’ has a statistically significant and powerful impact on academic attainment, as detailed in this recently published report by the Cambridge Primary Review Trust. http://tscouncil.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/COMPLETE-REPORT-Goswami-Childrens-Cognitive-Development-and-Learning.pdf
Bhide, A., Power, A.J., & Goswami, U. (2013). A rhythmic musical intervention for poor readers: A comparison of efficacy with a letter-based intervention.Mind, Brain and Education 7(2), 113-23.
Long, M (2014) “I can read further and there’s more meaning while I read”: An exploratory study investigating the impact of a rhythm-based music intervention on children’s reading, Research Studies in Music Education, 36(1) 107-124.
Long, M and Hallam, S. (2012). Rhythm for Reading: A rhythm-based approach to reading intervention, Proceedings of Music Paedeia: From Ancient Greek Philosophers Toward Global Music Communities, pp.221-232, 30th ISME World Conference on Music Education, 15-20 July, Thessaloniki, Greece.
Long, M. (2008) A Rhythmic View of Reading: From word recognition to reading comprehension, A submission to ippr’s Britain’s Got Brains Competition, Institute of Public Policy Research. www.ippr.org.uk/researchthemes/education