In the last few of the 25 years I have enjoyed teaching music at Morgan Park
Middle School, I saw a number of problems arise in class. Many students would
not sing out or try new things and would act as though they hated singing, even
though they claimed to enjoy it in one-on-one conversations with me. In the past
ten years, the previously middle-class student population has transformed into a
much needier and at-risk group, with a 61% poverty rate. I needed to address the
changing needs of my students, and teach the social skills necessary for a safe
classroom climate to prevail.

What’s the problem?
Last year, I
attempted to identify the issues that made my students feel unsafe or
uncomfortable in our classroom space. After many conversations with 6th, 7th,
8th, and 9th graders-all of whom had been in my choral program-I arrived at the
conclusion that students were not comfortable singing because of the behavior of
others. I found it difficult to accept this at first, because I have always
prided myself on running a classroom that is orderly and safe. What I came to
understand, though, is that while students felt comfortable with me, that
feeling didn’t necessarily translate to their peers.

I know from
experience that students who are uncomfortable or fearful learn music more
slowly and need considerable repetition to build confidence. Students who feel
safe and confident will learn higher-level music and will do so faster than
their peers. Thus, I had to do something different. Years had passed; my student
body had changed right before my eyes, and I needed to change my approach if I
was to succeed.

Getting to know each other
To feel safe with
each other, I realized we would need to build relationship. Starting on Day One,
I began every class period with a Circle of Power and Respect meeting (CPR, a
Developmental Designs meeting format including four components: greeting,
sharing, activity, and daily news message. I modified the
meetings, choosing quick versions for each of the components, so we could
complete them in ten minutes or less, and then do our music lesson for the day.
We greeted each other, practiced sharing information about what was happening in
each other’s lives, and played team- and trust-building games.
After two
weeks, I incorporated Activity Plus meetings (A+, a Developmental Designs
meeting format accommodating a longer activity). Each meeting component was done
in a variety of ways that kept things interesting and fresh. It was fascinating
to watch the kids really get to know each other in a way that hadn’t been
possible in my previous approach.

Less frequency
After a month
of daily community-building, I began holding meetings only on Mondays to get our
week started out on a positive note (pun intended). Regardless of the day of the
week, whenever it was apparent that students needed help to be focused and given
a more positive direction, I implemented at least one component of a meeting.

Slowing down to get it right
I also took the time to slow down
my directions and to model proper rehearsal behavior. Students rehearse in three
ways: in sections, as a whole group (seated by voice range), and around the
piano in a big circle. Each setting required a session during which I set
expectations and modeled the behavior I was looking for. Then we practiced the
behavior before I considered it up and running. I regularly stopped rehearsals
to remodel as needed.

We also modeled and practiced transitioning from
one setting to another, how to enter and leave the room, and many types of
greetings, sharing techniques, and activities procedures from the CPR and A+
meeting formats. After modeling, I tried hard to keep my expectations
consistent, and to redirect students whenever their behavior fell

Greater safety and engagement
The results of these
community- and social-skills-building changes have been very positive. I
compared student referral rates from this year’s 7th grade choir classes to last
year’s. Last year I had given 17 referrals for behavior during the first ten
weeks of school; this year I have sent out five behavior referrals over the same
amount of time.

Although measuring students’ volume and enthusiasm is a
subjective process-I should try to rent one of those decibel meters sometime in
order to gather more reliable data!-I have seen a great improvement in how loud,
accurate, and enthusiastic my students are. Other teachers, counselors, and
administrators visit my choir class, and the students want to show off their
singing skills. This is markedly different from last year, when students seemed
embarrassed to sing before classmates and wouldn’t even consider singing for

Able to relax and enjoy
I surveyed my students in
September and November about their levels of comfort and enjoyment while
singing. The November surveys indicated a composite increase of almost a full
point. Interestingly, students reported higher levels of singing enjoyment than
comfort levels. Perhaps when enjoying ourselves, although we may experience
discomfort, our pleasure makes the risk manageable.

I am currently using
CPR and A+ with all my 6th, 7th, and 8th grade choir classes, and it’s working
well regardless of student grade level. I plan on changing seating, having
students stand around the piano, and asking for volunteers to sing duets or
solos for the class more often. I am also looking for new music that will
challenge and inspire my students. I realize that if students’ comfort increases
as I continually stretch them to try new things, I am raising my expectations in
a reasonable and achievable manner.

Deborah DeVaney teaches 6th, 7th,
and 8th graders at Morgan Park Middle School in Duluth MN.

article first appeared in the Origins’ publication Developmental Designs: A
Middle Level Newsletter
, Winter 2010