Putting the "Glee" Back in Glee Club

Building community in choir classes

For Middle Level

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 short.

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 others.

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.

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