Self-Directed Music?

Does your child love music? Probably. But how can there be a self-directed music class? This is a question I’ve asked myself since joining the Village School. My college degree is in music education, but I don’t think a single class of my Bachelor’s degree talked about how a learner-led music classroom could function.

Let’s take a look at traditional modes of music education: band, choir, orchestra, and general music classes. All of these have either a conductor/director or a music teacher who leads the class. The musicians follow directions and sing or play their instruments in accordance with prescribed methods. While there can be moments of self-direction, as a whole, the model is very teacher-centric.

So far, my approach to teaching music at the Village School has been one of experimentation. I’ve never seen a learner-led music class. I’ve done lots of research, and only one book even exists on the topic, written in the past three years, and originally in Finnish (luckily I found an English translation). So what have the learners done?

Spark learners during freeze dance!

The Spark studio learners have music twice a week, and we have a few main activities. One of the learners’ favorite activities is “Draw What You Hear.” I’ll play a piece of music that’s around 5 minutes long, and the learners have a blank piece of paper and crayons. Their only direction is to draw what they hear. They’ve drawn along to a Copland ballet, to Latin jazz, and to a Trinidadian steelband. Oftentimes, the learners get to explore with instruments as well. They’ve written songs together and played lots of games with their drums, castanets, shakers, xylophones, and a myriad of other instruments. We always end with freeze dance, where the learners get to dance however they want to a song, but they have to freeze whenever the music stops! Our first session was all music from North America, and this session, all of our music is from Asia. Each session, the music will all be from a new continent!

Discovery and Adventure studios have music together on Fridays. This is where I’ve been most hands off. Their goal in session one was to write a song. I provided a few online resources that they could use if they wanted, and wrote a very general framework for how most songs are written. With that, some formed groups, others went at it alone, and across three or four music classes, I got to watch people experiment at the piano, create beats online, bring in instruments from home and form bands, and write some exquisite lyrics, all without my help or direction.

Adventure learners dressing up and bringing in instruments

At the Village School, we want to do music differently. We want learners to explore and discover their musical interests and to harness their creative power. So far, I’ve seen lots of creative power, lots of discovery, and lots of exploration. As the year goes on, who knows what they’ll come up with?

Take a Hike

Middle schoolers can’t plan a trip by themselves. Can they? How will they know where to go? What to eat? What if someone gets hurt? What if they get lost? I’ll confess, I had these thoughts to various degrees leading up to last Friday.

My last job was at a traditional school, and I wouldn’t have believed my students there could have planned a hike. There’s a lot of variables to think about! So much to consider! But here at the Village School, I had the pleasure of watching it happen. Our Adventure learners were given guidelines on Wednesday for the hike: it’s at Great Falls, you have a $50 budget for food, and you need to ensure proper navigation, safety, and fun.

From those scant guidelines, they formed committees that chose the route, learned basic first aid, chose and ordered the food. My involvement consisted of showing up on Friday with a backpack and following where the learners led me. That’s it. The learners trickled in, and once they were all there, they divided up the lunch groceries and set off! 

Ms. Hannah and I followed along as they walked out of Great Falls Park, unbeknownst to them. The signage wasn’t quite clear, and they couldn’t quite figure out their map, so they set off based on what they could gather from their surroundings. We followed Difficult Run upstream, and after about an hour, they realized that this wasn’t the hike they intended, so we all turned around! We made it back to the parking lot and took the other path. Now on the path they’d planned, we stopped for lunch along some rocks in the middle of the stream.

We ate pita pizzas, turkey sandwiches, and a few snacks, like apples, bananas, and Cheez-its. At the end of lunch, the learners packed out the trash and uneaten food in their backpacks and trash bags that they’d thought to pack, and we went along the path up to a ridge along the Potomac. We found frogs, bugs, worms, and even a few snakes! After a few games and some exploration, the learners decided it was time to head back.

All parents were coming to pick them at the parking lot, and they made it back with twenty minutes to spare. When we had a little debrief, the learners determined that the hike was a success, because they learned, they had equipped themselves, and they had fun! 

Can middle schoolers plan a trip? After experiencing it, I can say that they can plan not just a trip, but a fun and rewarding adventure!