I want to talk about a serendipitous discovery I made that has seriously changed my class.
Let's be honest: most middle school kids (there are some exceptions) are really not all that worried about how the chorus they are in sounds. It just doesn't hit their radar screen at all. Saying something like, "Ya'll, you're flat!" or "That just doesn't sound good" is going to be met by anything from apathy to sarcasm--and this is true not only on chorus but in all kinds of other endeavors.
They just don't care. There is too much going on in their lives. They are worried that someone just walked past them without saying anything to them. Does that mean they are now a social outcast? Has everyone noticed the zit on their nose? Is the rumor true that the girl/boy they like is now going out with someone else? They just got a C on the math quiz, but it wasn't their fault that they forgot to study because their math book was at their friend's house and so on....
Middle school students feel things in heightened emotional terms. Everything about their lives is sort of life or death, desperately urgent. So, some fat old guy standing in front of them saying, "At measure 23, you really need to remember to decrescendo" is just not going to merit a whole lot of their attention. Again--this could be true about doing their homework, cleaning their room, you name it.
For years, I struggled to get them to notice and care about how they sang, and for years I ended up frustrated. I would try to get them to take it seriously, explain why it was so important, and so on. They cared even less. And then I discovered a secret that is so simple and so effective that it is seriously like magic.
I'll tell you about it next week.
The secret is called the Lame-o-meter. It's very simple. The Lame-o-meter is a 10 point scale that I draw on my white board. I write a 10 at the top and a one at the bottom and then fill the numbers in descending order in between. A ten means that their song has been perfectly, completely, and totally lame. A one means that the song is flawlessly wonderful.
During the song, as they sing, I moved my marker on the board, up and down, as they sing, making a sort of musical EKG graph. If they do a passage really well, the line goes down. If they do something poorly, it goes up. It takes some effort to conduct and do this at the same time, and I have ruined more than one white shirt with my dry erase marker, but it's worth it.
I don't know why, but for some reaosn this is magical in terms of getting them to do what I want them to do.
As far as I can tell, there are two elements in this. First of all, the real-time feedback is very helpful. Middle school students live in the moment and a few minutes in the past can be forever ago. So, giving them feedback after the song is over doesn't always work well.
Second, they understand the concept of lameness as their whole existence is an epic struggle to not be lame. The world, as they see it, is not cast in terms of good and evil or light and dark. No. It's cool and lame. Period. They don't want to be lame, nor do they want to be associated with anything even remotely lame. Even singing.
Incidentally, when I first tried the real-time graph as feedback, I used a traditional scale with 10 being the highest. That worked fairly well, but not nearly as well as the lame scale. I think that part of this is that they instinctively flee from anything too earnest or sincere or serious because it makes them vulnerable.
I'm still trying to understand exactly why this works. I also think that the sarcastic humor inherent in this is also part of the magic. Sarcasm can be a wonderful, wonderful thing with this age (has to be deployed SUPER carefully, though. Use only small doses occasionally and work up).
Here is one caution to parents, though: You are lame. Sorry. You are. It doesn't matter how beautiful, cool, funny, rich, or accomplished you may be in the outside world. To your adolescent you are irreparably, irretrievably, hopelessly lame. Don't try to fight it. You'll have an easier time teaching a fish to breathe out of water. Just realize that and adapt accordingly.
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Thoughts about raising and teaching adolescents. You can read the complete series here. (What in the world are Middle School Mondays?) Click here.
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