There's an old saying about music soothing the savage beasts. Perhaps it's true. But what about when you are trying to get the savage beasts to perform the music? Or accomplish any other task that is not instinctive to them or seen as being fun?
Last week in chorus I had this experience. Let me set the scene a bit here. My accompanist was out so it was just me doing the conducting, piano playing, and classroom management.
I had fifteen or so boys in that class. Squirrelly sixth graders. Right after lunch. And I was teaching them their vocal part which is a) an unfamiliar to them b) fairly difficult and c) not automatically engaging or cool (although, it will sound cool when it's done).
I had them gather around the piano and started plunking the notes out. Within seconds it was clear I was losing them and that they were not going to be learning. A few of them would, but most of them were not going to engage.
That meant I would be fighting against their attention spans, their tendency to get distracted and goof off, their preference for socializing over learning obscure vocal parts--all while trying to play the piano.
It was a losing battle. It was me against the blitzkrieg of adolescence, fought on territory that put me at a maximum disadvantage.
A few years ago, I would have fought the war. For the next 30 minutes or so I would have frowned and glared and given demerits and deducted points. I would have ended the rehearsal stressed and frazzled. I would have sent angry emails to parents. They would have ended up disliking the song, disliking the class, and disliking me. And they still wouldn't have learned the song. Guarantee that. I would have battled to a bloody draw only to lose the war. That's the key point. I don't mind fighting battles if there is something to be gained, something important at stake. But in the past, I chose my battles unwisely.
Here's what I did. I felt myself starting to frown and go into lecture mode--but caught myself. I took a deep breath. And then I offered a Starburst to whichever boy could sing the part correctly first.
Boom. Game over. Match. Set. Win.
Each of those boys now focused all of his considerable intelligence, resources, and competitive nature on learning the song. Ten minutes later, each of them had sung it correctly. Alone.
If I had tried to impose that on them, there would have been a mutiny. Instead, they did the work for me.
And it cost me 15 Starbursts.
The lesson I learn is this: competition (especially among boys, also with girls, but especially with boys) is very good. I think that moving away from that in the last few decades has been extremely bad for male students. But that is a topic for another day.
The next lesson, even more important is that rewards--even small ones--are powerful.
Emerging research about adolescent brains tells us that they overestimate the potential of rewards and minimize the severity of negative consequences. This is why they will do anything for a piece of candy and will do nothing even under threat of draconian punishment.
There are times when it is important to do the right thing for the right reason. I don't think we should reward adolescents every time they do what we want. But there are times when the judicious use of reward and competition can have beneficial effects for all involved.
Moral of the story: Music may soothe the savage beasts, but Starbursts will motivate the average sixth grader.
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