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why might students be less excited in the class with better teaching?

transitfan's picture

Today I was in Mr. Takeler's Looking At Wind Instruments 4th/5th grade classes, in which a professional flutist and a professional trumpeter (both have played in the Opera Company of Philadelphia among other ensembles) gave students their first lesson in flute and trumpet. Students split and half and either stayed in the Band room with Ms. Rock to play trumpet or went upstairs with Mr. Terrible to play flute, then switched. I saw two sections of each.

The students gasp excitedly when Mr. Takeler tells them "we're going to be holding instruments today." Ms. Rock is an older, stern-looking woman, who tells them I am a student who will also be "monitoring" them. "I've met you all in Ms. Presley's class," I say. She lectures the students for several minutes on trumpet playing. She smartly compares the buzzing of the mouthpiece to the violin bow; she might not have known this but during the first third of the year the students had Looking At String Instruments with another teacher and have all tried playing violin. Overall, I am finding her talk lecture-y and repetitive and too long; the students are doing their best shushing each other to stay polite for their guest. (Interesting dynamic: guests are much more respected by students than substitutes.) Ms. Presley would not have liked this. Meanwhile, Mr. Takeler passes out mouthpieces. The students blow. "Ms. Rock, what if I am having trouble making a sound," Mr. Takeler asks on behalf of students having such a problem. Ms. Rock walks over to help those students. "Look, now she's got it," says Ms. Rock, referring to a male student with long hair. Ms. Rock then demonstrates some of her own trumpet skills, saying "watch, watch, watch." I would have liked to compare her "noodling" on the trumpet to the "pitch exploration" they do in Ms. Presley's class, but I didn't feel appropriate jumping in. Mr. Takeler passes out trumpets and asks them to play a note one at a time. Mr. Takeler says at the end of class "I'd give this group a C+ for listening." I don't think they get letter grades yet; there was an interesting range of responses.

-yes! (the one student of color said this)

-that's terrible!

-what'd the other group get?

Some points of note in the second section: a student says "I can't do it" and Ms. Rock shouts "No! I don't want to ever hear that word." Later in her spiel on trumpet technique: "I don't actually care how you sit but Mr. Takeler says...[blah, blah, blah]...and we must respect his wishes." (as if she's setting herself up as the nice one and Mr. Takeler as the mean one; he had stepped out of the room at this point.) Overall, this class doesn't get as far. It is too tempting to play when you have an instrument in your hand for the first time and not listen. Even when she shouts "listen to me!" Afterward Mr. Takeler offers to do the disciplining for Ms. Rock, but she says she is very confident in this.

Overall, she didn't do anything I couldn't imagine myself doing; in fact I too may have undermimed Mr. Takeler when he introduced me as Mr. Ben. I said "actually, Mr. Safran." I felt funny about it but these kids know me as Mr. Safran in Ms. Presley's class and I wouldn't want them to get more confused. I too am working on talking less. But I was overall unimpressed with her teaching skills.

Upstairs, Mr. Terrible is on his own in a much smaller classroom. "I have to live with this name, but I try not to live up to it," emphasizes Mr. Terrible. Mr. Takeler also said before sending students with Mr. Terrible, "his name is Mr. Terrible but he is one of the nicest guys I know." He starts by playing a familiar children's song on the flute, and gives them things to listen for while he is playing. One girl has a giggle fit during the song but he keeps going. Afterwards, he asks them to pass a flute around and hold it for a few seconds; to make it more fun he plays another during while they pass it around and it has to get to the last person by the time the song is done. Since there aren't enough flutes for everyone; half of the students get flutes to try to play while the other half clap a rhythm, then they switch.

In the end, I heard a few students say they wanted to take trumpet lessons next year but students seemed much less excited about the flute. I was surprised because in my opinion Mr. Terrible did a much better job than Ms. Rock teaching about his instrument.

One consideration is that there are enough trumpets or everyone to hold a trumpet at a time, while with only 5 flutes the flutists had to take turns. (On disinfecting and reusing mouthpieces for multiple students, a parent once complained to Mr. Takeler "I think what you're doing is skeevy"; a commentary on the school culture since the fact that they even have instruments for students to try is rare, as Mr. Takeler explained to the parent.)

Perhaps as a result, students were able to get much more sound out of the trumpets. Ms. Rock went to each student and all of them were able to produce tone, which was not the case with the flutes. Thinking back, the trumpeters had also started by making buzzing noises with Mr. Takeler in the previous class; thus they might have known more what they were doing to create sound. Mr. Terrible didn't really explain it at all; he just put the flutes in students' hands in the right position and instructed them to hold still and blow.

Ultimately, Ms. Rock said she was impressed with how the students sounded while Mr. Terrible told Mr. Takeler he thought the experience was "fair." I think that additional time and flutes and a happy medium between his level of explanation and Ms. Rock's might have allowed for more optimal results.