I'm writing this post as a follow up to the previous post about Eric Whitacre's virtual choir. In that, I said that I have borrowed the concept behind all collective singing and am learning to apply it to language learning, that successful blending of many voices into one sound is incredibly powerful and emotionally rich.
This is my first attempt to try and explain what I mean.
First, and at the risk of stating the blindingly obvious, our voices are designed to help us 'connect'. It might be obvious but sometimes what is so obvious can be hidden from us because it is right under our noses.
If our voice is the greatest tool we have to enable us to connect with others and we as language teachers are all about helping cultural strangers connect with each other by finding a new 'voice', a new tongue / langue, then why don't we explore how the use of a 'collective' grouping of disparate voices in the classroom into one voice can empower language learning?
In the UK, the pressure to measure every child's progress against a set of markers whilst laudible in intention, has had a very negative impact on a key aspect of learning: It edifies the 'individual' at the expense of 'community'.
Fine, we all have to stand or fall eventually based on the sum of our personal efforts. But the most effective vehicle for achieving the highest degree of personal growth is to be part of a supportive community. If this wasn't true there would be absolutely no need for schools in the first place.
Learning works best in the classroom if it is a collaborative, supportive, encouraging 'group' experience. That is where powerful learning takes place. We need each other. We function best in communities. We seek them out. We thrive on recognition from others, we understand who we truly are when we understand what value we bring to those who surround us. If education is about anything, it is about helping children to understand where their true value lies in relation to the people in their world, given their unique set of skills and abilities.
Since I have begun to adopt the Call / Response singing techniques I picked up from Sing Up training I have noticed a powerful enhancement of this collaborative atmosphere in my lessons. A couple of examples of exercises I do in my first lessons with new classes might illustrate this.
My first job as language teacher is not to teach children to speak but how to listen. Without that they will never make real progress. Adusting your voice to mimic what you hear from a model is fundemental to successful language learning. Fortunately this is absolutely true of singing as well.
So whilst my first lesson involves a lot of speaking, its actual focus is on how to listen. I begin with French vowel sounds. I show children pictures of Maori warriors and the New Zealand Rugby team and find out what they know about the Haka. We tease out why they do this, and the concept of sounding powerful as one eventually emerge as they prepare for 'battle'. (By the way, if you want boys instantly on your side, try all of this!)
I show them a video clip from Youtube of the New Zealand team doing their Haka and the Tongan rugby team responding with their own chant. We look at the role of the 'captain' calling, why the team respond as one voice and why that is so powerful. What are they trying to achieve?
I then set them a challenge: during this first lesson, all they they have to prove to me that as a class they can respond as one voice and one group action to what ever I say and do as the 'captain'. Can they do this?
To demonstrate this immediately I teach them 4 praise phrases we will learn regularly to say as a group chant to anyone who does something well.
Fantastique / Super / Excellent / Génial.
I teach the first 3 to begin with explaining that they are the same as English words but pronounced differently (cognates are a great way to teach phonics btw) and their task is to copy the word and the 3 part action I do to that word BUT they have to do this is one voice. After a couple of goes very quickly they get the idea.
Usually on 'excellent' I hear someone adding the 't'. Without picking anyone out, I explain that I heard something wrong at the end of the word, we do it again and ask them to identify what the difference is between the English and French way of saying it. The point is that they have to 'hear' it as a group and are corrected as a group.
We then do the French Haka. They have to face me as their captain, half crouching, knees bent, hands on knees and looking fierce. I say the French vowel sounds in turn with a separate action for each: 'a' both hands pushed out in front, 'e' both hands pulled back into chest, 'i' both one hand moves up, the other down to define an 'i' shape, 'o' hands to the side with index finger of each hand drawing an 'o' circle in the air, 'u' the same index finger drawing a 'u' shape in the air.
You can pick out the French 'u' versus 'oo' sound at this point. One tip to teach this: get them to notice what they do with their jaw when saying the 'oo' sound (jaw drops down and forward) versus the 'u' sound (jaw is pulled back)
They then add consonants of their choosing and we re-do the Haka. I explain that there are 2 rude consonants that I hope they don't find so as not to embarrass me with predictable results and eventually 'p' and 'w' are added to the mix!
The point is that right from the word go, the children are learning this 'call-response' technique.
- They are having to listen intently to copy me.
- They are having to be aware of rhythm, timing and each other to speak with one voice.
- They are learning that making these new sounds is comfortable as they can try them out as part of a group; this one voice that allows them the security of trying things out without making a fool of themselves. This is FUNDEMENTAL. If I have one regret in my years in secondary teaching is that I sprung far too early to requiring individuals to speak out loud on their own in front of a class. They should be able to practice everything as a group or in pairs before being required to produce on their own.
We then move onto a very simple group song on greetings which we sing unaccompanied. I use my hands to do pitch change gestures as I sing, they respond, again as one voice, and often copy my pitch gestures too.
When I ask them to tell me what some of the words mean in that song (bonjour, comment ça va etc) anyone who answers correctly selects one of the 4 praise phrases we have done. I say the phrase + 3 part action followed by the pupil's name + do a 3 part 'shimmy' to their name eg: Calvin would become
Everyone repeats the praise phrase and does the shimmy. This is a regular feature of early lessons. I vary it by eventually asking for volunteers to come to the front and lead the whole class in praising someone using a 3 part shimmy of their own invention. Often these are hilarious! Imagine what the child who leads the class feels like as they do this. Imagine what the child on the receiving end of the whole class saying well done in French feels like. This is very, very powerful and we do it in the first lesson.
Class chanting or singing to fantastic music builds a positive, supportive, collaborative community. Learn how to do it effectively and very quickly you will establish the kind of atmosphere conducive to real learning that previously it might have taken me a whole term or longer to achieve with all the attendant emotional wear and tear involved. Seriously colleagues, I believe these techniques can mean the difference between burning yourself out and being a relatively effortless but powerful teacher.
It has been the biggest accelerator to success in my own experience that I have ever encountered. What's more it is FUN! Enjoy.
(Please send a link to this article if it has helped you. If you would like me to come to your school or area in the UK to demonstrate these techniques, please leave your name, school and a contact email on this blog. It won't be published for anyone else to see as I have to allow publication of all comments.)