The power of student choice – Sophie’s story

On my last day at Monks Walk we held a big event for 100 children from feeder primary schools. As part of this, they watched a concert in the afternoon and then sang with our choirs and orchestra to finish the day. It was the perfect end to 11 years and I will remember it as one of my favourite days there. But the absolute highlight was that some of my year 9 class performed work they had created in class as part of the concert.

The same students who at the start of year 9 utterly refused to even play to me, were on stage rehearsing and I couldn’t get them off. And later they performed on the stage in front of a whole hall full of people.

For me, that’s what it’s all been about. It’s getting students who wouldn’t normally perform to others up on stage and where all of the preparation has been done in class, not as an extra curricular activity, it’s something every student can do. I was so proud of them.
So some background-Over 1/3 of that group had opted to take a GCSE music option next year (we are offering GCSE music and GCSE Performing Arts) and during the exams season we lost our classroom and had to move out. I took those who hadn’t chosen music to another room and we spent some time playing songs on keyboard, guitars and taiko drums. Each week we (I) chose a different song, learned the chords and played together. At the start, they were reluctant but after 5 weeks of this I could see a huge increase not only in their confidence, but in their musical identities. You could see this in the choices they made in lessons. Some came into the room and went straight to the same instrument every week. Others changed their minds and some started to identify themselves as ‘the singers’, initially the two most outgoing members of the group, gradually joined by others. I was just relieved at finding something vaguely musical for us to do in an RE room, I had no idea that it would end up having such a significant impact on some of the class.

Sophie has always been quiet and under-confident in music, relying heavily on friends in her group to find a role for her and show her what to do. She’s never really taken to one instrument more than another nor has she obviously taken a lead. She’s been one of the most reluctant performers in the class and I’ve had to watch carefully in lessons to make sure that I was seeing the work she put in and not just judge her on the performances she was so uncomfortable doing.

In one of our room change lessons the students asked to play a particular song. I looked up the chords and as it was in Bb and on our guitars and keyboards we had only learned A, D, C, Em etc and there were no capos so I said it wouldn’t work for us-we did a song I had chosen. The next week they asked again. We played the song during the lesson and they sang along, again I said it wasn’t right for us-we learned a song that I had chosen. The week after I realised how silly I was being. I worked out a simple melody the guitars could play, a pattern to help keyboard players to get their fingers round the black notes and we played the song, initially while the original song played. Suddenly some wanted to sing and as we tried to add in the lyrics without the backing track, they got stuck on a few bits. Up jumped Sophie.

“Miss I know this song I’ll sing if I don’t have to do it on my own”

followed by Sophie’s friend,

“Miss she’s really good at this song”.

And so Sophie took the lead and she helped to fix the problems and for the first time in 3 years she showed me what she could do in music.

And so when Sophie stood on stage and sang and played with her friends, a different song to the one that unlocked school music for Sophie, I knew the moment that had made that possible for her. She’s here rehearsing with her group and singing with another:

That’s the power of student choice. The change in my role from ‘knowing’ what was right and what wasn’t, being the one to tell them what would work and what wouldn’t, to using my musical experience and expertise to make their choices possible, changed the experience for those students. And that has been one of the most important things I learned from my time at Monks Walk-student choice and student voice are immensely powerful tools. Make a special effort to listen for them and it’s amazing what you might hear.

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