Year 7 Can – Reflections on Transition and the Monks Walk School Community Music Project

About this post

The Community Music project at Monks Walk began with a blank sheet of paper on which I was asked to write my own job description for a new role called Head of Community Music. I had just returned from maternity leave and having previously started to put into place some new musical relationships with local primary schools, my only remit was to build on this further. I had 2 hours protected time a week but no budget and from those small beginnings the impact was huge.

As a result of 5 years of growing that role and putting in place the structures and relationships that still exist between the schools today, I have realised that I’m passionate about how we can use music to lead on improving the transition and transfer process for students and how to unpick what is potentially a bit of a can of worms when it comes to curriculum and planning at year 7 and beyond.

Using the transcript and slides from a keynote presentation I gave some years ago, and with transition now coming back into the #MusicEd discourse with the release of the new Model Music Curriculum, I’m going to open up that can of worms again and share a few of the things I learned. I will share what I called my ‘Year 7 Can’ initiative which informed curriculum development and planning for the Music Department at Monks Walk and details of the transition work that this grew out of via the Monks Walk Community Music Project.

About ‘Year 7 Can’

Year 7 Can completely changed our approach at Year 7 and the knock-on effect was that we also had to make significant changes in Y8, 9 and above. It consisted of:

  1. Transition work via the Community Music Project to better understand the musical experiences of our Year 7 students coming from primary school and to break down barriers between primary and secondary school music
  2. Revisit our Year 7 baseline, curriculum, planning and delivery to put a greater focus on year 7 music than had previously been in place
  3. To carry out research and to embed more student voice into the process, especially to better understand the expectations students had of music at secondary school and how these matched the reality of what they actually found themselves doing

Baseline

I have written about this elsewhere, but our Y7 Can approach to baseline was founded on the following:

  • How do you allow every child to demonstrate what they can do regardless of what they may have done before?
  • What is a level playing field to assess what they can do when they may have had little or no musical experience through which to demonstrate what they can do?
  • How do you engender confidence in the students to be able to show what they can do?
  • How do you allow enough time for all students to show what they can do? (Baseline assessment is continuous not a one-off activity)
  • What are the right questions to ask before you start? Mine were:

• What do you want to know?

• Why do you want to know it? How will you use that information?

• How can everyone demonstrate their ability regardless of prior experience?

Student Voice

Year 7 Can involved regular student questionnaires based around themes such as student expectations of music at secondary school, memorable musical experiences they had had, things they liked and disliked about music and so on. These started in Year 6 and continued through every project at KS3 with questions selected to support future planning and to dig into which aspects of our curriculum and approaches had been the most successful. I used to assume the students were enjoying, achieving, attaining, now I knew much more. We set regular online surveys as homework and most importantly we wanted them to care about their music lessons and their work, so giving them time and space to reflect and feedback via a questionnaire went a long way to them feeling that their voices mattered in our music department.

Here are some examples of the feedback that helped us to plan, develop and deliver our Y7 Can curriculum

Our year 7 Can Curriculum Plan

  1. An adapted version of Musical Futures Find your Voice project which started with vocal work but then integrated instruments using aspects of the Musical Futures Just Play approach to build some foundational instrumental and whole class ensemble skills (Currently available for free if you click here!)
  2. House Music (whole class songwriting) example here
  3. Small group songwriting to consolidate what was learned in the whole class project
  4. Cover songs – a version of Musical Futures In at the Deep End

OK so this might not look like much. It’s light on detail and doesn’t prescribe content other than what was in the resources we drew on to support learning. But the learning journey involved in each of these projects was immense and personalised to each class and the approaches we used were firmly grounded in non formal teaching and informal learning. We did lots of whole class workshopping inspired by pieces of music chosen by them and by me. We learned through playing and hearing music and I used my blog MrsGowersClasses for feedback and as a record of each project as it went along. For homework I would post playlists or pieces of music for them to listen to and I wanted to ensure that class music time was used for things that. they couldn’t do at home. Playing and making music, learning subject specific language, theory and skills in the context of music they were playing, listening around their classwork and becoming familiar with a range of different starting points. They did start to care about ‘their’ music. They wrote letters to Nicola Benedetti challenging her views on what a good music education should be and one of them actually sent theirs and got a reply. They started turning up to extra curricular music clubs, especially our Year 7 Music Club which was open to all and billed as ‘more of what you do in music lessons, just after school!’ And there were wider impacts of the Community Music Project as a whole including:

  • Ensuring continuity, In year 7 when I left the school, having worked with 10 schools in 5 years, were students I had known since they were in Y3 or 4
  • Collections from our concerts went to charity, we raised over £600, and we were self sustaining. With no budget from the school we were able to buy a whole class set of ukes to take from school to school and a class set of guitars that ‘resided’ at primary schools on a rota across a year
  • The project was rated outstanding in a department review and acknowledged positively by OFSTED
  • A department review found that the 6th form music leaders were getting a positive experience that they would not have got if it weren’t for Community Music. Scroll down to see an interview with one of them who said “now I want to be a teacher”
  • Take up at KS4 for the first group that engaged with the project and then went through the revised KS3 experience was the highest the school had ever had
  • We established a school orchestra of over 60+ students as students with musical experience started to choose our school

About The Community Music Project

The reflections I went through while writing this helped me to realise why I think it worked so well. It’s because the relationships between us and our feeder primary schools weren’t forced. They evolved from a shared vision-we all wanted to create better opportunities for music for our students, to identify shared values which sometimes really did vary from teacher to teacher and school to school, but mainly to find more of those moments where you know that the students have really benefited from something they have done in music. I wanted to create opportunities for experiencing those moments you and they will never forget, and to establish an equal partnership that saw both sides really committed to improving our own practice, learning from each other, developing a shared pedagogy, being willing to try new things, to take a few risks and put ourselves out there. And perhaps most importantly, to accept that perhaps we were on a learning journey too, sometimes maybe only being one step ahead of our students as we found our way through.

Also key to this was that the result was sustainable. I’m not at the school any more, but the primary work continues with minimal additional contact time being allocated and that’s vital to making transition work effective.

How it Started

The evolution of the Community Music project started 2 years before I took on the role. I was doing a few days consultancy work for Musical Futures UK around my teaching job and we were developing a resource for transition. I realised that to be involved in the development of this work, I needed to know more about primary music than just my impressions as a secondary music teacher. Also a driving factor, was that as my own children started at primary school I began to take a greater interest in what they were up to each day. The music at my closest primary school at that time was led by a specialist from the music service who taught one day a week at the school. As I was working part time then, I asked if I could shadow her for a day and following that we found ways to start to collaborate. I also approached other local schools, starting via someone I knew there (a fellow parent I got chatting to at dance classes, a friend of a friend) who often then introduced me to someone in a different school. So a little network had already started to form around these preliminary visits.

Those primary visits were the most eye-opening experience of my career, alongside the lessons I watched out in Australia and which I have blogged about many times before. They inspired change in my own practice and as I blogged my reflections, that change became embedded in how, what and why I taught music day to day in my classroom and drove a longer term vision for expanding that across our school and more widely working with local primary schools.

Here is one of the primary music teachers sharing their wishes for transition from primary to secondary music and some of the challenges.

The beginning….

In that first year, whilst I was still Head of Music, we ran a programme of events with a couple of local primary schools, organised in my free periods and sometimes on my days off.

A foundling primary school choir came and sang at one of our concerts. We took over our Taiko Drumming group to perform to the children in their arts week and I spent some more time in the school. This informal work came to an end as I was about to go on maternity leave but before I left I said to my head teacher that if there was ever an opportunity to more work with our feeder primary schools I could see a massive value, not just in connecting through music, but also in easing the transition from what I now saw as an entirely different ethos, pedagogy and approach into the world of secondary school. I also told him I thought we had a lot to learn from our primary colleagues and that this could have a far wider impact on the whole school not just in music. So after a year on maternity leave where working a day a week for Musical Futures took me into a range of schools and full of ideas to take back with me into my classroom, I was offered a new role called Head of Community Music and that blank sheet of paper on which to write my own job description. It was an amazing opportunity to develop a strategy and a vision for something I had started to feel really passionate about. I was incredibly lucky.

Getting Started

As I started to pull together what Community Music might look like and filled my blank sheet of paper with some ideas, I realised that to be successful, this would have to be a 2 way partnership where I was completely honest about what was happening in my own school and my own classroom if anything I did with the primary schools was to have an impact or be sustainable. To ensure continuity and progression I had to find out where my students were coming from and build on this. And as I was no longer head of department and lots had changed in my absence, this wasn’t necessarily going to be an easy job. I had no budget, few direct contacts and no idea what I was going to be doing!

So I made this my starting point. To take what I had seen and reflect on what I knew best, my own school and my own classroom. I took what I had seen so far in primary schools and re evaluated everything. And ironically in my first year in this role, I wasn’t given a single year 7 class to teach! So I watched and listened objectively and compared what I saw in the year 7 lessons with what I was learning in the primary schools. And I learned SO much….

I realised how little I knew about the previous musical experience the year 7s had. I discovered that not only was life in a primary school completely different in terms of everything – from how the classrooms were laid out and decorated, how behaviour was managed, how the children worked and responded to each other, the relationships between teachers and their classes – but I was thoroughly ashamed that I had made assumptions that were completely wrong about the enthusiasm for music, their musical ability and engagement and how music was being delivered in primary school and I realised that my approach had been based on ‘year 7 can’t’ and not ‘year 7 can’

I had fallen into the trap of assuming that what we offered at secondary with our music rooms and resources, and specialist teachers was far better than anything they could have experienced at primary school and therefore year 7 would have to start again in order to achieve what we wanted them to in our school. In addition to that, Y7 were normally pretty well behaved and so the Y7 curriculum took low priority when it came to revamping projects and thinking about what we did with them. If they were behaving, they must be loving it right?

It seems I wasn’t alone in these assumptions. I started to look through online forums to see how other teachers started the first year with their new intake. Here’s some of what I found:

“I would probably NOT do a whole lesson on theory, but have half the lesson on theory sheets and then get them to do some short practical project that used the aspect of theory I was teaching.”

“I gave my yr7s 5 mins to do the ‘exploration’ on keyboards in the first lesson – this was to get it out of their system! They will now not touch them til at least half term and then will do Ode To Joy”

“My year 7 already have been able to do happy and sad chords. I use these as starters. Pupils have laminated cards and hold up different colours if they think it is major or minor happy or sad. Ticks lots of boxes including AFL”

“Learn to play ‘Ode to Joy’ demonstrating loud and quiet dynamics. Play ‘Eastenders’ theme tune using different timbres. Compose a piece demonstrating 2 different elements of music. Learn to play either High Tune or Low Tune of ‘Wallace and Gromit’ using Right Hand”

I also found reference in these forums to things that I had seen already happening in primary schools which raise the question of whether our year 7 curriculum was challenging enough or in any way built in prior experiences

For example:

1) Still a popular way to start year 7 is an introduction to the elements of music, yet I saw elements of music posters on the walls in a year 3 classroom

2) Graphic scores-I saw these being used to created haunted house storyboards on the wall in a year 5 classroom – at the time this was a popular project to do with Y7

3) I saw lots of singing yet I wasn’t confident leading singing so didn’t really do much in year 7 – how could I build on this in a way that they would perceive as ‘grown up’ and relevant in their new-found independence as big Y7s at secondary school?

I also asked the children in year 6 across 4 different primary schools to complete an online questionnaire about what they were most looking forward to in music at secondary school to compare with the forum posts and some of their responses included: 

• Building my confidence with singing

• Play in a band as a guitarist and singer song writer

• To take part in a show

• Learn to play an instrument

• To learn to play the electric guitar because I have one but I can’t play it.

• Learn more complicated songs

• I Would Like To Participate In A Musical Trip And Concert

This mismatch between the expectations of year 6 and what the forum posts suggested that they were actually experiencing is what underpinned the focus of the Community Music Project. There was no initial budget (so we fundraised to create one), limited time given to this, I had 2 additional periods a week (so I asked for my non contacts to be grouped together so that I could get out to schools), but fundamentally underpinning all of it was that it had to be sustainable, something that we could embed and grow across subsequent years. So here are some of the things that we did.

Music Leaders

First I got some help in. I recruited some 6th Formers as our first Music Leaders to come into schools with me. We got the 6th Form Enterprise group at school to make T shirts for them and promised to pay when I could and off we went. Our 6th form had an afternoon of outreach each week so we were able to use that time and I was very honest that we would all be learning together and so we did! Very quickly! Here is one of those students, Jonathan, reflecting on his experiences

Workshops – Assume Nothing!

We started our primary workshops in a nursery class because one of the Music Leaders’ mums worked in one. We took in some instruments and played to them, let them touch and explore them and then when I asked if they had any questions they all put their hands up and said things like “I like bread” or “I’m called Katie” and that threw us a bit! This was my first musical experience with very young children and I learned a lot from it. Ironically I am now doing a year as a Year 1 class teacher, if you had told me that following that first workshop I would never have believed it!

I then made contact with a local primary school through another mum who sat next to me at my daughters dance lessons and worked as SENCO there. We went in across a few weeks and ran a series of one off workshops with Y2-6. I used what I knew which was the Musical Futures whole class classroom workshopping approach, so we did some name games and simple warm ups then moved on from there. For instruments I used what I could find. Some old guitars in a cupboard, a bit of tuned percussion in the music box, some shakers and tambourines we found in a classroom and I used those sessions to try and judge whether I was pitching it at these right level as I had no idea what children that young could do. So I adopted my Community Music Project mantra to assume nothing and their teachers and I were completely blown away with what they COULD do!

With Y2 it was bonfire night so we said names using different vocal timbres and some body percussion to recreate the sound of fireworks. Year 6 were studying the 2nd world war so we started by sharing how they thought a child of their age at the time might have felt (scared, excited, sad) and we pulled together a piece that started with a heartbeat then used minor tonalities as we picked 2 chords and threw them together on glocks, recorders, whatever we could find.

A note here about instruments. None of the schools we worked with had a class set of instruments and very few had keyboards. By far the most common was a box of untuned percussion, one or two keyboards with or without adaptors, a variety of tuned percussion, usually ‘kiddie sized’ rather than the more robust metallophones you might find in a secondary classroom, occasionally some recorders that the children didn’t know how to play, a couple of guitars with missing strings. So the only way forward was a classroom workshop where we mixed those instruments together with voices, body percussion. I worry that the expectations in the MMC regarding primary music will require investment in class sets of instruments and some training for teachers in how to use them before it will be possible to meet the transition objectives in there.

Cross – Phase Performances

That first school had just started a choir run by their non specialist music co-ordinator and asked if we could help. So one of our 6th form pianists went after school each week and played the piano for them and I decided that creating a community performance opportunity would give the choir something to work towards. The aim would be to come together in a local venue, a choir from each of the schools would sing something then we could do a big sing together to finish. We started with 3 primary choirs and our school choir in year 1 and year on year this event grew. In my last year on this project we sang with 4 primary choirs, one class of year 6, an adult community choir and 3 school choirs from Monks Walk. This was a low maintenance gig. Doing it at Christmas meant that schools had a little extra class time available to prepare for performances they were already working towards and many had music ready. The schools rehearsed the music themselves so all I had to do was organise it all! Here is a video of some of those performances. There were absolutely the highlight of the school year for me.

Practice Sharing Group

A growing group of primary music specialists started to form our own little network. We started with cross phase observations, informal but informative on both sides! They saw how their students had settled into school life and how they had progressed musically. Our staff learned more about where our students had come from and how huge the jump from primary to secondary school can be.

This then progressed to a twilight CPD session across 3 subjects which I co-ordinated in my role as Head of Community Music. This was the start of the roll out of the project to other subjects and brought together English, Maths and arts co-ordinators from feeder schools with our staff. Sadly it was really hard to engage non specialist primary music co-ordinators with this. In many cases, music was one of a number of additional responsibilities that teachers held and there was no dedicated CPD time for informal networking events.

Transfer of Information Between Schools

With 244 children coming from 15+ different schools, information about prior musical experiences was patchy. Knowing that a child once played the violin for a term in year 3 or attended the choir for a year doesn’t tell me much about them. It can also create some issues. For example, here is Jack. His teacher said:

Jack is very hard to engage during lesson time

Here is what Jack said:

• He most enjoyed the olympics song project

• He Least likes it when people talk over the teacher

•He hopes to learn to play guitar at secondary school

• He tries very hard to accomplish a task

So as an outcome of the Community Music Project, we provided Google Forms for the students as well as the ‘official’ transfer information that came via schools. Our information transfer included:

  • Online questionnaires for teachers and students (and eventually parents as well)
  • Word of mouth via our network.
  • Identifying students eligible for Free School Meals and therefore free instrumental lessons early so that we could get paperwork in place, recognise those who have shown aptitude in music, share strategies for those who may not engage at first.

Projects

Our projects were designed to be led mainly by primary staff with support from the Music Leaders and me. We would choose a theme, for example The Olympics, devise some outcomes which were a mixed model of delivery shared between me and the music specialists at the school. The music leaders and I supported schools more which didn’t have a specialist, but with all of the schools developed it further via class teachers on their own.

We would come together to perform and celebrate. Spending time at our school and using the facilities helped the children to feel more comfortable with the idea that at some point they would likely be joining us. The strength of the projects was that whilst I started them off, but class teachers continued with them with the 6th form music leaders supporting them. This empowered the class teachers to take a musical role so that it was more a collaboration than a delivery model.

Family Music

Our local Music Hub heard about the Community Music Project and asked us to host family music sessions as part of an initiative they were running. We jumped at the chance to be involved because for the first time it enabled us to get the whole family involved in music making at the school, in the music classroom. Djembe workshops ran in the evenings across 4 weeks and I negotiated to keep the drums and replicated these in all our KS3 lessons so we got full benefit of this for more students in the school.

The MakeWaves Online Hub

Makewaves was an online network that allowed students to create and share work across online networks. Sadly it no longer exists, but we used it to keep up with how schools were getting on with projects. On the platform each school had their own area to upload content, but other schools could watch and enagage with it. I went into school and trained up teams of ‘reporters’, these were higher achieving students who would be responsible for creating the content. Students were awarded personalised Community Music badges pinned to their user areas. This was such a great resource, however the downside was having the time to moderate the content as it grew.

Cross Curricular Whole School Events

We also worked in partnership wth sport and languages departments, both of whom were also running transition initiatives. We developed an annual one day event for our biggest feeder primary schools held at the end of the summer term aimed at Y4 and 5 (as these would be looking ahead to choosing their secondary school the following year). For music, I went in to prepare a piece for performance for a couple of weeks before and on the day the children took part in activities led by student leaders in sport, languages and later maths and english. We always tried to hold this the d ay before the ‘official’ transition day and it was lovely to hear “Hi Mrs G” in the corridor the following day and, more importantly hearing the children say hello to the students they knew from the projects in the corridors gave that sense that the new children already felt at. home in our school.

Transition at a Whole School Focus

The impact I am most proud of has been that transition moved much higher on the whole school agenda and that over time other subjects got involved in what had initially been ‘just a music project’. An exciting outcome was that one of the Heads of Year was then designated solely to work on transition for a year to nurture groups coming through.

Getting started with Transition Work

Despite these not being normal times , my top tips for getting started are:

  • Try to get into a primary school and watch some lessons, music or others
  • Make links with one school and work towards a joint performance
  • Revisit your baseline tests and ensure that they allow the students to show what they can do musically rather than tick boxes against a narrow range of pre-determined criteria
  • Think about transfer of information about music and reach out to primary schools for ways to collect this that involve students in the process
  • With all information think about what you want to know, why you need to know it and what you will do with the information – how will it inform your planning for your new cohort?
  • Look at your existing Year 7 curriculum and identify exactly what the students are doing musically.
  • Define your own ‘Year 7 Can’ criteria and map your curriculum to these
  • Think about what approaches to music will engage the students from the very first lesson and how once engaged you can layer in the musical knowledge, understanding and skills that you have identified as essential for your students in your school
  • Always start your planning with assumptions about what year 7 can do rather than what they can’t.

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