The Story of James and Jake: “D is a Troublemaker”

Yesterday I wrote about two occurrences that made me think more about what it means to teach. This second episode that provided some insight was with two little boys about eight years old, James and Jake (not their real names). They are just learning to read music and have been struggling for a few weeks to retain what we learn in class about reading notes on the staff and identifying written notes with the tones found on their guitars. We only had seven notes to play so far yet the symbols just didn’t seem to be clicking with them. I was on the verge of becoming irritated at their apparent lack of effort to learn. Then I remembered something I had read in a book by John Holt about children’s need to make objects and concepts in the world around them make sense in their own reality before they can use them correctly. Maybe that was the issue here; James and Jake couldn’t identify notes well because they hadn’t related it to anything in their own reality matrix yet.

“Lets play a game,” I told the boys. “James gets to put one of these note flash cards in front of Jake so that Jake can figure out what it is, but James can help him if he wants. I’ll help if both of you can’t figure it out. You can take turns giving each other a note card to identify”. The game started out slowly at first with us using the system of “Every Good Boy Does Fine” or “F A C E” to decipher the notes on the flash cards. They could not seem to get the note D. Then James suddenly said, “This note is a troublemaker! We can’t seem to remember its name!” Jake pointed at the card accusingly, saying “Yeah, he’s a troublemaker!” From then on, whenever that note came up, they always said, “This is D, the troublemaker!” The same thing happened with the G on the top of the staff. They decided that this particular G was “the Great G” because it sat on top of all the other notes like a king. Jake couldn’t remember where to play B on the guitar, so whenever he hesitated, James would sing in a silly voice, “That one you play open, it’s an open string B”, and Jake caught on quickly after that.

Turning the music notes into something they could identify with was the key here. I was humbled to realize that my own teaching methods had been mostly ineffective for James and Jake in this matter. It took me letting go of what I originally thought was the best for them and being willing to try something new, despite being unsure of its success. Even now I’m not sure how successful it was in the long run. We’ll see what happens in the boys’ next lesson. No matter what, though, it was a valuable lesson to see that sometimes I need to step out of my this-is-the-way-to-teach box and into the what-will-work-best-for-these-children world.

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