A Story About Pedagogy

Brandon and I traveled to Florida last week for his grandfather’s funeral, so here’s a post from the stash I keep handy for when I don’t feel up to writing. Today, we’re going back in time, to the 1996-1997 academic year, and an experience I had in fifth grade.

Overall, I remember fifth grade as one of the better years of my elementary school experience. My family and I had recently moved from Maine to Arizona, so everything was a new and exciting experience for me. The school I went to was large and bright, with big windows in each classroom and colorful murals painted on the walls, very different from the dark, rather cave-like school I attended in Maine (though in all fairness I think they built a new school after we moved). On the academic side, I had an excellent homeroom teacher who helped me finally understand math, a subject I’d struggled with up to that point. Fifth grade was also the year I started the play the flute, which would become a lifelong hobby. Socially, I had a pretty good time too. The bullying that would define my experiences in middle school hadn’t started yet, and I managed to make some nice friends. All in all, it was a good year.

One thing I do not remind fondly though was an experience in music class. Every week, my fifth-grade class would go down to the music teacher’s room to study basic theory and other concepts. Sometimes we played xylophones, sometimes we sang, and once we even went to a live instrumental concert at the local community college. Overall, it was a fun and enjoyable break from math or English assignments.

Except for one occasion.

One day we were asked to sing a series of short songs. I think the point of the songs was to learn the different positions of notes on the staff. The melodies were simple, as were the lyrics, so that you could focus on the theory underpinning them. The only one I remember now was called “Snail, Snail,” which went like this: snail, snail, snail, snail, goes around around around. As you might imagine, the class was not especially keen on singing. To our 10 and 11-year-old ears, the lyrics sounded outright babyish. We were also getting to that age where you start feeling self-conscious about everything, and appearing enthusiastic about anything related to school made you uncool to your peers. In short, these songs may have been designed to help students understand the basics of music theory, but they were not working for us because we couldn’t see past their inanity.

The teacher’s solution to this conundrum was to hold us back from recess. Instead of going out to play, we had to march back to that classroom and sing the snail song over and over again until he thought our response was appropriately enthusiastic. For him, the volume of singing signified our success in grasping the concept.

I’ve never forgotten about that recess, and I resented that afternoon for years afterwards. Initially, I was mad at my classmates. After all, it was their fault we got held back, right? I sang the song, so why should I be punished for their transgression? If they had just gone along and sung the stupid song like we were supposed to, we would have had recess. This was more or less my reasoning at the time.

As an adult though, what stands out to me isn’t the behavior of my classmates, but the failure in pedagogy that took place that day. My classmates didn’t want to sing that song because they felt self-conscious about their singing and didn’t feel any emotional connection with the lyrics. Why would they? The lyrics were essentially a nursery rhyme, something young children such as preschoolers or kindergartners might like, but fifth-graders? Probably not, unless you were a serious vocalist who could appreciate the song for the theoretical exercise it was, which we weren’t. Yet for our teacher, the only way to measure success was our willingness to sing that song. His response to our hesitant voices and stifled giggling was to punish us by withholding recess.

Some readers might say we should have just sucked it up, but here’s the thing: in holding us back, music was equated to punishment. In our minds, music wasn’t something fun, but something that impeded us from fun. It was what you did instead of recess because you failed the first time. If you want to turn off your students to music theory, or any subject for matter, holding them back from recess is one way to do so. Indeed, if I didn’t already enjoy playing the flute by then, I could have easily stopped playing altogether, or at least lost a lot of my interest in it.

Anyway, the point of this meandering story is that pedagogy, the art of teaching, isn’t always taken seriously, something that my colleagues and I have often discussed. It’s especially evident in higher ed, where universities place more value on research and publications rather than teaching when considering tenure, but it happens across all levels of education. Whether it’s an elementary music class or an undergraduate history course, simply knowing the subject matter doesn’t make you an effective teacher. Our fifth-grade music teacher was an excellent musician, don’t get me wrong. He was a talented multi-instrumentalist, could sing really well, and clearly understood music theory. But he was an ineffective music teacher, or at least he was to us on that day.

Not all academics undervalue pedagogy. Scholars like Roopika Risam make teaching a central part of their scholarly practice. Recognizing that academia has long employed research as a means of gatekeeping, she and other scholars advocate for more service-oriented academia, one that takes teaching seriously as both a practice and a profession. Yet in a profession that continues to regard research and publication as the most important markers of success, it’s hard to shift the culture toward one that acknowledges the vitality of pedagogy. Indeed, as numerous scholars have noted, the overall undervaluing of teaching parallels the way we treat other service-oriented work such as nursing, professions associated with gendered, domestic labor, and historically undercompensated financially.

But teaching is hard, and it should be taken seriously. The thing about teaching is that you can’t treat your students as some tabula rasa or a sponge happily absorbing all your knowledge. You have to get to know them, discover how they learn, and most importantly, adjust your own approaches as you go. When I was TA’ing for Utopia in the Americas and noticed that asking my students questions was yielding limited responses, I didn’t punish them. Instead, I switched up my format by having students work in pairs to talk about the questions, which they then shared with the rest of the group. The resulting discussions were much more lively, and students felt far less self-conscious because they supported each other, both during their group work and when speaking with the rest of the class. One of the reasons why teaching takes a lot of work is because you have to be willing to try more than one approach to connect with your students. When it comes to pedagogy, there is no one-size-fits-all approach.

And that’s the thing that sticks out to me about that music class; the snail song wasn’t the only way to teach the scale or basic music theory. Pop music is also extremely simplistic in lyrics and melody (so that it appeals to a wide audience), and can be easily used as a means of teaching the scale or other notes. Indeed, instead of regularly dismissing my classmates’ preferences for pop, hip-hop, rock, rap, or whatever else we were listening to, that music teacher could have used it as a means for establishing a connection between our tastes and the music from the 18th-19th centuries that interested him. Instead of making us sing inane nursery rhymes we’d never heard of, he could have used pop music as a launching point for exploring different genres of music, showing how despite the differences in time or place they still share connections through scales, chords, and other concepts.

Grant it, this all happened more than twenty years ago, and in the grand scheme of things hasn’t affected my life all that dramatically. After all, I still enjoy playing and listening to music. Yet when a former student can still remember a bad class more than two decades later it’s worth considering why it remains so persistent.

In short, if you’re ever teaching music and your students aren’t responding to “Snail, Snail,” please don’t hold them back over recess. Try a different song instead.

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