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Creative Ways to Keep Students Engaged

Heather Dipasquale | September 2019

    Repetition is an indispensable teaching tool. Students need to repeat things and reproduce the material to grow and develop. That development relies on the growth of neural connections in the brain that are strengthened through reoccurrence. A one-time experience is not enough for a neural connection to form and stabilize. Through repetition it becomes possible for neural pathways to develop, creating long-term memories.
    Infants learn through simple trial and error repetition. We learn to associate sounds with symbols, recognize letters of the alphabet, memorize addresses and multiplication tables, and an enormous amount of other information fundamental to conceptual learning. Teacher modeling (simple imitation) is a powerful beginning band instructional tool in forming the initial stages of conceptual knowledge. However, imitation is not the most effective strategy for getting students to practice consistently over time.
    A couple years ago, my concert preparation started feeling routine. My students were giving great concerts, but there was something missing during my first several years in the profession. I knew that if it was stale for me, students probably felt the same way. I wanted capture their attention and create a sense of joy. I came up with an approach called the Thirteen Days of Christmas.
    The Thirteen Days of Christmas is how I describe the thirteen classes before a concert. It is a time where the students have learned the nuts and bolts of the music and can focus on getting ready for a great performance. The activities promote repetition that builds ensemble skills, consistency, and musicianship. Each day is a new activity: ‘On the _______ day of Christmas my band director gave to me ______.’ These can be done in any order and modified to fit your program. I started doing this with my beginners and they loved it. I have since expanded it to my 7th and 8th grade bands with a couple of modifications.

1. Would You Rather
    Many people know the icebreaker game Would You Rather, a great way to get to know students and create humorous shared experiences. In the game, someone asks a question and one person has to choose an option. For example: would you rather be the first person to explore a planet or would you rather be the inventor of a drug that cures a deadly disease? I always do this at the beginning of the year to help students develop into a group in which they can support and trust each other.
    One year a group worked hard on one of our Christmas concert pieces but still had a long way to go. I wanted them to enjoy the necessary detail work without it becoming mundane. I had recently changed jobs and hoped to work on continuing to build relationships with students so I decided to marry the detail work with Would You Rather. It was a hit.
    As class began I told students that we were going to play a game. For every section of music for which they meet the goal, I would ask one student a Would You Rather question. The more the students accomplish, the more questions I can ask. Goals could include better dynamic contrasts by the ensemble or improved clarinet intonation. Develop your goals before class and consider how much time it could take to achieve each objective. I recommend alternating easier and harder tasks to keep students engaged longer. Do not let students see the entire list so you can control what is appropriate for that group on that day and avoid frustration.

2. You vs. Me
    I learned this game during my student teaching days. It is usually played for an entire class period. The teacher gives an instruction and if the students follow it successfully, they receive a point. If the students accomplish a performance goal, they receive a point. If the teacher gives an instruction and the students do not follow, the teacher receives a point. This also includes starting and stopping in the correct place. If students continue further than specified, the teacher receives a point. If the students win at the end of class, they received a small reward.
    This game is great for groups that have trouble following directions or stopping. It allows directors to correct behavior in an enjoyable manner. One option for increasing the pace, especially towards the middle and end of class, is to award double points. This sustains momentum during longer class periods. With more experienced groups I add a variation and award points for successful completion of a task and take away points for a missed rule like talking without raising a hand. This emphasizes following directions for groups that need it. I know that when students follow directions better, they play at a higher level and can accomplish more each day. 

3. The Bucket Challenge
    For this game, I put slips of paper with various performance tasks on them into a bucket and pull them out for students to complete. If they finish all of the tasks within a class period, they receive a small reward. Think carefully about how many cards to include for your group. I have used several approaches for the task cards. For some groups I have set goals for the entire ensemble as they progress through various sections of a piece. Specific goals and feedback contribute to greater student success. With other groups I include only the most difficult spots for each instrument on the cards. If you choose this approach, your group needs to be disciplined. If they are not, you can add in full-group tasks to balance out the isolation of each instrument.

4. All Request Tuesday
    All request (insert whatever day it happens to be) lets students pick the spots to address. It is a great way for students to shape the direction of class. Student requests should reflect places in the music that need the most work. It might help for some groups of students to write down their top five requests before class so they are ready in case another student requests their top choice.
    Students should be specific for the section of music that they ask to practice and what they want to improve. Some classes will take more coaching than others, but I will never let my group practice a section of music without a clear goal. When I feel the goal has been reached, I ask the students if they agree with me using a thumbs up or a thumbs down. You may wish to bypass the vote and move on to the next goal.

5. Five Golden Rings Challenge
    This activity focuses on building consistency. I have a jar with five rings for this exercise. For every successful attempt at a goal, a ring goes into the jar. If the students make a mistake, the rings get dumped out and the count starts over at zero. Some groups work better with only three rings. I have also found for classes that are easily frustrated, it helps to eliminate dumping out the rings and focus on five successful completions

6. Wheel of Fate
    My students love this activity, if for nothing else, because they get to spin a wheel. I use a wheel with thirteen different colored dry erase spots on it. On each spot I write a section of the music that needs work. I call students up one at a time to spin. After the wheel lands on a spot, I give the group a goal and once the group meets the goal, another student can spin. I usually continue until every student has a turn or until all spots have been handled.
    If thirteen spots do not fit your group’s needs, put sections on the wheel multiple times, allowing a narrower focus during class. One helpful variation is to include the top two spots on the wheel three times each, your next two spots twice each and three other spots only once. Another variation that engages students is having them come up with sections to put on the wheel. If you need more than thirteen spots I recommend developing multiple rounds.

7. Percentage Challenge
    This task focuses on consistency. I have three clear glass jars – one filled with black marbles, one with pink marbles, and an empty one. Any two marble colors will work as long as these are visible from the back of the room. Select a section to work on with a clear, measurable goal. Students will play the spot four times in a row. Each time they play they receive a marble in the empty jar – a black one if they meet it and a pink one if they did not. You do not want to choose a section that they can perform perfectly. Discuss the results with students at the end. Keeping the initial performance number at four allows students to calculate percentages faster. I use a dollar bill and four quarter analogy to help.
    As a group we discuss what reasons hold us back from a higher number. Depending on the initial percentage correct, it is sometimes appropriate to focus more on growth than reaching perfection. If your group can reach 100%, go for it, but avoid setting them up for something that they might never accomplish. Once we have discussed any obstacles to success, we identify a new goal and work on that section using various rehearsal techniques. After making clear progress, the group will perform that section four more times with the marbles. We then compare results. If improvement occurs, I might do another section with the group or add six more repetitions to see how the percentage changes. We make six additional attempts so the total number is ten when you add it to the second set of four. Students can talk about the percentages based on ten with greater ease.
    This eye-opening activity combats the common student perception that if they can play it right one time, then they will get it right every time. It is also wonderful for promoting group conversations about their success rate and growth over time. As directors, we frequently think about where we want them to go, but it is valuable for students to participate in that conversation.

8. Mr. Potato Head vs. The Band

    This fun game increases playing consistency. You will need a Mr. Potato Head and all of its accessories: eyes, two arms, nose, mouth, shoes, mustache, hat, and two ears. There are two ways to begin. You can start with the potato head fully dressed and remove a piece every time students play a section correctly. Another way is to start with the just potato and every time they play it correctly, they get to choose the accessory to add. I let students vote on how to start.
    Before starting, decide how to divide the class. I prefer dividing students by the needs of the music instead of staying with like instruments. You also should determine which musical selections to use with each group. I choose at least three spots with a mixture of difficulty levels ready for each group. I type them up on a sheet and have them ready to pass out so that the students can practice silently during the game when their group is not performing. At the beginning of class I announce the groups, have students move to their spots, and pass out the musical selection paper. I write the sections on the board to keep score and also establish an order.
    Once everything is set up, I review ground rules. We will play in rounds so every section plays once before a new round starts. At the end of class we tally the points and the section with the most wins for the day. Students cannot distract or disrupt the other team, be negative during the game, or play out of turn or their team loses a point. They can practice silently to prepare for their turn.
    When there are no more questions from students, we begin. I pick the section that the students must perform. For each correct attempt in a row they get a point. Once they make a mistake they will stop, and a new section gets a turn. If they complete ten in a row they get two extra points.
    Sometimes I start with five instead of ten times in a row. For younger students ten in a row might be overwhelming. If you pick a smaller number of tries, you will want to have five or seven predetermined selections. If the game happens close to the concert. I select the top five spots for the group, often including transitional passages

9. Lucky Dice
    This challenge also focuses on consistency and requires a pair of dice. I use giant foam dice so that everyone can see the numbers. Before the game I select spots for each instrument group that need improving. I usually pick five to seven areas depending on how my class is divided up that year, how many students are in the room, and how long I want the game to take. I type up the list to fit on one sheet of paper and pass it out to the students.
    At the beginning of class I discuss the rules, divide the class up into groups, and write the order of the groups on the board. I give students a couple minutes for individual practice of the spots indicated on the sheets.
    I begin by picking a section randomly. One person from that section comes to the podium and rolls the dice. The number on the dice shows the number of times the section must play it in a row to get the point. That section can pass that number to the next section or keep it for themselves. If the section with the number succeeds they receive the point; if they mess up, the number goes to the next section for the steal. When a section is stealing, they start on the last number of the correct counter to see if they can finish it for the point. If they finish out the number they receive a point and roll the dice next. The process repeats until the end of class, when points are tallied and a winner is declared.   

10. Sorting Hat Challenge
    This challenge promotes individual accountability and student encouragement. This game needs a sorting hat (as from the Harry Potter books) and strips of paper. As alternatives I have used a witch hat at Hal­lo­ween and a Santa hat close to Christ­mas. The day before we play, I pass out a strip of paper to each student. Students put their names on the paper and write one spot that challenges them the most. I will collect them and go through them after class. I like to do it this way because it lets me see what my students think is difficult.
    At the beginning of the next class I will divide students into teams by grouping sections together as evenly as possible. I have also had luck with random groups. I dump the strips of paper in the sorting hat and call up a student to pull one out. The student reads the paper out loud so everyone knows who is challenged and what is to be played. The student will has three tries to get it correct and earn a point for their team. Students who play the excerpt correctly on the first attempt receive two points. Time savers for this game include filling out the strips yourself and giving the game a set time limit. The group with the highest score when the timer goes off wins.

11. CCFP PlayStation Challenge
    This challenge is the Count, Clap, Finger, and Play challenge. Students might have to count and clap, clap and say the note names, finger and sing, play, count and finger, or clap and sing their parts. The goal is to get them excited about using these practice techniques. The first part of the game consists of a long start-to-finish game board (similar to Candy Land) for students to see while we play the game. Each square has the musical selections and directions for performing it written on post it notes. For example: “Count and clap measure ten to twenty or finger and sing measures five to ten.”

    I also have a poster size picture of a PlayStation controller. Students have the !, #, @, and æ buttons as their choices. Each button comes with a bucket of directions to draw, such as “If you meet the challenge, go forward two spaces, if you did not meet the challenge, go backward two spaces” or “Trade game pieces with another group.”
    To play the game, students are divided into playing sections. This game works best with two to four teams. A student from a group will roll one die to see which spot they land on. That spot determines their musical selection. Then they must chose a  !, #, @, or æ button. Whichever button they choose, they will draw a piece of paper indicating what additional steps to take if they get it correct or incorrect. The group has three chances to get it correct, and everyone in the group must get it correct. Whichever group reaches the end of the board first wins.

12. Sound Board
    This exercise focuses on ensemble balance and blend. It is not so much a game as a chance to make musical choices. Make a huge poster resembling an audio mixing sound board with moveable linear knobs and labels for each section. Select at least five sections in the music that you would like students to conquer. I would choose sections that students can play musically and emphasize that there is more than one right answer.
    To start, choose one student to come up and stand beside you while the ensemble plays the first section. That student will describe what they heard using words and making decisions on the sound board. The ensemble will play again using that student’s ideas. The student determines if what the ensemble played reflects the sound board and if they liked that choice for the music. If they do, another student will come up to work on a section.
    It helps to limit the number of students who get to come up to the front. One year I had a particularly enthusiastic group that really got into this. Every student wanted a turn, and they were great throughout the entire activity, which spanned two class periods. When I have done this activity over two class periods, I have expanded the conversation to include how musical decisions might change from day to day.

13. Task Master Skully
    Skully is a three-foot skeleton that hangs behind me during class. Initially, he was a fun way to show body posture while playing, but he quickly became a mascot for the class. This activity combines the student request game and the bucket challenge. To begin each student gets one strip of paper and (anonymously) has to put down a performance goal for the class. All of the papers are then collected and taped to Skully. Every student gets to come up and choose a task, and every student gets a chance to work on the part that they need help. It is also a great way to build in teamwork and emphasize that everyone in the group matters.

    Research demonstrates that when neural connections are stimulated re­peatedly and contain an emotional response, they will be significantly strengthened. We can improve these connections and avoid the pitfalls of boredom and mindless repetition by shifting teaching strategies. Using these strategies wisely, the repetitive nature of our craft can provide meaningful, refreshed, and powerful learning for our students and us.