Creating an ensemble

One of the things that I can tell is going to be interesting about our professional learning community we have formed at my campus is the diversity of teachers involved.  We have members from departments all over campus, from English to science to special education to band.   And it’s fascinating hearing their perspectives on teaching and learning and what it looks like to them.  

 It also strikes me that one thing that happens in schools is that we tend to talk to the people we already work with–reinforcing our own beliefs, but not necessarily ever challenging them.   One of the real values of finding ways for teachers to talk across grade levels and departments is that it does offer the opportunity for fresh ideas and differing viewpoints to emerge.

As our band teacher talked at our coffee about how he works with students, it was very illuminating and somewhat different than how other teachers tend to approach things.   For one thing, he doesn’t use the same pieces from year to year, so he’s always learning new pieces along with the students.  And the idea of ensemble is very important–because if one student isn’t prepared for practice, it hinders everyone in the ensemble.  Students don’t always see their work in the rest of school that way–as part of a group where their contribution and responsibility to others is significant.

What if we treated students in our libraries or classrooms this way?  Like an ensemble where every “player” was significant to creating the music of learning?   So that students know that their work and contributions affect everyone else in the room?

At our staff retreat last August, we stumbled through an outdoor team-building exercise where a group of us had to balance on a log, and reorganize the order we were lined up in.  But we could only communicate through making animal sounds or gesturing like the animal.   But even though not all of us knew one another well–we all were committed to helping ALL of us stay on the log and winning the challenge.

Do our classrooms function this way?  Do all the students involved help all of their peers ‘stay on the log’?  Everyone stumbles from time to time–but what more power is there in a classroom if students know that everyone there would be trying to help them get back on track?

Similarly, what if instead of seeing themselves as competing departments (this is high school more than elementary)–teachers saw that they were all part of an ensemble, where all the players were necessary to creating and supporting the whole?

Dennis Littky talks in his book The Big Picture about the importance of advisories to personalizing school for students.   But I think even our classrooms can function this way.

It takes believing in our students, though, as our teacher Valerie Taylor pointed out.  She shared some research from a dissertation at U.T. by Brian Lawrence(or Laurence?), where he explored the perspectve of deficit thinking.  When we see students as incapable of something, we tend to approach them in certain ways because we are thinking of them as doing “without” something.  But if we approaching them by valuing what they do bring (essentialist thinking) then we are able to invite them in because we believe that everyone has something to contribute.

This is key to creating an ensemble in the classroom or with a group of students or with a group of teachers.     Our respect for the fact that every member of the ensemble has something to contribute is paramount.   When people know they matter, they show up, not just physically, but mentally and creatively as well.

So I’m wondering, what do we do to foster ensemble-thinking in our classrooms?

2 thoughts on “Creating an ensemble

  1. Ensembles work because a) they’re small b) they usually want the same thing, and c) their goal is simple and clearly identified – play this piece as perfectly as possible.
    Classrooms are MUCH larger and the goals of the students are often at cross purposes and not always clear. To foster ensemble-like thinking in a classroom, we’d need small groups who were together for the entire year, and a common goal, clearly identified, for each group with participant buy in. Tough, but not impossible.

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