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Noise versus Music – How to make your classroom sing

Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything.” ― Plato

There’s nothing I like more than waking up in the morning, putting a record on, boiling the kettle and reading a comic. I get the opportunity to practice this little ritual most weekends but rarely during the week for fear of waking my roommates. Headphones are a wonderful thing.

Exploring the noise in our classrooms can be a little bit like figuring out whether it’s appropriate to listen to records at full volume. Much like my roommates, teachers hold the power to decide what a classroom’s soundtrack is. The need for silence is dictated by situation.

Recently I was in a PLD session, where two teachers were discussing merits of traditional teaching methods. One was arguing that just because their classroom was noisy, that it didn’t necessarily mean work wasn’t happening. The other argued that a quiet classroom often ensured their students were more productive. Neither was wrong. Quiet classrooms can be more productive, and work can be completed to a high standard in a loud classroom. There is a difference, however, between mere noise and productive sound. Let us label the latter “buzz”.

So how do you tell the difference between noise and buzz? You begin by listening. When you understand the soundtrack of your class, you can begin to understand the difference between when a class is just noisy or whether it’s buzzing. Ultimately, your decisions around the what emits out from your classroom door have to be responsive. Sometimes, silence in a classroom is necessary. At other times a hushed sound as a class watch a video in awe and curiosity might suffice. However, I challenge you to question the assumption that raucous laughter, buzz and talking indicate a lack of engagement or that a silent classroom is an engaged one. Compliance does not equal engagement, so stop measuring whether a class is engaged by the noise (of lack thereof) spilling into the corridors. We need to find new gauges for understanding, ones based in work produced and success criteria achieved.

I remember one of my very first days teaching. I was tasked with taking on a Year 11 class who had been described as “difficult”. Essentially boys that were a struggle to “control”. Here I was the presented with the problem, I didn’t want to control them. I wanted to offer them the opportunity to ‘sing.’ I gave them a writing task, put on some music on and sat down. One of the students approached me with a specific song request. Suddenly I’d become both DJ and teacher. The song was a cover of The Lord is my Light by Adeaze. Immediately, I saw the boys begin to stop talking and start writing. One boy began to sing quietly along to song, then another, then a boy began in harmony. Suddenly, I was listening to class full of boys subconsciously singing in Samoan as they wrote. For this class, “buzz” was literal music. A classroom where we give students space to express through both the silence and the sound is the one that will learn.

When we learn to distinguish what the soundtrack of our classroom is; we can begin to allow space for productive noise as well as silence. We can also begin to introduce music into our classroom activities. It might be passing around a piece of A4 and letting the students create a collaborative playlist or exposing them to something they’ve never heard before. Some of the best classes I have taught were scored by Wagner, Monae and Lin-Manuel Miranda. All names that my students had never heard of. Whatever your classroom sounds like, make sure it’s buzzing.

Challenges for you this week

• Question your assumptions around engagement vs compliance

• Listen to hear what buzz sounds like

• Allow space for music as well as silence

• Expose your students to new music

Billy Joel concludes:

“I think music in itself is healing. It’s an explosive expression of humanity. It’s something we are all touched by. No matter what culture we’re from, everyone loves music.”

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