In addition to my middle school classes, I teach High School Modern Band (guitar, bass, keyboard, drums, etc.). The difference between high school and middle students always keeps me on my toes. One period I am reminding kids to speak nicely to each other while explaining why it’s not a good idea to eat cheetos right before they play the piano....and then the next period I am working with the high school kids where they want a challenge, but they also want me to simultaneously acknowledge that they already everything. Ah teenagers.
Modern Band often functions in a way that the students are working independently with their bands most of the time. They are constantly rehearsing, arranging and writing music and is completely student-led. My colleague and I facilitate the process and guide the kids as needed. In this class there is a group of 4 very talented seniors who are all good friends. Lately they have been falling behind on deadlines and have not been performing to their potential. It’s easy to blame it on “senioritis” but I wanted to have a productive conversation with them about what was happening during rehearsal time. The idea of “senioritis” is also hard to talk about constructively...it’s so general, used as an umbrella excuse for everything, and doesn’t give the kids and accountability for what might really be going on.
They were actually really open to this discussion and surprised me with their thoughtful reflection. They admitted that they are not sure what to work on. They have a big assignment and despite our checkpoints, are having trouble breaking it down into even smaller pieces. Well... this is something that I can work with! We decided that they would talk with me at the beginning of each period to agree on a tangible objective for the day. At the end of the period we would have another check-in about their progress to determine the plan for the next day.
They also confessed that they get distracted really easily and getting off task is something that happens often. Because they are such good friends, rehearsals can quickly turn into social time. They acknowledged that they were frustrated with their lack of progress and needed some ideas about how to stay on task. Okay, I can work with this too!
I gave them a strategy that I use with my colleagues and other teams I work with. I had them choose a word that would not normally be a part of a typical conversation. This way, if any of them felt as if the group was getting off task, one of them could say that word as a reminder that everyone needs to get back to work. It seems silly, but it is really effective! Nobody needs to be the bad guy saying “come on guys, let’s focus here.” Instead, they can say this word and everyone understands what needs to happen next. They chose the word “buffoon.” ...it’s a weird word, but honestly this tactic works better if the word is strange - this causes a break in attention, a possible laugh, and a chance to refocus everyone’s efforts.
Other teams I have worked with have used the word “norm,” another group, “telephone” and another used the word “moist.” Yea….that’s definitely a weird word to say at a meeting, but everyone laughs (or feels mildly uncomfortable for a moment) and gets back to work.
This group is so much better now that they have some tools to be an effective team. They are meeting our class expectations and are now caught up to where our other groups are. Independent group work can be challenging but the students should feel empowered to take responsibility for their learning, catch themselves if they get off track, and have a few ideas on how to refocus their attention.