This post is by Kay Flewelling, who teaches humanities at High Tech High in San Diego.
Alex has the toughest time fitting into a classroom. He finds himself antsy, anxious, and sometimes randomly shuts down, both physically and emotionally. He is quick to criticize himself or give up when an assignment seems too difficult. When Alex joined the a cappella intersession, I didn’t know how he’d handle the stress of meeting new people and performing in a small group. This week was the first time I saw Alex smile about an assignment since the beginning of his sophomore year. Here, despite the same struggles he normally faced in the classroom, he found himself with a group of students who accepted and valued him. On the last day of the week he said, “This is one of the best--no, the best week of my life. I wish it would never end.” I wondered, why can’t every week be like this?
On a moonlit, starless night in January, I found myself standing around a bonfire with my students listening to a spontaneous a cappella rendition of “Hey Ya” by Outkast. Pointless, a men’s a cappella group just happened to be camping across the way from our school. The girls returned from the concert giddy with excitement. “That was amazing!” “Why don’t we do that? We should do that for the next intersession!” “I’d join!” “Yeah, me too!” Sometimes this is how things begin. Sure, I had no voice training, music training, or a cappella expertise, but I loved singing, and I have a deep respect for unbridled enthusiasm. It was decided. We would start an a cappella group for our second intersession, and I would lead it.
For my school, intersession happens for two different weeks in the year. It is non-graded, all-ages, and the content is anything that we choose. For this one, I put out feelers in the local music community. I figured good ideas can thrive without assistance, but a little expertise never hurts. I contacted Pointless, as well as a mutual friend who performed a cappella in college, but neither responded to my messages. When it was time to commit to the idea, I was alone with my “Pitch Perfect” DVD. Our staff did a gallery walk of intersession plans, and I got mostly skeptical feedback: “Are high schoolers mature enough for this?” “Doesn’t sound like enough to fill the time.” “You should show Pitch Perfect!” I doubted that unbridled enthusiasm could support the weight of this idea, but I had students committed to joining, so I put it out there anyway.
After we put out the intersession catalogue, I received an email from a parent in the school. John had been singing in barbershop quartets since 1978, and just wanted to say, “This is awesome! How can I help?” I didn’t know him or his child, but I jumped on the offering. Now we had guest speakers, DVD tutorials, sound advice, and an invitation to visit John’s quartet on a Tuesday night. Shortly after this, the Recreational Music Center (RMC) in Point Loma called me and told me that they would donate five hours of consultation and instruction to our class. I felt better knowing I had support, but I was still anxious.
The first day of intersession, the 18 students in the class sat nervously in a circle. We started with basic introductions, and then ground rules for respect and appreciation. Katie from RMC came in for 90 minutes and led vocal warm-ups and breathing exercises. Students selected songs to make arrangements, and eagerly started in with their pitch pipes to get on key. At the end of the day, students performed what they had arranged and got critique from each other. The classroom was full of song and music.
Throughout the rest of the week, we quickly formed a family of a cappella singers. John Goebel brought in a couple members of Royce’s Voices, and they led the students in singing barbershop tags, the ends of songs in four parts. We were only singing a couple phrases of a song, but you would think that we had finished a marathon for the joy of having done it well. They smiled and cheered when we were finished, and the room sounded like a choir of angels.
Mostly, though, the students worked diligently in their small groups, perfecting their arrangements, encouraging one another to sing louder or differently, teaching one another how to read music or build a chord with different notes. I floated between the different sections, offering assistance where I could, and delighting in how simple it can be to teach when students are enthusiastic to learn. When they tired of working on their song, they would often just start singing, and others would join in.
At the end of the week, each of the groups performed their songs to a small audience of whomever they could assemble into the room. When they made mistakes or forgot the words, they helped each other keep going. We closed our intersession with a round of connections, where each student had an opportunity to share something about the week. Students remarked that the week had changed them. Our gregarious 9th grade baritone said, “I used to think that those movies that show teenagers just sitting around and singing songs were totally unrealistic, but after this week, I see that it can happen! It actually became socially acceptable to randomly break out into song.” A quieter, more reserved 10th grade soprano said, “This is going to sound weird, but I feel like we are a bunch of animals, and we each found our voice. Everyone’s is different, but they all fit here.” There were a lot of comments about how they built confidence, and how we formed a family.
During our one week of singing in small groups and doing silly vocal warm-ups, I don’t know how to describe it except that we were all deeply, strangely happy. We were engaged in something real and difficult, but each day was full of joy. Experiences like the a cappella intersession make me pause to wonder what I am doing in my normal classroom that makes it hard for a kid like Alex to fit in and find his place. Why can’t each week that I teach feel as easy and carefree as a week like this? Is it possible to replicate this experience in my school?
Intersessions offer nontraditional circumstances, but I want to believe what we experienced together can be brought back to the classroom. Despite all our content standards, we need to get back to the magic. The magic that comes from one student’s enthusiastic idea on a moonlit, starless night. The magic that comes from trying something that you don’t know how to do and you’re not at all sure is going to go well. The magic that comes from doing that thing with a community of experts who love what they do and want to share that with all of us.
I don’t know exactly what makes the difference, but I know that I want every day that I teach to be as inspiring as these few days with this small group of novice a cappella singers. Each day I laughed more and sang more and smiled more than I had on any other day of the year. I think it has to do with listening to students. Even if students don’t have choice about whether or not they are in our class, perhaps they can have real, authentic voice in what we’re doing and learning. And even though affording students that choice is tremendously terrifying, the pieces always fall into place, so long as we step out in trust. At least, that’s what happened to me.
You can hear a sample of the group’s singing here:
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