All posts by James

Lifting our Young Voices

The single best thing I have been involved with as a teacher is taking my choir to Young Voices. Everyone involved comes in to school the next day still buzzing with excitement. Very tired, but very excited.

The children have a wonderful experience to perform at an iconic venue, like the O2 Arena, which is pretty cool. Furthermore, they get to perform with professional musicians, singers and dancers of an impressively high standard. This is an experience which will inspire and motivate the children and will live long in the memory. There are some really magical moments where you catch the children staring, open mouthed, as Natalie Williams begins to sing or Urban Strides are dancing. I like to think I can o a pretty good singing assembly, but this is a whole different level of inspiration.

Parents also came back having had an amazing evening of entertainment. This is not your average children’s concert, this is one you will really enjoy and you will get up and dance. Everyone does, you simply can’t help it. My mum and sister recently went to watch my niece at one of this year’s Birmingham shows and phoned me as soon as they came out, both full of excitement about what they had just witnessed.

For the teachers it’s a long day, and I’ve never been more alert than when leaving the O2 in the rain trying to repeatedly count children making sure everyone gets safely back to the coach. However, it’s a whole lot of fun. We sang, we danced, we conquered. All the staff involved loved it, and that cannot be said for every school trip or concert.

The shows are expertly put together by, Musical Director, Craig McLeish, who always meets the challenge of compiling and arranging a collection of songs to appeal to all ages pulling from a range of genres.

Here are some tips if you are thinking of taking your choir to a Young Voices event next year.

  • Go to the teacher’s workshop. It helpful and loads of fun.
  • As well as taking a banner, take some form of head ware that will help your choir stand out. Helpful for getting noticed as the audience enter the arena, also very helpful when leaving the arena safely at the end.
  • Encourage the parents to also have someway of drawing attention to themselves. The children love to know where their parents are and it is not an easy task.
  • Take water bottles to fill up.
  • Rehearse loads. Add your own dance moves.
  • Perfection is great. However, if it is unattainable for you and your choir, make fun the priority. You may not get all of the moves exactly right, but enjoy expressing yourselves through the music. The more fun the children have the more they are likely to be hooked by the performance bug.

What led me to Young Voices?

Music simply isn’t taught as much in schools as it should be. Music is so important for the sole and mind and the fact it gets squeezed out in place of extra SPaG lessons is a travesty. But it does. I know it’s not the only hard done by subject but it’s one I care about immensely so I will bang the literal and figurative drum for music lessons all day long.

The two main reasons, as far as I can tell, for music taking a back seat in modern schools are the congested curriculum and teacher confidence in delivering good quality music lessons. Both of these excuses are able to be overcome with will power and enthusiasm which has helped me increase music participation in my school in whole class lessons, individual tuition, clubs and school productions.

While I feel I’ve had some success in this area, I recognise this to be a national problem. I also fully understand the pressures on teachers to get results in the core subjects of reading, writing, maths and science, so explicit music teaching is not a priority. This being the case, I am always on the look out for opportunities for our children to perform and experience music at it’s best. I has previously written about how we recorded an album with the whole school and the impact it had, making use of ICT to help engagement and also given tips for putting on productions. The search for more new and exciting experiences for our children led me to Young Voices and I am very happy with the experiences I have had with them so far. No doubt I’ll be signing up to do it all again very soon.

Improving our learning space

I was fortunate enough to attend a conference where Professor Stephen Heppell was talking. He was described by Bournemouth University as, “a world expert on contemporary learning, specialising in online education and learning spaces”. Learning spaces were the focus of his talk, and in turn this blog, hence the title.

I was very interested in what he said for two important reasons. Firstly, his suggestions were rooted in educational research with evidence to back up their effectiveness. Secondly, many of his suggestions seemed like exactly the sort of thing I could go back to my classroom and have a go at right away. We work so hard as education professionals that any marginal gains on offer should be snapped up to maximise outcomes. That extra 5% can make all the difference.

Following Prof. Heppell’s presentation, and back at school, I began a conversation with my class about how we could improve our learning environment.

To begin with, we looked at light levels in the classroom. I downloaded a free luxmeter with the aim of measuring the levels of light in our classroom. 500 lux was our target for close work like writing. We found that with the blinds down (which help to regulate the temperature from our large, south-facing windows, as well as eliminating the bright glare) the light levels were well below 200 lux. We opened the blinds. It got hotter. We opened some windows. That was fine.

The real problem was the glare in children’s eyes every time they tried to look up. Certain times of day are better than others, but there are times we have to concede and close the blinds. However, if the children are all reading or writing for anything more than a couple of minutes, we agree it’s best to have the blinds open. This may be more of a problem in the Summer months. We will continue to look at arrangements of tables chairs to see how we can improve.

To monitor sound I downloaded an app to record decibel levels, anything above 72 decibels starts to became disruptive according to heppell.net. This is useful to know, and a quantifiable number that can be monitored by the class. However, when it comes to motivating the class to control their volume, they really enjoy trying to stop the balls/emojis/bubbles/eyeballs from moving on bouncyballs.org.

CO2 levels are a little harder to monitor but can be damaging to children’s levels of concentration. The children suggested opening windows during break and lunch times to let more oxygen in. This is a good idea and will have some effect, but as CO2 is a heavy gas, and windows open at head height, the levels will stay at a unhealthy level for much of the day. So they agreed we needed some plants. Green ones. In the few days since this conversation, two plants have been brought in and donated to the class by two different. Not very big ones. But it’s a start, and really proves how keen the children are to create the best possible space for learning they can. One of the plants has even been named. The class are becoming quite attached. We best look after it.

The temperature in our classroom can fluctuate widely during the day as we have high ceilings with very large, south-facing windows down one side (the south-side). However, we can easily manage it by opening windows, closing blinds etc. The target is between 18 and 21 degrees, and sometimes, we manage to hit that temperate for more than 5 minutes at a time.

Professor Heppell also extolled the virtues of the shoe-less classroom. Something I have experienced before, but mostly with a view to improve behaviour. Evidence does suggest that this is indeed the case but there are also many other benefits. The children feel more comfortable and relaxed and in turn perform better. Simple really. The children in my class really enjoyed taking their shoes off and all said they felt more comfortable and relaxed. The problem came when I started to tell my colleagues about it and they explained we couldn’t do that for health and safety reasons, in case the fire alarm went off.  My search for a solution to this problem goes on.

There is much to consider as future refurbishments and renovations are planned over coming years. But in the short term, and with our very limited budget there are a few things I plan to do.

I’ve been really encouraged by the children’s engagement with the ideas around how to make their learning environment better for themselves. They have a real sense of ownership about monitoring our environment and making the necessary changes to improve it. In the coming weeks I plan to introduce light, sound, CO2 and temperature monitors who will track the data and help suggest changes accordingly.

To find out more about Professor Stephen Heppell and his work visit www.heppell.net.

Producing a School Production – Top Tips

Following a recent post about choosing productions to put on in my school I began reflecting on what I’ve learnt over the years of producing, directing, choreographing, etc numerous shows, musicals, plays and concerts.

Here are my tips for putting on a successful production and, hopefully, staying sane at the same time.

  1. Get help. You need costumes, props, dance routines, lighting, sound and staging, not to mention singing and acting practice. This should not be attempted individually by anybody, let alone a full time teacher. Ask for help. I was fortunate enough to have a student teacher with a dancing background one year and this was a great help. I’ve also been lucky enough to make the most of some talented staff members who are both artistically creative and generous with their time. This may not always be the case and should not be taken for granted, but given enough time and a clear role, most people who work in schools will like to help if they can. Failing that, get your Head to ‘assign’ help.
  2. Plan ahead. Get to know the script well before casting. This will avoid giving the confident but tone deaf child a solo you hadn’t spotted. Make some kind of rehearsal schedule so you know what scenes you’ll be working on during each session and who you will need. Identify the big scenes with most of the cast members in to rehearse at Drama Club or such like, it is easier to snatch moments with key cast members to rehearse smaller scenes as the performance date approaches.
  3. Learn the songs. Obviously. But learn them as far in advance of the production as possible so the children can dance and act freely without worrying too much about the lyrics. This also means the whole ensemble will sing loudly, confidently and hopefully tunefully come the big night.
  4. Keep it simple. Well, as simple as you can. No-one watching is expecting a Tony Award winning production. Most parents just want to see their kids say a line or 3 and they are hoping the show isn’t too long! If it’s actually quite funny as well then that’s great. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself to deliver something that is perfect because that is impossible. It’s really, really hard work to put on any production, it’s more important that as many children as possible feel they are part of it, have contributed and most important of all, that they have fun doing it. Speaking of which…
  5. Have fun. This is one of the precious few times in school where your children get a chance to perform. For some, it might be the only thing at school that they feel any good at. It can often be the thing they remember most about school in the years to come, so make sure they have a positive experience.

Producing a School Production – Moving to Musicline

When I joined my current school they had a growing reputation for fantastic, memorable and somewhat lavish productions. Famous shows, big, outdoor staging, expensive costumes and hired sound equipment including radio mics for leading cast members.  It all meant for fantastic and enduring performances for the children involved and the audiences alike. I was very impressed with what I saw, and was part of, in my first year we put on ‘The Lion King’ and in my second year it was ‘Footloose’. Doing shows the children had heard of meant there was a buzz about the productions long before any performances.

However, as staff changed, budgets tightened and I became responsible for the Summer Productions, I felt the burden of responsibility to produce a quality performance, just, with less lofty ambitions. Searching for a show to put on I came across www.musiclinedirect.com. A company who write shows specifically for primary schools. Although their stories are often well known, they do not have the famous named productions that we had used in the past, but that means the rights to put them on are considerably cheaper (like hundreds of pounds cheaper). Conscious that cheaper shows may mean poorer quality I was keen to sample the script and music, these are readily available on their website. The scripts are funny (actually funny to grown ups and everything) and the music is good, not ‘Mercury Prize winning good’, but ‘catchy pop song good’ and the songs are largely easy to sing and learn. This a massive bonus.

So we went for ‘Shakespeare Rocks‘ (well it was Shakespeare’s anniversary that year wasn’t it?). The script and music didn’t disappoint. With speaking roles for over 40 children it was a real ensemble piece. This meant more children had more lines and felt more involved than in previous years. While the songs weren’t previously known to the children, they certainly had a familiar sound to them and some were incredibly catchy.

The following year we went for ‘Robin and the Sherwood Hoodies’ and again the show was fantastic. This year I also invested in the dance routines. These are very simple, but it was just one less thing I had to worry about. We had different groups of children in at lunch times and could just play the clip for their dance and crack on. Simple but effective. All of the moves are well within the children’s capabilities which enables them to focus on doing the simple things well which is important in making a coherent production with a bit of quality.

With both shows we have done the humour shines through. Many jokes the children understood and enjoyed sharing with the audience and more than a few were just for the parents. If you enjoy a cheesy pun, then you’ll love a Musicline production.

One gripe is that Musicline could do something about having more female leading characters. Logistically it would help as I have many more girls than boys auditioning for parts. But more importantly I think it sends the wrong message to our children that males are the heroes of all these stories. To be fair, this is a problem in theatre on the whole, as it is in films, literature and other art forms.

Having found, enjoyed and grown to trust Musicline musicals I look forward to exploring more of their catelogue of productions and seeing what they come up with in the future.