A Semester at Fuller Elementary
My practicum internship for the first semester of my senior year was for the general music program at Fuller Elementary School in the Tempe Elementary School District No. 3. This was my third internship with my college program. My first one had been a year earlier in an elementary strings placement working with 4th-6th graders at a different elementary school, and my second one was the semester that preceded my placement at Fuller in a high school orchestra placement working with 9th-12th graders. This was my first internship working with general music, my first internship working with a class that was not strings-based, and my first internship working with children in grades lower than fourth grade. I could not have been more excited! It was a lot of firsts, and I was excited for all of them.
This school as a whole had a very specific and unique environment to it. The school was in a rather average middle class neighborhood, resembling those around many of the other schools in the district. It was one of the 16 Title I schools in the district, and its main building was original to the school, built in 1977. Viewing the school with only these details in mind, it seemed very similar to many of the other schools in the district. However, there were other details about the school that set it apart from the district’s other school. The school was built to have about 500 students attending, again, much like the district’s other schools, but the semester I interned at Fuller there were about 770 students attending the school. A vast majority of the students were out of boundary students, and it was known in the district as the elementary school that many of the district employees sent their children to. Fuller, at some point along the way, developed a reputation as a high-achieving school, and became a school where parents wanted to send their children and where teachers wanted to teach. As such, it became a pretty competitive school to get a job at, making it so that the teachers there were very strong and provided a strong education to their students. Additionally, because so many of the students were out of boundary and their parents were often district employees who very much wanted their children at this school, there was a great deal of parental involvement and support. This really set Fuller apart from other schools in the district and made for a strong sense of community at this school.
My mentor teacher was Erik Whitehill. He had been a teacher with the district for several years and this was his fifth year as the general music teacher at Fuller, so he had an established reputation at the school and had established relationships as the music teacher with many of the students for several years in a row. He worked with students in every grade the school had, which included Kindergarten through Fifth grade. He also had a small class for just children in the SEALS program, which is the school’s program for children with more severe cognitive and developmental disabilities. The district had set that Kindergarten through Fourth grade would have general music classes and Fifth grade would have ensemble groups. For the ensemble groups the students had to choose to join band, choir or orchestra, and this would be their music class in place of their general music. All the general music teachers taught the Fifth grade choir classes and there were traveling strings and band teachers. As such, Mr. Whitehill taught two Fifth grade choir classes twice a week. He had all of his classes for 30 minutes twice a week, with the exception of Fifth grade choir, which he had for 40 minutes twice a week, as was the norm for the district. In addition to these classes that he taught through the school’s music programs he also taught an after school Fourth grade choir class and an after school Fourth and Fifth grade recorder club.
I was lucky enough to see a good sample of different classes on a regular basis in this internship. My schedule made it so I was at Fuller on Monday afternoons and Friday mornings. On the Monday afternoons I got to see one Fourth grade class, and both sections of the Fifth grade choir. On Fridays I got to see one Third grade class, one Second grade class, one Kindergarten class, and the SEALS class. This made it so that I got to work with at least one class from every group that Mr. Whitehill worked with during the school day, with the exception of the Kindergarteners. I did go in a few times on other days at the beginning of the school year before my college semester started, and I got to meet all the students that my Mr. Whitehill taught.
Fourth Grade Musical
Mr. Whitehill had a strong background in musical theatre and enjoyed sharing this with is students through how and what he taught them. Fourth grade was the last year that he got his students for general music, so he did a musical with them as a sort of culmination to their general music experience. He did this in the first semester partially for logistical reasons and partially so they could have a more standard general music curriculum for the second semester of their Fourth grade year. Regardless, the semester I interned at Fuller almost every Fourth grade class I was there for was focused toward the musical. These classes did not follow traditional general music class structures and curricula because of this, which Mr. Whitehill openly admitted. He was okay with making that compromise though, because of how much the students gain and learn throughout the process of putting together the musical.
Mr. Whitehill had been doing Fourth grade musicals for quite a while at this point, and they had grown into large productions with high expectations and great support. Mr. Whitehill composed his own musicals, and by the time I interned with him he had already had a few published and others in the processes of being published. The musical the Fourth graders did that year was called The Test and the Time Machine. Mr. Whitehill wrote this to reflect to the children the frustrations they may have had with standardized testing, but after taking them on a journey in the musical through time to the sources and foundations of much of their education he hoped to help relieve some of that stress and motivate the students to do well in school.
Mr. Whitehill had a very methodic approach to how he put together his musicals so that they could successfully present good quality show and so that all students were involved. First, he had a group of students who he called the “bodies”. The bodies were the people who were on stage acting out what was going on throughout the musical. These students were in costume and motioned throughout the entire production, but they did not speak, they simply gestured as if they were speaking. There was a separate group of students who spoke the dialogue off-stage. These students were called the “voices”. The voices did all the speaking as the bodies did the motioning, making it so that when the two were put together it looked like one unified element, and it gave specialized parts to twice the children! There was another group of students who played Orff instruments in a small ensemble to help add to the texture of some of the songs throughout the show, and this gave yet another group of children specialized parts. This particular show also called for short parts for students to dance, giving another group of students specialized parts. The remaining students all sung in the chorus on all the songs, just like a chorus in any musical would. All of the other students with specialized parts would also sing the songs so that everyone was singing together, giving the songs a great full texture. He also had “backdrops” that were projections of PowerPoint slides that he designed. As mentioned earlier, Mr. Whitehill had a great deal of support for these shows, so he managed to get help from all of the Fourth grade staff, as well as the principal when putting on this production so that there was a teacher or administrator with each different group of children to help everything run smoothly. He also contacted several professional musicians to make a sort of pit to give the students a sort of full effect of what it would be like to be in a musical.
Mr. Whitehill worked to make this entire process a very educational experience from which the students learned a great deal about a variety of different aspects for putting together a musical. For one, he had to teach the students the songs that they would sing throughout the show. He would first have them listen as a class to the recordings of the songs that he had made. Then he would start by teaching them the words mainly through echoing. He would then teach them the singing through echoes and by rote. He did not focus on teaching these students note reading through this particular project, but instead wanted to have them learn the music in the most efficient way possible. There were various instances when he would expose the children to note reading though. For the group of students playing the Orff instruments he started by teaching them by rote by showing them what hands to use when, but as they got more familiar with the parts he did notate their parts on the board for them to follow along with and know when to play. The students did not necessarily actively understand that they were reading a half note D followed by a quarter rest, but rather they already knew their parts and were able to transfer that knowledge and apply it to the music, and know how to follow the music to know what they had to play when. Mr. Whitehill also auditioned students who wished to do so on parts to determine who would be a body, a voice, an Orff instrumentalist, or another other specialized part throughout the show. He expressed to me his excitement at having the students go through an audition process, and having the other students present view it and understand it. He told me that this would be the first time that most of these children would experience an audition, and so he got to be the first person who ever exposed them to the concept. It was clear that he was very passionate and excited about teaching his students this idea and other ideas related to musical theatre.
Mr. Whitehill wanted to make sure I had some sort of leadership part working with children in the show, so I was the conductor for the small group of students playing Orff instruments. There were three classes of Fourth grade, and Mr. Whitehill wanted there to be representation from each of the three classes in this ensemble, but he still wanted each individual group of children to be able to rehearse together on a regular basis in class. He decided to have a set three people in one class on hand bells, a set of two people in another class on bar instruments, and a set of three people in the other class on auxiliary percussion. I only saw one of these classes on a regular basis, so I group I worked the most with was the group of three students on hand bells. It was really quite fascinating for me to see their growth throughout the process. I very much enjoyed seeing how they would figure out a passage they were having difficulty with and how I could help them do so. I did get a chance to work with the other five students in the ensemble a few times on the week of the musical when we had extra rehearsals with all the fourth grade classes together. At this point these students all knew their parts, but I facilitated how all the separate groups fit together, and this was a great experience to be a part of. I was very grateful to get a chance to observe and participate in the production of one of Mr. Whitehill’s musicals. I thought it was a great experience for the students, and I know that I learned a great deal from it. The production was very well attended and a huge success. Participating in that performance was definitely one of the moments that kept me motivated and excited toward becoming a music teacher.
Fifth Grade Choir
The Fifth grade classes naturally had a different structure than the other classes because they were choir classes instead of general music classes. There were three Fifth grade classes and only two sections of choir. I would see both sections on Monday afternoons, and the first group that came comprised of seven students all from the same class. The second group was about 20 students combined from the other two Fifth grade classes. We would always start the class with warm ups before moving onto their pieces. Mr. Whitehill had various different warm ups that he had taught the classes throughout the school year, and he would usually pick two or three of the to use each class to get the students warmed up into singing. The warm ups helped the students practice a variety of different skills, such as annunciating fast moving lyrics, focusing their breathing, and singing with tall vowels. Other warm ups were more intended as physical warm ups to help get the students actively focused in class. There were a few times throughout the semester when Mr. Whitehill gave me the opportunity to lead the warm ups so that I could have the practice and experience doing so.
Once we finished with warm ups we then moved on to rehearsing the different songs that the classes were singing. There were five songs that they were preparing for the concert in December. We would generally get through three songs each class, and sometimes four if the class was particularly focused that day. The songs we did with the class included the Fuller School song, a medley of Snow is Falling Still and Still, Still, Still, a cannon arrangement of a Mozart Alleluia, the Swine Song by Dave and Jean Perry, and Why We Sing by Greg Gilpin. Mr. Whitehill never had the students break into any more than two parts, and most often had them all singing in unison. He emphasized the importance of singing in head voice when teaching elementary choir so that it matches the range that the students are singing in. This is especially important when working with young boys because they need to hear and understand that they need to place their voice in head voice, as opposed to their chest voice, because at that age it is not developed enough to sing in.
The Tempe Elementary School District No. 3 has a variety of different programs to serve different communities of students, and one of those is the SEALS program. This program is only offered at certain school locations, Fuller being one of them, and it is designed to serve children with more severe cognitive and developmental disabilities. Mr. Whitehill has one class with 6 or 7 of these students twice a week. The class also comes with a few aids to help the students succeed in participating in our activities. I saw this class every Friday, and I was very grateful to get the opportunity to observe how Mr. Whitehill structured the classes for this specific group of students. He always has them start with beats. They sit facing us and then he has one of them come up to the front with him and he helps them place the beat somewhere on their body. As this one student is leading, with guidance, the other students are supposed to place he beat in the same place. Mr. Whitehill gives everyone a turn to lead the beat activity every class. The other activities we will lead the students in for the rest of the calls include movement activities with handkerchiefs, playing on percussion instruments, doing the “Chicken Dance”, and doing the “Hokey Pokey”. There were two other activities that we discovered throughout my semester there at Fuller that worked exceptionally well with this group of students. This included the use of the program Incredibox with the class and having the students interact with the guitar in the song slippery fish.
Mr. Whitehill had designed several activities structured for the SEALS kids to help their involvement with music. In the handkerchief activity Mr. Whitehill put on music and had them move the handkerchief in different ways along with the music such as in circles, up and down, and drawing curves in the air. Every few classes he pulled out auxiliary percussion instruments and had them all play these instruments along with percussion music that he put on for the activity. There are also a few classes that he set up bar instruments for the students to play on. When doing this activity we provided a great deal of guidance to facilitate the experience, and it was a great experience for the students. Mr. Whitehill also had the students do some sort of dance almost every class, and he used the Hokey Pokey and the Chicken dance to accomplish this, which was successful because these were dances that the students were familiar with and could accomplish with guidance from the aids and instructors.
There was one day in the semester that we decided to play and sing a song for the students that the SEALS teachers told us they used on a regular basis and did movements to. Mr. Whitehill played the guitar and I played the hand bells and we had the aids help guide the students in the movements that they were familiar with. After singing through it Mr. Whitehill decided to try something. He had the students come up and put their hands on the guitar to feel the vibrations that sound and music make. This was going very well, and then had them each hold the pick and strum the guitar while he fingered the chords and we sang the song. It went incredibly well and the students all really enjoyed the activity. After that day Mr. Whitehill continued doing this activity many more times and on a regular basis. On another day we were using the program Incredibox with students in the other general music classes and Mr. Whitehill decided that he wanted to use it with SEALS as well. This program is a program that uses loops of small units of rhythmic and melodic patterns that are represented by a person that the students can pick to include in a group on the SmartBoard. In doing this the students layer different loops and create a piece with this iconic form of notation. It was a complete success with the SEALS class and they really enjoyed creating in this way.
First, Second, and Third Grade Classes
I got the opportunity to view one of each of Mr. Whitehill’s First, Second, and Third grade classes. These classes all followed a more common curriculum for general music classes. Mr. Whitehill used the Game Plan curriculum, and the semester I interned for him he was actually part of the group of teachers who pushed to get Game Plan materials for every general music teacher in the district. The Game Plan curriculum is largely Orff based, but uses several principles of Kodály as well, so Mr. Whitehill was teaching his students building on the philosophies of both systems. That said, Mr. Whitehill was more Orff focused in general and has gotten trained in Orff classes up through the third and highest level. He incorporated movement into almost every class and had movement words clearly posted in the classroom separated into locomotor and nonlocomotor movements. He would refer to this list often to facilitate warm up activities or core activities we were doing in class. Mr. Whitehill had a good supply of instruments, and he utilized this to his fullest ability. He incorporated playing on instruments often in lessons, and he made a point of giving all students the opportunities to play all the instruments several times throughout the year. The way he did this was not through a detailed list of who had and had not played what, but because he used the instruments so much and had the children switch instruments so much in music class that everyone did get many opportunities on many instruments.
Mr. Whitehill was also very aware of the importance of having students creating through improvisation and composition. He did many activities throughout the semester that I interned with him where the students were creating. It was incredible to see the sense of ownership and pride the students had in the music they created. It was evident that this made music more meaningful to them and more relevant and accessible. Mr. Whitehill incorporated several other elements in his teaching that are common and important to music education, such as note reading, solfege, singing (the entire time emphasizing the importance of head voice), and interpreting music in a variety of ways, particularly through movement and expression. One activity that I found particularly interesting was one that was really quite simple in nature, but was very effective for the students and got the students to relate music to other arts, specifically visual arts and literature. Mr. Whitehill read three different children’s books to his classes that were all contrasting and were all well illustrated. He chose music to pair with these books that he played a recording of for the students while he read them the books and showed them the pictures. In doing this he was teaching these students how to relate different disciplines within the arts, and I noticed that the students were very engaged in this lesson and that it was really quite meaningful for them.
Before that semester I knew very little about teaching practices for general music. I knew a good deal about talking to and interacting with children, and I knew a good deal about teaching string, but general music was not an area I had experience in. That semester of interning taught me so much about teaching general music, and that coupled with my college practicum class “Art of Teaching Children Music” that I took that same semester really prepared me for how to teach this. I found that the ideas presented in my internship lined up perfectly with the ideas presented in my art of teaching class. The two complimented each other very well and came together to provide me with a strong foundation and education for how to teach general music.