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Popsicle Sticks…A Unique Strategy?
by Linda Lovaas, R&S Chair, Middle School/Junior High Choirs, CA-ACDA
(reprinted by permission from Fall, 2008 "Cantate," CA-ACDA's newsletter edited by Douglas Lynn)

lovaasA year ago, I wrote an article and issued a challenge for you to learn and implement something new into your teaching method. I hope you answered my call and it was a huge success! I also wrote about being selected for a school-wide direct instruction team to improve our school's test scores and the training I had to go through with the core subject teachers. That was my BIG, new challenge and it was interesting at times and boring at others! I would like to share with you some of my experiences and some of the techniques I tried in my class.

First, the "leadership team" was comprised of four core subject teachers, me, and our principal. The teachers traveled to the training together and really got to brainstorm or just vent on the drive to and from the training. The teachers that I traveled with are all wonderful teachers who have great success in the classroom. Some of the things we learned were a bit repetitive, but some ideas were new to all of us. As a music teacher, I didn't know a lot of the techniques and strategies they were being taught, and if I did know it, I knew it by a name from the "dinosaur age" of education classes. What I did realize is that music teachers use their own style of a lot of the techniques and that's what makes our programs so successful. So by the end of the training, these core teachers who I traveled with gained a respect for the intricacies and deductive thinking that teaching music involves.

The one technique that stood out the most to me was Choral Response.

It's funny to me that they call it by this name because, as a music teacher, that's what we do all of the time with singing, speaking in rhythm, AND asking "What time are you supposed to be at the concert?" over and over.

In this, I was reassured that most choral teachers are using good teaching methods by the way we are trained to handle large groups, especially in our ability to keep up with the massive organization involved in getting all those loose ends to come together for all of our performing students!

A new strategy for me was using Popsicle sticks for questioning students in class. I wrote the name of each student on a separate Popsicle stick in one class and put those sticks in a deep red (school color!) cup.

I did the same for all of my classes. The idea is to ask a question and then make a big deal of mixing the sticks, which gives "wait" time for all students to think of the answer, and then pull a stick and call that student's name. Using this as a technique insures all students are responsible for paying attention to the question as you might pull their name for the answer. This strategy also gives all students time to think, which is most important, because studies have shown that every child thinks differently and at their own pace.

Instead of asking questions and picking on hands raised, you are making EVERY student responsible for the answers. More often than not, you have students who want to answer every question, but then you have students who never want to answer because they know your other student will take care of answering. If you call on a student and he doesn't know the answer, then tell him you will come back and ask for him again in a minute and then mix and pull another stick for someone else to answer.

If that student gives the correct answer, then go back to the student who didn't know and ask them the same question now that the answer has been said. This gets them to pay attention to the answer AND repeat it, which improves their chance of remembering it in the future.

I found that the Popsicle stick strategy really worked in a lot of choral situations. It took some practice to feel comfortable with it.

It made such a difference during class when I was teaching about tempo markings, time signatures, history, lyrics, and many other areas. Even in rehearsing, I'd want to ask a dynamic marking or purpose of phrase or why something is the way it is and I'd reach over, shake the sticks, and pull a name. I was surprised at how much the attention level had improved in class and how every student seemed to feel a bigger part of the picture. I was astounded at the answers coming from students who didn't really participate much in the past. This new strategy opened doors to even bigger discussions than I had ever had before.

Just know that if you try this technique, it will feel awkward at first. Don't give up. It took me a week or so to get the hang of it. I told my students that it was a new technique I had learned and it was supposed to make them "smarter" and I wanted to try it out. They were cooperative.

Make sure you outline the rules with them first. That means breaking old habits, like calling out the answer before they are called on and not to raise their hand with the answer unless you ask for it. As we all know, our students are very trainable.

I move very fast in my rehearsal time so that I don't lose that junior high short attention span. The sticks slow the process down, but I have learned to make a dramatic game out of it and I found that more of my students retained more than I have seen before. That was the most exciting result because I feel that I have great rapport with my students and they learn a lot in my class, as well as they love to be there. Using this method made my success even stronger. Other teachers at my site are using this technique and are noticing differences in their subject area. I doubted I'd see any changes in chorus, but I was wrong!

Other ideas you can use instead of Popsicle sticks are dice, a bingo machine, tongue depressors, and metal tags. I use my red cups with each period written on the outside of the cup. I've seen little wooden chests, key rings for the metal tags, and fancy painted tin cans.

If you try this, have fun making it something your students will identify with.
As I said last year, just because we teach music doesn't mean that we don't try new things in our rehearsals. The whole idea is to educate our students in music using good educational tools.

Get involved with your school training and try what you learn. Some will work well for you and some won't, but give them a chance. I hope you will find even more success in your search to be the best teacher you can be. ♦



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