ARCHIVED—Students As Leaders
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The list of activities Mark Robbins and his music students at Madawaska Valley District High School in Barry's Bay, Ontario, have on the go at any one time is exhausting just to listen to; a full slate of music classes, countless band, ensemble and choir programs, and a roster of community engagements that would make any service club proud.
How does one teacher manage it all? In Robbins case, he doesn't. "The more diverse you want to be, [the more] you need to get away from the teacher delivery model." In other words, "think of yourself as a coach" and get the students to take as many leadership roles as possible.
The potential for his students to help him run his program occurred to him when he was teaching a music technology unit. The students were really interested in it, and one boy in particular knew more than Robbins did about MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) technology, so he taught the others. "Kids naturally step up into leadership roles," Robbins says. "I'm constantly amazed at what they know."
Robbins soon had other students teaching things that interested them. A very gifted guitarist offered lessons to others who wanted to learn. "The more students got involved the more diverse the program became," Robbins recalls.
Not that it has become a free-for-all. At the beginning of each school year, students present their ideas for what they would like to do. Senior students take on the challenge of sorting out a workable schedule that accommodates sectional rehearsals for the various bands, ensemble rehearsals and other special projects. School policy is that while extracurricular activities such as these are encouraged, students have to keep their marks up. The student leaders have to take this into account, too, when setting the schedule.
Student leadership shows itself in other ways. Robbins has instituted a strong peer tutor program in the music department. He handpicks people with strong music and leadership skills from among his seniors to help him with the younger students. The tutors prepare by watching the class they will be helping with a semester ahead. They also get some leadership training before their stint begins. Once on the job, the tutors have a daily planning session with Robbins to talk about what will be happening that day.
Student ensembles - smaller performing groups - provide plenty of other leadership opportunities for students. Not only does Robbins turn much of the daily operation of the ensembles over to the students but the ensemble members also play a role in resolving conflicts among members and recognizing achievement within the group.
Still other students lead warm-ups and tune up the various bands during practices. With all the activities going on, there is also room for student help with administration, such as arranging gigs, filing music and booking buses for tours.
What drives all this student-led work is not only Robbins' desire to offer as diverse a program as possible but also his firm belief in "involvement for all." (In the same spirit, any student - regardless of talent - who takes one of his instrumental music courses gets to be in one of the main performing bands.)
None of this is to say that Robbins gets to sit back and relax all day. He still has a full teaching load and is ultimately responsible for all aspects of the music program. He also has office hours at his desk in the band room and welcomes the steady stream of students who come to him with questions and requests.
More importantly, though, Robbins says, he is modelling behaviour. He knows his students watch how he treats them, so he focuses on respect and positive reinforcement, and he is very transparent about his own weaknesses.
Robbins also does a lot of debriefing with his student leaders, not so much on the musical aspects of what they do but more about leadership. He often goes through teaching sessions with them, getting them to reflect on things that went well and things that did not.
Robbins admits that he is taking a risk by turning over so much control to the students, but he is adamant that the benefits far outweigh the risks. "I get letters from former students who say that I challenged them to try things they had never tried before, to step outside themselves and get over their fear of performing in front of others. Their experience of leadership will affect them for the rest of their lives."
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