Developed by
Dr. Judith M. Newman

Action Research Course


Margaret Logan-Graham

Jack in the Box
So quiet and still
Will you come out?
Of course I will.

This little singing game that I use with my younger students should have given me a hint of the little surprises that appear to be occurring in my music teaching. If only I had listened to what that song was telling me. Of course! Children want to pop out and surprise the teacher. This is the story of how those little surprises have brought a new insight to my teaching.

Since mid-April I have been taking note of little incidents that occurred within my classrooms. I have twenty-one classes that I see twice a week as well as two extra- curricular groups spread over three schools in two counties. Even with over 530 students to surprise and excite me sometimes days go by without a significant event, then sometimes there is something that happens that surprises me and makes me step back and examine the issue surrounding the incident. Let me share one such surprise with you.

Tuesday, May 21
Grade 6 Class
The students are working in groups to review what they've learned about brass and woodwind instruments. They are slow at settling down although many are on task. They are such a noisy group and are three sessions behind my other classes doing the same activity. I have a chart with the answers listed and I slowly unfold the paper to reveal each answer. As the list gets longer more students realize what I have silently done and are correcting their answers. One student, Jeff, said "Why are you giving us the answers? We can do it ourselves?"

Jeff's comment made me ask myself "What am I doing to stop a child thinking for himself?" I felt guilty and then I wondered how often I actually slow down the students' learning? It was time to closely examine some incidents and see if there was a pattern where students were surprising me.

I looked back at the notes I had made about that same class to see if there were similar situations where I was surprised. There was one.

Thursday, April 7th
This was our first class back after a three week school closure. The children were in groups sharing their knowledge. The task was to list as many orchestra instruments as they could. The team with the longest list would earn some Tim Bits. Wow did the students know a lot of instruments. I was surprised that they had actually paid enough attention over the last three years to recall so many instruments. This group had been able to name more than 20 instruments, more than the other classes who had done the same activity. Wow!

Here was another surprise. These children were really learning and working together. Their group outcomes exceeded my expectations. Too bad the Tim Bits were a day old. They deserved better. Frank Smith (1988 1) in his article Collaboration in the Classroom argues that children can learn from each other; he would have approved of the activity. He would not, however, have approved of the Tim Bit prizes, nor did the activity meet all his criteria for an enterprise, but the children did learn and share with each other for the common goal of listing as many instruments as their team could remember from previous units of study.

Was a pattern beginning to form? Were there connections that were apparent only after examining these critical incidents?

In her article Tensions of Teaching, Judith Newman (1998 2) suggests taking the critical incidents, sifting through them for stories that seem to have something in common, then attempting to describe the connection. Although John Haysom (1985 3) in Inquiring Into the Teaching Process has a different approach to action research he supports this inquiry "to observe what is happening in the classroom...The next stage of the action research cycle involves reflection: looking at your data, examining it for characteristic features, speculating about the significance of these" (p. 61-62).

In an attempt to reflect on my findings some soul searching needed to occur. It appears that perhaps I do not think that these students are capable of anything better. Do I see them as only a very, noisy rude bunch of students who are not capable of learning or participating in the music class setting? Looking back at their previous track record they were a quiet co-operative class of twenty five in grade 4. This number stayed the same in grade five. Then a few new families moved to the community with students of this age group. These six new students brought some new challenges that the class had not experienced before. The class was now more diverse and the male female ratio had increased to 2:1. Participating in my music class was not their top priority unless it included such groups as "The Spice Girls" or" Barbie Doll". Having discovered the opposite sex has also side tracked them from their music activities. Was I becoming too accepting of these declining class standards and was I willing to accept their poor attitudes? Unfortunately, yes. But I had forgotten that they were still the smart students they had been in the past. They were still ready to be challenged and did not want everything handed to them. They were not showing that they were capable of being independent workers But when challenged they rose to the occasion. Surprise, surprise.

Where does this insight lead me? Well, although only a few days remained in this school year, I decided it might be still time to make some small changes. Recently on the playground I noticed some of these students on the swings and I quietly thanked them for teaching me a lesson to help me be a better teacher They had strange looks, then I said I'd fill them in in class.

I started the class by thanking them for the lesson then I explained that I had been keeping notes of unusual incidents that were happening in my teaching. I explained the incident in which Jeff had chastised me for spoon-feeding them and I apologized for not letting them figure things out on their own. I also apologized for the day old donuts. Much to my surprise all the students but one were active listeners. As the lesson continued for our final review of the instruments I said I did not want to insult them again by providing the answers because I knew they probably remembered most of them. I was however prepared to give them a spelling list of words that were included in the answer list in random order. I was offering assistance that they readily accepted; they appreciated knowing that there were words that were very difficult and not in the normal daily vocabulary such as tablature and frets in string instrument playing.

When checking their work at the end of the day there were two groups of students--those who had done a great job and had most of the work done, and those who had made no effort at all. I may never be able to get these children in the latter group to stay on task but at least I know that I did not compromise their intelligence

I had made a inquiry into my teaching and it produced a critical incident that I was not expecting. When examining my incidents it showed that I perhaps did not have high enough expectations of my Grade 6 students. Fortunately they proved me wrong. I then wondered if perhaps there were other occasions where the students surprised me.

April 20, 1998
Recorder practice after school
It had been a long day and this was my last group of students in our after school group. Attendance at recorder practice had not always been great and some of the students appeared not to know their notes and here it was only two weeks before the Music festival. In an effort to show me just how bad we were doing and to see the weak links I asked each child to play solo two lines of the song. We, as a group would then make two compliments about their playing and two suggestions for improvement. It sounded like a great way for the students to be critical thinkers and listeners. MY real motive though was to see just how bad we were. Wow was I surprised. I recognized the song with every child and there were a lot more right notes than wrong.

Once again I was not giving my students credit because of their attitude towards attending and home practice. I then decided I needed to praise these students and to acknowledge that they were giving up their after school time to participate in this group.

As another year draws to a close I am already thinking about the fall where I will be given another opportunity to share a year with hundreds of students. A new school awaits me in the fall with new names to learn and new children to teach. I must remember to not sell them short. Perhaps I should change my theme song. How does this sound?

Twinkle twinkle little star
How I wonder who you are?

Haysom, John 1985 Inquiry Into the Teaching Process: Towards Self-Evaluation and Professional Development. Toronto: OISE Press. Return

Newman, Judith M. 1998 Action Research: Exploring the Tensions of Teaching. In: Tensions of Teaching: Beyond Tips to Critical Reflection. Toronto: Canadian Scholars' Press: 1-25. Return

Smith, Frank 1988 Collaboration in the Classroom. In: Joining the Literacy Club. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann Educational Books: 64-79. Return