Adventures In Another School Part 2


Improvisation in Jazz, ‘where’s the MFL in that?’ you might ask and ask you should. But really ask yourself the question and allow quality thinking time especially if you can’t see links and opportunities to develop classroom practice or the learning experience for your students straight away. The following is my response, after some consideration.

Students don’t tend to like improvisation do they? Well what about the teachers? I guess like all good strategies carefully applied, time, thought and planning needs to take place before the activity is launched with students in class. But the amazing thing about being the lead learner in the classroom (and luckily for me, of the MFL department at my school) is that I have time allocated to think about exciting and innovative new strategies, nuggets or brill ideas shared. It’s my job and I love it! 

I’m not saying that I’ve been teaching my students how to play an instrument however… Far from it but without a doubt being challenged by the questions and reading the article entitled Coda -Creativity and Improvisation in Jazz and Organisations by Frank J. Barrett (1998) was superb at highlighting a few gems; perceived strengths and weaknesses and the impact on teaching and learning. To say I found this extremely interesting, was an understatement.

I’m not musical person, I can appreciate music and I most definitely sing loudly (and badly) when alone in the car but ever since I wanted to ditch the recorder in middle school and pick up a very shiny and amazing looking saxophone to then be unable to make a sound my journey with music was gone. I have the utmost admiration for musicians who can play an instrument and make it sound beautiful, and if they can play more than one well, they are super amazing, talented folk. 
I understand that to play an instrument well, and with confidence, is a learned skill, practiced and honed throughout the years and is actually not dissimilar to learning a language. The basic musical notes, the chords need to be learned and the skilled music teacher will teach these to allow access to pieces of music which will develop in time, as confidence and skills, and fluency in musicianship becomes more real. 

In language learning we teach the basics, the vocabulary, the verbs, the connectives and with support students begin to function at word and sentence level. As confidence and positive learning experiences develop so does the range of language used, sentence structure changes from ‘pedestrian’ through to additional subordinate clauses perhaps even with additional adjectives for extra spice! Oooh and if there are correctly formed adjectival agreements well, language teachers across the land shall go weak at the knees! 

Whereas musicians have to manage tone, pitch and their instrument(s) so does a novice linguist make steps towards sounding less English (dare I say less ‘Delboy‘) and increasingly more French with pronunciation support through phonics and repetition games (tongue twisters, songs and rhymes) making sure the sentences, paragraphs and role plays developed, provide the listener with ‘joy’ to the ears rather than a screeched deluge of peculiar sounding words. Again like the musician. I can still see my dad’s face after I’d finished playing London’s Burning on the recorder, it was a pained but an ‘I love you daughter’ expression (probably because it was over). He was so kind in his feedback and praise that I believed him, every word, as it was so sincere which spurred on continued practice and learning which in turn slowly developed in to new pieces. Once I managed to play (possibly screech through) a whole piece he encouraged me to practice even more (in the garage) lucky me! (All of that space to myself!) Honestly though, he helped to motivate me to practice and improve step by step and with the kindness and support from a (weary) music teacher (sorry!) I did manage to be in a school concert or two. (thankfully before video cameras were common place!)

Jazz musicians are an incredible array of highly skilled master music makers exercising incredible skills which they have become highly proficient over many years leaving listeners in utter awe. Fluent linguists are the same. Both have to practice hard and for hours to get in the ‘groove’ – to ‘feel’ the sounds, the words, the notes and chords and to reproduce them in highly ‘random’ yet astonishing sounding improvisational pieces. Absolutely stunning to the ear and never twice the same. Musicians feel what they are playing and when the improvisation takes over the musician is very much lost in the music, in the moment, in the flow. 

Developing musicians and MFL learners can achieve and produce wondrous creations. Once competent in the basics and gifted the freedom and the support to develop, trial and explore different arrangements (of music or words) will develop sentences and conversation or a beautiful piece of music played flawlessly from start to finish is the reward for their endeavours. And what an incredible achievement that is. The guiding hand of the teacher, lead learner or master musician to support, correct and lead through incredible and exciting learning landscapes. Inviting students to help paint the canvas with music or morphemes. Along this learning journey the student might become the leader taking control of the music or words and leading the journey, the conversation, the role play, the oracular spectacular to a new place. Improvising as they go, applying their knowledge of the basics learned to make something new, fresh and exciting. 

I want my language learners to improvise and play around with language in this way. Some have started to and it makes for a very interesting lesson when they do though patience (and good quality positive confidence building feedback) is required. I’m going to make it my mission for 2016 to get them even more confident so they are improvising with language to make using it a more real experience for them and exciting for me as their teacher. 

 After reading Dave Keeling’s fabulous book – ‘The little book of laughter’ I realise that as I teacher I improvise all of the time. I know my students and plan their lessons accordingly however when it doesn’t work I have to adapt and not be afraid to! Improvising as a teacher, gaging the learning climate or motivation levels in your room and changing the activity to impact on the pace, deepen the learning and heighten the engagement is a must. I just need to ensure I empower my students so they can go for it too; to improvise with their language. I’m not afraid to change my lesson activity if I need to so I just need to make sure my fantastic #mflallstar learners aren’t either!

Thank you @musicmind and @SWWoodwind for the inspiration and for asking the question ‘Improvisation in Jazz, where’s the MFL in that?’ 

 Thank you @mrappealing for the giggles and laughs as well as the fabulous tips, advice and examples in the book, details below and on that brilliantly thought provoking ITL thinking day at Springwell.

  Image of Louis Armstrong via Typorama