Planting Seeds: Growing your choir program by starting middle school feeder programs.

Hello! My name is Adam Serpa, and I’m currently the director of choirs at Dublin High School in Dublin, CA. Before that, I taught for five years at Ripon High School in Ripon, CA. During my tenure in Ripon, I established a middle school choir program in order to create a feeder for my high school.  I was recently honored to be a guest on one of my favorite podcasts, “Choir Ninja,” where I talked about my experience creating a new program. As a follow-up, I decided to blog the details of that process because it was too much to go into on the podcast.  Creating a new middle school choir seemed a daunting challenge, but turned out to be a process that was rewarding and also necessary to take my high school choir to the next level.

Making the Case:

There are many reasons to establish choirs at the middle school level.  If you can clearly communicate your values and goals, the rest of the process will be much easier.

Successful high school and college choir programs are often fed by quality middle school choirs. Like any other subject, we need quality instruction at the K-8 grade levels to ensure success at the 9-12 level and beyond. Music knowledge, just like math or English, is cumulative, which makes it incredibly difficult to start from the very beginning with high school students. Just like a high school English program would struggle if high school teachers were expected to teach kids the basics of reading before getting to their own curriculum, a high school choir will struggle to reach its full potential if students arrive without any prior experience. Just like a high school football program will thrive when there are community football teams for middle schoolers to learn skills that will make them better players in high school, a choral program will excel when students walk through the door with a preliminary introduction to music.  Kids who have had choir or general music during their K-8 years are ready to hit the ground running in a high school choir program.  In districts where these programs are not in place, the high school choral director will have to spend much more time introducing students to the very basics of musicianship, and may face more resistance to some aspects of a choral program, such as appropriate rehearsal behavior, importance of performing etiquette, the value of musical variety and singing in other languages, etc.

Middle school is the time where students start identifying where they belong in a school environment and the kind of groups they want join.  We want choir to be one of those things available to choose, and we also want them to feel excited about the arts programs at their school. Frankly put, the earlier kids learn that choir is cool and experience the joy and pride that comes from performing, the easier it will be to recruit them in high school. Similarly, in younger ages, it’s common for families to have high attendance to their kid’s events, and because there are often fewer extracurricular demands on middle school kids and performing will often be new, there is a great opportunity for excited parents to get a front row seat to support their child in a new activity. It is ideal to get families invested in choral programs earlier in a child’s education, so they’re accustomed to the norms of music education by high school. In short, middle school choir programs also teach your kids, parents, and community about what it means to be involved in a choral community early on, which will better serve your high school program.

Come up with your mission statement, and be prepared to share it over and over again.

Reconnaissance:

Have any 6-8 grade programs existed before?  If so, how did they work and what happened to them?  You don’t want to re-invent the wheel, but if the wheel hasn’t been invented in your district, then at least you know you are starting something from scratch going into it. It’s also important to know if programs did exist previously, and if so, what issues they encountered or why they didn’t work out. This knowledge can help you avoid the same pitfalls and inform your planning.

Is anyone currently teaching choir at the 6-8th grade level?  Believe it or not, this can happen in a big district, or even small districts where there is limited communication between school sites.  You may find a 6th or 7th grade classroom teacher who is teaching choir as an extra credit elective during teacher prep time.  This should be handled as an opportunity to collaborate, not an intrusion on what the choir directors are trying to do. Build relationships with these teachers so that your own new program can be fed.

Are parents in your district interested in supporting choral music in the younger grades?  Talk to parents of your active high school choir students to get their perspective on what choral classes for younger students they would like to see.  You could even talk to band and orchestra parents to get their input. These parents will have insight into what would have helped their students be better prepared, and many may have younger children who will be able to benefit from a new middle school choir.

Would your principal, or the principals who will host these classes at their site, be on board?  What concerns do they have? What formats would work for their school site – pull out program, separate class during the day, before school, after school, elective wheel, etc.? Remember: having your mission statement regarding the merits of middle school choir firmly grounded will help you articulate this in conversations with administrators.

Is there a performing arts coordinator who has control over new music programs for your district?  If your district has a music coordinator, great!  If not, meet with your district’s director of curriculum (this may be a stand-alone position, or sometimes this job is done by a deputy superintendent).  In some districts the superintendent may be the only person to meet with because the other positions don’t exist, or because the superintendent wants to work with teachers hands-on to get new programs off the ground.

Petitioning the Powers That Be:

Procedures for doing this are different in every district, so you need to check in with your administrator or department chair to make sure you follow the right chain of command so you don’t step on anyone’s toes.

Teammates, Not Troublemakers: Think of counselors, teachers, administrators, and district officials as team players who want to share in your success.  Because the performing arts are often overlooked in school districts, some music teachers see their district administrative team as adversaries.  If you begin a project like this, assuming you will be turned down, it sets up a self-fulfilling prophecy if things don’t go your way for your program, and will stain all your interactions with negativity.  Self-defeating thoughts like this don’t help anyone, especially you!  Present your pitch for a middle school choir program like this: “I have a really cool idea for this district and I want you in on the ground floor” or “this would really increase the profile of this district/school if we had this and I think you can help us” or “this school/district has a reputation for supporting the arts and collaborating with teachers, so I think this is a good time to start something great!”  By approaching it this way, you are playing to their desire to do the right thing, improve the school, be on a team, and look good in their community.

Priming the Principals:  Before I had a final meeting with the district administration, I met separately with all of the principals of the schools who would have kids enrolled in this new program. In my case, the district I was teaching had five K-8 schools, so I met with all five principals to confirm that I would have their support. I used this as an opportunity to introduce myself as a teacher, share my vision, hear each principal’s hopes and concerns, and gauge each principal’s interest. Some of them were enthusiastic from the start, while others were less so, but I didn’t let that slow me down. My hope was that I if I could get students and parents on board from half of the schools, the parents at the schools with less enthusiastic administration would demand to know why choir was not promoted at their schools when all the others were involved. This did prove to be the case, and I ended up able to create my program with all five middle schools, opening the door for every middle school student in my district!

The Green Light:  After doing all of this initial ground work, you will need the official go ahead from the superintendent, director of curriculum, and all of the principals. The chain of command might vary depending on the politics of your school district – find out who has the authority to give you the green light on this new feeder program, and keep in mind respectfully navigating administrative relationships at each level.

Get Everyone Involved: In most districts, there is a monthly administrator’s meeting with all of the principals and the superintendent.  I asked permission to come to this meeting at the district office in order to make my pitch to everyone at once, so I could start promoting this new class in the community and the schools.  It was a little intimidating, but a vital step that accomplished so much in one fell swoop.  After explaining why we needed this middle school choir and providing evidence of community interest and the benefit to the high school choir program, I received approval! I came into this meeting with a clear idea of several acceptable options for this new feeder program, so we were able to decide what all of the major pieces with everybody in the room, such as the structure, the host school, and the scheduling.  After getting input from the principals, we decided on a 0 period schedule, a “magnet choir” format where all of the students could be dropped off by parents at the host school and then take district buses to their own sites.  I approached the situation with an overarching goal in which three or four solutions were acceptable to me.  I framed my pitch in the context of “Which of the formats will work best for our district?”  I didn’t present it as though ‘no’ was an option.  I didn’t approach the idea apologetically, but as a matter of necessity because, after all, music education IS a necessity!  I was willing to be flexible because I knew this was important to choral music in our district, and this is what I believe helped me sell the idea.   I’m really glad that I got approval this way: it simplified the process and kept all the administration invested and active in the decision-making, which avoided complications later.

Deciding on a Format:

Once you have the green light to teach a middle school choir or that the district will hire others to do it, the next step is to pick a structure for the program, if that decision wasn’t made for you during the green-lighting meeting.   A lot will depend on how your district is configured.

In districts with a stand-alone middle school or junior high, you could be able to start a new choir class during the school day.  This is ideal in my opinion and should be pursued as a first option.

In a structure where several K-8’s feed into a high school, you will have to come up with a “magnet” format where all students who want to be in choir come from different sites and meet at one site.  This could be arranged before, during or after school and then return to their own schools.  For the first and second formats, you would spend an hour teaching your middle school feeder and then go back to your high school. This is what I did with great success in my program at Ripon Unified.

Another option is for the choir director/s to travel to every school to teach separate choir classes with 6th-8th graders.  This is not a bad option in terms of getting numbers of students, but the downside is that your prep time is limited by travel and teaching high school choir at the same time might be impossible.  In order for you to be your own feeder for your high school program, you have to consider your own available hours in the day.  If the only option is for you to travel to every K-8, you will likely have to choose only a few schools to teach so you still have time for your high school program.  If your 6-8 program grows, the district could see the need to hire another choir director to share the load.

Getting the word out:

Word of Mouth:  The best salesmen for your program will be the students you currently have and their parents! If you have built good relationships with them, they will be happy to encourage younger siblings and other families in the community to take part in the middle school choir.  Tell everyone; share your enthusiasm, and watch it catch on!

Flyers:  It’s really helpful to have a one-page description of your middle school choir, its purpose and value, basic logistics, and most importantly your contact info.  I listed my school email and instructions to join a middle school choir text message list that I created.  This provides something physical that kids or parents can take home and refer to later.

School Newsletters:  Schools will often have a parent newsletter to inform students of all the activities, fundraisers, sports, awards, and events happening at their school.  This newsletter may be physical, email or in the form of an app.  Talk to the parent, teacher or admin in charge of this newsletter to get the image for middle school choir in the newsletter or app.

Back-to-School Night Presentations:  Back-to-School Nights happen at the beginning of the school year, but unless your district has end of the year parent gatherings, this is the best chance to reach a lot of parents in person.  Talk to the principals of the middle schools or K-8 schools about making a short introduction and pitch at the beginning of back to school night, followed by passing out flyers with information.  For this to work, you have to be flexible and allow students to join your program 3 weeks into the year. This may seem inconvenient, but it’s the best way to encourage involvement, especially early on.

Remind:  Remind is a service that allows students and parents to join a text messaging list for a class you create in the app.  They text a message to the app number that you provide and it automatically adds them to a text message list.  Remind doesn’t require you to know parents or students’ numbers and the communication is only one-way (unless you change settings to allow two-way communication).   BONUS POINTS:  Leave instructions for joining your middle school choir list IN the flyer so that it goes out on all the media your send it to.   This way parents to join a contact list over the summer, and when it gets close to school time, you can push out information about the new choir class via text message.

Recruiting: One of the best ways to get kids excited is to meet with them in person to talk about your program; or even better, bring one of your existing choirs to perform and get the kids excited about the opportunities that await them. At the end of the year, when testing is done, most teachers appreciate an educational visit from someone that breaks up the monotony.  Make sure you give out flyers for the students to bring home to their parents.

Logistics:

Registering: Another critical step is actually getting each student enrolled in this new class via their school site.  In a junior high or middle school site format, a new course needs to be created and counselors need to enroll them.  In a K-8 “magnet” class format, each school will have to create a course for middle school choir and enroll them (even though they attend that class at a different site with you.)   In the first format, the counselors know that the students are in your class before the year starts, in the later format, it may be up to you to write down who signs up from which school and then report your names to each school so that they can enroll the students in their computer system.  In a format where the teacher travels to each site and teaches students at their own school, they can be registered like the first method, but repeated for several school sites.  Find out how this will work a few months before the school year starts so that you have a plan for doing this.  Since my format was a magnet class that met before school, I created a Google Form so that students could input information like school, grade, parent contact.  This auto-filled a spreadsheet which I used to send info to each school site to let them know to enroll their students in my class in the official gradebook.  (If you don’t want to use technology, just have them fill out this same info on a clipboard – choose whatever system will work best for you.)

Curriculum: The curriculum will have to be decided by you and potentially a district administrator or other music teachers in your district.  The fundamental base of this curriculum may seem simple: what do you want your students to know by the time they join a high school choir? The answer to this question will be subjective based on your situation, but here is what I wanted my students to know by the time they got to high school:

Reading basic rhythms
Reading pitches and diatonic intervals
Sight-reading at a rudimentary level
Note names in treble and bass clef
Singing in different languages
Performing music from different cultures
Performance etiquette
Rehearsal etiquette
Building and maintaining relationships in the ensemble
Being reliable and demonstrating integrity
Participating in honor choir or other choir trips.

Performances: This will vary from district to district, but it was important to me that my middle school feeder always performed with the high school choirs at the end of every semester. This simplified concert prep and production, allowed middle school students and parents to see what to look forward to with choir in high school and learn from their example, and cemented the middle school and high school choirs as a unified district-wide music program.  Other performance opportunities may exist in the form of holiday performances and community events.  As much as possible, get the students out and performing so that it creates more opportunities for optics and recruitment,

Morale: Go the extra mile to keep them hooked! No matter what the format is of your middle school choir feeder/s, you need to make your students feel valued just as much as the high school choir program so that they remain invested.  This means that you should involve them in middle school honor choirs, adjudicated festivals, and special opportunities when they come up. This is another reason why it’s great to combine your middle school and high school concerts. If students feel like second-class citizens compared to your other choirs, they will not stay in the program.

Results: In my former district, there was no middle school choir for many years, so I knew it would be an uphill climb to start a new program.  In my first year, I had a total of 12 students.  By the second year it had grown to 22.  After only one year of teaching my own feeder, I had freshmen choir students entering my program who were dialed into my expectations and ahead of the curve on reading music.  After the second year of choir, even more were entering my high school program.  In my beginning choirs, it made a huge difference to have a handful of students who were reading music, behaving exceptionally, and performing at a higher level.  It positively influenced the other students in choir and the dynamic of all my choirs improved. When I decided for many reason to change jobs after 5 years in that district, saying goodbye to a second program was incredibly proud of and another group of students I had grown to love made the transition even more difficult. However, I felt I had hit on a solution to a choir problem that is not always addressed, and I now have the confidence and skills to start my own feeder program in any district where I teach.

For more information on middle school choirs, seek out some of the many excellent books on the subject – my personal favorite is “6, 7, 8, Sing” by Roger Emerson. I’m not an expert, just a passionate music educator, and I’d love to hear any questions or comments you may have on my podcast episode or this blog post.

You can contact me at mradamserpa@gmail.com

Thanks for reading!

 

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