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Give Kids Autonomy: They’ll Be Motivated

September 14, 2018 by

kid holding pig

Bruderhof members who aren’t trained teachers occasionally get offered a chance to help out in the summer activities program. As I explained in a previous post, my husband, Johann, and I agreed to be counselors for the first and second grade students this past summer. While preparing for this venture, I received some comments that weren’t exactly encouraging. A former teacher volunteered that the class of students we were about to inherit was not keen on singing. A parent told me that she wasn’t sure if her son could sing at all and could we possibly get them to start singing?

Sure. We’ll just create this rich culture of singing, they’ll all join in and before you know it, we’ll put the Trapp Family to shame.

It didn’t work out quite like that, but this is what I’ve learned in the process: autonomy breeds motivation. (Experienced teachers are thinking, “no kidding” but this counselor thinks she’s made an earth-shaking discovery.)

We started each morning sitting in a circle and singing. Johann and I have found that a focused, disciplined group activity like singing or dancing makes for happy times in the vegetable garden or woods afterwards.

Week One: We picked out some familiar folk songs about fishing and canoeing. Johann and I had a great time singing, but I couldn’t detect even the slightest movement among the children. I take that back: they were still breathing. Great, I thought to myself. I’ll fix this by modeling good singing. I opened my mouth and sang with gusto, enthusiasm, and volume. Something began to change: I lost my voice and got a bad cold.

Week Two: We taught the students a six-measure Japanese folk song about killifish (minnows). No longer able to sing in the upper register, I dropped down to the alto line. Johann couldn’t resist and added tenor. The moment the children were on their own, the melody started taking flight. Wow, did you hear that? Major and minor triads.

Week Three: The harmony was intriguing, even beautiful, and the children wanted to be able to make it themselves. We taught them a handful of simple rounds (canons), each round no longer than four measures. After learning them in unison, we divided the students into two groups, the second part beginning a few measures after the first. Johann kept one part in tune, while I bolstered the other. Still, not everybody was singing.

Week Four: Two-part harmony is nice, but three is great, so we divided the class into three parts. Who wants to sing by themselves? They all jumped up and down and yelled and waved their hands, so Johann gave the starting note on the guitar, and they all (each part) sang on their own. They sang with such intensity and abandon that they became totally lost in the music, delighting in the harmony and competing as to who could sing the best. It was difficult to end the song.

Here's a recording of one of the rounds we learned this summer:

Listen on SoundCloud.

Week Five: The rounds got longer with more parts. We started learning one round a day. We learned, “I Will Sing You a Song of the Singing School” which is a forty-measure-long, six-part round. With only two children per part, every child had to sing and wanted to sing. They reveled in their autonomy and, guess what, became highly motivated.

“The Singing School” was their favorite song, and (second only to pretending we’d lost our false teeth) singing became our favorite activity this summer. Doesn’t this translate into other areas of education and life? What about the visual arts?

Grandma Kathy (who lives at the Spring Valley Bruderhof) used a wheelchair to get to our classroom, but once she’s at the chalkboard sketching and demonstrating how to communicate ideas in visual form, you’d never know she’s almost ninety. After just two art lessons she managed to free our students from drawing hackneyed ideas like hill-hill-rising sun-house-flower. They began to express their own ideas through art.

But I was the one who learned the most. Kathy taught me to reign in my fear of mess and chaos and told me to make lots of scrap paper available, (it’s not ready for recycling yet) and take the paint brushes, Q-tips, straws, scissors, and glue out of the cupboard. With their new-found autonomy, the children were motivated to express their ideas in unique and creative ways.

On one of our last days of summer vacation, the students pretended they were a company of “explorers.” They bushwhacked through the woods in search of a magical land. On their way, they stopped to play by Surprise Lake, where the water lilies were closing their petals for the day. Further downstream, one of the “explorers” found a painted turtle. They built the turtle a house. As they skipped on through the woods, one of the boys called out to Johann and me, “We don’t need you anymore! We are our own teachers.”

We were delighted: one of our students affirmed and confirmed the lesson we had learned this summer: autonomy does breed motivation. Try it. It works.


We can’t resist sharing one more of our summer favorites with you: “Dark Brown is the River,” words by Robert Louis Stevenson and music by Marlys Swinger. It's not a round, but the kids loved to sing it anyway:

Listen to more Songs of the Month here.

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About the author

Jordanna

Jordanna Bazeley

Jordanna Bazeley lives at Spring Valley Community with her husband, Johann, and their four children, as well as Kizzie the...

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