When the going gets tough, who wouldn’t like to get going… in the other direction?

Only that’s rarely an option. So, you just keep battling on, one small step after another. I’m in one of those tough times right now, because two of my kids are doing it even tougher. It’s hard, hard, hard and heart breaking. I feel that what I’m doing is barely scratching the surface of their challenges and I don’t quite know where to go from here.

So my one afternoon a week of teaching has become even ore precious, both as a break from the emotional demads of home and as a space where I feel I am making a difference.

Finding a voice in unexpected ways

Recently, a new student joined my drama class. This is a group of upper primary students at a specialist school. Annie* is the youngest in the class. She has been very quiet, and reluctant to become engaged so far. Fair enough – she’s new to the school, she’s getting used to a new environment, new students, different teachers, routines and expectations. That takes time. However, part of my job is to help create a classroom environment where she can feel comfortable and to find strategies to draw her into learning in a way that helps her feel that she’s succeeding. You know, the thing that all teachers try to go, everywhere, every day. And yesterday, the young girl who had so far resisted using her voice to communicate, found a voice that she was not afraid to use – a drum.

Later this term, we’re having an African Drumming incursion for all the students. In the lead-up, I’m teaching them a bit about drumming as part of pan-African culture and trying to acclimatise them to the noise that thirty-odd drums will make. I’m also continuing on my quest of teaching them to drum in unison. This is no small task, even for the simplest rhythm of four straight beats!

The drum value chain – factory to supermarket to cupboard to classroom

For the past two lessons, I have come armed with my djembe and my supply of home-made drums.

At the beginning of yesterday’s lesson, Annie was a bit distracted, so I gave her one of the drums to hold and play while I did a recap of the last lesson and prepared my YouTube clips to play. This lesson, I was teaching the students a song from Ghana – Che Che Kule. It’s a bit like our Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes song, as it’s an action song. It’s also easy to pick up, because it’s in a “call and response” form.

Finally, it’s in common time – a simple, four beat rhythm – which I hoped the students would be able to replicate in unison on their drums.

The lesson itself was fairly straightforward, and thankfully, the YouTube connection didn’t play up as it had in the last class. We practised singing the song, first with the video and then without. Next, we practised actions. We worked out the rhythm. And then, it was time to bring in the drums.

Drumming up, er, drums!

The school has several tambours, but not enough for everyone. So, how do we practise drumming, apart from clapping hands on knees?

 

Well, I have adopted the tried and true “Playschool” method of drum supply – raid the recycling box! It was somewhat alarming to realise that we go through an awful lot of Milo in our house… like, sometimes a kilogram a week! However, our collective chocolate consumption proved extremely useful when it came to rustling up not-yet-recycled, just-finished or almost-finished Milo tins.

 

A couple of weeks and some brightly coloured contact later, hey presto – I had almost enough drums for every student in the class.

 

Over time, I have added tennis ball containers (you could use Pringles tubes), Akta-Vite and baby formula/food supplement containers. I especially like the latter because they have soft plastic lids.

 

The students love experimenting with the different sizes and shapes of drums, and the different sounds that they make.

I decided to dive in at the deep end. Instead of teaching the students to play a straight 1-2-3-4 beat, I taught them the rhythm of the song itself. To my surprise and delight, many of them actually managed this. I was especially please to see Annie enthusiastically pounding away on her drum, concentrating fiercely and keeping the rhythm exactly! She maintained this focus and energy for the entire class.

A small, yet big achievement

To help develop my students’ confidence, and practise their performance, presentation and listening skills, I encourage them to present what they have learned, in groups of three. It’s volunteers only. No-one is made to present if they either don’t want to or don’t feel ready.

Interestingly, over time and with patience, every student eventually wants to get up in front of the class. Even if they completely forget what they are supposed to be doing, just standing before their peers is an achievement in itself, and worthy of celebration. It’s a building block.

I had made a difference to someone today. It felt good. It was encouraging. It gave me a much-needed psychological boost.

I did the same thing with this class towards the end of the lesson. Annie, who had been unwilling to engage much in the previous two lessons, let alone present anything, willingly accepted coming up the front with three other students, to demonstrate her drumming. What a fantastic achievement! I was so pleased.

After school, I happened to see her mother on the way out. I told her how well Annie had done in class. She was thrilled.

“You’ve made my day,” she told me. “Annie has never participated in Music before. It’s all been too hard. In fact, everything’s been pretty difficult. Thank you for telling me – that’s wonderful.”

Buoyant and uplifted, I clanked my way to the car with my Milo tin drums incongruous besides the more dignified djembe in its black cover.

I had made a difference to someone today. It felt good. I felt encouraged. This gave me a much-needed psychological boost as I headed for home and the challenges that lay in wait.

Find that different drumbeat and hold onto the small achievements

We can’t do everything for everyone all of the time, much as we’d like to. But knowing this intellectually isn’t always enough to stop the disillusionment and discouragement from seeping in through our weary emotional defences. We need to feel a sense of achievement to help us keep plodding on. This was mine for the day. In fact, I’m still feeling pretty good about it!

So, as you contemplate your current challenges, remember to hold onto each little achievement. They are little rays of sunshine that peer through the clouds, that different drumbeat that call us to joyous dance.

Until next time, Happy Wombatting!

*(name altered for privacy purposes)