Teacher Profile: Sloan Williams at Paul L. Dunbar School

Sloan Williams teaches music at Paul L. Dunbar School (K-8) in Bridgeport, Connecticut. He and his students were finalists in Samsung’s Solve for Tomorrow contest STEM competition in 2014, and received support via a donorschoose.org campaign. Sloan has been teaching music in Connecticut since 1979 and has received several awards and honors for his teaching. In addition to conducting his own student orchestras, he has been an active member of several symphonic organizations including the Annapolis Symphony and Yale Philharmonia.

Tell us about the Paul L. Dunbar school, the music program there, and your role as music teacher.

Paul L. Dunbar [1872-1906] was an amazing poet who had a command of the language at a very young age. Our principal Alyshia Perrin is a descendant of his, and there’s a real sense of commitment at our school to Dunbar’s legacy. In the neighborhood here people struggle financially, but there’s a lot of pride and community spirit. We have moved forward academically, making great strides through the Federal Turnaround School Leaders Program. The State of Connecticut, the teachers, and community members have all been very involved and supportive.

The music program used to be very active, including gospel choir and band. Since I came three years ago, my effort has been to try to fill in the deficits our students face, for example we didn’t have funding for instruments. The students have a real love for music, and they are very knowledgeable. The school just didn’t have the funds to help them follow their dreams. My goal has been to dust off those dreams and to help empower the kids to create music.

One way to do that is through technology, which ties into our school’s mission to help our students become lifelong learners competing in our 21st-century world.

How do you and your students use Noteflight?

Noteflight opens the door of exploration to my students. Just interacting with the medium of notation is so powerful: if you put in a quarter note, what does it do? Students may not understand right away what they’re creating, that it’s in a particular key, or exactly what sharps or flats do, key centers, and so on. But they know they’ve created something and they get it: “I want it to sound faster, so maybe I’ll add more 8th notes.”

I do a lot of modeling: going through a task to show them how it’s done, then I ask them to try it. For example I made this arrangement of Lift Every Voice and Sing, and this year I’ll ask them to make their own arrangements. We’ll talk about the basic structures and procedures: add a chord progression, a melody, and so on. And with Noteflight, they can experiment. The software is very intuitive for students in its simplicity to explore.

This is not your grandparents’ music class. In my generation we were button-pushers: we knew a certain fingering on the recorder was the pitch “A.” Now, with Noteflight we can put an A and C in the staff, and discover what it sounds like, and say “hey, I’d like to create that again!” You see how it’s a little bit different? Or they can find songs they already know in Noteflight, but now they can explore these songs musically. If I were to hand them a printed score it’s an inanimate object, but in Noteflight the music is moving, it’s alive.

Of course I have to provide some scaffolding — what the staff is for, what the rhythms are, seeing the syncopation, and how things look and sound together. Then it starts to make sense to the students musically, and they can track the score as they listen. From an academic point of view, I can’t tell you what an incredible advantage that is for students who are struggling academically. It’s tremendous.

What’s a typical classroom activity you use with your students?

In order to build music literacy skills before we jump into Noteflight, we do games like “stump Mr. Williams.” I give each student a little xylophone and I tell them “you can use these ten notes to create a melody using any rhythm or style (we are also learning about different historical and geographic musical styles).” I have a xylophone too, and the xylophones are in cases with lids so they can’t see what I’m playing and they can’t see what I’m playing, so it’s like the board game Battleship. Our game is for them to come up with a complicated tune using those ten notes, so it’s hard to reproduce. But then I play it back, mimicking what they played, and they know I can’t see what they’re doing but I keep being able to play it back no matter how complicated they make it. So they’ll say “how did you do that?” and I’ll respond “this is what you’re learning how to do.”

Then later when they log into their Noteflight account, the first thing they do is to try to create melodies they like, and then they share the melodies they’ve created. If we went straight to Noteflight first, I’d lose them. But doing games like that first, it draws them in. That’s my strategy.

Do you use Noteflight for the performing ensembles at Dunbar?

Noteflight supports our instrumental program too. My students were able to get stringed instruments, and they said “Mr. Williams, we want to play Pachelbel’s Canon for graduation.” They practiced with Noteflight, using this score, in real time, watching the music play back on the staff. They can use the mixer in Noteflight to hear just their part. The results were stunning because they were playing, in two months, what would normally take them much longer. Students sought me out between classes, to learn the proper bow positions to get the right sound, which is not easy on this piece. This was a real success story, typical of Paul L. Dunbar School.

My second year we spent time learning basic musicianship skills, sight reading and understanding music notation. They had great ears but very little formal training. Again I was able to use Noteflight, and I got them to sing in two parts, which led up to things like the Blazer Ceremony, where our students take on what we call the “mantle of scholarship.”

Our next step will be to sing in four parts, time allowing, for our winter concert. They can log into the songs they’ll be preparing and practice with Noteflight even if they don’t have a piano. It’s not just a recording: through Noteflight they can see and practice in real time and develop audiation and sight-reading skills. For students who face huge academic challenges, this affords them a tremendous intellectual boost.

Some students were resistant at first, but as soon as they log on, they are immediately enjoying it. We’ve been able to breach the divide between attention, interest, and engagement. It’s like traveling at light speed for them, they want things “now now now” and this allows them to get into the music right away. And they bring that into their performing.

Here are a couple of other scores we have used:

Do they bring the music they know from home into the music classroom?

They love Michael Jackson – they search out his songs and track them. This is their heritage, and from there they go to Miles Davis or James Brown, or the Supremes. They love Stop in the Name of Love and the Marvelettes’ 1961 hit Please Mr. Postman. This is a huge part of how I build music literacy with my students. We can get those songs into Noteflight (here is our score with the first few notes of Mr. Postman) and they can follow the nomenclature, the staff notation. In the Supremes song for example, they can see the quarter note on “Stop” with the quarter rest after it, and so on. This is huge. Otherwise, you ask them and they say “we want to play beats.” But seeing and hearing it in Noteflight lets them say “I understand this, I recognize this.” This made the Supremes really supreme for them.

We have a directive from the head of the music department called Visual Thinking Strategies and this really supports our effort.

Where do you want the music program at Dunbar to go in the next few years?

I’m hoping the students can get involved in their own fundraising for the blazer, the “Mantle of Scholarship.” It will be wonderful for them to have a stake in that.

With the help of Noteflight and the new audiation and music reading skills they’re building, I’d like to see more full-blown, active ensembles: orchestra with strings, expanding to include other colors of the orchestra, woodwinds, brass, keyboard, and percussionists reading pitched and non-pitched instruments. I’d also like to see a more active vocal program – gospel choirs, concert choir, young people’s choirs, and all of this covering a number of genres. When you walk into Dunbar you should hear people performing simple orchestra pieces, bands, jazz, blues, pop tunes, and a culture of students who love and enjoy playing.

Tell us more about your plans for this coming year.

I have a couple of ideas. First, I hope to have a contest, a “mantle of scholarship” through music. The challenge will be to create a composition in three parts of eight to sixteen measures and you can play/sing it with your friends and present it: doesn’t have to be the full range of the scale, but at least Do-Re-Mi-Fa-Sol; sing or perform on an instrument such as piano, guitar, xylophone etc.; extra credit if you work as a team.

The second idea is to create for 7th and 8th graders a “Music Student Leadership Program”. Upperclassmen and -women will help younger students in Instrumental and Vocal Ensemble performances this year. They will learn how to become effective student leaders with the skills developed. There will be, for example, a student leader position for Strings, Percussion, Woodwinds, and Brass. There will also be a student leader for Piano, Keyboard, and Guitar.

How does studying music at Dunbar School support the other things students are doing in their academic work?

A simple phrase comes to mind: The sense of citizenship, of being responsible and respectful.

Music profoundly impacts students because it gives them a unique form of expression. If they struggle with reading or math, music gives them another approach. You can access music without jumping through all the hoops. And music simultaneously develops those other skills: it helps with your reading: “I have to understand the vocabulary and words in order to be convincing as a singer;” and of course it boosts your math: “how to make this song work? I’ve got to use math to get it in the right meter, or even in the right key;” and even your sense of history and geography: for example we learned a bit of what Motown was, where it came from, why it’s called Motown, so they learned about the city of Detroit. Music helps you access different cultures and languages too. Nothing teaches world culture better than singing in a different language: if you can sing just one song in that language, then you have a link. And music provides a way of exploring academics that creates a path through their lives.

Noteflight sets the stage for them to develop those other academic skills. Before, I could put music in front of them but it’s static. Now it’s moving and they can hear and make all these associations more easily. And it can be fun — you can sing a bunch of gibberish, but it’s fun and you’re learning something.

How did you first hear about Noteflight?

I was using Essential Elements, and they also have a fabulous interactive tool for instrumental music, and I saw Noteflight and started using it and thought “this will be fantastic in my classroom”. Other notation programs have been great for me to create compositions for my students, but I can create the same thing faster in Noteflight, and I can color code each voice, track the contrapuntal parts, and then my students just open it right away at home or at school and transpose it to sing in their range, and they can see how each part relates to the others. What is more powerful than that when you’re working with middle school students? These kids love to sing.

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