For the past two months, I have been teaching after-school preschool guitar classes.The classes I teach are entirely made up of three-year-olds and have a maximum capacity of six students. It’s been fascinating to observe how children of this age learn, as well as the social dynamics of very young children.
It’s a travesty that our society tends to write off what children are capable of doing. I believe that if you can connect with a child’s imagination and excite them about the subject, it doesn’t really matter how old they are; they can still learn. Case in point: I am currently working with a two-year-old guitar student who is already learning the names of the strings (he doesn’t even know letters yet) and how to identify them by sound. Young children are quite capable if taught properly.
Teaching preschool has been an endeavor for me, as I am accustomed to private 1-on-1 instruction. In general, though, I understand that teaching preschool is a major challenge for any dedicated teacher. Early childhood education needs to be a definite point of emphasis in our society. It’s entirely possible that these early years are so formative that a quality preschool education is more important than any schooling later in a child’s development.
<a href=“http://www.santamonicaguitarlessons.com/pratt-music-method/2018/11/14/teaching-very-young-students”>As I’ve written about</a>, I am developing a teaching philosophy of engagement through play for the very young. By spending time playing with them (games with toy police cars, dolls, animals, etc.) in a familiar environment, I am putting myself in the role of the fun mentor. And in that role, I earn the respect of the student.
I want to emphasize here that I EARN the respect of the student. I am not an authoritarian figure in the classroom. Students perceive me as a friend looking to share knowledge, and they eventually internalize the fact that I am trying to help them. In a preschool (or in any class), the teacher’s role should be, to quote Jon Dewey, the “facilitator of activities.”
It’s important to note that as the facilitator of activities, I’m not simply playing with the student. Rather, it’s an improvised type of play that’s always focused on tying our games back to the guitar lesson. And I almost always incorporate music and guitar into the activities.
But I digress. I want to maintain focus on specific techniques that I have developed for teaching preschool guitar classes, or any classes for that matter. I believe the same general principles apply.
The key to teaching preschool seems to be coming up with activities that successfully engage as many students as possible. I have a limited class size of six, and quite often I’ll notice almost every student loving an activity—except for one, who is just not engaged. Sometimes they are all engaged, which is always great. But it’s difficult to reach everyone all the time, and it’s probably unrealistic to think that’s possible. After all, as individuals, we all have different interests. It’s the same with young students.
There are a few games I’ve developed to keep the students engaged throughout class. Lately, I’ve been using a puppet named “Hungry Henry the King” to teach the students about how to properly hold a guitar (because after two months of working with this class, guitar care is still a MAJOR issue). At the beginning of class, Hungry Henry talks to the students. It’s established that he likes to eat anything: tables, chairs, my finger,… you name it. The students find this hilarious. I’ll then use Hungry Henry to demonstrate how to hold a guitar and treat it nicely. We’ll pretend that a pencil is Henry’s guitar. I instruct Henry to carefully pick it up, but of course he ends up eating it!! He tries again, only to succumb to putting it in his mouth once more. I’ll then go around the room and have the students demonstrate good sitting position for the puppet. This is a fun and entertaining way for them to learn by teaching, and they seem to have enjoyed it.
Another trick I learned while teaching in a classroom setting is the power of positive reinforcement. If you tell one student in a loud and clear voice, “Wow look at So and So! Look how good he/she is at holding the guitar!” It immediately calls attention to good behavior, and other students will try to impress the teacher as well. This concept is probably part of the “Classroom Teaching 101” book, but it was a new one for me. Works well even in a class full of three-year-olds.
I have developed a teaching style that is flexible and improvisational (based on how the student is feeling at any given time), which really comes in handy in a classroom situation. You cannot be afraid to abandon an activity if it isn’t working; best to quickly transition into something else. Many times, I do find myself making up activities on the spot. This is partly because I’m still learning strategies that work for three-year-olds, but also because I think it’s critical for a teacher to be able to make something up on the spot that resonates with where the students are at in the class on that day.
A typical class of mine looks like: five minutes Activity 1, five minutes Activity 2, ten minutes Activity 3, snack time, storytime, clean-up. In between those activities, of course, is transition time—which can really add up depending on the mood of the class. In another blog post, I’ll detail the exact activities that I use during classes—as well as discuss some activities that have failed and lessons that I’ve learned from them.