Imagination is a Slumbering Beast

I asked a question of my students to gauge the limits of their imagination:

“If you were a eagle with the ability to fly anywhere, where would you go?”

The responses were saddening and mostly involved perching on the top of the school or the local mall not 2 miles away…

After listening intently to the third movement of Ralph Vaughan Williams 3rd symphony, I encouraged my students to draw imagery relating to what the music inspired or alluded to. I selected such a piece due to its dramatic, rolling melodies and contrasting sections and was sure that imagination would win the day through the student’s art work. I am aware that such an activity can distract students from truly internalising the music they hear but I countered that by first letting them listen to the music while laying down and then enabled them to move freely with it.

I received countless images of the student’s houses and family members that were once again lacking in imagination…

After such disheartening and regular occurrences I decided that something as important as imagination must be awoken; for I believe that it sleeps in every child and is a force so powerful that I must coin it ‘beast’.

Imagination generates immersion where a learning experience is concerned; children (and adults!) cease being observers and become the adventurers who cleave a pathway through the jungle of knowledge and skills before them. Furthermore, imagination leads to creativity which is a force upon which we must rely on for a bright future. We have placed too much emphasis upon numeracy and literacy in a world in which every device we carry contains a calculator and a spell checker and the arts have become shunned for their inferiority. Here is an excellent video regarding this issue: youtube.com

I don’t wish to be witch hunted for questioning the importance of literacy and numeracy and I am not encouraging us to abandon grammar, long division or punctuation; all I ask is for some equality in the curricula that we feel inclined to deploy every day. I ask:

What is an architect without the ability to imagine and create beautiful yet functional structures?

What is a surgeon without the ability to imagine ingenious methods by which to treat patients?

What is an engineer without the ability to create imaginative solutions to unforeseen problems?

How do I wake the beast that is imagination in my elementary class room? I use two main devices as can be read about below…

The first device is a map that I created on a rainy afternoon which provides an imaginative, interactive adventure for the students without having a negative effect on lesson content. The map contains four challenge areas that reflect typical lesson content throughout the course of a year.

Map 1

Skill Challenge refers to a lesson in which new content is to be learnt. This may be a skill or some knowledge.

Exploration Challenge refers to student led lessons in which they create their own music with very little input or teacher set parameters.

Review Challenge refers to any lesson in which old content is refreshed. These challenges typically occur when there is disruption in the week or a class needs to enhance a certain area of their musicality.

Performance Challenge refers to any lesson that focuses upon an approaching performance. This may be a short assembly or an epic end of year production.

Map 6

Students must navigate the map using the black roads. The journey to each of the challenges passes through different areas at which we must stop and accomplish something before we move on. The concept of using a map to navigate through a challenge serves to ignite imagination from the outset and I find students pondering where we will go during each lesson and by what route.

As you can see, the map is very colourful and evocative. Each challenge takes place in a different part of the map labelled Training Castle, Shining Cave, Dragon Mount and Ancient Library respectively. When I ask students where we are going today they often reply “To the training castle to train with the knights” or “To the Shining cave to look for lost treasure”.

Further imagination can be stimulated at the different intersections along the route selected thus:

“At the Listening Lake we must be as quiet as mice! There are huge crocodiles in these waters and if they hear us talking they will try to eat our boat! We must sail across the waters and be extra quiet so we can hear if there is any trouble ahead…” At this point I initiate a listening based activity.

“As we walk into the Singing Woods (or Singing Crossroads) the trees seem to come to life… Their branches bend and twist to block our path no matter which way we turn! You notice a bird singing high up in the air and this seems to stir the trees into removing some of their smaller branches. What can we do to make the magic trees let us through?” At this point I initiate a vocal based activity.

“The sand at the Dancing Dunes is so fine that if we stop moving our feet will be sucked under… Then our legs… Then our bodies and finally our arms until we are just a group of heads poking out of the sand! We had better keep moving when we cross the dunes!” At this point I initiate a movement based activity.

“We have encountered danger! A large black spider hangs in front of your eyes and you feel relieved that you didn’t take another step forward. Should we go back and look for another path?”

Map 2

The map can be adapted for use in many ways:

-Different awards for completing different challenges.

-Alternative routes.

-Student lead routes using a character to represent the student’s progress.

-Students deciding which challenge to pursue each lesson.

-Topic based challenges.

-More detailed skill based challenges.

-Cross curricular links to history with a map theme or style.

-Cross curricular links to geography with relief, a compass or other representations on the map.

-Elaboration of the danger areas on the map such as a tough but brief challenge for going the wrong way!

-Class based so different classes can check other classes’ progress.

-Year group based with more student involvement occurring in older students.

Onto my second imagination sparking device and the centre piece of my room; The Animals of Music Mountain…

Map 3

The Animals of Music Mountain is a large structure that represents a mountain complete with grassy plains, a deep lake and a large magical tree that erupts from the mountain’s summit. Its primary purpose is to encourage students to use musical language when discussing music.

The structure that is The Animals of Music Mountain is populated by animal pairs. There are two bears, two cats, two dolphins, two birds, two sheep and two dragons. Each pair of animals characterises a musical element and highlights its particular opposition.

Forte and Piano the bears represent dynamic with one being loud and the other being very softly spoken.

Map 4

Allegro and Adagio the dragons represent tempo with one being a very fast flyer and the other being relaxed in the air.

Staccato and legato the cats represent articulation with one cat being very smooth in her motions and the other being so scared of everything that she moves with jagged, sudden jumps.

High and Low the birds represent pitch with one bird soaring high in the air and the other being afraid of flying.

Accelerando and Ritardando the sheep also represent tempo with one sheep being an expert, fit runner who gradually gets faster and faster when racing and the other sheep being very unfit and eventually coming to a complete stand still as he runs out of breath.

Crescendo and Diminuendo the dolphins also represent dynamic with one dolphin jumping out of the water and shouting louder and louder while the other dives deeper while becoming quieter and quieter.

Map 5

Using these animals enables students to characterise musical elements through imagination. When I demonstrate tempo for example, I let the dragons fly over the students so that they can observe their speed. When I question them about how fast Allegro is they always respond “Allegro is fast” which in the child’s mind refers to the dragon but will later develop into a true understanding of the musical element.

The animals can be used in the following ways:

-Students use them to conduct each other by holding up elemental opposites such as Forte when they want loud playing from their friends or Piano when they want soft playing.

-They can be used to lead the lesson by delivering a learning objective that relates to the character.

-They can be used to stimulate movement. For example, when the students see Allegro they move fast.

-They can influence singing. For example if the students see Staccato when they are singing they must make their syllables short and jumpy.

-Their traits can be acted out by students. For example if we are to be Piano the bear we must tip toe around the room and whisper to our friends.

-The teacher can use them to bring a concept to life. For example, you could encourage students to say hello to Accelerando by gradually speeding up their voice… “HEEEEEEEEEEEELLOOOOOOOOO ACCCCEEEELLERANDO”. You could then demonstrate via modelling how he speeds up when he is running.

-You could create a role-play in which one animal is helped out by another. For example, Ritardando may want to run away from Forte but he will need Allegro’s help to do it!

-You can give groups of students one of the characters and encourage them to write their own music using the elemental animal that is helping.

The students love the concept and enjoy interacting with ‘living’ incarnations of abstract musical concepts. Imagination seems to flourish when these characters are helping students especially when they are used in conjunction with the map.

Using the aforementioned map in my classroom turns lesson content into a progressive quest for knowledge in which students feel immersed in an imaginative world. The use of the exploration challenge in particular encourages creativity by enabling students to compose music devoid of rules. At first, my students were terrified of errors but gentle encouragement and a reminder that a student’s ideas are unique and special has won the day and my classroom is once again an imaginative place!

I hope that this post encourages you to stimulate imagination in your classroom. Feel free to use and adapt these ideas in any way you see fit. If you can develop the idea further let me know! Good luck in waking the slumbering beast!