Monday, March 25, 2013

The First Rule of Songfest

At KIPP Fresno in 2004, we wanted to start a Friday tradition that had enjoyed some success at other similar schools, so we started Songfest. We copied the lyrics to songs that had meaning, and prepared to sing them together. Our first song was Lean On Me, followed by We Are Family, then Patience (by Guns 'n Roses.) After that, I'm less sure. There was "It's the End of the World as we Know it", likely with more consistent capitalization, but it all became a blur pretty fast.

The first rule of songfest may very well have killed the whole thing: Everybody must sing.

At the time, this seemed reasonable enough. If the goal is for everybody to feel the power of this positive music, everybody should participate. We couldn't, in good conscience, let a kid opt out of something that was going to help her. We wouldn't let a kid opt out of learning to read, or learning multiplication facts, so it seemed natural that a child should not have the choice to avoid all of the positive benefits of singing your heart out as part of a wonderful group of enthusiastic young people.

The results were mixed, at best. A lot of kids sang and had a good time, and there was some level of joy in the room. There were also a lot of kids choosing to opt out, leading to a lot of frustration from us - the adults in the room - who were trying to make sure that everybody sang.

In 2012, human genius Joseph Yrigollen, this time at KIPP Jacksonville, came up with something much better: A class vs. class game of "don't forget the lyrics." You have likely never seen a group of young people more enthusiastic than the 5th and 6th graders of KIPP Jacksonville singing their hearts out to "We are Young" and "Someone Like You" (by Adele, not Rod Stewart.) I recently brought Joseph's innovation to our school in New Haven, Elm City College Prep, and our kids' rendition of Taylor Swift's "We are Never Getting Back Together" (like, ever) still ranks as one of the highlights of my (our?) year. 

Let's say there are three goals of songfest:
1. Foster a sense of team and family
2. Have fun
3. Share the positive messages of the songs

Our original forced-singing approach may have had an edge in #3, but even that was too often obscured by the First Rule of Songfest. For goals #1 and #2, the Yrigollen method was a clear winner. And, though you may laugh, I think there is something to learn from Taylor Swift's steadfast resolve to not make the same mistake again, Adele's soulful decision to find her happiness elsewhere, and Fun.'s, well, Fun.

Song selection might have something to do with the relative success of Don't-Forget-The-Lyrics: We have recently chosen songs that many of our kids already know, and these are songs that many of our kids are choosing to listen to outside of school. There is also less teaching involved here, as we're not intending to teach the lyrics or the message explicitly. Still, I think the biggest difference is in the setup. I try to imagine applying the First Rule of Songfest to our game of "don't forget the lyrics", and I see it falling flat. The biggest difference is what Rafe Esquith calls the "soft sell."

The soft sell is pretty straightforward: Don't spend so much time and effort making people do something they don't want to do. Instead, spend time and effort getting them to want to do it. Rafe doesn't make his kids come to school at 6:30 for math club, but within the first month of school he usually has 100% of his class coming to math club daily. He doesn't force his kids to take guitar lessons with him during recess, but most of his kids take him up on the offer. Rafe is a master of convincing kids that they want to do what is good for them. How does he do it?

1. For anything that he is going to soft sell (which, for Rafe, is most things), he makes sure it is clear that this is not mandated. As soon as the First Rule of Songfest is put into place, it automatically becomes something that kids want to do less. Being told you don't have a choice is often the best way to turn people off to an idea. Though it is essentially the opposite of our approach to homework, Rafe's soft sell is extraordinarily effective - you don't have to read tonight, but if you do, a lot of good things will happen. Looking back at how painfully we learned this lesson, the new First Rule of Songfest should probably become "Don't talk about Songfest."

2. Rafe builds a strong in-group bond between the kids in his class. The implicit message is that those of us in this room are special: We love to learn, we are nice to others, we are going to college, and we will become extraordinary. This develops the kind of positive peer pressure that allows wonderful things to happen.

3. Drawing on Kohlberg's six levels of moral development, Rafe consistently talks up his kids' small choices and makes them feel like heroes for choosing to do hard things on their own. This is tough to celebrate when your only real choice is "do this thing" or "detention."

In my next post, I'll explore the opposite of the soft sell, and explain how an airtight homework system and certain heavily influenced decisions have helped to build strong habits and solid academic skills. In the meantime, what are some examples you have seen of the soft sell, or places where you have seen it fall apart? Let us know in the comments!

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