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Strengthening Teacher Training & Curriculum Development: The Case of the Sphinx Overture Summer Camp
United States
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ABSTRACT

The Sphinx Organization’s Overture Program is an academic year music and youth development program that serves nearly 250 students in 2nd and 3rd grades in 12 Flint and Detroit public schools (Michigan, United States). The Sphinx Overture Summer Camp provides free, intensive musical instruction during the summer months to students participating in the academic year violin program. While highlighting the program’s strengths, this case study also explores areas for potential growth, including developments in teacher training and preparation, which would help improve musical results and, ultimately, advance the Sphinx Organization’s mission and “pipeline” approach to programming.

FIELDWORK CONTEXT
26 June – 8 July 2017 | DETROIT

I observed the Sphinx Overture program’s teachers during the 2017 Overture Summer Camp and conducted interviews with teachers and staff. This case study is informed by these observations and interviews as well as by my own teaching experience, which includes formal training in Suzuki pedagogy and Teaching Artistry. 

SUBJECT BACKGROUND
SPHINX ORGANIZATION & THE OVERTURE SUMMER CAMP

The Sphinx Overture Summer Camp was created in 2016 as an extension of the Sphinx Overture program. The Sphinx Organization’s Overture Program is an academic year music and youth development program that serves nearly 250 students in 2nd and 3rd grades in 12 Flint and Detroit public schools. In 2017, the Overture Summer Camp expanded to two weeks and provided Detroit Overture students an opportunity to continue their musical study over the summer free of charge. (Flint Overture students have opportunities to attend the Flint School of Music’s summer programming on full scholarship.) The direct budget of the camp alone is approximately $25,000 (without overhead and administrative costs), with most revenue coming from foundations and grants and most of the costs devoted to faculty and transportation. The camp is a tuition free initiative for all participating students.

Within the Detroit Metro area, both Detroit Youth Volume and Detroit Symphony Orchestra youth ensembles offer substantial scholarships for students; however, summer programming is limited. Transportation remains a significant challenge for recruiting and retaining students, as most families do not own cars and public transportation is extremely limited. Moreover, the cost of bus transportation is prohibitive in the long term: almost 20% of the Sphinx Overture Summer Camp’s budget is used for transportation, which includes bringing students to and from the program and on field trips.

Over time, Sphinx’s approach to the Overture program has evolved and deepened. When founded, the focus was primarily on youth development and on using music as a tool to facilitate classroom discussion and expression of character and values such as respect, responsibility, and perseverance. Though these qualities are still central to the program, there is also a growing emphasis on musical and instrument-specific instructional quality, and the focus includes high musical standards as an integral part of youth enrichment.

The Overture Summer Camp grew out of a desire to provide students with access to enriching curricula and free musical instruction during the summer months. Originally only one week long, the camp expanded to two weeks in the summer of 2016. The camp provides full-day programming on Monday through Friday and includes violin group classes, private lessons, ensemble class, music theory, movement classes, percussion ensemble, and visits from two guest artists. Additionally, students receive two meals per day and participate in a final recital and two field trips to Detroit cultural institutions.

CASE ISSUE
STRENGTHENING TEACHER TRAINING & CURRICULUM DEVELOPMENT

This case study focuses on the pedagogical practices of Sphinx Overture teachers. The teaching staff exhibits a wide range in terms of level of pedagogical training, effort in lesson planning, and experience, which results in varying levels of success in the group violin classes. One recurring issue has been finding appropriate methods to integrate new material into the curriculum, given that the students do not all learn at the same pace or in the same way. Ideally, teachers would create a tiered system in their classes, whereby more advanced students would have the opportunity to move through materials that promote focus and productivity while beginners would learn at a pace more appropriate to their development. 

It is recommended that Sphinx include more teacher training opportunities and organize teacher training modules that focus on lesson planning, pacing, and incorporating musical games that reinforce musical skills and provide effective transitions between activities. Stronger teaching would directly and positively affect the overall level of all students.

One recurring issue finding a balance of material integration with students, many of whom develop at a varying pace.

On a broader organizational level, this would help Sphinx achieve its goal of creating a holistic “pipeline” approach to music education and development. Ideally, Sphinx aims to create opportunities that allow for mobility between programs: the Overture program provides a first introduction to music, the Sphinx Performance Academy provides summer intensives for intermediate/early advanced students, and the Competition and artist development programs provide opportunities for musicians of color with the highest levels of artistic achievement.

ANALYSIS

As noted above, the Overture program initially focused heavily on youth development and placed less emphasis on musical quality/results. Within the last few years, this perspective has shifted, and the organization has embraced the idea that aspirations for the highest musical level positively affect values of youth development. Sphinx’s President and Artistic Director, Afa Dworkin, expresses hope that, as the program continues to develop, it will empower students to develop and strengthen both humanistic and musical values.

The following SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats) analysis references observations made during the Sphinx Overture Summer Camp and extrapolates these observations to assess the Sphinx Overture program as a whole, including the academic year classes. Though the full-day camp provides a more intensive schedule than the academic year after-school classes, the summer program is a natural extension of the academic year program in that it serves the same Detroit students, employs several of the same teachers, and expresses many similar strengths and challenges.

Strengths

  • Strong fundraising, mostly through grants, foundations, and corporate sponsorship, allows for fair market pay for teachers, satisfactory instruments and supplies, and enrichment activities such as guest artist performances and field trips.
  • Organized, experienced, and passionate leadership strives to continually improve programming.
  • Some very strong and dedicated teachers have been with the program for many years.

Weaknesses

  • Current structure of the program creates some limitations with respect to evolving program values over time.
  • More observation and feedback needed to monitor teachers’ growth and progress.

Opportunities

  • Support teacher professional development that addresses common issues such as planning, pacing, and classroom management.
  • Create avenues for students to remain within the program for several years, so that they may continue to advance and serve as mentors for younger students.
  • Continue to build community partnerships to allow students to continue study at partner institutions.

Threats

  • Uncertainty with public school partners and, as a result, with Sphinx classes remaining in the schools:
    • Low performing schools often face threats of closure.
    • School districts may mandate supplemental academics or extended day classes, which conflict with Sphinx Overture’s musical programming.
  • Lack of dependable transportation affects attendance and retention. Prohibitive cost of bus rental prohibits bringing students to the various sites during academic year programming.

RECOMMENDATIONS

The following recommendations have been designed to apply to both the summer camp and the academic year program, given the large overlap of teachers involved in both. While the structure and schedule of the full-day summer camp and the after-school academic year classes are markedly different, the insights gathered from the group lessons during the summer camp, and corresponding recommendations, arguably would apply equally to group lessons of the academic-year classes.

It is highly recommended that Sphinx revise its program structure to include a tiered system of teaching and to offer support for advanced students over a longer period of time.  Sphinx must also identify highly qualified teachers who share program values and possess strong musical and pedagogical skills. It is recommended that Sphinx add a mandatory training course before the start of the school year and maintain professional development activities throughout the school year. Teachers should be paid for their participation in the training course.

Teaching group instrumental classes, especially in a school context, and engaging students with a wide range of personalities and skill levels, requires a unique approach. Teacher training workshops should include strategies for classroom management and effective lesson planning. Additional professional development topics include pacing, reviewing and building material, and using peer learning to engage all students and allow for differentiated instruction within the same group class.

Teacher training workshops should include strategies for classroom management and effective lesson planning.”

Adding a training program would require funds to hire specialists to lead classes and workshops, and to pay the teachers for their participation. Moreover, the program would have to assess the areas where most professional development is needed and research experts in those areas. Improvement would take place over the course of several years and would result from this additional training as well as from the experience that teachers gain through consecutive years of teaching for the Overture program.

Performance metrics may be measured via periodic observation of teachers by the Director of Education or veteran teachers. The Sphinx organization may choose to formalize the observation process, providing each teacher with benchmarks for success in their classes. The document Supervision for Effective Teaching from the Internship Seminar Program of the University of Saskatchewan College of Education provides many useful metrics for measuring effective teaching, including “professional attributes,” such as measuring one’s own effectiveness and progress and being receptive to feedback; planning and organization; and classroom management; among others. These metrics could be used to evaluate teacher progress and growth in the Sphinx program.

This solution requires the Sphinx Director of Education to observe teachers at various sites and provide meaningful and consistent feedback. This may be challenging, as many classes occur at the same time at different sites. Teachers would have to be proactive and accountable for seeking out and applying feedback. Ideally, this would become part of the culture of the organization over time.

CONCLUSION

This case study highlights the opportunity to improve overall program quality of the Sphinx Overture Program and Summer Camp by expanding teacher training and investing in increased teacher observation and feedback. Adding a teacher training program would increase the level and consistency of pedagogy and student results. Moreover, better teacher preparation, especially with regards to lesson planning, would address the overarching problem of pacing and flow within lessons, especially in mixed level groups. This would allow teachers to take better advantage of the time with students and, as a result, increase the overall musical level that students are able to achieve during their time in the program.

Questions for further research include evaluating whether an increased investment in teacher training, preparation, and tracking would help Sphinx move closer toward its vision of a seamless pipeline that can provide interested students a viable path from the Overture Program to the Sphinx Performance Academy to the Sphinx Competition and beyond.

Note: Following this case study, Sphinx has secured funding and plans to create a teacher training program in the 2018-19 school year. Some additional teacher training has already begun as well.


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