sticky note

So when I’m not being a musician, I work in museum education.  Museums are weirdly specific places where, as an industry, we are slowly figuring out that people don’t naturally know how to understand an exhibit.  (Don’t believe me?  Try and think of another space where you’re supposed to magically know that info posted on the wall relates to objects, and that by reading that info, you’re going to gain pieces of information that will build into a coherent story.  The closest I can come up with is going to a store and having price tags relate to an object, and then those tags being added together for your final bill – clearly a parallel with some limitations.)

The point is, unless your family brings you to museums as a child, The Exhibit Experience is a really counterintuitive mechanism.  So museums have multiple ways of encouraging visitors to pause and engage with the space.  In really fun museum jargon, we call in-gallery activities “interactives.”  Sometimes I work with exhibit teams to create plans for these, and other times I create activities I can bring into the gallery where I know an interactive would have made for a better student experience.

One of the bits of inspiration I transferred from museum to music is in what I call a “sticky note symposium.” It is one way to create a ‘museum’ of student reflections, and it’s one of the activities I facilitated last week at the Community Museum School of Santa Cruz’s Teen Camp.

The basic idea is this: post questions in a shared space and have students respond via sticky note.  They can then “visit” the museum of their classmates’ responses.  This can happen just in a class period – it’d be great after concerts or before breaks, I’d think.  Or it could span a period of time – say, you post a new question each Monday morning and students ease into the week with a little writing, and then Friday afternoon you can give a sense of loosening up a little by having them read each other’s reflections – say, a few minutes before the bell rings.

Some of my favorite student responses from Santa Cruz:

“How does music help you connect to other people?”  Music is something that everyonebetter sticky note image can connect to, even those who are separated by social or linguistic barriers.  Creating a fine piece of music is really a team effort and involves everyone’s opinions.  You really learn a lot about someone by who they are as a musician.”

“Learning to play music is a lifelong journey.  How can you learn from musicians with less experience than you have?”  Musicians with less experience often have more creative ideas because they haven’t fallen into a pattern of what they play.  You can learn to be more creative.  It also helps you remember how much you like playing music.

“How do you know if you are successful as a musician?  Could this mean different things for different people?”  Successful is such a dependent term.  It depends on people’s own opinions of where they set success for themselves and others.  I think you are successful as a musician when you feel fulfilled.  At your very first lesson, were you fulfilled?  Success.

Why this works:

  • Responses are anonymous.  If I’m shy, I don’t have to say things in front of the group.  I can even write something about how absolutely moved I was by a mystical feeling of group consciousness in that last movement of the Dvorak and not get made fun of.
  • Responses are public.  You get to be curious about what others say, and you have a sense of group responsibility – if everyone’s answers are bad, it’s going to be boring, so it’d be better to write something at least half-good, even if you’re not usually a motivated writer.
  • It opens up a space to reflect.  As far as I’ve experienced, everyone who plays music has thoughts about it.  But not everyone feels comfortable bringing it up.  If you ask a question, you provide an opening.
  • It’s eminently justifiable.  Looking for a way to bring writing into your music classroom, without taking a lot of instructional time away from playing?  Here you go.  It’s just a sticky note, not a term paper.
  • It’s rewardable, and might just reward students who aren’t great players.  Have a quote of the week.  Read a thought out loud to the group.  I like having multiple avenues for motivating people.

Lessons learned:

Put these in a conspicuous place.  I put these on the faculty cabins and not enough students were spending time there.  The result was that we got great responses, but too few of them.  Next time I’ll make it somewhere that students are naturally walking past.

And just to mention, your responses are only going to be as good as your questions.  You know the ubiquitous spot at the end of a museum exhibit with a notebook and some kind of bland question posted that sounds something like, “What did you think about the exhibit? Tell us here, with a dull pencil on computer paper in this run-of-the-mill binder that frankly looks out of place in a multimillion dollar space where the object cases alone cost thousands of dollars and are shipped special from Germany?”  Yeah.  Shockingly, those are not effective.  To be fair, every once in awhile you get great comments from motivated visitors, but on the whole, shallow questions don’t get deep answers.

And finally, a side note:

The brightly colored paper isn’t an accident.  I believe strongly in giving students things that look good.  Personally, as an adult, I wouldn’t feel any too motivated to give my best thinking to a paper that looked like it had been run off the copy machine for multiple years until the image was crooked and faded – and somehow, I don’t think it’s just me.  Now, you could do this by writing a question on a dry erase board and having students answer it by writing on that kind of vast space – sure, that’d work too – but there’s something nice about the way the sticky note is small.  It makes you decide what you really want to say.  And you have your own space and are less likely to get upset about someone making an (admittedly awesome) Trogdor drawing over the top of your carefully-thought-out contribution.  You know what I mean?