Practical Ways of Implementing Peer Mentoring in Modern Band Classrooms

Peer mentoring seems like a simple enough concept but identifying ways it can manifest itself practically in popular music education classrooms may prove to be a bit more challenging for practitioners unfamiliar with the approach.  I will give you steps music educators can take to democratize their classrooms through peer mentoring and move toward a more authentic approach to how popular music has historically been learned outside of traditional school environments. Modern band programs are particularly fortunate in that the approach is already set up to introduce peer mentoring in successful ways. As a music educator, I saw the incredible impact peer mentoring had on my students and once I stepped aside from being the sole source of knowledge in the classroom, students prospered and the pressure on me to fix every issue and address every student who needed help was relieved. Through my own research and hearing the findings of others, I have concluded peer mentoring is more than an ancillary teaching tactic but instead, a vetted approach and methodology of teaching within the context of modern band. It is not just a supplemental approach to teach modern band but a fundamental and foundational facet of what it is to facilitate authentic learning within our classroom and ensemble spaces. Students also develop social skills and bond with each other in a variety of ways when given more chances to interact with peers.

Peer mentoring can exist as a pre-determined pairing of students of differing ability levels but also as an approach allowing students to help each other and move continuously from mentor to mentee and vice versa more organically. The students in our classrooms know a great deal about popular music (potentially more than we do) and bring with them a myriad of ways of understanding and educating their peers that formal educators may not be able to recreate even with advanced degrees! Students have noted in previous studies they often prefer to hear critical feedback from their peers as opposed to their teacher. Students have also said their peers communicate with them in ways that are often less confusing. Peer mentoring fosters leadership skills among students and potentially prepares them for roles in education themselves. When students are provided with agency and autonomy, they may become more invested in their learning. Some practical ways to incorporate peer mentoring in your classrooms are as follows:

Leave Room for Students to Fix Issues with Each Other

It may be difficult to step aside and not feel compelled to fix issues you see in ensembles/classroom activities within modern band but asking students to work with each other and help where they can gives them a chance to work through their problems and be creative in solutions rather than simply adjusting to what you ask them to do. Learning should be experiential as we have learned from so many education theorists along the way. 

Purposeful Seating

There are many considerations when it comes to where students sit in an ensemble or classroom. A powerful consideration that encourages peer mentoring is to situate students in pairs/small groups based on ability level. I do not mean to say all students of the highest ability level sit together while those struggling should be separated. Just the opposite! Be purposeful in juxtaposing students of less experience with those who have more. This arrangement will foster the organic development of peer mentoring within the class. When students are tasked with “helping their neighbor,” I often see students paired up who have no way of knowing how to help each other and others who are both competent and are not in need of help. Peer mentoring between students of varying abilities leads to successful peer instruction and the development of leadership and teaching skills within your student population. Students like to hear feedback and instruction from each other but will only give it if they are near someone who needs help!

Creating an Environment that Encourages Socialization

By nature, peer mentoring is a social endeavor. Students communicate and interact with each other while it occurs. Establishing your classroom as a place where it is OK to move around (within reason), talk openly about musical topics, and not “face the teacher” for all guidance all the time are just a few ways to set the stage for peer mentoring. A rigid, teacher-centered classroom is not the context needed for peer mentoring to happen and students will be confused when it comes to understanding how to go about helping each other when given the opportunity. Do not worry about pre-determining mentors and mentees but instead, encourage students to move fluidly between those roles and help whenever and wherever possible. Find each student’s strengths and find ways for them to add their own experience and learning to your educational landscape.

Dr. Warren Gramm is the director of music education and assistant professor of music at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, PA. 

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