Instead of searching for pencil and paper, the sixth-graders in music teacher Jenna McCoy’s second period class spend the opening minutes of class tuning a guitar. That’s because this year Marion County Middle School offers an elective course solely dedicated to learning the instrument.
For McCoy, the director of bands at MCMS and the choir director at Marion County High School, the class pays dividends beyond just one instrument.
“The students seem to really enjoy it and they’re learning things that will keep them playing even after these nine weeks are over,” McCoy said. “They’re going to be able to apply it to whatever they’d like to play after this class [...] It’s been really positive.”
McCoy currently teaches two sections of the class -- one for sixth-graders and one for seventh-graders. But because the class is only nine weeks long, plenty of other students will have the same opportunity throughout the school year.
“I like the class a lot,” sixth-grader Olivia Cecil said. She wanted to take the class because her brother plays guitar and she wanted to try it too. “This is one of my favorite classes [...] Ms. McCoy is a really good teacher -- she can teach you to play really easily.”
Fellow sixth-grader Jaxon Huff enjoys the class because it allows him to hone a skill he works on outside of school as well.
“I think it’s fun because you get to play guitar while you’re in school,” he said. “Instead of waiting until you get home, during second period I get to play.”
As far as the song selection, Huff explained that right now the class is “starting with basic stuff and then we’ll get into better stuff.”
So far, his favorite song the class has learned is “Ode to Joy.”
Of course, the class didn’t start the year ready to tackle a whole song.
“Getting all six strings tuned at first took us the whole first week of school,” McCoy said. “But now we’re able to tune in the first five minutes of class. They’ve really moved faster in understanding the guitar and knowing their way around it.”
Although most of the students had no experience with any musical instrument before the class, McCoy is hopeful the experience will keep them playing well into the future.
“I’m really excited for them to take what they learn in here and keep playing,” she said. “My goal is for students to come back to me and say, ‘Hey Ms. McCoy, I learned how to play this song!’”
The class also provides a different take on test-taking. Instead of a traditional test, students complete a performance assessment.
“I give them an excerpt they have to practice and they have four days to practice that excerpt and then on the fifth day we have a performance assessment,” McCoy said. “They have to play the right notes and rhythms and their assessed based on the accuracy of their note reading and rhythm reading.”
The class is evidence of the emphasis put on providing more opportunities at the middle school. This year, exploratory classes last only nine weeks, which gives students more specialty classes to explore. Other classes also provide more specialization. For example art class is now divided into 2-D art or 3-D art for sixth graders and drawing or painting for seventh graders.
“In middle school, I really think one of the important things is to give students experiences,” MCMS principal Daniel Lockwood said earlier this year. “We’ve separated our exploratory classes into nine week segments -- for the majority of them -- so kids will have more options [...] It gives kids opportunities to experiment with something that might be a little bit different, might be a little scary to them, but that they can try.
“When we were looking at music, we really felt that guitar might be a skill kids would be excited about -- something that hadn’t done before. We’re excited to give them that opportunity.”
The reorganization of the secondary schools throughout MCPS before the 2017-2018 school year also factors in to providing more opportunities. With increased enrollment comes more staffing and ultimately more exploratory classes.
“Our goal in this district is always to provide as many opportunities and positive experiences as possible,” MCPS Superintendent Taylora Schlosser said. “Now we’re starting to see how some of the decisions we’ve made, like reorganizing our secondary schools, really do provide those opportunities for all students.”