Survey courses get a bum rap. The kids tend to dread them; they're prerequisites for classes they actually want to take, or they're some sort of required elective. The professors try their best, but it's often difficult to motivate a large lecture hall full of half-asleep students. I tend to resent feeling like a tap-dancing clown.
But you know, the courses actually have the possibility of being really interesting. Even though they're never going to be an in-depth look at any particular subject, they give exactly what they're supposed to provide: an overview of how a subject evolved. The hard part is avoiding the doldrums of the powerpoint/lecture hall passivity. Some professors do a good job at that type of teaching, I have no doubt; but, I need to get kids involved in the subject more tangibly. My strengths as a teacher lie in realm of interaction and engagement.
So as I said a couple of months ago, this semester I'm making a big effort to change the format of the sections I teach. They still get the necessary information, but at least half of the class each period is dedicated to their own compositions that are based in the style of the music we're currently discovering.
For example, here was today's assignment (after a brief question/answer/listening session about the development of Gregorian Chant from years 700-900):
Using the ternary form cantus firmus (original chant) you wrote on Monday, first add some sort of written rhythm to your chant (instead of using spatial rhythmic notation). The long notes should be notated with a whole note, medium length notes with a half note, and short notes with a quarter note.
Friday, we'll talk about Leonin and Perotin and the School of Notre Dame. They'll add triplet-based rhythms to their second line, while still keeping their cantus firmus intact. Next Monday we'll talk about Ars Nova and Machaut, and perhaps create some sort of secular song based on the proper church modes (or else maybe part of a Mass?); they'll be able to perform their pieces on the recorder, or sing/hum the words.
My hope is that before long everyone be completely comfortable with their groups and the class, and will be able to experiment with music without feeling scared.
I believe this style of teaching has been effective so far this semester. Certainly, my classes were a little thrown off at first; they expected a lecture course, but all in all, it's working. And you know, before long, word will get out about how I teach the course and so if any student doesn't think it's for them, they'll simply sign up for a different teacher.
These lesson plans actually take longer to figure out, since I'm not just stuffing facts in my head that I will regurgitate into a lecture and then promptly forget. Applicable activities are not easy to create, but I have to say -- even from a purely selfish point of view, it's completely worth the extra time. I really think the learning curve is much higher than it has been for me in semesters past, and so I feel like I'm actually helping to educate these students. And, that's the idea, right?
Changing routine can be scary, but I think I made the right choice this time.