Rotating Student Leadership Roles at Tocando

by Claudia Saldaña, Ph.D., and Beverley Argus-Calvo, Ph.D., College of Education, The University of Texas at El Paso

Miguel guides two peers, Claudia Saldaña.

Widening participation is one of the goals of Tocando, an El-Sistema inspired program in the U.S/Mexico border city of El Paso, Texas. Students attend the after-school music program Monday through Thursday to receive tutoring, musicianship, and strings instruction. One of Tocando’s distinctive features is the emphasis on developing students’ sense of agency and ownership by giving them rotating job-based assignments. I had the opportunity to observe this process in my role as a researcher for my dissertation study.

Tocando teaching artists and staff felt that students could develop a sense of agency through leadership practices by carrying out job-based assignments during daily program activities. The teaching artists’ intention was to develop students’ sense of ownership through taking on roles that involved responsibilities and organization skills. The Tocando staff identified 16 jobs based on Tocando’s core values of teamwork, leadership, respect, self-confidence, and communication. These jobs were rotated among students on a weekly basis, allowing students to explore a variety of job positions—for example, composer, conductor, equipment manager, line leader, posture supervisor, rhythm creator, librarian, snack manager, and attendance keeper.

The jobs had established goals that were made clear to each student through explanations and modeling from the teaching artists. Students were encouraged to question and reflect upon how to perform the assigned jobs. Jobs were rotated regularly, so that each student could experience a number of different jobs and roles. The teaching artists were significant role models for the students, guiding them to learn and perform their jobs with dignity and pride.

Gerardo and Miguel are two examples of students who developed their abilities to express themselves and put into action their sense of agency, through this process. In the case of Gerardo, he was initially discontented when he received a badge that indicated that he was section leader for the week. He wanted a different job. The Project Coordinator explained to Gerardo that he needed to learn about being consistent and this job would help him do that. Gerardo was curious, and asked questions about what consistency is; the coordinator explained that consistency is “to have a positive attitude every day, rather than for just one day.” What is important to note in Gerardo’s example is not the job itself, but the opportunity he was given to ask questions, and the caring response he received.

Another skill students learned through the rotating job assignments was leadership, or self-initiation of actions. That was the case for Miguel, who lived in a difficult family environment; his mother was a single parent and the sole provider for Miguel and his younger brother. On the days when no after-school programming was available, Miguel spent much time alone, waiting for her to arrive home from work. Miguel’s home issues affected his moods and behaviors, distracting him from actively participating in programming activities. Jobs that were assigned to Miguel were often taken away, due to his erratic behavior in class. Staff members were concerned that Miguel was making limited gains, and questioned the effectiveness of the program for him.

However, just before a holiday performance, in the midst of rehearsing before going onstage, he spontaneously took it upon himself to reach out and help two peers who were struggling to play some notes from “Jingle Bells.” Miguel observed the girls, identified which notes needed some attention, and then led the practice by demonstrating how to play those notes: “Mira, uno, dos, tres, inténtalo!” (“Watch, one, two, three, try it!”) His body language communicated confidence in his knowledge of the music and his ability to take on a leadership role. For Miguel, being given a leadership role developed motivation and peer collaboration. For Gerardo, being given such a role stimulated self-reflection and curiosity.

For both students, these expressions of leadership were a result of the teaching artists and staff serving as role models. Furthermore, the teaching artists created an environment that encouraged students to practice their job assignments, and also to express and manage their emotions.

In summary, the practice of rotating job assignments provided Tocando students opportunities to experience agency, self-worth, and self-direction. I felt privileged that in my role as observer, I was able to identify moments when students were visibly developing a sense of agency and socio-emotional skill that manifested in self-awareness, self- management, and social awareness. Noting such moments was sometimes easier for me than for staff members, who were absorbed in managing the constant ebb and flow of daily activities. As a researcher, I can validate the high quality of the day-to-day work that teaching artists perform, and that often goes unseen.

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