Kristin Kivell

Kristin Kivell

When one opens a brand new jigsaw puzzle it can be overwhelming to stare into the box at all the pieces, wondering if it’s even possible to make them all fit together with a beautiful scene as the end result. But the more you study the shapes, colors, and unique characteristics of each individual piece, the mind begins to discover the similarities, and connections begin to happen.

So it is with a new school year as the students enter into the classroom. Each one asking themselves:

“How do I fit in with this community?”


“What’s my purpose?”

It’s an important time to mindfully create an inclusive culture within the classroom where every student feels a sense of belonging to the larger community and has an invested interest in the music making process. All students enter the classroom with a natural instinct to be curious and active, as well as a desire to be successful. They want to be a piece of your puzzle.

Getting to know each group of students is like beginning a new puzzle. Each piece has its own shape, color, and purpose for the puzzle as a whole. Likewise, each student is unique and brings with them individual characteristics such as various learning styles, ethnic heritage, social status, insecurities, economic backgrounds, physical disabilities or medical conditions, and the list goes on. As the teacher, we must first be aware of what unique characteristics are present within each class and purposely create an environment that allows each student to fit in. Spending time getting to know each student during the first few weeks and creating a sense of safety within your class is time well spent and an important step to the big picture. Using effective and age appropriate icebreaker activities during class, having one on one conversations with students, being present in the halls during passing time and simply greeting students at the door are all efforts that show students you care about them as individuals. Teachers that spend time building relationships with their students will build a culture within the classroom that is safe and inclusive. It’s the first step in “sorting out the pieces in the new puzzle” and it is vital to a successful learning environment.

Once you have “sorted” your students and have an awareness of the unique characteristics present in your classroom, the next step is to “build a framework” for learning. Giving thought to eliminating barriers with choices of literature, warm-ups, and rehearsal structure based on the students in the class, you will build a successful framework to teach within throughout the year. Within the structure created in the classroom, students may make personal connections through the text of the music, discover their sense of worth in the ensemble through effective warm-ups and ultimately discover that singing has intrinsic value for them as an individual during rehearsals and performances. They will understand that they have a purpose within the learning community and their motivation to learn and participate will become a worthwhile endeavor.

With puzzles we know that once we sort the pieces and build the frame, the picture becomes much clearer and the unique pieces suddenly have a place to fit. In the classroom where a sense of safety and structure is established, students will begin to feel a sense of belonging within the classroom community. As students become a part of this community, they begin to understand that even though they may come from a different ethnic background or have an obvious physical disability; they still have similarities with other students in the class. They will easily see that they are a “piece of the puzzle” that fits in with the larger group.

As the lives of our students evolve, the culture within our classroom is constantly changing. It is important to step back on a regular basis and to see how “the puzzle” is coming together. Whether it is the beginning of the year, or in the middle, it is a good idea to evaluate what is working and what might require some changes. Teaching is an art, and being culturally mindful is a crucial element to making the big picture come together. Our students are the precious and unique pieces that make the picture beautiful.