I believe the keys to managing large middle school choral ensembles are consistency, flexibility, patience, self-reflection and high expectations.
I have spent the past 18 years trying to figure out better ways to manage my middle school choral classroom. I have 5 choir classes that meet daily with a mix of 6th, 7th and 8th graders, and an average of 50 students in each class. Acknowledging that my teaching will be a work in progress until the day I retire, I would like to share a few things that have worked well for me and my students.
1. The tone of the class is set before the bell rings. The most important part of the class period is the time before the bell rings when the students are entering the room. If the students enter the room and there is chaos, there will be little learning for the rest of the period.
When meeting new 6th graders at the start of the year, my priority is in establishing how they are to enter the room before class begins. My new students are expected to enter the room quietly, be seated, place their belongings under their seats and wait for class to begin without talking. We do have to practice this quite a bit, and I do send them back into the hallway to line up in the hall and try again until they get it right. However, I do not want the students to view this classroom expectation as punitive in nature, so I have found it best to remain as patient as possible during this process. My goal is that they understand if we start class in a calm manner we are going to have a great rehearsal. Otherwise, there will be a lot of time wasted.
I certainly do not expect them to continue this rigid routine for the entire three years they are in my program. The bigger goal is for students to learn to be responsible for their actions and be able to come into my room and begin class without the chaos most would expect from a class of 50 middle school students. When needed, I even run my eighth graders through the same routine as the sixth graders just as a "friendly reminder" when they seem to forget.
2. An organized folder management system. I have talked to many choir directors who find folders and folder cabinets hard to manage because the students are in such close quarters trying to retrieve and return their folders. Just this year I have found a solution that seems to be working. I have two typical Wenger folder cabinets with a total of two hundred slots. Rather than assigning folders 1-50 to the same class, folders 51-100 to the next class, etc. I took three classes and alternated the folder assignments. Folder 1 is for Chorale, Folder 2 for Seventh Grade Choir and Folder 3 for Men's Chorus, and so on.
This does two things: not only does this help relieve some of the congestion when students are getting their folders, it also helps them put the folders back into the correct slot, because the empty slots occur every third time, not in a large grouping next to each other. At the beginning of the year I take time to dismiss the students by row to get their folders and put them back, with the ultimate goal of them being able to get them as they enter the room and put them away before they leave. This is another routine that needs to be practiced.
3. Don't underestimate what middle schoolers can do. I hear time and time again at workshops, "...now you middle school teachers should not try this. Middle school kids aren't quite mature enough..." And I always resound, "Challenge accepted!" I was once told in a workshop that we shouldn't do lip trill warm-ups. We do them almost every day. When teaching parts, I have my class of 64 students arrange themselves in several circles so students can listen to others in their section better. I encourage all of my students to sing by themselves in front of the class and work hard to develop a safe environment where students support each other. I expect that my students will learn to rehearse so that my class doesn't always feel like a pot of water about to boil over.
We have to set high expectations because students will fall to low expectations just as fast as they will rise to high expectations. We have to be consistent and patient because middle school students are struggling to feel like young adults while still wanting to hold onto their childhood. Finally, we must self-reflect because no two students or groups of students are the same and what works for one group will not (and usually doesn't) work for all.