I am a self-taught organist. When I was called to play the organ for my ward as a junior in high school, I didn’t have anyone to teach me. I did my best to figure out how to work that wonderful instrument, though, and before long, I was faking the organ pretty well, if I do say so myself. I knew about the settings I needed for each hymn, how to make it sound fluid, when to stop in the right places, and I even used the foot pedals at times. Like I said, I didn’t really know what I was doing, but I knew what I needed to do to make it sound like I had some idea of how to play the organ.
A while later, I found this video of Richard Elliot, Mormon Tabernacle organist, playing his arrangement of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.”
Because “Swing Low” is one of my favorite songs, I decided I would learn to play it. Unlike you, who might find my goal a little far-fetched, I thought I could do it! As I’m sure you’ve guessed, I failed miserably. I couldn’t even figure out how to snap and work the foot pedals at the same time. It was then the sad reality hit me–I was good at faking the organ, but I didn’t really know how to play.
Because I wanted to get better, I bought a book with relatively easy organ preludes and slowly worked through the pieces one at a time. Eventually, I was able to play them fairly easily. I knew it was because I had finally built up some basic skills I needed to play the organ. When I tried to take a huge leap in my organ-playing, I felt discouraged and wasn’t sure I could ever play anything other than hymns. When I took baby steps and slowly developed basic organ-playing skills, I was able to improve just a little bit. I’ve tried to continue my organ-playing baby steps so I can become a little bit better each day.
The concept of baby steps should be familiar. We engage in these baby steps every day as we learn new things in school, develop relationships with those around us, and as we try and make personal improvements in our own lives.
This is also a huge part of teaching–understanding what students already know and building their knowledge from that point. In the teaching community, we call it scaffolding. It’s essential to provide our students with the support they need as they gain new skills. It can be especially difficult when these skills seem so natural to us so we don’t even think about them. For example, I’m so used to having discussions in my English-major literature courses that I forget my middle schoolers may not know how to participate in a literary discussion. So it’s my job to make sure they learn the skills they need to have a good class discussion and how they can benefit from it. That way, the discussion skills they learn become tools they can carry with them to their next English class and throughout the rest of their lives.
If we don’t scaffold, students may end up like I did after I realized it was impossible for me to play Richard Elliot’s organ solo–discouraged and unwilling to try again. Instead of making huge leaps in their education, we can provide our students with the opportunity to use these baby steps and to constantly pursue something better. Before long, they will have developed the skills they need to continue their education and to become life-long learners.