In Toronto, a Student-Driven Social Curriculum Inspires New Learning

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In Toronto, a Student-Driven Social Curriculum Inspires New Learning

Alex McLeod, Academic Manager and Parkdale Centre Director, Sistema Toronto


When Toronto’s schools closed in March 2020, we knew we were in for a challenging spring of adapting to the technological and musical challenges of remote learning. We also knew that students would be struggling with feelings of isolation, anxiety, and boredom, and it would be vitally important for us to offer help with these emotional and social challenges. Luckily, we were somewhat prepared for the transition, thanks to our Social Curriculum activities. These activities had the potential to be a key support for our students and staff—as long as we could figure out an effective, accessible way to adapt them to the online format.

For about five years, Sistema Toronto has been working to incorporate social and emotional learning (SEL) activities into our curriculum, adopting a skills-based framework for understanding our students’ abilities and behavior. Rather than concentrating on rules and asking students to engage on our adult terms, we work to understand their perspective and help them develop the tools they need to flourish. “Social Curriculum” refers to all the ways this has affected our programming, including shifting to inquiry-based learning, developing new evaluation and assessment tools, and adopting more inclusive behavior and discipline policies. But the most concrete manifestation of this change is our growing collection of Social Curriculum activities: structured activities designed to help our students learn about important social issues and develop skills like leadership, teamwork, and listening.

Sistema Toronto groups our Social Curriculum activities under ten monthly themes, chosen for their suitability to both social and musical learning. We order these themes so they line up well with our program calendar—for example, “Communication” and “Community” fall on the months of our winter and spring concerts, and “Respect” lines up with Black History Month. Those themes are:

Month Theme Sub-themes
September Identity Values
October Listening Focus
Audience Etiquette
Whole Body Listening
November Responsibility Perseverance
December Communication Non-verbal Communication
Conflict Resolution
January Organization Time Management
Rules and Routines
February Respect Self-advocacy
March Leadership Kindness
April Problem Solving Constructive Criticism
Analytical Thinking
Conflict Resolution
May Teamwork Inclusivity
June Community Representation

For each theme, we developed a number of activities, each including instructions, a description of the desired learning goals, suggested levels and group sizes, sample questions designed to guide class discussion, and any other necessary support materials or documents. Some are designed with music learning in mind; others focus more explicitly on social and emotional learning. Each year we edit and refine some activities, and then create new ones, based on what we learned over the year.

At first, adapting these activities to an online format seemed daunting. Many of our in-person activities involve movement, small-group work, or physical objects like LEGO bricks and index cards. But we quickly discovered that our teachers were hungry for new activities for their classes, and our students were desperate for social interaction.

One of our first successes was inviting students to doodle on the Zoom whiteboard during attendance and check in. Some days there were trees, flowers, and sunshine, other days there were dramatic scribbles and zig-zags. We knew we were onto something when these casual drawings started conversations, and previously silent students started to open up. Now all our activities come with accompanying slides and integrate appealing graphic elements.

Some of our activities exploit this visual appeal to maintain student interest over the course of longer, more in-depth activities, which allow us to deliver more information and drive more nuanced discussion. “Canadian Music Heroes,” one of our “Respect” activities, pays tribute to four Black Canadian musicians who shaped music history in Canada: Nathaniel Dett, Salome Bey, Maestro Fresh Wes, and Drake (Aubrey Graham). Giving the activity a unifying visual identity created a sense of continuity and equivalence among these four disparate figures, whom our students might not otherwise view as related to one another.

A completed Emoji Motto, submitted by Sistema Toronto Junior Violin Student. Credit Sistema Toronto, 2020.

Other activities go further, integrating visual tools into the students’ work. One of our new “Identity” month activities, “Emoji Motto,” invites students to create their own personal motto using only three emoji. This addition was not only a good hook, driving engagement and participation, but also an enabling constraint; limiting the students to three forced them to think carefully about what was most important to them.

We also began to include more listening activities. Without the ability to give our students an authentic ensemble music experience, we pivoted to recordings and music videos. Each month has included a version of “Song Share,” wherein students present their favorite songs and music videos to the class and then discuss different theme questions about the music. During “Identity” month, students shared pieces that are personally significant to them. For “Communication” month, the class watched each video twice, once with sound and once without, to explore how visual and performance elements affected their experience. For “Listening” month, students focused on a different musical element for each song—rhythm, melody, harmony, and lyrics—to understand how each element contributes to the total effect.

Square 19 from The Expression Express virtual board game activity. Credit Sistema Toronto, 2020.

It can be challenging to design interactive activities for multiple instruments and levels. One of our most successful examples is “The Expression Express,” a virtual board game designed to explore musical expression. Each square on the board links to a different challenge, inviting students to demonstrate expressive gestures like an accelerando or a decrescendo, stylistic ideas like “music for dancing,” or abstract ideas like “making it sound like you made a mistake.”

So what makes a good Social Curriculum activity? The best ones reel students in hook, line, and sinker. They have a fun and interactive format (hook), relevant and interesting content (line), and prompt the class to engage in deep and meaningful discussion (sinker). Making our students feel like their thoughts, opinions, and actions are the center of attention proved absolutely vital to maintaining their interest in these and other online teaching activities. Fundamentally, each activity is a different way to ask questions we want our students to answer and pose problems we want them to solve, giving them a learning experience that they understand is driven by their own ideas. As we look ahead towards a return to the classroom, we know these activities will be a key part of that transition, too, and central to our evolution as a program.

Alex McLeod writes a monthly blog on Sistema Toronto’s Social Curriculum. To read more of his thoughts, check it out here.


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