Tuesday, September 19, 2017

First units in Kindergarten: Focus on the right topics

How do you start a new year in kindergarten? My experience and my vision as a music teacher in a public school tell me that you have to start from the very beginning, from the most basic musical concepts, and approach curriculum and lesson planning as if the students might have zero knowledge about music. That means starting with concepts that are both foundational and easy to learn. With that in mind, I think that the first topics in kindergarten should cover Fast/Slow, Loud/Quiet, and then High/Low. Now, these may be interchangeable in order, but I think that all three should be covered before anything else.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Direct Instruction vs. Self-Directed Learning in Music

This essay is about using direct instruction in the music classroom, where the teacher takes full responsibility of presenting new information and also assessment, versus the use of self-directed learning, where the students take responsibility for what occurs.

As musicians, many would agree that the majority of our practice routine is self-directed. Even in rehearsals, where the conductor gives constant direct instruction, much of our performance is a result of self-directed playing because there are simply too many variables for the conductor to control all at the same time. Therefore, it is imperative that young students begin to learn about self-directed learning techniques early in their musical career.

In direct instruction, the teacher shows the students how to put the instruments together and goes along to check and make sure that they are correct. How would students go about the same task using self-directed learning? It is a simple thought process that occurs as a result of an implicit goal: "I want to play that instrument." Most young students do not need to be taught to want to play, it is natural for them to be eager to start playing. But right away, they run into a problem. How are they supposed to play when they don't know how to put the instrument together? The direct-instruction model requires a teacher to provide that information and feedback, but in self-directed learning, the student must search for their own answers. In this age, most of them would turn to the internet and search for 'how do i put a clarinet together' or something similar. That is the essence of self-directed learning: the students learn how to find their own solutions and apply them.

One might take this to the extreme and only use self-directed instruction. For a young student, this could be dangerous for two reasons: one, the student doesn't always find the right information. In this case, it might end up in a damaged instrument. And two, the student doesn't always know if they are right, or in this case, whether or not they've put their instrument together correctly, resulting in further problems when the student begins to play.

That's where I would like to coin the term "self-directed learning assistant," or in other words, a teacher. Students should be encouraged to learn on their own, but also they should be encouraged to seek help from another person when the circumstances demand it. As the classroom music teacher, I need to teach the students how to be self-directed and then be available to assist them if they need help. Most classroom activities are teacher-led by nature, so I need to give extra consideration to finding the best opportunities to make self-directed learning a success.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Things That I Wish I Had Known My First Year - Part 1

This is the beginning of a series of posts for first year teachers about first year teaching. There is no substitute for experience, nor is there any pill you can take or book you can read that will give you experience. Beginning to teach with no experience is one of the most difficult things you will go through in life, especially if you do not have an experienced mentor to rely upon. However, by reading about the first year experience, you will have a better perception of what first year teaching will really be like.

What is the first thing I should do after I accept my new teaching position?

When I had accepted my first job offer, it was in March of 2011. I had about six months to get ready for teaching, so here is what I did: I spent about two weeks formulating ideas about how to teach K-12 Music, and then I spent the rest of the summer playing mind-numbing amounts of video games. Big mistake. I thought that I could spend about two weeks before the school year started getting my classroom together, and that was also a big mistake. As a new teacher, I really didn't understand how much stuff there was to go through: file cabinets, desk drawers, bookshelves full of mostly old music teaching books, bookshelves full of mostly old band music and choir music, containers of stuff that had been used in previous plays and music programs, shelves full of instruments in both good and bad conditions, closets full of really old uniforms... you get the idea. A lot more than I could handle in two weeks. So here's my suggestion: the first thing you should do when you accept a new job is to head there as soon as possible and start going through the stuff. Figure out what materials you need to organize right now (desk drawers, filing cabinets for important documents) and what materials you will most likely be using at the beginning of the school year (instruments, band and choir music, lesson plan or curriculum books, computers, etc.) and figure out where you can put all of these things so that they are readily available when you need them. Decide how you want the room to look and function, and then start working towards putting things where you think they should go. Also, decide which things are okay to just leave there for now - like that shelf full of Silver-Burdett books from the 1960's - and which things need to go in the trash can. BE VERY CAREFUL not to throw away things that shouldn't be thrown away. Most schools have a detailed process for throwing out old equipment or books. But a lot of times, there are cheap instruments that are simply beyond repair, file cabinets full of photocopied music, packets of home-made teaching materials that you probably won't ever use, and a variety of other junk that is just sitting around taking up space. Check with the principal, and then chuck it in the bin or send it away to the magical land of school storage. Depending on how long it's been since someone has done this, it might take a very long time to go through your room or it might be an afternoon project. Assume that it wasn't very high on the priority list of the teacher who left at the end of last year. Figuring out what you have and what you don't have sets you up for the next step: how are you going to manage day-to-day paperwork and what are your classroom rules going to be?

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

What is the goal of music education?


The goal is ultimately to put on a good concert. I mean, you can include things like music theory and composition and identifying world instruments and music appreciation, but all of those things culminate towards one goal: to put on a good performance. In a poorly oversimplified way, that is what any music program is all about: putting on a good concert.

The question then arises, what does it take to put on a good concert? 

One thing that matters is having the right repertoire. That detail mainly comes down to the foresight of the conductor (me), but also is limited by three factors: the ability level of the students, the instrumentation of the group, and the availability of the music.

The second thing that makes a good concert is the quality of the performance. A high-quality performance does not insult the ears. There are very few wrong notes, there is good balance and good tone quality and good intonation. Rhythm aligns with the beat, and the beat is the same from one musician to the next. In a good performance, the performers listen to one another and communicate with one another through their music.

Now, let's consider how this applies to the Dutton/Brady music program.

A very large part of my job is to select the right music each year for each concert. I then design a series of exercises and assignments to be used throughout the rehearsal process. Rhythm and scales are foundational to all music, so they are a part of each day's lesson. If the goal is to put on a good concert, then I need to choose music that meets that goal according to the requirements listed above.

The quality of the performance is very much dependent on the musical ability of the students. They need to know how to work their instrument or voice in order to produce the required sound. They also need to know what the music should sound like: what their part should sound like and how it relates to the entire piece. Furthermore, they should be able to identify any errors in their own performance and practice so that they can play or sing everything correctly.

But what about elementary general music classes?

There are two ways to structure an elementary curriculum. The first way is to treat elementary music as if it were just a prerequisite for band and choir. In other words, the main goal of general music is to prepare students for junior high and high school. The focus should be on learning to read music and perform accurately on voice or instruments. In this approach, elementary music is the means to an end. The second way to structure elementary music is to make it an end within itself, or teaching the music for music's sake. This type of curriculum focuses on providing musical experiences that are appropriate for childhood in such a way that children learn to enjoy music. The goal of this type of program is to pass on our rich musical heritage to the younger generation lest it be forgotten.

To me, it is obvious that the goal of elementary music should be a balance between these two types of programs. Young students should be taught certain songs for music's sake and other certain songs for the sake of learning to read music and perform accurately. They should have some performance experience and gain a basic understanding of music theory and performance, but the daily activities and experiences in the classroom are equally important. Therefore, the goal of music education at the elementary level is both to prepare for junior high ensembles and to learn about the joys of music.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

How Not to Arrange

I had a great idea to make my students in third and fourth grade come up with their own arrangement for Aura Lee to perform at the Spring Concert. On the surface, it sounds like a good idea. It meets the new standards for composing and it gives the students a project to work on as a class. There is probably a good way to go about planning a series of lessons that culminate in a good arrangement that is entirely student-made, but I definitely found the way NOT to present this project:

My students were doing a great job with singing Aura Lee and playing it on their recorder as well. However, a small group of students were not successful at playing on the recorder, including one student with disabilities. I didn't want to single anybody out on the "triangle part" (a part that I would have created to be as simple as possible so that students who couldn't play the recorder could still be successful), and I wanted to challenge the students and meet the new standards by allowing them to come up with their own arrangement. So far, this wasn't a bad idea.

When it came to creating new parts for the song, I should have followed the Orff Method more closely - that is, I should have had the students sing the song together and come up with an ostinato pattern using body percussion only. Then, after the students were able to perform the ostinato and sing successfully, I should have added one instrument in place of the body percussion. This would have been enough to satisfy both the challenge and the standards, or even a second ostinato and instrument could have been added.

Instead of following a logical plan like that, I chose a more chaotic route: I brought out all of the instruments at once, allowed students to choose any instrument that they wanted, and then I played Aura Lee on the piano and asked the students to improvise an accompaniment on their instrument. Now, the result was obviously a chaotic mess. I did accomplish one objective of getting students to improvise. Actually, accomplish is the wrong word. After the first chaotic attempt, the new task was to try and make the chaotic mess into an acceptable accompaniment, which so far has been unsuccessful. I feel bad having to tell certain students, "No, your part doesn't fit, sorry." It's just been a backwards process from the beginning.

How do I fix this mess before the concert in two weeks? I don't think that it would hurt to go back to the beginning and spend part of a period starting from scratch. I mean, have the students sing the song and create a body percussion ostinato, then add some drums and tambourines to it. I also don't think it would hurt to keep the triangle part that the students already worked on. Everything else, however, must go. I also think that the song form needs to be one of the "compositional parameters" that I assign, rather than have the students try to figure it out. I guess we'll try it on Thursday and see how it goes.

Monday, April 3, 2017

How Kodaly Got It Wrong

Zoltan Kodaly was a great music educator who created a whole generation of better musicians and better music teachers through his comprehensive method. There are many things about Kodaly's method that resonate with my own curriculum planning, but there is one major thing and one minor thing that I believe he got wrong:

One of the biggest issues that I have with Kodaly's method is how music teachers have to change old folk song melodies to fit the proper solfege progression, simple things like leaving the fa out of "Hush Little Baby," and many more examples. Second to this is how some songs have completely changed or how so-mi patterns have been added to chants as if they had always been that way. In other words, there are many examples of Kodaly-music that are not authentic music. Granted, I may be misunderstanding how the Kodaly method works, but I feel like even kindergarten students should listen to and sing songs that include all the notes of the scale, not just so-mi-la.

The other minor issue that I have with Kodaly is that he leaves out an important source of music: student- and teacher-composed songs. I completely agree that music to be studied should come from culturally and historically authentic and significant sources, and that high quality Western Classical music should be part of the curriculum, but it seems like Kodaly excludes the idea of creating a song specifically for the students or specifically for teaching a musical concept.

There are many things about the Kodaly system that I like and agree with, especially the concept of experience-before-theory, and I plan on using some of Kodaly's ideas every day in my lessons, but maybe because I'm just stubborn, I plan on finding my own collection of songs to teach through.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Eclectic Approach in Elementary Music: Lesson Plan Format

Lesson planning has long been a controversial topic in my mind. Some of my best lessons, including one with the kindergarteners this week, have been completely improvised, while some of my worst lessons, especially those during my first two years of teaching, were meticulously written out beforehand. Over the last six years, I have experimented with several different types of lesson plans. What works the best for me is to have a lesson plan that is (a) somewhat flexible depending on how the students are doing on a particular day, (b) expandable or contractible depending on how much time we spend on various activities, and (c) the perfect balance between too-detailed and not-detailed-enough. Planning for substitutes is a completely different ball game, so I am going to focus on how I plan for myself and how those plans can be clearly written as to be easily-interpreted by other music teachers.

First, let me give a little bit of backstory about how I have arrived at my current lesson-plan form: when I was in college, one of my least favorite classes was my General Music Methods class. Not because 80% of the time we were asked to behave like little children while one of my peers got up to teach the class, but because of how detailed our lesson plans had to be. The lesson plan format requirements in this class and even in my master's degree courses were unbearable because I realized even then that there was no way that I would be able to dedicate hours and hours of planning for every single 30 minute lesson. I can't stand lesson plan formats that require all of the following: Title of Lesson, Required Materials, Objectives, State/National Standards, Procedures, Assessment, Etc. Furthermore, I can't stand to read lessons that are written in this format, like I'm actually going to do everything that this person has written down. Look, we are all going to modify lessons to fit our own situations, so just save yourself a step and write lessons that are intentionally open, even vague. One other note: I think that it is a great idea to write extremely detailed lesson plans while in college because it makes you think of details that you might otherwise miss. However, it's just not practical to do that in the real world, or the "trenches" as I've heard it called.

Sorry, I got a little off topic there. When I first started teaching, I tried to follow the lesson plan templates that I was given in college, and what I found out real fast was that I didn't actually have enough time to create a new lesson for every single class. Being the workaholic that I am, I spent an average of 14 hours a day working at my first full-time job trying to get my lessons done. (The worst part was that the majority of my lessons turned out to be total failures.) After the first three months, I was totally burnt out and looking for a new line of work. That's when I came across my first curriculum book. Imagine that, someone has already gone through the trouble of planning lessons for me, how wonderful! Following a curriculum book is probably what saved my career, but after a few years of following someone else's ideas, I had a few of my own that I wanted to try. Studies have shown that the majority of music teachers follow the same path that I did, beginning with a published curriculum and gradually shifting to their own. I started modifying lessons and adding other activities and songs into the mix. Eventually, I got to a point where I wanted to try writing my own curriculum for elementary music. (As far as band and choir go, I have always designed my own rehearsals based on the repertoire and the students. I think that's about the only way to do it, aside from including skill development and sight-reading, and maybe a little bit of theory and history.)

My first lesson plans were mostly typed and sometimes handwritten. I followed the following format: Objectives, Materials, Procedures, Assessment. I wrote the Procedure and Assessment portions in full sentences, and it usually took me longer to write the lesson plan than to actually teach it. As I noted before, most of these lessons did not work the way that I had planned, and it was really discouraging to go through so much work every day just to see my plans crumble before me and fail. At first, I wrote all of my lessons for the day on one document and tried to follow it throughout the day. I put all of my lesson plans in a binder so that I would have a record of what I'd already taught. Eventually, I transitioned into writing my lessons without the section format. Materials were obvious enough, and besides, creating the materials was usually the problem, not remembering which materials to use. Assessment was usually built into the Procedures section, and sometimes I would still include the Objectives at the beginning. I also transitioned from writing full sentences into writing sentence fragments, mainly because the only one using the lesson plan was me, and I could still understand the fragments just as easily, meaning less work for the same result. Up until this year, I always tried to fit every class's lesson plan onto one piece of paper for the day, sometimes typed and sometimes hand-written.

Before I go on to describe the current lesson plan format that I use and will use for this project, I need to vent. I understand that it is part of the administrator's job to know what the teachers are doing in the classroom. I know that they have a difficult job and that the easiest way for them to do this is to request lesson plans from the teachers. However, I cannot explain how useless, burdensome, and cumbersome it is to turn in lesson plans each week or ahead of time to the administration (but I will try, because I'm venting). First, the lessons that I actually teach depend on how students respond to my instruction. If they don't learn the whole song on Monday, then it changes my whole lesson plan for what I'm going to do on Wednesday when I see them again. The idea that I have a detailed plan ahead of time is absolute nonsense, and frankly, insulting - here's why: music is not like other subjects. I can use one song to teach a hundred different concepts, or a hundred songs to teach one concept. Every lesson that I teach is intricately designed based on how the students are doing that day, not on some book or curriculum that they have to follow. Hell, I usually don't even have an idea of what the students will be doing two weeks from now, but I guarantee that they are getting a lot better education when I'm tailoring lessons individually rather than following some predetermined set of activities where they go through the same motions every single year. Secondly, the administration gains almost zero useful knowledge from my lesson plans unless I write them out in explicit detail, which as I've already stated, is simply impractical. Not only that, they probably wouldn't understand phrygian from whole tone, or mixed meter from syncopation, or even a whole note from a half note unless they've had musical training. The idea that I'm turning them in ahead of time so that a substitute would be able to use them in case I had to take emergency leave is equally stupid for the same reasons. Finally, there is a legal requirement to turn in my lesson book at the end of the year, at least in the three districts where I have worked, so it's not like they won't get them at some point. Please, just wait until the end of the year to ask me for my lessons. Even if my one-week-ahead-of-time lessons were actually accurate, what benefit is there in receiving a copy of my lesson plans each week? Huh? . . . What's that, there's no benefit? . . . That's what I thought. It's an absolute waste of time, so please let me do my lesson plans in peace and you can see them at the end of the year or whenever you want if you just stop by and ask to see what I've been teaching over the past few days, weeks, or months. You want to know what I'll be teaching next week? Well that's too bad, because I don't know yet, and that's okay because I develop my plans on a day-to-day basis because that's what works the best for me.

Now, here's what works best as far as lesson planning goes:

I type up a lesson for each class during my morning prep period. I begin by looking for materials to teach - namely: song repertoire, listening repertoire, music games and dances, music theory, history, and music notation. While doing this, I look at the previous week's/month's lessons to see what skills and songs we have covered recently, and I also decide on whether we need to spend another lesson learning old material or begin learning new material, or a mixture of  both. I ask myself, "Is it worth staying on last lesson's songs to continue refining them, or have the students learned and improved as much as they are effectively able to thus far?" At some point, I can tell when the students are simply tired of working on Au Claire De La Lune, or they aren't making any more progress, and it's time to move on to the next unit. Therefore, I have decided to design this project so that the teacher can stay on one unit for (reasonably) as long or as short as they want before moving on to the next unit. Back to the lesson plan format, I type up each lesson in a Word document and save it as a number reflecting the date in that class's folder. Each lesson is simply titled "[Name of class] [Date]" with no punctuation so that it saves easily without having to rename the file. 

As for the substance of my plans, sometimes I do include Objectives as the first line. The objectives are always listed in shorthand and are usually more of a tool for organizing my thoughts than serving some other purpose. I always try to include no fewer than two and no more than four objectives in each lesson, but I don't always write them down - sometimes you have to read into the lesson to find them. Usually, I write my lessons based on the procedure or activities that the students will follow. I number each activity starting with one, and I briefly describe what the students will be doing. Sometimes that includes what the formation is or whether they are standing or sitting in chairs, sometimes it includes direct quotations of things that I would say or ask, sometimes it includes whether I am accompanying on an instrument or not, and always it includes what I am doing and how the students are expected to respond. When I am doing something new or just not sure of how long each activity will take, I try to estimate the length of each procedure by putting it in parenthesis at the end, like (5m) for five minutes. I always try to establish some type of relationship and flow from one activity to the next. Informal assessment opportunities are usually built into the lesson plan, though occasionally there is a need for formal assessment and occasionally there is no assessment at all. When finished, I save the plan into a folder and print out a copy to use during the class. At this point, it takes me about 15 minutes on average to completely plan a 30-45 minute class, and the lesson plans are actually useful. 

For the administration, I keep a weekly summary of lesson plans in a three-ring binder. Usually I just write down the titles of the songs, number of the exercise (for recorder and band), one-two-or-three word description of an activity, or basic phrases like "voice warm-up" or "solfege/rhythm patterns". Sometimes, for my own benefit, I will include solfege letters (e. g., SMRD) or rhythm notation. My current administrator does not require national standards to be included with each lesson, but if they did, I would just make it up/fake it as long as it was close and not spend too much time on it. Funny enough, one of my college textbooks in my master's program actually suggested the same thing.

Now, for the Eclectic Approach lesson format:

I plan on grouping songs and activities into units. For example, Mary Ann, Lost My Gold Ring, Sambalalele, and Shake the Papaya Down are all Caribbean-themed songs, so I would probably choose three of the four to teach during a 35 minute lesson, and use that group of songs for three or four lessons in a row. Each unit would have a brief description of the similarities and differences in each song, focusing on the similar musical concepts that could be taught. The description would also include the suggested grade level and approximate sequence for this unit. In other words, some units would work better at the beginning of the third-and-fourth-grade rather than the end of the year. Next, I would include the notation for the first song and a suggested procedure for introducing it, teaching it, and using it to develop knowledge and skills, followed by the same information for the second song, the third song, and so forth. I would also highlight various possibilities for each song, especially if there is a good opportunity for adding instruments, teaching notation, playing musical games, dancing, or performing a particular song. Some songs work well in a variety of units, and other songs may be useful the whole year long. Essentially, I want a reader-friendly format that says, "(1) Here's how this song goes, (2) here's a good way to teach it, and (3) here's a few ways to teach musical concepts and develop skills with this song." The truth of the matter is, any song can be used to teach any concept, and every song should be used to teach good musicianship, that is, playing, singing, responding, or moving accurately and expressively to the music.