Thursday, October 22, 2015

PK-12 Curriculum Overview (Part 2)

Performing Ensembles: Bands.

5th and 6th band:
Young students progress at different rates when learning the basics of their instrument. Some instruments are easier to get the initial tone and fingerings, such as the alto sax, while other instruments are more difficult, such as the flute. Research is exploring the benefits of playing by ear rather than using a book, but I find that a combination of both is the best method. Students should be playing songs that they already know, like Hot Cross Buns, for the first few months. These songs should be taught as part of the lower elementary curriculum. This year, I am experimenting with individualized practice time during the band period. Using this system, students are allowed to work with their peers, they are allowed to progress at their own rate, and I am available to work with the students who need the most help on a given day. Once or twice a month in the beginning, the whole class sits together and we play through the songs in the book in unison. The goal of beginning instrumental music is to develop good tone and technique alongside an understanding of musical notation. The focus is on development, rather than performance.

7th and 8th (JH) band:
Currently, my school has a separate Junior High band during the first semester and a combined 7-12 band during the second semester. This year, I will need to decide on whether to keep the bands separated, or combine them together (a topic for another post). By the end of 6th grade, students should have enough experience to perform beginning band literature that contains three or more independent parts. This music contains plenty of double parts, with the occasional exposed part. At this level, the students should be able to experience music from different genres and eras. "Watered-down" music is acceptable, as long as the original character of the piece is kept intact. Students may still be finding the best instrument for them. Students should be developing rhythmic skills and learning to play scales on the instrument of their choice. Rewriting parts of the music to fix instrumentation problems, or to meet the needs of individuals, is acceptable.

9th - 12th (HS) band:
The goal of higher-level performance groups is to experience the more challenging, ability-appropriate literature from various genres. The students develop skills and understandings about music and their instrument. This could include more difficult rhythms and passages, extended range, and wider dynamic range. They also develop ensemble skills and part independence by being responsible for their own part and learning how to listen to the group and play musically. Most students will not become professional musicians, but special challenges and assignments can be given to students who plan on pursuing music as a career, such as lessons and leadership opportunities. For other students, the goal is to develop individual and teamwork skills and appreciation for music.

Performing Ensembles: Choirs.

5th-6th elementary choir:
An elementary choir is a continuation of basic singing and ensemble skills that are taught in the lower elementary classes. The major difference is that students begin singing from sheet music, and spend more time learning pieces of music that challenge the students. This may include unison, two part, and even three part music. Most students (both boys and girls) are still in the treble range, and especially the boys should be encouraged to continue singing in the higher range. Songs should vary in style and be chosen based on their difficulty, duration, educational opportunities, variety, and cultural or historical importance. The text should be age-appropriate.

7th-8th (JH) choir:
The junior high choir is a place for students to experience age-appropriate, high-quality music that helps develop their changing voices. One of the major considerations is the changing male voice. Many boys are capable of singing the soprano part, but they are embarrassed to sing "like a girl." It is important to create a classroom environment where singing is encouraged and teasing is not allowed. Other boys can begin to sing baritone parts, and three part music can be introduced. It is important to choose music where everyone can experience success, which sometimes involves rewriting parts, doubling octaves, or changing from the original key. Junior high students should also be focused on concert performances.

9th - 12th (HS) choir:
The high school choir is where students can experience a variety of music from different genres and eras. This group focuses on performance and musicality by preparing more challenging literature that may include different languages, longer duration, difficult rhythms and part interdependence. The students also continue to learn about how the voice works and common practices in singing.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

PK-12 Curriculum Overview (Part 1)


At my current teaching position, I am responsible for teaching all of the elementary music classes, as well as all of the junior high and high school band and choir classes. While this can be quite a challenge, it is also a great opportunity to develop musicianship from the earliest levels of instruction.

The goal of any curriculum is to provide a foundation for making educational decisions on "when" to teach "what". A curriculum is a framework, or skeleton, of the educational process - not the entire building itself. In other words, a curriculum needs to be an ordered generalization of subjects, skills, and concepts that leads to "comprehensive musicianship."

This curriculum plan covers all music classes in preschool through high school, including band and choir at the junior high and high school levels, and elementary music. The elementary music is split into three levels: PK and K, 1st and 2nd grade, and 3rd and 4th grade. The secondary music classes are split into two groups: band and choir.

Preschool and Kindergarten:

Young students come from many backgrounds and may or may not have had musical experiences before entering school. The goal of beginning elementary music classes is to acculturate the students to authentic, high-quality musical experiences. Acculturating means to expose the children to music of various styles and to provide opportunities for them to assimilate and understand music through listening, moving, singing, and playing instruments. At this level, there is less focus on formal evaluation of skill and understanding. Instead, the focus is on allowing the child to experience music and to begin developing musical skills such as audiation (hearing and understanding in the mind), rhythm, pitch, and movement, while also providing the child with culturally appropriate musical experiences through singing and listening to folk songs and other types of music.

1st and 2nd Grade:

Intermediate elementary music students should continue to focus on culturally appropriate musical experiences while beginning to develop more complex musical skills. These skills include performing music with multiple parts, singing accurately and with good tone, and performing rhythms accurately. Concepts include basic music theory such as understanding pitch and rhythm through solfege and rhythm syllables, as well as being introduced to musical notation for these concepts. The intermediate music classes should continue to expand on the variety of repertoire that was experienced in beginning music classes through listening, singing, moving, and playing instruments.

3rd and 4th Grade:

Advanced elementary music students are expected to develop important skills and understand important concepts for individual musicianship, as well as continuing to experience a broad variety of music. At this level, students are introduced to the recorder as a way to practice reading notation. Singing skills should also continue to be developed, including the reading of musical notation. More difficult skills and concepts are introduced at this level, focusing on both ensemble skills and individual skills. Ensemble skills may include dancing, performing two-part songs, and following a conductor. Individual skills include reading notation, performing rhythms and pitches accurately on instruments, and singing accurately with a good tone. Advanced elementary students continue to experience a variety of music from different genres such as classical, folk, popular, jazz, and music from other countries.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Who is doing the work?

It takes a lot of energy to teach. This is especially true when the teacher is also doubling as the cheerleader ("Come on class, you can do this if you try!") and the babysitter ("Joey, stop putting your mouthpiece up your nose."). Of course, the behind-the-scenes planning also takes energy, as well as after-the-fact bookkeeping and other paperwork. Therefore, teachers must carefully manage where they are spending their energy in order to make it the the end of their career (or the year, or the day) without getting too many grey hairs or having a heart attack.

Who is supposed to be doing the work, anyway? My policy is that the students should be doing 90% of the work during class, and I should only be doing 10% of the work. After all, I already know the music! My job is to do the work before I come to class, through studying the music and preparing meaningful lessons. The students should be responsible for learning, and I am consistently guilty with trying to "learn" them (do the learning for them, which is not possible!) by playing cheerleader, babysitter, student, and teacher all in one. It can be exhausting, and very frustrating at times - especially when the students show zero appreciation for all of this hard work that I'm doing for them!

The nice thing about being a teacher is that when the "game" isn't going in your favor, you have the power to change the rules. A fair teacher always changes the rules in a way that benefits everyone, not just themselves. One of the ways to "change the rules" is to put this responsibility of learning back on the students, which works more effectively with upper elementary students and beyond. In order to avoid lengthy philosophical conversation (a. k. a. "getting sidetracked"), I simply play the "percentage" game with the students. If I'm perceiving that I'm doing 90% of the work, I let the students know the score: "Right now I'm doing 90% of the work, and you're only doing 10% of the work. Let's try and flip that around." When they work hard for a few minutes and get something accomplished, I give them 5% ("Now it's 85-15."). But if they need to be refocused due to behavior, not following directions, or too much talking, I give myself 5 points and take 5 more from them ("Now it's 95-5.") Espeically with older students, they get it. They know the point isn't to get to 100% before the teacher gets there - the point is to start working harder so that they learn more and give their poor teacher a break. The verbal reward of hearing the score improve is a positive way to frequently remind students to continue working hard.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Philosophy of Public Education

If it is true that academic achievement is the only goal of public education, then there is no room in the curriculum for music. Thankfully, more than just academic skills are needed in school and beyond. Life skills and social skills are equally important and need to be considered as part of the curriculum. Consider a person who knows everything but is unable to communicate with others and cannot appreciate what they know. Social skills are equally important and must be taught in the public school system. Helping others, respecting others, and communicating with others are all important social skills. Life skills must also be taught, such as budgeting and paying taxes, organizing personal records, cooking and eating healthy foods, exercising and staying healthy, and being creative and productive. Every subject should include academic skills, social skills, and life skills to some degree, which will be discussed below.

But first, consider the individual diffences that every person has. Some people are socially adept, while others are socially awkward. Some are considered geniuses, and some are not. Some people are creative geniuses. Would a person be rightly denied employment if they were socially adept, even if they were not as successful academically? Imagine a company where every employee was an academic genius, but no one had any life skills or social skills. Now, apply this concept to the realm of public education.

Music is a course where students learn life skills by creating music. They also learn to be expressive and work with others - social skills. Academically, they can learn about Bach, the Baroque period, the acoustics of sound, or the definition of andante. However, academics are not the focus of music class, although some administrators around the country are trying to force the issue. Naturally, life skills and social skills are the focus of music classes, and academics come second in importance.

Wait a minute, aren't all three skills to be taught equally to provide the best education? Shouldn't academics be equally important in music to make this a reality? While music stresses life skills and social skills, other courses, such as mathematics, focus more on academic skills and less on life skills and social skills. Students who take both math and music classes get a fairly balanced education as far as these skills are concerned. Just as music shouldn't be asked to focus on academics, mathematics should not be asked to focus on social skills and life skills. Math class should include social skills, perhaps by working in groups or giving presentations, and life skills, such as learning time management and how to calculate a 15% tip, but not to the same degree as academics, which is the foundation of mathematics.

Science tends to be more focused on academics and life skills, and less on social skills. Art focuses on life skills and less on academics and social skills. English is a wonderful subject because it can focus on any of these three. Grammar and literature represent academics, essays and debate constitute communication, and poetry and prose focus on creativity. Shop and Home Ec classes focus on life skills more than academics and communication. Each subject has its focus, and it all comes out to be fairly balanced in the end.

The general concept of my philosophy of education is that a balanced education is better than an unbalanced education. Figure 1 demonstrates my point more clearly. Assuming that all other factors are equal, students who receive only incidental life skills and social skills come away with only 1.5 % capability as a student who receives some formal instruction in life skills and social skills, who receives 87% of the education of a student who learns all three skills equally. The best education is a balanced education, and a naturally balanced education includes a variety of subects that inherently address these skills with different priorities. Therefore, music and art have as much place in the curriculum as mathematics, english, history, and science.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Assigning Grades in Performance Classes

As a student in elementary, junior high, and high school, grades never meant much to me. It didn't matter when my sophomore math teacher informed me that she 'would have bumped my grade to an A-' if I had shown a little more effort in class - the B+ meant just the same to me. I cared about D's and F's, because they meant something to me: I would probably fail the class if I didn't redirect myself, and then I'd have to take it over again. Have my opinions about grades changed, now that I'm a teacher...?

First, let me clarify that grading and assessment are not equivilant terms in the professional jargon. Grading is the assigning of a value to a student's performance (or lack thereof) in class which is generally finalized and published at the end of each quarter. One copy goes home to the parents, and the other copy is attached to the student's permanent record. Due to the grave consequences of receiving poor grades, as a teacher I have often given the students the benefit of the doubt and assigned one of three grades: A, A+, or A-. On some occaisions I have given B's and even a C, only because I couldn't justify giving Student X the same A- as Student Y. Student X was obviously not performing as well in class, so they deserved a lower grade, right? (This is known as Norm-Referenced assessment, in the professional jargon.)

While grading takes lower priority in my book, assessment is supremely important. Assessment is the day to day feedback that a student gets on how they are doing. "You're playing too loud." "That should be an E natural, trombones." "Nice job playing the rhythms that time." "Listen to Sarah sing the harmony, she's got it figured out." All of these are important in education because it helps the teacher make decisions on what to do next in the lesson and it lets the students know if they were correct or incorrect. There are so many parts to assessment and grading that I don't plan to cover it all in one post.

If I have been a bad grader in the past, this year I plan to get better at it. Apparently, music teachers are notorious for giving grades based on participation, attendance, and attitude rather than musical ability. In fact, some colleges don't even look at grades that students received in music classes, because they don't really mean anything. If I am being honest, I assign grades by reflecting back on the quarter for each student and thinking, "Did they improve? Did they participate? Did they follow the rules?" Most of their grade is based on how much effort they put into the class, then adjusted slightly for their musical ability. Next year, I plan on employing a different policy.

I don't believe it is fair to grade with Criterion-Referenced assessment (the opposite of Norm-Referenced) because not all of the students have the same aptitude. Each student should be graded according to his or her own personal progress in music. For example, I could grade every student on their ability to play or sing the chromatic scale, but what about the student who just started singing or playing an instrument? And what about the student who has known the chromatic scale since they were 5 years old? I think the solution is to have a check-list of sorts, one that students can follow from the beginning of their instruction (how to hold the instrument, how to play concert B flat) to advanced instruction (play full chromatic scale in sixteenth notes at 120 bpm, play all 12 major and minor scales). The students would receive a grade for making progress in their own personal way, as well as receiving a grade for how they participated and followed rules in the ensemble. That way, everyone is held to the same standard: improvement.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Organizing File Cabinets

Summer is a great time to organize the classroom because the students aren't there and there are no urgent demands like writing lesson plans or turning in grades. Why organize? There are a few reasons: (a) taking stock of what is in the classroom, (b) deciding what to keep and what to put in storage, and (c) being efficient and knowing where everything is. Organizing takes careful planning, and I've been thinking about where things should go for the last few months. Teaching classes has just kept me too busy, so finally it is time to get organized!

After going through all of the wind instruments, my father-in-law and I went through the percussion cabinet and the elementary percussion shelves. The main goal was to organize the percussion cabinet, and we started by taking everything out. Next, we decided what to keep in the cabinet based on how often the students used whatever "it" was. Of course, drum sticks, practice pads, and auxilliary percussion stayed in the top shelves, but since the drum hardware was essentially just taking up space, I put it in a different container and stored it in the music office. There was a lot of junk - pieces of hardware that were bent and broken, and pieces that didn't really go to anything in particular. We were able to make a lot of space by getting rid of some of these things, and we used that space to store the elementary percussion. Now instead of a drum cabinet and a bookshelf full of percussion instruments, everything fits inside the mobile cabinet. Very handy.

With the percussion project finished, I decided to start on a big organization project that has been on my to-do list since I first arrived at the school. I wanted to figure out what exactly was in all of the file cabinets around the music room. It was very difficult for me to get a sense of it all, so we literally pulled every shelf out and lined them up on the floor in the middle of the room. Then I walked around it all several times, poking through each drawer and figuring out what all there was. During the combining process of our two schools, Dutton and Brady, all of the filing cabinets were moved to Dutton, but their contents were never combined. I had two different cabinets full of SATB music from two different schools, for example. After judging what different types of materials I had (magazines, solo/ensemble, instrument supplies, choral music) and how much of it, I sketched out an idea for where everything will go. That was enough work for one day, so the next step, actually organizing it all, begins tomorrow.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

School Owned Instruments

Today was the last day of work for the school year, until next year begins in August. After turning in my final grades and getting the secretary and principal to sign off on everything, I began working on my first summer project: going through the school-owned instruments. When I first came to Dutton, I was amazed at how many school owned instruments there were. There are more clarinets than there are junior high students! I was also saddened to find that many of the instruments were in disrepair. When you teach in a small school and a rural district, you get pretty good at fixing instruments with tape and rubber bands! There are many small repairs that can be done in a moment's notice to get an instrument to work at the beginning of class, during class, and right before a concert begins. It helps a lot to have a toolbox with small flathead screwdrivers, a pair of pliers, a pair of tweezers, and a basic knowledge of how to troubleshoot problems when a student says, "My ______ won't play!"

Today, my father in law (a retired band director) came to work with me, and we spent the better part of six hours going through the 70+ school-owned instruments and checking to see if they worked. Each instrument was assembled, chromatic scales were played to check all keys, and several quick fixes were made, while other instruments got a tag to show that they were not in working condition (and hopefully they will go to the shop this summer). I learned from my father-in-law that there are many more repairs that you can do after you learn how to replace corks and pads, which really aren't very difficult and don't take a lot of time.

When you hear students squawking and... making farting noises with their instruments (for lack of a better description) on a regular basis, consider that there may be something wrong with their instrument, not just the way they are playing it. I have had three students in two years who put up with instruments where not every note worked, and nobody realized it was the instruments' fault, not the students. Therefore, I have learned to listen and watch for signs that an instrument may be malfunctioning so that the students actually have a chance to learn the instrument. I mean, learning the saxophone is hard, and especially hard when one of the main springs has come unhooked. This is a year-long vigil, because instruments can start to fall apart at any time during the year.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Starting To Write About Teaching

The main reason why I want to write about teaching music in Montana is to improve as a teacher. By putting my thoughts down on paper (hyperspace?), I'll be forced to clearly think about what I do each day at my job, and why I do it that way. Aside from wanting to keep a journal about teaching, I'm doing this because Dr. Robert Duke suggests it in his book "Intelligent Music Teaching".

I started teaching in April of 2011 in Circle, Montana, as a long-term substitute band and JH General Music teacher. My experience there was absolutely wonderful because the students and community were glad to have me, and the students thought I knew a whole lot about music (more than their last teacher, anyway). I only worked there for two months - I had already accepted a job in Hinsdale, MT, to start in the August of 2011. Hinsdale was a much different experience for two reasons: (1) the classroom management issues and student behavior/attitude, and (2) the wide range of responsibilities that come with being a K-12 teacher.

If Circle was an experience to ascertain my interest in being a music teacher and build my confidence, then Hinsdale was a chance to feel humbled and get an idea of how much I really needed to know in order to teach K-12 Music. I learned a lot about trying to maintain order in the classroom, and I got a thick skin. Both of these are very important to good teachers. Classroom management is the ability to design rules and procedures, and then think on your feet when problems arise. Being able to remain emotionally detatched in the high seas of high school and junior high drama is also very important.

More importantly, I learned that you have to know a lot to teach Band, Choir, and General Music to students from Kindergarten to seniors in high school. There is a certain large amount of content that is covered in those 13-14 years (preschool adds an extra year). This includes a general idea of music education pedagogy as well as a wide variety of songs to include in your bag of tricks. I spent the first few months trying to figure out what to teach all on my own, and it wasn't until the end of my first year that I discovered the Golden Triangle Curriculum Cooperative - a group that publishes the exact information that I was trying to figure out on my own. Knowing the curriculum would have been a great place to start, rather than finish, my first year! While I tried my best to buckle down and stick with it, I was not rehired for a third year at Hinsdale, and instead I moved to my current position in Dutton, Montana.

As a beginning teacher, it is a lot easier to work at a school where the last music teacher wasn't very good at teaching music. In Circle and Dutton, I was given the benefit of the doubt whenever I made mistakes because the community was just glad to have me there and didn't have great expectations because of the previous teacher. In Hinsdale, the lady who I replaced had a very good handle on being a music teacher - the program was very strong and I was not given any grace for making mistakes that the old teacher surely would not have made. This is just a thought for music teachers who haven't yet found their first job.