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.