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. 

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