Small groups are all the rage these days in education. They are an effective way of differentiating instruction, and enable teachers to give students meaningful choices affecting their learning. A group leader who may be the teacher or a student can teach students in small groups, or students can teach students and collaborate in the group configuration. The main obstacle to small group instruction for music is that music study usually (or should) involves making sound, and a room full of differentiated groups all making their own sounds can quickly become counterproductive. On the other hand, because it is a proven teaching strategy, a way to make it work in the music classroom is needed.
Activities that limit one singer singing at a time, just as one person talks at a time during a discussion, is one approach. Students can prepare for performances by singing their voice part or solo alone for an audience of the other group members. That audience can assess the performance, using assessment rubrics designed for the activity. These could be rubrics used for concert assessment, seating assessments, or formative and summative classroom assessments. The model cornerstone assessment for 2nd grade solo singing is a good example of the kind of assessment tool that would work well in small group instruction. Using it in this setting would also familiarize students with it, and prepare them for the actual solo assessment. Because the noise level in a room where group instruction is occurring would never be silent, recording performances for assessment done in small group instruction would not be possible. The same approach could be used for instrumental performances on quieter instruments such as recorder or Orff xylophones, so that the sound level remains quiet enough for all groups to be able to work effectively.
Another method that can work well in small groups is using keyboard apps on the students’ smart phones. I have written about my use of these devices in other posts, but I have since found them to be useful not only in teaching students unison pieces, but also in providing them with opportunities to play parts in an ensemble. Just today, a class of 8th grade students learned the instrument parts for 2Pak’s “Keep Ya Head Up.” The song uses a bass doubling kick drum, snare drum and high hat. Using keyboard apps (Real Piano on iPhone) and a percussion app (Real Drum on iPhone), students learned one or more of the parts. They had their choice of learning to play the parts by ear after listening to the song many times, or using a part written in standard music notation. Students could work independently or in groups. By structuring the class this way, I gave students meaningful choices on how they would learn, and what they would do. I did have to redirect their conversations back to helping each other learn the song, but they did learn the parts and enjoyed a level of music making that was gratifying to them and demonstrated learning to me. The same set up could also be used for creating music through improvisation. Three students create a rhythm section groove using a drum app, a keyboard app, and a keyboard app set on guitar and played in the bass range, for drums, keys and bass. A fourth student uses the keyboard app set to an instrument sound of his or her choice and improvises. The improviser can rotate around the group until all have improvised.
A second type of small group activity begins with a whole class listening experience. I play a musical work for the class, and provide them with questions about the work, and the opportunity to add question of their own. The students then go into small groups and discuss answers to my questions and their questions. I will have the selection on my phone so that if one group wants to hear it again, I can play it for them without interrupting the other groups. I encourage students to add at least one question of their own so that each group has a unique insight, and so that students practice not only finding answers, but finding questions. It is important to learning that students wonder about things, turn their curiosity into searchable questions, and then go about finding the answers. Often, one question will lead to another, and students learn things I would never have thought to teach about the work by just following their own curiosity. This too is a way of giving students meaningful choices, and these choices lead to more effective learning.