For most music teachers, organizing instruction into units makes a lot of sense. Typically, we see see students once or twice a week, or every day for a few weeks out of the school year. Teaching a series of lessons all grounded in a single topic helps reinforce important points from week to week, and provides cohesion in a learning sequence that is interrupted by many days.
It is not unusual to start a unit with an overview of what students will be doing. This is consistent with the practice of preparing a syllabus and then going over it at the beginning so students know what to expect, what assignments will be due, and so forth. The weakness with this approach is that what a student is expected to learn and be able to do at the end of the unit is often overshadowed or even buried under an itinerary of assignments and deadlines.
To avoid this pitfall, it is a good idea to start a unit with essential questions. These are the heart and soul of what students will know and be able to do at the end of the unit. One of the most valuable pieces of the new national core arts standards are their grounding in anchor standards, enduring understandings and essential questions. The anchor standard describes what the student will do. The enduring understanding states the knowledge that must be understood to navigate the discipline begin studied. The essential question draws that knowledge out of the enduring understanding by directing the student to a focused line of inquiry.
For example, for the creating process, the first anchor standard is, “Generate and conceptualize artistic ideas and work.” That is what the students will be doing when they create music. Before they can create music, they have to know and understand how people come up with musical ideas and how they are fashioned into a musical work. This is given in the enduring understanding: “The creative ideas, concepts, and feelings that influence musicians’ work emerge from a variety of sources.” From this, we learn that music is created out of ideas, concepts and feelings, and they all come from different areas of a musician’s life. What are these areas, and how does one think of a musical idea? The essential question leads us down this path of questioning and investigation. “How do musicians generate creative ideas?”
At this point, we have all we need to have a discussion with our students beginning with this essential question. The discussion might lead to any number of subsequent activities. For example, we might have students listen to and respond to songs that we know were written for or out of a personal experience in the songwriter’s life, or have them use found sounds to briefly express what they might be feeling that day and then reflect on their musical creation as an expression of those feelings. Beginning with the essential question brings an efficient focus to the unit right from the start, while still allowing for flexibility in both how the lesson is taught, and in the responses students can make as they learn about creating a musical work.
I have illustrated my discussion with one anchor standard at the corresponding enduring understanding and essential question. There are more of these for the creating process, and more still for each of the other artistic processes. For example, within creating there is anchor standard 2, “organize and develop artistic ideas and work” and the essential question, “how do musicians make creative decisions?” and the enduring understanding, “musicians’ creative choices are influenced by their expertise, context, and expressive intent.” There is also anchor standard 3, “refine and complete artistic work, and the essential question, ” How do musicians improve the quality of their creative work?” and the enduring understanding, “musicians evaluate, and refine their work through openness to new ideas, persistence, and the application of appropriate criteria.” By now it should be apparent how deep and rich the teaching and learning can be when they are driven by anchor standards, enduring understandings, and essential questions. Though I began by suggesting these be used to launch a unit, it is just as valuable to continually refer to them and re-plumb their depths. Doing so keeps instruction on track, rigorous, and ultimately more relevant and meaningful for students.