Pacing and Energy are Not The Same

Version 2Engaging students in classroom activities and keeping their interest throughout the lesson are both necessities and difficult. While many elements contribute to motivating students to stay on task and be productive in class, two important ones are pacing and energy. Pacing is the rate or speed at which you teach. Pacing that is too fast can leave students confused, lacking time to process, reflect, question and problem solve. it can also result in behavior problems as students who are left behind find other things to do and as the teacher ignores behavior issues in order to maintain the fast pace. This happens when the teacher “pushes through” the lesson in order to cover a set amount of material. On the other end of the spectrum, pacing that is too slow leads to boredom. Students given too much time to process and problem solve become disengaged as they wait for something else to do.

Besides the actual speed at which the teacher is giving instruction, other behaviors influence the perception of pace. For example, when a teacher remains in a fixed location for an extended period of time, student attention ebbs because the students are not given the opportunity to vary their focus and aspects of visual perception. Our minds like change and tend to tune out things that stay the same. The use of the voice while speaking to a class also influences the perception of pace. A voice delivery that lacks modulation and variety will have the same effect as staying in one physical location too long. Again, a shortage of variety makes holding students’ attention challenging. When a teacher varies the pitch, pace, and volume of his or her speaking voice, the students have an easier time maintaining attention on what is being said.

In the same way, using eye contact that continually scans the entire class is important. If too much time goes by without the teacher visually acknowledging a student, that student will begin to feel disenfranchised, and come to believe that paying attention to what the teacher is doing is not necessary because the teacher is not paying attention to them. Making eye contact and adding a smile (or other facial expression of approval or if appropriate disapproval) further engages the students, showing him or her that you are not only paying attention to them, but that you have a personalized message to give them–a message which might be given with a smile to say you’re glad that child is in your class, or you are pleased with them, or might be a subtle redirection for a student who has started to wander with their mind. Following a redirection with a smile when the redirection is successful is very effective and encouraging.

When these techniques are combined, students are less apt to perceive time as moving slowly, or feel as though they need to find something better to do than listen to you or do the learning task you have given them. Through it all, it is important to maintain a calm demeanor that communicates not only that you like your students and that you are comfortably and agreeably in control. The class moves smoothly when everyone is composed; however, it is possible in an effort to maintain calm to become to laid back. When this happens your voice becomes almost always very quiet (which does not provide enough variety), and your movement becomes too restricted (making you more boring to look at). At that point, what should have been gained by calmness has been lost in favor of an uninspiring, droll presentation that will motivate students to search for something more interesting. When this happens, your teaching is suffering from a lack of energy. It does not matter how fast you teach, or how well you do all the other things I have discussed above.

If you lack energy, then you will appear to be disinterested and bored, and if that is your students perception, then they will reasonable conclude, “if he isn’t interested in whatBut-whenever-you-can he’s doing, why should I be interested?” Good question. I’d say most of us are in this profession because we love music and love sharing that love with our students. We share some amazing performances, rehearsals, trips, and so forth with them, and we all, students and teacher alike, are excited about what we are doing together when we are at our best. Surely nobody will be on the top of their game every single day, and some days we or they are just too tired or perhaps even ill, to exude much energy. When that happens, plan lightly, and admit to your students up front that you are not at your best today. They will get it. They have days like that too. It makes you more approachable, and gains their respect just for your transparent honesty. But whenever you can, you’ll do better to keep the energy and pace at the most effective level for your students.

Another key element about maintaining proper energy and pace is that students enjoy your class when it is fast enough and interesting enough to hold their interest and keep them challenged just the right amount. This helps classroom management in two ways. First, as I’ve mentioned, it keeps students on-task doing what you want them to do and learning what you want them to learn. Second, because they enjoy that kind of class, they will become protective of it, and object to peers who slow it down. When I get my pace and energy right, the students begin keeping their peers in line, quieting the talkers and so forth. Hearing it from their peers allows me to make any pause in teaching much more brief, and reduces the number of times I have to stop because there is that undercurrent of it not being alright with them to slow things down. Of course, when the task and learning objectives are of interest to the students, this works all the better. Then, the students not only want to keep moving, they want to keep doing what they’re doing at that level of pace and energy. Naturally, there are times when you will need to stop for more serious infractions, but even then, you are correcting the offender based on the premise that he or she is interfering with others’ learning. Students’ sense of fairness will quickly see the undesirability of being seen as doing something so unfair.

The right pace can be maintained with not enough energy, the right energy can be maintained with not enough pace (lots of motion, not enough substance, for example), or they can be both right or both wrong. As you adjust them for your classes, you will find the right levels of both for each class. They will vary from class to class, so you need to become skilled at varying both according to the group you are teaching. Doing so will improve instruction and enjoyment in your classroom.

Creative Flexibility Can Save The Day

Version 2As we enter another holiday season, I’m sure many of you who teach have already noticed the children getting a bit excited. Often, managing classroom behavior becomes more difficult as holiday anticipation and excitement builds. For this reason, it is good at this time of year to consider strategies that will help us stay on track without creating more tension between students and teacher than is necessary. When I anticipate children arriving in my classroom less prepared to settle in and learn than usual, I shift the way I plan my lessons. My plans become less specific in terms of classroom activities. The objectives are stated clearly up front, and then I brainstorm two or three activities I might use to meet the objective. I give more thought to using fun activities, and activities that involve getting up and moving around. Circle games and dances, movement for interpretation and form, and drumming are three such activities that almost always work well. I also like to have a written work version of my plan, so that if the class comes in too restless, or if the class would be over stimulated or even loose control were I to bring them into a game or dance, I will give them a set of questions or a writing prompt to get at the concept or skill I planned to teach.

For example, today for a 2nd grade class, I wanted the children to move and sound like one of four animals I would imitate on the piano. This would allow them to move around the room before settling in, and would warm up their singing voices. I soon realized that having them do that version of the activity was not going to be successful today, so I opted for the written version. I still played the same bits of music on the piano, but instead of moving and making sounds, they wrote down which animal I was representing, and then explain their answer by describing the musical sounds they heard that they associated with that animal. The concept of musical association with animals was successfully taught, and by the time they finished writing they were settled enough to warm their singing voices up from their seats, and then proceed to the singing activities for the day.

Some days, the opposite situation presents itself. The students come in and are just too restless to sit and begin an activity from their seats. In those cases, it is best to select an activity that will get them up and moving around the room. I find that dividing the class into small groups and locating each group in a different area of the room works for me. They can get out of their seats, move to a more private location but still in my view, and begin collaborative work without direct instruction from me. In this case, they are given a task or a problem to solve which they are already prepared to complete without my help. It is a little like an extended “do now.” For example, I might just have everyone in a group teach the rest of the group one thing about something we learned last class. With my 7th grade, I have been doing a unit on the history of early rock and roll. If I wereNot-only-do-students using this strategy with one of those classes, I might have everyone in a group teach the rest of their group one thing about Chuck Berry. They could teach part of a Chuck Berry song,  or share thoughts, opinions, or observations about Chuck Berry. I monitor the groups as they work to see what’s being done and talked about. Not only do students teach each other effectively, it serves as an informal formative assessment as I observe what students have learned about something I have recently taught. The students then have the option of sharing with the whole class something they did in their group.

There are other times when direct instruction serves to focus a class, and to gather them in from the conversations and inattentiveness that can take hold at the beginning of the class if the students don’t have something meaningful to do right away. Today, my 7th graders were chatty when they came in. My objective was for students to learn the guitar strumming patterns from two songs I would play for them, and then to perform those two songs on guitar while singing the choruses. I was going to start by playing some music and have them listen for and pick up the strumming patterns and practice the rhythm of them on their laps while they continued to listen. But the talking was going to be difficult to stop, and without doing so, they would be unable to listen closely enough to complete the strumming pattern task. So instead I “called an audible” and taught the whole class how to play power chords on the electric guitar using the strumming pattern from one of the songs. The sound of me playing the electric guitar got their attention, and then when I played “Whole Lotta Loving” by Led Zeppelin and played E and D power chords along with the recording, the students were soon interested to learn how they could do that too. They picked up the strumming from me instead of the recording, but the objective was met. I hadn’t planned on playing guitar so early in the lesson, but my playing the guitar got their attention in a way that just playing the recording would not have.

The key to this is knowing what you want your students to know or be able to do as a result of your teaching, and then to be creative and open to finding multiple ways for your students to achieve their goals. While I don’t advocate “winging it,” experienced teachers can call an activity or strategy to mind that will lead to the same destination as the planned ones. Such creative teaching makes for more successful days when the students are more challenging, and provides freshness and even fun to teaching, as the creative mind is set loose to find a better way to reach students that day.

Games in the Elementary Music Classroom

Version 2My students love to play games. No matter what else I may have for them to do on a given day, as soon as I mention that we will be playing a game that day, they all smile and get excited. Music games are fun, yes, but there is also a learning goal to be met that must not be overlooked amid all the fun, or left not communicated to the students.  For example, in Pre-kindergarten or kindergarten, you might use the song “Charlie Over the Ocean.” The song is an echo song, and the game is played as a version of duck, duck, goose. One child walks around the outside of the circle while the song is sung, then taps the nearest child in the circle at the end of the song. The child who tapped chases the child who was tapped. If tagged, the he becomes the new chaser, if not, the chaser must chase again. With all the running and chasing, it is easy to let that excitement become the focus of the game. But there are opportunities for more learning.

Because the song is an echo song, the chaser is a solo singer as he or she walks around the circle. It is important for children to sing alone, not always in a group, to develop independent audiation and singing skills. This can also be an excellent opportunity for the teacher to assess singing while the children are at the same time doing something they enjoy and that doesn’t “feel” like an assessment. Thirdly, the chaser should also be walking around the circle to the beat of the song he or she is singing, so the child is performing a beat motion. Fourthly, traveling around the circle when being chased and returning to the same location in the circle requires that the student move his or her body in space to a determined location. This is a variety of movement exploration, training students to understand and interpret music through movement of the body. Feierabend has presented many similar activities that teach children to explore space with their bodies. If one wanted to calm the game down, it could be played so that the child tapped needed to reach a location in the circle in a given number of steps. If more or fewer steps were taken, the child would be “caught.” If the exact number of steps were taken to reach the destination, the child avoided being “caught.”

When the class is about to play a game such as “Charlie Over The Ocean,” the teacher who states upfront that the goals to be achieved while playing is accurate solo singing, exploring movement, and accurate keeping of the beat by walking, is focusing students on desired learning, even as they are having fun playing a game. Students are also more likely to manage their behavior and successfully learn concepts when they are goal directed. Students should know what they are learning at all times during a classroom activity.

“Charlie Over The Ocean” is a kind of game that doesn’t have winners and losers. Other games do. In these situations, the learning objective must be kept in mind, more so than winning the game. A good example of this is Feierabend’s “forbidden rhythm.” This game is very useful for teaching music literacy, both at the aural and reading stages. I use three different rhythms. The three rhythm patterns have been taught so that they are familiar to the children. The game is played as a variation of a familiar activity, that of echoing rhythm patterns. I chant a rhythm, and the class chants it back to me. The twist is one of the three rhythms is “forbidden.” If I chant the forbidden rhythm, the class must remain silent. If the class stays silent, they get a point. If anyone chants the rhythm out loud, I get a point, so the two teams are the class and me. The first team to get 3 points wins. In order to avoid one student being blamed for awarding me a point, I give the class the point if only one student chants the forbidden rhythm, but if two or more chant it, I get the point.

This can be done orally, or the rhythms can be written on the board, and the students play the game by reading the rhythms I’m chanting, avoiding the one that is marked “forbidden.” The students are focused on winning, but in order to do so they must remain proficient at audiating rhythm patterns and deciding which ones to chant out loud and which ones to just audiate but not chant. They also must practice reading music if the patterns have been written on the board. That is the learning objective they are working on while they are having fun trying to win the game. The game can also be played by having a student lead, chanting the rhythm patterns for the class to echo or keep silent on. In that case, the student leading becomes one team, and the class is still the other. This arrangement gives students a chance to practice leadership skills and solo chanting, furthering the learning possibilities from playing the game.

Games are a useful tool in teaching music (and other disciplines). They are motivating and provide a context that make learning meaningful.” Games help engage students in activities that have an educational purpose and which in another presentational mode would be less interesting and engaging. Games, because they are played by all students at once, also encourage socialization and teach the community aspects of music making. Whether students are moving in a circle, clapping, passing an object to the beat, or singing or chanting patterns, they are doing those things as a community and for a purpose beyond a teacher’s expectation. Every action that produces musical sound is done for, perhaps among other reasons, the purpose of making music. Combining music making with the fun of playing the game is developing enjoyment of music itself.




Time Is Precious, How We Use It Even More So

Version 2One of the challenges of being an Arts Educator is the relatively limited time we have with our students. Whereas Math or L.A. teachers see their students every day, music teachers often see a class once or twice a week. Teaching a year’s curriculum within these curtailed contact hours can be daunting. A common response to this “time crunch” is to “hit the ground running,” teach fast, and push through to cover as much content as possible. While this may seem like a good idea, it frequently works out less satisfactorily than one would have hoped. The overbearing presence of the teacher, and limited opportunities for practice and application result in teacher and students alike carrying more anxiety than successful teaching and learning from one class meeting to the next.

Add to this the many personal issues students bring into the classroom that delays them from being ready to learn, and music teachers can easily become even more stressed as they try to settle a class and get straight to teaching amid a classroom of students who are troubled, agitated, or any number of other things, and feel the need to talk about it before even attempting to apply themselves to your lesson. It is in these first few minutes of class where the tone for the whole class will be set. Badgering a class to calm down and stop talking rarely works if there are hot topics in progress. While it may delay getting to the planned lesson, a better use of those early class minutes is to provide students with the opportunity to decompress, focus on ethical, cooperative behavior, and practice demonstrating respect to you and their classmates.

I have come to enjoy starting some of my classes with a restorative justice circle. As the name implies, the idea is to get a class together and restore whatever is troubling or problematic in the students relationships at that moment. When I greet a class at the door, I tell them to please be seated on the floor in the front of the room before going tho their assigned seats. Once seated, I will present them with a question that can be answered in a word or two, and that will start them listening to and respecting each other.

The school in which I work is a Comer school, and our focus pathway this week is the ethical pathway. With this in mind, I asked them, “what is one thing you have done today for the good of someone else, or if you haven’t done anything good for someone else, what is one thing you would like to do for someone else before the end of school today?” We then go around and each child gives an answer. We have a “talking piece,” an object that is passed to whoever is answering, and only that person may speak. All others just listen, without responding or judging what others say. With smaller groups, or subgroups of a class, responses can be to draw a picture or construct a craft that is glued to poster board. Students then use their talk time to explain the artifact they have created. Just the act of listing to each child speak does wonders in getting a class ready to learn. Focusing on others helps them forget about what was disturbing or upsetting them when they came into the classroom.

Having done the circle, I will remind students of the respect they practiced during that time if they begin to do otherwise later in the class. All of this only takes 7-8 minutes, and it paves the way for much more effective teaching and learning in the remaining time of the class. In this case, showing respect was a theme, a thread, that ran through the entire class. Each time the class performed, or individuals performed, it was framed as an opportunity to demonstrate respect which would make another person feel good, and which would invite them to give return the respect.

Teaching appropriate behavior and habits using restorative justice transforms classroom management from punativeness to positivity. it makes correcting behavior part of the educational plan instead of an interruption of it. This is not to say that interruptions will be eliminated or that negative consequences for bad behavior will not longer be needed. It is to say that the need for those strategies will be reduced, and teaching will become more enjoyable for the teacher, and learning will become more enjoyable for students.

It is easy to assume that students know how to behave and are always choosing to do otherwise when they misbehave, but that is not so. Many students do not realize they are being disrespectful, because what they are doing is accepted or tolerated in other settings, including home, daycare, and even other classes. Students are often grateful for leaning a better way to manage their behaviors and emotions, and realize an improved quality of life within the school community as a result of the teacher practicing restorative justice circles.

If you are thinking you don’t have time to devote 8 minutes to a restorative circle at the beginning of each meeting of some or all of your classes, consider this: how much time does managing student behavior take away from time spent teaching your planned music lesson? I’m fairly certain if you actually timed it out, you would find you spend at least 8 minutes correcting or dispensing consequences during at least some classes. Occasionally , you might even spend more. If so, then why not use the same amount of time to teach them something positive with a restorative circle, a strategy that will probably pay dividends in time saved class after class.

To see how restorative circles work, here is a short video. The question being used is a good one for getting students used to the circle because it doesn’t ask them to divulge anything too personal. Notice how the students relax and look like they start to enjoy the circle after the first few students take their turn. Their sense of community and of enjoying the opportunity to share what they think is awakened during the first few seconds of the circle. In the last segment of the video, the artifact produced could then be the basis for another round of answers, as they share what is in their artifact with the circle.

Where We Are With Progressive Education

Version 2

I don’t usually republish articles by other authors, in fact I don’t believe I ever have on this blog. But this article is so “right on” and about such an important topic that I simply must share it with you here. I believe it will resonate with every public school teacher.






No, Teachers Shouldn’t Put Students in the Driver’s Seat

By Richard Ullman

September 5, 2018

In the push to identify and address the reasons for the underperformance of American students relative to their peers abroad and the persistence of test-score disparities across subgroups at home, no shortage of suspects has been summoned before the court of education policy public opinion.

Students, parents, and, of course, classroom teachers undergo levels of scrutiny, but other agents of blame have managed to evade detection. Chief among them: the purveyors of so-called “best practice” methodologies.

Education leaders who buy into these progressive pedagogical visions argue that…

Please click here to read the whole article.

Use Student Talking in Class to Your Advantage

Version 2I’m not sure when I realized it, but I am certain that this is true: I will never entirely stop my middle school students from talking in class. It is like telling an ice cube to stop melting while it is in an empty glass on a picnic table on a warm summer day. Instead of trying the impossible–stopping all the talking–I use it to my advantage. Here’s an example. I used this activity in my first class of the year with my 7th graders. I had three questions on the board I knew they would like to talk about: What is your favorite song, who is your favorite musical artist or band, and what is your favorite musical thing to do? I gave them all a half sheet of composition paper and told them to write their answers but not to tell anyone what their answers were (Yes, they did manage to keep their answers to themselves). Once they had their answers, they next had to get up out of their seats, walk around, and find out what other students answered, and try to find matches with their own answers. If a match was found, they were to write the matching student’s name next to their answer.

I’ll explain what happened next in a moment, but first, let me mention the rationale behind what has transpired so far. After initially sitting (relatively) quietly while writing their answers, the students were given something to do that required them to talk to lots of people in the room. This is especially good for the beginning of the year because it serves as a “mixer” and gets students out of sitting next to the same couple of friends. Because the talking is part of the learning, everybody gets what they want. They get to talk and I get learning to take place. Students are learning about each other and some are receiving affirmation by finding that others have the same interests as they. The other helpful thing about this activity is that the students have a reason to get up and move around. Building movement into a class helps keep them from getting fidgety and inattentive. Later, when I was ready for them to sit down, they were ready to settle in.

Once this part of the lesson is complete, I had the students re-seat themselves so that they would be sitting next to other students with whom they found a match. Again, this gets students working with different collaborators than when they always work just with those seated around them, and it also is helpful to get students with similar musical interests together, so that they will be more invested in turning those interests into created music.

This brings me to the next segment of the lesson, which ultimately is about developing creative thinking skills. In their new groups, each group receives a card with three words or phrases written that can describe music. For example, one card might have “staccato, piano, allegro” written on it. The students’ task is to create a short (10 seconds) musical example that is accurately described by everything written on their card. The group that received the example card above would create music that was staccato, soft, and fast. They can use voice, body percussion, or tapping on their chair. Because students are grouped by musical interest, they tend to arrive at grooves, styles, rather quickly. The longest discussions are usually about sound sources–to sing or not to sing. Some of the cards have “low pitched” or “high pitched” on them, so if the group decides to use body percussion and/or tapping on their chair, they must explore those sources to find a way of making  relatively high, low or high and low sounds. The creative thinking comes in through finding sound sources and performance methods that will produce sounds that match what is on their card.

There are other, secondary reasons for doing this activity as well. The cards are loaded small group instructionwith musical vocabulary. In order to carry out the task, the students need to know what those words mean. If they don’t know, an opportunity and necessity for learning them is present. Students will immediately ask what “polyphonic” or “staccato” means. You can handle these questions in one of two ways. You can outright tell them, with a demonstration, or you can have them search for a classmate that knows the answer, and only come to you if they can’t find one. In this instance, I outright defined the words, because I also wanted to cover procedures, it being the beginning of the school year. But often I will require them to ask at least one peer first, and if the peer doesn’t know, they both must come to me for the answer. This holds the first student accountable for asking a peer first, and it assures that I have taught the definition to two students, rather than only one. Then, if (when) another student comes looking for the same definition, I can refer him or her to the two other students I know have the answer.

Another secondary reason for doing this activity is to work on cooperation and collaboration. These can always be improved, and getting students to be cooperative and collaborative with each other early in the year is well worth the investment of time. Students who work well together and productively together will make a much more successful and pleasant class for you to teach all year, and will raise the level of learning that occurs.

The final piece to this lesson is to have students listen to a song, and to listen in it for the elements they created with, the ones that were on their cards. In our example from above, those students will listen for staccato notes, piano dynamic, and allegro tempo. Of course, not every word on every card will be heard in a single musical work, so the students can also contrast the music to which they are listening with the music they created. This reinforces the vocabulary learning, and applies the learning to a new situation, which, for all you Learning by Design folks, is the definition of understanding.

You won’t always be able to build student talking into lessons as I have done here, but as long as there are a fair amount of “talking allowed” lessons, students will be okay with those times that you need them to be silent. Just tell them, “last time I had a lesson that allowed you talk with each other, but not so today. Today, I need you to listen quietly, and participate by responding to my cues and questions.” As long as students know this in advance, and know that there will be another music lesson soon in which talking will be needed, they will be fine with the times when it isn’t.

Using Student Feedback to Plan Music Instruction

Version 2When it comes to teaching, I’m a pretty old school kind of guy. Many teachers, and I count myself among them, tend to teach the way we were taught, especially if we were generally successful in school. For me and I would guess most others of my generation, we accepted what the teacher told us to do, and did things their way. If we didn’t, we either got bad grades, got in trouble, or both, and we could count on negative consequences as a result when we got home. A lot of research and reforms have come to education since then, many of them good. Among the positive change is the recognition that not all students learn the same, and even more importantly, teachers can be guided by their students on the best ways to instruct individual in a class.

The issue isn’t just whether a student is a visual, aural, or kinesthetic learner, nor is it just which of the multiple intelligences is a student’s strength or weakness. No, the issue also must include how a student responds, manages and utilizes his or her internal world of emotions, physical health, language, cognition, relationships with others, and self-worth. These all affect achievement in school and are separate from learning style. Many if not most times, the condition of any of these can only be known by soliciting student feedback. Often times, this kind of feedback will only be offered to a teacher with whom the student has developed and trusting relationship, so relationship building must precede the effect use of student feedback to effectively improve teaching and learning.

It is important to understand that the type of feedback I am writing about is focused on making the learning situation for the student better. I am not referring to student reflections on negative behavior. While such reflections may have their place and helping a student realize that he or she could have handled a situation in a more positive way, and learning what they way might be for next time, improving the learning environment for that student probably will remove the reason the student acted negatively in the first place. For example, if a student is struggling to stay focused and is becoming distracted and engaging in off-task behavior, and if usual strategies for redirection have been ineffective through the class, feedback from that student could be a successful tact.

The teacher might slip the student a note that in effect says, “Today I was pleased to notice that you tried to complete your work. I also noticed that even so, you became distracted from your work and ended up not finishing. How can I help you overcome the distractions so you can finish your work?” A note like this is personal because it is about something specific to that one student, it shows that you noticed that child, and that you care about his or her success enough to seek them out and work for a solution that will bring better results. It is positive because it acknowledges a success (effort), and offers support in making improvement. It avoids negative consequences for being distracted and off-task, and replaces them with positive action to replace the off-task behavior with something more productive and ultimately rewarding.

There are also times, perhaps once every six weeks or so, when seeking feedback from an entire class can be effective and helpful. Mendler  (2000) suggests that “questions like the following can lead to helpful information.

  1. What can I do to be a better teacher for you?
  2. How can I help you be successful?
  3. Two things I say or do that you think I should continue doing are ________________.
  4. Two things I say or do that you wish I would do less of are _______________________.

If students answer these questions anonymously, the results can be analyzed as data, with the most frequently given answers driving changes or reinforcing current practice in instruction. If students answer these questions and put their names on their papers, then the results can be used to differentiate instruction for individuals. Students will be willing to put their names to their answers if a relationship of trust has been established between students and teacher.

There is also much good that can come from just observing groups of students at work. For example, there may be a small group of students in a class who typically are less engaged than the others, who tend to want to socialize rather than stay on-task, or who simply refuse to do assigned tasks. By observing these students over several class meetings during which they are asked to do different types of learning activities, it is possible to observe them becoming more engaged in certain types of activities than others. In a music classroom, some students may work diligently at a response to music activity that is primarily writing, where as those same students may be reticent to play or sing music. From this observation, it may be possible to replace one kind of response (demonstrate by performing) with another kind of response (explain in writing) as the means by which those student demonstrate learning. Then, during subsequent lessons, the teacher continues to build on the strength (writing) while gradually building confidence and competence in the weakness (performing) until the latter also becomes a viable kind of response.

Typically, with a group of students who tend to talk too much to each other, the teacher would respond by separating those students. However, if that is the group that prefers verbal responding to performance responding, it may be more effective to put them together and give them the opportunity to use their preference (talking) to verbally respond and then perhaps record their responses in writing. This is not to say that unwanted talking should be encouraged, only that it is often possible to channel it into a more productive purpose.

It really all comes back to building relationships. The longer one teaches, the more difficult it can become to put ourselves in our students place. But we were all elementary, middle and high school students at one time. When we felt unsure of ourselves, how did we get helpful encouragement from others? What did they say to us or do that put us at ease and freed us up to proceed with confidence and to succeed? When we walk into a room of peers, even peers who are familiar to us or friends, what do other people do to make us feel accepted and comfortable? Are students doing those things for each other in our classroom? Do our students feel that our classroom is a socially safe place for them to be and in which to learn and even take risks such as volunteering an answer, or even singing for the class? We can obtain answers to these questions and more by gathering student feedback from students who are convinced they can trust us with their struggles and obstacles. That is the necessity of building trusting relationships, and the payoff that student feedback from trusting students offers.

Mendler, A. N. (2000). Motivating students who don’t care: Successful techniques for educators. Bloomington: Solution Tree.


Lesson Planning and Marzano’s Nine Strategies

Version 2Context is everything. There’s a saying, “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” Too often in education, we take a little morsel of knowledge, perhaps acquired at a conference or hastily gleaned from an article or book, and then force it into  a position of exclusivity and prominence that assures success will not prevail. I have observed that such is the case in a growing number of schools where teachers are being required to include some or even all of Marzano’s “nine effective instructional strategies” in their lesson plans. Such a requirement demonstrates a misunderstanding of the utility and intent of the strategies. Experienced educators know that no single strategy works successfully with every child or class, and that it is highly improbable that a complete set of 9 strategies would ever be appropriate for any single lesson plan. Marzano himself has said as much in response to that very requirement (Marzano, 2009). Specifically, Marzano wrote that, “The entire constellation of strategies is necessary for a complete view of effective teaching. Unfortunately, in some schools and districts, this message was lost. This happens quite frequently with the strategies listed in Classroom Instruction That Works.” The book he refers to contains the 9 strategies (Marzano, R. J., Marzano, J. S., & Pickering, D. (2001). The publication of these strategies does not change the fact that effective teachers select strategies according to goals, objectives, and student needs, and that successful teaching demands a flexible and customized approach to selecting those strategies, not a hard and fast requirement that certain strategies be used regardless of student needs. On the other hand, it is certainly true that some strategy or two from the nine will be effective in some music lessons, and should be considered and implemented in music lesson plans. With this flexible approach in mind, I will now discuss how the nine strategies might be applied to music lessons.

Because these strategies are to be used on an as needed basis, they are not presented here in any hierarchical or ranked order. That said, the first is “identifying similarities and differences.” Distinguishing same-different is a fundamental concept. Music teachers teach aural discrimination when they present two tonal or rhythm patterns and ask the students to determine if they are the same or different. Students then can be asked to echo the pattern they have just heard, or to improvise a pattern that is different from the one they have just heard. All of these activities involve identifying similarities and differences. The study of musical form also is well served by this strategy; indeed, perceiving musical form is essentially identifying the use of repetition and variety over time in a musical work. Recognizing that a work is a rondo, for example, requires the listener to know when new material is heard, and when previously material is heard. The alteration of same and different sections of music create the abaca from of an 18th century rondo. In the performance area, singing or playing an instrument in tune also exercises same-different perception. In order to produce a tone that is in tune, one must hear that one’s tone is different from another, and then adjust until they are the same. In order to practice efficiently, students who recognize that a passage is the same as one they have already learned do not spend additional time practicing that passage again, as if it was new. Instead, they can direct their attention to another section containing passages that are different from any others encountered up to that point.

A second strategy is “reinforcing effort and providing recognition.” I have found that this is extremely important with lower achieving students who have become discouraged and see title point in continuing to put forth effort. Demonstrating to these students that their progress is tied to their effort can be a great encouragement, and spur them on to extending their attempts. Students must see that effort effects achievement. Frequent formative assessments of short-range goals can be used to show students exactly what their effort has gained for them. It never ceases to be a joy for me to successfully lead a student through a difficult task that they were unable to complete on their own, and then to point out that if they could make that much progress in five minutes, think of what they could accomplish is they continued working at it for another week, or even for the rest of that class period. Success breeds success, and effort directed wisely and efficiently under the guidance of an effective teacher, leads to success. If a student has been well trained in effective practice techniques, a practice record such as those used by many band teachers, can be successfully used to show students the connection between effort and achievement. When values for minutes practiced increase or at sustained high levels and correlate with improved or sustained high levels of achievement, the practice record is a useful tool in making that effort-achievement connection apparent and clear to the student.

A third strategy is “setting objectives and providing feedback.” Edwin Cole famously said “If you aim for nothing you have already hit it.” Too many students spend too much time doing things their teachers have required them to do without knowing why they are doing it or what they are trying to ultimately accomplish. People are naturally purpose driven. We don’t like to wander about not knowing where we’re going. That might be okay for a Sunday drive in the summertime, but it is definitely not alright for a way of living or of learning. We need to direct our actions to a purpose that is desirable and meaningful. Students who are simply good at playing school can get great grades on


Robert Marzano

report cards, but graduate with very little understanding. Music students who are told to play softer, not to rush, or not to play notes so short are capable of meticulously executing the director’s wishes without ever learning why they were asked to do these things within the context of creating an interpretation of a musical work. Compliance is not the same as understanding. Having a goal allows students to learn from the process of practicing, problem solving, and performance, because they know what they are trying to achieve from practicing, which problems need to be solved in order to move the process forward, and how to move through the process in order to arrive at a performance that is ready to present to an audience.

The last of the 9 strategies that I will discuss here is “questions, cues, and advance organizers.” Teachers sometimes make it too easy for students. Gone are the days when teachers dispensed knowledge, treating students like sponges or containers into which that knowledge simply needed to be poured. That kind of teaching produced students who were full of knowledge with little or no idea of what to do with it. Students need to solve problems, discover or construct knowledge, and apply what they learn to authentic situations in order to gain understanding. Questions, cues and organizers are used to help students access prior learning, and to use that learning to make sense of and put to use new learning. Teachers need to hold students responsible for using prior learning to accomplish the task at hand, and to plan lessons that use instructional methods that draw that prior learning out without delivering it “on a silver platter.” To students who have performed recital literature before, the teacher might say, “I notice you are having some trouble learning this part of your piece. You had a similar difficulty when you were learning the beginning of the Mozart flute concerto. How did you overcome the trouble you were having then? What practice methods did you use to learn that piece so well?” This line of questioning is getting at a sort of metacognitive awareness, but it could easily be along the lines of other types of learning. “This solo is by Quantz, who was a contemporary of J.S. Bach. What did you learn about playing ornaments from studying Bach that you could use in this piece also?”

I have only discussed three of the nine effective strategies. Notice that in each case, I have linked a specific strategy to a specific situation. This is how these strategies are intended to be used. Knowing these strategies and utilizing them at situationally advantageous times is a powerful tool among a host of others that teachers have at their disposal.

Marzano, R. J., Marzano, J. S., & Pickering, D. (2001). Classroom management that works: Research-based strategies for every teacher. Alexandria: ASCD.

Marzano, R. (2009). Setting the record straight on “high-yield” strategies, Phi Delta Kappa91(9), 30-37.

Three Ingredients for Good Classroom Management

Version 2For whatever reason, I have noticed over the years that art and music teachers seem to get more than their fair share of misbehavior in their classes. I suppose the children regard these classes as a time to let down and blow off steam after sitting immobile in a classroom writing, reading and generally keeping their youthful energy in check. Still, there are ways to achieve smoothly running classes for music teachers, regardless of the ages being taught. While my classes are by now means perfectly behaved all the time, I would like to share some of the things I’ve found work well to keep kids engaged and on-task. This is the result we want; for our students to be invested in what they are doing, so their attention doesn’t turn in other directions.

There are three things I try to do every day that I have found are most important in having a well managed classroom. These are, good relationships with my students, making my expectations for them clear and stating them often, and starting with enduring understandings, not song titles, and using music that is relevant to the students to teach those enduring understandings. I will discuss each of these presently.

For years I have heard from other teachers, many of them at the time more experienced than I, that you begin strict, and don’t ever smile until December. It’s easier to let up from strictness, than to begin lenient and then become more strict. There may have been a time when this worked, but not anymore. That kind of sternness just puts kids off, leaves them with the impression that you don’t like them or that you’d prefer they were not in your class, and fuels resentment that easily turns into negative behavior. While there must always be a distinction between the student learner and the sage/experienced teacher, that distinction can easily be maintained when the teacher-student relationship is friendly and caring. Students just respond better to a teacher who has shown that he/she genuinely cares for them and is on their side. Greeting each child at the classroom door with a smile and by name will get any class off to a better start. Smiling, and noticeably showing that you are enjoying teaching them will keep things positive, fun and managed well. A principal I once worked for put it like this: you must be intellectually superior but socially equal. He did not mean a teacher should hang out with students as if he or she were a peer; he meant that the relationship between student and teacher has two dimensions–a scholarly one with which the teacher brings knowledge and experience to bear, and a social one with which the teacher demonstrates sincere commitment  and concern for each student. To demonstrate this, a music teacher might go to a basketball game in which his/her students are playing, or attend a fund raiser students are sponsoring.

The second item is stating my expectations clearly and often. Both are necessary. I used to state expectations at the beginning of each class, and then set about teaching and putting students to work. What I found was my expectations stated up front did not carry all students through to the end. For students who finished their work but with difficulty, I had given them no expectation of what to do next. For the student art-of-teachingwho had finished their work and excelled, I had given them no next step. For the student who had worked but not finished their work, I had given them no intermediate point from which they could resume next time. My expectations were simply that everyone would follow directions, and stay on-task working on their project, or practicing their vocal or instrumental part. At the end of class, when I drew closure, it was stated in terms of a completed class, regardless of where each child was when it was time to stop. “Today we learned…”

But now, my closure drawing is different. “For those of you that learned an entire instrumental part today, well done. Next time, combine with someone else who has finished a different part from you, and combine with them to start practicing in an ensemble. To those of you who started getting a part, but can’t play the whole thing yet, continue to work on it. We can simplify the part if you need to, and I will work with you next time. There were also a few of you who didn’t make an effort to accomplish much of anything. You need to get going. Not making a good effort is not acceptable. You chose the song you are working on, you need to prepare it for presentation.” Do you see the difference? There isn’t much wiggle room anymore. All are accounted for, and new expectations are set even before they leave for their next class.

The other day, I had a sixth grade class state one thing they were going to try to do well during music class that day. It was very insightful for me, because some students stated tangible things, like listen better, sing better, or sing more in tune, while other students said very general things, like get a better grade or do better. I told them that while there is nothing wrong with wanting to get a better grade, in order to succeed at that, they must know what they are going to do that is going to result in getting a better grade. This was the moment of truth for me. If they couldn’t tell me what would get them a good grade in my class, then the blame would be on me for not making expectations clear. I was relieved to hear them say, when pressed, that they were going to focus on the speaker, and sing more (focus on the speaker is something I stress; whether it is I or a student who is asking or answering a question, one person speaks at a time and all eyes and ears go to that person. The bottom line here is, when kids have something specific to accomplish they are much more engaged than when the expectation is not well understood.

The third item is starting with enduring understandings, not songs. What I mean by this is that music class can easily just be singing songs. While singing songs is fun, and many a fine concert can and has been prepared just by singing or playing repertoire in rehearsals, students also need to be engaged in learning activities that require them to use critical thinking skills, create musical works and interpret their own works and those of others, learn about music and how all the musical elements are used by creators to convey an expressive intent, and how music relates and connects to the other arts, the other disciplines, the student’s culture and his/her personal life. These are articulated in enduring understandings, not in the repertoire. The repertoire is used as material with which the student works in the process of acquiring deep understandings of music and the arts and of becoming musically and artistically literate. This kind of deep learning is the only kind that will produce students who are equipped to fully enjoy and benefit from music and the arts for their lifetime, regardless of the profession they work in. Students sense the shallowness of just singing or playing songs, and will often not continue musical study if that is all they have received in music classes. On the other hand, they are drawn in to deeper learning as they realize the many dimensions of thinking and doing that are utilized when enduring understandings are pursued.

Giving priority and attention to these three items, good relationships with students, making  expectations  clear and stating them often, and starting with enduring understandings, not song titles, will improve the classroom management of any music teacher. Attending to these things won’t solve all your problems, but it will certainly solve many of them.

Setting Up Chairs and Desks in a Music Classroom

Version 2The arrangement of chairs, desks, and tables in any classroom is important in establishing the learning climate. Depending on how a class will be run, there are several options when it comes to setting up chairs and tables or desks. The days of rows of chairs all facing the front of the classroom, where a teacher stands and lectures the class is a thing of the past. Best educational practices tell us that lecturing students and running a teacher-centered learning environment is the least effective way to teach. The ideal setup will facilitate your desired student interactions, and will also allow you unimpeded access to every student at all times; you never want a table or cluster of desks between you and a student. You should be able to walk on up to any student at any time to offer assistance with work, or to prevent or stop unwanted behaviors.

Setting up a music classroom presents some additional challenges. Because students in a music class are likely to be engaged in any of a variety of learning activities, the seating arrangement must be at times flexible to accommodate open space activities like dancing and expressive movement, singing and instrument playing activities, which may include space for both instruments and music stands, and writing activities, such as responding to music or notating music. Sometimes you will want writing surfaces, other times, you will want the space occupied by tables or desks to be cleared away for dance or movement. Ideally, the music room is large enough to allow for separate spaces  for desks or tables and  movement/dance. If this is not possible, furniture that can quickly be moved by students can provide this flexibility. I have found that over the course of a year, I prefer chairs only. When I have something for students to write, I give them a clipboard with either plain, lined composition, or music staff paper attached. When collecting work, I collect the papers and have a student helper collect the clipboards. If I need more open space, the students can easily move their chairs to the periphery of the room, without having to move heavier desks or tables. Chairs only also makes setting up for my next class easy, again because I only have to move chairs in the configuration I will be using next.

That brings me to setting up the chairs themselves. Chairs in clusters (with or without tables or desks) encourages group work,  collaboration, and a student-centered environment, but also unwanted talking. Chairs in rows encourages focusing attention on one area of the room toward which all are facing, and discourages unwanted talking, but discourages student to student collaboration and a student-centered environment. Both arrangements can put furniture between the teacher and some students, making classroom management more difficult. Other configurations are possible, such as one or more semi-circles, but they are essentially variations on the cluster or the row.

I have tried many arrangements over the years, and have found that two ways of handling the cluster and the row work best for me. For the cluster, I take care in how I assign students to each cluster. I make sure that a high achieving student and  a low achieving student, are in each cluster, and then filled out with students whose
achievement level is close to the mean. This way, the high achiever can help the low achiever, and the others can work well together. As the achievement levels change, so do the groupings. Grouping students this way frequently ends up separating close friends, but this objection from students is worth enduring. Eventually, the quality of work usually improves using this system. The clusters are 4-6 students each. I also make sure that there is at least 2 boys and 2 girls in each cluster, so that neither a boy or girl is the only boy or girl in the group.

The other arrangement that works well is to set up rows with an aisle between everylayout-classroom two chairs. This gives me pairs of chairs down the row. It gives me easy access to every student all the time. I can stand anywhere in the room and always be right next to at least one student, usually two, one on each side of me. For group work, the students can easily turn their chairs so that one pair of students joins one or two other pairs of students to form a group. With this in mind, I make my seating chart to result in the same kind of groups as with the clusters.

Some of you, either by choice or necessity, teach with no chairs at all. I choose to teach my Prekindergarten and Kindergarten classes with no chairs. In this case, I seat the children in a circle on my carpeted floor. Students who socially have difficulty succeeding when sitting next to each other are moved to other locations in the circle; to a location where they are 3 or 4 children apart. This way, they are not next to each other and also cannot see each other. Students who will be off task if next to each other will also often be off task if they can make eye contact on opposite sides of a circle. The children have assigned spots for each class. After we have gotten up and about for a movement activity, they must return to sitting next to the same people they were sitting next to before, unless I move them. I have not taught a class of 5th grade or middle school students without chairs, but I have noticed they don’t mind getting into a seated circle on the floor to play a singing game, or to do performance group work such as clapping patterns or rhythm band type activities.

If the class at any level is returning to a circle on the floor after an activity for which they were elsewhere, I seat myself in a different location in the circle. I also teach some from in the circle, becoming an equal participant in the activity, and sometimes standing outside the circle either teaching or observing. From a classroom management perspective, it is always good to move frequently so that you gain close proximity to students in different parts of the room throughout the lesson. This also allows you to build relationships with your students when you are participating with them, and also reinforce your position as teacher when you are giving instruction.