What Is The Difference Between Standards and Curriculum: A Primer for Music Curriculum Writers

2011Symposium_1_2Some of you who are music educators will be doing curriculum writing work over the summer, while others will be planning for the coming school year. In either case, it is important to understand the distinction between standards and curriculum. With the presence of common core in many states, standards have taken on a renewed importance in planning and delivering instruction. In music, the core arts standards have refocused instruction on the four artistic processes of performing, creating, responding and connecting. In past years, before these new standards, local curriculum writers frequently transferred the music standards into curriculum documents, and with little additional work, published the standards as a curriculum. Clearly this approach obscured the difference between standards and curriculum, as writers supposed that the two were virtually interchangeable.

As we write new curricula using the new core arts standards for music, we must avoid repeating this mistake. There is indeed a difference between standards and curriculum. Standards express what all students are expected to achieve. They are equally applied to all students in all districts, regardless of differences between districts, schools, classes, or students. As such, they include the body of knowledge and skills that are deemed essential for all students to be able to demonstrate. Standards do not include how these knowledge or skills will be taught or learned, only that they will be taught and learned. With this in mind, it is easy to see why presenting standards as a curriculum is unacceptable; there is no guidance included in what the teacher is to do, what materials or activities will be used, or how learning will be assessed. These matters are specific to local districts, and the responsibility of individual teachers to implement.

This brings us to the question of what is a curriculum. Simply stated, if standards are what all students will learn and do, then Expectationscurriculum is how some students, those in a particular school district, will meet the standards. This is why one set of standards suffices for an entire state or nation, while each school district needs its own curriculum. It is in the curriculum that the individual needs of students and districts is taken into account, and articulated so that meeting the standards fits students who are different in ways that affect their learning.

Whereas the standards say that musicians select music to perform based on interests, knowledge, abilities, and context, the curriculum says that students will draw on known cultural influences on interests, knowledge and context, and will direct students to self-evaluating their abilities. For example, an urban district might specify in the curriculum that blues, rhythm and blues, rap, and gospel musical styles will be included in middle school music instruction. Students will develop performance ability though targeted instruction and practice, create learning experiences from which students will acquire knowledge of and develop interests in these musical genres, and then provide them the opportunity to select and practice songs based on the knowledge and abilities they have acquired from the instruction. Having done so, they will have met the standard under the process of selecting music for performance. In a rural district, the same standard might be met with folk, bluegrass, and country music genres. Finer differences would likely occur. For example, improvising is more likely to occur in rap and blues than in folk or country music, so the urban class might emphasize improvisation and/or creating more than the rural class. On the other hand, instrumental music tends to be more prevalent in country and bluegrass than in rap music, so the rural class might emphasize instruments, especially violin/fiddle, more than the urban class. These differences would also be shaped by differences in student interests. Yet in both the urban and rural classes, the standard would be equally well met, all instructional factors being equal. Curricula specify the best means for the students in a given district to accomplish the means of meeting the standard.

The curriculum, unlike the standards, must also include the method by which student learning will be assessed. If students are supposed to be able to select music to perform based on knowledge, interests, context, and ability, then they must select music that they will actually perform, and the selection must be assessed based on how well it aligns with each of those criteria. Requiring students to select music within their ability can also motivate them to increase their performance proficiency so that they can perform a song that at present is challenging, but which they are highly motivated to sing or play. In any case, it is necessary to assess learning in order to determine if the standard has been met after instruction according to the curriculum has been given.

A Strategy For Improving Student Engagement

2011Symposium_1_2When an entire class is singing or playing musical instruments, having everyone actively participating is a given. There is no waiting to be called on and no hoping not to get called on. Music ensembles involve everyone all the time. Every student is either singing, playing, or tracking measures of rest so they will make their correct entrance. But once the music stops, and the director addresses a section, what happens to the engagement of the students not being addressed? I have written elsewhere about things students can be doing during those “down” times, but how can a director keep them engaged in the class without relegating them to these other tasks? The answer is to use the students to do at least part of what the director usually does; evaluate and suggest a way to correct deficiencies.
Five point rating scales are useful for rehearsal and classroom use. People have five fingers, so anything can be evaluated by holding up any number of fingers between 0 and 5. Instead of having most of the ensemble listen to the director work with one section, the director can identify a specific criteria, have the section play or sing the measures that need attention, and then have everyone else evaluate the performance on the given criteria with a show of fingers. For example, suppose that a director wants to rehearse a long crescendo. He or she has taught the ensemble how to make a long crescendo by not getting too loud too quickly, and by making a noticeable change in dynamics from the start to the finish of the crescendo. Students, once they know this, can evaluate how the section did making the crescendo. It is just a matter of indicating on a scale of one to five how well the crescendo was done. If there is disagreement, students who give markedly differing evaluations can be asked to support their evaluation with a brief description of what they heard. By involving otherwise idle students in this kind of evaluation and dialogue, they are learning as much, or possible more, than the students who were actually playing or singing.
This strategy also works well in general music classes. The other day, I was continuing to teach my sixthclassroom grades about phrases. On this day, I was teaching them to hear tension or stress at the ends of phrases. At first I used a song with phrases that ended just on ^5 or ^1. There was either tension or relaxation. Told them to point up if they heard tension and down if they heard relaxing. Because these are non-verbal responses, all students could continuously respond at once.
Next, I chose a song that had different degrees of tension at the ends of phrases. Phrases ended on ^6, ^2, ^3, ^5 and ^1. For this, I had the students decide how much tension they heard at the end of each phrase as the listened, and respond by holding up 0-5 fingers. Again, all could respond at once and continually. It’s one thing to tell students they always have something to do because they should be listening to their classmates’ responses and forming their own response, and quite another thing to give all students a way to respond all the time. It makes it harder for students to decide not to participate and easier for the teacher to assess students and hold them accountable throughout class. For times when the teacher wants words or phrases for a response, each student can be given a small white board and marker. Students write their response and then hold up the whiteboard so the teacher can see it. if the students are seated in rows, they won’t be influenced by their peers’ answers because holding the whiteboards up facing the front of the class,they will have a hard time seeing each other’s answers. much of our success as teachers depends to a large extent on frequent student engagement. These strategies are helpful in this area.

The Exit Ticket for Music

2011Symposium_1_2If there’s anything that music standards have done to help me improve my teaching over the years, it is to get me beyond singing songs and playing instruments to teaching musical concepts, skills, and processes through singing songs and playing instruments. In other words, standards have taught me that the song is not the objective, it is the means through which the objective will be taught and learned. Part of seeing that students meet the objectives I have set for them is to have a way of knowing what they have remembered and learned as a result of each class, and what they intend to do with what they have learned. If all students leave my class with is a good time, then they will not value music learning the way I want them to. If I find that students are not growing in musicianship, including all of the processes in the new core arts standards for music, then I must revisit how I am planning and teaching my lessons. Just because students are enjoying themselves in class does not mean that they are learning what I hope they are learning. Yet because much of what I do with them in class is not written, and takes place in ways that are not easily observable, I need a way of finding out what is going on “inside” my students emotionally, attitudinally, and intellectually. Though not unfailingly reliable, because not all of this learning can be observed or even accurately described by the students in words, I find that the exit ticket is a useful tool in assessing both my students’ learning and the effectiveness of my teaching.

An exit ticket is a quick, expedient way of assessing learning at the end of a lesson. It creates closure for the student, provides data for the teacher, and even helps focus lesson planning when I consider that there must be something concise, relevant, and apparent that students have learned and will know they have learned at the end of the class. Because this is a quick check and not a formal quiz or test, I keep my exit ticket short and focused. It includes three questions: What did you do in music class today? What music things did you learn form doing what you did in music class today? What is the next step you will take with the music things you did and learned in music class today? It is readily apparent that the questions build on each other. First, I’m asking the student to think back over what they did. “I named the notes in the first phrase of the melody of “Trepak,” I found those notes on a piano keyboard, and I practiced playing the melody.” So far there is no indication of what the student learned, only of what s/he did, but I want the student to connect what they did with the benefit that came from it, so calling to mind what they did first is important.

Next, the student tells me what they learned from doing what s/he did. “I learned that the keyboard i-get-itnotes are alphabetical from left to right, and to look for notes that are the same so I don’t have to keep figuring out what they are.” I’d be happy with that answer, but not with this one: “I learned to play a song on the piano.” While it’s good this student can now play a song he or she couldn’t before the class, there’s no indication that s/he met the objective, which was to play the melody at a steady beat. There was no indication of this in the first answer either, but there were other things that are valuable mentioned that the student did learn, and which I can use to advance the student closer to being able to play the song with a steady beat.

The last question is critical, yet easy to overlook. I want my students to plan on using what they have learned in my class. The answer to this question doesn’t have to be what I hope for them, although it could be. If a student wants to learn another song they didn’t think they could ever play before today, but now think they can, that’s a great next step. If the student wants to teach a sibling how to play the melody on the piano, that’s also a great next step. This question leads students into finding a connection, a relevance, and most of all a value in their learning. Without this, what I teach my students won’t have a lasting impact on them; and while they may think their education is only for the present, I strongly believe that their education is also for their future success and happiness.  Using an exit ticket is a relatively new strategy for me, so if you have one you’ve been using and found success with, let me know.

Assessment Ideas for the Music Classroom

2011Symposium_1_2By now, most music teachers are familiar with and using some form of assessment in their classrooms. Directors of performing ensembles give periodic playing or singings tests and quizzes, and may also administer written tasks to assess knowledge of music reading and analysis. General music teachers have become accustomed to collecting written student work, and using a variety of performance assessments in the classroom. Today I would like to describe an assessment procedure that has at least made a dent in my most pressing difficulty with assessment: finding the time to assess 400 students who have music class one day a week for forty-five minutes.

Finding a way to assess large numbers of students efficiently and accurately in a reasonable amount of time has been challenging for me and I suspect for many music teachers. Giving paper and pencil assessments is an easy solution, but insufficient for music. While I do assess knowledge and understanding with written tasks, I must also assess singing and playing. This is where the time issue comes in. Hearing every student individually is time consuming, but unless I do this at least three times a year, I have no way of knowing how my students are doing individually. With this in mind, I make an audio recording of each student performing a short song three times a year: once at the beginning of the year after I have taught the song. Because I teach the song first, it is not a pre-test, but the assessment of each recorded performance does provide me with a baseline against which to measure growth on the remaining two assessments. I listen to each recording and score them on a rubric, and the students fill out a self-assessment immediately after they make their recording. It is important to teach students to self-assess accurately. I look for agreement between each student’s self-assessment and my assessment of that student. The second recording is made mid-year, sometime in January after winter concerts are completed. The students record themselves performing the same song, so the two recordings can be compared for growth.  The third recording is made in June, close to the end of the school year.

In between these three major assessments, I have an in-class procedure that helps me gather other Musical-Balanceinformation about my students’ performance in class. I give each student a piece of blank paper and have them write their name and the date at the top. I tell the students what I am assessing that day, and that I will go around the room stopping to listen to them sing, and then put numbers on their paper. The numbers will be rubric scores for the single item I am assessing. For example, if I am assessing accuracy of pitch while singing, I might assess on a scale of 1-4 how frequently they sang the right note over a ten-second time interval. The entire class is singing, as they would anyway, but I am standing next to individual students listening to one at a time. I can assess an entire class this way over the course of a class period. This data is more informal than the recorded assessments, but it gives me a sense of how students are singing in a group, and to what extent students are participating when everyone is singing. It also gives me the opportunity to encourage shy or reluctant singers, who will sing for the assessment, but not always otherwise. A high score and word of praise often results in students improving both their singing and their participation that day and in future classes. I target the object of my assessment on whatever I have identified in the class objective. Some days I assess steady tempo, or use of singing voice. I don’t try to assess more than one thing at a time so the students can stay focused on one element, and so I can be sure to assess every student in one class period.  When the marking term is over, I have a good amount of data to accurately assign music grades based on documented achievement and effort.

Producing Assessable Student Work in Music Performance

2011Symposium_1_2I am all for assessing student singing, but for some time I have struggled to find a way to assess that did not take up an unreasonable amount of time. I have tended to favor informal methods, where I walk up to individual students while they are singing with the rest of the class, listen to their singing within the group, and make a quick rubric assessment of the child. I can assess an entire class this way relatively quickly, and the data I gather helps me plan instruction that meets individual needs. The class is still doing what they would be doing anyway, singing, and with little interruption in familiar class routines, assessment takes place.

The problem with this type of informal assessment is that there is no record of student work; there is only the rubric form I have filled out. There is no work to show students, parents or administrators, and students are never evaluated singing alone, which is a much more accurate situation for assessing student achievement in singing. The model cornerstone assessments being piloted for the core arts standards in music address this problem by having the teacher record students singing alone. The recording becomes a shareable and assessable piece of student work, and students are assessed singing alone. On the other hand, the issue of time becomes an issue once again. Having each student sing alone is not what students would be doing anyway, at least not to the extent needed for these assessments. Recording each student singing even a short song can quickly become tedious and overly time consuming. If children record themselves in a separate room, there is the distraction of children frequently leaving and re-entering the class. If the children are recorded in class, other instruction must be suspended while recording is taking place.

The solution is to integrate the solo singing into the lesson, and make the recording as unobtrusive to other instructional goals as possible. While a child is singing and being recorded, the rest of the children in the class can practice using a self-assessment rubric by using it to assess the singing of the student singing, demonstrate and self-assess correct concert etiquette, or practice the solo song by audiating. Students can be held accountable for audiating by cold calling on students to sing the song on two occasions, and checking for improvement.

After a child has sung and been recorded, they fill out a short self-assessment rubric, which I eluded to a moment ago. Musical-BalanceThis gives the child who just sang something to do while the next child sings. If the child fills the self-assessment form out quickly, the teacher can then cold call on a student to answer one of the questions regarding the student who has just sung. For example, did Sarah sing with a steady tempo? This keeps students accountable for listening to the solo singer. Often, they enjoy hearing their classmates sing, and will do so quietly anyway.

Even with these strategies to keep students engaged and attentive, I have found that I can do 8-10 solo recordings in a class before children begin to get weary of the activity. As a result, it takes me three class periods of 45 minutes each to record an entire class for assessment. After the recordings and self-assessments are completed, it takes about half an hour for me to listen to all the recordings and assess each performance. When each recording is made, the student is assigned a number which is recorded on my master list and on the self assessment rubric form the child fills out. My master list tells me by number but not name what the order of performers is on the recording. I use the roster number on my class list. This keeps me from knowing who I am listening to and assessing as I assess each performance, but allows me to look up who the singers are after assessment is complete, so I can use the assessments to plan individualized instruction. When the process is completed, I have a recording of every student singing as student work, a teacher evaluation of each performance, and a self-assessment from each student. Visit www.ctcurriculum.org for more details, and for the rubrics and recorded prompt for the recordings. Under disciplines select music, for certifications select CT common arts assessment, for Grade Level select 2 to 2. Click on find tasks, and then choose “2nd Grade Solo Singing and Self-Evaluation.”

The Basics of Lesson Planning


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Lesson planning is one of the most important things teachers do. Many methods and formats for lesson planning have circulated within teacher preparation programs and professional development seminars. Today, I’d like to reduce them down to the most essential points, and show you how I go about planning my music lessons.

The best place to start is at the end. After you have taught the session, what do you want your students to have learned or to be able to do? This is called the objective. Because everything you and they do during that class period must be moving toward achieving the day’s goal, that goal must be clearly stated before the class gets under way. Your objective must contain the answers to these two questions:

  1. By the time this class period is over, what will my students understand or be able to do as a result of their time in my class today?
  2. How does their new understanding or ability to do something fit in to the overall plan for the course, what they have already learned, and what I plan to teach them in the future? Individual lessons should be part of a series of related and sequential classes that lead to an essential goal.

The answers to these questions must direct everything else you do, and be measureable.  Every day, an assessment should take place that lets you and the students know where they are in relation to where they started and where they are going. Each individual class must have manageable, realistic goals that balance between challenge and skill set so that students stay motivated and keep moving toward the goal.

Once you know your objective for the class, post it so the students know what is expected. Teachers can hardly expect students to work toward a goal if the teacher is the only one who knows what that goal is. Post the objective in the front of the room where everyone can see it, and make sure every student knows the objective at the beginning of class.

After stating the objective, the next section describes what you and the students will do during the lesson to prepare for meeting the objective. Use three basic steps to learning: learn how, practice with help, do without help. Begin by telling, showing, demonstrating, or describing how to do what you want the students to do. If you are going for an understanding, use your own stories, comparisons, pictures, or whatever it takes to transfer understanding to students, then have students come up with stories, comparisons, pictures, or whatever to practice communicating their understanding to you with prompting if necessary. Next, have students explain the concept without prompting. If you are going for a performance, use the same sequence substituting performing for describing or explaining. The sequence is always this: first you do it, then the students do it with you, and then the students do it. Always find the simplest way to achieving a goal. Keep all learning activities as simple as possible. They must be cost effective. Activities that are time-consuming and complicated but that result in little gain in knowledge or proficiency should be avoided, no matter how clever or fun they may seem.

Generally, lesson plans describe what the teacher will be doing during the course of a lesson, but planning what the students will be doing every step of the way is just as important. Indicate in your plan when the students will be writing, responding, singing, playing instruments, brainstorming, working alone, working in groups, etc. Thinking the lesson through from the students’ view allows you to solve logistical problems before they happen, and forces you to consider what needs to be set up, or what needs to be moved during the lesson. It also helps you be sure you actually have something for all students to do at all times. Plan where you will be and where the students will be throughout the lesson. Always arrange the room so that you can come up along side every student at any time completely unobstructed.

With all of this in mind, here is what a typical lesson plan template might look like:


  1. Objective (Post in the front of the room): (What do I want my students to understand or do to by the end of the lesson?)


How does this relate to what my students have already learned?

How will this be of value or be applied in future lessons?


  1. I do—Teach: show, demonstrate, model, explain, and/or describe what students will do. Describe exactly what you and then they will do.


  1. We do—Repeat step 3, but this time with the students doing it with you. (Use some combination of questioning, discussion, performance, writing)


  1. They do—Repeat step 3 again, but this time have the students do it without your help.


  1. Assess—This can be done during step 4, or it can be a short culminating activity. Every student and you must know how s/he has done before they leave the classroom that day.

All In A Day

ImageHaving written lately about how things are meant to be when we follow the new music standards, I though it was time to write about how these standards look in my own classroom. I teach general music to 6 classes per day of children from three years old in the pre-kindergarten program to 13 years old who are in 8th grade. These classes also double as performing ensembles that perform in November, December, March, and April. About forty of my students participate in an after school drama program I co-teach with two colleagues where we prepare a performance of a musical comedy given in May.

As I sat at my desk today between classes, I noticed a full white board from the morning classes, and took inventory of all that was written. For 7th grade there were directions to generate and select musical ideas, write a plan for organizing those ideas into a musical work, make a musical work using the plan, evaluate the musical work, revise and refine it, and present. A list of ways to use ideas, including repetition, parallelism, variety, and tension/release was also there. For first grade there were the first 4 notes of the beginning of  Brahms’ 4th symphony which the children continued with original ideas by solo singing what they thought the next pitch should be. In the middle were tonal patterns for reading audition, and down the right side was the objective for each class. While every student had not performed perfectly, it was gratifying to see all that they had attempted, and to reflect on how most had succeeded. Not written on the board were the pitches and rhythms that the 5th graders had sight sung, and the new song we had analyzed together and that I had helped them begin to learn how to sing.

After taking note of all of this, I erased the center of the board and put a list of five songs and pieces up, along with three questions: What in this song interests you? What do you know about this song? What do you think the composer was trying to express with this music? The students had to select one of the songs or pieces before they heard any of them, just based on my description. They then wrote answers to the three questions in response to their selection, and then shared their answers with the class. Students had the chance to question the presenter about the selection or their experience of it.

Over the course of the day, my students were working on many of the new standards. The fifth graders worked on the perform standard when they analyzed the music they were learning, rehearsed, evaluated and refined their performance, and practiced sight singing. The seventh graders  worked on the create standards when they generated musical ideas, interpreted their own ideas, selected musical ideas from those they generated to include in a musical work, and wrote a plan of how they would use those ideas. Some of the students also wrote down their ideas in traditional notation, organized according to the plan they had made. The first graders worked on the create standard as they found pitches that would be a good continuance of a motif I provided. They then read their ideas notated on the board, and at their request, took home a photocopy of the finished melody, which they were very proud of. The sixth graders worked on the respond standard, working on the select portion by identifying their interest in, knowledge of, and interpretation of music to which they listened. If they were going to perform the music, they also would have determined if the selection was within or close to their ability.

Because assessment is so important in education today, and because I often hear music teachers say that music is subjective and cannot be measured, I would like to point out that everything my students did today was assessable. Sight reading and singing can be assessed on rubrics. Musical ideas can be assessed on a checklist—how many were generated, and did they express what the composer intended. The plans can also be assessed on a rubric for clarity and detail. Plans that were scored highest specified details such as what order ideas would be placed in, which ideas would be combined, and what instruments would play them. Plans that scored lowest were vague, or provided irrelevant information. The first graders were assessed on participation, and evaluation comments made after decisions were made. “Do you like that choice of notes?” First graders often can’t explain why some notes sound better than others, but they can recognize the differences and it was good for the young composers to do so. For example, at one point they made a tritone and disliked it, but then liked it when a child in the class remembered that do comes after ti and so formed a resolution. The questions the 6th grade students answered can be assessed on content.

I have all of the new music standards posted at the front of my classroom. I do this for me, so that I always have them there to remind me of where my focus needs to be. The students know they are there and are welcome to read them, but they are there mainly for me. With selecting, analyzing, interpreting, practicing, refining, and presenting for performing, creating, and responding as the skeleton of all my teaching, I am not apt to become careless and lapse into just singing songs. There’s always more to teaching music than that.