An Approach to Lesson Planning

Version 2Lesson plans are only as good as the learning they bring about. For that to happen, the lesson plan must be executed well by the teacher, and the students must complete the learning tasks that are part of the plan. This is a dynamic process, not a static one. In other words, teaching a lesson plan is not like delivering a piece of mail, where a mail carrier deposits an envelope in your mailbox, and the plan is completed. In order for the bill to be paid or the letter to be answered, the recipient must retrieve the mail from the mailbox, open it, and act upon it. There must also be sufficient interest in what is contained in the envelope, or else it will be categorized as “junk mail” and tossed out before any further action is taken. A letter from a loved one gets our attention. Bills get our attention. Wedding invitations get our attention. We act on these pieces of mail in a timely way either because we anticipate enjoying the action (attending the wedding) or because we understand the importance and urgency of the action (paying the bill on time).

Our students receive our lessons in the same we that we receive our mail. They glance at what they will be doing and learning, and then decide if it is of interest or of importance. If not, our lesson is categorized as “junk mail” and tossed aside in favor of inattentiveness and indifference to what we are wanting to teach and accomplish. Some of this disinterest can be avoided by planning lessons with students’ interests and preferences in mind. Other instances of disinterest can be avoided simply by doing a better job of communicating objectives, and including students in planning their learning.

While it is the teacher’s responsibility to teach the curriculum and use the National Core Arts Standards, these responsibilities can be met while including students in the planning process. You will need to teach your students how to plan learning so that it is substantive, but it is worth the time to do so. In its simplest form, a good lesson plan, which I like to refer to as a learning plan, answers three questions: What will you do? What will you learn by doing it? How will you demonstrate that you have learned what said you would learn? When the answers to these three questions are written out at the beginning of the lesson, students have a clear and irrefutable understanding of what they are to be about.

After students have had time to act upon those questions, as part of the assessment piece, they will answer these companion questions: Did you do what you said you would do? How well did you do it? This requires that an assessment tool be ready for use that measures how well the task was performed. Most often in music classes, this will be a rubric. Be sure the student is familiar with the assessment tool and how to use it beforewhisper_music beginning the lesson. Next, the student gives an answer to the question, “Did you learn what you said you would learn? Prove it! While the question can be answered yes or no, it is not complete until the learning claim has been supported with evidence. This leads to the third companion question: What learning did you demonstrate. Learning is not credited to the student until it has been demonstrated.

When students navigate the planning process from this perspective, they tend to raise the bar for their own work. This is, I think, especially true in the arts, where the focus is often on the product, the concert performance or art show, at the expense of focusing on the learning that (should) take place along the process of preparing a performance for presentation to an audience. For example, performing dynamic contrasts can be a matter of simply following a conductor’s instructions, or even following the markings in the printed music, or it can be a tool among others put into play in order to create an interpretation. Students consider questions like, what effect does a crescendo here have on the expressive quality of the phrase? What other uses of dynamic contrast could I use to express a similar intent? Which dynamic contrast works better to convey the composer’s or my own expressive intent? What is the expressive intent I am trying to convey, and what expressive devices can I use to most effectively express it?

When asking students to create their own plan, it is important to guide them to making specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and timely (SMART). When I first started doing this with my middle school students, they would write that they will learn a song, will learn a song, and will sing the song to demonstrate what they learned. I kick goals like that right back to them, and tell them to be more specific. After more careful thought, students often come up with excellent goals. Some that I have received include, “learn how the bass and guitar are used in the son, and then create a new bass and guitar part for the same lyrics and melody,” or “listen to the song and then describe how dynamics and rhythm complement the lyrics.” Honestly, these are better objectives than I probably would have come up with. They show creativity and an interest in learning an aspect of music that I may not have included in their instruction.

Once students have written down their plan, it is a simple matter to provide individualized instruction to students, because they have already designed their learning and the way in which their learning will be assessed. Of course, getting an entire class of students to be proficient in planning their own learning this way itself takes teaching, but the time spent is worth the investment; it doesn’t all have to be done at once. You can give students smaller planning tasks at first, and gradually add on others. For example, have them just design how their learning will be assessed. This makes them think about what they will need to accomplish, but leaves the actual learning objective to the teacher. Once the teacher tell the student what they will be doing and what they are expected to learn, then the student designs the assessment before beginning the learning task. I find that starting with the assessment piece avoids superficial results at first, which often occurred when I started with having the students just decide what they would do, or what they would learn. Assessment drives both of these, and designing assessment demands that what is to be learned be considered.

The Better Way

Version 2Times have changed. It used to be that teachers taught everyone the same way, without considering that children don’t all learn the same way. Then we realized there are different types of learners, and we began meeting the needs of visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learners. Howard Gardner taught us about multiple intelligences, and a greater attention to special needs children challenged us to find ways to maximize learning for these children. These were all necessary and much needed shifts in educators’ thinking. Still, teachers still considered themselves as the determiners of what would be taught, and how it would be taught. The teacher’s job was to teach, and the students’ jobs were to learn in the way the teacher instructed.

One of the glaring weaknesses of this perspective is that when students are not interested, do not find what the teacher is doing relevant, and disengage themselves from the intended educational process, school becomes a struggle for everyone. Teaching becomes burdensome, and learning becomes boring. However strongly educators may insist that there are certain things all students should know, like Shakespeare, the Pythagorean theorem, or the symphonies of Mozart, no one, teachers in grad school or students in grade school, will be a high achieving learner, or will retain and apply learning, if it was taught to a disinterested, unmotivated student. There has to be a better way, and there is a better way. Student feedback and choice are a powerful combination of tools that quickly ramp up the level of learning and of engagement and interest. In this post, I will describe and discuss both of these.

Student feedback can take many forms. The kind I will discuss here is in regard to students informing teachers on how they prefer to learn, and on the effectiveness of whatever learning strategies the teacher had the students use. Having students generate this kind of feedback is beneficial to both teachers and learners. In giving this feedback, learners develop an awareness of how most successfully learn, and in what ways they most enjoy interacting with the material they are learning, be it knowledge or skills. Once aware of their preferred learning strategy and activity, students can take advantage of the opportunity to learn their way, and to develop a love for learning and for the material that both would otherwise been passed up.

I currently have a second grade student in General Music who dislikes singing to the point where he steadfastly refuses to sing. He will drum, chant, move, dance, play instruments, but will not sing. I am a very Kodaly centered music teacher. Singing is at the very center of everything I do, so with this child, I have a choice. I can just as steadfastly as he, insist that he sing, making our teacher-student relationship frustrating and to some extent confrontational, or I can acknowledge that he can meet a great many of the objectives I have for him and his classmates by doing things other than sing. I can reflect and acknowledge that singing in general music is a means to an end, and not the end itself. I have children sing to teach them to love music, love making music, be creative with interpretation and improvisation, and learn to express themselves in a personal, musical, expressive way.

Of course, a child can learn all those things by playing instruments, and listening to the expressiveness and creativity of others. While some aspects of musical development may be less served by minimizing singing, the detriment will not, I must acknowledge, be as much for someone who hates to sing as for one who enjoys or even loves to sing, like me. I cannot teach someone else to love music as I do by requiring them to sing, if they do not love to sing as I do. Instead, I have the opportunity to observe a child grow in musicality in a different way than I did or would prefer to, and thereby learn something about the child I would not learn otherwise. Learn what about music he or she really values, and what that child really connects with in music.

When a child says “I hate music,” it is rarely literally the case. More likely, what is meant is, “I hate doing what you’re asking me to do, and I won’t do that because I don’t think I’m very good at it and I don’t want anyone to hear me doing it.” But that is too much to say every time a child is asked to sing, so he just says, “I hate music.” Receiving student feedback gives the teacher the opportunity to know his or her students better, which enables the teacher to make content more relevant and attuned with student interests. It also demonstrates to the student that the teacher cares enough to consider him or her as a unique and valued individual, rather than one of many generic students.

Often times, if a student is given the opportunity to practice something like singing, or playing a guitar, or what have you in a safer place than where an entire class of peers will hear, a child will very quickly begin to flourish. I recently had a class of 7th graders working on a guitar project in small groups. There was a girl who just sat there with a guitar on her lap looking unhappy. I brought her out of her group and said I wanted to show her something. I took her guitar and played what I had asked her to play, then I said, I can have you playing that in 5 minutes. Watch. Reluctantly at first, she began to follow my instruction, and in less than 5 minutes, she sounded great. With a smile on her face, she assured me she would continue to play for the rest of the class, and the next class too. Nobody likes doing something they don’t think they are good at in front of an audience. For her, individual instruction was the way to go. For others, group learning is best.

A group of confident learners enjoying what they are doing usually produces exciting results. When given the choice, some of those student groups will choose to sing. They will sing, four or five at a time in unison, in harmony, or to a beat boxer, and enjoy every second. Others will prefer to play rhythms on drums, while others want to get their band instruments and add a flute or saxophone part to their classmates drumming or singing. The best learning occurs from a position of strength and confidence. When students have choices, they will choose to stand on solid ground. From that position of confidence they will be willing to take the risks that are necessary to push learning forward. When forced into a “one size fits all” model of teaching, only those confident in doing that one thing will succeed. Feedback informs instruction, choice empowers students.