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.

Balancing Attention Span with Time to Learn

Version 2It is well known that our youngest students, those ages 3 to 5 or 6, have shorter attention spans than older children. One way of handling this is planning many relatively short activities, so that the children go from one activity to the next before their attention is over taxed. With well practiced transitions, this can be an effective strategy. The problem with this is that it is likely that while flagging attention recommends a new activity, the concept the children were learning in that activity has probably not had time to sink in. If the children proceed from one activity to the next and each activity is used to teach a different concept, then the net result of the entire lesson is that little learning has taken place, and the children have possibly left your class with their heads spinning. This can easily happen if the teacher is activity driven; that is, having students do a series of activities without an objective or long-range goal beyond completing the activity.

Where many short activities are called for, at least two or three consecutive ones should be used to teach the same concept. Here is an example from my PK 4 class that I taught this morning. The objective of a string of activities was to teach paired eighth notes aurally. First, I taught them to clap once after each instance of me playing two eighth notes on a drum. In other words, I played du-de, and then they clapped du on the next beat. The result was the well-known “We Will Rock You” beat, though these 4-year olds didn’t recognize it as such. Once practiced, we continued that beat while I chanted the lyrics to a song about various ways turkeys like to move. From there, I transitioned to playing and singing the song on the piano while they continued to clap as before on the refrain, but now they moved in the ways described in the song, which included moving the beak (mouth), feathers (wings), and drumstick (legs). Because children would almost always prefer to move faster rather than slower, they quite naturally flapped, danced, and moved their jaws at an eighth note beat.

The third activity in the string was singing “Aken Drum.” Aken Drum is described in the song as having body parts made of various foods. This is a very familiar song for this class. We clapped the rhythm of each food mentioned, and they were able to find the difference between “ap-ple” which was two quarter notes, and “cel-er-y,” which was two eighth notes and the beginning of another pair of eighth notes (his body was made of cel-er-y of cel-er-y of cel-er-y). This was followed by group and solo singing of a favorite song of theirs, Pierrot (In the evening moonlight stands Pierrot tonight, pleading for a pencil so that he can write). Du-de du-de du du du-de du-de du. More pairs of eighth notes, now associated with the activities that have come just before. The stated goal of this activity is to show me a singing voice, but the eighth notes are still there, even if they go unmentioned.

None of these activities is original or brilliant on my part–I’m sure you’ve done some or classroomall of them in your music classes. But I want to draw attention to how all three activities included pairs of eighth notes and included performing them in different ways, including singing, dancing, clapping, and chanting. The children remained engaged because they were not being asked to stay on the same activity for longer than they could pay attention, but their learning remained focused and consistent from one activity to the next so that by the time they had completed all three activities, learning about pairs of eighth notes had sunk in. Children need more time than we often give them to assimilate what we’ve taught them, and they need the opportunity to do what we want them to do in the mode most effective for their learning, i.e. kinesthetic, visual, oral, etc.

The goal of any teaching is for students to transfer learning to new situations. The ability to use what has been learned in new situations is proof that the child understands what we’ve taught. Later in the lesson, the class danced to recorded music. I do this during each of their classes. Today, they danced to Dvorak’s “Humoreque.” The first section is based on a dotted eighth and sixteenth note rhythm, but the second section is loaded with pairs of eighth notes. The students moved freely and a little unsurely during the first section, but with noticeably more confidence and familiarity when they heard the second section, the one with the pairs of eighth notes.

The key to short activities is for there to be an objective that can be met in a short amount of time. This doesn’t mean that the objective is superficial or limited to low-level thinking, but rather that the children can experience success at meeting a standards-based objective in a short amount of time. In the example above, it was recognizing (in the clapping and dancing activities) and accurately performing (in the clapping and singing activities) pairs of eighth notes to a steady pulse. With older children who are able to maintain focus over longer periods of time, the activities can be longer, making it possible for them to tackle harder problems, and more abstract concepts; however, the objective is still the priority. Simply making an activity longer because the student is older, without increasing depth or learning level does not foster better learning. On the contrary, it may well result in boredom because long periods of time are being spent on achieving a goal that just doesn’t seem to be worth the time investment.

The objective determines the amount of time needed to achieve it, including how long students will spend working on it at a time. The time spent on an activity must be justified by the value of what learning is to be gained. When the value is low, the activity becomes merely busy work. Generally, I find that for a forty-five minute class, 7-8 activities works well for pre-kindergarten and kindergarten, 3-4 is good for 5th grade, and 1-2 activities per class works well for 7th or 8th graders. If new learning is being introduced, fewer activities are better so that more time can be spent learning and practicing what is new. Classes of the same grade or age are different from each other too. One fifth grade class might do well with 3 activities per class while another needs 5 to hold their attention. Stick to the objective, and make the number of activities fit the objective and the students.

Seeing the Forest in Lesson Planning

2011 Symposium2

Many music teachers plan their instruction in units. A unit on playing recorder, a unit on composing, a unit on African drum circles, or what have you. This is a good practice. What makes it good is that it gives teachers a structure for a sequence of lessons. The end goal is stated at the outset, and lessons within the unit are written with the goal in mind, each class moving the students along the “path” toward the destination. Planning around a unit helps keeps lessons focused and connected, and helps prevent falling into teaching “one and done” classes that don’t really connect to what was taught previously or what will be taught next time. Students need lessons to be presented in a logical order so that they can build upon what they have learned, using their knowledge and experience to take on and succeed at new challenges.

Even if you think you don’t teach in units, if you’re lesson planning is effective, you probably are teaching units de facto. If you write your lesson plans weekly, you probably look at what your students accomplished over the past week, and write the next lesson based on how the last one went. Where your students’ progress stood after the last lesson becomes the starting point for the next. You decide if students are ready to go on, or if more teaching or re-teaching is needed first. Of course, there will always be a need to adjust plans, both at the writing stage, and to a lesser extent even in real time as a lesson is taught. But there is a way to plan lesson that reduces the likelihood that students will need further instruction before going on. That way is to plan backwards. Here is how it works.

Decide what you want your students to be able to do four weeks from now. It could be three, or five or six, but I like to use four. Write your lesson plan for that class where they will be a able to accomplish your objective. Once that lesson is written, read it over and make a list of what your students will have needed to know in order to successfully complete that lesson. Now right the lesson plan for the previous lesson, the one you will teach in three weeks. This lesson will teach the things you listed, the things the students will need to be able to do for the next lesson. When that lesson is written, do the same thing. Make a list of what students will need to know for the third lesson, and then write arecite-1ho3rx2 plan in which they will learn those things, which will be your lesson plan in two weeks. Write one more lesson for week one, and you now have four weeks of lessons for that class that are well sequenced, and which anticipate student needs. Instead of hoping students learn what they will need to know and carryover into the next lesson, you are more certain that they will learn those things because you have anticipated their needs, and designed your instruction around what they will need, instead of allowing them to experience discouragement because they are trying to do something they have not been adequately prepared to do.

Due to our performance and rehearsal orientation as music teachers, this way of planning is somewhat counter intuitive for us. We are used to having students play or sing in rehearsals, stopping them, correcting them, and then having them try again. We all know how time consuming that is. By preparing them to avoid mistakes before asking them to perform, we are making our instruction more encouraging for our students, and more efficient. Although I had general music classes in mind as I described backwards planning, it is an equally effective way of planning rehearsals as well. Honestly, lesson planning for many ensemble directors is often poorly executed. A band, choir or orchestra director’s lesson plan often consists of a list of passages he or she will rehearse, followed by a run through of the section containing the passages, or of the whole piece. That really isn’t so much a plan as it is an agenda or to-do list. Nothing of what the student will be able to do at the end of instruction (objective) or of what the students will be asked to do in order to learn (task) are indicated or sometimes even known by the teacher. Backwards planning solves all of this.

The director, as part of his or her planning process, looks at the score with an eye to anticipating trouble spots, and of deciding what students need to know and be able to do in order to play or sing the music that will be rehearsed. There should also be a conceptual reason for learning that particular piece in the first place. You might be performing a Renaissance madrigal with your choir because you want your singers to develop a light and expressive head voice, because you want to teach syncopated rhythm, or because you want to make connections with what the social studies teacher is doing with those students in his or her unit on the Renaissance. Plan to highlight and teach those aspects of the music that pertain to the conceptual plan.

Then, there are the performance skills needed to sing Renaissance music. Before attempting to sing a madrigal, the singers should have experience singing in a light head voice. If all they have ever done is belt out pop tunes in a jazz or swing choir, then instruction in producing a good vocal sound using the head voice and in audiating and performing syncopated division rhythm patterns  is needed before teaching the madrigal. It is discouraging for students to encounter an unfamiliar singing technique and unfamiliar types of rhythms in the midst of learning an unfamiliar piece of repertoire in an unfamiliar musical genre. That is just too much newness all at once. While including a Renaissance motet in a choir’s repertoire is generally good, what may be intended as “exposing students to a genre of music” can easily become turning them off to a genre of music by designing a bad experience with it from the outset. The teacher must always prepare students for the next step, whatever it will be, for asking them to take it. Even in cases where students will be “exploring” or improvising, sufficient context and experience must be established so that students understand what they are looking for, or trying to accomplish.

Backwards planning is more work up front for the teacher. Instead of writing one week of plans, four or more must be written. Instead of just reacting to whatever happens in class or rehearsal, one must take the time to anticipate what will probably happen in class, and plan to prepare your students for it. Planning backwards is proactive instead of reactive, and that is why it is better. Once that initial block of planning is accomplished, you will be rewarded with higher student achievement, interest, and even better classroom behavior.


Supercharge Your Music Lesson Plans

2011 Symposium2

While  lesson planning is essential to delivering quality instruction, I must admit that I often don’t enjoy writing lesson plans. The task often becomes more time consuming than I would like as I search for materials that will be just right for a particular class and objective. While there is a certain flow from one lesson to the next, writing for a new unit or topic can be especially challenging. This summer I found an extremely helpful tool at the Connecticut State Department of Education Arts home page. It’s a conceptualization made by Margaret Fitzgerald of the National Core Arts Standards (NCAS) as an inverted pyramid. This pyramid can instantly add depth and rigor to your lesson plans, and give you an organization and focus for instruction that can otherwise be easily overlooked or under represented.



When you sit down to write a plan, start by choosing one of the four artistic processes: Create, Perform, Respond, or Connect. NAfME has embedded connect into the other three, so you may want to choose one of the first three and then include connect within each lesson. Next, go to the “standards at a glance” and choose the course for which you are planning from the drop down menu. I teach General Music, so I selected “music.” Find the table for the artistic process you chose, then the process component that applies to the concept you want to teach. The process components are shown on the left most column, and include things like “select,” “analyze,” “evaluate,” and so forth. With these choices made, you can copy the anchor standard, essential question, and enduring understanding that pertain to your lesson. You can also copy the performance standard, which is the text in the columns under the grade level boxes. Finally, fill in your strand, which is the course you will be teaching the lesson for (general music, band, etc.).

With all of this in place, you are now ready to list the steps you will take your students through. This is called “instruction” in the pyramid. With all of the information that has gone before the instruction steps, it is now a relatively easy matter to write out what you will do to address the anchor standard, enduring understanding, essential question, and performance standard. I find that the steps come quickly with all of that foundation laid, and the foundation is not something I have to come up with every time, it is already all laid out right there in the national core arts standards for music. I use the connect process by asking students to relate music to their own interests and experience, and by relating musical concepts to math, science and language arts, and to visual art, theater and dance.

Here is one of my lesson plans, which I share with you here as an example of what I have just described. EU is enduring understanding, and EQ is essential question. To state an objective for the lesson, I simply paraphrase the performance standard. For this lesson, I would state my objective, “students will be able to analyze, read from standard music notation, rehearse, and perform a given hip-hop groove.” I write all of my plans on Google Docs. From there I can access them in my classroom, and easily share them with my administrator. You will notice this plan includes a link to a video of the drum groove. I use videos from YouTube frequently and like providing hyperlinks in my plans. This helps me keep track of where my videos are, and keeps a record of what I used for future years, or for revisiting later in the year. I do the same with all of the online resources I use. I hope you enjoyed this, and find it helpful.

Grade 8_Week 4_2016-2017

Process: Perform

Anchor Standards:  

  1. Select, analyze, and interpret artistic work for presentation.
  2. Develop and refine artistic techniques and work for presentation.


  • Analyzing creators’ context and how they manipulate elements of music provides insight into their intent and informs performance.
  • To express their musical ideas, musicians analyze, evaluate, and refine their performance over time through openness to new ideas, persistence, and the application of appropriate criteria.


  • How does understanding the structure and context of musical works inform performance?
  • How do musicians improve the quality of their performance?

Process components: Analyze, Rehearse, Evaluate, Refine

Strand: General Music

Grade: 8

Performance Standards:

  • When analyzing selected music, sight- read in treble or bass clef simple rhythmic, melodic, and/or harmonic notation.
  • a Identify and apply personally- developed criteria (such as demonstrating correct interpretation of notation, technical skill of performers, originality, emotional impact, variety , and interest) to rehearse, refine, and determine when the music is ready to perform.


  1. Have each student pick up a listening journal on the way in. On the journal will be the following questions:
    1. What percussion instruments do you hear or see?
    2. How many beats does he play before he adds a fill and starts the pattern over?
    3. What genre or style of music would you say this is?
    4. What is one thing you wonder about this groove?
  2. Play the video of Shane playing Tommy Igoe’s Groove 16 Slow from Groove Essentials. Have each student fill out their listening journal as they listen.
  3. Analyze the groove with the students. Tell students to listen for the answers to their journal questions as the analysis proceeds. Break it down to look at what each instrument is doing. Combine all x notes into one steady eighth note part, so you will break out high hat, kick, and snare.
  4. Lead the whole class in rehearsing each part, one at a time using buckets for the kick, shakers for the high hat, and drums with mallets or sticks for the snare. Teach performance techniques as necessary. After each attempt, solicit evaluations of the performance from individual students, and form goals for the next attempt based on the evaluations. Continue so that a process of refining occurs.
  5. Divide the class into three groups, and assign a different instrument part (kick, high hat or snare) to each group. Lead the class in having each group play their part individually and then together with one then two other parts. After each attempt, solicit evaluations of the performance from individual students, and form goals for the next attempt based on the evaluations. Continue so that a process of refining occurs.
  6. On the back of their listening journals, have each student write down how analyzing and evaluating helped improve their performance (exit ticket).


Planning Instruction Part 2

2011 Symposium2

In the first part of this series, I discussed classroom management strategies. Classroom management includes everything under the teacher’s control that affects the learning environment, and ranges from arrangement of furniture, to routines and procedures, to student behavior plans. All of these things must be part of the planning process. Effective teachers think through the student learning experience, and create an atmosphere that helps, supports, and encourages student learning and success. How and when students will move around the room, where they will sit, and how they will interact with each other are just as important to plan for as learning activities and assessments.

In this article, I will discuss planning what the teacher and student will do within the created learning environment. Broadly, there are three sections to every effective lesson. These are presentation of the task, student interaction with the task, and feedback related to the performance of the task. The first of these, presentation, is especially important because it is during this section that the teacher needs to get the students’ attention, peak their interest, and make what the students will be doing clear to them. It is not enough to simply explain the task. If the presentation is dry and uninteresting, it will be difficult to rescue the lesson and get the students actively engaging with the task later on.

An effective presentation of the task builds value. During this section of the lesson, the teacher shows the class why they are being given the task, and what benefits they can expect to gain once they have learned through instruction, practice, and presentation to successfully perform the task. Students are much more willing to do what you ask them to do if they understand why you are asking them to do the task. Often, you will be stopped in your tracks when you try to explain to yourself why you are asking your students to perform the task. For example, suppose you want your students to compose eight 2-beat rhythms using quarter notes, quarter rests, eighth rests and paired eighth notes. You tell them to think of rhythms that fit that description and write them down in standard music notation on the paper provided. Why do you want them to do this? To assess their ability to write rhythms that are 2-beats? To assess their ability to accurately and legibly write notes? To express a feeling of sadness or happiness with rhythm? To create the first eighth measures of a composition project? Each of these purposes will need to be handled differently by you and the students, so it’s important everyone understand the purpose right form the start.

Why does it matter if music is written down legibly? It’s exciting to hear one’s own musical creation performed by others. If a student is able to write his or her ideas down legibly, then another student will be able to read the notes and perform it accurately, just the way the composer intended. If the notes are not legible, others won’t want to bother trying to figure out what it says, or they will misread what was meant and perform the recite-76bommusic incorrectly. Why does it matter if every rhythm is exactly 2 beats long? Music has the beats students enjoy because of regularly occurring patterns of strong and weak beats. When rhythm patterns are of variable lengths, that strong sense of pulse is made unclear, and the music might become less enjoyable. It’s important to write rhythm patterns of equal length so that more people will enjoy our music. Why is it necessary to write eight rhythms? Most music is written in 4 or 8 measure phrases. Getting student used to thinking in 4 and 8 measure time spans encourages them to compose more musically satisfying music, and it allows the music to be long enough to effectively express an emotion. Notice that each reason given is tied to the students’ enjoyment, expression, and/or success. Establishing this value in the task motivates students to become fully involved.

When presenting the task to students, it is also important to use different methods. These include lecture/demonstration, modeling, verbal imagery, and both verbal and non-verbal gestures and instruction. Lecture/demonstration involves telling a class what they are going to do while at the same time doing an example of the task for all to see and hear. In the example above, while describing the task, I would write eight 4-beat rhythms on the board that fit the description. This allows aural learners to listen while visual learners see me do the task, and it allows the visual and aural aspects of my presentation to be mutually reinforcing. Modeling is similar to demonstration, but is more detailed. It includes not only what to do but how to work. I might sit in a chair in front of the class and tap out some rhythms on my lap until I found one I liked. Then I would repeat that rhythm several times while I tried to figure out what kind of notes were in the rhythm. I might talk to myself out loud. “That beat had just one sound in it so it must have been a quarter note. Okay, I’ll write a quarter note down. Now what came next? Okay, that one had two sounds in one beat, so that must have been two eighth notes. I’ll write them down here next to the quarter note I just wrote. Now what came next–two notes on a beat again, so two more eighth notes. Okay, let me see what I have so far. (tap the rhythm written down so far). That didn’t sound right. There is supposed to be a pause between the two pairs of eighth notes. Oh, that must be a rest. I’ll write that in between the two eighth note pairs. Now let’s see how that sounds (tap the rhythm again). Yup, that’s what I wanted. Okay, now i can go on…”

I might use verbal imagery to show students how to write with expressive intent. “I want my rhythms to tell a kind of story of an approaching thunder storm. Gradually the wind picks up until it is blowing fairly steady, then all of a sudden the rain starts falling fast. So I start with quiet slow rhythms and add faster and louder rhythms to be the increasing wind. Then I use steady eighth note pairs for the rain.” For non-verbal instruction, I might  have the students improvise a 2-beat rhythm when I conduct two beats. Rhythm is left to the student, but tempo, dynamic and perhaps even emotion is dependent on how I conduct.  With my use of non-verbal conducting gestures, students are guided in practice generating 2-beat rhythms with an expressive intent.

In the next article in this series, we will examine the next section in an effective lesson, the students’ interaction with the task.

The Power of the Exit Ticket

2011 Symposium2

Exit tickets are a helpful and efficient tool for assessing student learning. While you (should) have communicated your objective and expectations for students at the beginning of the lesson, and while students may have completed all work that you assigned for them to do during the lesson, none of this gives is a reliable indicator of what students take with them in terms of learning from your class. For example, you might rehearse a piece and find that by the end of the lesson, the class can perform it up to your expectations. But you don’t necessarily know what they learned from doing so. Did they sing or play from rote? Did they acquire any understanding of the structure or expressiveness of the music? Even more interesting, what did they learn from what they did in your class that you did not plan for them to learn, and and aren’t even aware that they did learn? If you have never explored the unplanned learning that takes place in your classroom, I urge you to do so. It can be surprising and helpful to know what they are really learning in your class.

Here is an example of what the exit ticket can tell you. Exit tickets are just a slip of paper on which students write a summarizing statement of their learning for the day. It can be as simple as “what did you learn about rhythm today?” Students take five minutes or less to answer the question, and then leave it in a tray or designated spot near the exit as they leave your room. If you travel to a classroom to teach, have the students pass them in just before you leave. For a recent seventh grade lesson that was centered around a bucket drumming activity, I used the question I just mentioned for the exit slip: “what did you learn about rhythm today?” Below I have listed the responses I received from one of the classes.

  • Rhythm has to beat a certain way.
  • I learned how to use rhythm on a drum in beats
  • I learned that rhythm can be used with different notes
  • I learned different kinds of rhythms and how to follow more directions
  • When you see a squiggle you pause because it is a rest
  • Music notes can represent different rhythms
  • I learned how to read notes and play the rhythm
  • I learned rhythm can be the whole song by itself
  • I learned that there are many ways to write rhythm notes.
  • Rhythm can be in many forms
  • Rhythm makes a great beat
  • Rhythms are unique and with each specific beat comes with a catchy rhythm.
  • Rhythm can be fun
  • Rhythm is in every note
  • When it comes to multiple people they must work together to sound better.
  • Rhythm can be expressed with many feelings
  • Rhythm has to be practiced
  • I learned about the dot next to one of the notes
  • Rhythm is like a pattern
  • I learned that every beat has a certain type of order

Only a few of these are what I set out to teach that day, but all of them are terrific. My lesson consisted of presenting rhythm patterns on flash cards, explaining the notation where necessary, and having the class clap each card, repeating the ones they had trouble with after I had given them feedback. I then had them learn five rhythm patterns that I quotescover-PNG-35had posted on by bulletin board at the back of the room, and choreography for two of them. The choreography involved moving to the next bucket in the circle, or sliding the bucket to the next person, both done during rests. A student leader decided when they would switch to the next rhythm by dropping a large card with a number 1, 2, 3, 4, or 5 on it, indicating which pattern was to be performed. That is all I taught them. It was intended to be primarily a rhythm reading lesson. But look at all the other things they learned. Following directions, rhythm without pitch can be a song, every note has rhythm, the importance of practice, rhythm is orderly. These are great things for students to learn, and even great things for students to apply to other areas of their school work and their lives. Practice, order, and following directions will get you far no matter what you are doing.

There’s another benefit to seeing students’ list of what they learned in a lesson. There are  ideas for other lessons embedded. For example, I can use “rhythm can be expressed with many feelings” to teach expressive intent, which is an anchor standard in the new core arts standards. I want to explore with this student what feelings she found expressed in the rhythms we did, and then let the class create other rhythms that are similar and express the same emotion. I also want to emphasize that structure and organization is what brings order to every beat, and to teach the students how to work with musical structure to organize their composed music. Once they have composed their rhythm music, I want them to realize that unlike a piece of finished visual art, which is ready to present to an audience when the creating is finished, music must be performed after it is created, or else it does not reach an audience. In order for a musical work to be ready to present to an audience, it must be practiced, and when a group of people are performing the work together, it takes a special kind of practice that includes following directions of the composer, the conductor if there is one, and of collaborating with each other to arrive at an interpretation, and at technical proficiency. I can also teach how musicians know when a musical work is ready to present to an audience, which is again from the core arts standards.

You see how these statements left by students on their exit tickets are valuable to future lesson planning, and in getting a clearer picture of where my students are, what approach to learning they are taking, and how I connect with more precision my own teaching to where they are in the learning process. Having students write down what they learned also helps them leave your class realizing that they actually did learn something, and that there was a purpose to all the fun they had. With that kind of effective closure, students are apt to approach music class more seriously, and with higher expectations of both the importance of what they will be doing, and that they will in fact learn something substantive, beyond just singing songs or playing instruments. They will know what they are learning and what they are able to do as a result of being in your class. While the teacher should know this and plan for this, it is at least just as important for students to be clear on this too.

Before the Lesson Plan

2011 Symposium2

Teachers know that quality instruction doesn’t just happen by chance in the classroom, and trying to improvise lessons just doesn’t work. Quality instruction has to be planned. Certainly flexibility will be needed, and everything will not always go as planned, but teaching without planning will not result in significant learning. What many teachers do not realize, is that writing a lesson plan is not where planning starts. The lesson plan actually comes quite late in the planning process. It is the specific implementation of one in many details that together form a larger plan, and form an overall goal. Let me explain.

Lessons rarely are isolated learning opportunities. This is because rarely is there something worthwhile that all students can master in one lesson, and rarely do all students, or even most students retain everything they learn in a single class meeting. With multiple lessons needed to teach a given concept, or to complete a given learning project or activity, all of the lesson included in teaching that concept or facilitating that project need to be well sequenced and organized so that they systematically and clearly lead students through the learning from start to finish. So the initial question in planning is not what is to be taught and learned in a single lesson, but instead, what piece of the longer term goal is going to be accomplished, and is this the right time to put this piece in place. Knowing this requires a vision and a goal to which students will be working over the course of a number of lessons. It is here that the teacher can describe the vision, the objectives, and the student needs that will be met.

With a vision and objectives in mind, the teacher now must determine what students will do to meet the objectives. Some teachers mistake describing what students will do with a complete lesson plan, but this is a mistake; learning activities must serve objectives, needs, and be directed toward eventual assessment, all of which are necessary parts of a lesson plan. The point here, though, is to create a clear picture of how students will experience learning in the classroom. What will their educational experience be. Thissmall group instruction includes not only activities, but also anticipating challenges, embedding motivational strategies and encouragements, and allowing for students to lead and guide their own learning through exploration, research, collaboration and other strategies. The experience will be reflected in a student’s description of what it was like to be in those classes.

Next, before more time is spent planning, the teacher must determine what resources will be needed to accomplish the objectives and realize the vision. This is important for two reasons. First, resources must be collected or created in advance, and second, if the needed resources are not available, the vision and objectives may need to be revised or changed. Now is the time to know this.

After materials and resources are ready, it is time to flesh out the specific details of the task. Procedures, time schedules, deadlines, how students will work (independently, in small groups, etc.) all need to be thought out. The teacher at this stage of planning mentally goes to his or her class, and rehearses how the lesson will flow for a student. By doing this, missing steps and left out details often become apparent that would otherwise be overlooked.

After all of this, it is, alas, time to write the lesson plan. By now, the teacher has all the information he or she needs to be able to write down the lesson objective in the context of the overall objectives and vision, and a step-by-step presentation of what he or she will do in the classroom, what will be asked of the students, and what will be assessed and how it will be assessed. Assessment is critical to determine how the student did in a particular lesson, and also what progress the student is making toward the overall objectives and vision of the unit. As all of this is written down, the students’ experience will become evident. At this point, the planning process is complete, and it’s time to go teach.

This whole process will not be necessary for every lesson; the learning sequence established through what has been described will do nicely throughout the unit, right up to finishing the objectives. But the whole process is necessary for every unit or sequence of lessons, and every lesson must have a plan that is properly attached to the vision and objectives of the unit. The critical thing is not to isolate lessons that are difficult for the students to connect, but to relate them in a sequential and logical way so that several lessons gradually lead to accomplishing a goal.


How Fun Does Music Class Have to Be?

2011Symposium_1_2If there is one thing that will make or break a lesson, it is how the teacher gets the class started. Any delay in engaging and capturing students focus will result in a slow start from which it is difficult to recover.  Ways to do this have been given different names for different generations. Madeline Hunter called it the Anticipatory Set. Others have written about the hook. What they are all talking about is the need to get your students attention, and to establish relevance immediately. The hook gets their attention. Doug Lemov in his book, Teach Like A Champion, described the hook as “a short introductory moment that captures what’s interesting and engaging about the material and puts it out front…it prepares students to be brought up to the material.” Lemon identifies three kinds of hooks; they are story, analogy, prop, media, status (describe something great), and challenge.

I recently attended a class on the unwinnability of the “rat race.” The teacher identified five traps to avoid. As he named the first trap, he mentioned that he had placed several rat traps around the room, and cautioned us all not to get caught in one, he then took the stick that was in his hand and sprung one of the rat traps, placed on the floor behind one of the tables around which we were seated. With the loud snap and the jump of the trap, he had all of our attention in a hurry. It combined the element of surprise, entertainment, and a good word picture to capture our attention. The mouse traps were an effective hook, and an example of a prop.


Relevancy is established by applying previous learning and experience. A short time spent on practicing previous learning is also done soon into the lesson. I used previous learning today by immediately using slur markings on lyrics instead of musical notes. I placed a slur mark underneath each syllable of lyrics that had two pitches assigned to it to make memorization of the melody easier without reading music notation. My students performed a slur while seeing a slur added to words they were familiar with. The new use of slurs got their attention, and made learning the new song more interesting. I then moved on to another part of the song that included another type of articulation, the accent. I added accent marks to the lyrics, and then taught them how I wanted the accents sung. They knew where to sing them from the markings, so they could concentrate on how to sing them. Now when they see slurs and accents, whether in music or lyrics, they have a better understanding of what to do with them.

Once the teacher has established a reputation for attention grabbing and relevant beginnings to a lesson, the folderol than can easily hijack the beginning of a lesson disintegrates, as student anticipate something worth seeing and hearing. That is why, I believe, the beginning of the lesson is called the anticipatory set. It is a set of strategies that teaches the students to anticipate something worthwhile, while it also anticipates what is to follow in the lesson.

Keeping Students Connected to and Enjoying Music Class

2011Symposium_1_2Often, a student will come into my classroom drumming a rhythm or singing a tune, or even dancing. Initially, I am glad to see them living with music so enjoyably, but usually, I am compelled to ask them to stop so that we can begin our lesson. Sometimes, the student will reply, “but it’s music, I’m doing music.” They don’t really expect to be allowed to continue on through the class, but the claim to their music is a fascinating one. After all, what math teacher finds students solving formulas or graphing sets of numbers, and has to be told to stop because today they are going to be reducing fractions. We music teachers have the joy of teaching a subject that students choose to use outside our classes. But what should we do when the musical activity they want to engage in is different from what we want or need to teach?

Though it’s not always possible, the first thing we can do is try to incorporate or bridge what we plan to teach from what the students are already doing. I mentioned yesterday that one way of incorporating music reading into every lesson is to transcribe something a student sings and then have the class read the transcription. I have used the music a student is spontaneously singing for such a transcription. The student is usually surprised I was even listening, and even more surprised that I can quickly write the notes for it on the board. Once I’m teaching something the student has brought into the classroom, they can hardly complain about not liking the song.

There’s also an element of being able to think on my feet. If a student is Self-Imagedrumming a rhythm on their chair, I might try to quickly think of a song they know or that I can teach them that fits with that rhythm. It doesn’t even have to be the rhythm that originally went with the song–students are open to remixes as long as it has a good beat. I might even just invite the student or students to perform the song for the class, especially if it does not pull me too far from my planned lesson. There’s a lot about spontaneous music making and enjoyment that I want to encourage. After all, that’s what I hope my teaching ultimately achieves for my students–that they will be equipped to enjoy music making for the rest of their lives.

Another approach, used when what the student is doing really is a long way from what I planned to teach that day, is to ask the student to write a lesson using that song. I ask them to think of things the class could learn from and about the song, and to write the lesson plan. I’ll give the student one of my lesson plans to use as a model. I will also give the student the option of teaching the lesson. Otherwise, I will offer to teach it, using the lesson plan the student has written. Because students are inexperienced lesson planners, I would also meet with the student ahead of time to firm up plans, making sure that the lesson will be what the student has in mind. It also does all of us good to let the students experience a class from our perspective. I find that once a student has taught a class and been in the position of dealing with classmates who are not paying attention to them, the student-teacher becomes a more attentive student when they return to their role as student.

Music really is a joy. While music teachers must be conscientious to teach to standards and objectives, we must also remember that it should be fun. Goals and objectives should lead to better teaching an learning, but not take the enjoyment away.

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.