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.

Using Portfolios to Improve Music Instruction

Version 2Portfolios in education are collections of student work and of documents related to those pieces of student work. They make possible the documentation of student activity and learning, the reflecting upon work even days or weeks after it is completed, and the charting of progress over time as work collected at various moments is compared in order to assess growth. Maintaining a portfolio allows more lasting and in-depth learning to take place, and makes more tangible the accomplishments of music students whose work, particularly in the performing area, can easily be lost to time after a performance is given.

In this post, I will discuss the elements of the music portfolio other than the initial student work, which includes items like notated composed music, audio or video recordings of performances, and written responses to performed music. When students are participating in a music class, it is important for them to know what they are learning, as opposed to what they are doing. The two are not the same. If a child is asked what they are learning and the child replies that he or she is learning to sing a song, or play an instrument, then the teacher has not effectively communicated the learning objective. A child is learning a song in order to gain ability or proficiency or understanding of a musical concept or skill, and if a skill, then is learning that skill in order to gain proficiency or understanding of a concept. Even if the child’s actions are recorded and placed in a portfolio, understanding is easily lost unless the child has the opportunity to draw it out of the activity.

In order to do this, reflection is a necessary part of the portfolio building process. The reflection should answer at least three questions: what did you do? how well did you do what you did? How could you improve? What did you learn from doing what you did? The responses to these questions might look something like this: What did you do? I improvised rhythms that were four beats and that sounded scary.” How well did you do what you did? I think I did well making my rhythms sound scary, but I’m not sure how many beats most of them were. I didn’t do so well making them all four beats.” How could you improve? “I could learn how to make one beat with different kinds of notes. I don’t really understand the difference between beats and notes.” What did you learn from doing what you did? “I learned that using rests makes music sound scary, and that other people don’t think my music sounds scary. I also learned that it is fun to make my own notes.”

These are actual reflections that some of my students made after doing a rhythm composition project. Think of the juncture each student was at after finishing the project. Without the reflection piece, they would have performed their composition for me, supported their creative choices in terms of conveying an expressive intent, and that would have been the end of it. But with the addition of the reflection, the students notmusic and the brain only realize what is still unclear to them (knowing how to write one beat of music with various note and rest values), but I have the opportunity to address their need, and encourage them to pursue their improvement and praise their reflection, instead of just leaving them with the knowledge that they did part of the assignment incorrectly. The reflection also brings to the front of their mind the concepts of expressive intent, note/rest values, and interpretation (by classmates), and gives them the opportunity to think about what they have done, and what they will take away from the project and apply to other situations. Because the reflections are evidence of learning and are also self-assessments, they are, along with the initial product (in this case a notated rhythm composition) student work and so legitimately belong in the portfolio.

Davidson, Crouch, & Norton identified 5 learning processes. These processes align beautifully with the 4 artistic processes of the National Core Arts Standards (NCAS); they are naturally a part of how musicians work and correlate well with the Enduring Understandings and Essential Questions found in the NCAS. The 5 processes are, listening, performing, creating, questioning, and reflecting. Davidson, Crouch, & Norton explained that, “musicians become expert listeners; they constantly work at performance; they create with instruments or as composers and improvisers; they develop a questioning frame of mind in relation to their work; and they reflect constantly on the quality of their work, both through actions and words” Davidson, L., Crouch, S., & Norton, A, 2000). The extent to which musicians engage in questioning their work, of analyzing, generating ideas, organizing those ideas, rejecting or utilizing ideas, and shaping them into a creative composition or interpretation prepares students for not only producing musical work, but also of bringing high levels of scholarship through those kinds of inquiries to other disciplines, which in turn fosters the ability to make connections between music and the other arts, and between music and other disciplines, which is also featured in the NCAS.

Because there is always intent and interpretation in woven into the work of musicians, there is also reflection upon what has been done to determine the effectiveness of conveying the intent through creation and/or interpretation. Musicians are constantly reflecting on what they have just done in order to refine what they do next; such is the process of rehearsing and preparing a performance for presentation to an audience. When these reflections are made explicit through writing them down or verbalizing them in an interview, they are apt to result in more insight and more thoughtful and informed self-assessment and correction, than when they are allowed to be nothing more than passing thoughts made during momentary pauses in practicing or composing. The first two need no elaboration; performing and listening are part and parcel of what all musicians do. Listening includes all that is included in the NCAS for responding to music, and all that is done over the course of monitoring and knowing what a musical is doing and how well they are doing it. Teachers can collect students’ written accounts of questioning and reflecting, use those accounts to deepen learning, and include them in each child’s portfolio.

Davidson, L., Crouch, S., & Norton, A, (2000). Learning through music in elementary school, Journal for Learning Through Music, Summer 2000, 56-67.

Analysis in the Music Classroom: A New Perspective

2011Symposium_1_2One of the best ways to engage students in higher level thinking and greater rigor, and raise their musicianship to the next level is to have them do music analysis. Music analysis is the gateway to interpretation and substantive musical understanding. Analysis is needed for fully experiencing music; it brings those musical elements that are less obvious than the melody and rhythm section parts to the listener’s or performer’s attention. Furthermore, it is also important for music educators to teach music analysis because students, who by and large are casual listeners, are not likely to attempt music analysis on their own, or even know what it is. Students should be proficient in using analysis as part of their preparation to perform a piece, and as a tool to understand and become more engaged with the music to which they listen. Analysis  also familiarizes students with the inner workings of music in general, and in the process prepares them to compose. The centrality of music analysis to music education is evidenced in its inclusion under performing, creating and responding in the new music standards.

Because of our pre-service training, analysis to most music educators probably brings to mind Fux speciesimage05 counterpoint, Schenkerian analysis, and four-part harmonization of melodies. Learning such things rightfully has a place in high school AP music theory classes, and other advanced secondary music courses. But none of this is likely to be of much practical value to most students, because relatively few of them spend much time listening to or performing renaissance counterpoint, and when they do listen to 19th century art music, they’re more interested in it’s emotional impact than on the function of an augmented sixth chord. They do spend a lot of time listening to other genres of music, and some spend a sizable amount of time playing and singing it too. The music analysis that students should be doing is the sort that is relevant to their musical involvement. For many music educators, this means we must take a more inclusive view of analysis.

Broadly speaking, analysis is the examination of the parts that make up the whole, and how those parts relate. When it comes to music, there are many kinds of parts available for inspection. In addition to prolongations, progressions, and the urlinie, parts of the whole also include orchestration and timbre, grouping of small musical ideas into motives, phrases, themes, theme groups, sections and pieces, parallelism, meter, occurrences of tension and release, expressive elements such as articulation, dynamics, and tempo, the use of background parts in relation to a melody, and the relationship between rhythm, background and melodic parts.

All of these are accessible and practical for most students, and are open to study not only from a notational perspective, but also from listening-responding, performing, and creating perspectives. For example, students can analyze the use of rhythm in building tension in a piece, and then explore the affect on the tension of changing the rhythm through performance of altered versions. Or, they could analyze the meter of a musical passage, and then explore the affect on meter of changing the articulation, again through performance of altered versions. Analysis is in this way brought into the creative process, and given relevance it can easily lack if left solely within the context of score-study-type music theory.

Notice the music analysis framework being proposed here does not require the student to have a college-level proficiency in music theory or even functional harmony. The analysis is of music as the student experiences it, not as a composer wrote it down. If the student is listener, the analysis is of what the student hears. If the student is singing or playing, the analysis is of what the student is performing. And the student exercises creativity and judgment when creating and evaluating alternate versions. Where the student’s performance is at variance with music s/he is reading, the performed and corrected performance can be analyzed as what was performed, and the student can learn not just what the mistake was, but how the mistake changed the composer’s intent. Reconciling the difference involves the student in valuable problem solving and uses metacognition. This view of analysis, that it is of what is experienced, unifies the task with performing, creating and responding content standards. It places analysis where it belongs, as an integral part of musicianship in the broadest sense, and avoids isolating analysis as a remote activity practiced only by scholars, and inaccessible to the general population of music lovers.