Second Half Adjustments

Version 2Now that winter recess is over, and we’re all back to school after the holidays, it is good to keep in mind that the second half is very different from the first. I have found that if I simply continuing going about my business in the second half just as I did in the first half, no matter how successful that first half was, results will begin to decline. The second half of the school year is different in important ways from the first half, and these differences must be taken into account when planning and delivering instruction.

One of the major differences is that there are more interruptions, especially if your school district has vacation weeks in both February and April. There may also be other days off for Martin Luther King Day, Three Kings Day, Memorial Day, President’s Day, and so forth. Coming back from all of these days off, and keeping some continuity and retention going in between can be challenging. Another difference is that students and teachers both are likely to be coming to school with some degree of illness. This illness can linger and become ongoing through much of the winter months resulting in elevated fatigue, poor attention, and the decline in performance one would expect with these symptoms. There is also the effect of darker weather outdoors. Winter here in New England becomes downright dreary, and the months of February and March can seem insurmountably long as a result.

The first adjustment that all of this recommends is to be ready to slow the pace of covering material. I don’t mean to slow down your day to day teaching pace, but rather to plan for teaching to generally take more time, more class meetings, to successfully teach units and concepts compared to the first half of the year. Don’t be surprised if your students just take longer to accomplish what you ask of them, and make that extra time part of your plan.

Having just returned from a vacation, students returning to your classroom tend to have forgotten or lost the habit of following classroom routines and procedures. Now is a good time to review and practice classroom procedures and expectations, similar to how you did at the beginning of the school year. It’s easy to let these things go at this time of year, as we assume our students already know these things, but knowing and doing are two different things. If they have gotten out of the habit of following classroom procedures and expectations, then lapses and poor behavior are going to become increasingly problematic. It is best to step back and get back into the routines of these things while the feeling of getting a fresh start in the new year is still present.

Another adjustment I make for the second half is in the length of the units I teach.  Whereas in the first half I tend to teach my longer units, in the second half, because I know I’m going to be interrupted by days off relatively frequently, I teach my shorter units. If there is a longer unit I have not taught yet, I will break it up into shorter sub-units so that I can achieve closer before each day off occurs. I also tend to try harder to make connections between lesson more explicit. I want to be sure that my students understand how they will use prior learning and performance successes in new learning settings. This strategy means frequent reviews, clear transitions from the reviews to the current lesson, and statements of application in my daily lesson closures.

Although I always try to make my lessons as engaging and relevant as possible, in the second half I tend to rely more on students selecting musical works, and more on the artistic process of creating. Both of these usually increase the level of engagement of my students, which in turn helps with better retention of material. Speaking of retention, in lessons such as these, where students have freedom in generating musical ideas, my-students-understandorganizing them into musical works, and so forth, it is more important than ever to interrupt student work in time to draw connections between the activity the students have been engaged in, and the concepts, skills, and knowledge you want them to have attained from doing the activity. These connections are brought out naturally during direct instruction, but can easily be overlooked when the teacher is facilitating or monitoring small group work or independent practice. Students must not only learn from you how well they did the activity, but also why they did the activity, and how they will apply what they have learned by doing.

The content of my units in the second half tends to be more performance oriented, because my performance calendar for the second half has more concerts and shows. I use the creating lessons not only to teach music composition, but also to teach “how music works” which prepares students to analyze the music they will be performing, to understand how all of the elemental parts fit together, and how they can manipulate their performance of those elements to shape the expressive qualities they bring to their singing or playing. Because I teach general music, band and chorus, I can easily reinforce  concepts, skills and knowledge in each rehearsal or class setting, including general music class, band or chorus rehearsal, and rehearsals for our school musical. Students who are involved in the latter are especially open to improving their singing skills in a way that they are not earlier in the year when the need to sing well is not so immediate. I take advantage of this relevance to teach as much singing technique as possible in the second half.

There is another aspect to second half adjustments, and that is the progress I have made on my year-long student learning objects (SLO). The second half begins with mid-year assessment so that I can compare my mid-year data to my benchmark assessment from the beginning of the year. If I do not see progress in my data for those objectives, then I must revisit how I have been teaching to those objectives and make the necessary adjustments to assure that I have met them by year’s end. This is of great interest to me, because those SLOs are important to my Teacher Evaluation (TEVAL) results. Good results benefit both my students and me, so those assessments are a prominent part of my mid-year adjustments. Mid year is enough time to get an accurate indication of how both my students and I are doing on those objectives.

I enjoy the second half of the school year. With all of those performances coming into view, I become energized, even in the face of a gloomy New England winter. Making the adjustments I have discussed keep the second half going smoothly and successfully.

Planning Instruction Part 3

2011 Symposium2If all has gone well up to this point, your students have followed well-practiced routines to enter your room and show you that they are ready to get to work, your room is arranged in a way that contributes to a good learning environment, and you have explained, demonstrated, modeled, and built value for the task they are going to perform that day. When you model the task, it is often helpful to create a visualization of what they will be doing. This is a description of the specific actions they will take, and may even include a time practicing an action if it is new to them. You might say something like this: “in a moment, the first person in each row will walk to the counter and get enough music paper for everyone in their row. You will pass the papers down your row, taking one for yourself and passing the rest along. You will take out a pencil and begin copy the melody from the board onto your papers. When you are finished you will raise your hand. When you see someone else raise their hand, trade papers with them and check each others’ work. Then you will return your papers and give me a thumbs up to tell me you are finished.” Wait about 30 seconds to allow what you have said to be rehearsed in their minds and for anyone to ask a clarifying question, and then say “go” to release them from listening to you to beginning the task. You have done all this in the first 5 or so minutes of class, and you are now arriving at that time when students should begin their task.

Now the students will be interacting with the task, not with you. You want them to work independently, to work out problems on their own, and even to struggle a little as they figure things out. Only after they have given it an extended and sincere effort and have been unable to continue should you offer to help them. Students will rise to a challenge if it is within their ability. We do our students no favors when we quickly jump in to save them from any anxiety to solve their problems for them.

Because students’ learning styles differ, and because a class of students will always include individuals who are at different levels of proficiency, not every student will or should be expected to interact with the task the same way. In the example of copying a melody from the board, some students will do this with little or no difficulty. Others will struggle and still not copy notes and rhythms accurately. We teachers have a tendency to assume that what is difficult for us is difficult for our students, and what is easy for us is easy for our students, but this simply is not always the case. It is more likely that our highest achieving students are doing well in our class partly because they have a learning style that matches how we most naturally tend to teach. But all students must be given the same opportunities to learn and succeed, so we must design tasks that allow students to choose how they will interact with the task. There are four options: aural, visual, tactile, and kinesthetic. For tactile learners, I should have a table with oversized music paper and round manipulative disks and bars that a tactile learner can pick up and place on the staff to copy the melody on the board. For aural learners, I should sing the melody, perhaps in solfege, and have the student write down what he or she hears. For the kinesthetic learner, I should allow him or her to step through the melody, placing their body in different locations for different pitches, and stepping with appropriate durations of time between steps to convey the rhythm, and then writing down what they have stepped. Only the visual learners will likely prefer to simply copy the melody they see on the board onto their paper.

Any intervention you have with students during the task, especially during the early parts of the task, will be to encourage and focus students, not to tutor them. Students who know if they wait you out will get some or all of the task done for them by the teacher are notrecite-c3icca likely to try to accomplish much, and are not likely to learn much from a task with which they only minimally interacted. You should ask students questions that, when they answer them, will lead them to discover, analyze, classify, personalize, hypothesize, reorder, synthesize, and/or evaluate. These are higher order thinking behaviors that students will not utilize if they are simply completing steps in a procedure without knowing why, and without taking time to examine each step and the results it produces when completed. In their copied melody, students might discover that it is a familiar tune, or similar to one they know in certain ways. Those certain ways are discovered when they analyze the melody, possibly including classifying the note durations. They might hypothesize why the composer used those rhythms in consideration of an expressive intent, and they might evaluate the melody and propose revisions that make the tune more enjoyable for them, thereby personalizing the music.

The last part of the students’ interaction with the task is to receive and process feedback you give them. Your feedback must be supportive, entirely intended to move the students forward in proficiency. This is not the time for summative evaluation where a grade is given. The feedback you are giving here will be part of learning that is still ongoing. It is important that time be allotted for the giving of supportive feedback, so that each student knows how they are doing, what their successes are, and what still needs to be done, improved, or revised. If you see your class only once or twice a week, by the time they see you again, they will not be ready to receive feedback because they will have lost the momentum and awareness of what they just did. Be sure to make the task short enough so that it does not go all the way to the end of the class meeting, and so that there is time to give supportive feedback.

The supportive feedback reflects the philosophy that errors or incorrect answers are used as a learning opportunity. If students have this attitude, then they will not be afraid to make mistakes, and will eagerly go over their mistakes to turn them into a success. When you give a student feedback, give him or her wait time to process what you have said, connect it to their work, and formulate an image of how the correction will look. Use questioning to assist students in doing this after they have had time to consider the feedback on their own. Your questions then should be relevant, clear, purposeful, and productive. Do not bring new criteria or unfamiliar concepts or material into the feedback, even if the work is outstanding and the student is ready to go on to something else. Allow the student to reflect on the high quality of their work, and why you consider it to be so well done, so that the student will be able to reproduce the quality, knowing exactly what he or she has done well.

The feedback will be most meaningful if it is immediate. Let the students know right away how they are doing, so they can act on your feedback while it is all fresh in their minds. Students need to be afforded time to practice independently those aspects of the task that they now can do better having received helpful feedback.Your role while students are practicing is simply to monitor their work, only intervening to prevent them from practicing a mistake.

To finish the class meeting, have students briefly summarize what they learned and what progress they made during the session. This can be done on a half sheet of composition paper, or even an index card, and turned in to you as an “exit ticket.” The exit ticket serves two useful purposes. First, it brings closure to the lesson, and second, it provides you with feedback on what the students got out of your lesson, what misunderstandings or gaps may still exist in the students’ learning. Both can be folded back into the next lesson in the form of the next task, and also general feedback for the class where common issues are revealed.

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.


More on Learning Objectives

2011 Symposium2

No matter what we do, having a target in mind is essential. If we don’t know what we are trying to accomplish, nothing but sheer luck can bring our endeavor to a successful conclusion. In fact, without a target, we can’t even know what success is or how to recognize we have succeeded. This goes for both teachers and students. Both need to know what the target is, what progress has been made, and when success has been reached. Knowing how to write  a good learning objective is key to having and communicating useful targets. A good learning objective has four traits. It is specific, measurable, clear, and related to a body of knowledge, skills and meaningful learning. Let’s take these traits one at a time to fully understand them.

First, a good learning objective is specific. Learning objectives are different anticipatefrom goals, which should give a general overview of what the student will learn and be able to do at the conclusion of instruction. Learning objectives are specific in that they hone in on a single thing that a student will be able to do. Making the objective specific allows the student to know exactly what is expected and why that expectation is being made. For example a good objective might go like this: “students will be able to identify the key of each work they are playing in band, and be able to play the ascending and descending scale of that key accurately in sixteenth notes at 60 bpm.”  An example of a bad objective for the same expectation might be something like this: “Students will understand scales of pieces they play in band.” Whereas the first objective states precisely what the student will do to demonstrate understanding, the second objective doesn’t even give a clue what the student is expected to do. It does not indicate what is meant by “understand scales,” nor does it make clear what connection between scales and musical works the student is expected to make. Without specifying these things, the student is unlikely to know what he or she is supposed to do, and stands little chance of succeeding at whatever the teacher had in mind. There should be no mystery about the teacher’s intent. Both teacher and student must know exactly what the student is to do and learn.

i-get-itSecondly, the objective must be measurable. It is a fairly simple matter to take the good objective and derive an assessment from it. The student indicates what key a piece is in, which is a knowledge question that can be answered aurally or in writing, and then the student plays the scale. The good objective includes only verbs that can be measured, identify and play, and that can easily be linked to Webb’s Depth of Knowledge. It also includes a description of what will be identified and what will we played.  A rubric constructed for the purpose can be used to rate the tempo (60 b.p.m.), the rhythm used (sixteenth notes) and the accuracy of the pitches. By contrast, it is impossible to form an assessment from the bad objective, because there is no way of knowing exactly what the student is supposed to to do or what the student is supposed to learn from doing it.

Learning objectives are written for the teacher, student, observing administrator, and parents. These are all interested parties in the education of children. In the case of music, it is not uncommon for observing administrators to lack content knowledge, so objectives must be written plainly so they can be understood by the non-music specialist. Parents must also be able to understand learning objectives. They have an interest in understanding what is expected of their child in music class, and well written and widely understood objectives adds credibility to music as an academic and core subject. Taken together, learning objectives should present a very clear picture of purpose, and outline a set of actions that students can readily complete.

Finally, learning objectives must be related. They must clearly align withmusic and the brain knowledge, skills and meaningful learning. A purposeful and logical order to the objectives must be apparent, with one objective building on another, addressing a single topic from multiple perspectives, or covering several elements or concepts that are part of an essential understanding. Taken together, good learning objectives will reveal a continuity of instruction, whereas bad learning objectives will appear to be random, haphazard, and poorly organized. Good objectives will lead learners through learning sequences and units of study, leaving them with the assurance that they are growing and making gains in their studies.