Discussion, reflection, and making music in class.

The final version of the new National Core Arts Standards are due out in June. While I am cautiously optimistic that these will be a helpful, balanced tool to teach music and the other arts, I have some grave concerns, as mentioned in previous posts.

Today I want to look at one aspect in detail. Namely, using class time to discuss or write about music. This includes all the following verbs found in the draft standards:

  • Discuss
  • Evaluate
  • Explain
  • Document (not exactly the same, but related)

While all of these verbs are used, the vast quantity of standards include the term explain. Explain can mean either a written document or a verbal discussion. Describe and Evaluate are likewise ambiguous. Discuss obviously refers to verbal communication, while Document is clearly written (and not always with words, this could include notation).

To give you a sense of how prevalent these terms are in the document, look at fifth grade. Out of 26 standards, 20 include one of these discussion/writing verbs. Now, granted, the last six “Connecting” standards are actually verbatim repeats of earlier standards, but when taking these out of consideration, the ratio is 15/20, not a lot better.

So what does “explain” look like in the classroom? Here are some possible scenarios. The number of minutes after each example is my personal estimate of how long this would take to do well. Keep in mind, to be a documented assessment, every child in the room must participate!

  1. Large group discussion – Take the time to hear what each child thinks on a subject. This would be time-consuming and repetitive, as many children would just copy what they hear from those before them. 15-20 min. per activity.
  2. Small group discussion – Split the class into small groups of 3-6 and ask them to discuss a topic. Put one child in charge of making sure that everyone takes a turn speaking. Ask the group to report back on discussion to the class as a whole. While this may seem more efficient, and is certainly a better learning model, the teacher would be unable to effectively assess each child’s input, and the process would actually take longer than discussing with the full class, by the time each group establishes their routine, and decides what to share with the class as a whole. 20-30 min.
  3. One on one discussion – Establish a class activity that students can do independently (such as a small group or individual game, playing quiet instruments, writing, stations, etc.). Take one child at a time away from the activity and ask questions to establish understanding. 25-40 min.
  4. Written reflection – Pass out paper and pencils (and a hard writing surface if you have a flexible space with no desks like mine). Either pre-print questions on the papers or write questions on the board. Give students adequate time to think and write. 10-25 min.

Let’s take a low average and say it takes about 15 minutes to do each assessment. By the time you set up the questions, establish groups, stations, or pass out papers, it will normally be much more. Now remember that the standards ask for at least 15 such activities during the 5th grade year. That averages to about one discussion/writing every 2-3 weeks, or one every twelve school days. If you see your students 1-2 times per week, that means every 2-3 class periods you will be doing a discussion or written assessment that takes around half your period! Of course each teacher’s schedule will vary, but this could easily end up becoming 20-50% of your teaching time with that class.

I don’t have a problem with discussion and written reflection. I think they are valuable tools for learning. I also know that it is something I need to personally work to develop as a habit with my students. However, I think this should take more like 5-10% of my time with students. I want the vast majority of time (say 60-70%) spent making music: singing, playing, dancing, improvising, etc. I want another large chunk devoted to composing, notating, and reading (maybe 20%). Then I need time (10%) to teach a little history and culture, exposing my children to music that they cannot perform themselves. While I understand that the standards/assessments are designed to be integrated, and not separate from these activities, the reality of that much time spent discussing and writing makes me fear that performance and creative skills (i.e., music skills) will suffer.

I’m hoping the final version of the standards is more balanced towards making music! If you have suggestions on how you would implement these discussions/reflections in a more time-efficient manner, please share them in the comments!

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