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!

After the Review

Edit: The NCCAS review, once submitted, cannot be updated (and I’ve already done mine). If anyone wants to borrow my structure below and submit it, you are welcome to steal!

There is one week left to review the new National Core Arts Standards. If you haven’t yet taken the time, please do the review today!

Despite my participation, urging, and normal positive outlook, however, I must admit to being depressed by the state of these Standards. Here’s an analogy:

You are a fisherman (or woman). You spend your whole life on boats, and understand watercraft well. One day, a group of fishermen show you the new larger fishing vessel they are crafting together. They tell you that this new type of boat will replace all the older boats, and they want you to help them by commenting on the paint, the size of the cabin, and the number of cup holders.

Your first thought is, “Ok, cool!” But when you approach the ship, you notice right away that the keel and rudder are on top of the cabin, far from the water! You try to point this out, but that’s not what they want you to review. They say, “Well, the cars don’t have things dragging underneath, and we need to keep up with the cars. Please tell us if this is the right shade of purple.”

So, the analogy isn’t perfect, but it expresses my frustration with this process. The new standards are flawed before you get to the individual grade-level descriptions they are asking us to evaluate. And like the fishermen, I’m afraid there’s been too much invested to start over, even if they see the flaws.

It didn’t have to be this way. Here’s an example of what the standards could have looked like.

  1. Creating
    • Exploring
    • Improvising
    • Composing
    • Arranging
    • Notating
    • Reflecting and Refining
  2. Performing
    • Singing & Expressive Speech
    • Playing Instruments
    • Moving and Playing Body Percussion
    • Reading & Analyzing
    • Interpreting
    • Reflecting and Refining
    • Presenting
  3. Responding
    • Analyze
    • Evaluate
  4. Connecting
    • Connecting to History & Culture
    • Connecting to Other Disciplines

Notice that this version maintains all the skills from the 1994 Standards, but places them under the new umbrella to align with the other arts. Anything that you might think is “missing,” such as selecting and planning would more appropriately be used as sub-level descriptors underneath one of the listed analytical standards (reflect, analyze). The Connecting strand, as written in the draft, essentially just doubles what has already been said. By bringing back in the specific connections listed in 1994, we create something new.

If we started with something like my list above (and by no means do I think it’s perfect), we could list grade-appropriate expectations for musical skill and knowledge development, which is completely missing from the main document of the draft. I’m not quite sure why this isn’t the approach they took. It seems to me they put the rudder on the roof by taking musical skills and knowledge out of our core standards.

So what do we do now? Do we accept whatever comes out of this national process, or do we fight on at the state and local level to keep reasonable standards that make sense to us? I know personally that I cannot endorse the draft standards as they stand, and don’t think the state of Iowa that I call home should adopt them. I worked on the recent addition of Core Companion (so-called because they haven’t been legislatively adopted yet) standards in Iowa, and they are aligned to the 1994 standards. I see no benefit from going to these new standards. Iowans believe fiercely in independence and local control, which is why we are only now getting around to state standards at all.

What can you do? First, don’t give up on the draft quite yet. Do your part and follow the review, but make full use of the blank input boxes to go beyond the questions asked. Second, if it comes to it, support meaningful standards in your state. Talk to your Dept. of Ed, your legislators, your Arts associations. Work in your district to adopt a meaningful curriculum that has skills and content.

And cross your fingers and hope the rudder gets put back in the water.

National Core Music Standards Final Review

Starting today, we all get one more chance to review the National Core Music Standards (and the other Arts Standards) before they become finalized. This summer, I wrote several posts about the first public draft of the k-8 music standards. Since then, the standards have undergone extensive revisions. However, the primary structure of the new standards remains unchanged.

So, briefly, here is my review of the new National Standards. I hope it is helpful to see someone else’s thoughts. Feel free to comment here or share this post with others. After reviewing the standards yourself, make sure that you fill out the online review survey.

First, the good.

  1. Focus on Process and Creativity
    The new standards format is focused on the process of making and learning about music. The three overarching themes are Creating, Performing, and Responding, which are the three primary processes through which music is experienced. I think this is a clear structure. In contrast, the 1994 standards are based on a long list of skills. Three processes are easier to remember quickly than nine skills.
  2. Improved Musical Verbs
    In the first draft, all of the action verbs for individual grade-level standards were borrowed from the Common Core in other subject areas. In some cases, the sentences did not even appear to refer to music as a subject matter. While it is still the case that the verbs are often generic (demonstrate, select, refine), the context given in each box is much more specific to music, and more clearly defined.

Now for my ongoing concerns.

  1. NO Skills or Elemental Concepts in Main Core Document
    In an effort to align with the various Arts and Common Core subjects, the music document focuses solely on transferable skills and verbs, and makes no mention of specific musical skills or knowledge. For example,

    • no mention of media (singing or playing instruments)
    • no mention of specific musical elements (rhythm, melody, harmony, form, etc.)

    Before you freak out, these skills and elements are addressed in supplemental materials, such as the General Skills and Knowledge Companion Table. But this is not the same approach taken by Literacy and Math in the Common Core. In fact, the detail of skills in the Common Core is quite detailed and specific. It is clear by reading the main documents that these are serious, challenging subjects that require in-depth study and serious time during the school day. By contrast, the new Music Core Standards appear to be achievable with little focus on actual skill-building and knowledge. Students must be able to select music (in the 90s many curricula referred to this as being “informed consumers”) but do not, according to the main document, have to learn any vocal technique. They must reflect and evaluate, but do not necessarily have to demonstrate a steady beat.

  2. Too Much Emphasis on Analytical Skill
    Ok, maybe this is the same as my previous complaint, but it’s important. Music teachers are given a very small window of opportunity to teach children to be musical. While I have no problem in theory with the idea of children learning to select good repertoire, reflect on listening examples, and discuss the finer points of a performance, I strongly believe this is all secondary to the foundational skills of singing on pitch, keeping a beat, playing an instrument, creating original musical ideas, and performing in an expressive manner.

    Through the Orff Schulwerk courses and workshops I teach and my local university, I have had the privilege to mentor hundreds of preservice and practicing music educators. I have unfortunately found that there are many music teachers out there who do not challenge their students musically at the elementary level. The students do not learn to play an instrument (three notes on Hot Cross Buns and then never touching the instrument again does not count, in my opinion). They are not asked to sing in rounds or parts. They do not get to manipulate rhythmic and melodic building blocks to create original musical ideas. The repertoire is based solely on what is popular, regardless of educational value. The blame for this lack of rigor is not just with the teachers, but also with the teacher education system that tries to teach them to be high school conductors and professional performers at the same time (and usually with more emphasis) as they are learning to be classroom music teachers. Many beginning teachers end up in elementary schools by default, assuming this is a temporary gig until they get a real job at a high school.

    Good elementary music educators understand that they can not get an adequate training from a bachelors degree, and supplement with summer courses, Saturday workshops, conferences, and advanced degrees. These dedicated teachers then grasp the incredible abilities of even the youngest children, and creatively shape a challenging experience for each class. They structure sequential lesson ideas, and constantly monitor students for personal growth and needs. The focus of their lessons is on active music making, not analysis or discussion or paper/pencil worksheets.

    I’m not anti-analysis. My second grade students today were looking at several folk songs, reviewing melodic and rhythmic material, identifying what was new, and labeling the phrase forms of the songs. But all of this was used in order to understand and perform the music. They will later take that same phrase form and improvise or compose original patterns. Thus, the analysis is the secondary skill, that is there to inform performance and composition, not the point of the lesson. We will also spend some time on listening to works that they cannot yet perform, such as symphonic music. But my fear of these standards is that poorly-trained teachers will use one third (as it is presented) of their class time to teach responding skills, and that they will miss the inherent connections that make responding a natural part of a performance or composition-based lesson.

    The select strand under Performance is still controversial in my mind as well. Repertoire must be introduced to the children, just as literature must be. While students may choose a book to read on their own, singing in a class is not the same type of independent activity. Teachers must be free to select quality repertoire. I know the intention of this strand is to simply include student selection, not to replace the teacher’s role. But making this a core skill from Kindergarten means that an exorbitant amount of time must be spent on discussion, selection, and student choice. This makes the teacher’s job much harder. Now, instead of choosing one or two pieces to teach a particular elemental concept, we might have to include 3-4 or more, so that even if the students make a different choice than we anticipate, they can still experience and learn the same vital skills. Moreover, I cannot fathom a quick, seamless, and authentic way to include 25-30 (let alone 100+ for a performance) students in a selection process. Verbal discussion will only include a few leaders, or will be incredibly time-consuming. Written reflections will likewise be time-consuming, taking time away from making music.

Ultimately, I believe music is something that all people should learn to do. I think this is why it has been an important part of education since at least Ancient Greece. When we boil it down to cross-curricular analytical skills, I think we are selling out our art, our craft, our means of communication. I want every adult in the country to be able to sing in tune, plunk out a melody, keep a beat, and participate in musical expression throughout their lives. If, as a result of this inherent musicality, they can listen to a masterpiece and appreciate it, that’s a bonus!

Apologies for the poorly organized thoughts here. While I am frustrated by the predetermined, (in my opinion) flawed structure of the new National Standards, I do appreciate the work that went into them. I think the goal of looking at music from a process standpoint has merit. I just don’t like seeing the structural components of skills and elements, or the teacher’s role in teaching, being moved from the front page to the addendum. I think we should be proclaiming loud and clear that music is important in it’s own right, and because of the musical skills that students will learn, just as math and literacy are primarily important because everyone understands the needs for these skills. I’m afraid we as a profession are walking a dangerous path of appeasement and submission, where we are only important because we reinforce and align with what is already deemed important. I know that my reading is somewhat superficial, and that the supplementary documents will “fill in the gaps.” My point is that, to a beginning teacher or non-musical administrator, the supplemental documents may never be read. A principal will want to see strand number and maybe the Essential Question on a lesson plan or curriculum map, and that’s it. Beyond that, they won’t have the time to delve. Can we prove our worth with only what’s in the core document? Will a new, under-trained elementary music teacher be able to teach children to make music using this as a guide? I guess we’ll find out.

By the way, here’s the link to review the standards. Also, if you want to compare, the Common Core can be found here, and the 1994 National Standards in Music here. Make sure to do the survey!!!

Holiday Reflections on Teaching Music

Happy New Year, everyone! I’ve been meaning to get out another blog post sooner, but really needed the down time to NOT be productive the past few weeks. So apologies for the lateness of some holiday-themed thoughts, but maybe they will come in handy for next year!

Teaching music occasionally becomes a struggle between respecting culture and respecting personal freedoms. Take holidays. I have students currently that are every variety of Christian, Jehovah’s Witness, Muslim, and Atheist. There are probably more religious traditions that I’m simply not aware of. Some of these students’ families do not want them singing songs about holidays or patriotism. Yet as humans, we evolved with the seasons, and have always celebrated their changes. Long before Jesus’ birth, the end of December was celebrated as the solstice, or shortest day of the year. While this was a dark and gloomy time, those who watched the sky could see that by December 25, the days were actually getting longer again, and Spring would surely come. In the Spring, we celebrate growing things, gardens, butterflies, etc. In the summer, it’s all about enjoying the great outdoors. The fall is full of leaves and signs of harvest.

These symbols I mention are fairly universal, and many would say they are not religious in character. Yet in the way our culture currently celebrates these seasons, religion and weather are intertwined. Fall is Hallowe’en and Thanksgiving. Winter is Christmas and New Years. Spring is Easter. These are the dominant holidays both in religious and in secular spaces (shopping). Regardless of whether you celebrate, you know who Santa is, what meat is served at Thanksgiving dinner, and that a creepy bunny leaves chocolate droppings around in the spring.

Students who cannot participate in religious music present a conundrum for me. Do I make the selection for the child (especially in the lower grades) and single them out by asking them to go read elsewhere? Do I let them sit quietly in the room but not participate? Do I let them make the decisions? Is it only religious songs (with Jesus or God, which I never use anyways) that are objectionable, or anything to do with a holiday (including Santa, Rudolph, jackolanterns). And do they understand where the line between season and holiday is drawn? How many of you have heard students and families (or even colleagues) refer to Jingle Bells as a Christmas song? If you’ve ever actually sung the lyrics, and thought them through, you’ll see it has nothing at all to do with Christmas, or Jesus, or Santa. They describe going for a ride in a sleigh (not Santa’s, just a wagon with skis). If THIS is not allowed, then surely by logical extension then there can be no songs at all about snow, or about leaves falling or trees growing or sun shining…at which point the student can no longer participate in vocal music for much of the school year.

A big part of the challenge is that many families with religious restrictions on music do not approach the music teacher until after the teacher begins a particular song or unit they find offensive. Often, my only clue is the child sitting quietly looking upset, not participating. Since participation is normally a requirement in my class, I first have to identify that the student is not off-task or being insubordinate for some other reason. Of course, if I know there is a religious objection, I’m happy to accommodate the child.

While I’m obviously still struggling with this issue, here are some suggestions that I’m planning to use as guiding principals moving forward.

  1. Continue to select only secular versions of holiday music, with no overt references to religious figures or gods.
  2. When a child is not participating that normally does, pull her aside after class and kindly discuss the issue. Find out if there is a religious reason for the lack of involvement.
  3. Once a student is identified as needing to be exempted from certain music, attempt to contact the parents and discuss the issue so as to fully understand their concerns.
  4. Make the accommodation that seems best for that child, whether it is taking a book to another room, sitting quietly, or doing an alternative activity.
  5. If students request a song that is more religious in nature, I will accommodate in respect for that child’s culture, an those who do not share that religious tradition can listen and learn respectfully.

What I will not do is compromise my teaching of celebration through music. Seasons are important, and will be recognized throughout the school in numerous ways. I will not cut all references to seasonal activities from my repertoire. We will sing Jingle Bells, and probably Frosty the Snowman. We may reference ghosts or witches in silly Hallowe’en songs. I will not remove traditional patriotic songs, such as the National Anthem, that should be learned as a historical part of growing up in America. Culture and religion are connected, and we must be careful to not eliminate the one in respect for the other.

Cross-Curricular Dance and more thoughts on Research

I just completed a three-week unit of K-2 dance lessons, taught in conjunction with my PE colleague at school. We started this last year, beginning with the dances recommended in the SPARK physical education curriculum guide. These were familiar staples of Americana, such as the Bunny Hop, Mexican Hat Dance, Hokey Pokey, and Conga, as well as Seven Jumps, which I have always enjoyed with music classes. There were more dances in the Spark book, but that was actually enough for the amount of time that we had set aside for this last year. This year, after reviewing these dances, we added some of my favorite dances for first and second graders, such as Carnivalito, Les Saluts, and Heel & Toe Polka. My idea was to begin moving from individual dances to those that used a form, such as a circle, in creative ways. The Carnivalito allowed us to explore space in a long line (actually, the Conga can accomplish the same), and I used it to bring the class into a circle. Then we used Les Saluts to practice simple movement around the circle (left, right, forward, back). Finally, with Heel and Toe, we got to combine partner work and circle work. With the first grade, we only asked them to dance with one partner, but with second graders, we taught them how to pass on to a new partner each time the dance starts again.

Mr. Hansen, the PE teacher, commented on how impressed he was when the students could internalize the verbal cues we were giving them, and do the dance without teacher guidance. I was impressed by how physically exhausting 45 minutes of dance could really be! I’ve always taught dances in my room, but usually for only a portion of a period. By the end of three weeks, three periods a day, I am ready for a break!

As I was reflecting on this engaging unit of instruction, I began thinking again about the call for “research” to back up any and all educational activities. I have several times been asked by well-meaning, musical educators and future educators, if the ideas on my blog and in my Creative Sequence books are research-based. My answer is that they are experience and training based, and that the training comes from generations of experience and ideas of other music educators. Where does one apply research? Do we look at whether Orff Schulwerk is better than Kodaly or Dalcroze? First, you would have to agree on what the measured outcome would be, which would be difficult, since all of these approaches have slightly different end goals in mind. Assuming we agreed on a “test,” we would then have to find the way to teach pure Orff Schulwerk, Kodaly, and/or Dalcroze Eurhythmics. This is an impossible task, as every teacher takes these ideas and shapes them to the needs of her own students and school. Most elementary teachers use a combination of ideas from various sources.

So the “method” used cannot be meaningfully researched, at least not in such a broad way. Specific classroom activities and modes of learning could possibly be researched, such as singing vs. listening, playing instruments vs. just singing, reading vs. learning by rote. But I still believe that the data produced would be heavily influenced, if not guaranteed, by the prior beliefs of the researcher. Since teacher attitude and enthusiasm counts much more than teaching method, we tend to discover what we wanted to discover. The generalized rules about education (active engagement is better than passive listening, for example), have been researched, but are also based on common experience amongst educators. Cross-curricular learning is a big buzz-word, and I’m sure the research is there to support learning in this way. But I’m just not interested. I know this dance unit works for my kids because I see the smiles on their faces, I observe the rhythm in their feet, and I can tell if they are following the music. In other words, if the students are learning, that is the research!

When I’m writing a book and I come across an idea that I think could possibly be controversial, I do basic research. I use the internet, search for scholarly articles, and ask peers. If I find that my idea is disproved, then I change my ideas to match the data. This has happened maybe once or twice in all my teaching. An example is when I had a workshop with Dr. John Feierabend, and heard him suggest that we cut out “intermediate” learning steps like graphic notation and solfege hand signs. Up until then, I had really enjoyed teaching rhythm with graphic manipulatives, but I discovered that I could do the same thing pretty early with rhythm cards and standard notation. Even in this example, I did not fully change my thinking, as I still use hand signs (well, body signs, actually), because they give students a kinesthetic experience. The rhythm concept was a big change for me, but is it research based? Sure, simplicity and not re-teaching makes common sense, but then again so does using familiar images and symbols to teach rhythm. How many early reading books have you seen where they replace a word with a picture? Isn’t this the same as graphic notation?

If you want to do research, awesome. I think the basic research into the importance of music education is vital, and I applaud those involved. In the meantime, I’m going to teach based on what is visibly working and not working, and the experience of others that I come into contact with. If someone wants me to change my teaching or ideas, then the burden of research is on them, not me, to prove what I am doing is less than ideal. And to all the other music (and dance and PE) teachers out there, keep doing what you know is right for kids! Continue to study and learn, but don’t let anyone bully you into changing your curriculum because you don’t have the “research.” Ultimately, if you are asked to teach in a manner against your own beliefs, this will be detrimental to the students, regardless of underlying research.

Research, Training, and Experience in Music Education

Education (not just music, but all subjects) today is obsessed with data and research-based strategies. At first glance, this makes sense, as research can demonstrate which strategies, when applied, create greater learning outcomes. Yet the strategies we use daily in our classrooms cannot be truly extricated from our own training, past experience, and improvisatory reaction to the needs of the class.

Here is an example from reading/literacy. (Apologies in advance if I do a poor job explaining this, it’s not my field). Whole Language reading proponents emphasize exposing students at a young age to written language in a natural, connected way to verbal language, such as reading aloud to the students while pointing out words. The idea is that students can attach the written and spoken language together without needing words broken down. On the flip side, Phonics proponents stress that letter and letter-combination sounds should be learned, so that students can sound out unfamiliar words while reading. Both sides of this “debate” can show you research-based evidence that their approach is better. Here is an article with more information on Whole Language vs. Phonics.

Now consider a veteran, lower-elementary classroom teacher. In most instances, regardless of the school curriculum, she/he is likely to teaching reading with a combination of these two approaches, based on the needs of the students. In fact, evidence points to the fact that, regardless of philosophical standpoint, the home environment of the students is more important than which strategy is used.

Students who come from “high literacy” households–where young children are read to on a regular basis, there are lots of children’s books, and adults read regularly–tend to learn to read well regardless of the teaching approach used. These students tend to enter school with large vocabularies and reading readiness skills (an estimated 5% can already read when they enter school).

Students from “low literacy” households are not exposed much to reading in their homes and tend to have smaller vocabularies (as much as one-half the vocabularies of students from high literacy homes). They may speak non-standard dialects of English such as African American English and can be unmotivated students, especially if they see teachers as enemies trying to change how they speak and act, in other words their language and culture. It is argued that standard phonics approaches can be unsuccessful for these students. Whole language approaches encourage teachers to find reading material that reflects these students’ language and culture.

The Reading Wars

Yet even with our lowest socioeconomic students, the training and experience of the teacher has a great impact on student learning. (American Psychological Association):

Schools in low-SES communities suffer from high levels of unemployment, migration of the best qualified teachers, and low educational achievement (Muijs, Harris, Chapman, Stoll, & Russ, 2009).

A teacher’s years of experience and quality of training is correlated with children’s academic achievement (Gimbert, Bol, & Wallace, 2007). Yet, children in lowincome schools are less likely to have well-qualified teachers. In fact, of high school math teachers in lowincome school districts 27% majored in mathematics in college as compared to 43% of teachers who did so in more affluent school districts (Ingersoll, 1999).

The following factors have been found to improve the quality of schools in low-SES neighborhoods: a focus on improving teaching and learning, creation of an information-rich environment, building of a learning community, continuous professional development, involvement of parents, and increased funding and resources (Muijis et al., 2009).

Now for some musical examples. K-12 educators love to argue philosophy, method, approach, and strategy. Kodaly vs. Orff vs. Gordon. Literacy vs. experiential learning. Performance skills vs. listening skills vs. creative skills. Moveable vs. Fixed do solfege vs. letter names. Rhythm syllables vs. word rhythms vs. counting. Singing vs. instruments. Keyboards vs. barred percussion. High tech vs. low tech.

In all of these examples, most teachers I know do not teach with an either-or mode. They utilize familiar strategies that have been successful for them in the past, or new strategies from mentors whom they trust. And just like with the reading strategies, student learning will be highest for trained, experienced teachers, regardless of the strategies chosen. Other major impacts might stem from the amount of time students receive for music each week, facilities, instruments, and other resources available.

I’m not advocating that we stop all dialogue on various strategies and approaches. Rather, I’m merely suggesting that all the research and enthusiasm behind our various schools of thought be kept in proper proportion. A Kodaly-trained, musically literate student is a wonderful thing. As is a creative, Orff Schulwerk-inspired student. Ideally, our students are experienced in both whole-language (active music-making) and phonetic awareness (traditional notation literacy) approaches to music. And the best thing you as a teacher can do for your students is to continue your own training, reading, and planning. Go to conferences, take workshops, learn about other approaches than the one you’re familiar with. Combine multiple approaches to synthesize something that makes sense to you and your students. Then stay put and help your students grow, as you yourself grow into a master educator. Help newer teachers on the way, and work to build a foundational, high-quality program in your school system. When someone asks you to provide research-based strategies to back up your teaching, explain that all the extra training you have sought out is research-proven to increase learning, simply by making you a more conscientious and knowledgeable teacher. Any system of organization and presentation you apply will help students learn, as long as you stick with it and adapt it to your classroom.

How Valued is Music Education?

Elementary music teachers across the country almost uniformly feel that we don’t have enough time to teach our subject as well as we would like. According to the NAfMe Opportunity to Learn Standards, elementary schools should offer a minimum of 90 minutes per week of musical instruction. Yet most of us have somewhere between 30-80 minutes to teach each class.

An important responsibility of the music teacher is to be a strong advocate for his/her own program. Administrators are busy juggling state mandates, multiple schedules, discipline issues, and managing parents and teachers. Even if they are supportive of the fine arts, they are usually too busy to focus on best scheduling practice. In my experience, however, administrators are grateful for teachers who are willing to take on a leadership role in laying out schedules.

Before we even get to the stage of laying out the music teacher’s schedule and how this intersects with the rest of the school schedule, it’s important to realize the practical limitations. There is a finite number of minutes in a school day. When you subtract time for lunch, recess, and a few restroom breaks, the number is somewhere around 315 minutes of instruction each day. What percentage of that time is devoted to each subject? Many states mandate blocks of time for reading/literacy and math. In Iowa, these are 90 minutes and 60 minutes, respectively. That would be 29% and 20% of the teaching day for a 315 minute day.

Below is a time calculator. After opening the table, enter an estimated percentage for each subject. I included dance and drama because, hey, why not dream big! You can enter anything from 0-100%. Then at the bottom, enter the total minutes of learning per day. If you don’t know, you can use my estimate of 315 minutes to get started. Press the “Submit” button, and you will see the total minutes for each subject, per day and per week.

[expand title=”School Subject Time Calculator”]

Subject Percent Time Daily Minutes Weekly Minutes
Math %
Literacy %
Science %
Social Studies %
Guidance/Citizenship %
Library/Technology %
Physical Education %
Art %
Music %
Dance %
Drama %
Enter minutes of daily instructional time (not counting lunch, recess, etc.)


Find out what percent of time your subject is currently getting, and compare it to what percent the NAfME standards would require (around 6%). Now you have some solid, statistical “data” (administrators love that stuff) to use to advocate for your program! If you are way under the recommended amount, even if you can’t change it, you can use this to protect what you have, and not allow it to be further eroded. For example, if there is a pull-out program for students, you can make the argument that it should not happen during your meager time.

Feel free to share this page! I will try to write more advocacy posts soon.

Message to New Teachers

I see a lot of new teachers in my summer Orff Schulwerk course, student teaching, on Facebook, and elsewhere. Many have incredibly valid concerns that they ask about. As a teacher with a lot of experience in varying different schools, I’d like to offer some unsolicited general advice:

  1. If you see a problem, there probably is one. Despite your lack of experience, you are still the music ed expert in your school.
  2. If there is a problem, talk to your administrator. Their job is to help you do your job, so students can learn. Be friendly and polite. Come up with a solution to suggest before you bring up the problem. Talk to other teachers in the building or other music teachers in the district/area to see what they think.
  3. You teach a class that is part of the school (and probably state) curriculum. As little as you feel valued at times, if they really didn’t want you there, you probably wouldn’t be there. Ask for some parity in scheduling, at the least with other “specials”/”encores” and with other buildings in your district. Find the best schedule and show it to your administrator, as a suggestion.

    If you see kids once a week for 30 minutes, that averages to 6 minutes per day. The kids spend more time than this in the restroom. At twice a week, you would average 12 minutes per day. Compare this to 90 minute reading blocks every day, and 60 minute math. Even if there’s no way to fix it right now, point out the extent of the disparity, and ask your administrator to consider expanding music time when possible in the future.

  4. Be aware of your rights. We all want to do what’s best for our kids, but that doesn’t mean that you should be asked to do an exorbitant amount of extra duties, concerts, etc. Make sure you have appropriate planning time, and are paid for extra evening concerts if they are above what is required for other teachers. After you have approached your administrator with concerns, talk to your union rep (yes, join the union!) for help.
  5. Build something! Create an upper elementary choir or percussion ensemble. If you’re a ms/hs choir director, schedule lessons. Again, don’t assume you can’t do this. Make a plan for how you can. In one of my jobs, I created a fifth grade choir, a sixth grade choir, a sixth grade percussion ensemble, and 7/8 sectional choir Read more “Message to New Teachers”

NCCAS Verb Analysis

If you’ve been following this blog, you know that I’ve been closely analyzing the new draft national standards for music education. I truly feel that this is such an important undertaking that we cannot allow it to pass by without giving our full feedback. Even though I have already filled out the survey form, my analysis continues to evolve through reading, discussion, and reflection.

In one of the FaceBook groups I am chatting with (search for musicpln), the discussion turned to Bloom’s Taxonomy. Both sides of the argument felt that Bloom’s supported their opinion of the draft document. Since most of the info I can find on Bloom’s categorizes skills by action verbs, I decided to take a look at the action verbs in the document, K-5 (those are my grades, sorry, someone else will have to expand).

The chart below shows all action verbs as they appear in the grade-specific boxes of each standard. The number in parentheses are the times that each word appears. The top number in brackets is how many words total at that level of the Taxonomy. At the bottom I have counted all verbs for that grade level, and then counted the number of active music-making verbs for that grade level.

(If you can’t scroll this on your device, click here to open the pdf.

I did not include “Develop” and “Generate” as active music-making verbs, because they normally refer to creating a plan, not creating actual music. Even if you include these in the music-making list, it does not greatly change the weight of over 50% non-music verbs at most grades. If you take these music-making words out, you get this list:

  • Combine
  • Develop
  • Refine
  • Say/Speak
  • Describe
  • Evaluate
  • Identify
  • Explain
  • Write
  • Select
  • Document
  • Cite
  • Justify
  • Analyze

Looking at this majority list of verbs, would you know this was a music class? I understand the goal here, which is to align verb usage with the Common Core in all subject areas. I think alignment is great where it works seamlessly. What I don’t like is the feeling that the alignment has just trumped the content of our subject. If these generic verbs are truly the goal, why even teach music? We can teach the same verbs in any other subject and eliminate costly music programs. It is ONLY the active music-making verbs, and the generalized skills that bloom from them, that make what we do unique and vital to children.

Here are some music verbs not used as action verbs:

  • Sing
  • Play
  • Listen
  • Move
  • Read
  • Notate
  • React

To be fair, several of these do appear as reference, but are not the action verb of the sentence. Also, the preface material to the draft (and Scott Shuler’s letter to me) state that future versions of the documents will include skills, vocabulary, and repertoire. Also note from the table that there are absolutely no memorization skills listed, so this additional material will be quite necessary to fill that gap.

Some will argue about my placement of words against the Bloom’s Taxonomy. Whenever possible, I used an online chart that had a list of words, and matched them there, to avoid bias. Some will argue that the word Perform actually belongs in the “Creating” row at the top, due to the interpretive and creative nature of performing. I won’t dispute this argument, but I think for my purposes it is irrelevant to the bottom line.

If there is no fundamental conceptual Knowledge, Understanding, and Application of knowledge, there can be no true analysis, evaluation, or creation happening. It is imperative that the National Standards for Music Education show a new music teacher, an administrator, and a parent what makes music music. Only after this established foundation can we afford to focus on higher ordered skills and Common Core language. If it takes me a week of deep analysis to understand this document, then it has a ways to go to be clear, concise, and meaningful to those who need it. I wish the NCCAS music writing team the best of luck in their revision process, and will anxiously await their final product!

Vision for Music Education Part II

In my previous post Vision for Music Education I laid out my argument for what I see as the purpose of music education, and did so in the context of the new draft national music standards. After reading other blogs, comments here, and the ongoing facebook and twitter conversations surrounding the drafts, I feel the need to express my beliefs and argument even more strongly.

Then, I realized that I have already written it. So in the desire to further the public dialogue, below is the opening chapter to my book, Creative Sequence: Teaching Music with Flexibility and Organization.

The Importance of Creativity and Active Engagement in the Music Classroom

Children today are bombarded with “media” and “entertainment.” These passive and/or interactive technologies have, for over a century now, replaced many more traditional activities. Instead of playing ball, we watch a ballgame on TV, or use a controller to make a digital avatar “play” the sport in a video game. Instead of making music with our own voice or an acoustic instrument, we listen passively to a recording, or strum a plastic controller along with a prerecorded track.

While there are many ways in which the technological explosion of the past hundred years has enriched and expanded our lives, Creative Sequence is based on the premise that music, dance, drama, art, and physical activity are still essential human activities that every child should learn to DO, not just watch. Children inherently love to move, drum on things, make noise, and explore their environment. As teachers, it is our duty to engage this natural tendency, and to lead them to discover the joys of an active lifestyle.

The primary goal of quality music education is guiding children to create, love, and learn about music. Notice that, in this list, learning about music is the last item. The rationale is simple. Children who love and are engaged in a subject will want to learn more about that subject. Children who are not actively engaged will learn only when forced, and retain as little as possible when they leave your room.

All children can and should learn to make music.

To some, this statement may seem obvious. Yet, despite plenty of evidence to the contrary, some still hold to the antiquated notion that singing and music-making are  “talents” gifted to a few children at birth. This flies in the face of modern educational psychology, cultural evidence from around the world, and the day-to-day experience of parents and educators with young children.

Children learn at varying paces, according to their background, interest, and attention span. Of course, there are students who struggle with certain musical skills. Many students also struggle to learn mathematics or reading. No one questions the basic assumption that all students (excepting those with serious disabilities) will master these skills. When it comes to music and the arts, we should accept no less for our children.

In cultures around the world where technology has not yet completely changed the pace of everyday life, there are numerous examples of entire villages where music is a community activity in which everyone participates. Even in more advanced societies, there are pockets of close-knit communities where music and dance remain vital to social events. Unfortunately, mainstream Western culture supplants community gatherings altogether with digital communication, single-family homes, and private transportation. No wonder we seek to fill our desire for artistic expression by turning to the pre-recorded music of professionals.

If musical expression is going to remain an integral part of the human existence, it must start in the home, the preschool or elementary school. By the time most students are given the choice to play in an ensemble like band or orchestra, many have already made up their minds about whether they consider themselves musicians or not.

All other curricular objectives, including music literacy, are secondary to a positive, expressive experience making music.

Toddlers must speak before reading language. They must be able to count before identifying numerals. Yet as trained musicians, we educators have spent so much time learning and perfecting our reading skills that we often equate notation with music. In fact, the English language encourages this confusion by calling paper notation “sheet music” or even just “music.” You hear trained musicians use this all the time. (“I forgot my music! Can you see the music?”)

Let’s be very clear. Music does not exist on paper. Music is human expression in sounds organized through time. Notation is the written record of what a piece of music should sound like. Therefore, music literacy should only be taught at the appropriate time, and following the appropriate development of musical skills.

Appreciation of music arises naturally from making music, and exploration of cultures, styles, and history should be interactive whenever possible.

The advantages of modern society and technology include affordable means to record, play back, and share music around the world, as well as access masterpieces from throughout history. What once required musicologists to travel the globe and attend universities with large research libraries can now be found online and for free. Music teachers must take advantage of these technologies, showing their children the songs, games, and styles of music from different corners of the globe. They should compile at least a cursory introduction to music history, highlighting famous pieces (Bach’s Prelude & Fugue, Pachelbel’s Canon, Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, Copland’s Appalachian Spring, etc.)

The danger of teaching children music history and culture, however, is that it can be a passive experience. Children sit at desks silently for so much of the day, and have so little time in music class, that they should be actively involved whenever possible. Instead of simply listening and talking about musical examples, students can draw a picture while listening, or move expressively to the storyline. Choose musical excerpts from various styles that children can recreate and explore on barred percussion, recorder, or singing. When studying a time period or culture, look at not just the music, but the dances and games that accompany the music. By interacting and performing the arts of another culture, students can learn to embrace differences in all aspects of life.

Music should be a creative art, not simply a recreative art.

Our final guiding principle highlights the different ways of “making” music. When vocalists and instrumentalists in our Western culture traditionally perform a work, they are re-creating the music of a composer. All the basic musical elements – melody, rhythm, form, dynamics, tempo – are laid out in the score. Of course, great performers and ensembles make interpretations to go beyond the written notation. But the piece is essentially unchanged in any serious details.

This is not the only way to make music. Jazz musicians, folk musicians, and pop artists are much more accustomed to adapting, arranging, or even composing or improvising their own music. Composers create everything from lullabies to symphonies by writing new melodies, rhythms, and forms. By manipulating the very materials that make up a composition, these musicians gain a greater depth of understanding and sense of ownership in the resulting performance.

Children can and should be led to take this same ownership of their musical experiences. Rather than all of the decisions being made by the composer or the teacher/director, the master teacher guides his or her students to make creative choices. Students can compose accompaniments based on repeated ostinato patterns, improvise solos on given scales and phrase patterns, choreograph dances and games to accompany a song, and combine all of this to create longer performances out of simple songs.