Why I Left

There are many, many educators in this country dealing with stress and burnout. The reasons are many, as are the blog posts out there that address this issue. Many rightly point to the combination of poor funding, unscientific testing expectations, overbearing administration, and un-creative scripted lessons as reasons for teacher burnout.

I don’t see any point in re-hashing those issues here. Rather, I’d like to speak to the burnout that I specifically experienced, which doesn’t fit this mold, as there may be others out there with a similar experience. In a future post, I’m also going to speak to my approach to transitioning away from being a teacher, as many teachers feel “stuck” with no other marketable skills.

Why I Left

I loved my job as a music teacher. Getting hugs from little Kindergarteners, watching students master a difficult concept, blowing away families at concerts with our performances. I was respected by my principal and district colleagues, and even a leader and mentor to many other music teachers around the country. Easily 90% of students that I worked with enjoyed music class, and trusted me to lead them in interesting experiences. When things didn’t go according to plan, we would laugh and try again, or put that aside for something else. I had an excellent schedule and every instrument I could conceivably want to teach with.

In the end, none of this was enough. Every day I had levels of stress that were making me physically and mentally ill. It wasn’t the principal, or my colleagues (although there were a few that were difficult), or state mandates. It was the kids. The same kids that I loved and respected were literally driving me nuts.

If you’re not an educator, you may not get this, but every day, every single day, there was at least one student in my classroom who was angry and defiant. I saw 150+ students per day, in groups of at least 20, and sometimes 30. I was often the only adult in the room, trying to educate these children. What happened in my classroom was largely in my control, but what happened before that was not. Students would come with a lack of sleep, or having been in a huge fight with a parent, sibling, or other teacher. And even with carefully planned, differentiated activities, some students would get frustrated by their failures in my class, or have a negative reaction to another student in a group. Whether the problem started inside or outside the room, these students would shut down. At best, they would sit out and refuse to participate. At worst, they would act out, yelling and interrupting to the point that continuing the lesson was impossible.

(BTW: I am aware that not every school environment has quite as many children with such challenges, as I’ve taught in all types of schools: rural, urban, big and small. This is definitely a problem that is connected to poverty and other social ills. But I think these issues still exist, to a varying extent, in most schools.)

My natural reaction to a shouting or defiant child is to get angry and yell. After years and years of working on my own classroom management and building one-on-one relationships with students, my inclination is still to yell. Maybe it’s testosterone, maybe it’s a sign of my neuro-atypical brain (I’m genuinely curious about the experience of other teachers, especially men). Controlling my reactions to student behavior required a firm and proactive discipline approach, support from the school office (I could send a student out if I really needed to), and forcing myself to always wait when reacting to a situation. I became very good at management, a model for other teachers even. I had proactive routines, consistent expectations, and firm yet unthreatening consequences (such as sitting out for one activity).

Even with all this, I would occasionally get upset with a defiant student. What happened when I held in my anger? An adrenaline surge with no outlet, which as modern medicine will tell you, is a dangerous thing to have happen every day. If I let go and yelled at a student, an equally strong dose of guilt and shame would be my reward. It was a no-win situation, and I was harder on myself than anyone else could be. Eventually, I decided that something had to change for my own personal health. Moving to a less economically-stressed school community would have helped, but it is hard to find new job openings when you are a veteran teacher who costs twice the amount of a new teacher.

So I left teaching, my lifetime career. I still completely believe in the purpose and promise of public education. Private alternatives are not viable to replace the scale of our public schools in this country. They are band-aids put on specific sore spots, at the expense of the rest of the bleeding body. No, improving our schools requires more financial commitment, teachers who are prepared for these huge challenges, and a systemic governmental approach to guiding families out of poverty. And I feel that contributing 18 years of my life to this cause was a valuable contribution. But now it’s time to take care of myself, re-focus on my family, and have a much-deserved change in stress levels. I hope to continue mentoring future teachers as an Orff Schulwerk instructor in the summers, and I am thoroughly enjoying my developing skills and career as a software engineer!

 

PS, It turns out there is a medical/scientific diagnosis, Sensory-Processing Sensitivity, that describes the way I personally react to stressful and noisy situations. I did not know this when I left, but having discovered it, I am glad that I made the decision I did. If you feel the same, you may want to look into this. Even if you decide to stay, understanding your own reactions will be crucial to planning out a successful class, day, and year.

For creative (and busy) Music Teachers

As an Orff Schulwerk teacher, I know how hard you work to develop student-centered, creative lessons for your students every day. Two things I loved about teaching with Orff Schulwerk: seeing my own ideas coming to life with the students, and even better, seeing the students’ ideas take over and guide the learning!

There were also some things I didn’t “love” about teaching. One was documenting my lessons and assessments. I never quite felt comfortable teaching from any one textbook, as the pace of my classes never fit the perfect model. For assessment, I would rather be “in the moment” with the kids, giving them direct and immediate feedback to improve their skills, than standing aside with a gradebook writing down scores.

So I designed Unison.School to be a tool for busy teachers like myself. The lesson planner gives me the ability to write unit/project lesson plans based on repertoire and the creative process, and share them on Google Drive with my principal and colleagues. The calendar and daily planner, which functions just like a paper planner, lets me keep track of what each class works on with minimal typing. Finally, I designed the melodic and rhythmic assessments to be completely objective and automated, allowing students to take an authentic, skills-based test, with immediate feedback, from any internet-connected device. This means I can send a few students at a time back to a computer station to take a test, while continuing the creative process for the class. Alternatively, I can bring in a cart of iPads and test an entire class in less than five minutes! The scores are saved to a grade book, and can be used for Student Learning Objectives, Common Formative Assessments, report cards, or whatever system your district employs.

I hope that Unison.School can make a few “less exciting” parts of your job easier, and give you more time to focus on creative student engagement. To get started, register for a free account, and follow my walkthrough video, or just start playing with the free tools!

One last thing. If you’re stressed out this last week before winter break, try sharing my Jingle Bells lesson with your classes! I’ll try to add more interactive video lessons in the near future.

I’m always open to suggestions and feedback to make Unison.School serve you better.

Have a wonderful winter break, happy holidays, and a joyous New Year with your students!

Children’s Abilities, Musical Community, and Technology

WeKids

你好 from Shanghai and Taipei! I just returned from a trip to these vast cities on the other side of the planet, where I met with teachers and staff from the Motif Music Company to help them design curriculum for their teachers and the schools they work with. Motif offers marching band and musical theater classes to public schools. I had never seen a model like this before, where the company offers enrichment classes to the schools, but the classes were during the school day!

Young Children are Amazing

I also got to visit an after-school program in Taipei that included marching band instruction from the age of four! My initial assumption was that such training must be boring and/or too structured to allow students to learn creatively, but when I observed a pre-school class, I found it engaging, student-focused, and varied, including movement games, singing, and playing glockenspiels. When I saw a performance of slightly older children on mallet percussion, I was very impressed with the level of skill.

Seeing education outside of the American model allowed me to rethink many things that I normally take for granted. For example, I think many American school music teachers make assumptions on what and when students can learn that are based on the lack of musical experience before the age of five. When you think about all the research about how important early childhood music is, the concept of a child having little or no musical experience before age five is tragic and criminal. Yet, because our system of schooling starts at this age, and our culture has been moving further and further away from music made in the home, this has become the norm.

This isn’t new information for me. My wife is a Suzuki teacher, and my son started cello instruction at the age of 3. I have many friends in the Early Childhood Music and Movement Association, Music Learning Theory, and Dalcroze worlds who have done wonderful work with preschool children. But unfortunately, no one has created a society-wide system to address the gap.

Private and Public Partnerships

Another new perspective for me was the joint private/public partnership that Motif’s music classes represented. I am a second-generation public school teacher and strong supporter of our teachers’ unions. I served as a building representative and on the negotiations team of the Waterloo Education Association for several years. So the concept of non-district teachers coming into my school and teaching enrichment classes is troubling for several reasons. First, as private company employees, these teachers don’t have the same protections that unionized teachers typically enjoy. Second, this can be seen as a form of “outsourcing”, and is potentially taking away from the positions of traditional teachers. The history of privatized education in America is full of low-paid staff, poor-to-average student outcomes, and for-profit companies making money at the expense of children’s education.

After seeing the work that Motif was doing, however, I see that there is something positive about the ability to design, implement, and experiment outside the structures of a typical school-teacher’s day. Specifically, Motif takes the time to train their teachers on a method and curriculum, and keeps track of their progress. I can’t think of a single administrator in public schools that I’ve worked with that really ever understood my curriculum, and I know of too many teachers who basically stop pursuing professional growth when they graduate with their bachelor’s degree. What if we had a system where music teachers across multiple districts were supervised and trained by a music person? The quality of teachers might actually improve.

Private or public, I think the goal needs to be on quality education for all children, which means highly-trained teachers teaching with clear goals and creative, student-centered lessons.

Musical Community and Technology

Before I left for Asia, I attended the joint First Iowa Orff and Augustana Orff workshop with Doug Goodkin in Iowa City. I’ve been fortunate to see Doug teach many times, including during my Orff Schulwerk teacher apprenticeship at the San Francisco Orff Course. He has decades of experience in creative music making and teaching around the world, and is also a very insightful philosopher with much to say about the human experience. If you ever have the chance to see Doug speak/present, do it. If not, buy one of his fabulous books.

One thing that Doug spoke about was the negative effect that ubiquitous technology was having on our society and children. He proposed that drumming, dancing, and other forms of music-making were an antidote to the underdeveloped motor and social skills that came from staring at a screen too long. He reminded us that in cultures such as the villages of Ghana that he has visited, children learn music as part of everyday life, and are constantly active and involved. Asking a Ghanaian if they drum or dance is like asking someone if they walk or speak.

Of course, I completely agree with the dangers behind modern technology. Even before the smartphone boom, I saw how recorded music technology over the past century has largely moved our society from music makers to music consumers, and the myth of “talent” has grown with the increasingly popular view of music as a specialized profession, rather than a form of human communication available to all. (This is also connected to the lack of experience young children have to music as mentioned above).

Yet I also know that technology can be a tool to enhance learning. It can take something boring, such as memorizing facts, and turn it into an interactive game. My vision for Unison.School and other music education technologies is to offload some basic learning and assessments to digital tools, thus freeing the music teacher to have more time to be creative with students. Like it or not, the future will be full of technology, and we need to discover ways to harness its advantages, while avoiding the pitfalls.

Change

Whether it’s the structure of schools, the influence of society, the abilities of students, or the influx of technology, being a music teacher in the 21st century is going to be all about change. I’m proud to be a lifelong learner, and hope that I can continue to help other teachers tackle the issues that arise!

Classroom Management for the Creative Music Room

One of the most challenging aspect of teaching music to children is handling disruptive and off-task behavior. A perfectly planned lesson with engaging material, exciting activities, and meaningful learning objectives can turn into a moment of questioning one’s career or sanity with just a few children disrupting a class.

When I was an undergrad, we learned classroom management in the Ed department, from a former social studies teacher. While he was an excellent teacher, many of his suggested techniques were difficult to apply to an elementary music classroom.

Seating

Seating is the first place where norms of most other classrooms cannot apply to a creative elementary music room. Desks and tables do not allow room for movement activities, instrument ensembles, and collaborative work.

What does work in the music room?

  • Rows – Some teachers use staff lines created out of vinyl tape (for hard surfaces) or Velcro strips (for carpet). Rows are nice for giving assigned seats and making a seating chart. This can certainly help with management issues, by separating groups that talk too much.
  • Circle – If you ever have the chance to design a new music room, ask for a large circle in the carpet! Circles allow all students to see and hear each other, and create a natural flow into activities such as circle games, rotations, or taking turns in the center. Plus, with a visible circle on the floor, you can teach your Kindergarten classes to simply “follow the leader” to find a seat!
  • Semi-circle – The semi-circle combines many attributes of the circle with the ability to all see to the front of the room. This is an excellent setup if you choose to use chairs or stools instead of having students sit on the floor, as the chairs can remain against the outside while leaving space in the middle.
  • Scattered – Many activities call for students to have plenty of personal space. You can achieve this with little vinyl circles (there are several commercial options available) or by training the class on how to find their own space (stretch out arms without touching). Be sure to establish boundaries, so students don’t make choices like sitting behind instruments!

Routines

At the beginning of the year, it is important to establish a routine for your students.

  • Greet at the Door – Regardless of how busy your schedule is, there is nothing more important for setting a positive tone than welcoming students to the class. This gives you a chance to greet them, give seating or opening activity instructions, and show them you are happy to have them there.
  • Opening Activity – Many teachers establish an opening song, warmup stretch routine, or even silent meditation as the students enter. Experiment with different routines for different age levels, but give your routine several months to see if it is helpful. The goal is to clear away baggage (frustrations, fears, anger) that the students bring with them from other classes or their home life, and have everyone ready to make music and learn.
  • Transitions – Children are naturally excited by much of the music classroom environment. They are not naturally careful. Anytime you are changing positions, especially when moving to instruments, it is important to not only discuss but practice the transition. The time spent up front to do this will save time later.

Participation

One thing that can ruin a class morale is when some students refuse to participate. Yet musical activities, especially singing and dancing, can feel very intimidating to students who are new to it.

  • Inspire – Often you can achieve full participation by simply launching into an engaging activity, and starting with the most enthusiastic students. The first reaction to those refusing to participate can be to ignore, and focus on those having fun. See how many you can snag with an excellent lesson.
  • One-on-One – Take aside those students who won’t participate and quietly explain your expectations, while acknowledging their feelings and concerns. Assure them that you won’t single them out or embarrass them if they are participating quietly with the class. A little heads up can really help them be prepared to be fully involved next period.
  • Set the Class Expectation – Despite student hesitations or attitudes, the bottom line is that your class is an expected part of their education, and they have an obligation to do their job. A good strategy is to begin the year by doing a “My Job, Your Job” review of expectations. Let the enthusiastic students set the tone that everyone is expected to participate, and then hold them all to that expectation.

Respect

Respect is a very vague term, that is rightly criticized by many as being meaningless to our students. However, we can teach students exactly what we mean by respect, and use it along with participation as the foundation of our class expectations.

  • Respect the Space – Teach students how to handle instruments carefully, practicing specific tasks such as removing xylophone bars.
  • Listen to Each Other – Describe the different types of activities in the music class. For example, if one person is talking to the group, others should not interrupt, and raised hands should be used. On the other hand, if students are asked to collaborate in small groups, it is expected that they only avoid talking over their own group. Role-playing these situations can help students understand when it is appropriate to speak.
  • Only Give Positive and Encouraging Comments – Teach students how to give each other feedback and suggestions without using hurtful phrases such as “I don’t like it.”

Consequences

Children thrive on structure, and want to know what will happen when they don’t follow the expectations. If we don’t explain and follow-through with consequences, the students will understand that there is no authority.

  • Keep it Simple – Consequences do not need to be draconian or cruel. Often, the best consequence is simply a “time out” or break away from the class activity. For the majority of students, this will be effective, as they will want to rejoin the class and the exciting activities you have planned. Also, whether it’s time out, writing a reflection, or something else, make sure the consequences you choose are easy to implement. If you make it difficult for yourself (such as finding students during recess to bring back in, or calling parents for minor issues), you may try to give more warnings and put off applying the consequence because you don’t have time to enforce it.
  • Follow Up – Ask a student to stay after class, or visit with them during a time out, to discuss the behavior seen and better choices. Ask to hear their point of view, so they understand that you are listening. When appropriate (say, after 2-3 time outs for the same student), call the family and let the parents know what is going on. Discuss ongoing issues with your administrators, and ask for strategies that might work for that student.
  • Be Consistent – It’s fine to give warnings/reminders, as long as you limit it to one. Being consistent can mean having many discussions and phone calls early in the year, but this will save you 10x the amount of teaching time later in the year. Also, be aware that students will quickly pick up on any variation in how you treat different students. While certain students may require specialized plans, be sure not to excuse minor misbehavior based on your own preferences of “good” students.

Rewards

The creative music classroom is filled with intrinsic rewards in the form of exciting games, instruments, and challenges. However, it is always better to praise positive behavior than have to discipline poor behavior.

  • Verbal Praise – A simple “Nice Job!” followed by some feedback on a project can really inspire students to keep working. Sometimes we can say “I like how ____ is sitting quietly” to indirectly remind others of the class expectations.
  • Tickets – Many schools or classes use a ticket or “buck” system, where students can be rewarded with a quick slip of paper, which they can collect to turn in later for a simple reward item.

Class-Wide Issues

Nothing is more disheartening than the feeling of a class completely out of control. Yet most teachers will experience this at some point in their career at least once, if not multiple times.

  • Stop and Take a Breath – It is pointless to continue on with content introduction when groups of students are being disruptive, disrespectful, or defiant. Often the simplest way to refocus the class is to stop, mid-sentence, and sit and wait. Many times the other students in the class will ask the disruptors to be quiet so that you can continue. This also gives you a new “starting point” for reminding of expectations, and a chance to identify individual culprits for using your consequence program. If a large group is arguing or talking, it can be hard to identify who should take a time out, but if you stop, get their attention, and remind them of the expectations, then you can immediately follow through with a time out for the first student that interrupts again. In order to truly have an impact on student behavior, it is essential to break it down into individual students, so that you can talk to them and their parents.
  • Switch Activities – Sometimes waiting doesn’t work, and the class will continue to talk. Take this opportunity to find a highly-prized reward for students who are on-task. For example, send a small group of focused students to have free instrument playing time, or hand out tablets for music game time. When other students finally pay attention enough to realize what is happening, they will want to join in the positive activity. This is when you explain that these activities are rewards for focus and listening.
  • Ask for Help – When you are overwhelmed, no one benefits. Ask your administrators and colleagues for solutions to help you get back on track. Invite the principal to come sit in the room and observe. If you do this proactively, the principal will hopefully understand that you are making an attempt, and will try to support you.

What are your go-to strategies for classroom management?

What to Buy for Your Classroom

In my previous post, I talked about various resources for funding your music classroom. Once you have funds, it's important to know how to spend them. These are only my opinions, but they are backed up by years of experience and trial and error in several different schools.

Rule #1 – Buy What You Can Afford

Since our money often comes in small lumps each year, it's important to plan out what to buy now, and what to buy later. If you suddenly receive a large sum from a donor, think about one-time purchases (like a bass xylophone) that are too large for your regular budget. If you only have a small amount to spend, consider what you can still purchase of value (e.g., mallets, glockenspiel, small percussion, books).

Rule #2 – Purchase Instruments that Allow You to Teach a Full Class

I go to conferences and am always wowed by the unique, one-off, authentic musical instruments. However, one of anything, be it a piano or a digiridoo, is less useful than a class set of something. When you have one, you have 20+ students waiting for a turn to try it. There goes your class period, and the students sat and waited for most of it, not learning.

When I'm exploring rhythm with students, it's wonderful to have a set of hand drums, so everyone can learn the same technique and play together. Similarly, for melodic exploration, nothing beats a full set of barred percussion.

Of course it is possible to create rotations wherein each student takes turns but on different instruments. However, when looking to teach not only rhythm but technique, timbre, and dynamics, a homogeneous set is ideal.

Back to rule #1, remember that building a class set of instruments takes time. If you can buy 1-2 instruments every year, you are making progress. One idea I didn't mention in the previous post was to borrow instruments, use them in performance, and then ask for money to help purchase them!

Here is a suggested list of class sets, in the order I would purchase them:

  • Pretuned hand drums – Look for a set of stackable drums of various sizes. Make sure the larger ones aren't too heavy for your students.
  • Barred Percussion – Xylophones with rosewood bars are the gold standard. There are some high quality fiberglass bars that sound almost identical. Metallophones are beautiful in small numbers, but overwhelming if too many. Glockenspiels are excellent for a high end. Look for balance between voices.
  • Recorders – You need at least a full grade set, or find out if students can purchase their own. Make sure they don't buy the very cheapest!!! Also, there are baroque and renaissance models, with different strengths and weaknesses. I like the ease with which students can play low notes on a renaissance recorder.
  • Ukuleles – For older students, the ukulele is a very versatile chordal instrument that fits kids hands and sounds good with their voices.
  • Large drums, cajons, other percussion

Rule #3 – Buy Quality

The axiom "you get what you pay for" is very true for musical instruments. With limited budgets, we're always searching for a deal, but make sure you have the opportunity to play anything you plan to buy. Come to the AOSA conference or a state convention, and visit the exhibitors. Ask questions of veteran teachers, what they like and don't like. (If you want my personal brand preferences, message me).

Rule #4 – Buy Support Materials that Save You Time and Help You Teach

With all of the books and software I've written, the goal has always been to make my job as a music teacher easier, and to save time from boring tasks while making more time for playful, hands-on learning. Be wary of materials that do the opposite – entertain students passively while taking up class time. Our children are surrounded by digital entertainment every day, they need more from us. We need to maximize creative skill-based activities in the limited time we have.

Yet there are certainly requirements in music education that technology can help with. Getting an accurate and documented assessment of student skills, for example. I can take time to pull out my gradebook and hear every single child clap a rhythm, or I can use a tool like Unison.School's rhythm assessment to test an entire class in 5 minutes, and be able to pull up their scores anytime.

Likewise, lesson planning can be an exhausting process. Whether you use a simple spreadsheet, document, or online planner, technology allows us to simplify this task.

Conclusion

Whatever you decide to purchase for your classroom, use it to inspire students to become lifelong musicians. Let me know what you find useful for your classroom!

Advocating for Appropriate Music Classroom Resources

One of the most amazing and frustrating things about U.S. schools is the wide variety of support for music education. While some children have music on a regular basis, others receive instruction every few weeks or not at all. Even when looking at schools that have reasonable schedules and full-time music teachers, there is a huge discrepancy in instruments, resource books, and other materials.

What I have experienced over my career is that, regardless of where you start, it is possible to leave a school with better resources than when you came. Below are a list of resources for funds to support your program:

Class Budget

While music budgets range from $0 to hundreds (or on rare occasions thousands), the first rule is to always spend what you're given. Assuming you don't have the perfect classroom with barred percussion and drums for every child, there's always something to buy.

Building Budget

If you don't have a budget, or it is ridiculously small, you should still present your administration with your needs every year. Often, principals have a building budget that can be flexed to where needs are, and by politely making your case, you become part of that process. It's the old "squeaky wheel" cliche, but it's absolutely true. And of course, this speaks to why developing a positive relationship with your administrators is so important.

District Budget

Just as buildings
ften have flexible money, so do districts. There is danger in being seen to go over the head of a principal, but if you are fortunate enough to have a district music or arts supervisor, or have a personal relationship in the central office, it never hurts to let them know your needs as well. In some districts, the majority of funds flow from the arts director instead of the principals.

Curriculum Budget

This is one area that is often overlooked. Districts normally have a curriculum/textbook budget that is separate from the building budgets, and is used in a rotation to supply new textbooks to various subject areas and grade levels. While some districts may reserve this for only "core" subjects (although according to the ESEA act music is a core subject), there is plenty of precedent for including the arts in this rotation.
Even though this money is used traditionally for textbooks, our education system is slowly adapting to online resources. For music teachers, curriculum money would be useful for software services such as Unison.School, or even to provide the instruments needed to teach your curriculum!

Parent Organizations

When district budget options are exhausted, the next step is to talk to supportive parent groups. This can be the building PTO/PTA or a music booster group. These organizations can normally make only concrete supply purchases, but they are often very open to suggestions on how they can help the school. If their children love music, they will want to support you.

Local Grants

Many cities and regions have local non-profit organizations devoted to supporting the schools. Like PTOs, they are made up of local concerned citizens and parents, looking for opportunities to help out.
Grant applications can seem daunting, but the trick is to dive in, and have a clear image in mind about how the resources will impact your students. They are also often looking for particular catch-phrases, such as STEM/STEAM. Since acoustics is a science that can be studied by the vibration of an instrument, there's always a way to tie things together!

National Grants

Large companies such as Target offer school grants, as well as professional organizations like the American Orff Schulwerk Association. Like local grants, you need to detail your project's goals. However, since these groups may not know you as well, it's also important to explain why your school is in need.

DonorsChoose

Finally, many teachers have had success with Donors Choose, the crowdsourcing of school funding. This allows you to specify materials you need, and go directly to social media and a national network to ask for support. Be sure to check with your district on their policies, as you may need permission first.

So what did I miss? How have you funded your music program?

Assessment as a Percentage of Instructional Time

I’ve been blessed to have contact with teaching colleagues from many different states this summer, through my work as an Orff Schulwerk Pedagogy instructor. One topic that often comes up is the requirements of assessment in various districts around the country. First, let me assure you, there is no consensus. I have taught for many districts where the administrators are far too busy to worry about the music teacher and their assessments, and the teachers are free to plan assessments around their own teaching and their students’ needs. Other districts require one or more district-wide common assessments, sometimes referred to as SLOs, SLAs, or CFAs. In some states, these standardized assessments are even used to evaluate teacher quality.

When one of my districts decided to begin moving toward a common assessment, we discussed assessment as a percentage of instructional time. You would think this is a common discussion, but try Googling my title above. I can find no research directly on this topic.

Since my district was simultaneously adding common assessments to other subjects like Math and Reading, we were able to make the case that the assessments should be proportional to the amount of instructional time available. Let’s say an elementary math class takes one common assessment per week (which seems like a lot to me, but is not unheard of). In Iowa, many students have math for 60 minutes per day. That’s 60 x 5 or 300 minutes of instruction for each common assessment.

In this district, music classes are somewhere between 40 and 90 minutes per week. If we take a figure of 50 minutes per week (for easy math), then it would take 6 weeks to have the same amount of instructional time in music that students receive in math in one week. Add to this lost time in review, with memory retention hindered by the sporadic schedule. So, logically, common assessments should only be given once every six or more weeks, not once per week.

Thankfully, my district understood this logic, and based on various different schedules we settled on 2-3 total common assessments per year for each class. This was enough for us to get a snapshot of our students and how they were progressing, yet not too much to be achievable by an organized teacher. It did not interfere terribly with developmental skill-building, creative exploration, or concert preparation.

Unfortunately, I have met many colleagues who tell a different story about their districts. In some cases, districts will require teachers to assess every state or national music standard every grading period, and do multiple assessments for one standard (pre, mid, post). This can amount to 50+ assessments in a year, for each class. If we go back to our 50 minutes per week estimate, these teachers see their students 1800 minutes in a year (10/day x 180 days), and must test every 36 minutes, which would be every single music period!!!

No wonder some of these teachers are ready to quit. No wonder they don’t want to do creative, in-depth, student-centered, engaging lessons that take months to develop, despite the fact that every evidence suggests this is what students crave and need from a music program. They are literally forced to turn music class into a boring drill and test class.

One reason I started Unison.School was to help teachers quickly assess their students. The rhythm assessment that I created there can be quickly taken by students with access to any device: tablet, laptop, or desktop. Teachers can rotate students back to a few devices while continuing instruction, or bring in a class set of devices and test everyone within a 5-10 minute window. Students enjoy the “game” of the test, and class continues on quickly. Teachers have access to all the scores without typing or writing down rapidly as the students work.

But even with digital solutions like mine, testing every day in music class is completely inappropriate and unwarranted. We must establish some sanity around the amount of time spent assessing compared to instructional time. Even the U.S. Department of Education recognizes this. According to their Testing Action Plan from 2015, they state that standardized testing should be no more than 2% of instructional time. Even though this refers to state-mandated standardized tests, the number 2% is the only guide I can find to refer to any assessments, and I think it’s a good start. Obviously, informal formative assessment happens minute-by-minute in the music classroom and elsewhere. I am not suggesting this should stop. Rather, we should limit assessments that interrupt instruction to a reasonable percentage of class time, say 2-5%.

If you are in a district that is struggling with this issue, I would love to hear from you, and please feel free to share my thoughts with your administrators (I’d even be happy to contact them myself if you want). We must all fight for sanity and a quality music education in our school programs.

Education and Technology

My son is in upper elementary, and his school day looks amazingly like my school day back 30 years ago. A bit more computer work, more time spent testing and reading, and unfortunately less social studies (and possibly science, although I’m not sure elementary students ever got all that much). But they still have home classrooms, arts and phys. ed. classes a few times per week, lunch and recess. Despite all the hubbub of “Common Core Math”, his homework assignments are not completely different from what I was given.

As a lifelong educator, union member, and public school supporter, there is something encouraging about this incredible length of stability in our system. Yet as a person who embraces, studies, and works with technology, I am concerned with the future, and what it brings for public schools.

Teachers are constantly asked by administrators to demonstrate how they are “incorporating” modern technology into their teaching. Many of us will point to the students typing away on computer keyboards instead of hand-writing assignments, and teaching them to use simple applications. Yet the real technological disruption in education is perhaps still to come.

Within the past year, I have taught myself, at home and online, how to be an app programmer for iOS and Android. I paid for no schooling, and required no tools except a Mac laptop. I learned quickly and efficiently because I was self-motivated and studying something I loved.

Imagine if this type of self-guided study truly catches on with our children. Already, many kids are learning to program mods (modifications) for the popular Minecraft game, or creating and sharing games using block-based code on scratch.mit.edu. Companies such as IXL have complete home-testing programs in math and reading. Homeschool parents probably are more familiar with the vast online choices than I am.

Certainly, current apps and websites require a teacher or knowledgable parent to guide students in the learning process. But I have little doubt that the technology will continue to improve, to the point that digital assistance will serve most of the current mentor’s role. Would this mean the elimination of schools as we know them, and the teaching profession?

Obviously, not every subject matter lends itself equally to a digital medium. Physical education, art, music, social skills, will likely be among the last holdouts for human contact. I could see schools becoming more community-centers, where children and families gather to share and learn together, before returning to their homes to continue their studies online. I also think it likely that this transition will continue to erode universities, then high schools, with elementary schools being the last to be dismantled from their current structure.

I don’t want my teaching colleagues and future teachers to be out of work. I don’t want students to become automatons who can’t interact with other humans. But not wanting this to happen doesn’t mean it won’t happen. And fighting disruptive technology has proven nearly impossible in every other field. I believe 50 years from now, we will have fewer teachers, fewer schools, and more digital education. I think we should talk about how we get there without ruining teachers’ lives or trusting faulty software that isn’t ready to be as effective as those devoted teachers.

And I think, as educators, the time will come, sooner or later, when our old saying, “do what’s best for kids,” will point not at us, but at our machines.

IMEA

Hello IMEA friends! Below is the link for the slideshow in today’s presentation.

Scheduling and Supporting the Elementary Music Classroom

And here are email links for the presenters. Feel free to email any of us with questions.

Tim Purdum tim@cedarrivermusic.com

Jim Stichter jim.stichter@uni.edu

Matt Willand willandm@waterlooschools.org

 

Feel free to check out my other music teacher resources, such as the Creative Sequence book series and Music Teacher app!

Thanks,

Tim

CS Music Teacher App Version 1.0 is out!

I am very proud to say that my first functioning app is in the iOS App Store! Learning to code an app was a huge undertaking for someone without any official computer science training, but I enjoyed the challenge. Next step is to keep refining/fixing any bugs and transfer the app to Android. After that, I hope to expand the features of the apps to include daily and monthly planners, grade books, etc.

If you want to learn more, check out Creative Sequence Music Teacher