By Kim Pfeiffer, Goddard Public Schools
Today’s teachers are inundated with many new strategies, school wide initiatives and one size fits all solutions to the growing number of students who “aren’t getting it.” We spend large amounts of time at in-services, professional development days, workshops and in learning communities working with new strategies to help kids. However, does one size really fit all? As music educators, we often find ourselves wondering, “How does this apply in the music classroom?” Every teacher has techniques that work best for him or her and seasoned teachers have refined several techniques throughout the years. However, with the ever-changing professional development strategies, there are some that I have effectively adapted for my classroom. These include building-wide models such as Growth Mindset, Rigor, Relevance and Relationships, Advancement via Individual Determination (AVID), and Power 50 Lunch. Most importantly, we must strive to keep an open mind and a positive attitude when approaching, adapting and implementing new strategies in the classroom.
The Growth Mindset: A Teacher’s Month-by-Month Handbook for Empowering Students to Achieve (Brock and Hundley, 2016) suggests strategies for helping students feel as though they make a valuable contribution to the group. If we can learn to help them realize that they will all “get it” eventually and that struggling through the process of learning new things is okay, then we can all achieve the highest level of playing required for any performance.
How many times have we given a playing test, graded with a rubric and handed back scores in the form of the grading scale? When we do this, we often discourage students with the score and then tell them, “You need to practice more.” Do we really think this motivates students to do better? What if instead of a numerical score, we gave them a score of “You almost got it” or, “You are showing improvement.” Another score might be, “Let me help you with those eighth notes after school because I know you are capable of getting it.” What if we gave the top student feedback such as, “You have achieved this goal. Here’s the next one to begin working on.” Will this type of feedback change the motivation of our students? Will the “A” student continue to work hard because they have yet another new challenge, which is probably what motivates them in the first place? Will the average student struggling with eighth notes come in and get help because they feel we value their work thus far and know that we are willing to invest time to help them complete the goal? I have seen this work with my beginners and I rarely put a numerical playing test score in the gradebook for them.
What if we changed our own mindset in professional development from “How does this apply to me?” to “How can this apply to me?” It is possible that most building-wide strategies could apply to us in some small way and even if we don’t see the value at first glance, by agreeing to take a second look we are developing positive relationships with the professional development team and administration.
Rigor, Relevance and Relationships
Schools preach Rigor, Relevance and Relationships. I’m certain that for music teachers to grow or maintain any kind of successful music program they are meeting those criteria. Rigor is determined in a different way depending on the subject. In math class, if a student fails a test, it only affects that student. In sports, if a student does not play well, that student is benched for the remainder of the game. In music, rigor is illustrated by all students performing at high levels every day in order to achieve high ratings, well-received concerts and a standard of excellence within the community.
Students tend to remember when information is relevant to them. Writing down information can be key and students love to use their technology. We can have them put dates in their calendars and make a reminder a week ahead of the event. We can assign a student to send out tweets or daily updates on Facebook of upcoming events. The more students are involved with the process, the more they will remember. In middle school, we don’t use as much technology; however, about three weeks before a concert, we quiz each other daily on the information by covering up information on the board and doing shout out recall or working with a stand partner to see if they can recreate the information from the concert. We also talk about other school events such as sports, plays, and major projects, making sure we discuss how students can best be effective with their time. I rarely have a student who misses the concert because he or she did not know about it.
Finally, relationships are key in the success of any music program. We build Relationships by working to understand our students and their daily challenges so that we can help them achieve their goals, communicating with parents in weekly newsletters, emails, tweets and phone calls, or working with school personnel and administration to develop an enriched school culture including the arts. Maintaining a safe environment in the classroom involves students getting to know each other and allowing each other to make mistakes. Assigning section leaders for peer mentoring is also part of building relationships.
Advancement via Individual Determination (AVID)
AVID has several tools and strategies that work in a variety of classrooms. One that has worked best for me is the Venn diagram, a compare and contrast strategy. After we have played a piece for a while, it can become stale and hard to get past notes and rhythms to musical phrases and nuances. I use the Venn diagram on the board to compare the music with the movie, meaning or purpose of the piece and see how we can better convey the message to the audience. Last year we played Jurassic Park for our final concert. We drew a Venn diagram on the board and compared the movie plot to the music. The students realized that all the same things that happened in the movie needed conveyed to the audience through expression, style, and phrasing. Thus, we began to come up with ideas on how to make the music more exciting, scary and realistic and musicality was born. This quick exercise took minimal time and paid off at the concert. We can also use this Diagram to show the relationships between to pieces by the same composer or two pieces of the same period.
Power 50 Lunch
Currently, my high school is looking to implement a Power 50 lunch. It will give all students fifty minutes for lunch and students will self-direct what they need extra help on, how to best use the extra time for academic endeavors and with what teachers they may need to visit with during that time. Many teachers might see this as a recipe for disaster. We don’t have enough seating in our cafeteria for students to sit all at once and every class will lose almost three minutes a day in order to give students more freedom. However, there are many schools using this strategy effectively and I believe with training, students and teachers will benefit from having this extra time. I see this as an opportunity to hold Tri-M (National Music Honors Society) meetings during the day when all students are available, rather than hit and miss before and after school meetings. I view this as a time when I can hold sectionals or one-on-one instruction with students who might need a bit more repetition than other students might. I envision having time to sit down with my students over a meal to see what opportunities they might be interested in, develop relationships, and build leadership. I am not afraid to try this and I look forward to the opportunity to help the school culture change and blossom.
Teachers should not be afraid of change. We should spend our time in professional development being creative, letting our minds wander and developing ideas into something that might be beneficial for our students in our musical contexts. After all, we expect students to try new techniques and sometimes we give them very little time to process before we expect excellence. Why not practice what we preach and give ourselves a new mindset? We all know that out of failure comes growth, so what is the worst that can happen? I challenge us all to view new strategies through a different lens and try them, even if we have to tweak them a bit or only take one little piece of the whole. After all, we are all there to support the learning environment of these students and we want them to be high achievers both in and out of music. We also need to be willing to share with others what has worked well for us. I have read some amazing orchestra teacher blogs, which have helped me to expand my capacities as a teacher. Since professional development time is built into every school year, instead of rejecting or resenting it, I encourage us to embrace it, become better educators and create a better learning environment for our students.
Brock, A. & Hundley, H. (2016). The Growth mindset coach: A teacher’s month-by-month handbook for empowering students to achieve. Berkeley, CA: Ulysses Press.