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Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Curriculum Writing: Means vs Ends

One of the most common confusions in general music curriculum writing, I find, is the difference between end goals and means to those goals. Having worked on many curriculum writing teams in my own districts, and guided music teachers and districts creating their own curricula and long-range plans through my Lesson Planning Made Awesome course and professional development sessions, I see people confuse the two quite regularly, and it's not hard to see why. Today I want to focus in on distinguishing the two, as I see it, and talking about why it's important to understand the difference.


One of the first steps in any curriculum writing/ long-range planning is to figure out what students need to know by the end of a course/ grade level. When you're mapping out multiple grades, as is usually the case with general music, you have to decide when you're going to introduce each concept and in what order. This is your scope and sequence. In order to decide what to teach, you have to know what you want students to get out of your teaching!

Usually when you're outlining your scope and sequence, you'll be basing it off of a set of standards. Some will give you a scope and sequence (lucky you!), but others are more broad and general, and you'll need to make your scope and sequence yourself based on the standards. When I'm helping people through this process, the first thing I advise teachers to do is to make a list of the concepts they teach (or think they should teach) in each grade. Most lists will include rhythms, like when students should know half notes or barred sixteenth notes, solfege and letter names, like when students should be able to identify mi, sol, and la or read notes in treble clef, and other musical elements like form, dynamics, and more. Some will also include specific units they teach in specific grades, like recorders, ukuleles, folk dance, or world music. 

Here's the thing: the items in my first list are concepts. The units in the second list are not. The concepts are what I want to call "ends", and the units (and other similar ideas) are "means". Is it important to map out when you will teach recorders or ukuleles? Yes. Is it important to include folk dancing and music from various cultures into your general music curriculum? Absolutely! But those should not, in my opinion, be the starting point. They are the means to your ends.

Defining "means" and "ends"

When you're deciding what to teach when, you're determining how to best scaffold new knowledge and skills so that students can grow musically in the most effective way possible. You're creating a plan for long-term brain development! That means you have to think in concepts. Concepts in general music are ideas and skills that can be applied to a variety of different modes of "musicking"- they are not tied to specific literature or particular forms of music-making. These are your end goals.

Means are the ways in which students practice and apply those concepts in order to attain those end goals- that new knowledge and skill they need to continue to grow as musicians. Means are a specific form of "musicking", like playing a particular instrument, or listening to a particular type of music. 

Let's take rhythm as an example. I expect my 4th graders to understand dotted half notes. That is a concept. In order for them to understand (and demonstrate their understanding of) dotted half notes, they need to sing them, hear them, play them on instruments, show them through movement, and create their own music with them. There are lots of great ways to do that- the next step once I know the end goal is to determine the best way to get them to understand the concept. That's where the means come in!

Why it matters

But why does it matter? Isn't it just semantics, really, to distinguish between ends and means? If I know I'm going to teach ukulele in 5th grade, why does it matter if I include ukulele in my scope and sequence or not? Because at some level, you're institutionalizing your values and backgrounds and making it easier for you to lose sight of the purpose behind what you're doing in the classroom. 

It is much easier for us as teachers to hold onto specific forms of music-making that aren't suited to our student demographics or the contemporary times we live in if they are immortalized in a curriculum document- that's just the reality of how we function. If we can clarify what are actual end goals are for that recorder unit we're doing, it will be much easier for us to reflect on our teaching practice, recognize when a particular means is no longer effective or appropriate, and find an alternative means to the same end. This helps us avoid institutionalizing our values through means that are specific to our preferences.

This is especially valuable in unifying disparate teaching between school buildings and/or specific teachers. If you are clear on the musical ends for each grade, there's no reason why one teacher can't teach those ends through Mariachi music while another uses ukuleles and have all students be equally prepared for the middle school, for example.

Clarifying the end goal of anything you're teaching will also help you differentiate more effectively for your students. Some students may not have the fine motor skills to play the recorder well at that time, or they may have never seen a wind instrument played before and are slow to understand the process of playing, or they may not have grown up hearing "Hot Cross Buns" or "Mary Had a Little Lamb" before so they take longer to learn what other students find easy. There are many successful musicians in the world who can understand and perform sixteenth notes without being able to play a soprano recorder. Maybe the student can sing sixteenth notes, or perform them as part of a step routine. If you have a student who is struggling with a particular "means", you'll be able to reflect on what the end goals are and find other ways to help them meet those goals.

Keeping the end goals in mind will also help you not get bogged down with the process of specific means. If you love recorder like I do, and especially if you have a group of students who are motivated and successful with the recorder, it's easy to get excited about continuing to push ahead with more and more challenging literature. In some cases learning to play an instrument at a high level is a great benefit to their overall musical growth. But in most cases extending their time on one aspect of "musicking" takes time away from other important areas of holistic musicianship. Keeping the ends in mind will help you determine when to push ahead and when to move on.

Everything in its place

So how do you plan for specific means in curriculum writing? You can plan for the specific ways you want to accomplish your end goals through your long-range plans! Once you've set them aside for a time and focused on the ends (ideas and skills) you want students to learn, you can come back to the means with a fresh perspective. For means that are non-negotiable, like a recorder program that an administrator has already said must be taught in 3rd grade, you can determine the best way to utilize those means to meet the end goals for that grade. For other means that are not so set in stone, ask yourself whether a) this would be better suited for a different grade where it would more effectively meet the end goals, and b) this is really the best means to the ends at all. In most cases, since you can really approach most musical ends through a variety of means, this will simply be a way to help you determine the best way to approach the unit itself, how long to spend on it, and when to teach it to fit most effectively into the scaffolded sequence of musical development you've established.

If you've made it this far through my ramblings, thank you! As we approach the season of curriculum writing and reviewing for many schools and teachers, this topic has been on my mind. If you have any questions or thoughts on this I would love to chat! Please leave a comment below or send me a message. And if you'd like to learn more about my process for general music curriculum writing and lesson planning and see my concrete steps and templates for doing so, you can sign up for my free Lesson Planning Made Awesome email course right here!

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Monday, May 14, 2018

5 Tips to Get Kids to Practice

My 6 year old daughter recently started taking violin lessons. As a music teacher myself you'd think it would be simple for me to motivate my own children to practice. It isn't. But now that we've got several months under our belt we've gotten into a good rhythm, and I've been able to see which of the practice strategies I teach my students actually work at home. Today I wanted to share my top tips for getting kids to practice their instrument without making it a stressful chore!


1. Make it visible and accessible

My favorite tip for getting kids to practice more frequently is to have the instrument, sheet music, stand, and anything else they need to practice readily available in a place where they will see it. I keep my daughter's violin in a corner of our dining/ living room where we spend most of our time, so it is always right there. I tell my students at school to take out their instrument and put it in the living room or bedroom as soon as they get home, even if they aren't planning to practice right away. If their instrument requires assembly, I tell them to get it out of the case and put it together right away as well. Now all they have to do to start practicing is pick up their instrument! Not only does it make kids more likely to remember to practice, but it will seem like less of a chore to do so if they don't have to go anywhere or do anything to get started.

2. Give structure

I think most adults know that simply telling a child to "go practice" does no good- they have to know what to do for how long and in what way! If their teacher doesn't do this already, ask them to help you make a list of specific things to work on each week, then make a chart with each of those items listed and space to check off (or add a sticker etc) each item each day that they practice.

3. Give choices

I feel like I say this about basically every parenting topic ever, but giving choices will give children more of a sense of control and make it feel less like doing something because they have to. There are lots of easy ways to give kids options to choose from when they practice:

  • Choose what order they want to practice their pieces/ exercises in
  • Choose a new tempo or dynamic level for each piece/ exercise
  • Choose one different exercise or excerpt to practice each day (for example: if they're working on playing middle C on piano with their thumb, have them choose a different rhythm to play it with each day, or if they're working on learning a brand new song, have them choose 1 measure or short section to practice each day)
  • Make up their own song to practice (this could either be improvised or written down, and you could have them target a specific musical element they're working on or just make it a free-for-all)
  • Choose when to practice (before or after dinner, in the morning or the evening etc)


4. Give breaks

Just like with anything else, taking breaks can not only help keep energy up but it will also help the brain learn better. For young kids who are probably spending shorter amounts of time practicing, this may mean taking 1 or 2 days off from practicing each week. For older children who are expected to practice more material each week/ day, this may mean breaking up each day's practice session into smaller chunks.

5. Don't force it

If the child sits down to practice but is too distracted by something else, in a foul mood, or too tired, trying to force them to continue is wasted effort in my opinion. Better to walk away, do something different, and try again later. The more we can keep playing their instrument something they want to do because it's fun, the better!

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Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Elementary Choir: to sheet music or not to sheet music (that is the question)

One of the questions I hear time and time again from elementary choir teachers is the question of whether or not to have students use sheet music when they are learning a new song. I'm putting this out there right from the get-go: I don't think there is one right answer to that question. After having taught elementary choir in a few different settings, I've learned that a lot of how to best answer that question depends on your teaching situation.

So fair warning: this post is not going to answer the question unequivocally. Instead, I'd like to offer some thoughts to consider to help you make the best choice for your ensemble.


First a couple of things to keep in mind:
  1. No matter what, we need to make sure we are following the law. Even if you aren't using them with the students, you'll usually need to purchase enough copies for the number of students in your ensemble for any piece you're using.
  2. Not all sheet music is created equal. Some music you can get in digital form to project on a screen or even edit to simplify or pull out an excerpt. Look into your options!
  3. Because I have taught elementary choir in so many different situations, all of the options I'm mentioning today are things I have done at some point. I don't have a preference for one over the other.
The reason this question gets so tricky is usually because of the pull we feel between a few different considerations:
  1. the desire to teach music literacy, particularly the specific skill of reading their part from a choral octavo,
  2. the desire to keep choir fun and accessible for everyone, and
  3. the reality of time constraints and pressure to have a certain amount of music prepared for public performance.
All of these are valid, and all of these considerations need to be weighed differently depending on several factors:
  1. the amount of rehearsal time you have for a given performance or specific piece (and the quantity of music you need to prepare),
  2. whether the choir is voluntary or mandatory, graded or not graded (or put differently, whether the choir is a part of the school music "curriculum" or not),
  3. your philosophy / educational goals for the ensemble,
  4. the age and musical background of the singers, and
  5. the space you have for rehearsal and sheet music storage (and other practical/logistical considerations).
There are probably other factors that play into this as well, but those are the main ones that have played a role in my decisions over the years. Let's look at each of the factors above in more detail and talk about when you should consider using sheet music and when you should not.

1. Rehearsal time

Obviously it will generally take longer to teach students a song from a choral octavo than it will to teach them the song by rote (or with just printed/projected lyrics). If you are able to take the time to teach students the literacy skills they need to learn the music from sheet music, then it's definitely worth the time! But if your time with the choir is limited, you may need to think hard about whether the literacy skills the students would gain from using sheet music are a high enough priority to warrant the use of sheet music. You may decide that you need to focus on singing and choral ensemble skills, and find other ways to develop literacy skills (such as in general music class), or you may decide to find a middle ground.

There are a few ways I've found to still give students some opportunities to develop their reading skills without fully committing to reading all of their music from the score:
  1. pick one or two songs to teach from sheet music,
  2. have students learn a portion of a song from sheet music, either by passing it out for a particular rehearsal or showing them part of the song on an overhead etc,
  3. give them the sheet music after they have already partially learned the song, so they aren't starting from scratch when they're working on reading the notes,
  4. or give them the sheet music to look at and possibly follow along with, but do most of the actual teaching by rote (so without actually expecting them to read the notes themselves).
I've played around with different iterations of the options above depending on the situation. A lot of my choice comes down to the complexity of the music and the score itself, and students' attitude towards reading music notation, along with the time constraints.

2. Curricular or extracurricular

If the choir is curricular, meaning it is a mandatory part of the music curriculum and meets during the school day, then I'm more likely to try to incorporate sheet music (also, this usually- though not always- means I have more rehearsal time). If the choir is extracurricular, then I'm less likely to do so, because I know I can't depend on the learning students get during choir rehearsal to teach certain literacy skills- I will have to teach it again in general music for the students who aren't in choir. 

3. Philosophy

Your own philosophy and educational goals for the ensemble will play a huge role in how much importance you place on teaching from sheet music. If your main focus is to foster a love of singing and maybe encourage students to participate in community choirs and other singing opportunities later in life, then sheet music may be less important. If your goal is to give students the skills they need to sing in higher-level choirs and learn more challenging music, then it may be more important to sacrifice the quantity of music you teach in order to devote more time to using sheet music to develop their literacy skills.

4. Singers' ages and musical backgrounds

The ages and musical backgrounds of your students will affect how much difficult it will be for them to learn a song from sheet music. If they have to spend too much brain power on just figuring out basic rhythms and following a melodic line, it may be completely overwhelming to them to see a choral octavo. If students are fairly comfortable with basic note-reading skills, then learning to follow their part in a choral score will be less of a stretch. Even if your time is limited and your focus is not on literacy, it may be worth considering one of the "middle ground" options above if your students can pick up some of the basics without too much headache.

5. Space and other practical concerns

Besides the actual teaching and learning, sheet music adds a layer of complexity to any elementary choir rehearsal. You'll need a place to store the sheet music in an organized way. You'll have to develop a system for passing out and returning sheet music to and from each student. You'll need to have a way for students to keep their music together and hold it comfortably during rehearsal. And if you want them to be able to make notes on the sheet music, you'll need a way to distribute, store, and keep track of pencils as well. 

There are definitely ways to streamline the process of distributing and collecting everything: when I use sheet music regularly, I have folders for each student with numbers on each folder. I write that same number in the corner of each octavo, and I also put a pencil inside each folder with the same number written on a piece of tape that is wrapped around the top of the pencil. I give students a number based on the seating chart the first day, and I ask the teacher bringing them to rehearsal to have them line up in number order. Then when they come in to my room, they pick up their folder as they walk by to their seats, and at the end of rehearsal they leave in reverse order, putting their folders away as they walk by so they're ready in number order for the next time they come in. A few times I have been lucky enough to have a mail sorter with enough slots for 2 folders to go in each slot (I wrote the numbers on the side of each slot). Otherwise I have them put them in milk crates in order.

There is definitely a lot to think about with the question of sheet music, and there is no reason to pick one answer and stick to it from year to year, or even song to song! I think in most cases some form of middle ground is going to be the best solution for your students- it's all about balancing, reflecting, and adjusting! 

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Monday, May 7, 2018

Making Chores Work: The Realities of Starting Young

I've talked several times before about how I got my daughters started doing chores at a young age. If I'm being honest, I love seeing people's reactions when I tell them my 6-year-old's cook dinner once a week (and have been for years)! I usually get some questions as well, especially from parents of young children who want to know how to get their own kids started helping out around the house.

The truth is, my kids aren't more industrious or talented than other kids. And I'm not a stricter parent. I think the only thing that holds some families back from having young children more involved with household chores is understanding the reality of what that actually looks like as they learn new skills and take on more responsibility. Today I want to highlight some of those realities and hopefully give parents more realistic expectations, and the realization of everything their kids can actually do!

(this post contains affiliate links that do not affect your purchase price or experience)

1. Let them mess up

I'll be the first to say that it is VERY hard for me to do this, but I learned very quickly that if I really want my young kids to help, I need to let them do it their way- and that means letting them mess up. It may mean some broken dishes, inedible meals, or things that are cleaned without actually getting clean, but they have to live with the consequences just as much as you do! Sure, I teach them how to vacuum, how to sweep, how to load the dishwasher, and how to make pancakes. But I also have to remind myself constantly that this is like one big science experience- the more I let them mess up when they're young, the more independence they'll gain and the faster they'll learn how to do it right without getting into a power struggle!

2. Be prepared for it to be more work/ take more time at first

The idea of having kids do chores sounds great in theory. Less work for us, right? Well, in the long run yes, but in the beginning? It is WAY more work. And that can get frustrating. It would have been a lot less work for me if I had just done everything myself when my girls were 3, but by putting in the time and effort then to explain and show and wait for them to do it ten times slower than you and clean up after their mess and then do it all over again, I now have 6 year old's who do actually make my life easier ;) Remember this is a marathon, not a sprint, and it will eventually get easier!

3. Set them up with the right tools

One thing that will make the whole experience a lot easier for you and for the kids is to set them up with the right tools to make it easier for them to do more themselves. These knives are easier for kids to use without cutting themselves, or you can get them these gloves to keep little hands even safer. Plastic dishes like these from IKEA mean you don't have to worry about broken dishes. Stick vacuums are much easier for kids to push around. Keep things they'll need in accessible cabinets so they don't have to ask you to get everything for them.

4. Give them as much input as possible

The more initiative and agency they have in the process, the less it will feel like they're doing something for you and more like they're contributing to the household. If they're cooking, let them choose the menu. If they're cleaning, let them decide when/ which room to clean, or let them pick out their own dustpan in their favorite color from the store. If they're setting the table, let them pick out the dishes. If they're making their bed, let them choose their own bedding.

I hope this encourages you to give your children a chance to contribute more around the house! If you want to read more about how I do chores, here are a few previous posts to get you started:





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