Thursday, October 3, 2013

Collaboration and Letting Go

One of my goals this year was to find ways to work technology into my classroom as a tool to help students learn.  I often wonder what the real reasons are behind encouraging the use of technology in the classroom.  I believe that technology can be a great tool to assist the learning process but it is not the end all.  I don't think that technology should be used just to use it.  We need to ask ourselves how are the students benefiting from this technology and is it helping our students become better thinkers and innovators.  For some students, technology will definitely assist them in the the learning process.  For others, technology may be a distraction. For this particular project, I suspect that it will be great tool in collaboration between myself and my students.

This idea came to me the other day when I was taking a shower.  Most of my ideas come to me when I am taking a shower or driving to school-when I actually have a clear mind and time to think.  I am always trying to make my rehearsals as student centered as possible, which can be difficult to do in the traditional band setting.  Traditionally band directors stand at the front of the room and make the decisions about the music.  Traditionally students have not had much, if any, input.  I typically try to ask my students for the input as much as possible, but it often comes and goes without a ton of impact and with just a few students contributing their ideas.  I wanted to figure out a way for all the students to collaborate on rehearsals so that they could take ownership of the rehearsal.

I decided I would record the students playing straight through their pieces.  We have only been in school for a month, so the pieces are still quite rough, but I thought this would be a great starting point.  I recorded the pieces and shared the recordings through Google Drive.  I instructed the students in class that I would be doing this and that they are to listen to the recordings over the weekend and on a shared Google Doc for each piece, comment on things that are going well and things that need work.  I enforced using positive and constructive criticism.  I told the students that what they share and collaborate on the documents will ultimately guide our rehearsals for the next week-that this is becoming their ensemble and that their opinions do matter.  At our next rehearsal I will put their responses up on the overhead so that they can see what everyone wrote.  Additionally, I shared that this is what I do on a daily basis.  I reflect on the nature of the piece, what needs to be worked on-what we need to do to make things better.

So, the recordings and documents have been shared and within an hour of sharing, the responses have been pouring in!!  It's amazing!  Because this is a shared document it is "live" so I can see who is typing.  There have been some fantastic observations by this group and I am looking forward to using their thoughts to guide their rehearsals.  I will just be facilitating and guiding them through the process, but ultimately they will be making the decisions on what needs to happen.  How cool is that?!

The only downside of this project is that my recording equipment is pretty sub-par.  I told the students that the balance of the group will be pretty off since I had to place the microphone at the front of the band.  The recording quality isn't as bad as I expected; however, it would be nice to be able to give the students a higher quality recording to work off of.

The students were pretty excited about this and asked if we would do this more than once.  Absolutely we are going to do this more than once.  It is a great way for students to think about their ensemble and how do they really sound versus how they think they sound.  It is also a great way for everyone to have a voice and an opinion and be able to be heard.  I am looking forward to seeing how this develops for the rest of my ensembles.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Illumination Project

Where did this week go?  How did I get two blog posts done in one week?!  Count yourselves lucky!

I am currently teaching a class called "Beat Goes On".  This is a result of some curriculum changes that occurred several years ago.....lonnnnggggg story that just does not need any resurfacing.  At any rate, this class has gone through several curriculum and name changes over the past few years including: "Bebop, Do-Wop and Hip-Hop", "Musical Mosaic" and the current "Beat Goes On".  This class is basically a music history class starting in Medieval Times and we work our way to current music.  I like to put the "popular" music spin on the class with the idea that every thing that we were studying at the time was popular.  The music appealed to the masses.  We have had great conversations regarding our responsibilities as consumers when buying/listening to music in this class.  I really enjoy teaching this class and I think, for the most part, students enjoy it as well.

While this class is a trimester long class, it just does not seem like enough time to cover all that we want to cover.  I spend about two weeks, not nearly enough, teaching about Medieval and Renaissance Music. I also throw in a video that I found on the Discovery Education website.  This is a fabulous website that many schools have subscriptions to!  The final "project" for this unit is an Illumination project. I have some fine colleagues that came up with this idea and I spun it into a three level differentiated project.  Illuminations are the fancy lettering that you find in early texts-often found in religious materials and the earliest forms of written music.  Students receive this for their project:

Students choose one of the levels to complete.  As you can see, the levels become a bit more involved.  I would say that over half of the students (38 in this class) are doing Level 2.  I'm not sure that any are doing Level 3, which is fine....that's a big project for 20 points!  Many of the projects are REALLY good and I will post some pictures when they are completed.

You will notice the second and third levels utilize Google Translate.  What a cool tool!!  I told students they could use their phones to look up the lyrics.  For example:

There was lots of giggling as students tried to pronounce some of these words, but we had a good time with it.

This project is fun.  Students can express themselves through art and they are learning a bit about how early text was written.  Additionally, we are using technology to assist our learning and make our projects more in depth.  I believe this project could be easily replicated and adjusted for elementary and high school groups.  This particular class is 7th graders and a mix of students who are in performing music classes and students who are not in performing music classes.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

S.M.A.R.T.E.R Band Goals

We are well underway into the school year!  Lots of great things have been going on in my classroom.  My 7th grade band is to die for!  65 students and perfectly balanced with a low brass section that is huge!  I have four tubas in my 6th grade bands (2 tubas per band) and the 8th graders are adapting well to our funky split class schedule-22 minutes, lunch, 22 minutes.  Not ideal, but we will manage.

I have started working on my first goal per my last post which is to implement e-folios.  I am using our district Google account and Google Drive to accomplish this.  I created a mailing list with my students' emails and sent them a "practice email" requesting them to respond to me to make sure they got the email.  Later this week, we will head up to the learning center (aka media center) and our learning center specialist will work with the students to make sure they understand how use Drive-downloading assignments, uploading assignments and making sure the students share with only me.

Google Drive is pretty slick.  I have created folders for each band, and within those folders subfolders for each students which will contain their online assignments that I will share with them, so it will be more organized than just a bunch of emails coming at me from my students.

The 7th and 8th graders have an assignment that they will complete and send me in the next week.  Typically I do this during class, but we will test this out to see how it works.  I am hoping that there won't be too many complications.

SMARTER goals are an extension of SMART goals. Specific, Measurable, Actions, Realistic, Time frame, Enjoyable, Resources.  By no means am I taking credit for any of this!  I believe many schools are implementing SMART goals, but we wanted to add on to this.  Many students, and adults, find goal making to be tedious and often associated to something that is not enjoyable.  So, we decided to put a spin onto it so that students realize that goal setting is important and the process as well as the product can be enjoyable.

This is what my students will be completing, sharing with me and storing in their Google Drive folder.

So, we will see how this goes. I am hoping that this will be beneficial to the students, as well as myself.  A side benefit will be less paperwork and passing back.  Just a few clicks of the button and away we go!

Friday, August 30, 2013

2013-2014 Goals

Woohooo!!!  Another school year is upon us!!  I am so excited to meet all my new students and see my 7th and 8th graders.  This past week was super intense with workshop and curriculum night butI think I am ready!  The room looks great and I have every thing that I need to get through the first few days ready to go.  There are a few loose ends, but nothing that will prevent me from getting the year started out right.

Goals are important for us as educators to have.  They give us direction and allow us to reflect on our successes and failures as teachers.  It is not possible, in my mind, to succeed at every single thing that we do. If we are, then we aren't taking enough risks and trying to improve ourselves as educators.  When we set goals for ourselves we are also modeling goal setting for our students-something that is so important.  We need tangible goals, just like our students.  We need to set a process for how these goals are going to be met and we need to be able to adjust these goals through constant reflection.  The journey of the achieving the goal should be just as rewarding as reaching the goal.  Through this journey we will be faced with unexpected challenges that may put us back a few steps, but we adjust and carry on.  Because this is what we do as teachers.  We work through things so that everyone, including ourselves, experiences some sort of success, no matter how big or small.

My personal "work-related" goals for the 2013-2014 year:

  • E-folios.  This is a biggie for me.  If you read my last entry I reflected on a somewhat failed attempt to record all of my students and start e-folios that would track their performance progress.  I am still committed to this goal, but after some reflection and some investigation I think I have a better solution.  Students are going to be using Google Drive to create their e-folios.  All of our students have gmail accounts through our district, so I think that this will be workable.  Our amazing learning center specialist (aka-media center) is going to help me and the students with this by showing the students how to access their accounts, working in Drive and how to share recordings with me.  The students first assignment is going to be very simple.  They need to pick their favorite song out of their current method book, record it (computer, ipad, phone....) and share it with me.  I am anticipating issues such as students who do not have access to these types of technology and they can do this at school during band.  But I want a foundation that we can build on.  I am hopeful for this goal and I do believe that the rewards of having students record themselves, reflect on their growth as musicians will be worth the bumps in the road that may occur.  This will also serve as a large part of the assessment that takes place in my room.  I will have solid evidence of whether or not a student is reaching a specific performance learning target or not and from that, we can make adjustments.
  • Increase opportunities for students to play outside of band class.  I have some stellar musicians in my ensembles and I want to provide them more opportunities to get together and play with their friends.  I have some of the best percussionists that I have ever had and I really want to form a percussion ensemble.  I have a number of female percussionists and I would love to get them together, mentor each other and form a female percussion ensemble.  I have a ridiculous amount of low brass members this year, well, it seems that way to me: 6 tubas and 15 euphoniums?!  Hello, Tuba-Euph Christmas!  This is already in the planning stages with the other middle school teachers and high school teachers. I have some talented saxophonists who I think would make a great saxophone quartet.  Oh, and my 7th grade clarinets who gigged last year.  Some of them are already asking about clarinet group this year.  I love the fact that the possibilities are endless with groups and that students are eager to participate.
  • Focus on the Positive.  Many times we get bogged down by the negative stuff going on in our lives and it can really affect how we approach life.  I need to remember that I have a pretty awesome job.  I get to share my love of learning and my love of music with middle school students.  Yes, middle school students.  Some of the most emotional, irritable and fun loving kids that I have the ability to connect with five days a week.  Yep, days can be rough but in the long run, I would not want to be doing anything different.

With all of these work related goals my personal goals remain the same: focus on being healthy-mind, body and spirit.  If those three get out of wack then I am not an effective teacher.  I have developed a passion for working out and being fit and I like to use analogies of working out in my classroom.  I want to be a role model to my students that being healthy is a good thing.  

Additionally, my own musicianship is very important to me.  I am fortunate to be able to play in several groups that challenge me as a musician but also remind me of how important music is to me and our society. While I love teaching middle school band, my musical oasis is playing with Encore and Caprice Saxophone Quartet and I use what I learn in those groups with my own students.

Finally, being a good human being.  My students are at a very impressionable age.  They are constantly being bombarded my social media, good and bad.  They are soaking up information at such a fast pace that I'm not sure they have time to process it all.  I want to impress upon my students to take a step back, analyze the situation and reflect on the nature of it.  Nobody wants to be remembered as a bully or mean and it starts with our students learning from the people that lead them.  

So, there it is.  Out there for whomever to read.  I will check back in with you and let you know how these are going.  Have a great year! 

Sunday, July 28, 2013

What are we grading?

This topic has been in the back of my mind since last September and now it is rearing it's ugly head in my main thought process as I start to think about the upcoming school year.  I am not a fan of grades.  I find it hard to put a grade on music, something that is such a personal thing.  But we live in an age where everything must have a label and a grade so I must accept this as part of what I do.

Let me begin by stating that I don't recall ever really discussing grading as an undergrad music education student.  Maybe we spent some time on it, but we were so focused on making it through that it may have not been a top priority.  I find this a bit amusing because it seems that achieving grades is what is often central to students' experience at school.  Our students always write goals at the beginning of the school year.  Rarely do I read a goal that talks about a student wanting to LEARN about something.  Rather the goal is about their grades (and usually straight A's).  What does this say about our society and culture of learning?  We have put so much emphasis on good grades that we seem to have lost sight of why students are receiving those grades.  And of course achieving good grades usually ties in with testing, and that is a topic I really don't want to dive into!

What do we grade?  No, seriously....what are we grading?  Are we grading what students have learned and the path they took to truly comprehend a topic?  Are we grading their responsibility to turn in an assignment?  Are we grading how well they followed instructions, even though they may have no idea of what the final outcome really was, but they still followed the instructions?  Are we grading improvement?  Are we grading effort? These are all thoughts and questions that have been bothering me the past year and I am not sure what the answer is.

There has been a lot of discussion in my district, specifically at the middle school level, of grading for learning.  We assign students grades, or they EARN their grades, based on what they learned.  For example....Susie Q turns in an assignment a week late.  Traditionally, in many classrooms, she probably would have received no more than half credit.  She turned it in late, so there is no reason that she should receive full credit.  However, the assignment is done correctly, she understands and can demonstrate knowledge of the material.  So F for responsibility and A for knowledge.  I am no math person (seriously....HORRIBLE), but that averages out to a C.  While technically a C is considered "average", it is a death sentence for most students.  At any rate....what was graded in this instance?  What is important here?  Her ability to demonstrate knowledge or the responsibility to turn something in?  Both are important, but how do we assess this and determine how to grade this? 

As a music teacher I really struggle with grading.  We have students with so many varied abilities.  Some of my students are just stellar musicians...they just get it. I have students who have to work hard to get their music down, but they eventually get it.  Then I have the few that just struggle to no end.  An 'A' to the stellar musicians will be a lot different to the 'A' to the students who play their instrument and there is barely a recognizable sound that comes out of it.  Let's look at the last group.  How do I grade a kiddo that cannot produce even something remotely similar to "Mary Had a Little Lamb" on his instrument?  When speaking to him, he understands the ideas behind music, and he has a grasp on the fingerings (sorta), but his actually demonstration is just not there.

I firmly believe that as teachers we must be able to back up our grades and be able to provide reason as to why a student received the grade they did.  There are two instances in my personal student career where I received a grade lower than I anticipated and I was unsure as to why I received that grade.  The first time this happened, during my undergraduate days, I emailed the professor.  (The class was part of our educational seminar and I received a B+ in my teaching assisting assignment-which I loved and I actually continued going to beyond my assignment date.)  His response was that my grade reflected the work that I had done for the class.  I was really confused as I turned in assignments, never received any sort of suggestions for improvement or concerns.  I went above and beyond my responsibilities in my teaching assisting assignment (not student teaching) and received glowing reviews from my cooperating teacher.  But somehow this didn't jive with my professor's assessment of my written work.  At any rate, I was really upset and determined that this would not be something that I do to my students.

But here I am, trying to figure out how to grade my students' learning.  This is a topic that really has no end and has many detours.  One of which being grading participation.  What are we grading when we take off points for not having a pencil.  Is that affecting their learning?  Maybe?  They might have to go to their locker to get a pencil, thus missing part of the lesson.  I don't know.  I still really struggle with participation points.  Participation points are the same gray area as responsibility points to me.  I'm not sure exactly what the benefit is.  If a student is acting up, lowering their participation grade might allow them to realize that their misbehavior is not tolerated, and in all honesty, is probably preventing them from learning.  At the very least, it is most likely preventing others from learning.  But perhaps a better way to deal with this, rather than lowering a grade, is to have a talk with the student.  Lowering the grade due to a potential personality conflict could have even a more adverse affect.  The student may start thinking that you don't like him/her and that is why you are lowering their grade.  Talking with the student shows you actually care.  Again, just my thoughts.

What are your grading policies?  If you see that a students is a borderline B+/A- do you give them the benefit of the doubt?  Have your grading policies ever been challenged? 


Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Back to blogging....and reflecting!

How did June 25th happen?  My last blog had me right at the beginning of April, which was about the first third of our last trimester.  Somewhere in between that time and now there was a flurry of concerts, solo and ensemble festivals, final reflections, final tests, an elementary school tour with the Honor Band,  packing up the band room (and finding some really cool OLD instruments!) for a remodel....and now summer break.  Within this time for summer break I haven't allowed much reflection on the past school year, nor thoughts for the upcoming school year.  There are a couple reasons for this: 1.  this school year seemed to end quite abruptly.  We literally had to pack up and move the entire band room and my office so that a mini-remodel could take place, so I didn't have much time to muse over what went well and what didn't go so well.  My concern was trying to figure out what instruments should stay or go as I am not sure the last time the band room had been "purged".  2.  As far as I know, I won't be able to get back into my band room until mid-August!!!  I suspect that most teachers understand how LATE that is.  I typically take the month of June off and then I start going back and picking out new literature, creating new assignments, looking at class rosters...etc.  NOPE.  Not this year.  So the idea that I have about 10 days to get my band room back in order and get ready for the kids is a bit nerve-wracking.  But I am trying to not concern myself with that too much.  I seem to have this summer off that everyone keeps telling me that teachers have.  So I might as well enjoy it, right?

So, reflection time.  What are some things that went well?  Well, I implemented my assessment portfolios for all of my bands.  That was a bit a much, in terms of the amount of kids, but it worked out.  My filing system was slick and the kids figured it out probably a lot more quickly than I did (student leadership is awesome!).  I stuck with the portfolios and students did reflections every single trimester.  We kept theory and writing assignments in there and I think it was an overall great response.  At the end of the school year when we were going through them, I heard students say things like: "I can't believe I didn't understand that at the beginning of the year, it's so easy now" and "wow....I put a lot of time into that! (regarding their solo project programs".  So I think overall, it was a good experience.  The 6th and 7th graders kept theirs at school and we will continue to add to these throughout the next school year.  This was a big accomplishment for me as I wasn't sure if I was going to be able to follow through with it and keep the momentum going, but I did.

I am also happy with the way that I implemented playing tests this year.  While they were time consuming, I think they were a valuable learning experience for both myself and my students.  More importantly was the reflective nature of the playing tests.  I wasn't so concerned for the number of correct notes and rhythms that the students achieved, rather I was more concerned with how they students felt they did and what they learned.  Each playing test that the students completed also included a quick reflection that they needed to complete.  Many students were thoughtful about their preparations and made conscious efforts to prepare better for the next round of playing tests.  In the end, isn't that what we want for our students?  To become thoughtful and reflective humans who adjust to different scenarios?

What didn't go so well.  Playing tests-specifically the last round of playing tests.  I had this great idea that I wanted to start an electronic portfolio of the kids playing various things-starting in 6th grade and adding on so that by the time they are 8th graders they would have solid evidence of their growth.  I think it still is a great idea, but implementing it turned out to be a bit harder than I anticipated.  We don't have much technology at my school and even fewer places to administer such ideas.  However, we gave it a shot and it 80% worked!  My students recorded themselves on a laptop in my office using Audacity.  They did this during band so we wouldn't lose precious lesson time. I did this only with my 7th and 6th graders, but that was about 150 students recording themselves.  What worked is that all of the students got recorded.  What didn't work was my ability to listen to every single one of those recordings, make comments and give a grade.

Allow me to back up a bit.  Each student has a user folder that is only accessible to them and myself.  Each student saved their recording in their student folder.  The idea was that after they recorded their excerpt, I would listen, complete a reflection, save the reflection and then they would listen to the recording at home (they can access their folders at home), complete the reflection, save the reflection and then I would then look at their reflection and assign a grade.  In my mind, that initially sounded great.  However, after just writing that all down, I realize how convoluted that process really is!!  What a mess!  But like I told the students, this was an experiment and sometimes experiments fail and sometimes they succeed.  This particular experiment was mixture of both.  I was upset at myself for not being able to set aside enough time to do the above process of listening and reflecting, but a good friend and colleague made the observation that perhaps having the students just go through the process of preparing and recording was enough of an experience.  I agree with that.

The good thing that came out of this whole thing is that I do have a playing example from every single 6th and 7th grader from this past school year, so we can build upon that in the upcoming school year.  I hope to figure out some cool technology to use and obviously a better way to assign grades, etc.  But at least I have a start on the process.  We can only go forward with this, not backward!

So of everything that happened this year, those are the things that I am really happy that went well.  I was nervous to implement such a project as assessment portfolios, especially with all of my bands, but it was worth the risk.  Teaching is a risky business and without a little risk, there is little to be gained.  We grow and learn from what we have accomplished and build on those successes.  We also grow and learn from some of the things that didn't go so well.  If our students see us falter, that is ok!  They realize that we are human too!  I tell my students all the time that mistakes are ok-it shows that you are trying.  What is not ok is not trying to fix  those mistakes and learning from what we may have missed the first time.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Word Clouds as an Assessment Tool

There are several great tools online that can create word clouds.  Word clouds are a great teaching tool to use as a pre-assessment and post-assessment of what students have learned and how their vocabulary has changed and developed over the course of a unit.  The website that I use is

I got this idea from one of my colleagues for a music class that I am teaching: Musical Mosaic.  It is basically a 7th grade music history class.  The first day I asked all of the students to write down all of the words that they associated with Music History.  I then typed in their lists, including repeated words.  The more times a word is repeated, the bigger it is on the word cloud.  This is what we came up with on the first day of this class:

Clearly many different ideas about music history that range from the Beatles and wigs to Beethoven and Jazz.  This particular unit, that lasted about three weeks, studied music history from Medieval Ages to a brief stop in the 20th Century Art Music genre.  I LOVE music history and I wish that I could have spent more time on it, but we have so many other genres to get to this trimester-Jazz is next, just in time for Jazz Appreciation Month!

That being said, today was our last day with classical music history.  Tomorrow we take a test and move on.  But to wrap things up, we created another word cloud.  I asked the students to only use their notes if they were really stuck, and I think they did a great job!  Here is what we came up with this time:


I think these are really great tools for teachers and students to use in a variety of ways.  Both of these have been printed are next to each other on the wall in the front of my classroom.  The students had a bit of a chuckle when they reviewed their first cloud.  They also realized that they knew a bit more about music history than they thought they did as many of the words stayed the same.  I am going to use this for all of our units for this class.  This can be used for a variety of classes, including performance ensembles.  This would be great to use at the beginning and end of each year with your performance groups and see how they progress through the years.  It would be fun to show them their first word cloud from 6th grade at the end of their 8th grade year.  Sometimes we really need to show students their growth so that they see that they really are gaining knowledge!

You can also have fun with the font and colors....lots of creativity options here!!  Also, I don't know what the deal is with the formatting of this particular blog post.  It's a bit wonky, but I would never claim to be a tech-savvy person.