Ubd and the Ensemble: Goals, Big Ideas, and Where to Start!

Essential Questions: What do my students get out of this music? What is this standard really getting at?

Goals and the Music Ensemble

As musicians and music educators prepare  for performances, they set goals related to the musical content in order to make the best use of their time. Private instructors give their students goals and benchmarks in preparation for a recital so that their students have a clear understanding of what they need to accomplish in their practice each week.

Musicians are great at setting (and accomplishing) goals! It’s a natural part of what it means to be a musician as we prepare for performance. So the question isn’t whether or not to use goals in the music ensemble, but how best to identify and implement goals as we plan for performances and meaningful rehearsals.

Goals and Content Standards

As the NCCAS continues to prepare the new Common Arts Standards, music educators are responding with a lot of ideas as to what the goals of our profession should be (Tim Purdum, a K-5 Music Educator from Waterloo, Iowa, has some great posts about these new standards). I had a great discussion last week at the weekly #musedchat on Twitter about the role and purpose of performance in a whole music education philosophy (especially @ramccready).

Now, I won’t get into my thoughts on the NCCAS standards in this post, but they do attempt to identify some of the larger overarching goals of music education and art education as a whole. They identify three artistic processes as a means to organize our thinking about what we want students to do: Creating, Performing, and Responding.

One of the ways that McTighe and Wiggins encourage teachers to identify the larger curricular goals for a class is to examine the standards they have been asked to teach. When teachers begin with these processes (and the standards that fall under them), they can identify some of the big ideas contained within the three processes (Which are, in fact, even bigger ideas!).

For ensemble directors, I’m not sure starting there is always the best idea. It is absolutely necessary to consider how to teach standards within the ensemble classroom, but beginning with those standards does not account for they ways in which ensemble teachers teach and reteach musical concepts and big ideas over and over again through the use of musical literature. The repertoire guides the scope and sequence as teachers design for musical learning and musical experiences. Therefore, it may be necessary to develop the larger goals for ensemble learning in conjunction with the repertoire being used.

The way to the goals is not as important as the process of identifying the goals and big ideas needed for a skilled, musical performance by the students.

Priorities: Where to Start?

UbD encourages teachers to organize their content standards, understandings, and skills into three groups to identify what big ideas students need to grasp by the end of an instructional unit.

Individual pieces of music, scales, and methods exercises are not necessary for students enduring understanding of music-making throughout their lives. Even the skills required to play an instrument or read music may not always be what students will take from our ensembles and remember 20 years down the line(Though I would certainly like them to!)

Sorting content knowledge according to these categories helps us identify what we want students to take with them when they leave our classroom.

Sorting content knowledge according to these categories helps us identify what we want students to take with them when they leave our classroom.

Examples

Here are a few goals and understandings that I’ve identified through my study of UbD. Keep in mind that goals should always relate both to the content standards you are working towards as well as the repertoire the ensemble is performing!

  • Tension/Release
  • How did we get our modern system of notation?
  • What is music?
  • Is music a “language?”
  • Music as tool for social justice
  • Breath and musical production

Feel free to suggest some more big ideas that you have found helpful in designing student learning!

Enduring Understanding: Identifying the big ideas that anchor the total design provides students with direction and cohesiveness in all learning experiences.

Note: The UbD and the Ensemble series is a sort of guided tour through the book Understanding by Design by Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins. In this series, I attempt to connect the work they have done to vocal and instrumental ensembles and the challenges of designing rehearsals with student understanding in mind. Please comment with your own experience in teaching music for understanding!

UbD and the Ensemble: Understanding – More than the method book!

Note: The UbD and the Ensemble series is a sort of guided tour through the book Understanding by Design by Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins. In this series, I attempt to connect the work they have done to vocal and instrumental ensembles and the challenges of designing rehearsals with student understanding in mind. Please feel free to comment with your own experience in teaching music for understanding!

Essential Questions: How do I know students understand the music we play? What does it mean to understand a piece of music? what does it mean to understand a musical concept? What understandings do I take for granted when teaching novice students?

Syncopation Without Understanding?

During my student teaching experience, I designed a 5th grade general music lesson on syncopation to teach for one of my supervisor site visits. I identified the enduring understandings and skills I wanted students to take away, I made sure to emphasize sound before sight, and I designed assessments to make sure that each students truly understood syncopation!

I prepped everything, greeted my supervisor, and welcomed the students into the room! We started by practicing some syncopated patterns. The students did great! But when I tried to link that performance to the symbols of music, I received a lot of blank stares. I tried to pull them along for a while, but eventually had to apologize to the students. I hadn’t assessed their understanding before hand. They had been looking at rhythmic patterns for years of classroom music. They knew what a quarter note was. They knew what an eighth note was! They could perform chants that related to rhythmic figures.

But when asked to write a short phrase using these figures in a different format (moving things around to create syncopation), they couldn’t do it! My supervisor was gracious and said I handled the situation well, but I was really bothered by this! How could my carefully constructed lesson plan fail so miserably? I even used UbD principles to guide my design process!

Though the students could perform rhythmic patterns and even identify them, they lacked a meaningful and transferable understanding of rhythm and rhythmic patterns. What’s the deal?

What does it mean to understand?

My mistake with the syncopation lesson is a great example of what McTighe and Wiggins call the Expert Blind Spot. The Expert Blind Spot describes how teachers often gloss over hard-won understandings and unconventional ideas that are assumed to be easy to understand when in fact they are core ideas that need to be uncovered in order for novices to understand them. I assumed that students understood rhythmic patterns because they could perform them (when in fact they were merely mimicking them), I didn’t account for the blind spot in my own understanding! I probably gained a real understanding of rhythmic patterns sometime in middle school or high school and have operated with the expert blind spot ever since.

Understandings represent the core principles of a field. In ensemble study, things like rhythm, communication, dynamics, and even music notation, are all deep understandings that students need to be successful! Unfortunately, we rarely design learning experiences that emphasize transfer of these concepts. Instead, we teach the discreet skills and hope students will begin to apply them to the next exercise in the method book.

Musical understanding must mean more than successfully performing a piece of music. Musical understanding is the constructed whole concept that organizes and guides the use of skills and strategies when confronted with a foreign piece of music or knowledge. When we teach for musical understandings, we encourage students to consider the skills they have learned and make truly musical decisions, just as professional musicians would, and apply those to new music.

I don’t mean to suggest that the performance should not be the end goal. Music educators have been doing the performance task part of UbD since we started teaching others how to make music! But repetition of discrete pieces of music (especially when they are taken from a march through the method book) does not mean that students know what to do when they encounter new musical material!

What concepts do I have to reteach with every new piece?

One way to define understandings is to identify common misunderstandings that students have. What skills aren’t being transferred? What underlying process needs to be understood for students to use their musical skills intelligently? What musical decisions do students need to encounter?

I believe that the musical ensemble is a truly unique opportunity for our students. It is one of the only places where they are allowed to make something beautiful with their peers as part of a whole! If we are to defend this art form in schools, shouldn’t we ensure that students are getting the most out of the opportunities for creativity in every moment of rehearsal? When every interpretation of the notation on the page is defined by the conductor, how can students be creative? By teaching for musical understanding, students are given the cognitive tools to make creative decisions and raise the standard of artistic performance. That might only mean choosing what kind of forte to use, but that is still a musical decision that requires understanding of the musical concept!

Understandings cannot, however, be taught independently from the musical process of performing! They must struggle with the understandings while continuing to play the instrument! The musical decisions and understandings musicians use are executed live in every performance they make. Music educators teaching for understanding will provide opportunities for students to reflect on their performance and identify the musical choices they made. 

Syncopation With Understanding!

What would I do differently? First, I would assess students progress towards understanding of rhythm as a whole. To what extent can the students use, identify, and create new music using rhythm? To what extent do students understand the way length of notes relate to each other, to measures of music, and to whole phrases?

If I had simply done that work, I would have known that the students needed deeper understanding of rhythm as a whole before embarking on the exciting new world of syncopation!

How has the Expert Blind Spot showed up in your own teaching? How do you ensure that students truly understand the musical concepts presented in your curriculum? In what ways do you encourage students to reflect on their musical decision making?

Enduring Understanding: Understanding is more than the discrete facts of music (musical elements, notes on the page, individual pieces). Understanding is the meaningful insight that requires uncovering and transfers to new musical experiences.

UbD and the Ensemble: Backwards is Better!

Essential Questions: Why aren’t my students learning what I’m teaching? Why do I feel like I have to reteach concepts over and over and over again?

NCCAS Review Starts Today!

The National Coalition for Common Art Standards announced recently that they would be releasing drafts of the K-8 Art standards for review this evening. I watched the orientation video and was thrilled to find that the new Common Arts Standards will include Enduring Understandings and Essential Questions to accompany each standard!

The NCCAS is revising the 1994 Arts Standards for the 21st Century!

The NCCAS has deliberately chosen to help teachers in both general music and performance classrooms identify the understandings that students need to be successful as musicians.

The “So What?” of Music Education

One of the biggest buzzwords in music education in the last few years is advocacy. Everybody knows that music education is one of the first things to go when budgets get tight. Music educators lament the diminishing position of formal music in our society and the National Association for Music Education has gone as far to establish whole organizations dedicated to music education advocacy like the Advocacy Groundswell or the Give A Note Foundation.

These organizations are established to “cultivate an online community of NAfME members from across the country interested in participating in advocacy initiatives, engaging in discussions about advocacy and regularly digesting advocacy news”  and “to expand and increase music education opportunities for all children. 

But why do we need advocacy? We haven’t always needed to defend our profession so vehemently to school boards and superintendents. Certainly the culture has changed, but I’m not sure that’s all. I think the main reason that music educators struggle with advocacy in their districts and schools is that the reason for music education is not evident in every single rehearsal.

It’s not just about budgets. No one doubts the necessity of math or social studies (though curiously only one is tested regularly). I think it’s easier for music educators to get caught up in planning for concerts, half-time shows, or competitions that we sometimes fail to communicate the purpose and reason for our work in music education. We still know what those reasons are, but we fail to communicate them to our students, parents, administrators and communities.

I believe that Understanding By Design has the potential to refocus the work of band and choir directors by refocusing on the “Why?” and “So what?” of music. When we structure our units, performances, and rehearsals around the enduring understandings at the heart of musical life, we argue for music in schools with every lesson we teach.

Three Stages of Design

McTighe and Wiggins offer a model for curriculum unit design to ensure that the whole design is aligned to the understandings students should have at the end of the unit.

Identify Desired Results

What musical understandings should students possess? What questions are central to musical understandings? What questions and debates have musicians, composers, or philosophers wrestled with throughout history? What are the understandings that link all of the associated musical skills we want our students to learn?

By defining our desired understandings, questions, knowledge, and skills, ensemble leaders can structure rehearsal planning not only around preparing for a specific performance, but for preparing students for a lifetime of creative music making! Identifying the desired results answers the “so what?” of daily rehearsals!

Determine Acceptable Evidence

Is performance enough? Is it possible for students to do well in a playing test without understanding the concept? What kind of evidence would I need to prove student understanding? How do I know they will use that understanding on the next musical challenge?

What real-world musical activities can students engage in to prove they have gained a deeper understanding of a musical concept? When music educators think more deeply about the kind of understandings they want students to achieve, they design authentic performance tasks for students to prove that understandings. These performance tasks for authentic assessment should relate to and inform the students musical performance. They should reflect the real challenges that musicians face in the world and evince the musical understandings achieved through musical practice. Again, when students encounter real musical challenges that result in deep understanding, the reason for our work as music educators becomes evident in the daily work of students.

planning learning experiences and instruction

How well do my current strategies foster student understanding? What doesn’t work? Where can I become more effective? Are my teaching strategies resulting in student understanding? How well are my rehearsal strategies pointing toward the enduring understandings I want my students to achieve? 

The daily rehearsal plan must evince the design work we have done as educators so that students come away with the skills necessary to perform in concert as well as the understandings necessary to make musical decisions in future musical experiences. When students are confronted with the questions at the heart of musical study, each rehearsal and practice session becomes a quest to deeper understanding.

The UbD Design Standards

In the world of UbD, it isn’t enough to use the system to design a lesson. The authors stress the importance of submitting designs to critical review by the designer, administrators, and peers using established standards that ensure that unit designs are truly aligned and best elicit authentic understandings.

This process of critical review also enables teachers to collaborate, refine their skills, and build their professional repertoire in order to better create learning experiences for their students.

UbD Design Standards by Stage

UbD Design Standards by Stage

Stage One: To what extent does the design teach musical concepts behind the musical skills and literature used in the design?

Stage Two: To what extent does the assessments measure understanding and not just achievement of skills or discreet knowledge? It is not enough to provide the musical experience. Assessment of understanding and for learning is vital.

Stage Three: How does the daily rehearsal engage students in meaningful learning for understanding?

This is what I failed to account for in my first UbD unit. I didn’t connect the performance to the musical experience. I relied on simple activities and hoped that enduring understandings would find their way into the lesson! I didn’t present students with the challenging questions at the heart of the musical experience. Not because I didn’t try, but because I don’t think I understood it fully myself!

That’s why I’m so excited to read through the K-8 Common Arts Standards! They have the potential to help music educators identify the understandings that all students should have in the arts.

How do your units and rehearsals match up? How successful have you been in structuring your rehearsals for enduring understandings and transfer? What specific strategies have you found successful in teaching for understanding and transfer? What enduring understandings and essential questions have caught your students’ attention?

Enduring Understanding: Units designed with the desired results of learning at the center are more likely to result in authentic student understanding.

UbD and the Ensemble: Introduction

Philharmonic Orchestra of Jalisco (Guadalajara...

Philharmonic Orchestra of Jalisco (Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Essential Questions: Do our current models of rehearsal planning really accomplish what we want for our students? Are my students learning what I’m teaching? Am I making the best use of each minute of rehearsal?

My First Experience with UbD

Day after day I sat through Dr. U’s class, racking my brain for ways to apply countless vocabulary, comprehension, and literacy techniques into my future music class. Honestly, I wasn’t seeing much. Sure, students need to know what piano means. They definitely need to be able to perform a sforzando. But that comes with practice, right? They learn the word by practicing the technique! I thought that was a pretty decent vocabulary strategy! (and to some extent, I still do!)

And then we started UbD.

Dear teachers,” she said, with her characteristic tone and carefully chosen words, “Today we will begin looking at Understanding by Design.” Now, I don’t remember if that’s how she started the class (I sincerely doubt it), but it got my attention. For a few years I’d been unsatisfied with two things about my education classes and music education classes. The education classes didn’t seem to have a lot to say about how to teach traditional large ensembles and music education classes didn’t have a lot to say about how to use education concepts, research, and psychology to bolster the rehearsal strategies learned in methods courses.

As Dr. Uffelman introduced Understanding by Design (UbD) it seemed promising. The old way of thinking about lesson plans never seemed logical to me for use in the music classroom. Each rehearsal plan was too similar to necessitate all of that writing! Often, I resorted to writing lesson plans about music appreciation or music history so I didn’t have to work with that format in rehearsal settings. But Understanding by Design seemed different. It made sense to me that students should understand the big concepts behind their disparate pieces of knowledge or skills in order to better apply them in different contexts. That made sense for an ensemble! Finally!

And so, I set out to write my lesson plan for my capstone project.

Listen, Understand, Act

Listen, Understand, Act (Photo credit: highersights)

That short unit wasn’t particularly successful. Now, I think I know why, and it has to deal with a really fascinating part of UbD that I’ll discuss in a blog post later in this series: the UbD Design Standards. Even though I used the format to structure my unit, I didn’t make sure that everything was aligned throughout.

What’s understanding?!

Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins offer this working definition of understanding:

to understand is to make connections and bind together our knowledge into something that makes sense of things … to be able to wisely and effectively use-transfer-what we know, in context … we have a fluent and fluid grasp, not a rigid, formulaic grasp based only on recall and “plugging in” (McTighe and Wiggins 7).

Learning is about making connections! That’s as true in history, english, and math class as it is in the music room. When students encounter new material they need an established framework of understandings through which to process the literature. I wonder if our approach to ensemble rehearsal always produces such understanding of musical concepts?

A Few Scenes

Mrs. S comes into the room. The students are in their chairs ready to play. She announces the first piece and students shuffle through large folders full of music. She lifts her baton and begins the piece. The playing is… less than perfect. They have played this piece before, but it’s been a few weeks. Mrs. S keeps conducting, making comments to sections as they continue to play.

“Watch your F#’s, clarinets!” “Trombones! Make sure you get all the way out to sixth position!” “Keep the breath moving flutes!”

At the end of the piece, Mrs. S selects another score from her stack and repeats the process.

* * *

Mr. V sits at the piano as students stare intently at their score. “Everyone be quiet so the Tenors can learn their part!” He plunks out the line and asks them to sing along. They do with mixed success. He repeats the process and moves on to the next section.

* * *

Miss K has been working with her marching band a lot for the last few weeks! She made sure that the group bonded at camp in August, had a barbecue for all the parents in September, and even scheduled an extra morning rehearsal to make sure they were ready for the first football half-time show of the season!

English: Some marching bands have their member...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Each of these scenes might have a place. There are valid reasons why a music educator would find themselves in these situations at some point in their career! But I think they highlight the way the twin sins of curriculum design show up in ensemble rehearsal planning.

The Twin Sins of Design

McTighe and Wiggins identify the twin sins of design as activity-focused teaching and coverage-focused teaching. In the traditional school music ensembles, I have seen a lot of coverage-focused teaching whereas activity-focused teaching tends to show up more in elementary music classrooms and general music classrooms. In either case, I believe that music educators need to be more attentive to the learning needs of their students in planning musical experiences. It is not enough to merely prepare a concert of discrete pieces. There needs to be musical understanding that will prepare them for every concert thereafter! Likewise, it isn’t enough to teach elementary students a few fun songs to perform at a concert for their families, they need to have musical understandings and skills to take to their next musical experience!

UbD is an attempt to organize the design process to avoid the twin sins of design, and I think they have a lot to offer music educators as we attempt to best organize our classrooms for musical understanding.

UbD in the Music Ensemble

This post is the first in a series of blogs about using UbD in the music classroom. They will reflect my growing understanding of the UbD design process and music ensemble instruction. I hope to engage some readers with their thoughts about these topics! Especially if you’ve used UbD in your own rehearsal planning! Feel free to leave a comment or email me at james.jensen@cune.org

"understanding things is overrated"

“understanding things is overrated” (Photo credit: Geff Rossi)

Essential Understanding: Teaching for understanding in an ensemble builds transferability of musical concepts and enables students to perform music authentically at a high level in varying contexts.

Strawberries in Wittenberg

20130610-120235.jpg

I’ve been home from a 24-day 8 country tour of Europe with the Concordia University A Capella Choir for about a week now. The picture above was taken in the Cranach Square in Wittenberg, Germany behind the apothecary where Lucas Cranach, a Reformation painter and engraver, worked and lived. I was enjoying some alone time and had been looking for gelato (okay, it’s just ice cream) when I saw these extra-red strawberries at the stand and just knew I needed to eat the whole package.

Sitting there in the sun, I thought about my five years as a student at Concordia. I especially considered my five years in the choir and my four years in the band, and the countless hours I spent practicing, in classes, and time spent with friends becoming the person and musician I am today.

I have now said goodbye to the band, the choir, and the school. I am officially an unemployed college graduate looking for work! Mostly, that’s absolutely terrifying. But I’m also excited for what comes next. The opportunities that await me to be the great teacher I know I am and find ways to continue building my personal and professional life.

Music and music education will continue to open doors and provide me with opportunities I never could have dreamed. Opportunities like traveling to Europe, meeting people from all over the world, and creating something beautiful that will stay with me for the rest of my life. And those experiences, international or not, are what I hope to provide to my students. Connecting with people, making beautiful music, and experiencing life in new ways.

30 Day Blogging Challenge Day 3

Day 3: In which area do you think you can improve the most?

There’s an ease to master teachers when they are in the classroom that I

David Newell’s new book Classroom Management in the Music Room: “Pin-Drop Quiet” Classes and Rehearsals

sincerely admire. When I think of the best elementary music educator that I’ve observed, I think of someone with an intense mastery of the craft, a curriculum design that gets results, and an infectious personality. (I should go visit her at school sometime soon!)

One thing that I recognize in master teachers that I haven’t managed to pin-point and define. I’ve written about David Newell’s seminar on classroom management for the music classroom before here, but until I have my own classroom, I won’t be able to fully implement his strategies in a meaningful way with my own students.

While I was implementing his strategies I wasn’t fully confident with them. They weren’t my own. I was borrowing from an expert. And that’s okay. I often told my choir students at my second placement school that I didn’t much care if they really believed the words they were singing, but they needed to convince me that they did. “Fake it ’till you make it” may sound like a disingenuous practice, but I think it’s a valid way to come into new teaching strategies and find success outside of my comfort zone.

Some things will come with time. I’d love to be the best teacher ever right away,

Photo Manip by karl683 2012

but I realize that so much of what a great teacher great is experience working with students and learning from mistakes.

So here’s to some new mistakes and new lessons!

30 Day Blog Challenge Day 2

Day 2: What do you believe is your greatest strength as a teacher?

What’s the saying about “man’s best-laid plans?” One of the best lessons I learned in Student Teaching was that a well-thought out lesson plan will sometimes go south. That half of your students will be on a trip. They aren’t picking up something as quickly as you hoped. You weren’t informed about a fire drill. Someone tries to throw a chair.

I think one of my biggest strengths as a teacher is my ability to adapt to unusual circumstances and be flexible in my teaching and planning. As a student teacher I worked with four very different cooperating teachers, and an ever-changing landscape of student interactions. Many days my plans were fine and I think I taught some great lessons during student teaching. But there were certainly times where things did not go according to plan.

It’s easy to get frustrated. To let the students talk until the bell, to play a simple game. Certainly better planning is needed, but in those moments, when my best-laid plans have been laid waste (even by a Kindergartener!), I find that I figure it out. I don’t know if it’s intuition, training, or sheer luck, but the teacher in me comes out. You find ways to make it work and meet the students where they are.

Is it always perfect? Of course not. During one of my supervisor observations I realized I had not properly pre-assessed the knowledge of a group of late elementary students and had to completely revise my plan, but I saw their frustration and didn’t try to charge forward with my plan. It seems like such a small thing, but I recognize now that it was an important moment in my teaching. I messed up, recognized it in the students, and fixed it on the spot.

So my greatest strength as a teacher right now is flexibility (and content knowledge, and pedagogy, and student relationships, and a bunch of other principle friendly lingo). Maybe one day my planning will catch up to my teaching, but until then, I know I can adapt and adjust to any situation those students can throw at me!