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.

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!

30 Day Blog Challenge Day 1

Day 1: How did you decide to become a teacher?

When I started college I was a pre-seminary student pursuing an undergraduate degree in Vocal Performance. During my sophomore year, I decided to drop the seminary certificate and pursue education as a career.

Photograph of The Boxcar Children books on a shelf.

I loved The Boxcar Children books as a kid! Will need to find a set before I have children of my own! Creative Commons License 2011, janielle23, http://www.flickr.com/photos/janellie23/5557021621/

I’ve always loved school. In elementary school I would have my father drive me to school early to get everything ready and make sure I was prepared for the day’s learning. I’ve always loved to read. We joke in my family that my mother once collapsed in the library while pregnant with me, and that I’ve loved to read ever since. I’ve always loved music. I remember standing and singing in my classes at my first elementary school and being told I had one of the best voices in the class.

But I’m not a teacher because I love school, because I love to read, or because I love music. I’m a teacher because I believe education is the place that I can best make a change in this world. Teaching is the most fulfilling work I’ve ever done, and I’ve only been a student teacher! There’s something incredible about making music with students and helping them find their voice and their song.

As a student teacher I worked at two different schools, with four different cooperating teachers, and with close to 700 students from grades K-12. I will never remember all of them. But I will remember that it was there that I discovered my love for teaching. It was not a chore to get up in the morning and drive 30 minutes to school with coffee in hand.

Instead, I greeted my students cheerfully (even at 7am!) and asked how their weekend was, or how the One-Act was coming along. I decided to become a teacher because I think I already was a teacher. When I wanted to be a pastor, I was drawn to the teaching aspects of the office.

Keep Calm and Teach On

Copyright 2012 Ashley Kipp at Simply Designing http://simplydesigning.blogspot.com/

As I wrote in my post, Teacher to Student, I have felt a great loss in my transition back to being a college student. I don’t receive the same fulfillment as I did during student teaching. But a bit of that spark comes back each time I browse the classifieds of districts I’m hoping to apply for, and I look forward to the day when I have students of my own again.

I guess I never did really decide to become a teacher. Instead, I chose a major and teaching found me along the way. I’ll never look back.

 

30 Day Teaching Challenge

30 Day Teaching Challenge

In an effort to keep myself thinking about teaching and in the teaching mindset, I’ve decided to start a 30-day teaching challenge starting tomorrow! Thanks to Julie at learningtoteach-julie.blogpsot.com I finally found a list that will work for my purposes here!

I might alter a few of the questions to be more applicable to my experience as a pre-service teacher, but I’m excited to explore some of my teaching experiences in depth!

Here are the prompts! I’ll see you tomorrow!

30-Day Reflection Challenge

Day 1: How did you decide to become a teacher?
Day 2: What do you believe is your greatest strength as a teacher?
Day 3: In which area do you think you can improve the most?
Day 4: What were you most worried about as you approached your first day as a teacher?
Day 5: How do you keep your classroom organized?
Day 6: What have you observed of other teachers that might work in your own classroom?
Day 7: How can you best promote responsibility in your students?
Day 8: How do you connect with your students?
Day 9: What do you want out of the “Staff Room”?
Day 10: Describe your ideal administrator.
Day 11: What do you think about the phrase: “Always teach like you are going to be observed?”
Day 12: What strategies do you use to keep up with grading?
Day 13: What helpful advice have you heard about dealing with parents?
Day 14: Who do you turn to for teaching advice and why?
Day 15: How would you describe yourself as a person and as a teacher?
Day 16: What is your biggest regret as an educator?
Day 17: What is the most important thing you have learned in school?
Day 18: What about education frustrates you the most?
Day 19: How would your coworkers describe you?
Day 20: Describe yourself during your first year of teaching and discuss how you have grown.
Day 21: What was your most enjoyable moment as a teacher?
Day 22: What did you encounter in your career which you did not expect?
Day 23: What aspects about education are you currently excited for?
Day 24: What part of teaching has been the easiest?
Day 25: How were you taught in school?
Day 26: What tools do you think are most important for professional development today?
Day 27: What is one thing you want to accomplish before you are done teaching?
Day 28: How do you create a classroom where every student feels included and valuable?
Day 29: What is your preferred learning style and how does it affect how you teach?
Day 30: What kind of teacher do you want to be in 10 years?

Teacher to Student (Ninja Skills?)

Tomorrow is my last day of Student Teaching.

Over the last four months, I have taught about 700 students from grades K-12 in Band, Chorus, and General Music. I have worked with four cooperating teachers, four administrators, and four schools. I taught in both public and parochial settings, with both experienced and relatively young teachers.

More than all of that, I’ve become accustomed to being a teacher. I’m no longer a college student studying music education, but an active music educator with varied experiences that inform my active teaching. I woke up most mornings and really looked forward to my day of making music with young people!

For me, the transition from student to teacher was easy. I’m far more worried about the transition that starts tomorrow at the 3:13 bell. The space of not-teaching between student teaching and my first teaching position scares me far more than a class of menacing 7th grade chorus students. The limbo of joblessness will haunt me for the next few months (hopefully very few!)

On the other hand, there are a few things about student life that I’m very much looking forward to:

  • Pleasure reading
  • Seeing my close friends who were also student teaching
  • Off-Days
  • Sleeping In
  • Being in Choir
  • Being in Band
  • Voice lessons

PS: My cooperating teacher told me today that a few of the seventh grade boys were impressed by my “ninja skills” when another student tried to throw a chair a few weeks ago. I value student assessments of my teaching very highly.

NMEA 2012 Day 1: “Real Teacher”

MENC logo

MENC logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

It’s the most wonderful time of the year! Not Christmas (which I do love), but conference week! Today was the first day of the Nebraska Music Educators Association (NMEA) conference in Lincoln, NE. This is my 3rd or 4th year attending, and I have looked forward to it every year.

 

Today, collegiate sessions included a keynote address by National Association for Music Education (NAfME) national president Nancy Ditmer about the transition from student to teacher. It was amazing how many of her comments I found supported my experiences as a student teacher!

 

My favorite session of the day, however, was a panel with eight or nine young teachers about what teaching is like. I love talking with young teachers, and really enjoyed hearing the perspective of these teachers who have been teaching for a few years! I got some fantastic advice about middle school classroom management with large numbers of music students!

 

Mostly, I enjoyed a day of talking about music education with my peers and hearing about best practice for music education from working teachers in a variety of settings. Conferences always provide solid strategies for behavior management and interventions, conducting technique, and teaching in the challenging field of music education.

 

I’m looking forward to full days of performances and sessions over the next few days of conference! The closer I get to being a “real teacher,” the more serious I take these conferences. When asking about the middle school management issues, I had real live human beings in mind, not just the concept of a difficult classroom.

 

That’s the thing that student teaching offers that no practicum experience, class simulation, or case study could ever prepare you for: you are responsible for the musical success and education of young people.

 

It’s terrifying.

 

It is the best job in the world.

 

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Student Teaching v.2, Weeks 1-3: The Joys of Choir and Middle School!

Three weeks ago, I began my second student teaching placement in a small-town school district teaching band and choir at both the middle school and high school. My previous placement was at a private school in a moderately sized city teaching K-12 and a variety of classes.

So far, I love it! I’m more convinced than ever that music education is wh   ere I’m supposed to be, and I wake every morning excited to go to school and see my students. My first placement, was mostly general music and band, so I’m thrilled to be working with choirs again!

I’m working with the women’s chorus on two pieces: Carol of the Bells (which they were very excited to see when I was pulling music), and an arrangement of the torch Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabella (which I felt would be a gorgeous carol for women’s chorus). The girls struggle with many of the musical concepts, but are willing to try things and laugh with me! Well, they probably think I’m a little off my rocker, but that comes with the territory.

I’m also working with the high school concert choir on an arrangement of Joy to the World and the Hallelujah Chorus, as well as “The Twelve Days After Christmas” with the men’s chorus.

On the band side of things, I assist with the concert band and will begin conducting a piece that my CT will give me this week. In addition, I am conducting a jazz band of my very own which I will post more about in a separate update! I’m attempting some more creative things with that group that I’ve never really seen or tried before!

On the middle school side, things are a little more challenging. Middle school students are a subject that my teacher education program never could have really prepared me for. I love them. They are incredibly challenging, and test the limits of both my creativity and my temper almost every day. They range from students yelling and throwing chairs to a boy asking me if I had ever been bullied when I was in middle school.

One of the more successful strategies for middle school I have found is the sound monitoring iPad app Too Noisy, which provides a simple classroom sound meter that can be adjusted for sensitivity. The students of each class named the smiley face and the objective became to keep George/Rupert/Alfred/Antonio happy! After a few days of distraction, it has become fairly effective at keeping general noise levels down.

There is a lot to be said about my experience over the last two weeks, and I hope to update with some more in-depth posts about the methodologies I’ve tried and observed as well as the experiences I have had. More than anything, I am thrilled to be teaching in a school that supports the music program, as well as an administration that is generally very supportive of the arts (and student teachers)!

Personally, life has been a bit hectic since my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer! Surgery is scheduled for Friday, and your thoughts and prayers are certainly appreciated.