Monday, August 18, 2014

Define Quality

We are really getting into the nitty-gritty of performance assessment in the arts now.  But this is the point where it could be most effective for students (and therefore, the program).
Which of these lists will help a student become independent

List 1
Can I sing?

List 2
Am I using proper abdominal breathing?
Am I using a north/south mouth shape with teeth apart and correct lip shapes?
Can I sing one note while someone else sings a different note?
Can I sing a non-melodic part independently & accurately?
Do I take breaks at predetermined, thoughtful locations in the music (phrases)?
If there are certain notes that the composer has indicated to be performed specially, am I doing that (articulation)?

Since we have 18 learning targets (see previous post), we have at least 18 questions.  The more questions a student is able to demonstrate positively, the better the chance of a quality musical performance.

But students also benefit from non-examples, and so I have provided what each learning target would look or sound like when not performed with quality.  This is not to make a student feel bad.  Rather, it is the start of a conversation leading to growth.

Furthermore, each of these 18 learning targets can be applied to any level of musical achievement.  You can use these learning targets and their examples at a 6th grade or 12th grade level.  In fact, twenty years after graduating with a performance degree, I could still use these same learning targets.

Finally, every example and non-example offers strategies for improvement.  I have compiled a beginning list, not an exhaustive list of steps to take to move to the next level.  I could imagine pulling together a list of warmups based completely on each of these 18 learning targets (i.e., "Need to work on articulation?  Work on exercises 22 and 23 for next week.")

Click HERE to view the full spreadsheet (click tabs on the bottom to switch topics).
The learning targets for "Intonation"

The next post will get into how to use these with students.



Friday, August 15, 2014

Setting the (Learning) Targets

In my previous post, I wrote four questions for designing performance music assessments:
1.  What does quality look like?
2.  What does quality sound like?
3.  What will a group sound like if everyone performs with this level of quality?
4.  How do individuals improve so the group may improve?

The answers to these questions provide your learning targets - the concepts we expect students to be able to do or demonstrate.  If we take a step back at this point and look a vocal performance unit so far, it would look like this:
performance unit within South Milwaukee's curriculum for ensembles
As you can see, each of the four topics have been broken down into 3-5 learning targets that are essential if a student is to perform with quality.  I decided that these learning targets were the major contributing factors that would create quality tone, intonation, musicality, and technique.  I tried to match the state ballot as much as possible.  You might come up with different ideas for learning targets, especially if your state ballot differs from Wisconsin's.  

I didn't try to make 5 learning targets in each area, but as it was coming together, I really liked it since our state ballot gives students a rating of 1-5.  It seemed like a logical way to help students make a connection between how they perform in class and what kind of score they might expect in a contest situation.  And since we have tied individual quality to group quality with our guiding questions above, our 1-5 rating could work on large group contest as well as solo/ensemble.  

We're not done.  Each of these learning targets needs to be broken down into criteria for assessment. But that will have to be the next installment in this series ...



Thursday, August 14, 2014

4 Questions to Ask When Designing Music Assessments

In my initial post in this series (here), I wrote that contest ballots are not helpful rubrics for students. They are written for adjudicators and teachers.  In designing standards-based performance assessments rubrics for music students, the most important consideration is to make it usable for the students!  With this in mind, I have developed an assessment based on four questions, based on my learnings from the resources I blogged about (here and here):

1.  What does it look like?
Pretend you have a student in front of you that was ready to sing, but as he/she was singing, the sound coming out is completely muted.  Would you be able to assess that student's tone?  For the most part, yes!  You can see the student's posture, you can observe his/her breathing, the relaxation of the neck muscles and jaw, the position of the soft palate and tongue in the mouth, the space between the teeth, and the shape of the lips. These are all deliberate choices that a singer makes when performing. Students, especially beginning students, need to be able to assess based on the visual.  For topics such as intonation, the visual would be the notation itself.

2.  What does it sound like when a soloist performs this learning target with quality?
Now unmute our student and let the sound out.  What is the aural result?  This is where individuals take responsibility for their own personal sound.  This is where we focus on the individual growth of each student within the ensemble.  And in today's media, students hear all sorts of poor and even unhealthy styles of singing.  This question differentiates for students what kind of singing is expected in class as compared to what they may see on TV or youtube.

3.  What will an ensemble of musicians sound like when they all exhibit this quality?
Once again, most music teachers could listen to 50 students individually and then correctly hypothesize what the ensemble will sound like.  But a student cannot.  And young students often do not realize what their contribution is to the larger group.  This question places the responsibility for the sound of the group squarely on each member.  For example, how does your personal performance of phrasing contribute to the overall group's phrasing?

4.  How can you improve your individual performance in this area so the group can improve?
Don't leave students hanging.  Using the data collected, here's where you scored in each area, and now here are some suggestions that will help you move to the next level of personal performance.  Again, the responsibility for group growth is placed on each individual.  This is where the teacher and student together set goals for growth.  The teacher can also group students based on needs.

To recap, the progression is:
Quality Individual (visual & aural)  --> Quality Group  --> Strategies for Improvement

Next up ... the answers to these four questions


Wednesday, August 13, 2014

A Book You Must Read!

In one of my administrative leadership classes recently, a teacher used a short passage from the book Five Levers to Improve Student Learning by Tony Frontier and James Rickabaugh (ASCD).  It intrigued me, so I purchased the book which just came out this year.  It may be the most impactful book I have ever read about educational reform.  I bet your administrators have read it.  I bet you are hearing ideas that stem from this book in your district , even if you never hear about the book itself.  You need to read this book!  (I am receiving nothing for this blog and have never talked with the authors.)

The advantage of a lever is this:
If you apply pressure at just the right point, you get maximum effect with minimal effort.

Just like different types and sizes of levers, the results we get in education often have to do with the tool we choose to use.
Bigger changes take bigger levers to be successful.
The wrong tool will make you feel like you are working hard, but your changes will ultimately be minimal and frustrating.

Frontier & Rickabaugh offer five types of educational levers:
• Structure - school governance, initiatives, and schedules
• Sample - how we manipulate the placement of students
• Standards - what we are going to teach
• Strategy - how we are going to teach it
• Self - self-efficacy that leads to independent learning

How many times have you heard these sample and structure ideas:
"If we could just change the schedule, everything will be fine." (structure)
"If we could just have fewer students in a class, students will learn more." (sample)
"If we could get everyone a device, achievement will increase." (structure)
"Perhaps single-gender classrooms would help students learn better." (sample)

The authors point out that sometimes, the lower-gear levers of structure and sample are the correct solutions, as long as they match the problem requiring resolution.  But in order for these levers to work in bigger problems, they need to be combined with higher-gear levers (i.e., changing to block schedule requires teachers to change how they instruct if achievement gains are desired - a strategy lever).
https://www.flickr.com/photos/vitalist/3600612265/in/photolist-6ub5zP-5abWgm-d8S187-mFXsf6-bxYAQ3-bWnZhq-cSPoLS-iUCUF6-4pUvHa-6bdaLN-5A7oR5-7gVgqB-78jgvA-7pKDSe-aRfa7a-4FzDNg-9L9G8e-nR9pMt-6Nh57E-4CH8NQ-8nRiwN-5VbkNe-i15DSq-4LEaR4-dABCV1-owZFKz-ggL3TT-bF9vAr-fMXvcC-nF8T3T-2VTLTz-nfNFjn-6kdYzZ-8X6WA8-dLvP44-hcunz6-e3Dp79-ebj2Jq-6cxCcz-fceFWt-o5rRxV-kC1LZ4-bTFiji-QKE7Z-jXxs4w-iWfw28-ePuup5-i29DJ5-5wbbtq-dTnLUM

The decisions made at these levels are easy to grasp and look like quick fixes, especially for non-educators.  This could include smaller class sizes, 1:1 computing (without a change in strategy), charter governance, modified scheduling, and yes - even the battle over Common Core Standards.  How we teach (strategy) and how our strategies inspire ownership of learning (self) are hard to rally behind, even though they are the most powerful levers in our toolbox.

Why do I bring this book up in the midst of a discussion on standards-based learning?
Any teacher, department, or system that aspires to use standards-based learning or standards-based report cards without addressing the higher-gear levers of strategy and self will be frustrated when they don't get the achievement results desired.  For standards-based learning to be effective, teachers must change the strategies they use (especially the role of assessments) and influence students to become fully engaged in using the standards to guide learning and set goals.  Teachers who use strategies that increase student self-motivation to achieve or surpass the standards with some sort of independence and ownership will have succeeded in the transition.








Love at First Sight ... SBL Music Resources

After embarking on the road to Standards Based Learning in music, the first thing I did was seek out resources.  I'm not sure how I came upon this set of books, but it was love at first sight.  I started flipping through the pages ... I came upon this image ... I remember sitting at my desk and seeing it ...
From page 2 of "Scale Your Way to Music Assessment"
If this picture is fuzzy to you, let me explain.  It says Musical Understandings + Student Performance Skills are what contribute to Independent Musicians who create quality performances.  Why was I in love?  Because it's exactly how our department had set up our units in our new curriculum model about 8 months prior on our own.  The difference is that we call the units "Musical Skills" (performance skills such as tone) and "Musical Knowledge" (topics not exhibited in performance, such as theory).  See my blog post to learn more about our units & topics.

It is a series of three books by Paul & Ann Kimpton as well as Delwyn Harnisch on the second book. The first is called "Grading for Musical Excellence", and the second is called "Scale Your Way to Music Assessment".  There is a third book that we do not have (yet) entitled "Common Core: Reimagining the Music Rehearsal and Classroom".  The Kimptons are a husband and wife team - Paul is a retired music teacher and Ann is a curriculum administrator, so they put their books together from the practitioner's view of a music teacher and the curriculum view of an administrator.  I was so smitten that we ordered 3 sets to share in our K-12 music department.  The books are published by GIA Publications.

The books lead your team through the conversations and prep work that you just can't skip as you change the way you look at student work in the music program. It leads you through talking about our "baggage" as music teachers, aligning our department goals to district goals, identifying what quality performances are, writing assessments, collecting and analyzing data, etc.  There is a CD included with the "Scale Your Way to Music Assessment" book that includes many of the assessments developed by the Kimptons.

One of the reasons this series resonated with me is because it confirmed my belief that we need to make time to hear every student individually, not to track their abilities, but to advance their abilities as young musicians.

I have not received anything for this blog review, nor have I ever communicated with the Kimptons, but I do hope to someday.  These books would be great for any music department that either wants to assess students in a better way or finds themselves in a district requiring more assessment of students and wants to do it the right way.



A Standards-Based Interlude: Why SBL in Music?

I interrupt this series on standards-based learning in music to explain why I am on this journey in the first place.  This is not something my district has embarked on at this point or something that I just decided to try one day.  I can point to three factors in the past year.

#1 - The elementary tech project that grew into standards based learning.  Aurasma, which I hope to blog about separately) and decided to use it to video-record student performances instead of doing journal pages.  What did I realize as I recorded about 15 seconds of nearly every student in the school? A wide variety of what students were doing.  Really good stuff, but still a wide variety.  I realized: "If I had this information 3 weeks BEFORE the concert instead of the week AFTER the concert, I might have made a few changes."
After my elementary concert, students traditionally write journal pages.  I keep these pages and return them to the students when they are in 5th grade - the kids love it.  But last year, I found an app (

#2- A really big choir last year.  Ninety 8th grade students in a team-taught choir was one of the biggest (pun intended) challenges of my career so far. We did well, but the biggest problem with a group that size was the difficulty of trying to know each student's voice individually.
Beautiful, full, mature tone for the ensemble?  No problem.
Each student's commitment to individual growth for the benefit of the group? Unknown.

In fact, due to the size, instead of having every student work on a solo/ensemble piece in Winter, we added another concert instead.  The student/teacher ratio would not have allowed for that much individual in-class work time on solos, we do not have individual lesson times, and almost none of our students receive vocal training outside of school.  As a choir director, I crave hearing individual voices and individual growth.  

#3 - The curriculum work our district and department has been working on.  Like many districts, ours has worked hard on the deliberate creation of rigorous, quality curriculum.  Our district used the Understanding by Design framework combined with a tool called Build Your Own Curriculum.  As we move to the next step, teachers are looking more closely at student work and student data to drive improvement.  What data could we collect that would have the biggest impact on student achievement in music?

What do all three of these factors mean?  There is nothing - nothing - that can substitute for the importance of hearing students individually as a music teacher.  At any grade level.  In any ensemble. No matter the time restraints.

I have always been a proponent of students singing alone in front of a class at any time, but that has always been more of a "spot check" rather than a more refined listening, assessment, and reflection with the student.  There is no doubt in my mind that individual performance data is the biggest lever we can pull to increase music achievement.  The key is to do it in a deliberate way that involves the students and the parents.

So that's what has brought me to this point.  To be continued ...



Standards: What They Are and What They Are Not

If you are a teacher (music or not) on the road towards standards-based learning, then at some point you are going to have to deal with ... standards.

In a previous blog, I encouraged music teachers to divorce themselves from the idea that a piece of music you are rehearsing is a "unit of study".  It does not matter if the piece is going to be performed in a public concert or not - the pieces you rehearse are not units in your curriculum.  They are mere activities, and as such, they live near the bottom of the curricular food chain.

I can't tell you how hard - how painfully hard - it was to come to this realization as a department.  But it's easy to prove.

How many times have you said this to your students:
"We just talked about phrasing in our last song.  Let's see if you can transfer that learning to the next song in our rehearsal."  (Substitute phrasing for any musical topic.)  As teachers, we want our students to take one concept and apply it in many places.  In other words, good music teachers teach transferrable skills.  Songs themselves are not transferrable skills - they are activities.

So then, what are units and standards in music?  Here's how I view it as a music teacher:
Adapted from our district's curriculum handbook

Notice that "standards" do not appear on this image.  That is because standards are something that are written elsewhere and adopted by a state or local governing agency.  According to Tony Frontier & James Rickabaugh in Five Levers to Improve Learning, standards have two primary functions: "to
clarify what should be taught (content) and to articulate expectations for how work should be evaluated (quality)" (68).    

But just because you have standards does not mean you can embark on standards-based assessments. What will you teach?  How will you teach it?  How will you measure it?  What represents quality in an student work?  How will you offer feedback?  How will students incorporate the feedback into a continuous growth model?  How will you measure growth?  How will parents be involved in the process?  Standards do not answer these questions. Standards are not, in themselves, going to increase achievement - the power is in what you do with the standards.

Frontier & Rickabaugh go on to say a "standard-based system is largely concerned with developing a shared understanding of quality, generating accurate developmental feedback to inform one's efforts, and strategically utilizing effort to attain or surpass the articulated standard" (83).

If you would like to see how we structured our curriculum, click here to view a copy of one example. All of our 6-12 ensembles follow the same pattern.  It also includes our K-12 Enduring Understandings & Essential Questions.  The document looks simple, but it was years of work.

All of our 6-12 ensembles have four units:
• Musical Skills - the performable aspects of music (topics are closely aligned to contest ballot)
• Musical Knowledge - what a musician needs to know for success, but is not evidenced through performance (topics include sightreading, theory, and music history & culture)
• Concert - topics include stage presentation, audience etiquette, and self-evaluation
• Music as Creative Endeavor - as a department, we felt strongly that fully developed musicians make personal, social, and creative connections to the music (topics include character ed and creative process)

To be continued ...