Sunday, January 19, 2014

So Can 5th Grade Students Compose?

Too long ago, I wrote a blog post posing the question Can 5th grade students compose?
By "compose", I was testing if 5th grade students could use traditional notation to write an original work with some level of harmony.  These are students I have had since Kindergarten, so it was as much a test of my own teaching as it was their knowledge.  We took about 5 weeks (ten half-hour sessions) on Noteflight, with students working in pairs.
Students in pairs on

The answer is  YES!  and no ...
Yes - Students can craft a theme, notate it well, add a few instruments, and create harmony within guidelines.
But No - after a good start, most become a quagmire of notes because although making music is natural, the organizational principles that makes a composition successful are not always natural.

What students did well:
• Computer skills (logging in/create scores/input notes/copy & paste notation)
• Treble clef notation
• Writing a "theme"
• Identify and resolve dissonant harmonies
• Sequence a theme (copy & paste original theme, then transpose it up or down)

What students had trouble with:
• How to keep a theme short and interesting
• Keeping rhythms simple (not filling measures with notes)
• Bass clef notation
• How to use percussion notation to enhance/support a melodic line

I quickly realized we needed to develop some "Rules" or Criteria to guide student work.  Through a variety of assignments, we developed these rules together:
Rules or Criteria of 5th grade composing (please excuse the chalkboard, tech friends)
Rule #1 - We LOVE patterns in music (it gives our brain something to hook onto)
Rule #2 - If one part is slow, the other can be fast (we need contrast)
Rule #3 - Scales move stepwise up or down
Rule #4 - Chords stack notes (teach whole note chords in root position to support a melody)
Rule #5 - Leave some empty space (we don't eat Thanksgiving dinner every day)
Rule #6 - A Theme is short and to the point (like a topic sentence)

If you want students as young as 4th or 5th grade to be able to compose on Noteflight, here are some ideas I suggest you build into your elementary program.  These are the things I plan to enhance in my own program for the future:

• Teach students about the concept of a "theme" early.  We do a lot of program music in elementary school, but instead of just identifying themes (Peter and the Wolf, the Nutcracker or Firebird Suites, Danse Macabre, etc.) we need to investigate what makes a theme successful.  My 5th grade students did better when we defined a theme as a "topic sentence" - short and to the point.  John Williams music is great for investigating what you can do with just a few notes.
• Do MORE composing early.  We already do inventive notation projects in 5K, single line staff in 1st grade, 2-line staff in 2nd grade, progressing to traditional notation in 3rd grade, but I need to do MORE in each of those grades, incorporating the six rules above.
• Sing and identify the various types of harmony with students.  We learned at least one song in each of these categories: round, partner song, descant, homophonic (which we called "true harmony" rather than homophonic).  I wrote a blog post about teaching harmony in 5th grade earlier this year.  I will move this up to 4th grade.
• Bass clef notation.  I know ... it can be difficult enough to teach treble clef some years.

Have fun!  I hope to return to Noteflight with the 5th grade students after our Spring concert!

Friday, January 17, 2014


Starting this weekend, I am embarking on a new adventure.  This weekend I begin a master's program in Educational Leadership at Alverno College.  At the end of the program, I will have completed the coursework for licensure as a principal and as a director of instruction.  It is something that has been brewing for about the last two years.  And in the last few days, I have been thinking over what led to this point.  It's a combination of self-determination, taking advantages of seemingly small opportunities, and learning from great people.

On the very first day of inservice at my very first teaching job (15 years ago), I was talking to my principal about the inservice schedule and what meetings I was to attend.  She mentioned a Building Leadership Team ("BLT"/shared decision making) team that was optional.  But I went anyway, just to see.  Something about that snap decision to attend an optional meeting put me in contact with other teacher leaders right away, and people started to see leadership qualities in me as well.  Sometimes it's the snap decisions we make that can change the course of our lives.  I will always be grateful to that principal who invited me that day, who started as a Spanish teacher and is now a well-respected superintendent of one of the top school districts in Iowa.

When I moved to my current district, I was very happy, except that I had lost the sense of leadership.  I was in a suburban district where you needed to put in years of service before anyone would take real notice. After about six years, a technology committee was formed.  I was asked to join, and once again, joining a committee brought back that sense of leadership.  That committee, still led by one of the foremost tech-integrators in Wisconsin, opened up all sorts of new opportunities.

One more big event was being asked to serve as a CPI-trained crisis team member in my school.  As a result of this training, I was directly involved in student crisis situations, sometimes multiple times per day. Again, other teachers begin to see you as a leader - someone people look to take charge, able to think on your feet in the most difficult school situations.

Other opportunities have helped shape my experience: coaching classes, serving as a mentor, district visioning committees, K-12 music curriculum leader, tech conferences, and all sorts of other things ensued that allowed me the opportunities for leadership as a teacher.  Eventually, one gathers up all these experiences and starts to think "I can do this" - maybe I can serve our profession in a new way.

I once saw a tweet that said "You might be a leader if you want to influence people beyond the walls of your own classroom".  That has stuck with me.  Leadership looks different for everyone, and it's the decisions that seem small at the time that eventually lead to the big decisions we make in life.  It's also the people we meet that shape us and urge us on.  Then, it's up to us to decide what to do with all that.

Where will this lead?  Who knows, but it is really exciting to be at this point.