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Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Co-creating Success Criteria with Students

There has been research published in recent years that shows that students learn better when they know what they're supposed to be learning, and have a clear understanding of what successful demonstration of learning looks like: knowing the learning target and the success criteria. School leaders, including in my district, have started requiring all teachers to post written learning targets and success criteria, but I'm sure I'm not the only one who didn't get clear guidance on how to do it effectively, especially in the elementary music classroom. I shared some general things I've learned about how to share learning targets effectively in this previous post, and today I want to focus more closely on one of those points: co-creating success criteria with students.

First a little background knowledge: learning intentions (or "learning targets" as many have come to refer to them) are the "this is what we're learning about today"s. The success criteria are the "this is how we'll know / show we've learned what we were supposed to learn"s. Whether you are being asked to explicitly state and/or write them for every lesson, if you have a solid understanding of your curriculum then you probably could pretty easily identify what the learning intention and success criteria are for any given lesson. For example, today my second graders are learning about the 4 orchestral instrument families, and when they can accurately name the 4 families when they see pictures of each group of instruments, and describe the characteristics of each family, they will have learned what they were supposed to learn in that lesson.

One of the key points that I learned from my deep dive into educational research on the topic of learning intentions (particularly from this book) is the importance of developing success criteria together with your students. When I was first reading about this idea my reaction was, "they want me to do WHAT?" (insert eye roll here). It sounded cumbersome, time-consuming, and not realistic for actual classroom teaching, particularly elementary school and especially music. But the more I read and started to wrap my head around what they were saying, the more I realized I was actually already doing this a lot- sometimes verbally and sometimes written- and had been for years. 

All we're saying is that, instead of pre-writing success criteria up on the board and telling students what they should do by the end of the lesson, we review prior learning and guide students to be able to describe a concept or how to do a task correctly together through discussion as a way to check for understanding and serve as another way for students to grasp the concept further. So I put dry erase frames to write my learning intentions with success criteria the district-mandated way at the front of the room but down low, where it was out of the way but still visible:

Then I added a whiteboard I already had on-hand to the wall in a more prominent spot right by where I teach, more at eye-level for the students, to write the *actual* success criteria/ lesson intention as we go throughout the lesson (I figure if I decide to stick with this formula, which I think I will, then I'll order something bigger to keep in the front of the room for this purpose- this is a little small obviously but it does the job for now):

The lightbulb moment for me was when I was doing a 5th grade composition lesson. At the beginning of class I explained the composition task: writing a 2-measure minor melody in 4/4 time on the treble clef staff. Then I asked students to point out what they needed to remember in order to write a good melody. They recalled using la as the starting and ending note, pointed out the pitch bank they had on the sheet that showed which pitches they should use in their melody, and said they needed 4 beats in each measure. As we discussed, I wrote each item on the whiteboard. Ta-da! We co-created our success criteria, and now they were ready to do their composition and understood what to do! At the end of the assignment I referred back to our list and they checked their work to make sure they had done everything successfully before turning it in. 

Once I saw how this process could work seamlessly with the way I already teach (while taking it a step further in being more conscious about pointing out the success criteria and writing it for students to see), it became much easier to see how this could work with other elementary music lessons. Another example would be a lesson where I'm introducing 2nd graders to half notes for the first time. At the beginning of the lesson I told them they were going to learn a new rhythm today, and by the end of the lesson they should be able to tell me what it is and show me how to clap and say it. I just wrote "new note" on the board and left the rest blank. Once they learned the song that had half notes in it, instead of me having to tell them to listen for a new rhythm they didn't know yet, they immediately told me they knew what the mystery note was: it was those long notes! I showed them what a half note looked like, they figured out it was 2 beats by clapping the rhythm of the song while walking on the beat, and then I asked them what I should write on the board for the new note and they were able to tell me easily. Telling them at the beginning that they were learning a new note, and writing that on the board, had their brains looking for an unfamiliar rhythm from the beginning and they grasped the concept faster.

If you are in a school or district that is asking teachers to share success criteria with students, I hope this helps give you some more concrete direction on how to do so effectively in an elementary music setting. And if you aren't being asked to share success criteria, I hope you'll consider implementing this strategy in some lessons when it makes sense and see how it goes- I think you will notice a difference! Another key, related point worth mentioning is that not every lesson should have success criteria. If you have the freedom to do so, only use this when it makes sense- don't feel compelled to do it every time.

What questions do you have about success criteria in elementary music? What strategies have you been using in your classroom? I'd love to hear your thoughts and questions in the comments.

Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Learning Targets in the Music Room

I've had lesson objectives posted on my wall for years now but this school year was the first time I was required by district administration to post detailed "learning targets" in a specific format, including success criteria, for every lesson. After doing a lot of my own research on the topic and a lot of trial and error, I have found some solutions for ways to share learning intentions and success criteria that I believe are actually helpful for student learning (not just a way for my evaluator to check a box). Here are the most important things I've discovered for making learning targets meaningful in the music (and, honestly, every other) classroom.

*this post contains affiliate links*

First a word about language. When my district administration announced the requirement this fall for all teachers to post "learning targets" I started doing a lot of research on where this initiative was coming from, and it's clear to me that all of the educational researchers who have promoted this practice use the term learning intention, not learning target or lesson objective. So although I have included the other more commonly used terms in the introduction and title so everyone knows what I'm talking about, I use "learning intention" when I speak and will be using that term in the rest of this article. They refer to the same idea but I think the word "intention" does a better job of communicating what we're trying to do.

1. Use pictures with younger students

What is the point of posting written learning intentions for students who can't read yet? Instead of writing them out like I do for the older grades, for Kindergarten (and self-contained special education classes) I created cards with images that show the concepts I cover in those classes and the ways students would demonstrate their learning, and post those instead.

My research indicates that written learning intentions and success criteria are not something that educational researchers recommend for early childhood. I have not seen anything that shows they have any positive impact on student learning for younger students. But if you are required, like me, to have them for every grade including preschool/ Kindergarten, adding pictures makes it possible for students to understand and connect with the posted learning intentions without having to spend so much of our short class times on the reading itself, and can serve as a great visual for referencing the concepts during the lesson.

2. Use the learning intention to pique student interest

Telling a class, "today we are going to learn about dotted half notes" doesn't really get students excited. But "today we are going to find a mystery new note" can spark their curiosity and get their brains focused on figuring out what the new note could be and trying to find it, which is exactly what a good learning intention is supposed to do! I've realized I don't have to be pedantic to write an effective learning intention that fits what my administration wants to see but more importantly, improves student learning.

3. Expand as you go

Adding to the learning intention and building success criteria together with students throughout the lesson is by far the most effective (this is something pushed consistently by all the educational researchers I have been learning from). In the previous example, I would start the lesson with the learning intention of discovering a mystery new note. Once students find a note in the song that is 3 beats- something they haven't studied before- I reveal what it looks like and what it's called and add it to the posted learning intention. If the success criteria is to correctly write a 4-beat rhythm including half notes, it's better to review with students what makes a successful composition and write those points on the board as you discuss them rather than having them written out in advance.

Those are my top 3 tips for making learning intentions useful for students in the music room, but obviously there is a lot to be said about how to actually do each of these concretely. I'll be expanding more on these to show you what I do in future posts, so if you have any questions please leave a comment!

If you would like to do your own reading on the educational research behind learning intentions and success criteria, what has been shown to be effective in improving student learning, and see more specific examples of how to do this in different types of lessons in different subject areas, I highly recommend this book as a starting point: Unlocking Learning Intentions and Success Criteria by Shirley Clarke

Tuesday, February 13, 2024

Accountability Without Power Struggles

It's no secret we're dealing with more disruptive behaviors in the classroom than ever before. It can be tough to navigate as a teacher, and it can often feel like we're fighting a losing battle. Today I have a simple strategy to share that I've found myself using more and more frequently in the last couple of years that I've found to be very effective.

Dealing with escalated students who are being disruptive and disrespectful can be very difficult, especially when you teach elementary music, because
-class time is so short that one incident can derail the entire lesson, and there isn't enough time to properly address issues to prevent them from happening again,
-behaviors that would not be as problematic for the class as a whole in other subjects, like refusing to participate, are much more problematic in music where students rely on each other for success, and
-with hundreds of students to teach it's difficult to build enough trust with each student or learn how to most effectively respond to each individual student when they are having a hard time.

One thing I learned fairly early in my teaching career is to avoid public power struggles as much as possible. The problem with that is if you don't hold students accountable in the moment when they do or say something disruptive or disrespectful, other students may not get the message that the behavior is unacceptable, and more importantly, if one student is being disrespectful towards another student, the student who was treated badly won't feel protected or vindicated, and the problem festers rather than the relationship being mended (side note: there are far too many times when we are asking students to "just ignore" things that they find offensive or hurtful because it's easier not to have to get the other student to make amends- telling students "it's not a big deal" is not a solution either). 

Having a private conversation when the student is calm is definitely the most effective way to truly address a problem and work on finding solutions to prevent it from happening again. The key, though, is to make it very clear in the moment to everyone that you are going to do that (and then actually do it). Making a mental note to myself to talk to them later isn't enough if the other students who saw it happen, or most importantly if other students were hurt, don't know that it is being addressed and not just ignored to avoid a bigger blowup. 

There are a few ways I do this, depending on the situation:
-Say to the specific student out loud, "we will talk later", have them go sit away from the group, and write a note on my seating chart
-Say to the class, "I'm going to start keeping a tally of how many times people are calling out" and add a tally next to their name on my seating chart
-Say "I'm going to write this down so we can talk later" and write down the exact words a student said

Obviously writing things down is important for me to be able to remember what happened and who I said I wanted to talk to, especially if I'm in the middle of back-to-back classes and I know I won't be following up until later, but I've found it's really helpful for making students more aware of what they are doing and realizing that they are indeed being held accountable (it's not just an empty threat), and also for the other students to realize when I say I will deal with it later, I really will. 

It's also important to note that I'm writing these down to myself privately, not up on the board publicly- the writing itself is not an embarrassment tactic or a punishment in and of itself, it's genuinely a strategy for accountability. And once I do this a few times in class, I don't even have to say the words- students know exactly what I'm doing and what it's for when I go write something down. So it quickly becomes a silent way of holding students accountable, removing even more of the power struggle element in the moment.

Sometimes these strategies alone aren't enough to get the lesson back on track or handle the problem- in that case I may end up needing to have the student go to the office, or with a support staff, instead of staying in the room. Even in that situation, these strategies help communicate to the students that I am the one handling the situation rather than passing it off, because I will be circling back with them, and that having them leave the classroom is not the "punishment" in itself but a way of deescalating. 

I'm sure this is something many of us already know and do, but with behaviors escalating, more people getting sick, and patience running thin, I thought this was an important reminder for everyone. Is this something you do a lot in your teaching? How do you stay on top of everything with so many students and so little time? I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Tuesday, February 6, 2024

Teaching Older Beginners

What do you do when your older students haven't been taught the concepts you would normally expect them to have learned when they were younger? Maybe you just took a new job and there hasn't been a certified music teacher in that position for a while, or maybe you teach in a school where the students don't even get to start music class until they're older. Today I want to explain my approach to teaching general music to older beginners.

One of the most common questions I get is some variation of this: do you have any lesson ideas for teaching Kindergarten concepts to 6th graders? I just started a new job and my older students have never had music class before, so I need to start back at the beginning with everyone. 

The short answer: no you don't.

There are a few different music education methodologies out there that give us a general sequence for introducing fundamental musical concepts in the elementary grades. Whether it's Orff, Kodaly, Music Learning Theory, or something else, the sequence that is laid out in each of those is based on what concepts are appropriate for each age. Regardless of their previous musical background, your 6th graders are just as developmentally ready for the 6th grade concepts as any other 6th grader. Of course any skill takes practice, and practice takes time. And you need to understand beat to understand the divisions of beats- concepts build on each other. But the concepts that are age appropriate don't change based on their background knowledge- they change based on their overall development.

But obviously you can't just jump straight into eighth-sixteenth note combination rhythms if the students have never seen music notation before. So what's the answer? 

2 things: review, and modeling.


The good news about any sound general music curriculum is, there is A LOT of review built into it. Because it's assumed that usually students are not getting music class every day, all year, music curriculum is spiraled (meaning concepts are revisited repeatedly with increasing complexity) and it's always assumed that students will need to review constantly to retain things they learned. 

For older beginners, they're just going to need more review more frequently, and treat it less like "you should know this already, I'm just reminding you" and more like "let's practice the fundamentals". Songs that would be in a 6th grade lesson on sixteenth-eighth combination rhythms probably also have quarter notes, paired eighth notes, and steady beat. You just need to point those out more explicitly and focus most of your practice on those fundamental concepts than you normally would, throwing the new 6th grade concepts out there without expecting them to grasp them as quickly.

That brings me to the second component:


No, 6th graders who have never had music class before are not going to be independently reading sixteenth-eighth combination rhythms right away. But their brains are developmentally equipped for the concept. If the lesson in the curriculum resource you're referencing says students should be counting and reading the rhythms independently, have them echo you reading them instead. If they are supposed to be independently composing a syncopated rhythm, talk through it as a class, model how to write it, and have them copy yours to create a rhythm together. 

Think about it this way: when you get a new student who moves into your school mid-year and never had music class before (or even just hadn't been exposed to specific concepts you already covered before), you expect them to need some extra support from you or a peer, you make sure to explain things to them more, but you still give them the same work and you expect that they'll catch up eventually. You're certainly not going to put them in another grade level's music class because you can't! Most of the time they aren't going to be your top students academically- at least not right away- it's all about making sure they don't get frustrated by assuring them that you understand they are catching up and that you will help them whenever they're unsure. What I'm talking about is essentially just applying that same philosophy to an entire classroom. 

If you are looking for an appropriately sequenced general music curriculum that includes all of that review practice, I have designed the Organized Chaos K-6 Curriculum to do just that, and I have used it successfully with my students for decades. What are your thoughts on teaching older beginners? Have you ever been in this position, and what did you find worked for you? Let me know in the comments!