Sunday, November 15, 2015

A Year's Growth: Music Portfolios in the General Music Classroom

Portfolios: I am using portfolios in grades 2-6 this year.  This tool has absolutely enhanced what I'm already doing in my teaching.

Nuts and Bolts: The portfolios are actually art portfolios (used in art classrooms throughout the district) purchased and made from the district print shop.  The portfolios have spiral bindings, plenty of blank pages, and were a dollar and change each.  I purchased roller carts from IKEA as well as flower pots turned pencil/glue stick holders (IKEA finds as well) for storage.  I utilize portfolios anywhere from 3-10 minutes depending on the activity.

Getting Started:  Student captains have made sure that valuable musical minutes are not wasted.  Try pencil captains (captains grab a pencil holder and down the row it goes!).  We stress "no shopping" and "take one, pass the rest" from day one to ensure time is not wasted! I also have a "stacker" (cue super hero music) in each class that is in charge of passing out each row's stack of portfolios as well as placing the portfolios back in the cases with spiral spines alternating for each row in the stack.  This makes passing out portfolios effortless during each class.  We are all about saving time in our room!  Students also know that when we pass portfolios in at the end of an activity, we make sure that the students put their book on top of the book they receive so that next time, we can just pass them and they are magically in the correct order!

The Meat and Potatoes: What's inside?  The portfolios forced me as an educator to re-examine my planning from a year's perspective.  The portfolio is not meant to be busy work or to simply please an administrator with having my students write, write, and write some more in my room.  Here are three examples of what I have been using regularly:
  • Learning target:  This acts as a way to begin a new section of their portfolio.  During trimester one, the students are guided through this process.  We copy the learning target from the board and box/circle/underline any buzz words (vocab/important/key words).  I know that copying is DOK 1, but this guided work and modeling has set us up for huge success during trimester two.  During trimester two, students write learning targets in their own words.  They use my version of the learning target to help with spelling and to make sure that their version is different.  
  • Thinking Maps: This has been an eye opening and valid part of our portfolios.  I have seen this grow from a DOK 1 (identify and label parts) activity, to an outlet for creative thinking in my classroom.  Students are encouraged to share their individual thinking (words, pictures, scenarios) while creating various maps.  I have been pleasantly surprised by this QUICK and useful resource in my room.  Try having students describe rhythmic or melodic symbols. 
  • Compositions: This has been one of my favorite portions of the portfolios.  I have seen it grown from a DOK 2 activity (putting our "it" (aka learning target) into action) to a DOK 3 activity.  Not only are the students putting their "it" into action by constructing a "four/eight/twelve/sixteen beat composition" but they are showing a strategic plan and explaining why as an artist they are choosing particular durations for their composition to best TELL THEIR STORY!  If they leave my room only knowing how "beats and sounds" can fit in a measure, I have failed to produce artists and creative thinkers.  Rhythmic and melodic symbols should be a vehicle for telling a story and expressing feelings and not simply a mathematical left brain exercise.  I will show various examples of how I structure this in a future blogpost.  

Portfolio Night and The Why (Another motivating factor):  Inspired by Daniel Pink's book Drive, I wanted the students to have another intrinsic motivator to take pride in their work.    The art teacher and I are hosting a Portfolio Night for parents at the end of the year.  The night will include students guiding their parents through a year's worth of growth through their portfolios.  This is the first year we are trying this and I cannot wait to see it carried out.  Look for a follow up post at the end of the school year to see how the event turns out! 

There are so many more details regarding portfolios that I have left out of this post!  In a nutshell, try to make them:
  • Purposeful: Students will know if it is simply busy work
  • Creative: Allow students to put their own spin on their work
  • Short: Keep time in mind when planning portfolio activities!  My focus has always been to have students move/sing/play as much as possible when they are in my room, but I am finding that having this consistent written outlet to be a powerful way to enhance what they are already doing.
  • End Goal: Have a year's worth of growth in mind when designing what you want in your student's portfolios.  What's your bigger picture?  Where do you want your students to be by the end of the year.  Include dates for each entry so students can actually look back and see growth! 
  • TIME/TIME/TIME: Use student captains as much as possible and figure out simple management systems so that these portfolios do not take time away from movement/singing/playing in the classroom.
  • DOK: Examine what you are putting into your portfolios and if most of the activities seem to be labeling and identifying (DOK 1), try to see if you can push activities to a higher DOK by adding elements of strategic and extended thinking.  
Questions/Comments? Share below or email at

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Feedback and guiding my students to be conversational with their learning

This year I have spent time reflecting on the fact that while my students tend to be phenomenal performers, the moment they are asked to verbalize what they are doing......crickets.....

Challenge Accepted!  

My students need to be advocates of their learning and their hard work.  I have enhanced what I am already doing in the classroom to ensure that they can have an intelligent conversation about their projects and performances without taking time away from the joy of creativity and music making.  

I have found that dedicating a minute here and a minute there to encourage my students to verbalize what they are doing is paying off.  The key has been the consistent use of simple sentence stems that can be transferred easily from movement, vocal, rhythmic and melodic reading, and instrumental activities.

Here is one tool that has been a gem in my classroom!  

Beginning polyrhythmic reading activity: Blue/Left Pat, Red/Right Pat.  Students perform rhythm from board (See visual above).  One student is chosen before (or after to keep them on their toes) to be the "funky feedbacker."  Another student is chosen to be the "feedback checker" (I don't have a catchy title for this job yet....)

The funky feedbacker's job is to simply stick to the sentence stems (from the visual), be very specific (use evidence to support their observation), and be concise (straight and to the point with a challenge of avoiding the use of "likes" "ums" and "you knows").

The feedback checker could easily answer their checklist of the funky feedbacker's job with yes or no answers.  This does not show active listening skills and proves nothing!  We take it a step further by encouraging them to be conversational and prove their own feedback of the person giving feedback!  They should:
  • Use complete sentences and site from the "text" (Hannah used specific details when she said.....)
    • The key phrase that shows active listening skills is the phrase when she/he said.  I have noticed a HUGE difference in engaging conversations within my classroom.  The students are doing this in their homeroom classrooms by using paper clips, post it notes, and highlighters when reading texts while supporting their answers with evidence, so why not transfer it to my room too?!
  • The fourth and final question is whether or not the feedbacker was able to complete the task on their own without assistance.  We take this one further by adding a challenge or action plan from one student to another.
    • Hannah was able to complete this on her own and I want to challenge her to use even more detail in her next turn.  
    • The challenge is revolving around their feedback and not their performance.  While introducing this new system in my classes, I noticed that some students default to giving performance challenges/feedback, but they are reminded to give a challenge for the student's actual feedback.  Do they want to hear more details, hear specific note names, specific measures, etc?  
      • I remind students that the challenge/action plan is coming from a place of "we are excited about what you said and want even more!"  I refer to scenarios of dessert...when it's good, you want more!  This steers the students in a direction of respect and positive communication skills, rather than feeling like they are being criticized for not doing enough.  It's all in the delivery.
Remind students that observations and feedback from an individual can be transferred to anyone and can help us all grow to become more successful musicians.  

We have gone through several changes in my building and district revolving around feedback and observations.  I have worked very hard over the years to create a climate of respect and safety in my room.  It has taken time, trust, and modeling to create a culture where students are comfortable receiving and giving feedback, critiques, and stating and receiving opinions without the default reaction of anger, sadness, and the general feeling of "I'm being picked on" or "I'm not good enough so I don't care anymore."  I have learned a lot from watching teachers receiving feedback and have want to grow from mistakes made in my work environment and the uncomfortable situations that can be created if the climate is not laid out correctly.  

Friday, March 27, 2015

Thinking Maps

I've been incorporating Thinking Maps in whole class, small group, and individual settings in my classroom this year.  Incorporating various maps in quick and purposeful times can be woven into any concept.  

Why I'm Doing It:

  • I've seen lightbulb moments when students have a chance to describe meanings to concepts in multiple ways.
  • They can be quick and purposeful
  • They can be solo or collaborative
  • They do not take away from my movement, instrumental, creation, vocal, and other learning areas in my classroom.  I have found that they enhance these activities by allowing students to dig deeper into their learning and understanding of concepts.  
Bubble maps were created for our grade level rhythmic units.
They are displayed throughout the room for reminders throughout the year

Bubble maps were created to enhance our harmony unit to describe I, IV, V, and vi chords.
Various colors were used for different classes.
This activity was done after various movement, reaction, and instrumental activities.
Brainstorming from the harmony unit bubble maps was inputted into
Tagxedo for one more creative way to display our ideas.  
Thinking Maps

Do you utilize various thinking maps in your classroom?  I'd love to hear your ideas at or feel free to share below!