“Hey Susan, your work in choir this year was outstanding – thank you for a great year” In disbelief of what I just wrote in Susan’s yearbook, I looked up and said, “You did such a great job this year in and really grew as a musician, congratulations! You know, considering everything we went through, we actually had a relatively good year in choir. How can that be?”
Susan smiled, shrugged her shoulders, and we both just looked at each other and shook our heads in disbelief.
After Susan left my office, I reflected upon the 2020 – 2021 school year and the challenges we faced.
1. For the entire first semester, the high school vocal music program was virtual.
2. For the second semester, we returned to in-person instruction, but the entire high school student body and each ensemble were separated into two cohorts. Each choir met once a week for thirty minutes, and we sang twelve feet apart wearing masks. It was very disheartening.
3. In March, the High School Drama Club was able to begin virtual and after school rehearsals for the musical The Theory of Relativity. In May, we presented four socially distanced in-person performances.
4. Starting in early April, the entire student body returned to five days a week instruction, and the two cohorts combined and met twice a week for thirty minutes. We continued to wear masks but could now sing six feet apart. What a difference!
5. And in mid-June, all the high school choirs and bands performed their Spring Concert in the auditorium for a limited, socially distanced audience. This was our first concert in over a year and a half.
Teaching High School Vocal Music during COVID
Below you will find an introduction to each posting of Leading Voices that coincides with the experiences my students and I faced during the 2020-2021 COVID school year. From my first post in September 2020 focusing on Teaching and Singing While Wearing a Mask to Purposeful Teaching Through Agile-Centered Instruction last month, the links below offer a window into the challenges, resources, and response to teaching high school vocal music during COVID.
I am incredibly proud of my students for their maturity, tenacity, and dedication as they continued singing and study choral music during COVID. Out of necessity, they had to continually modify and adjust their perception of what it meant to musically survive during a pandemic. Bravo Marcellus Mustangs!
Teaching and Singing While Wearing a Mask:
Why it is a Challenge and How to make it Better
Speaking and singing while wearing a mask is incredibly challenging. Although there is limited research thus far, we identified four aspects of singing and speech which are impacted by wearing a mask: masks diminish decibel levels, attenuate certain speech sounds, distort word boundaries, and block visual facial cues.
When teaching or singing with a mask, our first instinct may be to push and make our voices louder. This, of course, is not sustainable or even a healthy way to be heard. Our collaboration produced several recommendations to compensate for the mask. These include slowing speech rate, attending to articulatory markers that identify word boundaries, and augmenting our spoken instruction with visual aids. Read more
Adapting Specs Grading for the Virtual and Hybrid Choral Classroom
As I start the fall semester, I find myself right where I left off at the end of last year – trying to keep my students engaged in a virtual high school choral program. This year, my high school moved to a two-semester scheduling system with students taking four classes per semester in 80 minutes blocks. For the first semester, I will teach all my choir students online. For the second semester, we will return to in-person rehearsals, with some students choosing to remain virtual for the entire year.
Last Monday, I graded my first assignment using Specs Grading – most outstanding! In about 30 minutes, I reviewed the Google Sheet, applied the specs, graded their work, and entered 72 grades into SchoolTool. But better than that, 83% of my students completed the assignment on time and achieved the grade they were shooting for. Read more
Learning Outcomes and Our Ability to Pivot
It seems like every month, there is a new term or phrase that surfaces as we journey through the COVID-19 educational landscape, such as Hybrid Learning, the Digital Choral Classroom, Synchronous, and Asynchronous Instruction. Now here in Central New York, we have another new phrase going around called “the pivot.” With most CNY schools teaching in-person or using a hybrid model, many of our colleagues are planning for the pivot as they anticipate their schools moving to all virtual learning.
With the realization that we will need to remain fixable and pivot our instruction this year and that our traditional school concerts will not resume for some time, we need to reevaluate our course design and our required learning outcomes. Many of our best practices from the past have been successful and will remain. But there is a danger in maintaining the expected – the known – not realizing that education is changing right before our eyes. Elements of Backwards Design and Specs Grading offers teachers a new perspective and a way to review, redefine, and reimagine our instruction. Read more
Who is Your Vygotsky?
Who is that colleague you can call or email to help you work through a challenging situation or technical question? If you are like me, chances are it is not your superintendent, chancellor, or curriculum coordinator. Though they may be outstanding educators, your Vygotsky is probably someone who is in the trenches with you – a peer MKO.
I believe the same needs to be and must be true for our students. Each student would benefit from receiving help and learning from their peers and friends as well as through their teachers. Our challenge lies in providing our students with the experiences and skills they need to become autonomous and successful music students. One way to provide this opportunity and have our students achieve musical independence and autonomy is to allow them to teach, to question, and to stumble at times – to become someone’s Vygotsky. Read more
Positive Reappraisal: Adapting Instruction and Managing Stress
I am growing weary of being told that teaching virtual and hybrid vocal music is only “temporary.” I emphatically disagree. The virtual and hybrid vocal music model may be temporary, but its adverse effects on my music students and our program will be felt for years.
Teaching high school vocal music during a pandemic is demanding and stressful. Experiencing this traumatic event will reshape our teaching models and profession for many years and possibly for the foreseeable future. As educators, our challenge and responsibility is to retain the ability to remain approachable, flexible, and teachable through unpleasant and difficult times. Read more
Promoting Student and Ensemble Autonomy:
The Individual Ensemble Musicianship Project
It became extremely clear last March that the reason many of my students struggled with their studies was because all their learning experiences are based upon the institutionalized aspects of public education. Without the school building, bells, personnel, and the social-emotional support of their peers and teachers, most students lack the skills they need to learn independently. This deficiency of teaching self-regulation in our classrooms reinforced my determination to search for ways to help my students become musically autonomous and achieve independence in their musical and general studies.
Teaching musical autonomy, like playing an instrument or singing in a choir, needs to be practiced, understood, and ultimately owned by the students. Understanding by Design and the Backward Design Framework challenges educators to look beyond instructional challenges and help our students succeed by teaching them the skills needed to foster individual and choral autonomy in the classroom. Read more
By Teaching We Learn – Students Teaching Students
It wasn’t until I started teaching that I understood how to become a better student and a more effective teacher. The education I received as a child and adolescent was primarily subject-centered and focused on the acquisition and consumption of factual knowledge. As I moved from one grade to another, I formed the understanding that the main goal in school was to memorize information and provide my teachers with the correct answers.
As I plan and run my rehearsals, I participate in the dance between the inevitability of direct instruction and the necessity of indirect instruction. I move back and forth between fostering interdependence within an ensemble and the independent responsibility of each choir member. Like our experiences teaching, I believe it is essential that we allow students the opportunity during the learning process to question, get frustrated, feel a sense of accomplishment, fail miserably, and succeed with joy. Read more
No, Really . . . They are Worth Your Time
They can be used once a week, when a choir starts learning a new song, or just before an adjudicated choral music festival. They are a quick and effective instructional and assessment tool appropriate for the upper Elementary Choir through the Collegiate Honor Ensemble. They can be designed using Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, aligned with the National Core Arts Standards, and enhance your professional practice and teaching philosophy. They are invaluable but seen as superfluous.
In the music classroom and within the choral rehearsal, teachers know the value of a good lesson anticipatory set and the importance of effective vocal warmups. We dedicate a few minutes at the beginning of each rehearsal to release tension in the body, engage the breath, activate phonation, reinforce correct vocal placement, and support and strengthen good choral singing skills. But if we are not careful, we can miss supporting and warming up the most essential part of the singers’ voice, the musical mind. Read more
Oh, Now I Get it! – Understanding Threshold Concepts
Have you ever wondered how some of our students seem to naturally catch on and succeed in their studies? They may or may not have an extraordinary aptitude in any particular content area, yet they can grasp and apply the fundamental concepts in a variety of subjects and excel.
Some would say it is because they are gifted or talented in a specific discipline, while others may say it is because they are intelligent or smart. Though this may be true for some, economists Land and Meyer (2003) would say that gaining valuable insights and transforming conceptual understanding in any subject is dependent upon attaining the unique and specific Threshold Concepts that are inherent within each discipline. Read more
Initiate a Discipline with Lesson Prompts
“Do you call yourself a vocal music teacher or a choir director?” At first, this question seemed relatively simple and straightforward. I was wrong. I was asked this question along with a few of our colleagues during an interview for a research study earlier this year. As each of us took turns responding to the question, I listened intensely to my colleagues and began examining and rethinking my view and beliefs about teaching music. Through the experience of contemplating this question, I came to realize that I see myself more as a music teacher than a choir director.
Herein lies the importance and value of a well-placed and presented question; its function is to stimulate investigation, seek clarification, and at times may be unsettling. Though I do not use essential questions in the classroom, I use standards-based concept-centered lesson prompts to guide and focus my lesson planning and instructional preparations. Read more
Purposeful Teaching Through Agile-Centered Instruction
I remember memorizing the phrase “whole-whole-half-whole-whole-whole-half” many years ago when I began taking piano lessons in third grade. My piano teacher Mrs. Peterson was incredibly pleased that I had the phrase memorized and could recite it at a moment’s notice. She would smile and congratulate me on my new skill. The problem was, even though I knew how to play whole and half steps on the piano, I did not understand why this phrase was so important to memorize.
Agile-Centered Instruction (ACI) is a pedagogical philosophy that provides flexibility and autonomy for teachers and students alike. It is dynamic and responsive to the present and real-time instructional learning environment. By becoming more instructionally agile in the classroom, we can empower students to discover interdisciplinary and cross-curricular connections and understandings, learn through challenging and rewarding situations, and provide space for creativity and flexibility. Read more
Resources for the Agile Development Instructional Framework
All activities, rehearsal strategies, and projects developed through applying the Agile Development Instructional Framework are research-based. They contain elements of the following teaching models and instructional theories: Self-Regulated Learning, Self-Directed-Learning, Experiential Learning Theory, Understanding by Design, Cognitive Coaching, and the Universal Design for Learning.