As an administrator, my goals are straightforward. First, I make sure the students are safe. Second, I make sure students are getting the knowledge and skills they need from every class. Finally, I help teachers develop students’ emotional and social skills. Of course, there’s a lot of overlap between the second and third goal. When students perform in music class, they are not only developing physical skills on their instrument and mental skills for reading music, but also developing social and emotional skills by performing with their peers and learning to interpret art.
Standards represent the minimum expectation for these goals. Standards are how I know we, as a school, are accomplishing that second and third goal. They’re our destination. Well-written standards often position the emotional and social skills alongside the core knowledge so that teachers can successfully work on both goals simultaneously.
If standards represent our destination as teachers, lesson plans are the map. Without a map to track our progress, we have no way to ensure that kids are arriving at the intended destination. Lesson plans make sure that every in-class action leads students to our end goal, and should be crafted with that in mind.
Of course, teachers can always go past the standard. No one – administrators, parents, or teachers – has ever complained when students have exceeded expectations!
Principals often walk into music class without music knowledge. I consider myself lucky in this respect. Although I’m not a music teacher, I was a band kid and have spent more time than many administrators in a band hall, on a marching field (and parking lot!), and in a practice room.
Because of my music experience, I know that ensemble class typically takes the form of a back and forth. Students play, then the director tells them what to change. This type of feedback is great – I wish all teachers were so consistent and quick with their feedback to students. However, students aren’t really accountable for their learning with this approach.
Instead, directors can pass on skill information by asking students questions. These questions should drive toward students evaluating themselves. When a student has to engage with the skill by answering a question rather than simply absorbing information, that student develops a greater understanding of the material.
Here’s an example: Your beginning clarinets are sharp. You notice that several of them need to drop their jaws to play with a correct embouchure. You cut off the ensemble, but instead of saying “Clarinets, be sure to drop your jaw so you stay in tune,” ask a question: “Clarinets, you were sharp on that note. What do you think was causing that?” Not only will students end up listening to their own playing, they will have a greater awareness of future embouchure adjustments.
I was a much better performer in marching band than I was in concert band, and looking back I think it was because of the emphasis on self-evaluation. When we were told to dress a line, the expectation was that each student would evaluate themselves and adjust accordingly. In concert band, the expectation seemed to be that the director would tell each student what to fix.
The What Vs. The How
So how do we incorporate these questions into a lesson plan? Make your lesson about the “how” rather than the “what.” I recommend teachers unpack a standard or learning objective in a lesson plan with these two questions (“how” and “what”). The “what” is the actual knowledge required to meet the standard – what is a dotted quarter note, what is the fingering for a C#, etc. The “how” is the process, the actual thinking steps required to accomplish the task or perform the skill. The “how” is where we can incorporate questions into the lesson plan.
To put it in marching band terms: the “what” is your dots. Without dots, you don’t know where to go, you don’t know where to stand. You can’t march a show without dots. But you also can’t march the show if you don’t know how to get from dot to dot. The mechanics of marching and playing – the stuff you do between dots – is equally important.
When we think about a lesson plan as a map and standards as the destination, the analogy holds. Teaching “what” means that we’re still aiming for the destination (our curriculum “dot”). Teaching “how” means we’re helping students take the efficient path in the appropriate way (the technique that happens between dots). It’s easy to focus on the “what.” Standards often lay out exactly what a teacher needs to teach.
For example, this is a middle school music standard here in Texas:
“The student is expected to interpret music symbols and terms referring to notation, including fermata and coda; dynamics, including pianissimo to fortissimo; tempi, including andante, largo, and adagio; and articulations, including accent, marcato, and previously known elements.”
The “what” is self-explanatory – it’s a bunch of music notation. The “how” is more complicated, but it is where learning takes place. The fermatas is a good example. The symbol’s meaning is straightforward: hold this note as long as the conductor wants you to. The symbol is easy to visually recognize; it doesn’t look like any other musical symbols.
The “how” of a fermata is more involved. Students need to, for starters, play the note properly, but then also look up at the conductor for more information. That’s only implied by the symbol. Instead of yelling “Watch, watch!!” when you get to a fermata, ask students a question before you play the passage. “Jacob, how will you know when to go on?” The student will realize that he needs to watch.
You can even apply other standards with these types of questions. Adding the question “does a fermata here make sense for this style of music?” requires students to describe historical styles and context by pointing out that no, a fermata in the middle of a march does not make sense.
In Your Lesson Plan
Write these “how” questions in your lesson plan! Each lesson plan should have a guiding question that gets at the “how.”
Come up with great guiding questions for your lesson plan by identifying the “how” of the lesson plan’s standard, then figure out where students make mistakes. In the fermata example above, we decided that students often screw up fermatas not because they don’t know what the symbol means, but because they don’t look up at the conductor. Therefore, we used a question that helped students realize they need to watch.
“How” questions can form the basis of your lesson plan hook and activities as well. Show a fermata on the projector at the beginning of class. After students have defined it, show another fermata over a sixteenth note and ask students why this doesn’t make sense or what performance challenges would come with a fermata over a short note. Students will process these questions far better than a simple assessment that tests their ability to regurgitate a definition of this symbol.
It’s Worth the Effort
The easy written test can often make your lesson plan look good. Stop giving kids paper exit slips with music theory quizzes. Spend more time incorporating questions into your lesson plan that focus on the how. If that question appears on an exit slip, great! But make sure your kids are answering questions about “how.”
Streamlining the “how” in your lesson plans will make your class more efficient. Students will take responsibility for their own learning and you will develop more complete musicians. Having great questions in your lesson plan will also clarify a central guiding question. In turn, this will tie your lessons together and show administrators (and others) that you have a clear plan for meeting standards in your classroom.
Finally, don’t worry about students being perfect, or about needing questions for every skill you intend to teach. A question about fermatas can easily reinforce concepts from the week before about beautiful tone, phrasing, or sight reading. This pedagogical cross training is another reason to focus on “how” questions in your lesson plan.
I wish you luck including questions in your lesson plans this year!
Editor’s Note: We provide lesson planning tips — and a free template — in this related article.