Inquiry & Mozart Minutes

The authentic questions they were asking (and finding answers to) were inspiring, and the students were completely engaged in the learning process.

inquiry & mozart minutes (2)In May I wrote about a project I was doing with the 5th-grade band and orchestra students that we called “Mozart Minutes.” Mozart Minutes was essentially our version of a Genius Hour, where students could create their own projects relating to music. I neglected to do a follow-up post, which I realized this week while participating in an Inquiry Mindset book study. This post is going to be a combination -part Inquiry Mindset reflection, and part Mozart Minutes recap!

Inquiry Mindset

Trevor Mackenzie and Rebecca Bathurst-Hunt wrote Inquiry Mindset as a follow-up to Trevor’s book, Dive into Inquiry. After reading Dive into Inquiry last summer, I knew I needed to add an inquiry component into my instrumental music curriculum.

The book begins by describing the characteristics of an inquiry teacher and the reasons you should incorporate inquiry into the classroom. I have to say: I LOVE the sketchnotes throughout the book! The sketchnote “10 Reasons to use Inquiry-based learning” perfectly describes what we should all want for our students. It lines up with why I wanted to do an inquiry project and why I think this type of learning is valuable in a music classroom.

  • Nurture students passions and talents – While all students at my school are required to play a band or orchestra instrument, I understand band and orchestra might not be their first passion in music. I wanted students to have the opportunity to showcase their talents, be it singing, a different instrument, composition, or any other means of musical expression.
  • Empower student voice and honor student choice – This was my motto for the school year! Give students a voice and a choice; they will take ownership, get leadership opportunities, and ultimately it becomes a more powerful learning experience.
  • Increase motivation and engagement – A no-brainer! I always want students to be motivated and engaged in my classroom.
  • Foster curiosity and a love for learning – As I mentioned before, I understand that band and orchestra might not be every student’s first choice for music. If I can create an environment where students love to learn, they can hopefully transfer that love and curiosity to music that is their passion.
  • Teach grit, perseverance, growth mindset, and self-regulation – I want students to gain skills that will stay with them for life. Learning to play a musical instrument is not easy, and neither is completing an independent or inquiry project. Students must learn to stick with things, even when the going gets tough.
  • Enable students to take ownership over their own learning, and to reach their goals – Throughout the year as we moved towards the inquiry project, students were asked to set goals and make choices about their learning. I think it’s important for students to have this opportunity as it makes their learning even more meaningful.

Chapter 3 discusses the inquiry cycle, and this is one area I would like to improve upon for next year. Trevor and Rebecca detail several steps that take place before the actual research/work on the final product. These steps include identifying an essential question, brainstorming additional questions and subtopics, relating to prior knowledge, and determining what to research. I think the next time I have students complete a Mozart Minutes project, I will have them spend more time preparing before the project begins. While I had students brainstorm project ideas and formulate plans for their projects, it still felt rushed. In the future, helping students construct their essential questions, identify their additional questions, and relate it all to what they already know, should make the process go more smoothly.


Another great sketchnote found in chapter 4 describes the different types of student inquiry. The Mozart Minutes project is a free inquiry. “Types of Student Inquiry” is my favorite sketchnotes from the book, as I love the detail in each section of the pool. The nuance in what the students are doing, what the teacher is doing and where, and the tools students use is excellent. The key to being successful with inquiry is starting in the shallow end of the pool. This year some things in my classes included a gradual release of control, but they were not necessarily inquiry based. I would like to be more deliberate about including inquiry activities at the beginning of the year to help students become more successful later. For example, when thinking about musical expression, move from the teacher making musical decisions and leading students to determine purpose, to allowing students to make musical decisions and having to defend their choices. While I realize this is not typical inquiry, questions are being formulated and answered. What happens if we slow down here? Why would the composer put a crescendo there? If we want to build tension, what should we do? This is one way I plan to work through the inquiry pool next year, and hopefully, it will help students become more confident when it comes to asking questions. I will continue brainstorming additional ways to do this over the summer.

Mozart Minutes Reflection

When it comes to the actual Mozart Minutes project, I would say it was a success. Students were asked to have a final digital product to share – video, slideshow, picture, etc. – that we compiled into a Google Slideshow the entire grade could view. Finally, students participated in a grade-wide gallery walk.  Half of the students stood on the perimeter of the gym with their presentations, while the other half walked around to view presentations. The groups then switched roles. It was chaotic, to say the least (96 students will do that!) but given the circumstances of available time and space, this was what worked. Next year I would like to make time for students to give “almost done” presentations in small groups. This will make the gallery walk day more comfortable.

There was a wide variety of projects, as well as a wide variety of effort put into them. Some students did not complete their projects, for many reasons, and some went above and beyond expectations. One problem we ran into had to do with technology. Halfway through the project timeframe students were told iPads could not be taken home anymore (due to testing). Even though students knew from the beginning that projects were to be completed during class time, this still impacted many of them. We will consider timing in that respect for next year. Some of the final projects were:

  • researching musicians or composers
  • learning how specific instruments are made
  • composing music
  • building an instrument
  • learning to play new songs on instruments
  • writing (and filming) a musical
  • filming a talk show, interviewing (student) musicians
  • researching lesser-known female composers and musicians
  • creating a tutorial video series

I loved the creativity! One of my favorite moments was when a group of students was investigating string instruments – they had an iPad, a violin, rubber bands, cardboard, and a few other items. They were trying to determine what factors impacted the sound of string instruments. They researched and experimented with materials, string length, shape, bridge, and more. The authentic questions they were asking (and finding answers to) were inspiring, and the students were completely engaged in the learning process. Another student wanted to learn about how composers come up with movie theme songs. He researched movie music, then came up with a list of questions that we emailed (thanks to my awesome PLN!) to someone who writes music for movie trailers! (David James Rosen – super nice guy!) David responded, and my student got some great information. My favorite quote from David was this: “Usually it’s a lot of messing around until I find the thing that feels right; I have to play lots of wrong things before I find the right thing.”

Following the gallery walk, students completed an evaluation of the Mozart Minutes project. The majority enjoyed it and agreed next year’s 5th-graders should also experience the same type of project. Most asked for more time, and the ability to take their iPads home throughout. Some students did not enjoy their topics and would have rathered play their instruments for five weeks. I’ll admit, this part was difficult for me too. The classroom was surprisingly quiet! (When there are typically 6-8 students playing different things on their instruments at the same time, you get used to it being loud!) It was hard for me knowing how many students were not playing their instruments during that time because they had chosen something else for the project. I know that’s the point, students can choose their musical passion, it’s just something I will have to consider for next year. Also, after the gallery walk I found this blog post by John Spencer: The 5 Biggest Mistakes I Made With Genius Hour and How I Fixed Them. I plan to read this several times over the next few months in preparation for next time!

At the end of the day, the Mozart Minutes project was a success. Thanks to both Dive into Inquiry and Inquiry Mindset I have some great ideas to incorporate next year in an attempt to help students find even more success in the project. I think there is so much value in giving students this opportunity, and even with my sadness over the lack of instrument playing, this is project worth refining. I hope others will consider how they too can infuse inquiry into their music classes and empower students to own their learning in this way.

Links for further reading:

Mozart Minutes

A Place For Inquiry in the Arts

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Personalized Learning – a Year in Review

Personalized Learning - A Year In Review (1)Now that the year is over I have been trying to analyze how things went and begin plans for next year. I had several goals, as there were many new things I wanted to try. Personalized learning was at the center of everything, and I wrote about it here several times. If you haven’t read my other posts about personalized learning, check them out first: Personalized Learning: Part 1Personalized Learning: Part 2Personalized Learning: Part 3, How it Works.

Overall, introducing personalized learning strategies was great. So much that I will definitely continue next year. Many students far exceeded my expectations; they loved having the opportunity to move at their own paces, pushing themselves, and were pleased with the results. Others progressed at what I would have considered a “typical” 5th-grade pace but still seemed to enjoy the freedom and having choices. Then there were the stragglers. The students who did nothing. Nothing probably isn’t a fair term. When prepared, they played their instruments during lessons, participated in rehearsals, and attended concerts. But they did not turn in any (or at least very very few) assignments. It had nothing to do with a lack of understanding of the skills. They just didn’t do it. Or maybe they turned in a video, but it wasn’t related to or contained no description of the skill mastered. Regardless of being reminded countless times to do so. This was frustrating, to say the least.

“Personalized learning helps learners become intrinsically motivated to learn, so they own and drive their learning to become self-directed, independant learners.” Barbara Bray & Kathleen McClaskey, How to Personalize Learning 

I used personalized learning for my school district required SMART goal, which worked out well since tracking of data was necessary. My SMART goal was for all students to demonstrate growth throughout the school year by setting their own goals and working towards mastery of a pre-determined set of learning targets. Here are the results of the data produced during the first three grade periods:

  • All students started at a baseline of zero, with no learning targets completed. By the end of the third quarter, 97% of students had completed at least 1, and 85% completed 3 or more (up to a possible total of 17).
  • I would consider the mastery of the first 10 learning targets to be typical of 5th-grade students; however, 35% of the students exceeded that number. Only 3% of students are identified gifted in instrumental music.
  • Several students each quarter submitted the correct number of videos to achieve their goal but did not have the skill(s) mastered. I will need to work on finding additional ways to help students determine if a skill is mastered.

Additional findings that are not data related that I observed throughout the year:

  • Students who used the Essential Elements Interactive app consistently were more successful in mastering their learning target skills.
  • Most students tended to use the suggested songs to show mastery but seemed to appreciate having options. Students were most likely to use the “student choice” option around holidays when I distributed fun music, such as Christmas or Halloween songs. I may try to find additional music like this for next year.
  • Some students completed very few (or zero) learning target videos, but I know this does not accurately reflect their skill levels. This is especially upsetting since they were given class time to work on and record their videos. I need to reflect on if I should provide options in addition to video in the future, and how to best facilitate this.

When surveyed at the end of the year, most students seemed to enjoy instrumental music – you may remember, all 4th and 5th-grade students in my school are required to participate in either band or orchestra, so this is a good thing! When asked about their favorite thing, most named the winter and spring concerts. Many also said they liked having choices and working independently. When asked what they would suggest being done differently for next year’s 5th-graders, most said more modern, or popular songs. That is to be expected. Several said no changes were necessary. One was not happy with the school year. That student said, “you should engage them more and actually teach them instead of making them learn it themselves.” Wow! I’m glad she was honest! Ironically, that was one of the higher performing students, who participated in the county Honors Band and is identified gifted in music. I guess I can’t please everyone.

I think what makes me the happiest is the final question on the evaluation asked students if they will continue to play their instruments in middle school. 43% plan to continue, either playing their current instrument or a different one! I wish I had statistics from last year, but I feel that this is a definite increase.

That leads me to some thoughts for next year, and things that I would like to try.

  • Allowing students to play assignments for me in person, instead of only accepting video assignments. Students would still need to articulate the mastered skill though; I think that is important.
  • Include non-playing skills. I felt that students lacked some vocabulary knowledge and may have benefitted from more time spent on this as well as note reading.
  • Have a fun “theme” for the year, like going on a journey, adventure, or something similar. This might be considered gamification. I will research it more this summer.
  • Come up with a better task for students who forget their instruments for lessons and rehearsals.
  • Understanding that not all students are motivated in the same way, (one reason for personalized learning!) I need to find ways to help the “straggler” students feel motivated to learn.

Next year I will be participating in a “Personalized Learning Expedition Design Team” in my county. There are 50 of us who will be working together throughout the school year to implement personalized learning strategies in our classrooms. I look forward to having a team to consult with as this experiment continues. I believe it is worthwhile, and something I hope more instrumental music teachers will consider!