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Personalized Learning in Instrumental Music

Personalized Learning in Instrumental Music

This year one of my biggest goals is to implement a personalized learning program with my 5th-grade band and orchestra students. Personalized learning is something my county is incorporating, so I began reading over the summer to learn more. I first read “How to Personalize Learning” by Barbara Bray and Kathleen McClaskey, but I’ve been told starting with their first book, “Making Learning Personal” would have been helpful

In my school all 4th and 5th grade students have to take part in band or orchestra. It’s amazing! However, it’s also challenging. Throughout 4th grade most students are on the same level, progressing at a similar pace. By 5th grade there is a much larger gap because of variances in interest, motivation, practicing, prior knowledge, home support...the list goes on! It becomes very difficult, with limited time, to give all students what they really need to progress. While a personalized learning approach is definitely not on the traditional instrumental music path, I believe it will give all students the opportunity to set their own goals and move forward at a pace appropriate to them.

To Set the Stage…

All students attend a weekly 30-minute group lesson with 5-7 students, and a weekly 45-minute band or orchestra rehearsal with approximately 30-40 students. While in theory all the students also played their instruments last year, of the 94 students 3 are new to the school (one of which never played an instrument before) and 3 are playing different instruments this year. The personalized learning will primarily take place during group lessons, and we will focus on full-group concert repertoire during the band and orchestra rehearsals. In the future I hope to make these rehearsals more student centered...but that is another topic for another day!

Where to Start?

Two weeks ago the students were given a list of 10 learning targets, skills, that they will need to demonstrate mastery of. The first few learning targets were very basic, such as demonstrating the ability to play songs with three notes, but I felt these were important to include so all students could have an equal starting point. I plan to add to the list of learning targets as the year progresses.

5th Grade Band Learning Targets

For each learning target the students have 4 options to show mastery.  Three are suggestions of mine, pieces from the lesson book, Essential Elements, and there is also a “student choice” option. Student choice could be a different piece from the lesson book, music from private lessons, music from other sources, or an original composition.  I know it’s a very loose list, but that’s the point! I want the students to work on music that interests them and is important to them, because at this stage any playing they do on their instruments is beneficial.

Last week the students were asked to set a goal for themselves, stating how many learning targets they would show mastery of by the end of the 1st quarter, in approximately 5 weeks. To show mastery, they need to submit a video demonstrating the learning target using one of the given options. This part was so much fun!

5th Grade Instrumental Music Goal Sheet

I had to reiterate numerous times that “yes, you have a choice,”  and “no, you only have to complete one of the options” – it became very obvious to me how much students are used to being told exactly what to do. They were very excited to have a choice. For each video submitted, students have to include a message explaining which learning target they were focusing on. This part is important! The students need to be able to articulate what specific skills they have mastered, and not just say, “I can play Jingle Bells.”

Right now my plan is to teach a mini-lesson at the beginning of each class, working on something that pertains to all students. From there the students will have 10-15 minutes to practice alone or with a partner, working on whatever they need to. I will spend that time circulating the room to give assistance when needed and help everyone stay on task. There may be days when I pull individuals or small groups to work with me, for example, students who are preparing the Junior Honor Band audition music. It will be great to do that and know the other students still benefit from their time in class.

What’s Next?

The next step is allowing the students these few weeks to work towards their goals. They will have some time in class, as well as their home practice time. I’m excited to see how it turns out! From there we will do a reflection, both the students and myself, and determine the next step. Wish us luck and stay tuned!

To read more about Personalized Learning, check out these posts: 

Personalized Learning: Part 2

Personalized Learning: Part 3, How it Works

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