Tag Archives: Education

My Library of Links: updates and rearrangements

August 6, 2011


My main aim in setting up this website was to create a resource for music teachers, through which lots of other useful stuff could be found easily.

To that end, I created the LINKS library (top menu). This library is the main raison d’être of MusicTeachnTech.com. If you haven’t yet checked it out, please do so. You’ll find heaps of great resources created by educators and specialists from all over the world, and I update as I find new stuff.

I’ve rearranged a few things today. Music Technology, Music Software, and Mobile Learning have now all been shifted to the Music Teaching Resources category. So if you’re looking for them and can’t seem to find them, mouse over that link in the top menu, and they’ll show up there.

A couple of new links have been added today to Music Software. Wendy Strauss brought my attention to Mario Paint Composer and Jam Studio, so these have both been added. Wendy’s own fantastic website has also got its own spot under Music Teaching ResourcesTheory and Reference.

If you know of any good websites I can add, or if you have one yourself, please let me know about it by emailing me through the Contact page. I’ll check it out, and most likely it will find a new home in one of the library’s many categories.

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Teaching students to read music notation: Some strategies

August 5, 2011

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For some reason, I always struggled with teaching students how to read music notation. I think one of the reasons is because there’s usually a huge knowledge gap between beginning students and those who have been doing music for a while. Since junior students (years 8-10) choose new electives every semester, that gap gets wider and wider every six months.

But I seem to have gotten the hang of this sticking point lately, and now all of my juniors – pretty much without exception – are making a decent go of reading music during each lesson. They’ve also learned more theory concepts in the last two weeks, than any of my students in the last six months. That’s not a reflection on the students at all: it’s an indication of how much my own teaching strategies have changed.

So I thought I’d share some of the strategies I’ve been using.


A big shout-out to Katie Wardrobe for showing me this one. All my classes, from year 8 to year 12, have played this at least once or twice a week since I was introduced to it. It’s fantastic for sight-reading and learning notation. In fact, I even went so far as to set it for homework for my year 8 students last week! I’ve shown it to parents and guests as well.

We had a group of Japanese students visit our school last week, and they joined my senior class. We played STAFF WARS with them, and we had to write the Japanese symbols for the note names underneath the English ones, as they couldn’t read our writing. They loved the game, and everyone was in stitches.

2. “My Personal Soundtrack”

At the beginning of term, about four weeks ago, I got all my students to do some kind of variation of this one. It’s my way of making sure that at least part of the studied repertoire (if not most or all of it) includes music that they are actually interested in and want to learn.

Two separate year levels, by coincidence, are studying some form of film soundtrack-related unit, so I got them to write me a list of their favourite theme songs from movies, television, and computer games.

My seniors are studying world music, so I got them to pick the genres. Celtic, Jamaican, Indian, and Mexican were the ones they chose for this term.

My year tens are in a transition year, preparing for senior music. I got them to fill out a list which I called “My Personal Soundtrack”. This is a type of list I’ve seen in a few different books and websites here and there, and I made my own variation of it:

“My Personal Soundtrack”:

    1. My all-time favourite song
    2. My least favourite song
    3. A song that reminds me of someone
    4. A song that reminds me of a certain place
    5. A song that reminds me of a certain event
    6. A song that describes me
    7. A song that describes someone I know
    8. A song that I would dedicate to my boyfriend/girlfriend
    9. A song that I would dedicate to my ex
    10. A song that I liked when I was little
    11. A song that I like but would be too shamed out to admit it
    12. A song that no one would expect me to like
    13. A song that I find depressing
    14. A song that makes me laugh
    15. A song that I could listen to over and over and never get tired of hearing
    16. A song that I’ve heard way too often and don’t care if I never hear again
    17. A song that I can play
    18. A song that I wish I could play
    19. A song that I used to hate but now love
    20. A song that I used to love but now hate

Students were able to fill out as many or as few as they wished, and keep it anonymous if they wanted to. Obviously I won’t use every song they suggested, but it has given me a really good selection to choose from so things can stay interesting.

3. A new theme every day

This is the main sight-reading exercise I’ve been using lately. I’ve taken to transcribing 4-8 bars of a new song or theme for every lesson, so I’ve always got something new to add to their repertoire. We start by listening to a recording of the theme or song, and doing a bit of analysis. Then I hand out the musical excerpt and project a copy of it up on the IWB.

We revise learned notation and go over any new symbols and concepts together as a class, they take a few minutes to write down the note names (if they need to), and then they go away and try to play it on a keyboard. Usually, most if not all students will make a good attempt at it on their own or in pairs before asking me for help.

The advantage is that, since there’s a new excerpt to learn every single day, students seem to get less bored, and those who prefer familiarity can practise the ones they’ve already seen as well. It’s out of the repertoire they’ve picked, so they’re more likely to be interested. They’re playing the instruments right after analysing the notation, so it’s as practical as I can make it.

I’ve found that the guitar enthusiasts, after a few minutes playing with the keyboards, will pick up guitars and try to work out the theme by ear. Occasionally I’ve written out the TAB for them as well, and I’ll be showing them how to convert from notation to TAB and back, later in the unit.

At the end of the term, each student will be asked to play three excerpts, and maybe I’ll throw in a bit of sight-reading as well.

That pretty much sums up how I’ve been teaching notation reading lately. We haven’t gone too much into writing it as yet, but that will start soon. If you can add some more suggestions below in the comments, that would be great – maybe we can even get a bit of a “strategy list” going!

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Exploring a Practical Approach to Teaching Music Theory

July 29, 2011


First, a small update. My year 9 and 10 classes, such a challenge for me last semester, have changed. I now have an almost entirely new set of students, and these ones seem to be much more motivated so far. I’m also seeing some year 10s who have the potential to do particularly well in senior music. My year 8s have also changed. Most of the girls have gone, except for two, and a raft of new boys have come in. I still wonder if this is because I teach guitar.

Something I took with me from the recent ASME conference was the desire to take a much more practical approach to teaching music theory than I have been doing so far. I formed a goal to use the traditional pen-and-paper theory lesson as little as I possibly could in the coming semester, and to utilise practical activities and music composition software as much as possible.

I’ve been doing a number of things, like getting out all the percussion gear I can find and letting the students do group improvisation. In this activity, I also make them reflect every so often on how well they are playing as a group, and ask them to suggest ways to improve, which we then try out.

Another one has been simply to send them off in various directions with various instruments, and get them to figure out how to play songs, much like any kid would do in his or her room with a guitar. This one takes a bit of monitoring: some students are very able at this and need to be challenged further. Others need some basic skill-building before they can proceed. There’s a lot of moving around for me during this exercise.

I have so far found that my year eights – this particular group, at least – need to be kept on a rather tight leash. They don’t seem to have the maturity yet to play well together in an entire-group ensemble with percussion. In more individuated prac tasks, the engagement is variable and the attention span fairly short. It doesn’t take long before they start fooling around and getting hyperactive. I’ve had to reduce the prac a little bit and put them back behind their desks for periods of time.

The year 9s are a little better at focusing, and the year 10s better still. I have more confidence leading a whole-class prac, knowing that while there may be some problems, it will just take a little time for them to learn to focus together. It just takes practice.

My seniors are also quite good, but they much prefer individual prac to whole-group activities. That’s okay, as I generally try to encourage them to be as independent and self-directing as possible by this stage, especially in year 12.

Every class, right up to my seniors, has been introduced to STAFF WARS. If you haven’t checked this one out yet, you really should. This has been my main method for getting them to learn the treble and bass clef notes so far. We haven’t gotten around to handwriting much yet, but that will happen.

I’ve asked every class to write down a list of songs that they would like me to incorporate into the repertoire we study. This becomes the basis for my planning. I’m compiling a handout of little excerpts of various songs they’ve chosen. They’ll be shown how to identify the notes, and how to find the notes on keyboard and guitar. From the beginning, they’ll be learning to read music through playing the songs they’ve chosen, as well as others I might introduce to them on the way.

That pretty much sums up the main approach I plan to explore in the coming weeks. There will be lessons for writing, listening, and analysing, but I want to see how I can utilise practical methods for learning as much theory as possible. I’ll let you know every so often how this experiment is going.

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ASME Conference, Day Four

July 22, 2011


All you had to do was look at everyone’s faces to know that this was the last day of the conference. People were drifting around in a kind of exhausted daze, including me. Thankfully the workshop selection was nice and light: only two hours.

I only did one workshop session that day, with Katie Wardrobe. She showed us some very cool stuff for teaching composition with technology. She had some short (fourteen seconds) films which students can use for adding sound effects and music. I’m in the first stages of a soundtracks unit for my junior music classes, so these will come in very handy.

There was a panel discussion entitled, “Finding one’s way from Secondary to Tertiary Music Education and Training”, which sounded very interesting, but I only caught a few minutes of it. Then there was the closing ceremony, where we were treated to a performance by TSS Drumline. I’ve seen the film before, but I’d never seen a real live drumline group up close, so I was most impressed. We were drummed out to lunch (where Jenny Craig once again went by the wayside) and they kept playing for us while we ate gorgeous food. A perfect way to end a conference!

I spoke with Andrew Reid, one of the organisers of ASME 2011, a couple of weeks before the conference started. He was sweating, wondering if it would be any good, wondering of people would turn up. He needn’t have worried. He and the other organisers did a fantastic job. Two thumbs up from me!

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ASME Conference, Day Three (That’s right, I’m back!)

July 21, 2011


My apologies to everyone for not getting this out earlier. Life took a turn for the busier just after the conference, and then the new term started. I’m just about back on board now, so here’s the rest of the ASME conference that you’ve all been waiting for with baited breath!

On day three, my first workshop was with Allan Melville, about creating and using electronic resources in the secondary music classroom. I was rather thrilled about this particular one, because I’m a subscriber of his fantastic website, e-learning resources, and Allan and I had spoken on the phone many times prior to this. (If you haven’t yet checked out his website, you really should. It’s awesome.)

I wrote a previous post on this resource, which goes into more detail about all the stuff that’s contained there.

The next workshop, held by Kelly Parkes from Virginia Tech in the US, was a very small and intimate gathering of three or four university lecturers plus myself. The topic was “Supporting and Assessing New Types of Reflective Practice in Music Student Teachers”.

It turned out to be targeted more towards the tertiary instructors, but I still found it useful from a secondary point of view. I’m a big fan of professional reflection, as some of you will know, and I was interested in finding some good ideas for encouraging a thorough reflective process in my student teachers.

I’ve mentored two pre-service teachers so far, and what I’ve found is that mentoring does wonders for my own professional practice as well (but that’s another blog post). Future pre-service teachers may find me a little more demanding after this workshop. I hope so. (*Evil laugh*)

I was particularly interested in the idea of a video diary, where the pre-service teacher is video-taped while teaching, several times over an extended period. Written reflections focus on their teaching practice at that particular moment, and its development over time.

Kelly talked about different levels of depth in reflection, and the importance of guiding the pre-service teacher to say more than just “this is what I did today”, but to actually think about why they decided to use a particular strategy, how well it worked, what could be done to make something work better next time.

The afternoon’s keynote speaker was Laura Hassler, and she delivered a beautiful – at times heart-wrenching – talk about how music can be used to heal and make peace in war-torn countries such as Bosnia. She talked about Musicians Without Borders, an organisation which uses music to do just that.

They travel in small groups on a “music bus”, and bring music to towns and villages where the ravages of war have sometimes affected the people so deeply that they no longer sing. Musicians Without Borders works with the people to help them find their musical voices once more, and in doing so, find healing.

One short film that stuck with me was about their work with the women of Srebrenica, whose lives were torn apart in 1995 when more than 8000 men and boys were massacred during the Bosnian war. The grief and pain on their faces was so deep that I found myself in tears just looking at them. I was in tears again when I saw them smiling, singing, clapping and dancing together, after Lord knows how many weeks and months of musical workshops it would have taken for them to reach that point.

I’ve always known that music has the power to do amazing things, but it was that keynote which really brought that fact home to me.

The Jacinth Oliver Address was given by John Curro, during which he dealt with the rather thorny topic of universities and their handling of specialist music degrees. He argued that far too much time has been taken away from the practical development of students as elite musicians, and given to research and university administration.

I brought this up in conversation at the conference dinner that evening, where I was seated with another university professor from Singapore. He told me that he got into “a heated discussion” about this during the afternoon, so this is obviously a subject of ongoing debate in tertiary circles.

My last workshop of the day was held by Ruth Bonetti, on assertive communication with…how does one say it?…difficult parents. You know, the ones who question why we didn’t award their child an “A” when the child is, after all, a genius.

I swear that Ruth could be a drama teacher (in fact, she probably is). She had the wigs and costumes all ready for us, so we could role-play the “interview with the difficult parent”, if we wished. As it turned out, we were all a bit too reticent for that.

Ruth took us through some strategies and choice phrases one could use to politely suggest that the child actually needs to do some practice during the week to achieve an “A”, or that jumping from grade three to grade five might not perhaps be such a great idea.  She delivered these lines with a big, toothy smile and a voice which reminded me of Hyacinth from “Keeping Up Appearances”. Delightfully hilarious!

That evening, we had the conference dinner, which I’ve mentioned. The food was wonderful – my Jenny Craig diet went decidedly out the window. We were also treated to some very fine performances from Best of Brass, the Blenders, and the Canterbury College Cantabile Choir.

Whew! That was day three. Day four will (I promise!) be posted tomorrow. In fact, I’m going away to write it up now.

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Day Two of the ASME Conference

July 3, 2011

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Another massive and awesome day at the ASME Conference. I saw quite a lot today, and I probably won’t get it all down in one sitting. There are a few things that I’ll need to sit down with for a while and mentally digest before I can write too much, but here are some brief brushstrokes:

George Spartels of “Play School” fame presented the keynote address for this morning’s session of the conference. His title question: If we take music out of the equation of children and their education, then how grounded, drab, and even unsustainable would learning be?

He talked about how music is absolutely basic to human development, right from the earliest days of childhood. Something he said which immediately stuck in my mind was,”children are not an inferior audience”. Young children have a highly sophisticated (and critical) faculty for listening, and it’s actually much harder to write a song for children than a song for adults.

He talked about how the script of an episode of Play School would be figured out in minute detail, how arguments went back and forth around the table for hours at a stretch over the selection of phrases, or even the choice of a single word. This was all out of a huge awareness of just how much children pick up in the course of an episode…and what they pick up may not be entirely what you’d expect.

Example: George showed us a clip of a song he wrote about surfing, where he was pretending to surf on his desk before going out onto the beach with an actual surfboard. He was trying to get across the message of fitness and of getting outdoors. What many children picked up was: the action of surfing is done by standing on a desk. George had nightmares of injured children and lawsuits after finding that out.

He spoke about the essential importance of music in an episode of Play School. I have fond memories of Warren’s piano playing, how it wove in and out constantly, how it could make me laugh, calm me down, or tell me, “there’s a song coming”.

George talked about the emotional cues communicated by music, which wouldn’t necessarily be conveyed in a script or a visual image. He described how music could be used to convey to a child: this is a safe place to imagine whatever you like, however bizarre or out of the box.

His keynote ended as only a Play School presenter’s keynote can: by all three hundred conference delegates standing up and singing “I’m a Little Teapot”, with actions.

After the keynote, I went to a workshop held by Ros McMillan, about engaging junior secondary students in musical activities. She showed us some interesting and fun ways to create rhythmic rounds on the spur of the moment, and gave us a number of ideas for using just one song in a variety of different lessons.

Something Ros emphasised was the idea of connecting her units to something wider than simply musical content, like “The Environment”, or “Relationships” for example, and embedding musical ideas within those contexts.

I saw two presentations by Geoffrey Lowe, the first of which was very effectively entitled, “This Sucks!” It was all about why so many students drop out of music at school, considering some form of music engagement (listening, playing, creating) is probably the single most widely preferred leisure activity among children and teens, over and above TV, computer games, or sport.

This was so popular that people had to bring in extra chairs, and it was very nearly standing room only. Geoff’s main premise was that kids prefer prac-based, contextual-based music learning, and hate theory and aural skills training when they’re delivered out of context (ie: when they can’t hear it, or use it to play or create something).

They also have very clear ideas about the kinds of music they do and don’t like, and familiar is preferred, so that brings up the (for some) delicate question of popular music in the curriculum.

Basically, Geoff’s presentation invited music teachers to reflect on their practice and ask, “am I doing something here which may be contributing to the cause of students leaving?”

I also attended a workshop on Musical Futures by Ken Owen. I’ve heard quite a bit about Musical Futures lately, mainly from the Music Teachers’ Network, so I wanted to hear more about this one.

I got to have my very first go at using a jam hub, which was exciting (when it worked properly). I also felt a bit affirmed: much of the Musical Futures approach is similar to the approach I try to take in my classes, at least some of the time: informal, prac-based, student-directed learning.

There are some drawbacks, though: it doesn’t always work. But I want to find out more about Musical Futures and see how I can refine my practice. It’s certainly a very good tool, and one that I would love to embrace more fully.

I finished my day with a workshop focused on ACARA, the coming national Arts curriculum, held by Andrew Reid and Jay McPherson. This is a rather thorny topic, with lots of rumours floating around about it. This workshop was first of all an exercise in straightening out fact from fiction, and myth from reality.

They also discussed the recent draft (or “Shape” paper, if I remember rightly) and ASME’s not-so-enthusiastic reaction to it, for a variety of reasons.

What I mainly got out of that one was: no one really knows when it’s coming, and no one really knows what’s on it. So don’t worry about it…for now.

They were the workshops. I should also mention the stunning performances I heard from the AB Paterson Chamber Choir and Brisbane Birralee Voices during the breaks. There was also the Gold Coast City Wind Orchestra, and Trinity Lutheran College Revelation, a rock group, both of which were also very impressive.

Whew! That was a long one. Sorry for the overlong read. I just wanted to make sure I got everything mentioned at least briefly. Tomorrow I won’t be posting, as the conference dinner will be held in the evening. Tuesday I’ll be heading to Brisbane to visit family after the closing ceremony, before flying back home on Wednesday. My next post on the conference will hopefully be either Wednesday or Thursday.

Till then!


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ASME Conference: Day One

July 2, 2011


It’s official: I’m addicted to conferences. I attended Day One of the ASME (Australian Society for Music Education) conference at the Gold Coast Convention Centre today. I’m knackered, but I really want to get this written before I see too much more cool stuff, otherwise I’ll never get it all down.

Unfortunately, I missed the opening ceremony. Having not slept very well the night before, two alarms were insufficient to wake me up on time, and I slept in. Way in. I was most miffed and thoroughly unimpressed with myself.

However, I did get there in time to catch the latter half of Robert Duke’s keynote speech: “Strategic Confusion and the Joys of Learning”, which was very informative as well as highly entertaining.

Robert’s basic philosophy is this: if you’re comfortable, you’re not learning much. If students are getting everything done for them, having everything clarified immediately without first having to be a bit confused and do some searching for answers, they’re learning very little. Robert spoke about how he seeks to embed what he calls “strategic confusion” into his lessons to enhance the learning process.

According to research, the process of learning (on a physical, neurological level) is a process of error correction. Students have to have the opportunities to perceive their own errors in their own musical behaviour (eg: holding a violin bow the wrong way) and correct it themselves, instead of always having the teacher correct it for them (ie: making them too comfortable).

Finally, Robert’s other main point: teachers are learners as well.

The three sessions I attended today after the keynote were held by Katie Wardrobe, Stefanovych Roberts, and Antony Hubmayer.

Katie Wardrobe took us through a selection of software programs and games for teaching various aspects of music in her talk, “Music Technology Resources on a Shoestring”. The best part about most of these is that they’re free. The ones that aren’t, require only a small subscription fee.

Katie will be putting her notes and links on her website, so I won’t steal her thunder by putting it all here. But I must tell you about one thing which I just thought was the coolest of the cool: a “space invaders”style game called STAFF WARS. You can download it here.

Basically, musical notes come floating along a giant staff at the top of the screen, and the player has to name the note correctly before it crashes into the clef (treble, bass, or alto). When the player hits the right note name, a little spaceship at the bottom of the screen shoots the note. The game starts off slow, and gets faster as you go on. There are heaps of other games Katie showed us as well, but that was my favourite.

Stefanovych Roberts presented a doctoral paper on Metacognition on Music Performance: Theoretical frameworks within an Assessment for Learning paradigm. This presentation focused mainly on the importance of feedback for the student during the learning process, and he mentioned three types (coined by Hattie, if I remember right): feed up (where am I going?), feed back (how am I going?), and feed forward (where do I go next?).

He also spoke about the importance of formative assessment as a valuable tool for developing the student’s musical metacogition, and how there seem to be relatively few opportunities for that formative assessment process to occur within the secondary school environment.

The last seminar I attended today was by Antony Hubmayer: “Riding the wave of pedagogy: Designing learning experiences that deepen musical understanding without drowning the learner”. His presentation really resonated with my ideas about being a “learning designer” when he talked about “designing musical learning experiences” within a constructivist framework.

He showed us his “Learning Experience Framework”, a simple chart by which he plans his units, and then showed us some different examples of the framework in action. One was in the form of a student-created reflection video about the experience of teaching a younger class cohort how to play a song on the ukelele and perform in an ensemble. Another was for a choral group, and we viewed their eisteddfod performance.

Antony’s website is here, and I would imagine his presentation will be made available there sometime down the track, as his other ones have been.

Lack of sleep finally caught up with me after that session, and I had to go back to my hotel room to rest my brain, which by then was feeling a bit fried. I did manage to pick up a few good books on the way out though. (Books know my name. I always hear them calling me, and I am helpless to resist.)

Hopefully I will sleep a bit better tonight, and I can get there on time tomorrow.

Till then!


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Reflections after attending the Central Qld Region e-Learning Conference

June 19, 2011


The Central Queensland Region e-Learning Conference was held yesterday and today at Mackay North State High School. They had hands-on workshops and seminars, and I saw some very cool stuff. It’s going to take a little while for me to mentally digest it all, but here’s a few initial thoughts and reflections:

Web Conferencing:

Something I’d never seen before was the use of software like Elluminate and Wall Wisher, which enabled real-time interactive conferencing. This may be of particular interest to those organising future conferences, as well as teachers in one-to-one educational settings.

These software programs enable students/workshop participants to make comments or ask questions during the course of the lesson, which are then posted up on the front screen, IWB, or even just the notebooks in front of the moderator and participants. People can answer each others’ questions or wait for the moderator to do so. Participants can also chat about the lesson content.

Something I liked about Elluminate in particular was that you could use little emoticons for “laughter”, “confused”, “applause”, or “disapprove” to display your reactions to something. There’s also a function which enables the moderator to ask a question and poll the participants, and the results of the poll are displayed on the screen in a matter of seconds.

Not only does this add another dimension to a lesson for everyone in the room, it also enables people to participate from anywhere else in the world where they might happen to be at that moment. You just need to set up a link and a password, and away you go.


I found this one of particular interest. The presenter was a teacher from a one-to-one school which has utilised Microsoft OneNote as a collaborative learning platform. There is a YouTube channel (which I can’t seem to find right this second) where this particular school has uploaded a number of tutorial videos for using OneNote in a variety of ways for different purposes.

This was the last workshop I saw today, and the one my mind has been chewing on the most since. I’ve been thinking of all sorts of ways I could use OneNote to organise resources, plan units and lessons, record reflections, deliver learning content, and set differentiated tasks. Watch this space, because when I get going on this one, I’ll start blogging my OneNote experiments, sharing what I’ve made and uploading things I create.

Differentiating for Diverse Learners:

This is a workshop which talked about the use of differentiation models for lesson planning. The resources which were presented are actually owned by Education Queensland, so I have asked for permission to upload and share some of them on this blog. This permission is still pending, so I’ll let you know the outcome when I receive word.

Other Thoughts:

A really interesting keynote presentation this morning touched on an important point about digital devices which, in all the excitement about being all high-tech and up-to-date, may be easily overlooked: the total cost of ownership. Upfront payouts, plus maintenance, insurance, replacement costs, upgrades; and all of that pitted against the cost of item x now, compared to the cost of item x six or twelve months down the track. There’s also the price of item x, compared to how much other equipment a school could purchase for the same price.

Example: I saw a video of a really cool-looking interactive conferencing table: something straight out of a James Bond movie, built for a classroom, where students could stand around the table and manipulate documents, images, and videos on the touchscreen tabletop. Wonderful for collaborative learning. The cost? $24,000. What could a school buy with that amount of money? A hell of a lot more than one table.

Finally, I found a few new blogs to follow, which I’ve put in my Links/Blogs section, under “Education: General”. Scroll down past all the music ed blogs to find them. Enjoy!

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Two months since MTEC 2011: An Update

June 11, 2011


Two months ago, I attended MTEC 2011 in Sydney. Two months later, so many things have changed for me professionally, that I barely recognise myself. So I’m taking a moment to pause and reflect on all the changes, and how well they’re working so far.

The first thing, and probably the biggest thing, has really been this blog. Not only has it been a great way for me to reflect on my teaching practice and gather up a whole stack of teaching resources into one place, it has enabled me to get in touch with other music teachers and share it all with them.

That networking has worked wonders for my whole outlook on teaching, which I found quite lonely before. Being the only classroom music teacher in a smaller rural school, it’s easy to feel a bit cut off from everyone else in my field. I no longer feel that way.

In terms of resources, MuseScoreand O-Generator have both been installed over the whole school network. The students have responded very positively to the new software on the whole. My first composition assessment task for O-Generator (which my year 8s especially are finding “totally sick” – I think that means good) has just been completed this week.

MuseScore has been wonderful for teaching music theory, and a small number of students are engaging with it quite enthusiastically and using it to compose, even preferring it to O-Generator. We’re all wondering how I’d never heard of it before two months ago.

I finally have a full midi station set up in our classroom, with Pro Tools, M-Box, and an Avid KeyStudio. This PC also has Sibelius 5, Acid Music Studio, O-Generator and MuseScore all installed. Acid seems to be the most popular choice at the moment with the students so far.

Acid Xpress has experienced a few technical snags and we haven’t managed to install that one on the school laptops yet, but we’re working on it. If only we could get this one past the networking glitch, we’d be home and hosed.

There’s also some starter hiccups going on with Pro Tools: the keyboard will talk to the M-Box, the M-box will talk to the PC, the PC will talk to Pro Tools, but Pro Tools won’t talk to the speakers or headphones, so no sound comes out, even though everything else seems to be working. Hmmm.

Jing has been a useful little tool. I found out about this in one of Katie Wardrobe’s workshops on making video tutorials. Jing is a great software application for capturing images and screen shots, and making little 5-minute screen-capture films, very handy for “how-to” videos. I haven’t made any of those yet, but I have been able to make a “how-to” worksheet in next to no time, using image-capture.

Creative Commons has been a focal point in my teaching over the last two months. My 9s and 10s are just finishing up a composition task, part of which includes licensing their work under Creative Commons. I am also endeavouring to increase my students’ awareness of fair use and best practice as far as copyright is concerned.

I haven’t yet been using ipods as much as I would like, mainly due to a policy which restricts their use by students during the course of the school day. I’m working on that one. In the meantime, I use my ipad a fair bit in my senior class, most often for YouTube.

Two things I was already using proficiently before the conference, were an interactive whiteboard (not Smartboard or Prometheus, unfortunately) and an online virtual classroom (VCR) for my senior class. With the addition of resources since the conference, I’ve been able to get the students actively involved in using the IWB, and I’m looking at ways to extend the VCR to include my junior students as well.

The main thing which has restricted the VCR to my seniors so far has been the time it takes to set one up and manage it thereafter. I’m hoping that the added resources, plus practice, will shorten the time factor and increase my ability to run a set of VCRs more efficiently.

One of my quirks is that I tend to go through phases of intense concentration on a particular thing, for days at a time. My latest “thing” has been Acrobat X, and I’ve been spending long hours making interactive pdfs in the last week or two.

So far, I’ve made the reflection tools I mentioned in my last post, and some lesson and unit planners. These incorporate Essential Learnings and the Senior Music Syllabus (2004) from the Queensland Studies Authority, and the Dimensions of Learning framework developed by Robert Marzano et al. I’ve uploaded them on box.net for interested Qld music teachers and pre-service teachers (and anyone else who wants them) to download if you like. You can find the link under “Professional Practice – Planning Tools” on my Resources page.

The biggest change for me since the conference by far, has been my self-confidence. Daily online contact with other teachers in my field, constant new discoveries in resources and teaching strategies, and regular reflection through blogging, have literally helped me become a different teacher.

Last year I was studying with a view to leaving the profession. Now I’m thinking of redirecting my studies to further my teaching qualifications. I’m excited about teaching again and more confident in my abilities to make a real contribution. All of that has been thanks to the MTEC 2011 conference and all the contacts I have made since then. That, dear reader, includes you.

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Professional Reflection = Professional Development

June 4, 2011


Probably the most useful tool for professional development, I have found, is reflection. This is one of the reasons why I find blogging to be such a rewarding exercise, as I’ve pointed out in a previous post: 10 Reasons Why Teachers Should Blog and Tweet.

In my first couple of years as a teacher, I made a professional practice journal, which incorporated a set of structured reflection tools to help me organise my thinking (which needed all the organisation help it could get).

I found these tools to be extremely useful, so I have now reformatted them and uploaded them to share.

There are four different forms in this set, which you can download as interactive pdf files. (Thankyou to Anne Wisdom from MTEC 2011 for teaching me how to do that!) You can fill in the fields and save under the date or whatever name you like.

All the reflection tools in the set are published under a Creative Commons NonCommercial Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 Unported licence.

1: Professional Practice 1 – Reflection

This is a very simple reflection tool for the end of an ordinary class lesson. There are three sections which ask about teaching and behaviour management strategies: what worked, what didn’t, and changes to make.

There’s a list down the bottom called “Professional and Interpersonal Goals”. It was created so I could keep to the forefront of my mind a number of little things which I was consistently having trouble with: things like raising my voice (which I was doing much too often), following through on behaviour management, refraining from getting into arguments with students, and trusting myself.

That list now contains a set of blank fields for you to fill out as you like, each with a checkbox to indicate whether that goal was achieved or not during the lesson.

2. Professional Practice 2 – What the hell was THAT?!!

We all have occasional lessons where everything just falls apart. This reflection tool was created after one of those lessons, where I wanted to analyse what happened in real depth so I could get to the bottom of what went wrong.

The sections are as follows:

  • What happened
  • Strategies I attempted
  • Did they work? (Yes/No/Sort of)
  • What I need to do or change
  • General Comments

There’s also a section down the bottom for a more detailed evaluation of “Professional and Interpersonal Goals” as listed on the original Reflection form. This was made so I could see whether any of those niggling issues may have been a contributing factor in the event of a lesson going wrong, by making me grade how well I achieved each goal on an A-E scale.

3. Professional Practice 3 – Think I might be in for a difficult day?

I can’t tell you how many times this one saved my neck. I’m not a morning person so my brain takes a long time to wake up. This reflection tool is for the times when I’m worried that it won’t.

Whether it’s because I didn’t sleep properly the night before, had a bad lesson the day before, have a difficult class coming up, or a conflict with a student or colleague on my mind, or even that I just haven’t had time to have my coffee yet, this form has helped me on numerous occasions when I found the thought of the day ahead just a bit too overwhelming.

On a more personal note, this reflection tool was created in the midst of a long and painful struggle with depression and anxiety, which I faced every day for many years. It really helped me to “get out of my head” and focus specifically on the practical tasks of the day.

It includes the following sections:

  • How I’m feeling right now
    • This makes me precisely identify my physical, emotional, and mental state: tired, angry, stressed out, ill, or whatever.
  • What’s on my mind right now
    • This gives me a chance to get whatever is going on “off my chest”. Writing it down also has a way of making the issue smaller and bringing it into perspective.
  • Is there anything concerning me specifically about today?
    • This focuses my attention to the current day ahead, as well as any worries or concerns about what might be coming up
  • Classes for today
    • After getting concerns and worries off my chest, this brings my mind to practical matters, by making me list all the sessions immediately ahead.
  • Tasks, strategies and goals to get through the day
    • A list of everything that needs to be done that day, with checkboxes for ticking them off.

If you also struggle with anxiety and depression, I know what it is that you face every day, and I can tell you that you are not alone. My heart goes out to you, and I really hope that this reflection tool can be of some help.

4. Professional Practice 4 – Teaching and Behaviour Management Strategies Quick List

Filling out the Reflection form day after day helped me to get a comprehensive list of effective and ineffective teaching and behaviour management strategies. This table is a tool for getting all those strategies listed in one place for easy reference.

Final Comments

I really recommend these reflection tools for pre-service and early-career teachers, since they were created when I was in that stage myself, and I shaped them specifically to situations I was meeting at the time. However, they are also a good honing tool for me even today, so I can recommend them to more experienced teachers as well.

When I first created them, I used them after every single lesson for about a fortnight. After a while, I found that I only needed to fill them out once a day, and then a little later once a week, as reflection became more automatic.

Generally, my pattern nowadays is a doing a detailed reflection a couple of times a fortnight or once or twice a month. Every so often I have a “reflection blitz” where I might have a week of going through every lesson again, just to refocus, which is also useful. There’s really no set pattern: you can use them in whatever way works for you.

To download the Reflection Tools, click here to go to box.net, where they are hosted. I will also be adding them to my Resources page.

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Looking forward to the ASME conference

June 2, 2011


I feel like I’ve accomplished much more professionally in the weeks since the MTEC 2011 conference, than I have done for many months. Between this blog (thanks for the inspiration, James!) and all the contacts I’ve made through MTEC, MPLN, the Music Teachers’ Network, and Twitter, I’ve had so much to keep me motivated to make a lot of positive changes in the ways I’ve been working and teaching.

Now there’s another conference coming up, much closer to home: the ASME conference at the Gold Coast. I’ve had a look at the program, and I’ve already been picking and choosing the sessions I want to go to. If there was one complaint I could have made about MTEC 2011, it’s that so many great sessions were filled up and I couldn’t go to them! I’m really hoping that doesn’t happen this time.

From the look of the program so far, the ASME conference seems to have a greater emphasis on research and academics, rather than the hands-on focus of MTEC, but the topics still look fantastic. I’m definitely going to Katie Wardrobe’s session about technology on a shoestring budget, which is exactly what I’ve got. Antony Hubmayer’s session on pedagogy and deepening student understanding also looks really interesting.

There are also about twenty different music groups that will be performing at the conference over the four days.

Who else is going along? 🙂

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Lesson Planning: Using MuseScore to Teach Theory

May 31, 2011


My year junior students had a look at MuseScore for the first time yesterday. It’s a really useful tool for reinforcing all the basic music theory concepts we’ve been looking at lately. My seniors were introduced to it today, and used it for a simple orchestration exercise to get the hang of the program.

I’m thinking of revamping my theory lessons so that the majority of them can take place using MuseScore, and perhaps Acid Xpress (a particularly good tool for visualising musical structure, I’ve found). It would be wonderful if I could have a midi lab, with all the computers set up with a keyboard, instead of having to remove students from the normal music classroom for theory lessons. That’s my long-term goal.

In the meantime, my brain is ticking over, and I’m coming up with a list of lesson plans, homework assignments, and classroom activities that I’d like to prepare with MuseScore. It would also be a great relief-supply tool for occasions when I happen to be away.

Does anyone know if there’s an online bank of MuseScore activities for theory and composition which might be up and running somewhere?

In other news, I spoke to one of the deputies yesterday about year 9/10 music, and I was told that there’s no need to worry on that front, which is a relief. My focus now is encouraging as many as possible to join senior music next year, which is traditionally a very small class.

Ben Smith from the Music Teachers’ Network has also introduced me to the Musical Futures approach, which I’d not encountered before this week, so I will be investigating that direction enthusiastically. I’ve had a look around the website today, and it looks fantastic!

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When the all the whiz-bang technology lets you down…

May 26, 2011


"OMG!!! FRUSTRATED!!" by Jonathan Robison

You’ve planned your lesson perfectly, made all the right preparations, and then suddenly…

…the power goes out.

…or the data projector overheats.

…or the computer crashes.

It’ll happen sooner or later, most likely sooner. I had all my ducks in a row: assignment sheets printed off, spare earphones handy, research space allocated, notebooks organised. All my students sat with their laptops in front of them, ready to get into their composition assignment – the first one I’d ever set where the use of music creation software was a central requirement.

One by one, my students raised their hands and told me they couldn’t log on. We tried everything I could think of before I gave up and called for the computer tech, but he was busy in another computer lab trying to solve exactly the same problem. One false circuit in something, somewhere, had brought down the whole network.

Resigned, I got my students to pack the notebooks away into the recharge trolley and head back over to the classroom.

Rule No.1: when planning a technology lesson, always have a Plan B.

Rule No.2: memorise Rule No.1.

Since I have access to the musical instruments and a stock of practical lessons up my sleeve, technical hiccups like this aren’t a major drama.

I do feel for those colleagues whose subject matter absolutely depends upon a working computer, like IT Studies and the like. It must be incredibly frustrating when the network isn’t functioning, and I wonder how they manage it. How many Plan B’s can you have for a subject like that?

Those reticent about technology would seem to have a point: why go to all the trouble of decking ourselves out in all this whiz-bang technology when a: talk and chalk does just fine, and b: we can’t rely on all those gadgets and gizmos to work?

However, as Chris Betcher points out, staying up-to-date with technology and use it as fully as possible in the classroom is all part of the job, pretty much whether we like it or not.

Our students see all this technology around them every day: they should be able to expect that their teachers know how to utilise it. Age and the idea that they are “digital natives” whereas we ourselves may not be, doesn’t really make a difference: they go through exactly the same process of learning how to use something as we do. If they do it younger, so what?

Failing technology isn’t an excuse to neglect it: it’s a reason to make sure it gets continual improvement, and to invest in quality professional development so teachers have more strategies and technical know-how for when things go haywire.

In the meantime, have a Plan B. Always.

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Incorporating Creative Commons into Composition Assessment

May 23, 2011


My junior students have been doing a songwriting unit this term. Also, a number of them have talked to me about stuff that they or their friends have been uploading to websites like YouTube.

I’ve only really been thinking with any real depth about Creative Commons licensing since I started this blog, and following other blogs whose owners talk about it all the time.

It has now occurred to me to wonder how much my students know about protecting their own intellectual property, in terms of songs and other arts works that they produce. So I’m thinking of incorporating this into their assignment work.

What I’m planning to do is have a lesson devoted to Creative Commons licensing, showing them the website and all the different options. They will then be required to go to the website themselves, license their composition, and document the license correctly on their work before they hand it in.

The only thing I’m not entirely sure about and will need to clarify is whether this will conflict with the intellectual property rights held by the school. My employer claims copyright for all sorts of things, including arts works created by the students for the purposes of assessment.

But what if my students write a really great song, and then want to go ahead and record that song years down the track and release it commercially? It seems reasonable to me that any songs they write would be considered their own work.

In the meantime, it also seems reasonable that, since they are already producing songs and music videos in their own time for public consumption, they should be aware of ways they can protect their copyright while still allowing free distribution of their work. In these days of self-publishing and YouTube, this issue is more relevant than ever.

So I’m thinking of incorporating this latest addition to my compositions assessments, particularly for my senior students, as a way of increasing their awareness of copyright and licensing of arts works – not just their own but everyone’s.

Does anyone else do this with their students already?

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Learning Management, Learning Design

May 21, 2011


There’s a term for teachers which has been in vogue for a while: learning managers. At the Central Queensland University, for example, you can get a Bachelor of Learning Management, which is a standard education degree.

I have to say I’ve never really warmed to the term very much. I get the philosophy behind the terminology, being about “student-centred” rather than “teacher-centred” classroom strategies and such, but it just doesn’t do anything for me. I think it has to do with the fact that I’m not the “manager” type.

My Head of Department is a natural-born manager. Organisation is in her blood. The more things she has to organise, the happier she is.

I must be the bane of her existence because one of my favourite sayings is a quote by Douglas Adams: “I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.”

I’m more the artsy, intuitive type: I’m idealistic, impractical, have a bedroom messy enough to rival any teenager’s, and cannot spell the word “deadline” without using a dictionary.

A weird side-effect is that, since I know what I’m like with deadlines, I never set an assignment and then just assume that my students will just go ahead and hand it in on time. So I nag and harp on at them about their deadlines probably twice as much as other personality types who take organisation for granted.

About a week ago, I came across an alternative term: learning designer. I don’t remember where I saw it, but it fires my imagination in a way that learning manager just doesn’t.

While learning manager sounds highly efficient and practical, learning designer appeals to that creative, mess-making impulse in me that wants to get in there, build something, and come out with my face and clothing covered in paint.

Learning designer makes me want to build an artist’s studio for lesson planning.

If I take my planning and apply to it the idea of learning design, suddenly I feel like I’m planning a painting, sculpture, or composition. To paint a good picture or compose a good musical work, you need a clear sense of structure, balance, and motif. So, messy though the process might be, the result wouldn’t be messy: just the opposite.

In theory, anyway.

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Teaching students how to finish a performance

May 19, 2011


My senior students have been rehearsing for an upcoming performance assessment during the past few weeks. One issue that frequently turns up is how to finish.

Specifically, it’s how to maintain that split-second of silent focus, through which a performer communicates to the audience one of two things: either, “it’s over, clap now,” or, “I’m not finished yet, stop clapping!”

You will never, ever see a professional performer get up on stage and do his or her thing, and then say,”…and that’s it.”

When my students are up doing their rehearsal runs, they will often finish their performances with that annoying little phrase.

Maybe it’s all those years of having to get up and do oral presentations in class for other subjects, all the way back to “show and tell” in our very first years of school. I remember how every one of us used to end with, “and that’s it,” whenever we had to be out in front of everyone, addressing the class for some purpose or other. It becomes a habit.

Or maybe it’s the fact that doing nothing is one of the most difficult things to do on stage. It’s hard to just stand there and be stared at by a bunch of people. One feels a need to fill the silence with something. It’s a specific performance skill, to be able to stand there, confidently and quietly, and just wait for the applause.

The only time in school when I was consistently, actively taught how to finish a performance, was in the rehearsals for school band and choir. That was fine for those of us who were in those groups, but it didn’t help the students who weren’t.

As it happens, none of my current senior students are “band geeks”. Maybe it’s the fact that I’m a guitar player which acts as a drawcard for so many metal-heads to my subject area, I don’t know. Whatever the reason, although I’ve got plenty of band players in the junior cohort, my current seniors are mostly the types who wouldn’t want to be seen dead playing in the school band.

Interestingly enough, however, those who aren’t in the traditional school ensemble, do tend to be in their own little rock bands. A few of them get gigs. A number of them have played at the school social. (Yes, I do get them to perform their stuff for assessment.) I’ll be willing to bet my right arm that when they’re up there on stage, never once have they finished with, “and that’s it.”

Yet they do this over and over again in class.

So I’m on a mission: to eradicate “and that’s it” from the mouths of every one of my students, for good.

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10 Reasons Why Teachers Should Blog and Tweet

May 19, 2011


I’ve been blogging and tweeting in the Music Education world for a month now, and doing so has dramatically changed my whole perspective about many aspects of my work. I now consider blogging and tweeting to be essential professional tools. Here are ten reasons why:

1. Networking

This is the most obvious reason, and for me, it’s a big one. I’m the only general classroom music teacher at my school, which is in a rural area, and it’s all too easy to be isolated from others in the same field. If you’re a cave-dwelling hermit crab like me, it’s even easier. Twitter has enabled me to stay in touch with other music teachers from all over the world on a daily basis. Following their blogs has introduced me to a lot of new ideas in a very little time.

2. The Global Staffroom

This extends from the first reason. In a really weird way, I no longer feel like my staffroom is limited to the four walls around me at school. My horizons have widened, and now I feel like the music teacher in Iceland I spoke with yesterday is just over there by the window.

The global staffroom shifts your perspective. Suddenly, the small daily-grind-type problems and challenges you face every day are not the only ones that exist, nor are they even the biggest ones. Suddenly there are more people around who can help you if you get stuck, like the colleague just across the room in Iceland, or the one two desks away in Arizona.

This may also be especially helpful if you happen to be in what I call a “toxic staffroom”. It’s a sad fact that workplace bullying does exist in the teaching profession, and if you are unfortunate enough to find yourself in that situation, seeking support through online networking (even if you do so anonymously) can be a great first step to dealing with the problem.

P.S.: There are a couple of links to sites which deal with workplace bullying on my “Cyberbullying” page.

3. A Different Drum

If the other teachers at your own school are the only ones you ever see or speak to for an extended period of time, it can be impossible to avoid getting “bogged down” in the culture of that particular location. There’s a collective dynamic which means that people think a certain way, act a certain way, work a certain way, and it can be difficult to walk to the beat of your own drum.

This has been the case in both the best schools and the worst schools I’ve ever worked in, the supportive ones and the not-so-supportive ones. It’s neither good or bad; it’s just a thing that happens when people work together in the same place for a long time.

Blogging and tweeting have had a profound effect on the way that I think with regards to this. It has enabled me to stand outside the status quo and look in, more objectively. The daily contact with other colleagues worldwide, keeps me constantly exposed to different points of view and ways of working.

As far as I’m concerned, this can only benefit both me and and the school I work in, because it allows me to be a real contributor in ways I couldn’t before. I can bring new ideas to the table and add positive energy to the process of growth and change, because that energy is coming in from outside, from the global staffroom.

4. Professional Development

That kind of ongoing exposure to new ideas has meant that I’ve been able to undertake at least an hour or two of professional development almost every single day since I started networking online.

Five minutes on Twitter is all it takes to find dozens of blog posts, articles and news on whatever field happens to interest you. You can also participate in ongoing discussions with colleagues from all over the world in professional network forums like MusicPLN.

5. Reflection

Writing your reflections in a diary enables you to see and record new insights about your professional practice. Writing them in a blog enables you to share them with other like-minded professionals at the same time. This opens the door for them to give you feedback, and also for both you and they to learn from your experiences.

6. Communication

The blog is a public platform, and you are essentially writing for an audience. To blog well, you need to get your ideas across as clearly and succinctly as possible, to engage your readers and keep them interested. The process of writing your thoughts and ideas every day, in such a way that it gets across easily, increases your ability to communicate with others both online and off.

Your blog may also become a vehicle for presenting your thoughts and ideas not only to your online contacts, but also to colleagues closer to home, as well as to students, parents, and members of the public.

7. Motivation

I went to the MTEC conference in January of 2009, and it was brilliant. I arrived at school that year, brimming over with new ideas about how I was going to incorporate music technology into my classroom, enthusiastic about getting into teaching, and excited about sharing what I’d learned with my students and colleagues.

But then the budget was too short, the marking piled up, the paperwork and administrivia took on their usual overarching importance, and my ideas and my motivation went by the wayside. Very little changed for my students that year.

I went to MTEC 2011 jut over a month ago, and was inspired by James Humberstone to start a music teaching blog. I also joined Twitter. Since then, O-Generator has been installed on the school computers, my students have had their first computer-lab lessons ever for composition, I’ve seen to the installation of Pro Tools and Acid Music Studio on the classroom computer and now it’s being used nearly every lesson, instead of just sitting there.

Tomorrow I’m going to be running a demonstration to our beginning teachers on how to use the IWB and Interwrite Workspace software, I’ve just written my first year 8 music assignment which requires using music software to compose, and I’m planning lessons on music apps for ipad and iphone/ipod touch. My students have also been looking at Aviary Roc and SoundJunction, and their homework has been to check out YouTube videos on O-Generator and other music stuff.

I’ve begun to occasionally use the school email as another professional networking tool, emailing links to interesting sites and articles I’ve found to the rest of the staff, like the one on Spaced Learning.

I have been motivated every day since the conference to make these changes, and my momentum hasn’t slowed. The reason is because of this blog and my Twitter networking. It’s almost like MTEC 2011 hasn’t actually finished yet. Being around motivated people all the time is infectious, and when you come into contact with them every day through online activity, it has a way of keeping you going, and of giving you the determination to find solutions to problems which have gotten in the way before.

8. Passion

I have not always found my job fulfilling or rewarding. There have been a couple of difficult phases where my heart has been all but kicked out of teaching. Now, I find my passion as a teacher being brought back to life. I’m coming into my own in self-confidence, and rediscovering why I joined this profession in the first place.

The reason is again because of the ongoing contact I have with colleagues online. I love the exchange of ideas, the dialogue between like minds and not-so-like minds, the constant awareness of different insights. That kind of interaction with ideas always recharges my batteries and fires me up like nothing else can. With online networking, I can have that interaction as often as I like.

9. Sharing Your Expertise

It doesn’t matter if you’re a pre-service teacher or someone who’s been teaching for decades. You can always learn something new from someone, and someone else can always learn from you. You have something to contribute to the professional community. Go for it!

10. Support

If you network wisely, you can have dozens, if not hundreds, of like-minded, sympathetic colleagues in your list of contacts. When you’re in a bind, someone, somewhere, can help you out. If someone else is having difficulty, maybe you’re the person with just the knowledge they need, just the right link or website, or maybe just the right words of wisdom after a rough day in the classroom.

Sometimes teaching can be a really lonely job. It can be a relief to read a blog post about someone else’s struggles with a difficult class or an unfamiliar subject area, and know that you’re not the only one going through it. It can be liberating to find that there’s a totally different way of seeing a situation that’s been bugging you for months. It’s exciting to find new ways of thinking and new ways of working, new solutions to old problems.

I also find it really affirming as a professional, when I can help others out, when I can contribute to the discussion, and when it turns out that yes, I really do know what I’m doing. That kind of feedback only comes from having a good professional network.

Final Thoughts

The job of teaching doesn’t just start at nine and finish at three. If we could all clock in our “overtime” and get paid for it, we’d be earning two or three times as much as we do now. It’s not like teaching leaves us with a whole lot of time on our hands. I have particular admiration for those who manage to also be parents at the same time. I just shake my head and wonder how you guys do it.

Under those circumstances, the idea of starting a blog and finding the time to maintain it can be daunting, and maybe it’s just not for you. But it is very well worth taking a few minutes out of the day or the week to have a look at some of the blogs that are out there. I’ve got a library of links to get you started. I also cannot recommend highly enough, creating a professional account for Twitter and getting in touch with colleagues worldwide.

Participating in the online conversation about music teaching has been more fruitful for me in the last month than years of trying to reinvent the wheel on my own. In the long run, online networking can actually save a whole lot more time than it takes.

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Putting musical knowledge into long-term memory through spaced learning

May 11, 2011


Spaced learning” is a teaching strategy based on recent research about how the brain creates long-term memory at the cellular level.

I first read about spaced learning two days ago, and experimented with it yesterday in my year 8 Music class. The result was one of the most successful and engaging theory lessons we’ve had for a long time, and the students wanted more of it.

It can be applied to any subject, and one of the best things about it is that you don’t need anything that you don’t already have. You don’t need to buy new tech hardware, download software, create new resources, or make even so much as one new handout, although you can if you really want to.

Spaced learning works like this: you present the lesson content to your class three times. Between each presentation, there is a ten-minute gap, during which the students do some kind of activity which is totally unrelated to the lesson content they’ve just seen.

That ten-minute gap is key, because it does two things. Firstly, it “rests” the neural pathways in the brain which have just begun to form after having been exposed to new knowledge. Secondly, it creates a mechanism whereby that new knowledge is repeated, which demonstrates to the brain that this new content is important (another key) and therefore strengthens the neural pathways.

This process of resting and strengthening happens twice in a lesson, creating long-term memory. It works rather like building a muscle through weight-lifting in the gym, except the brain doesn’t hurt as much the next day.

I did a lesson yesterday on grunge music, where I used a PowerPoint presentation that I already had. Here’s what we did:

  • First Presentation:
    • I showed the PowerPoint, reading the slides out loud (which I will always do to accommodate both aural and visual learners), while my class sat quietly and just absorbed the information.
    • Tip: it’s important at this first stage that students don’t copy anything or ask questions, but just tune into the content and actively listen.
  • Gap One:
    • The idea for a gap activity is to get students to do something hands-on or that requires physical coordination and/or use of fine-motor skills. In music, that’s easy. I just sent them away to do prac for 10 minutes. They’re a self-directed group so I didn’t have to do much in the way of setting tasks, but some alternatives here might be to set one or more of the following:
      • practising scales on the keyboard, chords on the guitar, or rhythms on the drum kit;
      • singing/playing songs;
      • rehearsing for an upcoming performance;
      • ten minutes of instrumental practice.
  • Second Presentation:
    • This time the class needed to start recalling information and being a bit more interactive. I used the same PowerPoint presentation as before, but with some of the main words and concepts blanked out (I sneaked that in while they were doing prac). We read the presentation again, except now they had to put their hands up and recall the concepts I’d hidden.
    • Tip: the temptation here is for individual students to call out, so you need to remind then not to do so before you start.
  • Gap Two:
    • Another 10-minute prac session. Other alternatives for different subject areas might be games like silent-ball, simon-says, or making something out of plasticine.
  • Third Presentation:
    • Before showing the PowerPoint for the third time, I had the students do a think-pair-share activity, spending five minutes writing down as many points as they could remember from the presentation. I had “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana playing while they were writing. Then random pairs shared points with the rest of the class group.
    • We read through the presentation again, this time with whole blocks of text blanked out, which they had to fill in verbally as before.
    • Tip: the concepts they most need to remember are the ones you blank out and make them recall.
  • Homework:
    • Students have to write a paragraph, in full sentences, about grunge music.

This lesson has laid some groundwork, from which I can further develop their knowledge of grunge music by analysing repertoire, researching certain artists, and learning to play riffs and songs.

Spaced learning is a great tool for establishing important concepts at the introductory phase of a unit, and for preparing for assessment in the revision phase. I find that it’s also a wonderful tool for lesson planning, because it forces me to focus the content into a very small, concentrated bundle. It also heightens student concentration and engagement during the lesson itself.

For further information, I really recommend visiting the website of Monkseaton High School, where I first found out about spaced learning. They have a lot of resources, and even a series of short videos showing the strategy in action.


  1. Gittner, A. (2010) Science GCSE in 60 Minutes!
  2. Monkseaton High School: “What is Spaced Learning?”
  3. Wikipedia (2010). “Spaced Learning”. Retrieved May 10, 2010.

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Putting musical knowledge into long-term memory through spaced learning by Gabrielle Deschamps is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
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Stretching My Resources

May 5, 2011


In my classroom, I have my laptop, an interactive whiteboard (using Interwrite Workspace software, a little different to the Smartboards we saw at MTEC 2011), and one other computer for staff and student use.  There are computer labs at the school as well as trolleys with class sets of laptops for the library, but no dedicated music tech lab as such. Since the recent holidays, I also now have an iPad.

As well as the site licence for O-Generator, I’m also making a list of other software, like Acid Xpress and Musescore, to be installed. Once these are done, I can start running some composition lessons in the labs.

In the meantime, I’m finding ways to stretch the resources that I have in the classroom. The IWB is a very recent addition, and I’m really pleased with the stuff I can do with it. I’ve installed O-Generator, ProTools, and Sing and See on my laptop, and Acid Music Studio on the classroom computer so far (with O-Generator and ProTools next on the list).

For the last couple of days, I’ve been splitting my classes into several small groups, and have had a rotation arrangement going. While one pair uses O-Generator on the IWB, another pair explores Acid Music Studio on the computer, and every so often they swap so that other students can try them out.

In the meantime, those not using music software practise keyboard skills, guitar, or drums. There are two smaller rooms which adjoin the main classroom, one of which is affectionately called “the soundproof room”, even though students playing in it can sometimes be heard a block or two away. One room has a piano, the other, a drum kit. I also have several smaller keyboards that students can play individually, and a number of acoustic guitars.

Some afterthoughts:

The students are really enjoying the new software, although I look forward to being able to run full lab lessons so that they can all individually play around with it. The downside is, they won’t have musical instruments with them while they’re in the labs. Dedicated composition lessons on computers will be kept very separate from normal instrumental prac at the moment. For most, I imagine that won’t be a problem, although I wonder how well that will work for those who want to combine both, especially the senior students.

The small-group arrangement with a bunch of various activities is a really good strategy for differentiated instruction and self-paced, student-centred learning. Students can show off what they can do, and teach each other what they know. When it works, it can work extremely well. I’ve had whole 70-minute lessons where I don’t have to do anything: I just let them get into their groups, and they teach each other and make music together. These are the most magical lessons for me to watch, in my experience. But not all classes work this way. I’ve also had classes where I try to let them take control of their own music-making and music learning, and for one reason or another, it doesn’t seem to work. I still have yet to figure out why.

Setting learning goals and having an overall focus is important for these small-group sessions. Sometimes, I find that I don’t need to set the goal myself: if the student is motivated enough and clear about what he or she wants to achieve, then the goal-setting is already done. For others who are not as motivated or as clearly focused, some form of goal-setting is needed to give them some direction.

Also, the overall long-term objective for that unit, term, or semester needs to be clear, at least in my own mind, so I know where I’m steering the boat, so to speak. Individual and small-group goals need to be connected somehow to that overall goal.

The other thing is student engagement. While most are occupied with making music, there are some who aren’t, who just sit back and listen. While I think it’s important to have that group dynamic where students can simply listen to each other, it can be easy for some to be tempted just to be lazy.

I have a variety of individual activities ready for students who would otherwise try to fade into the wallpaper. These include progressive manuals for guitar, piano, and drums, a few song books, a guitar chord chart, a guitar manual devoted to fingerpicking patterns, and other similar resources from which the students can pick and choose. The addition of O-Generator and Acid Music are the most recent additions.

I still get a bit nervous sometimes with this kind of activity, I have to confess. I tend to be  a lot more comfortable when I have the reigns. But the nature of music, is that students need to have that freedom just to explore and to make a lot of noise in the process of learning. It’s not a “quiet” field of study! You know there’s work going on when your ears are ringing at the end of it.

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Music Technology and Staying Focused

May 1, 2011


Lately I’ve been thinking very deeply about music technology, and ways to go about integrating more of it into my teaching-learning environment and practice.

However, I caught myself wondering yesterday: am I forgetting the most important bit…namely, the music?  That gave me pause, and I had to stop and think for a while about what pedagogical goals I want to achieve with the technologies I want to bring in.

I consistently have trouble bringing my students to mastery of some of the musical basics, like how to read notation and use it to compose, for example.  It’s something that I wrestle with constantly.  Part of the reason is because up to the end of year 10, students at my school can choose different electives every semester.  Every time a new semester begins, I have a few students who have been with me from the beginning, and a few who are absolute beginners.  With each passing semester, the knowledge gap within a music class becomes progressively wider, and the required differentiation strategies become more and more varied.  That also means that until year 11, it’s extremely difficult to put a developmental music program in place.

Another reason why I find it difficult may be because the things I find easiest to do are often the things I find hardest to teach.  The blessing becomes a curse because I have no real concept of “not getting it”.  Aural dictation, for example.  I can hear a melody inside or outside of my head and write it down pretty much immediately.  I can also remember tunes I heard when I was six years old and haven’t heard since (I’m now in my mid-30s).  I’m a synesthete, which means I see sound as well as hear it.  Melodic lines, chord progressions, instrumental timbres, letters and words, and people’s voices all have colour, shape and texture, and sometimes (in rare cases) even temperature and taste.  Every time I hear “Steer” by Missy Higgins, I get a sensation and a taste of a very icy cold orange drink in my mouth, a bit like Tang.  I have no idea why or how I do any of that.

Consequently, teaching aural skills is a real pain in the neck.  I am forever going either too fast or too slow for my students, and I haven’t yet hit the right balance.

Maths, on the other hand, I find very easy to teach.  I used to fail maths at school, so I know exactly what it’s like to “not get it”, and to have to work through the process of coming to understand it.  I’ve just finished teaching year 9 algebra this term.  When I was in year 9, I was hopeless at algebra. These days I get it, and I also get why I get it, which makes it easier for me to explain the process to my students and see why they might be having a hard time.

Every semester that I’ve been teaching music (which is now about eight years full time), I’ve put a new set of strategies in place to overcome these challenges.  I don’t think I’ve yet had a semester where I’ve been able to look back and say, “I successfully taught all that I set out to teach”.  There are times when I really don’t believe that I’m a particularly good music teacher.  Oh, I think I’m good at teaching some things, and I think that I’m a pretty good teacher in general.  But there’s something about being a good music teacher, which I constantly aspire to reach, and never seem to attain.

I would like to have my students graduate from my subject, not just able to read and write notation, but to have a greater ability to listen deeply to any music, from whatever genre or era, and articulate what they’re hearing.  I would like my graduating students to have a working knowledge of music history and musical genres, and be able to apply elements from any of them into their own compositions if they choose.  I would like my students to be able both to compose and critique their compositional processes and outcomes, and to perform and critique their performances.  I would like them to graduate, knowing the career opportunities available in the music industry and profession, and having the skills to take those paths.

Yet I am aware: even though some things about music may have come easily to me, so many other things, like formal musical analysis and composition techniques, I never really understood until I was in my 30s.  There are aspects of the arts which really cannot be appreciated until a person has reached a certain level of mental and emotional maturity, and to ask a high-school student to do so would be unreasonable.  But then, there are other times when I really ought to have more faith in my students’ abilities to take things on board.  It’s not always easy to decide whether or not I’m asking them to bite off more than they can chew.

I am also aware that so little of what my students can do with music actually comes from me.  It comes from they themselves as “vernacular musicians” (in the words of Dr Robert Woody), their own explorations in their own garages, on their own instruments.  All I can really do is try not to kill their enthusiasm for what they’re already doing.  When it comes to achieving all those lofty goals I listed above, I’m always aware of how little I end up attaining.  So I try to find another way and hope it works the next time around.

Now, with all these music technologies that I want to learn to use and have my students learn to use, I find that I have to take a moment to collect myself every so often and remember what it’s all for.  It’s not just the technology that I want to teach: it’s the music.  That, for me, is much harder.

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Music Technology and Staying Focused by Gabrielle Deschamps is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
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