Dec 8, 2014

Student-Driven Discussions in Elementary Music

Recently educators have been tossing around the idea of student-driven discussions, partly because it is emphasized in the Common Core Standards, but also because it seems to be the new academic buzz-phrase. Assuming that you, the reader, already know the "what" and "why" of student-driven discussions, I thought I'd share the "how"--specifically, how a music educator can use this strategy in the general music classroom.

I do a LOT of discussion in my classroom. I would rather have my students sharing their thoughts about the music and concepts we are studying than just answering questions on a worksheet or singing a song without any thought behind it. But I have to admit that I was guilty of doing too much whole-class discussion, where I was the one generating most of the discussion. Consciously tweaking how I handle student discussions has been very successful. Students love to talk to other students! And that gives me (and my vocal cords) a break. Here are four examples:

1. "Turn and Talk," also called "Pair Share." Let's say you want the students to identify the instruments they are hearing in a piece of music. After your class listens to it, instead of asking questions to the whole group, ask students to turn to the person behind them or beside them and tell them what they heard. The teacher has an audible signal to end the conversation (e.g., bell or clap). Use for: compare and contrast; aesthetics.

2. "Ask Alex what it is if you don't know." If a student makes a comment using vocabulary you haven't covered yet in class, instead of explaining what the student means to the class, tell them that they can ask the student if they don't know. The commenting student becomes the teacher. Use for: any discussions.

3. "Table Talks." When working on a specific concept, say dynamics, instead of having the students "circle the answer" on a worksheet, have three or four students at each table "whisper-discuss" their answer, and continue until everyone in their group agrees on the answer. When the whispering stops, the teacher knows they all agree. Have a signal that the groups can use just in case they can't come to consensus. Use for: musical elements.

4. “Large group discussions, or, Who has the apple?”
Of course there is still value in large group discussions. To ease the transition from one speaker to the next, especially with younger students, have something they can hold in their hand--like a squishy toy. Only the person with the toy gets to talk, and they can pass it to someone else who would like to comment next. The teacher can take the toy at any time if intervention is needed. Use for: Opinion questions.

All of these examples can be used with any age group--I have used them as young as kindergarten. But it is important that the procedures are thoroughly explained and/or demonstrated before starting. For example, my students sit on colored stripes on the carpet, so I say “purple stripe, turn around and share your answer with the person on the green stripe behind you.” After just once or twice, the students have the process down.

Moving forward,
Ms. Snow has taught public school music for more than sixteen years and is currently the General Music teacher at Dickerson Elementary School in Chester, N.J. She holds a Master of Arts degree in Music Education from Teachers College Columbia University and a Bachelor of Music degree from SUNY Fredonia.

Besides teaching elementary school music, Ms. Snow’s other passion is Musical Theatre. She has been music director/conductor for such shows as Les Miserables, Sweeney Todd, Hello Dolly, Godspell, Into the Woods, and Grease. She has been involved in countless musicals across the northeast as a performer, conductor, music director, or vocal coach, and has been involved in community choruses for over 30 years, including being an original member of NJ WomenSong.

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