Thoughtful Discussions in Music Class

Thoughtful discussions in music class: Getting students thinking about musical concepts, like steady beat!

This past summer, I was fortunate enough to take a class through my district about making thinking visible. We use the word “think” a lot, but it wasn't until this class that I really thought about what thinking means! While I'm not an expert in the area of making thinking visible, I'm going to write about a discussion I had with my first and second graders that I found very insightful.

When I took this course, I read the book “Making Thinking Visible.” The book can be viewed on Amazon by clicking on the picture below. It is a wonderful read!

While I read many of the routines and strategies in the book, I was both excited by the possibilities and worried about how I would find the time to have meaningful discussions. So many music teachers try to fill the time we have with our students with engaging activities, with singing, playing, dancing, etc., and we STILL don't feel like we have time for everything we need to teach! How would I have these conversations with these students and still have time for what I needed to teach?

Well, part of the answer is that through these conversations, students will learn more, and the other part of the answer came in the form of a new schedule for me this year. The number of times I see students is a bit confusing to explain, but I do see the students in grades 1-5 for fifty minutes instead of thirty-five. At first, I wondered how I would fill the extra time (More activities? More instrument playing? More dancing?), and I also worried it would feel really long, but honestly, I like it much better than I thought I would. I don't feel so frantic when I teach…AND I have time for these conversations the books recommend!

I decided to be brave and try a simple thinking routine on the first lesson. Crazy, I know! But after we learned the rules and procedures and played a couple games (and after we finished a beat-keeping activity), I asked my first graders, “What do we know about beat?”

It was kind of scary, to be honest. I've never seen another music teacher try to carry this kind of conversation. What if they didn't answer? What if they didn't answer correctly? Well, to my delight, here were some of their responses (all of which I wrote down on the SMART board so I could refer back to them):

  • The beat stays the same.
  • The beat goes over and over.
  • The beat keeps going.
  • When the music stops, the beat stops.
  • You can change the beat.
  • The beat is different than the rhythm.
  • The beat is steady.
  • It's like the heartbeat.
  • We do motions with the beat.
  • We can hear the beat.
  • We can follow someone else's beat.
  • We can keep the beat on our laps.
  • We can keep the beat in our feet.
  • We can keep the beat anywhere.

This, to me, told me they understood beat at not just a surface level. I know their thinking can get even deeper, but I was excited with this to start!

If you're interested in having a conversation like this with your students, here are some suggestions:

  • Word the question so that it is not too specific. You want some “big ideas” to come out of the question, so if you ask a question that can be answered with “yes” or “no” then those big ideas might not evolve out of the discussion. I had the question “What is the purpose of beat?” from my Essential Questions set on the board, like this, to help guide the discussion further:
  • Wait. I had a few conversations in which it was like listening to crickets at first. NO ONE raised their hands for a while (especially when I had a similar conversation with my fifth graders about rhythm!) Then I would repeat the question, elaborate a bit more, and a brave soul would raise his/her hand. After that, others followed suit. I think it'll be this way for a while, until they are used to these kinds of conversations in the music room!
  • Adapt your instruction if needed. If students don't answer the question in a way that shows understanding, then circle around back to that concept in your instruction.
  • Read the book! I can't do it justice with one blog post, or even several blog posts. The book is wonderful, full of tons of different routines that could work well in the music room, and well worth the read!

Good luck with your discussions, and have a great weekend!

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Hi, I'm Aileen

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