Music teachers make it look easy.
A few weeks back, I conducted a coaching visit in an eighth grade orchestra classroom. The class was made up of students of different ability levels, different musical backgrounds, and get this...completely different instruments. But yet, at the end of the lesson, they all played together to perform the same piece of music.
Before starting my journey as a staff development coach, I taught middle school language arts for sixteen years. During this time, I encountered students from all walks of life and all walks of reading readiness. But, yet, they were all required to master the same skills and the same standards by year’s end. I can remember many a day where all of my efforts seemed fruitless. It was getting easier to place blame and harder to find the right balance between rigor and instruction that met the individual needs of my wide range of students.
Visiting this music classroom really made me think. How can an orchestra teacher ensure that all students, with such a broad range of abilities and needs, are ready for the same concert? How can she be confident that her miniature musicians are ready to play the same piece, at the same time, in front of the same audience? This is where the definition of differentiation truly comes alive. By considering the students’ ability levels and adjusting instruction to fit the needs of the different instruments, a middle school concert shines as a symphony of differentiated instruction.
And get this: in the music classroom, there is no period-long lecture. There is no “sage on the stage” playing for a passive audience. I watched as the music teacher literally took a step back and just let her students play. Of course, there were moments where she jumped in to give them corrective feedback and helped individual musicians refine their style, but that’s just it. The feedback was individualized. And relevant. And meaningful to each and every student. And yet, when class was over, all of the students were able to play the same piece. Yes, there were modifications. Yes, there were a few sour notes. Some students sparkled as soloists while others contributed to the overall rhythm of the piece. But they were all playing. Together. And they were successful.
All of our students come to our classrooms with different needs and different abilities. Maybe it is time that we embrace the music classroom metaphor and think about our students as individual musicians who all need to come together to contribute to the same piece of music. How can we adjust our instruction to help them showcase their true abilities? How can we be sure that our lessons meet the needs of the different instruments that our students bring to the table?
Just ask a music teacher. They make it look easy.
Jennifer Fischer is a former middle school English teacher, full-time instructional coach, and part-time edtech nerd, who strives to help next JENeration educators transform learning for all students.