The Evolving Educator

Adaptation in a modern teacher

Category: Pedagogical Practices

Group Lesson Scheduling Systems

One of the new challenges that has arisen with group lessons is scheduling. In my traditional 1:1 piano teaching practice, managing student attendance is fairly simple: students have a set time each & every week. Should they need to miss a lesson, we could organize a make-up if sufficient notice is provided. This makes for a simple, predictable and concrete schedule.

However, group lessons complicate this. With my current cohort of group students, I have found that attendance is not as stable as with my 1:1 students. For instance, it is more often the case that students opt to miss a lesson or to change a lesson time last-minute. This may have something to do with a sense of diffused responsibility in a group-learning format. Without the 1:1 contact, students may seem themselves as less integral to the learning environment, resulting in a lowered level of commitment.

I actually do not mind this. I believe that people who are learning music should have ultimate control over the extent to which they engage and am always a proponent of balance in my students lives. Piano should enhance, not diminish, a student’s life. There have been times in my own life (now included) when I simply could not find time to practice as much as I wished. I support students taking time to address their needs as whole people. In order to be consistent with a mindset that values student autonomy, but also continue to encourage a healthy and thriving community in my group lessons, I believe I need to begin exploring alternative scheduling options.

The main idea that has come into my mind is the concept of leaving lesson sign-up to students themselves. I could perhaps use Google Docs/Calendar or a dedicated website to post a real-time schedule of student appointments and vacancies. If a student must miss a lesson and gives me 5-days notice, I can vacate their time slot. This would allow other students to access the schedule and claim the spot. There are three clear benefits to this in my mind: 1) it will help ensure more students are present at each group lesson, 2) it creates a mechanism through which casual students can opt-in on a lesson from time to time as convenient, and 3) it reduces the amount of time I spend managing the schedule. This system appears to be in use (see screenshot below) by the teacher on the Grow Your Music Studio blog.

My Piano Makeup Calendar

Google Calendar Music Schedule, Grow Your Music Studio blog

With the new year around the corner, I will likely take some time in December to explore this with the director of my studio. Now that I am feeling more and more comfortable with the rhythm and pedagogy of the format, it is time to improve some of the ‘under-the-hood’ features.

-S

Integrating Minecraft into a Unit Plan

On Tuesday, November 5th, we were fortunate to have a group from Colquitz Middle School come and share their perspectives on Minecraft. The learners were hilarious, self-actualized and engaged, which piqued my interest about the potential educational value of this ubiquitous sandbox game.

My first Minecraft creation.

Shortly after our workshop, an opportunity to integrate Minecraft into my own lesson planning revealed itself. I am currently writing a mini, 5-lesson unit for my Social Studies methodologies class on intentional community and utopia. Here is an excerpt from the project outline:

As a class, you will spend the next three classes collaboratively designing a utopian community.

Imagine that you have been given five acres of pristine land in Victoria, BC upon which to build a community where you will live with a community of others. Every student will belong to a sub-committee that is responsible for designing the systems and policies that relate to their domain. Although each sub-committee has a special mandate, it is important to consider the function of the community as a whole.

One of the sub-committees in the unit is tasked with Home Design and has a mandate to develop the physical space, including interior structures and exterior land-use, to meet the utopia‚Äôs needs. An immediate thought of mine was to encourage this group to use Minecraft’s creative mode to do this. They could consult with members from the other sub-committees (e.g. Food Production & Consumption) to determine the community’s needs and then realize these using Minecraft. Other students could explore the utopia virtually, experiencing a highly-immersive avenue into their peers’ work.

From a logistical perspective, I would need to find a way to host the server or find an external host which would meet the students’ needs. Were I to proceed with this, I would definitely take time to reach out to other educators like the educator from Colquitz for suggestions.

-S

Note Recognition: Improving Fluency with Game-ification

One of the first major challenges that students encounter when they first begin to learn piano is note recognition. Standard musical notation involves translating symbols on the musical staves into letters which correspond to physical keys on the piano. This integrates many skills simultaneously and can be slow-going for new learners. Many of you who took lessons in the past probably remembers using acrostics to remember note names like “Every good boy deserves fudge.” (or my new, modern take “Every girl band deserves funding.”). Note recognition is traditionally scaffolded with memory aids and polished through completing pencil & paper exercises like this:

Traditional note recognition exercise (https://notebusters.net/note-reading-sample-content/)

However, I have recently been experimenting with a new way to help students develop fluency with note recognition: game-ification. Specifically, I have been integrating an iPad app, Staff Wars, into my group and individual lessons. This program challenges students to blast notes with lasers from an X-wing by naming each note as it scrolls from right to left. I like it because it has an element of urgency. When sight-reading music, it is not uncommon to feel stress as you read ahead through a passage, anticipating notes and chords to come. The game is designed in such a way that you experience a similar crunch, which I believe enhances its applicability and validity to real piano play. With Staff Wars, you capture a feeling that cannot be emulated in a pencil & paper exercise. The goal is that students develop an automaticity with naming in which they intuitively ‘know’ a note’s identity without having to use acrostics or memory aids. So far, I’ve been seeing good results in students who have been incorporating this app into their practice regime.

Image result for staff wars

Screen capture from Staff Wars on iPad

I will say that Staff Wars is not perfect. There are a few features that I wish would be integrated. First, the app only allows you to enter responses using the note names (“A”, “D”, etc.). I wish that students could also enter their responses using a diagram of a keyboard, to further reinforce the connection between the staff and a physical position on a keyboard. Also, this app is excellent for training single-note recognition. However, a trouble area for many pianists (myself included) comes with reading clusters of notes in chords. I would love to see a setting where students name all the component notes in a chord as it scrolls from right to left. Still, for $0.99, it is a worthwhile investment for any piano teacher or new learner.

-S

A Social Model of Piano Pedagogy

This June, I was fortunate to be hired as the new piano instructor at the South Island Studio (SIS). The director of the studio, Lonny Koch, floated the idea during my interview that we could develop a Group Lesson program at SIS.

My initial reaction was confusion and a little bit of dread. Having always enjoyed 1:1 lessons with my teachers, the idea of a group piano lesson seemed to be a pedagogic and logistical mess. How could a teacher effectively instruct more than one student at a time? However, Lonny & I registered for a primer course by a piano instructor named Daniel Patterson which provided us with a basic model for group lessons. We worked through those materials & considered how we could modify the program to match my teaching style, experience and musical worldview. In the end, we developed a system for 3:1 lessons which I will describe in brief below.

In essence, the experience I am trying to address with the group lessons will be familiar to anyone who has taken 1:1 lessons with an expert: the experience of trying to realize a teacher’s suggestion as they watch. For instance, while I was taking lessons in jazz piano this summer, I found myself wishing I could enter into a private practice ‘bubble’ to work through a suggestion from my teacher. He might ask that I perform a passage in a certain way, or practice a lick in twelve keys. Having him watch over me created a sense of performance anxiety and doubt which clouded my thought and slowed my progress. This is what I am trying to address.

If you’re wondering about the format, refer to the diagram I’ve included below. Everyone has their own digital keyboard and is practising with headphones while I circulate to give feedback and guide your progress. Having a private sonic space to work in allows you to hone and develop your music at your own pace & without the anxiety of having a teacher hover over you. Furthermore, it builds self-sufficiency and sight-reading ability by encouraging you to develop your own inner-teacher. Throughout the lesson, we remove our headphones and come together to have discussions, learn new concepts and play aloud as an ensemble.

Schematic diagram of the proposed learning space.

Moving forward, I have four principle goals for the program:

1. To emphasize playing first and foremost. Teaching the hands more than the head, at least initially.
2. To create a supportive, social, fun environment in which to learn piano, collaborate and get excited about the instrument with other beginners.
3. To make it more accessible by charging a significantly lower hourly rate.
4. To build self-efficacy & teach students how to practice.

This section of my website, found under the Inquiry >> Group Piano Lessons Program tab, will document my experience of developing and implementing group piano lessons at SIS.

-S

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