Each spring, my fourth graders create a rhythmic composition. It’s a major assessment the district uses for the report card. My students always do pretty well on the assessment but many aren’t invested in the project. I knew last year I needed to try something new. I wondered if there was a way to make this composition project more meaningful for my students. Can I connect their composition with a larger audience or provide a stronger purpose for the composition? If I could come up with a stronger purpose or a larger audience, maybe my students would be more invested in the composition.
So, I brainstormed a few ideas. Maybe I could connect my classroom to another classroom. I looked through my Twitter account and realized I could reach out to Theresa Ducassoux from Northern VA. (@TDucassoux) She teaches beginning band and orchestra to fourth and fifth graders. (I teach in Illinois.)
I started to wonder, maybe her fourth and fifth graders could use a method book of sorts. My students could write rhythmic compositions for her students and create a fun activity to go along with each rhythmic exercise. This gives my students a greater purpose to their rhythmic composition and a larger audience. Peers from across the country would be using their rhythmic compositions.
It felt like I had something worth trying so I emailed my friend and pitched the idea to her. I asked Theresa if she would be willing to send an email or even send a video via Flipgrid asking my students for help. I wrote her a short example of what I thought she might say so it wasn’t much work on her part.
Theresa is a great friend and she jumped at the chance to help. She recorded a video message through Flipgrid to my students using the letter I wrote her as her script. My students watched the video and together as a group, we brainstormed what we might create for the method book. Some classes ran with it and were excited the moment I shared the video. Other classes needed a minute to think through the project and once a few cool ideas were thrown out as possibilities I started to see their minds reel with ideas and excitement.
Together Theresa and I brainstormed the best way to get this method book to her students. I knew I wanted it to be digital (easy to send across the country) and I wanted an easy way to curate all the compositions. I wanted a platform that would allow for small group collaboration as well as a way to notate the music composition.
I have personally used Flat.io, an online tool for creating music and collaborating with others, and the Flat.io add-on in Google Docs so I knew Flat.io would be a great way to notate the rhythmic composition. The add-on allows the user to embed music notation in a digital document and it's super easy to add to Google Docs. Full disclosure: I had to ask my tech director for permission and help to download the Flat.io add-on to my student’s Google Doc accounts. Within an afternoon, my students all had the add-on downloaded to their accounts.
My friend, Theresa Ducassoux, created this tutorial on how to download the Flat.io add-on to your account.
Theresa and I decided on using Google Docs and Google Slides for the project. I created a template in Google Docs and pushed out the document to my students in Google Classroom. I gave them a few class periods to come up with a rhythmic composition they liked and asked them to try out their composition and activity to make sure it worked and it was engaging. When they were ready, they took a screenshot of their final draft in Google Docs and inserted the picture in Google Slides. I had already created a slideshow and made it available in Google Classroom. Each group found their specific slide and inserted their picture to the slide. When we had completed all the slides, we shared the slideshow with Theresa. She had the option to view the slideshow in Google Slides or create a PDF of the slideshow.
We did this project at the very end of May. Our last day of school was June 5th and for some classes, we were working up to the last day of music. I thought that would be a problem but my students were so invested. In fact, the last day of music, I planned singing games to play with the kids. To my surprise, I had a handful of students wanting to find a laptop and make some last minute tweaks to their Google Slides. They were so invested in the work on the last day of school!
Theresa’s students had school until June 20th so she had the last few weeks of school to try a few exercises with her kids. Theresa reported back they had fun trying some of the exercises before their summer break. I was happy to hear her students enjoyed our method book but was already into summer break and happily let classroom work sit on the back burner for a little bit. When school started again, I had students asking me on the first day of music, “Well, did they like our method book? Did they use it?”
It made me realize just how deeply invested my students really were in their work. I had students working on their project on the last day of school and after a long summer, they were still thinking about the project. I relayed the message that Theresa’s students enjoyed our book during their last few days of school. My students were happy to hear this message.
Still, it had me wondering. What if we did the project earlier in the year, spent more time creating and trying out our projects before we sent them off to Theresa’s students? What if we had interviewed her students and found out what kinds of activities/games they like to play? Each of my classes could have presented and shared their own projects with each other. We could have allowed time for peer feedback and time to edit their work before we sent them off to Northern Virginia.
There is so much meaningful work we could do with this project! You can bet this year I plan to start this project a lot earlier with the hope’s to improve the learning experience for my students. These types of projects are never home runs the first time you try them. I know I am on to something and I owe it to my students to push my thinking and make a better learning experience this year.
Related blog posts:
The Qualities of an Empowered Music Student by Kathryn Finch and Theresa Ducassoux
Google Slides in Music by Theresa Ducassoux