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Transform a Composition Project From Teacher-Led to Student-Led

There is a trend in music education to shift instruction from teacher-led activities to student-led activities. It is something I am really passionate about! In fact, a colleague, Theresa Hoover Ducassoux, and I wrote a book about how we as music educators can empower all music students in the music classroom.

My thinking started to change when I read the book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Daniel Pink. Daniel shares with us the why for a shift, and warns us that what science is telling us and what we do are two different things. If we take a closer look at business and schools, we could make many shifts that would increase motivation, creativity, and productivity. So, how can we offer choice to our students? Is there a strong purpose in the work? Do we give students enough time to work towards mastery? Too often in schools, we don't allow for autonomy, mastery, and purpose. But why not?

Take for example a rhythmic composition my students do every spring. 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. Still, what if I made some shifts in my instruction and let go of some of the control? What if I gave them a little more control of their own learning path? Can I connect their composition with a larger audience or provide a stronger purpose for the composition? The answer is you can. I did it. I came up with a stronger purpose and a larger audience, and in return my students were more invested, engaged, and driven in the composition project.

How I did it

I asked myself a few questions. What if we turn the rhythmic composition into a service project for others? What if we write an activity book for kids to use in the music classroom? What if another teacher asks my students for help and connects us with another classroom of peers?

I quickly put the plan into action. I started by:

  • reaching out to another music teacher and asking if she would be interested in working with me on this project.

  • contacting my school tech support and requesting that all fourth grade student accounts have the Flat for Docs add-on.

  • creating a template for the e-Book and establishing the criteria for the rhythmic composition. (16 beats, note values used, etc.)

  • drafting a letter for another music teacher to read to my students via video or Skype as the hook to get the project started.

Now I was ready to begin this project with students.

  • Together we viewed the video from @MusicalTheresa. She asked my students for help in creating a book for her students.

  • We brainstormed as a class what an activity could possibly look like. It would have been even better if I had set up a Flipgrid Topic so my students could have met her students and asked them questions about what kind of activities and instruments they had access to.

  • We broke into smaller groups and began creating a rhythmic composition. (see worksheet below)

  • I asked them to share their pattern with me and when they were secure in their pattern, they could begin to brainstorm the type of activity they want to create. (see worksheet below)

Student Worksheet

After my students prepared and practiced their activity, I asked each group to share their work with the whole class. We watched and offered constructive peer feedback to each group. Students gained so much insight as they shared what worked well and what didn’t.

Each group added their creations to the Rhythm Activity e-Book Template I created in Google Slides. They used the Flat for Docs add-on to notate their rhythmic composition and then also typed up their step-by-step directions. (Here is a blog post from Theresa Hoover Ducassoux that walks you through all the steps on how to use Flat for Docs.)

Because it was the end of the year and we were all getting tired of the project, we entered our lessons in the template and sent them off. After my own reflection of the process, I know now we could benefit with more time to edit and reflect before we publish our final product. Here is what I plan to do next time.

Take a Break

We will put the project to the side for a little while and then come back to it with fresh eyes and ears. When we are ready, we will work on adding missing steps or clarifying the steps already written in the Google Slides. There is a slight learning curve to using Flat for Docs (it's easy but it takes a little practice) and this process deserves a second glance.

When completed, we will need to try our activities one more time. I plan to give my students more autonomy on how to do this. Do we invite a buddy class to join us and break into small groups and try the games? Do we make a video to share with others for each game? Do we send the book to another school in the district and ask our friends across town to try them out? Do we send our activities to an editor of some sorts (me or other music teachers) and ask for feedback? Any of these choices would be fine with me as I want my students to reflect and edit their work again. Each time they have a chance to look more critically and closely at their work, the more they re-learn, edit, and refine.


We are now ready to publish! I will create a classroom copy of the e-book to reference, post, and celebrate our great accomplishment as well as pass our creation along to our peers, the intended audience.

By transforming a teacher-led activity of creating a rhythmic composition to a student-led activity book, we create powerful lessons full of autonomy, purpose, and time to work towards mastery. When you experience this shift for yourself as an educator, you will see the impact it has on the learning experience as well as the intrinsic motivation and productivity that comes from your students. The transformation makes all the difference.

Do you want to know more about the book I co-wrote with Theresa Hoover Ducassoux? Check out our website,

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