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The Choral Commission: Writing and Preparing Student Texts for Submission

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As the weather changes from warm to cold and we enter the winter season, the choirs at Learwood Middle School are working hard on music for our Winter Concert and getting ready for a long awaited vacation. But the students and, for that matter, their director are anxious to leave behind the Yuletide and begin work on a new program of diverse, challenging selections for OMEA Adjudicated Events, the Spring Concert, and various other performances. This includes the new composition by Ruth Elaine Schram, commissioned by the Learwood Middle School 8th-Grade Choir.

While trying to determine the best approach to the writing portion of this ongoing project, I enlisted the help of Kim Johnson, one of the Language Arts teachers at our school. Kim is responsible for teaching the 7th- and 8th-grade Language Arts Enrichment courses. Students enrolled in these classes have demonstrated higher-level achievement in writing and reading comprehension and receive instruction that challenges these strengths. I know Kim holds her students to the highest standards and would welcome any chance to further enrich their education.

The development of an interdisciplinary unit can be difficult. Often, attempts at true integration fall short of accomplishing the main goal, which is increased student achievement and true learning in both disciplines. It is important to facilitate integration that will meet or exceed formalized standards in both content areas without being forced or contrived.

In the introduction to their book, Understanding by Design, Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe present a vignette about a 3rd-grade class that participates in a unit developed around apples. Classroom activities include reading Johnny Appleseed, making apple sauce, an apple word search contest, going on a hayride, and closing day ceremonies during which parents dress up as apples. This illustrative example demonstrates a poorly conceived integration and one which achieves no substantive academic outcome. Wiggins and McTighe describe this activity-based teaching as “faith in learning by osmosis.” Most stakeholders in the educational process will not know the difference, so it is the responsibility of the educator to assure that learning has taken place through effective planning and assessment.

Poetry Assessment Rubric
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Planning the Lesson
The first time I met with Kim to discuss the writing portion of the commission, we agreed that the students should have the freedom to create. Students often feel “bound” by limitations of prompts and specific writing goals and, as a result, the product becomes a mechanical approximation of what they believe will achieve a higher grade. With this in mind, we decided to provide only general guidance in respect to subject matter and compositional requirements for the purpose of providing texts suitable for setting to music. In addition to poems, we also encouraged the submission of essays or other forms of creative writing.

Compositional Guidelines
It was determined that the following would provide a good balance of guidance and creative freedom:

  • No concept, idea, or expression that is morbid, dark, or obscene.
  • A writing assignment that is opened-ended often serves as an outlet for students who have something to say but will not say it out loud. While it is true that writing about the darkest, innermost thoughts a person has can facilitate self-analysis and discovery, our commissioned piece will not be based on disturbing subject matter.
  • Writing will include the use of metaphors and other forms of imagery.
  • The introduction or reinforcement of metaphorical writing through poetry supports national standards as written by the National Council for Teachers of English (edsitement.neh.gov/view_lesson_plan_standards.asp?id=605) as well as state standards which have been adopted by individual state departments of education (edstandards.org/Standards.html#State). Overall, students who learn to speak and write metaphorically increase their ability to communicate in a variety of ways and situations. The use of metaphor can provide some great material for a choral setting.
  • There must be an honest attempt to create.

While this last point might seem implied or obvious, there are students who might not turn in their best work unless they feel it will have a heavy impact on their Language Arts grade. The danger is that, as part of an integrated unit, they might see the final musical product as the most important and only goal. I have had students turn in poems which took no more than one minute to write, have no form, and were obviously an effort to satisfy a minimum requirement. It is important that all students consider themselves stakeholders in this project.

Presenting the Lesson

Assessment Criteria
A comprehensive lesson should always begin with discussion of assessment methods and expectations. The lesson objectives should be presented early on so students know what constitutes an acceptable product in relation to clear and measurable standards. Although many teachers present assessment as an “after-the-fact” activity, it is clear that students have a better chance at being successful when they understand the objectives before commencing with an assigned task. Kim developed an assessment rubric (see accompanying chart) to guide students through the writing process while serving as an accurate and meaningful assessment of student understanding.

Preparatory Assignment
To prepare students for the task of writing, students were given a worksheet with an example of a metaphorical statement and then several ideas and concepts on which to write their own metaphors (edsitement.neh.gov/lesson_images/lesson605/Worksheet_IV.pdf). Although the students are familiar with basic metaphors, they might not have applied this type of figurative speech to larger ideas or concepts. We substituted more positive words, such as hope, joy, courage, wisdom, devotion, and appreciation for those provided on the worksheet in order to guide the students toward a more positive mindset as they approached the writing of their poems. This exercise served the purpose of providing focus and an opportunity to assess student understanding before the final assignment.

The Final Assignment
As the students commenced writing, they were reminded that portions of their work might be considered for use as the text for our commissioned choral composition. We worked to stress the importance of this project and instill a sense of ownership in the hopes of receiving a product that was each student’s personal best. Each was given an opportunity to edit the assignment and encouraged to work for a more effective, artistic product.

The Next Steps
All poems and texts will be sent to our selected composer, Ruth Elaine Schram. She will then begin the task of reading them and trying to piece together complementary phrases, passages, and excerpts from various submissions and bring them together for the text of our commissioned piece. The total submission should be approximately 230 poems, essays, and prose of various kinds.

When the composition is complete, I will receive a draft copy to examine for limited changes in regard to range, texture, or other factors that might affect the ability of the choir to perform the piece. Providing detailed guidelines and keeping in constant communication with the composer will make editing unnecessary.

Special Thanks
Although Kim Johnson worked with me to develop the writing plan for this project, 8th-Grade Language Arts teachers, Patricia Rini and Mike Grumbos also taught the lesson and helped with the collection of texts, as they did with our last commission project. I am privileged to work with such a professional staff. Since my last article, it was announced that Learwood Middle School was a recipient of the Blue Ribbon Award as a part of the No Child Left Behind Act the only middle school in Ohio to which this prestigious award was given (www.ed.gov/programs/nclbbrs/about-brs.pdf). This was in no small part due to the excellent education in writing and reading comprehension our Language Arts teachers provide the students. Without such esteemed colleagues, this interdisciplinary unit would not be possible.

Michael K. Lisi has over 20 years of teaching experience in the Ohio Public Schools. He currently serves as the Vocal Music director at Learwood Middle School (Avon Lake, Ohio), where over 75 percent of the students participate in choir. Michael can be reached at michael.lisi@avonlakecityschools.org.

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