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3 Top Tips from Instructional Designers for Choir Teachers

By Elisa Janson Jones

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Nearly nine months ago, before the pandemic — and before schools closed down and before everyone was thrust into exclusively online learning  — I started my doctor of education in instructional design (ID). ID practitioners design, create, implement, and assess online and in-person training programs. It was mind-blowing to be launching from the music classroom where my practice was focused on elementary and middle school choirs, to an entire industry that has defined what learning is and what it can be.

I didn’t know back then that I’d be implementing exactly what I was learning and sharing so much of it with my colleagues. I couldn’t be more grateful that I’ve had the opportunity to do so through speaking engagements, a Facebook group 45,000-plus members strong, and this publication.

I offer you these tips to keep top of mind throughout your year – whether you’re online, in-person, or a mix – you’ll find your students engaged, your confidence level high, and your pedagogical artistry expanded. 

Design with Intention

IDs never start designing a lesson or course by exploring the learning activities. We start with the learners. We use design models that have been time-tested to drive desired results. My favorite model is called Backward Design, or Understanding by Design. It’s a simple three-step process to creating any type of learning, from a three-minute video to a three-year online course.

Start by asking yourself “What do the students need to know?” How to enunciate? How to audiate? How to shape vowels? How to sight sing? How to emotionally connect? Make a list of the exact things your students will come out the other side of your class knowing how to do.

The second question is “How will we know that they have learned it?” Singing tests? Written exams? Games? Scenarios? Projects? Demonstrations? Under each objective you wrote, create a list of how your students can demonstrate their knowledge, learning, and growth.

Then ask, “How do we teach these things to them?” Now is when you start exploring the myriad of resources available to you! No need to collect every handout, video, and free download. You’ll create a targeted list of the content you need. This approach gives you direction and ensures your students will reach the goals you set for them.

Make it Meaningful

Want your students to be actively engaged? Excited to learn? Remember what you teach them for years to come? Then you have to make it meaningful. It’s time to abandon teaching how we were taught. It’s time for us to ask not just what we think they should know, but also what do they want to learn? This may seem counter to the first tip but stay with me here. It’s a Venn diagram of two circles: stuff you think they need to know and stuff they want to learn. The key is to find the sweet spot where the two coincide, then make it ridiculously fun for them. Explore the music they like, the activities they enjoy. Connect it to where they are now.

When I would teach music history and composers, I didn’t start in the 14th century the way the Grout teaches us. I started with “Star Wars” and John Williams. I started with “Gnomeo and Juliet” and Elton John. This philosophy of instruction is called “connectivism”- you’re using what they already know to connect them to new concepts. If they already know hip-hop, then take that hip-hop beat they love and sing something lyrical over it. And it isn’t just about connecting to music. What else is happening in their lives? What else can you use to connect with them? How can you help them take it from your classroom and make it real-world?

Take what they know, love, experience, and care about as the starting point, and expand from there. Make it relevant. Make it meaningful.

Keep it Simple

Unless you’re going to be producing your music classes and online rehearsals like they are a TV show or blockbuster movie, you have to keep things short, simple, and impactful. Break learning activities up into small, bite-size pieces. Teach them a concept, then give them an activity that will reinforce that concept. It’s that easy. If you wouldn’t want to do the things you’re asking your own students to do, then why ask them to do them? Get completely away from “busy work,” worksheets, or the kind of stuff you’d leave for a sub day. Remember what will make the learning last: the relevance and the fun.

No matter how your classroom exists this year, I hope you’ll take these three top tips to heart and run with them. Your students deserve it, and so do you.

An experienced K8 music educator, Elisa Janson Jones specializes in helping music educators build, manage, and grow thriving school music programs and have long and happy careers. She holds a bachelor of music, master of business administration, and is pursuing a doctor of education in instructional design. Elisa is senior manager of online learning for the Conn-Selmer Corporation, conductor of her local community band, a columnist for Choral Director and School Band and Orchestra Magazines, and founder of the Music Educators Creating Online Learning Facebook Group. Elisa is an internationally recognized speaker, and has presented at national, state, and local conferences.

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