Differentiated Portfolios in the Music Classroom

Differentiated Portfolios in the Music Classroom

Serving All Students Well

 By NAfME Member Peter Briggs

When I began teaching high school, I was in a school with just one band and one orchestra serving students in grades 9-12. I tried to manage the skill spread by teaching to the middle, but I ended up serving almost no one well. My content was too advanced for some and also too easy for others. And after being at the school for a while, I realized that I had given upperclassmen the same assignments year after year. I needed a way to challenge kids at their varying levels, as well as accountability for giving them new material to foster learning and growth.

Enter the Differentiated Portfolio.


Work Smarter

Needing to work smarter, not harder, I created portfolio maps with multiple levels of difficulty working on the same concept. For example, during a music theory assignment, all students work on key signatures. However, some learn the first 7 majors, while others all majors and minors. I have scale portfolio maps where students start with the basic scales on the lower levels and demonstrate advanced scale techniques at the upper levels. Some portfolios have 6 levels for students to cover in 4 years, enabling challenge even for the most advanced students.

Everyone gets to start where they are at and move forward as far as they are able. Each student has one portfolio with three elements: music theory, scales/rudiments, and instrument-specific exercises. Students collect evidence of mastery (either proof of online theory assignments or videos of scales/exercises, etc.) into an online portfolio, through which I provide feedback, and assess student work.

iStockphoto.com/Manojkumar Madhusoodananpillai

After implementing the differentiated portfolios, I noticed a number of benefits:

  • While it was a fair amount of work to set up the portfolio system (deciding who should play/do what at which level), once implemented, it significantly simplified and organized so many aspects of my instruction and assessment.
  • The portfolio map became a type of curriculum map, making sure that I was covering the skills each student needed to meet their level expectations.
  • Students have a record of their growth over time. Just recently, I had a junior show me a video from his freshman year. . . it was a cool moment.
  • My students and I are held accountable for growth – students need to have mastered skills at one level to move up to the next.
  • Some students who didn’t meet standards on a specific skill kept submitting videos until they reached mastery. That grit and persistence is a special thing to watch students develop in their individual practice.
  • I had concrete data for standards-based assessment and student growth.
  • Students who progress through all the levels end up ready to enter collegiate theory and studio classes.
  • Upperclassmen who have previously mastered lower levels began to mentor younger students. They remember the specific skills and exercises and are eager to support younger students in their journey.

How to Get Started

At my session (Wednesday, November 15, 2017, 8:00 AM), I will share examples of current student portfolios that show growth over time as well as student-teacher interaction. I will provide samples of differentiated portfolio maps for theory, band and percussion – though the concept easily transfers to any music discipline. I will also show how I distribute and collect multiple assignments to six different level groups in one class. Finally, I will introduce FreshGrade – the free program that I use to manage the online portfolios of student work.

About the author:

NAfME member Peter Briggs has been teaching middle and high school band, choir and orchestra in Washington State for 14 years. He graduated from Central Washington University with a BM in Music Education and earned a master’s degree in band conducting from the American Band College. Mr. Briggs has spent the last 10 years teaching at an inner city high school in Tacoma, WA where he teaches band and percussion. His high-profile drumline has been featured across the state in such notable performances as an NFL Half-time show. Last year he received the Alumni Teacher of the Year from Central Washington University.

Peter Briggs presented on his topic “Differentiated Portfolios for Standards Based Assessment” at the 2017 NAfME National Conference last November in Dallas, TX. Register today for the 2018 NAfME National Conference!

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