middle school general music curriculum

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    I teach PK-8 urban students. I am lucky enough to have the making music series through grade 6 and then I do keyboards with 7th and 8th graders. BUT, my 6th graders are getting older by the year and they HATE any music that isn’t ‘theirs’. I try to explain that it’s easier for them to learn an idea if it’s with a simpler song, but they don’t care. My fear is that if I do ‘random’ lessons, then I won’t have a clear curriculum to show admin and parents. I am at a charter school and everything must be clearly written out with assessments for accountability. Any ideas on how to make 6th grade more interesting for them, while still being objective oriented? **I only see the kids 1xweek which makes fitting everything in nearly impossible.


    This is such a common issue among 6th grade classes and I agree that having random lessons is not advantageous for the students, nor for you.

    This time of year is perfect for an introduction to a composition unit. Using the Understanding by Design model (UbD also known as backward design) as written by Grant Wiggins andJay McTighe, you can create a composition unit based on backward design that will both inspire your students and impress the parents and administration.

    Backward design is thinking of the end results first, planning assessments that demonstrate both mastery of learning both conceptual and performance skills but also goes beyond into depth of learning, and then you plan the lessons. The format that I use is the end goal is to have students be able to write a short melodic composition with one to two phrases (depending on the level of learning each student is at = differentiated instruction). Students will be able to explain why their composition has a certain melodic contour or dynamic marking or tempo marking. The students still need to be able to perform the melodies, but the depth of learning comes a higher level of understanding.

    In order to achieve the final result, the students must first learn how to compose a simple rhythm. I let the students discover how the Rhythm Boxes of Sound and Silence are formed mathematically. We go into an entire discussion on division and how the boxes are formed. The students love discovering how to fill it in instead of me front loading the lesson with “this is how you do it.” Then we take what they learned and they write their first rhythmic composition. I provide the framework of how many measures (they have to know bar lines, time signature, double bar lines, repeat signs–if they choose to use a repeat sign). If a student struggles with rhythm, they might only do 4 measures where a more advanced student may do 8. Again, differentiated instruction is fairly straight forward in this unit.

    Once they have composed that piece, we put it into finale and they have to perform it for their peers. Students analyze each other’s performances and improve for the future performance that happens at the end of the year. (I also being the books at this point. Students must name their piece and have a reason for naming the piece. I put 2-3 compositions on each page and begin compiling the books so I don’t have a ton of work at the end of the unit).

    Then we work on how to compose for an ensemble. We discuss how we write for multiple parts and how to work cooperatively. The students pick their own instruments for each composition. It is understood that the room will be noisy, but the noise must be productive and not random. I monitor the progress by walking to make sure groups are on task and also answer any questions that come up. There is a framework again (4 measures, must have a repeat, everyone must play at some point in the composition and there must be different rhythms for each part). If there is a more advanced group, they are allowed to use sixteenth notes or syncopation. If there is a group that seems to be struggling, I provide more parameters. Again, perform for the class. Analyze the performances. Start printing the next few pages in the book.

    Finally, we go into the melodic compositions. We review major scales and what the I-IV-and V are in the melody and I play a few pieces that I improvise where I end on the ii or the IV and then leave it to them to discover that pieces sound “finished” when they end on the tonic of the scale (or Do). We discuss phrases in music. Then I set the parameters of writing the rhythm first and then the melody, how many measures, etc. For some students who play piano they are allowed to do a harmonic composition using the grand staff. This is the most fulfilling part of teaching 6th grade for me–seeing their compositions come to fruition and synthesizing all that they have learned over the years in their general music class. Finally, performance but even more dialogue with the students about why they decided to have this accent or that crescendo and how it made them feel to compose their first three pieces of music. It is really enriching for everyone (including me).

    My assessments are always presented upfront before the section starts (i.e. the students know what is expected for an A, B, C, etc.). There are formative assessments always being done as students turn in their work. Final summative assessment isn’t done until the final product is turned in and the students have performed the piece. They are also allowed to analyze their own playing. The culmination is an informance where parents are invited in to the class to see the books and hear the process and all of the compositions. The book is given to the parents and students for a keepsake.

    This is one example of how you can structure a fun unit. I have had other teachers do a unit on “Music over the ages” where they do a compare and contrast unit using classical vs. rock music. Using UbD, the objective is to have students analyze a variety of music and be able to analyze, evaluate, and discuss various styles of music and the application of that music to the culture of the time period. This can go into Beethoven (who has been sometimes given credit as the one who ushered in the era of rock-n-roll by composing outside of the box of classical music)–students analyze his music by just listening and drawing pictures, then discovering that he gradually went deaf and discussing how that may have affected his compositions (how emotions can stir up dynamic changes for example). Then going into the rock era and playing something with the same idea–have students listen and analyze without front loading, then give them some history on the band, then analyze how that affected their composition. The key is to make sure the music (if it has lyrics) is appropriate for school and that the band is playing one of their original compositions that has meaning behind it. Again, students must know what they will be learning and how they will be assessed before you start the unit.

    You can do similar units with analyzing African-American spirituals and what was happening during that time of American history. How the songs were not written, but simply performed. Now that they are written down, when they are performed many performers take liberty to extend lines, change pitches, etc. Listen to a variety of approaches to one song and have the students analyze the performances. Etc. etc. etc. These are exciting units and I hope you are able to find something that suits your students so they can sink their teeth in to the wonders and richness of our craft called music.


    P.S. I would love to hear what you decide to do for your unit(s). Please let me know as I have many new teachers with whom I work and I love sharing out to them about what is happening around the nation with our “older” elementary students.


    Bridget James
    Western Division Representative
    National Council for General Music Education (NCGME)
    National Association for Music Educaiton (NAfME)


    Hi emermand076 great post-
    I have developed a curriculum that I use with my students that combines music theory and composing original music in a very progressive way. I’ve made the curriculum available for other teachers to use. There is a small fee associated with the web courses but the proceeds go towards allowing us to provide the program to NYC Public schools for free. You can learn about the program on my website here: http://www.yciw.net

    Let me know if you have any questions!

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