Motivating Urban Students

Students’ basic needs must be met before they can be motivated to learn, says MENC member Elizabeth Ann McAnally. Urban students often come to school with unfulfilled needs for physical and emotional safety, self-esteem, and a sense of belonging. To address those needs, McAnally recommends

  • Make the space for music as safe and inviting as possible—admittedly hard for urban teachers who travel between classrooms or teach in a cafeteria, auditorium, or storage room.
  • Address students’ emotional security with your attitude and demeanor. Every word, gesture, facial expression, tone of voice, and action count.


If we want students to… we must…
be excited about learning show we are excited about teaching
Show us respect show them respect at all times
work hard work even harder
  • Build self-esteem by showing students that they have the potential to be musical. Many students come to class with preconceived ideas about their lack of ability and a fear of making mistakes. Ask questions that have more than one answer and/or rely on creativity. Call-and-response, improvisation, and composition activities work well. Provide an environment where it’s okay to make mistakes.

Classroom Management. Because urban students come from diverse backgrounds and various educational experiences,

  1. Continually teach and reteach expected behavior rather than just levying consequences for inappropriate behavior.
  2. Handle small problems in ways to avoid making them big problems—allow students to save face in front of peers.
  3. Choose your battles.
  4. Maintain your composure at all costs—avoid losing your temper or raising your voice.

What about rewards? McAnally likes intangible rewards—a favorite musical activity or a positive phone call home. She recommends well-planned lessons that encourage active participation, provide specific praise, and allow students to demonstrate their accomplishments as rewards.

What about grades? “The real purpose of a music grade must be to motivate students,” writes McAnally in Teaching Music in the Urban Classroom. Grades inform her instruction and help her improve student learning. “Students who feel their teacher wants them to succeed will rise to those expectations,” she says. Give students “more than one path to a positive evaluation:” Use a variety of methods to assess a variety of skills. Make available creative projects that can be done at home for extra credit. Give each child a chance to show his or her strengths.


“More Than a Living: Teaching in an Urban School” in Teaching Music, February 2004.

Teaching Music in the Urban Classroom, Vol. 1 and 2, (MENC/Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2006)—Read excerpts from an informal survey of students on motivation in McAnally’s chapter, “Motivating Urban Music Students,” p. 107.

Elizabeth Ann McAnally teaches at Wilson Middle School in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In addition to writing “Motivating Urban Music Students” in Teaching Music in the Urban Classroom: A Guide to Survival, Success, and Reform, she is writing a new book, Middle School General Music: The Best Part of Your Day!

–Linda C. Brown, September 9, 2009, © National Association for Music Education (