Saturday, November 17, 2012

A Motivating Pass Off System

On second thought, yes!

In my first year of teaching I rarely used playing tests for beginners. I mostly did it for grades, and sometimes only once per grading cycle. I didn't understand how important it could be for motivation. Instead I wanted to use every moment of class time to learn new lines, and move as quickly through the book as we could, battling classroom management problems along the way. All of the good beginner teachers I know regularly have their students play for a grade. Over the summer I discovered a music pass off system that, it turns out, has worked wonders for student motivation, leading to students being more on task in class and an explosion of practicing outside of class. If you are like I was then, I hope this will encourage you to adopt a regular individual performance grade. If you already do regular playing test grades, then this system might interest you as well!

Playing Tests or Pass Off Rounds?

There are a couple of different approaches I've seen to playing grades. The most common I know of is to pick a line or music from the book (or pass out one not in the book) and assign a date. Students probably have a rubric so they know what they're graded on. When test day comes, the teacher goes down the line. Then there are others who have their students pass off selected lines of music out of the book, and they don't get to move onto the next line until they've successfully performed the previous one. 

My first year I did the former, and admittedly not often enough for it to have a chance at being effective. It's better than nothing as far as motivation goes, but I have to wonder about the students who are behind the class and what they go through, if they feel they have no shot and are terrible at band. Who knows? But at least it holds them accountable. 

This year I'm using the other system. We pass off selected lines of music. By selected lines, this year we pretty much selected everything that wasn't a duet, rhythm line, or concert music. I figure it's better to have them progress in small, more achievable chunks as opposed to bigger steps like in Recorder Karate, which has the same premise and in which I saw a little less than half the class reach the end, while nearly a fourth stayed in the three note songs. 

The other thing I like about it is the differentiation and opportunities for individual instruction, and reaching each student where they're at. Some kids get it later than others, and when I forced everyone to fit on the same path I ended up with half the class who could keep up and the other half who were lost and never recovered. This year I can reach every student and help them deal with whatever it is they're not understanding before they finally get it and start catching up.

Pass Off Round Procedures

Everyone has a pass off sheet listing the lines with a place for my initials (or my colleague's) and the date. If we didn't check out books, we would just initial in the book. Anyway, at the start of the round we have everyone sit in the order of what line they're on. This was time consuming at first, but now they can do it pretty quickly. 

1. Say the page number and line
2. The entire class plays the line
3. Go down the line of students who need to play that line in rapid succession.
4. Students who successfully pass it off move up and get a free turn, a chance to pass off the next line.

As you move down the line you move up in the book. Each time you finish a student or group of students on the same line, you immediately move to the student or group on the next line. When that happens, you repeat the four steps. This helps keep the class by making everyone play regularly throughout the round while setting up the kids on that line for success. This also serves as review for the more advanced students. Eventually you work down the entire line. As you get to the more advanced students, the other students get the chance to be exposed to more difficult music, which sometimes can also be motivating to practice more - especially when other kids are able to play it!

The criteria is basically that they can't make more than a single mistake. This encourages them to recover and finish if they make a mistake, but at the same time keeps a pretty high standard. When a kid fails I can point out the issues. All notes, rhythms and musical symbols must be observed. But in addition to that I can also talk about cracked or unresponsive notes, or basically anything that detracts from the musical performance. Even with the kids who pass, if there is anything they could do better, I give them at least one to work on. 

Finally, the grade. We decided that three lines a week would be achievable for almost any kid, and that the advanced students would most likely pass off more than that. 1 line is a 70, 2 is an 85, 3 is a 100. We started with three pass off rounds a week, but they can be time consuming so I'm dropping down to 1 or 2. If I only do one, I curve the grades for the week. 

Time is the main drawback. I'm not used to spending so much time evaluating individuals, but then again I'm not used to regular playing tests in general. Between the quick tips, group playing, and the allowance for kids who pass a line to try the next one, I need about a minute per student in the class. But I'll say this, the time I'm sacrificing has paid off in the form of motivation like I have never seen.

Pass Off Rewards

Our students are very aware of which line they're on. They also know what line their friends are on, and they want to either lead the pack, or at least keep up! I'll recap a couple of quick things from an earlier article, 10 Motivational Strategies for Beginners:

We intensified that sense of competition with Champions. The student in each class who has passed off the most lines earns the title of Champion for their class, and has a toy championship belt they can wear around school. Not only does this motivate the kids who "get it" to keep practicing, but it motivates the champions to work even harder! When someone wins the title we make a big deal out of it by playing "Olympic Fanfare and Theme" by John Williams as the class enters the room the next day before awarding the title to the student in front of the class. I say that because if a kid surpasses the champion, it usually happens during Tutorials or after school.

But to give every student something to strive for, we've implementing a karate belt system as well. Each time the student finishes a chapter in the book, they move up a color. We now have different colored yin yang posters on the wall which double as word walls (listing everything they learned in that chapter) where their names are clothes pinned onto the appropriate belt. I think I might also spend some money on respective colored ribbons they can decorate their instrument with so that there is something tangible in addition to being able to see where they (and everyone else) are at.

Passing off the next line becomes the short term practice goal. Earning higher colored Band Dojo belts and hopefully becoming a Champion become the long term goals! Individual short term and long term goals are proven motivation strategies. In our case, we're just trying to make the goals fun and worth while! 

All of this, the weekly pass off rounds, and related rewards, have worked out far better than I could've imagined. I rarely, if ever, had students practice outside of class in my first job. Here I get flooded nearly every day with 30-40 beginners during tutorials and 5-10 after school, a few of which are repeaters from Tutorials. These "practice parties" also double as something to duplicate the social aspect of band, which I couldn't really give them any other way. During these practice parties I walk around the band hall and listen to students pass off lines. Hanging out with friends and passing off more lines, even after they've made a 100 for the week, becomes added motivation for coming to the Band Hall outside of class.

Anyway, this was sort of two articles in one, wasn't it? I wanted to outline the pass off system we've started using, but the system by itself is not the full picture of why it has worked so well for us. If you're not regularly doing individual playing grades, do it! And if you can find something that goes beyond the fear of making a good grade into motivating them to reach higher levels of achievement, do that instead! 

Do you use individual performance grades? How do you do it? Please share your system in the comment section!

Thanks for reading, and until next time, good luck and take care!

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