Flipgrid – What’s New?

Flipgrid - What's New_August 1st was a day many teachers on social media were looking forward to – it was the day Flipgrid announced their new features for this school year! While I was not able to make the trek to Minneapolis for the release party (silly new puppy got in the way – at least he’s cute!) instead, I co-hosted a viewing party here in Northern Virginia.

Flipgrid did not disappoint! The new features are fantastic. From recording capabilities to security and everything in between. I look forward to trying a lot of new things this year. Here’s a recap of some of my favorites.


New recording features

You now can trim and add to your videos! If something goes wrong at the beginning or end of your video, no need to go back and re-record, you can trim those parts out! Then you can also add more content if needed.

Videos can also be shot in several sizes, optimized for your device, whether it is a desktop, square video, or full-size mobile screen. Also, you can flip between the front and back cameras on your device while shooting the video.

New privacy features

No more required passwords! Those were just a placeholder as the new features were configured. (Passwords are still an option, just not required.) Now when you set up your grid you have three options:  classroom/school, set up by student ID, or open to the public.

  • My Classroom or School – this grid is restricted to people within your email domain. It’s perfect for situations where all participants have (school) email addresses. You can also set this up with multiple domains (when collaborating with other schools.)

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  • Student ID – you set up or upload student IDs, and the grid is restricted to those participants. You can also print QR codes for younger students!

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  • PLC’s and Public – this is open to the public, but restricted to students 16 and older

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It’s now even easier to find and connect with GridPals! GridPals are like video pen-pals. Last year over 1500 classes were matched through the GridPals program, and this year I’m sure that number will grow exponentially. While I did not have any official GridPals last year, my students did connect with others around the world and it was an excellent experience for them. I can’t wait to do it again. If you want to learn more about GridPals, check out this “Adventure Passport” that GridPals creator Bonnie McClelland put together. It has everything you will need!

Other things I’m super excited about

It would be impossible for me to list all of the other things I am excited about, but here are a few that stand out at the moment.

  • You can now add multiple resources to a topic
  • You can add topic tips, as a short reminder to studentsScreen Shot 2018-08-13 at 11.53.53 AM
  • Students can now view the entire topic when on the recording screen
  • The teacher can add “vibes” to student videos. Vibes are short messages that will be visible to all at the top of a student’s video. A great way to showcase specific videos.

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  • Mixed Tapes – this feature becomes available in the fall and will allow you to mix up and loop your favorite grids!

How to use Flipgrid in music classes?

Previously I posted about five ways to use Flipgrid in Instrumental Music. Those ideas all still work, and I highly recommend them. Now with the new features, it is even easier to take Flipgrid to the next level.

  • Getting to know you – set up a topic for students (and teachers!) to get to know each other. This is a great way to learn about your student’s interests, prior experience, and even how to correctly pronounce their names! If you teach instrumental music, it might be a great time to have students play something so you can see and hear progress from the beginning to the end of the year. Jornea Armant Erwin provides some other beginning of the school year ideas here: Back To School
  • Concert shout-outs – give families the opportunity to record a “good luck” message before a concert or performance. Students will love hearing these messages, both before and after the big event.
  • Dress rehearsal – this would be especially valuable for any individual, solo and ensemble performances. Have students record a video of themselves playing the piece a week before the performance. Students can then critique their own videos and leave feedback for peers. I did this last year with students in our TED-Ed club, and plan to do it next year for our Spring Recital.
  • Collaborate! I can’t recommend this enough – find another school or class to collaborate with! Whether you share music that the whole class/ensemble is working on, or if you have individual students share music, or even pair kids up with a “practice buddy,” it’s worth it.  The students take pride, knowing other kids will hear their music. Last year my students collaborated with other band and orchestra students sharing holiday music, and we worked with third-grade classes in Chicago helping them learn to play the recorder. Both were great experiences!

Getting started

If you’ve never used Flipgrid before, now is the time! Go to www.flipgrid.com and sign-up for a (free) teacher account. From there, create your first grid! If you need some ideas, check out the Discovery Library for over 4,000 topic templates. They are searchable by subject and grade level, and should definitely spark some ideas. I’ve added my “How-to Videos” topic, “Holiday Music,” and several others. To use a template in the Discovery Library, select which grid you want to add it to and click Add. From there you can customize the topic however you would like!

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I encourage you to check out Flipgrid this school year if you haven’t already. There are so many uses; you won’t regret it! And feel free to reach out if there is anything I can do to help you get started. I fully expect as the year progresses to find even more fun uses for this great tool.


Using Flipgrid in Instrumental Music 

The Qualities of an Empowered Music Student

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LearnLAP – With a Musical Twist

I want them to take ownership, to set goals, and to work towards achieving them. This is one of the most important things we can do for our students. 

LearnLAP music (1)It’s no secret that I love to read. I usually have several books going at once, and even blogged about some of my favorite books here: What am I Reading?  One of the books on my “to-read this summer” list was Learn Like a Pirate by Paul Solarz. The author was conducting a book study on Twitter, and it seemed like a great reason to start.

Little did I know, PIRATE is an acronym! This was the first of the “Pirate” books I’ve read from Dave Burgess Consulting, but it definitely won’t be the last. The author’s quest towards a student-centered classroom was inspiring, and the PIRATE acronym perfectly fits what I am looking for in my teaching. I may even continue the pirate-theme throughout the year!

When looking closely at what PIRATE stands for, it makes a lot of sense in a music classroom. Here are some of my thoughts and plans for implementation this school year.

P – Peer Collaboration

IMG_3448 (1)Students must have the opportunity to learn with and from their peers. Learning is social, and kids are social. The two go very well together. In the past, I have given students the option of practicing alone or with a partner, but one thing I plan to modify is a better explanation of how partner practice should look. Paul Solarz also talked about having “responsibility partners.” Students who were responsibility partners would sit together and bounce ideas off each other, but they were responsible for their own work. They would also hold each other accountable. In instrumental music, I could see this working well during practice time regardless of if students are practicing the same material. Just having someone specific to give feedback, answer questions, and check progress might be beneficial. Maybe the students could change responsibility partners each quarter?

I – Improvement Focus vs. Grade Focus

YES! Improvement, rather than grades, is exactly how I want my students to think! The goal is to improve throughout the year. Last year I began using learning target (skills) assessments with my 5th-grade band and orchestra students. Students chose how many learning targets to focus on each quarter, and had options in how to show mastery of each skill. It was a great start on the personalized learning journey but still needs some tweaking. To continue towards having the focus be on improvement, I plan to start the year by having students fill out a “learning target inventory,” documenting how they feel about each skill – already mastered, somewhat familiar, not at all familiar. The students will complete an inventory at the end of every quarter, with the idea that they will see growth every quarter. Even if a skill is not mastered yet, knowing that it is a work in progress should help them see the improvement better.

When focusing on improvement, feedback (from both the teacher and peers) is essential. Paul mentioned teaching students how to give “quality boosters” as peer feedback. The students would first say, “I am going to give you a quality booster.” Next, they would give a specific compliment and follow that with a suggestion. Solarz recommends the suggestion be a question, rather than a statement. Doing this will make it seem less critical. I love this idea and definitely plan to use it.

R – Responsibility

Paul talks a lot about how the students run his classroom. He trains them to handle materials, schedule, and other daily tasks. Some are assigned jobs, while others anyone may be completed by any student. He also talks about the importance of rituals in the classroom, so there is no question about what needs to happen. I have thought about adding more jobs in my class. For the second half of last year, 5th graders had the opportunity to be “guest tweeters” during band and orchestra rehearsal. Two students were selected each day for this honor. They would be responsible for capturing our learning and composing a tweet which I would then post. I think other jobs could be added, such as a “librarian” to keep the books and music orderly, “tech support” to help students with iPad issues, or “supply chief” to distribute materials. I’ll have to brainstorm more, but I think some of these could work out – and be helpful! Someone on Facebook recently shared a quote by well-known conductor H. Robert Reynolds: “Only do what only you can do.” Meaning, if I am the only one in the classroom capable of doing something (conducting the band for example), that is what I should do. Anyone is capable of distributing music or straightening the chairs, so give those responsibilities to someone else.

It is important that students are responsible for their learning, and I like this idea too. Paul talked about a shared Google Doc where students would take turns writing summaries of a book they were reading. I could see something like this being useful for the pieces we work on in band and orchestra. A shared Google Doc where students could do their own “score study,” identifying challenges in the piece, offering suggestions, writing rehearsal recaps, etc. It could be included in a HyperDoc along with other relevant information. I plan to explore this idea more.

A – Active Learning

Active learning seems simple at first. As music teachers, most of us strive to have our students actively make music in class. This chapter did, however, make me contemplate activities that could be student-led and the incorporation of project-based learning. This is a good reminder to have students lead mini-lessons, warm-ups, and similar activities. That way students are not only making music but they are owning the process too.

T – Twentieth Century Skills Focus

Paul presents a comprehensive list of twentieth-century skills that make perfect sense for incorporation in the classroom. He divided these skills into ten categories:

  • Communication and collaboration
  • Creativity and innovation
  • Critical thinking and problem solving
  • Reflection and awareness
  • Flexibility and adaptability
  • Initiative and self-direction
  • Social and cross-cultural skills
  • Productivity and accountability
  • Leadership and responsibility
  • Information literacy

It’s an impressive list! While none are directly music related, I think anyone would agree with the value of all categories. I feel like most are already somewhat present in my classroom. One I want to focus on this year is reflection and awareness. I think more attention to reflection will help students become more purposeful in their practicing and critical in deciding when they consider a skill “mastered.” Teaching students to better reflect on their work and progress will be very valuable for them, especially since the focus for the year is on improvement (rather than grades). Many of the other twentieth-century skills will come naturally as the year progresses.

“For students to make constant improvements to their actions and accomplishments, they need to learn how to analyze themselves and each other, identify weak areas, and make plans to improve.” Paul Solarz, Learn Like a Pirate

E – Empowerment

If the other elements are in place, student empowerment will follow. When students are empowered, they own the learning process. Paul talked about things like Makerspace and Passion Projects, as both give students these opportunities. Last year the 5th-graders completed “Mozart Minutes” projects (our version of a genius hour) and I plan to continue that in some way this year as well. I work hard to empower my students. I want them to take ownership, to set goals, and to work towards achieving them. This is one of the most important things we can do for our students.

“When teachers empower students, the result is a higher enjoyment of learning, which leads to more motivation to work hard, which often leads to stronger achievement in class.” Paul Solarz, Learn Like a Pirate

I genuinely love the idea of my students learning like pirates this year! I think by focusing on the seven elements presented in the book we will be on the right track to have a student-centered classroom with empowered learners. There are no drastic changes required, and honestly, most ideas were things I was working towards anyway. Pulling everything together with “PIRATE” is just a way to think about it in one complete package. It should be a fun adventure!



The Qualities of an Empowered Music Student

Inquiry & Mozart Minutes


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Note: This post contains Amazon affiliate links. If you click on these links and buy, I will receive a small commission at no expense to you. The price of the books is the same whether you use my link or not. Think of it as a way to support Off the Beaten Path financially without spending extra cash. Thanks for your support!

Inquiry & Mozart Minutes

The authentic questions they were asking (and finding answers to) were inspiring, and the students were completely engaged in the learning process.

inquiry & mozart minutes (2)In May I wrote about a project I was doing with the 5th-grade band and orchestra students that we called “Mozart Minutes.” Mozart Minutes was essentially our version of a Genius Hour, where students could create their own projects relating to music. I neglected to do a follow-up post, which I realized this week while participating in an Inquiry Mindset book study. This post is going to be a combination -part Inquiry Mindset reflection, and part Mozart Minutes recap!

Inquiry Mindset

Trevor Mackenzie and Rebecca Bathurst-Hunt wrote Inquiry Mindset as a follow-up to Trevor’s book, Dive into Inquiry. After reading Dive into Inquiry last summer, I knew I needed to add an inquiry component into my instrumental music curriculum.

The book begins by describing the characteristics of an inquiry teacher and the reasons you should incorporate inquiry into the classroom. I have to say: I LOVE the sketchnotes throughout the book! The sketchnote “10 Reasons to use Inquiry-based learning” perfectly describes what we should all want for our students. It lines up with why I wanted to do an inquiry project and why I think this type of learning is valuable in a music classroom.

  • Nurture students passions and talents – While all students at my school are required to play a band or orchestra instrument, I understand band and orchestra might not be their first passion in music. I wanted students to have the opportunity to showcase their talents, be it singing, a different instrument, composition, or any other means of musical expression.
  • Empower student voice and honor student choice – This was my motto for the school year! Give students a voice and a choice; they will take ownership, get leadership opportunities, and ultimately it becomes a more powerful learning experience.
  • Increase motivation and engagement – A no-brainer! I always want students to be motivated and engaged in my classroom.
  • Foster curiosity and a love for learning – As I mentioned before, I understand that band and orchestra might not be every student’s first choice for music. If I can create an environment where students love to learn, they can hopefully transfer that love and curiosity to music that is their passion.
  • Teach grit, perseverance, growth mindset, and self-regulation – I want students to gain skills that will stay with them for life. Learning to play a musical instrument is not easy, and neither is completing an independent or inquiry project. Students must learn to stick with things, even when the going gets tough.
  • Enable students to take ownership over their own learning, and to reach their goals – Throughout the year as we moved towards the inquiry project, students were asked to set goals and make choices about their learning. I think it’s important for students to have this opportunity as it makes their learning even more meaningful.

Chapter 3 discusses the inquiry cycle, and this is one area I would like to improve upon for next year. Trevor and Rebecca detail several steps that take place before the actual research/work on the final product. These steps include identifying an essential question, brainstorming additional questions and subtopics, relating to prior knowledge, and determining what to research. I think the next time I have students complete a Mozart Minutes project, I will have them spend more time preparing before the project begins. While I had students brainstorm project ideas and formulate plans for their projects, it still felt rushed. In the future, helping students construct their essential questions, identify their additional questions, and relate it all to what they already know, should make the process go more smoothly.


Another great sketchnote found in chapter 4 describes the different types of student inquiry. The Mozart Minutes project is a free inquiry. “Types of Student Inquiry” is my favorite sketchnotes from the book, as I love the detail in each section of the pool. The nuance in what the students are doing, what the teacher is doing and where, and the tools students use is excellent. The key to being successful with inquiry is starting in the shallow end of the pool. This year some things in my classes included a gradual release of control, but they were not necessarily inquiry based. I would like to be more deliberate about including inquiry activities at the beginning of the year to help students become more successful later. For example, when thinking about musical expression, move from the teacher making musical decisions and leading students to determine purpose, to allowing students to make musical decisions and having to defend their choices. While I realize this is not typical inquiry, questions are being formulated and answered. What happens if we slow down here? Why would the composer put a crescendo there? If we want to build tension, what should we do? This is one way I plan to work through the inquiry pool next year, and hopefully, it will help students become more confident when it comes to asking questions. I will continue brainstorming additional ways to do this over the summer.

Mozart Minutes Reflection

When it comes to the actual Mozart Minutes project, I would say it was a success. Students were asked to have a final digital product to share – video, slideshow, picture, etc. – that we compiled into a Google Slideshow the entire grade could view. Finally, students participated in a grade-wide gallery walk.  Half of the students stood on the perimeter of the gym with their presentations, while the other half walked around to view presentations. The groups then switched roles. It was chaotic, to say the least (96 students will do that!) but given the circumstances of available time and space, this was what worked. Next year I would like to make time for students to give “almost done” presentations in small groups. This will make the gallery walk day more comfortable.

There was a wide variety of projects, as well as a wide variety of effort put into them. Some students did not complete their projects, for many reasons, and some went above and beyond expectations. One problem we ran into had to do with technology. Halfway through the project timeframe students were told iPads could not be taken home anymore (due to testing). Even though students knew from the beginning that projects were to be completed during class time, this still impacted many of them. We will consider timing in that respect for next year. Some of the final projects were:

  • researching musicians or composers
  • learning how specific instruments are made
  • composing music
  • building an instrument
  • learning to play new songs on instruments
  • writing (and filming) a musical
  • filming a talk show, interviewing (student) musicians
  • researching lesser-known female composers and musicians
  • creating a tutorial video series

I loved the creativity! One of my favorite moments was when a group of students was investigating string instruments – they had an iPad, a violin, rubber bands, cardboard, and a few other items. They were trying to determine what factors impacted the sound of string instruments. They researched and experimented with materials, string length, shape, bridge, and more. The authentic questions they were asking (and finding answers to) were inspiring, and the students were completely engaged in the learning process. Another student wanted to learn about how composers come up with movie theme songs. He researched movie music, then came up with a list of questions that we emailed (thanks to my awesome PLN!) to someone who writes music for movie trailers! (David James Rosen – super nice guy!) David responded, and my student got some great information. My favorite quote from David was this: “Usually it’s a lot of messing around until I find the thing that feels right; I have to play lots of wrong things before I find the right thing.”

Following the gallery walk, students completed an evaluation of the Mozart Minutes project. The majority enjoyed it and agreed next year’s 5th-graders should also experience the same type of project. Most asked for more time, and the ability to take their iPads home throughout. Some students did not enjoy their topics and would have rathered play their instruments for five weeks. I’ll admit, this part was difficult for me too. The classroom was surprisingly quiet! (When there are typically 6-8 students playing different things on their instruments at the same time, you get used to it being loud!) It was hard for me knowing how many students were not playing their instruments during that time because they had chosen something else for the project. I know that’s the point, students can choose their musical passion, it’s just something I will have to consider for next year. Also, after the gallery walk I found this blog post by John Spencer: The 5 Biggest Mistakes I Made With Genius Hour and How I Fixed Them. I plan to read this several times over the next few months in preparation for next time!

At the end of the day, the Mozart Minutes project was a success. Thanks to both Dive into Inquiry and Inquiry Mindset I have some great ideas to incorporate next year in an attempt to help students find even more success in the project. I think there is so much value in giving students this opportunity, and even with my sadness over the lack of instrument playing, this is project worth refining. I hope others will consider how they too can infuse inquiry into their music classes and empower students to own their learning in this way.

Links for further reading:

Mozart Minutes

A Place For Inquiry in the Arts

Enjoy what you have just read? Please consider following my blog! You will get an email notification when new posts are published. Email addresses will not be shared or distributed.

Note: Links to these books are Amazon affiliate links. If you click on these links and buy, I will receive a small commission at no expense to you. The price of the books is the same whether you use my link or not. Think of it as a way to support Off the Beaten Path financially without spending extra cash. Thanks for your support!

Personalized Learning – a Year in Review

Personalized Learning - A Year In Review (1)Now that the year is over I have been trying to analyze how things went and begin plans for next year. I had several goals, as there were many new things I wanted to try. Personalized learning was at the center of everything, and I wrote about it here several times. If you haven’t read my other posts about personalized learning, check them out first: Personalized Learning: Part 1Personalized Learning: Part 2Personalized Learning: Part 3, How it Works.

Overall, introducing personalized learning strategies was great. So much that I will definitely continue next year. Many students far exceeded my expectations; they loved having the opportunity to move at their own paces, pushing themselves, and were pleased with the results. Others progressed at what I would have considered a “typical” 5th-grade pace but still seemed to enjoy the freedom and having choices. Then there were the stragglers. The students who did nothing. Nothing probably isn’t a fair term. When prepared, they played their instruments during lessons, participated in rehearsals, and attended concerts. But they did not turn in any (or at least very very few) assignments. It had nothing to do with a lack of understanding of the skills. They just didn’t do it. Or maybe they turned in a video, but it wasn’t related to or contained no description of the skill mastered. Regardless of being reminded countless times to do so. This was frustrating, to say the least.

“Personalized learning helps learners become intrinsically motivated to learn, so they own and drive their learning to become self-directed, independant learners.” Barbara Bray & Kathleen McClaskey, How to Personalize Learning 

I used personalized learning for my school district required SMART goal, which worked out well since tracking of data was necessary. My SMART goal was for all students to demonstrate growth throughout the school year by setting their own goals and working towards mastery of a pre-determined set of learning targets. Here are the results of the data produced during the first three grade periods:

  • All students started at a baseline of zero, with no learning targets completed. By the end of the third quarter, 97% of students had completed at least 1, and 85% completed 3 or more (up to a possible total of 17).
  • I would consider the mastery of the first 10 learning targets to be typical of 5th-grade students; however, 35% of the students exceeded that number. Only 3% of students are identified gifted in instrumental music.
  • Several students each quarter submitted the correct number of videos to achieve their goal but did not have the skill(s) mastered. I will need to work on finding additional ways to help students determine if a skill is mastered.

Additional findings that are not data related that I observed throughout the year:

  • Students who used the Essential Elements Interactive app consistently were more successful in mastering their learning target skills.
  • Most students tended to use the suggested songs to show mastery but seemed to appreciate having options. Students were most likely to use the “student choice” option around holidays when I distributed fun music, such as Christmas or Halloween songs. I may try to find additional music like this for next year.
  • Some students completed very few (or zero) learning target videos, but I know this does not accurately reflect their skill levels. This is especially upsetting since they were given class time to work on and record their videos. I need to reflect on if I should provide options in addition to video in the future, and how to best facilitate this.

When surveyed at the end of the year, most students seemed to enjoy instrumental music – you may remember, all 4th and 5th-grade students in my school are required to participate in either band or orchestra, so this is a good thing! When asked about their favorite thing, most named the winter and spring concerts. Many also said they liked having choices and working independently. When asked what they would suggest being done differently for next year’s 5th-graders, most said more modern, or popular songs. That is to be expected. Several said no changes were necessary. One was not happy with the school year. That student said, “you should engage them more and actually teach them instead of making them learn it themselves.” Wow! I’m glad she was honest! Ironically, that was one of the higher performing students, who participated in the county Honors Band and is identified gifted in music. I guess I can’t please everyone.

I think what makes me the happiest is the final question on the evaluation asked students if they will continue to play their instruments in middle school. 43% plan to continue, either playing their current instrument or a different one! I wish I had statistics from last year, but I feel that this is a definite increase.

That leads me to some thoughts for next year, and things that I would like to try.

  • Allowing students to play assignments for me in person, instead of only accepting video assignments. Students would still need to articulate the mastered skill though; I think that is important.
  • Include non-playing skills. I felt that students lacked some vocabulary knowledge and may have benefitted from more time spent on this as well as note reading.
  • Have a fun “theme” for the year, like going on a journey, adventure, or something similar. This might be considered gamification. I will research it more this summer.
  • Come up with a better task for students who forget their instruments for lessons and rehearsals.
  • Understanding that not all students are motivated in the same way, (one reason for personalized learning!) I need to find ways to help the “straggler” students feel motivated to learn.

Next year I will be participating in a “Personalized Learning Expedition Design Team” in my county. There are 50 of us who will be working together throughout the school year to implement personalized learning strategies in our classrooms. I look forward to having a team to consult with as this experiment continues. I believe it is worthwhile, and something I hope more instrumental music teachers will consider!

What am I Reading?

What am I Reading_ (1)It should come as no surprise; I am someone who loves to read. Even as a kid I would often get in trouble for reading well past bed-time. Now I usually have more than one book in progress at a time, especially since I also discovered the world of audiobooks! I try to read a mix of “fun” books and “teacher” books, and this year I read some great teacher books. While none of them were directly related to teaching music, I still found a lot of value in everything I learned.

If you are looking for something to read this summer that will stretch your thinking, here are a few of my favorites from this year:

The Innovator’s Mindset: Empower Learning, Unleash Talent, and Lead a Culture of Creativity by George Couros

ChangeThe Innovator’s Mindset is the perfect starting point for why we should look beyond the “traditional” means of education to find what will truly benefit learners. George Couros talks about the need to move past student compliance, and how being innovative teachers can help us encourage innovative students.

Why is this important for music teachers? If we want our students to be musical and creative, we may need to take a step back and try something different. This book will encourage you to do just that.

Empower: What Happens When Students Own Their Learning by John Spencer and A.J. Juliani

empowerIn Empower, John Spencer and A.J. Juliani discuss the importance of empowering students to own their learning experiences. When students are empowered, the learning is more meaningful and long-lasting.

Why is this important for music teachers?  Encouraging students to become independent musicians is something we should all strive for.  Not only does this help students now, but also in the future as they (hopefully) become life-long musicians and life-long learners.

Social LEADia: Moving Student from Digital Citizenship to Digital Leadership by Jennifer Casa-Todd

social leadiaThe book, Social LEADia, defines the term “digital leadership” and explains why it is an essential trait for students to have. Jennifer Casa-Todd gives examples of what digital leadership can look like in schools, and suggestions on how to incorporate it into your situations.

Why is this important for music teachers? Many reasons! The music room can be one of the most visible (and audible?) places in a school building. We teach our students about the importance of sharing our music. A great way to do both is through social media. This book gives many ideas for how to include students in this process and why it is valuable to do so.

Learner Centered Innovation by Katie Martin

Learner Centered InnovationLearner Centered Innovation is what it sounds like: how to change your classroom to put learners at the center. Katie Martin discusses what we need to do for students and also what we need to do for ourselves as teachers to make this happen. I hope to re-read this book over the summer.

Why is this important for music teachers? The world is changing, and we need to change along with it! This book covers relationships, feedback, classroom culture, learning how to learn – things that music teachers live on a daily basis. The question Katie makes you ask is, are we doing these things in ways that best benefit the students? If not, how can we change?

What’s next?

I have quite a stack of books ready to go for summer. Here are a couple I am especially excited about:

  • Inquiry Mindset, by Trevor Mackenzie & Rebecca Bathurst-Hunt – I read Trevor’s first book, Dive into Inquiry, and loved it. Inquiry Mindset is supposed to be similar, how to infuse curiosity and inquiry into your classroom, but geared towards elementary students.
  • Teach Like a Pirate, by Dave Burgess – I’m excited to read my first of the pirate books! This one is about increasing student engagement and teacher creativity.
  • Maestro: A Surprising Story about Leading by Listening, by Roger Nierenberg – Finally, a music book! This book is actually about leadership as it investigates the relationship between an orchestra and its conductor.

What about you? Have you read any of these books? I would love to know what you thought! What other “must reads” are out there to add to the (always growing!) list for this summer? Please share. The only thing better than reading a book is reading a book with friends!


Note: Links to these books are Amazon affiliate links. If you click on these links and buy, I will receive a small commission at no expense to you. The price for the books is the same whether you use my link or not. Think of it as a way to support Off the Beaten Path financially without spending extra cash. Thanks for your support!


Enjoy what you have just read? Please consider following my blog! You will get an email notification when new posts are published. Email addresses will not be shared or distributed.


Mozart Minutes

Genius Hour is an opportunity for students to work on something that interests them, that they are passionate about, or that they want to learn.

Mozart MinutesI started the school year with several goals and changes I wanted to make in my music program. One of them was to incorporate a student-directed, or Genius Hour, type project. I had heard about Genius Hour several years ago, but it wasn’t until I read Amy Rever’s blog, The Noisy Room Down the Hall, that I believed it was possible in music! Amy is now in year three doing Genius Hour with her middle school band students and it’s quite inspiring. Essentially, Genius Hour is an opportunity for students to work on something that interests them, that they are passionate about, or that they want to learn. In school, students are often limited to content the teacher (or standards) dictate. But with Genius Hour, students get to choose their path. If you are not familiar with Genius Hour, I highly recommend John Spencer’s video, “What is Genius Hour?”  It provides an excellent introduction.

Initially, I planned to have 5th-grade students (second-year players) come up with and carry out their own performance opportunity. They would pick the venue or event, choose and prepare the music, and do the performance. In the end, I decided not to go this route. After observing the students this year it didn’t feel right, and I didn’t know how I would manage that type of project for 96 students. So instead I decided to keep it more open-ended and let students design their own projects. I introduced the project we are calling “Mozart Minutes” to the students by first showing another one of John Spencer’s video, “You Get to Have Your Own Genius Hour.”  I told students they would have the opportunity to create their own projects – learn whatever they wanted to learn or do whatever they wanted to do – as long as it related to music. We spent time in class brainstorming, and I asked students to come up with a list of ideas using Lee Araoz’s framework, “Four Pathways to Genius.”  From there, students were asked to narrow down their list to one great idea. The pathways were more helpful to some students than others. Many didn’t understand that the pathways were to help them come up with ideas and that their final plan did not have to incorporate all four categories! I will need to explain that better in the future. Pathways to genius

The students have been given four weeks to work on their projects during band and orchestra lessons (30-minutes each) plus 10-minutes each Friday during chorus to reflect on the week’s progress. They have also had some time to work during vocal music, and of course at home, if they choose. As you would expect, some students have been more successful than others. Some of the projects have been very creative though! Here is a sample of some of their ideas:

  • Composing a song
  • Learning to play new songs
  • Researching the history of an instrument or composer
  • Learning about how instruments are made
  • Creating background music for video games
  • Creating a talk-show about musicians
  • Building an instrument
  • Making tutorial videos to help younger students

I enjoy watching students and their various approaches. For example, some of the composers start with their instruments, while others begin with paper and pencil. Some are digging into research and creating Google Slideshows, while others are drawing or hand-writing what they learn. A few students have reached out (with my help) to various experts, and some even got responses!

The idea of a Genius Hour in music fits into something I’ve become quite passionate about, and that is empowering music students.  Genius Hour fits almost all of the essential qualities! Students have voice and choice, they get to ask questions, they are creating, and they own the learning process. Isn’t this what we want for our students? Next week we will have a gallery walk showcase for students to share what they learned or created. I am very excited to report back the results!


Links for further reading:

Inquiry and Mozart Minutes (a Mozart Minutes recap)

The Qualities of an Empowered Music Student

10 Reasons to Pilot a Genius Hour This Year, by John Spencer

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Voice and Choice: It Starts With the Little Things

It starts with a small shift. Something you can implement tomorrow. 

Voice and ChoiceI recently had a conversation with someone about what “voice and choice” looks like in an instrumental music classroom. I think their assumption was that incorporating student voice and choice was a massive change, something completely different. While a lot of the mindset behind voice and choice does stray far from traditional models of teaching, I don’t think it needs to begin with monumental changes. As Joy Kirr talks about in her book, Shift This!, it starts with a small shift. Something you can implement tomorrow.

One example of a small shift in my band and orchestra classes has to do with skills. Instead of focusing on what songs the beginners learn, focus on the skills. When you might typically require students to master a certain song in the lesson book, figure out the underlying skill that is important and make that skill the requirement. This gives students options in what to practice – and many times results in them playing more than they would have if only one song were assigned! For example, when I want my trumpet players to practice songs with the new note A, it doesn’t matter if they practice A in “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” or “Jolly Old St. Nicholas,” so why not give them a choice in which to work on? When students have a choice their learning becomes more meaningful.

Another small, but effective shift, comes during warm-ups. In beginning orchestra, we do bow warm-ups at the start of every class. When it got to the point that the students were very familiar with the warm-ups, I started inviting 1-2 students to lead each day. They were instructed to pretend the class was learning for the first time. This accomplishes so many things! The student leaders get to share their voices and decide what warm-ups to do. I can hear the student leaders verbalize details of bowing technique (showing me how well they understand it) and the rest of the class suddenly starts to pay closer attention because their peers are standing in front of the room.

When looking for ways to increase student voice and choice, first look at the things you are already doing. Find ways to give students options within those things. Even better, ask students for their suggestions! The beginning steps in this process don’t have to be big; they have to be effective. I think you’ll find once you start incorporating small choices and giving students small opportunities to share their voices it will become easier. Eventually, you will feel more confident taking more significant risks. It’s from these significant risks that you gain the possibility of finding big reward.

Links for further reading:

The Qualities of an Empowered Music Student

Personalized Learning, Part 1

How I Increased Voice and Choice in My Music Classes, and Why I’ll Never Look Back

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Empowered Music Students Create as Well as Consume

When students create musical experiences, they own the process much more then if only consuming music.

Have you ever taken time to think about everything you consume throughout a day? I’m not referring to food, but information. On a daily basis, I consume information from so many sources: radio, social media, blogs, podcasts, television, books, YouTube, email and more. Combine that with the music I consume, and the list grows: through Spotify, music my ensembles are learning, music I’m practicing, music I’m studying, etc. Just as the saying goes, “you are what you eat,” the same is true about the information, and music, we consume. As music teachers, one of our jobs is to ensure our students are exposed to (consume) high-quality music. Most of us spend a significant amount of time making this happen! One thing we often forget, while helping students become discerning consumers they must also have time to create.

Create and Consume

This act of creating is one of the qualities of an empowered music student. As Kathryn Finch and I discussed in our previous post, “The Qualities of an Empowered Music Student,” it is important that music students create as well as consume when in the music classroom. Luckily there are numerous ways this can happen. 

The most obvious thing is to have students create their own music. This can be done through a simple improvisation activity, or a more complex music composition unit. With improvisation, depending on the age of your students you may want to ease into this process gradually. Begin by having the students echo rhythmic or melodic patterns that you play. Then, using a specific rhythm or pitch set, have students respond to what you play (as a group) with something different. It will sound chaotic, but it gives students the chance to try something new in a low-risk situation. Once students are comfortable with this, begin having volunteers respond to your pattern individually. You can gradually increase the complexity of these exercises as it is appropriate for your students. 

Music composition is another excellent way for students to create. Personally, I feel as soon as students can read music, they are ready to write music! Composition projects can look like any number of things, again, depending on the age and ability of your students. This year I tried something new with my first-year instrumentalists and incorporated a design thinking process called the LAUNCH Cycle into our projects. Instead of beginning with a set of criteria for their compositions, students began by thinking about the purpose of their compositions, and how they could write something to fulfill that purpose. This document explains the details of the project: Music Composition Project – Using the LAUNCH Cycle.  Composition projects do not have to be this involved though; anything that gives students the opportunity to write music is worthwhile.

Now that digital media and 1:1 devices are so prevalent it is very easy to find tutorial videos, or “how-to” videos for just about anything. On more than one occasion I have assigned videos to students who needed reminders to watch at home, an additional explanation or are ready to learn more advanced concepts. This year I also had students create some of these videos! Having students think through the process of teaching others is powerful. For example, I had first-year string students create videos teaching how to hold a violin bow properly. Students were able to demonstrate their learning and show a deeper understanding of the skills. They enjoyed being the experts, and I had a means of formative assessment. Tools like Flipgrid make this process of video creation very easy, though I’m sure other tools could be used as well.

How many of us have posters in our classrooms, detailing musical notation, terms or other types of information? I would guess most teachers do. But how many of us have given students the opportunity to create these posters, or at least determine what is displayed and where? Probably not as many. If we are displaying things in the classroom to help students (information they will be consuming), shouldn’t the students have some say in what goes on the walls? This month I took a suggestion from Joy Kirr’s book, Shift This!, and asked for student volunteers to decorate one of my bulletin boards. I gave them complete control and had no idea what to expect – I imagined random pictures and music notes. I sure was wrong! Instead, the boys created an interactive board, containing definitions other students might struggle with, practice suggestions, and links to videos for more help! WOW! I gave them the opportunity to create something for our classroom, and they did a great job.

Finally, think about allowing students to create some of their own opportunities. Maybe one week instead of giving a specific practice assignment, encourage students to find performance opportunities for themselves. They could play for family members, neighbors, at church – or whatever creative venues they can come up with! Do you have a group of students who have mastered their concert pieces several weeks in advance? Try giving those students the opportunity to find and prepare a chamber piece on their own to also perform at the concert. Require the students to make all of the creative decisions regarding the performance of their piece. There are many more opportunities students could create, but hopefully, this sparks some ideas.

Next time you are planning a lesson, rehearsal, or unit, take a minute to think about what the students are consuming and what they are creating. Ideally, you should have a mix of both. Students can only create quality music if they have been exposed to and have consumed high-quality music.

“There’s an ongoing cycle of critical consuming, inspiration, and creative work.” John Spencer & A.J. Julinai, Empower

If you are not currently incorporating creative opportunities for your students, consider trying it. The effort spent is well worth it. When students create musical experiences, they own the process much more then if only consuming music. And this is what helps lead to empowered music students.


Links for Further Reading:

The Qualities of an Empowered Music Student

How I Increased Voice and Choice in My Music Classes, and Why I’ll Never Look Back




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Five Ideas to Try After a Concert

5 Ideas to Try After a ConcertThis is the time of year where I start seeing posts on social media about what to do after the concert, what to do during testing, and even, what to do when your students aren’t allowed to play because of noise during testing! So, whether any of these scenarios resonate with you, or if you are looking for something different to try, here are five ideas that will motivate learners, tap into creativity, and help you move towards a more learner-centered environment.


Reflecting is an invaluable tool that we do not use enough – with our students or as teachers – but the fact is, it’s essential for a learner-centered environment. If reflecting is not already a part of your routine, following a concert or performance is a great time to try it. Students should reflect not only on their performance but also on their preparations leading up to it and how it will impact their future learning. This process of “thinking about thinking” is known as metacognition. It allows students to take their learning to the next level.

If your students are new to reflection, you might want to begin with sentence starters to as guidance. “I was good at_____.” “Next time I might_____.” “I still struggle with______.” You could also try providing students with graphic organizers such as a PMI chart: Plus, Minus, and Interesting. Students are instructed to fill in items for each category.  Remember – when reflecting, the process is as important as the product.

“We do not learn from experience…we learn from reflecting on experience.” John Dewey

Student Leaders

For many teachers, especially those with ensembles, the majority of our rehearsal time is teacher directed. After a concert is a great time to try giving students the opportunity to stand in front of the ensemble. I have had students conduct our performance pieces, run warm-ups, teach new skills, or introduce lines from the method book. And they love it! Students should get the opportunity to have their voices heard, and allowing them time in front of the ensemble gives them a new appreciation for how an ensemble works outside of their sections.



The Makerspace movement has been finding its way into classrooms around the world, but how many music teachers have tried it? A Makerspace project is an excellent choice for a day when playing instruments is not an option. For those that are new to the Makerspace concept, it is primarily intended for students to create, invent, and learn. Some Makerspaces are very involved, including things like 3D printers, electronics, and computer software. Others are more simple and contain found objects and art supplies, such as cardboard tubes, rubber bands, string, etc. This was the type I created for my students for a Makerspace Instrument Challenge. Their task was to create an instrument that could produce a sound. They were given 5 minutes to look at the materials and plan their instruments, 1 minute to “shop” for materials, and 10 minutes to create. I enjoyed watching the students work, and their creativity was evident throughout the project. Here are the project details, feel free to make a copy: Makerspace Instrument Challenge. I guarantee you will love the results! Pair this with an exploration of sound or instruments families to make it more cohesive unit.


I love having students work on composition projects. Composing is an essential part of being a musician. It’s also another way to build creativity and give students ownership of their music making. There are many different ways to do this. Here’s an example of a composition project for beginning and intermediate string players: Kimble Strings: Composition. This year I took my composition project another direction and incorporated a Design Thinking strategy, the LAUNCH Cycle, by John Spencer and A.J. Juliani. The finished products had some similarities to previous years, but using the LAUNCH Cycle, students started the process with empathy and conclude by receiving peer feedback and making revisions based on that feedback. It is definitely something I will try again. This document explains the details of the project: Music Composition Project – Using the LAUNCH Cycle.

Genius Hour

“Genius Hour is a movement that allows students to explore their own passions and encourages creativity in the classroom.” A.J. Juliani

To be completely honest, I have not tried this yet. But I plan on it soon – right after my concert! Genius Hour is an opportunity for students to work on something that interests them. Something they are passionate about, or something they wonder. In music, especially ensembles, students are usually working on music chosen by the director. With a genius hour project that is not the case. The students get to pick what they learn, research, and create. How can this work in music? With a little imagination and some planning. While this is probably the most complicated idea here, I think it could also be one of the most rewarding. Amy Rever, a middle school band director, has tried it with her students on more than one occasion and has great things to say on her blog, The Noisy Room Down the Hall. I think if you are ready to try something big, this is the perfect challenge!

I’d love to hear if you have done any of these things with your students, or if you decide to take the plunge and try one let me know how it goes! Don’t be afraid to try something new. Give the students choice, encourage them to be creative and take risks of their own! The results are worth it.


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The Qualities of an Empowered Music Student

Then ask yourself, what am I controlling that my students could do for themselves?

I am so excited to share this post, which I co-wrote with Kathryn Finch! 

Empowered Music Student

For a long time, our focus was on engaging the learners and making sure students were “actively engaged” in music making in my classroom. But more recently we have discovered that engagement is not enough. To make an impact and to optimize life-long learning, students must be empowered. The best explanation of the differences between engaged students and empowered students came from Bill Ferriter.

engage vs empower

Which brings us to the question, what does an empowered music student look like? This student

  • has a choice and a voice
  • asks questions (and then finds the answers)
  • is connected (to students and musicians inside and outside the classroom)
  • creates as well as consumes
  • owns the learning process

Has a choice  

Maybe that starts with lesson plans. When planning ask yourself, where can I offer more choice in this lesson? For example, in the elementary music room, students may learn to play classroom instruments with the proper technique by performing instruments during a sound story. Often, the specific words and instruments are pre-determined. But do they need to be? Read the sound story to your students and let them decide how and when instrument sounds would be appropriate. The impact is big. Students love the chance to choose and often perform better when it’s their idea and creation. Once you feel comfortable finding ways to offer more choice in a lesson, the next step is to lesson plan with students instead of planning for students. Take the plunge. Start a project in class and share that you aren’t positive what the next steps are or how long this project will take. Ask for student feedback to plan future music classes.

Has a voice

This could start with rehearsals. When an ensemble (classroom, choral, or instrumental) learns a piece of music, ask: How did we do? What did you notice? What areas should we work on next? This is a great way to make thinking visible. Ask students for the next steps.  Ask them for suggestions. When appropriate, ask someone to begin the piece when the group is ready. Allow students to lead and offer feedback so the activity transforms from being done to them into something they can mold and shape with their own ideas. It doesn’t have to stop there. Sometimes questions come up in discussion or rehearsal. How do we handle that? Do we lead the class back to the main objective because we have a pacing guide and future plans already made? Or do we run down a rabbit hole with them because a genuine, authentic question was asked? When students have a voice in the classroom, they believe their thoughts and opinions truly matter. Teachers who give students voice believe this too.  

Asks questions

Typically in education, the teacher asks the questions, and the students answer. What did you hear in that piece of music? Or, what symbol tells the musicians to get louder? Empowered learners have the opportunity to ask questions and then take it a step further, to find the answers. In a music industry class, students could learn various job opportunities by creating and managing their own bands. The students learn as they go what it takes to start a band and determine their next steps throughout this authentic process. No longer is the teacher the keeper of all information. Instead, the teacher must encourage students to ask questions and empower them to find the answers.  

Creates as well as consumes

We all consume books, movies, YouTube videos, etc. but do we all find a balance of creating as well? This creation could be as simple as improvising rhythmic or melodic ideas, or more complex by writing song melodies or lyrics. It also invites students to use their voice, make choices, and ask questions as they work through the process of creating something musical. As music teachers, we know the value of having our students consume high-quality music, but we must also encourage them to create their own high-quality music. When we create, we invest and share a little of ourselves with the world. We learn to take ownership of our music making. We make decisions and learn to handle bumps in the road. Creating is not only an important skill in music, but it is also a valuable skill in life.

Is connected

Music teachers know well the power of networking. It can be a lonely job at times, with no one else in a school who teaches music. So, we network and learn from others near and far, in person and online. Why wouldn’t we want those opportunities for our students? We strive to be the best for our kids, but we can’t be experts on everything. Nor should we have to be. With a little work behind the scenes on social media, we can invite an expert into our room, in person or through facetime. With the help of technology, we can connect classrooms so students can learn from their own peers around the world. It’s a powerful tool we shouldn’t overlook. Connecting students to musicians outside of the classroom makes the experience more authentic, and therefore more meaningful.

Owns the learning process

When students own their learning, it doesn’t mean they are given free-reign to do whatever they want. It means they are involved in the process and are charged to actively control their own learning. Students can tell you what they are learning and why it is important to them. Students have more questions they want to find answers to, and have determined their own next steps in the process. They are engaged and excited about their own learning. Students are not waiting for the teacher to lead the process, they own the process and look to the teacher for guidance and support.  

So, how do we as music teachers make a shift towards empowerment in the music classroom? Well, first things first. Remember that it’s a shift. It’s not something that happens overnight. Start by giving yourself permission to think about it. Then ask yourself, what am I controlling that my students could do for themselves? When we start to question why we do things, we begin to see opportunities for change.  


Links for Further Reading:

How I Increased Voice and Choice in My Music Classes, and Why I’ll Never Look Back


Next Steps for the Kindergarten Music Program

Learner Centered Innovation

Personalized Learning: Part 3, How it Works

How to Build a Recording Studio