After 40 years, I can still remember my first composition assignment. I was at music camp and we had an assignment for music theory class. I received a checklist (I do love checklists!) of items to include in my composition. Dutifully, I checked each item off the list, added the correct number of beats, etc, and stapled my check list on top of my work. The teacher graded my work and we moved on. With 40 years of experience and musicianship between that class and this blog, I can tell you I never audiated my piece, I couldn’t tell you how it sounded, and I experienced no creative or aesthetic experiences from the assignment.
With schools being asked to temporarily move instruction online, many students are being asked to utilize technology to complete assignments. For some students with differences and disabilities, this can create a host of barriers that music teachers may have unintentionally built into these assignments. Here are some guiding questions and tips for designing online projects to assist in the creation of joyful, musical, and student-centered composition experiences for all students:
Barriers to Accessibility
- Does the student have access to the technology at home?
- Does the student have the same level of assistance at home as they have at school?
- Does the specific app or software have accommodations that are appropriate and beneficial for the specific student you are considering?
- Are there ways to adapt or modify the assignment for the student that will meet objectives you have set for the class?
- Is the assignment understood by the student and does it interest them?
- Have you communicated individually with the student to ask how they think they could best accomplish the project and if it aligns with musical goals they have for themselves?
- Is this assignment musically meaningful and will it enhance their generative creativity and create the possibility the student will hold their project in high esteem?
Tips for Accommodations
- Size: Be sure the technology used is sized appropriately for the part of the body the student will use to manipulate it. Check the size of the mouse, keyboard, or other device that will be used by the student’s head, hand, feet, elbow, or other body part. Check the sizing of the staves, musical notation or representative notation the student will see on the screen to be sure it is appropriate for them. Be sure the tool bars are sized appropriately for the student to see and that they can be reached without the student straining against the technology.
- Color: Consider color coding various elements within the app or software. Some students appreciate having the staves, notation, expressive markings, and tool bars colored. Color coding directions and assignment details can also be very beneficial.
- Pacing: Appropriate pacing can help students when they are creating projects at home. If a student only has one or two portions or elements to consider, it can help them to not become overwhelmed by the entirety of the project. Consider only showing a student the first step or two and then reveal the next step once that is completed. Be sure to ask the student what would help them most. It is possible a student would benefit from knowing the entire assignment so they can pace themselves in the way that works best.
- Visual: Try for clean lines without clutter. Many students work best when their technological space and assignment presentation is free and open for them to create.
- Aural: If appropriate for the student, encourage and provide aural examples of project ideas. Perhaps leave musical notation out of the assignment altogether or delay it until the student has had ample opportunity to explore the concepts aurally.
- Kinesthetic: Many students need to interact with content in a tactile and kinesthetic way before truly comprehending the concept. Some students respond well to vibrations changes in physical texture, and the opportunity to show what they are feeling and hearing with their bodies. Try to offer these opportunities whenever possible and appropriate – depending on the specific needs of a student.
We have already seen good advice this week to slow ourselves down a little and give ourselves permission to not try and accomplish all our musical objectives with our students. We did not design our instruction to be delivered solely via technology and must take a breath and remember that, especially with students who learn differently, we are going to need to make some adjustments. In my opinion, the most important consideration is that we continue to support and develop a love and appreciation of music in our students. We want them to learn to create and curate music meaningful to them and be able to share their joy for music in ways that are purposeful to them. Be conscious, purposeful, and intentional – your students will thank you.
About the Author
Dr. Alice Hammel, Virginia Music Educator Association Outstanding Educator (2018) and current President Elect of the Virginia Music Educators Association, is a widely known music educator, author, and clinician whose experience in music is extraordinarily diverse. She is a member of the faculty of James Madison University, and has many years of experience teaching instrumental and choral music in public and private schools. Dr. Hammel has put these varied experiences to great use while compiling a large body of scholarly work. She is a co-author for four texts: Teaching Music to Students with Special Needs: A Label-free Approach, Teaching Music to Students with Autism, Winding It Back: Teaching to Individual Differences in Music Classroom and Ensemble Settings, and Teaching Music to Students with Special Needs: A Practical Resource. Dr. Hammel is President of the Council for Exceptional Children – Division for Visual and Performing Arts Education.