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The 4 Questions Every Busy Choir Teacher Needs to Think About Before Lesson Planning

When distance learning happened last spring, my first thought was “Oh no what in the world are choir teachers going to do?”

At the time, I was working as an ESE para looking to transition into an ESE teacher role next year (which I did, woop woop), but the gears were turning full force to create a digital lesson for choir teachers to use. I spent a week bouncing between learning how to navigate my para role online and creating this digital activity for choir teachers.

As I worked on this, I learned two (main) things:

1. I love helping choir teachers

2. I wanted to still teach choir students (just indirectly)

Lesson Planning for Middle School Choir

I’ve been a creative person, but the lessons that I’ve made for my class were usually:

- rushed

- low priority (Hello, MPA? Disney? Fundraiser?)

- did I say rushed?

When I focused on just this Vocal Styles unit, I loved digging into how to format it, what was the goal for student learning, what activities should students do, and everything in between. Now, I was only allowed this time thanks to distance learning. I completely acknowledge that. We’ll talk about time management tips at the end for designing activities.

When planning lessons for your middle school choir class, consider the following:

  1. What is the student learning goal?

  2. What is your time frame?

  3. Do you have ESE/ELL students to accommodate?

  4. What technology do students have consistent access to?

What is the student learning goal?

Choir teachers, DON’T fall victim to being wooed by that shiny, fun lesson your friend shared. I know it’s great, but ask yourself FIRST: what is the student learning goal? If it doesn’t tie in with what you need to teach your students, then put it in your teacher back pocket, friend.

Start with the end in mind. When I started planning for my Vocal Styles & Ensembles Unit, I didn’t start with that topic immediately.

My thought process went like this:

"Okay, choir is somehow going virtual. The first thing people will do is probably music theory because there are already great resources for music theory.

Buuuuuut will that engage kids at a time of complete disarray? Music theory in normal times isn’t exactly a choir student’s favorite topic…

So, music theory is out for now. I’m worried that students will quit choir. That’s no good. What would still teach relevant choir skills for students when they’re at home? I would want students to sing, but that’s not a reality right now.

Singing…. Singing….. Oooh, this could be a good time to review or explicitly introduce vocal styles and ensembles. I used to take that for granted, but explicitly teaching it with examples could be good and done virtually."

And folks, there you have it - the spark for my Vocal Styles & Ensembles unit. From there, I identified the goal as students understanding the differences and similarities between vocal styles. (The ensemble portion of the unit came later in development to give more meat for choir teachers since it looked like distance learning was hanging around.)

Identifying a goal and working backwards is the best start to designing engaging activities. It might sound like common sense, but we’re all guilty of seeing a cool round or lesson and doing it for fun that isn’t really aligned to anything… There is a time and place for activities like that, but that should be the occasionally dessert of your class. Deliberate lessons and rehearsing should be the main meals.

What is your time frame?

Once you have your learning goal, check your calendar and determine the time frame. As a choir teacher, I know you have many time sensitive tasks. MPA, concerts, Solo and Ensemble, after school rehearsals… A lot.

Everyone is different in how they run their choir class, so determining the timing of activities is up to you.

My advice is to get to know your classes. Their pacing will dictate your planning. This also brings me to the next question:

Do you have ESE/ELL students to accommodate?

Choir teachers, I know you have many, many more students than a gen ed teacher so the typical response when asked about accommodations tends to go like this:

“I give ALL my kids the accommodations.”

But… Not everyone needs them? And… You’re giving everyone things like dictionaries and thesauruses for not knowing English? Everyone has preferential seating by the teacher?

I get that some accommodations feel like natural teaching, but the problem lies with giving everyone everything. (And I would go so far as to say that you’re not actually reading the IEPs and giving everyone everything. Just what’s convenient to you.)

“I don’t have time for that.”

Heard. You’ve identified a problem. So, what’s the plan to start ensuring your ESE and ELL kids can access your curriculum so they can feel successful too? Or ... are you just going to ignore the needs of these students?

“They don’t really need it. They work for me.”

Okay, this is tricky and definitely a case-by-case situation. Some students have developed skills to cope well with language barriers or academic deficiencies. And in choir, they can cope easier because of the performance nature of the class.

But you’re playing with fire, friend.

Are you the type of choir teacher who has the students write critiques or write reflections after a concert? How are your ESE and ELL students doing with those assignments? Did they get the supports they need to answer on the same level as their peers?

Here’s where the fire comes in. They might be able to cope and get through these occasional assignments by self-advocating for your help or working with a friend, but independently they struggle.

All it takes is one bad experience to turn a kid off from choir. And your more vulnerable ESE and ELL kids are at a disadvantage as it stands. Without their accommodations, their effort turns into a struggle. A struggle they might not want to repeat.

As you plan your activities, plan with your ESE and ELL students in mind FIRST. Don’t create this banger hit of a lesson and then think, “Oh shoot, my ESE/ELL kids might not be able to do this. Better make an easier version.”

Think of the learning goal and what will show mastery. From there, build early finishers for your rock star students who will breeze through anything you throw at them. This builds in the extended time that some students need to process content while continuing to engage students who don’t need extended time.

What technology do students have consistent access to?

Your final lesson design consideration is your students’ access to technology. Do they have iPads? Chromebooks? Laptops? Nothing?

This will determine the best delivery method for your activity.

Word to the wise: talk with your students and see what applications they already use and are familiar with. If you’re a Google school, then utilize the Google tools students have used for their other classes by using a Google Slides file for your lesson.

If you want to introduce them to a different website, then make sure you take time to explicitly teach them how to use it as a student. Once you teach them how to use the website or program, teach it at least ten more times. (Okay, ten is an arbitrary number but the point is to constantly review how to use it.

No, I don’t care that all of your kids know how to use their phone or play their game so you don’t need to reteach this. You do. Simple as that. They’re so good at those “tech” things because of the repetition, not natural talent.

If you think you don’t have time in your busy schedule, then pick something they already use to deliver your activities. Everyone will be happier, I promise.

But I don’t have the TIME to design and make activities

I’m not asking you to create a year’s worth of curriculum in a day. But my best advice is to build your digital library. Investing the time to create one resource will pay off because you can re-use it. It feels daunting, but if you develop a template and a framework that you like, then you’ll find that designing activities will come faster to you.

Another tool at your disposal is Teachers Pay Teachers. I sell on there and I’m a customer. If I can drop $3-$10 on something I will use for years, then I consider it an investment honestly.

Or get a group together of choir colleagues and make your own PLC (Professional Learning Community) and tackle it like a gen ed teacher team. Each week one person creates an activity that everyone uses. Meet once a week, discuss what part of the scope and sequence you’re at, assign one person to create the lesson, rinse and repeat.

These are just ideas to get your gears turning, friends. I hope this helps focus your mind when lesson planning because that task alone can seem overwhelming.

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