Monday, March 20, 2017

Authentic Assessment with Guest Blogger Jason Chin

As I find myself getting back to spending more attention with my blog I thought it was about time I share this guest blog post from my good friend Jason Chin. We met several years ago when I took my band on tour to Hawaii the first time and since then our friendship has grown. We are kindred spirits in many levels and especially when it comes to sharing our many musing on topics in music education. Enjoy!


Less Toscanini, more Lenny

Authentic assessment is a topic that has been on my mind since the days of my undergrad.  The birth of high-stakes testing and data analysis have thrust many old-school directors into a world where the model of the “easy A” is no longer viable. For me and many other teachers of my generation, assessment has a far greater meaning than it did during my own formal schooling.

Let’s look at the model that I grew up with first. Each teacher wielded great power with grades. They had autonomy in creating their own curriculum, grading systems, and had the final say over your grade. There was great mystery in how we earned our grade in band. There was not a clear breakdown of exactly how grades were calculated. We were told, “Just show up and participate every day and you’ll get an A.” Easy A sounds good to everyone. I never really knew how other people fared in class, but I did wonder if that trombone player behind me who didn’t practice and couldn’t play very well got the same grade as I did.

At some point in the mid 90s came the birth of standards based education. This was a relatively new concept taught to us in our undergrad a few years later, and became the norm once I entered the teaching field. The idea of someone else deciding what was to be taught was a paradigm shift that I struggled with, as did teachers who had decades of more experience than me. This was the new world that we were to live in.

I’m not sure exactly when it was that I came to accept this reality, but what I’ve come to understand is that the standards are not there to stifle creativity and create conformist robots, but rather to elevate teaching, provide structure, and provide constructive feedback for students. It’s the last bit that really changed things for me as a teacher.

Your grade should mean something. It should be reflective of the body of work that you’ve done, with an emphasis on the quality of work. Every assignment, test, or quiz should be an opportunity for students to receive feedback on what they’ve done, help them develop a plan for how to improve, and be a part of an upward spiral of learning.

The separation of behavior from the assessment was another topic I struggled with. I grew up in a system where you were assessed penalties for late work, threatened with penalties if you incorrectly graded another student’s assignment, and extra credit was a big deal. After teaching for several years and tweaking things along the way, I realized that penalties and extra credit skewed the grade in such a way that the final grade did not give anyone an accurate assessment of the quality of their output. Gone are late penalties and extra credit is an extra opportunity for the student to show mastery of the standard. Deadlines are firm and I can only assess you on what I’ve seen. I don’t see it, I can’t assess it.

Here in Hawaii, standards-based grading is largely limited to the elementary schools. We have standards-based instruction and standards-based assessment in school, but the final course grade is still the traditional A-F system and averaging is still king. A few progressive schools and individual teachers have forged the way for standards-based grading but they are few in number and have struggled to implement those systems with what we have to work with. I still average, but mostly out of convenience and familiarity for all parties. I am not opposed to standard-based grading at all.

Online grading is the acceptable standard and transparency is paramount. We can’t make an error without anyone knowing, and there is very little leeway for rounding up. The “easy A” is a thing of the past. Some see it as crippling the teacher. I see it as empowering the student and their family support system. More information at your fingertips is a good thing right?

We’ve come a long way in education and my teaching has evolved quite a bit since starting 13 years ago. Here’s where I stand with assessment today. Please keep in mind that this is from the perspective of teaching middle school band.

·      Formative Assessment was a major buzzword about 10 years ago, and I knew that it was something I was already doing pretty well at.  I provide instant feedback for my students in many ways throughout the school year, in every class meeting, and every rehearsal.
·      Summative Assessment was the other side of the coin that was going to be more difficult. How do you give a fair and accurate assessment for a course that has objective and subjective components? How do we ensure that the student’s final grade is reflective of the quality of their output?
o   The first thing I did was discard the idea of the “Easy A”. That was a cop out for teachers more obsessed with the quality of their performances than with individual student growth and long-range learning. That’s not a student-centered model. It’s teacher-centered: teacher doesn’t have to do much grading; teacher makes all of the decisions; teacher doesn’t have to answer to parents who are unhappy about their child’s grade.
o   I came to accept that some students will get a B, some will get a C, and a few here and there may end up with a D or F. As long as I am able to justify it, I can be at peace with those grades. My friend calls me the GPA killer. I call it authentic assessment.
o   I looked at the only formal assessments that kids are given: Solo and Ensemble Festival, and Large Group Festivals and started with those models for breaking things down in my own classes. Here in Hawaii, those events eventually became rubric-driven, and suddenly numbers and ratings had more meaning than they ever had. Those rubrics were tweaked over time and comment boxes helped adjudicators to go beyond the limits of the rubric. This model became the basis of all assessment for individuals, small groups, and the ensemble as a whole.
·      The logical step for me was to take that which is subjective and break it down to its parts, processes, and stages. I made the subjective slightly more objective.
o   What makes for great tone? Science has answers to that question, and Tonal Energy’s recording and analysis tools have become a great tool for students in class and at home. It’s okay to talk about embouchure, air, striking area, mallet selection, mouthpiece/reed/ligature choice, etc.
o   What is a great phrase? I listened to many great performers, asked questions of those players, and narrowed everything down to a set of basic principles that I teach my students.
o   What is good ensemble sound? I broke ensemble sound down to topics like balance, relative intonation, consistent articulation, timbre, texture, and clarity. I teach/preach these concepts in warm-up and reinforce them in performance music.
·      Our online grading tools allow me to provide very specific, rubric-driven feedback to my students when they take formal playing tests. They see the descriptors from the rubric as it relates to their score as well as any additional comments and suggestions I have. I try to provide suggestions for improvement on those areas of weakness in the comments.
·      The dreaded practice log/charts were overhauled. Everyone has lied on those at some point or another and will continue to do that until the end of time. How do we make it a valid and authentic tool for learning? The traditional model of a practice chart is quantitative and I wanted to focus on that being a qualitative tool. Thus came the birth of the Goal Sheet. Students are expected to break down their practice into a healthy balance of exercises (rhythm, scales, articulation, lip slurs, etc.) and music for performance. They need to have clear, realistic goals in mind, a process for achieving those goals, and a metronome on nearly all of the time. The check and balance in this is the informal assessments that I make through the course of each class.
·      Instruction shifted to become less teacher-centered and more student-driven. In class, we talk about and use practicing strategies ad-nauseum, but we DO NOT drill. Repetition has its place but the large ensemble rehearsal is not the place for that. When we are together, we focus on what we need as a group. When students are on their own, they do what they CAN do without the group. Peer assessment is a regular feature of our rehearsals. It is very clear to everyone that the ensemble decides how good we will sound.

A major life changer for me was when someone shared with me the idea that as conductors, “We control the totality of sound, yet we make none.” I think that might have been from Peter Boonshaft. We have to instill a burning desire to practice after a rehearsal and develop a drive in students to come to each rehearsal in better condition than the last. I discarded the vision of myself as the Maestro who holds the secrets to success. This is not about me. It’s about the kids and giving them the tools to make great music and fall in love with making great music.


Jason Chin is the Band Director at Kawananakoa Middle School in Honolulu, Hawaii. He is in his 13th year of teaching and his 10th year at Kawananakoa. He has served in various leadership capacities with the Oahu Band Directors Association including President. He has served as a guest conductor for various honor bands in Hawaii. He holds degrees from the University of Northern Colorado and Sam Houston State University.



Monday, February 27, 2017

The Problem of the Evolving Classroom

The Problem of the Evolving Classroom

There are so many layers and levels to where this blog post comes from.  First off, it’s the first post in far too long. There has been so much that has happened in these past several months/years and so many things that I feel like I want to jump into and share but….  I will start with Friday. After being out of the classroom for eleven days attending the California All State Music Education Conference (CASMEC) followed by our Ski Week vacation that I took in my hometown of Eugene, Oregon I decided to pick up a book I had probably purchased at last year’s conference (or around that time) called “Common Core: Re-Imagining the Music Rehearsal and Classroom. Standards, curriculum, assessment, and instruction by Paul and Ann Kimpton, published by GIA.



I don’t know why when I came home from a vacation I felt so inspired to pick up a professional book of all things with such an exciting title on the final evening of my vacation but I did. And I finished the book today. Its only 130+ pages, big print, and lots of diagrams, but still for someone like me who never seems to ever have enough time, reading a book of any kind all the way through, is a big deal.

So I read the entire book and it resonated. Not so much the need for the Common Core Standards to be the driving force in classroom or that I feel this push to make sure that I get in line with the standards. In fact, back when this book was written in 2014 the Core Arts Standards had not been finished and only just passed legislation this year to begin the process of revising our state standards. The concept of re-imagining the music rehearsal and classroom honestly is what held me through the entire book. I realized that I have been literally re-imagining my classroom in my minds’ eye. Many of us do this all of the time. I feel like I have been doing it for years and while I move closer I feel like I am still so far. And that distance away from having the music classroom I want to have has left me frustrated and stuck in many aspects of my teaching. I feel like I am not where I want to be.  

I would be the first to tell you I haven’t loved my classroom for a while. Not my physical classroom. It sure needs to be bigger but its re-modeled and I’m comfortable there. It’s fine. I love my students. I loved teaching. I have loved many of our performances, trips and experiences. When it has come to my curriculum, assessment, student independence, and accountability I have wanted more. I have been sitting on the edge of burn out for many years and I keep thinking and trying to find better and more efficient ways to do things. I have been on a journey the last few years that has included a lot of self-reflection both inside and outside of the classroom. I think the best teachers and people do this reflection on a regular basis. 

There are many things that resonated with me in this book but it’s the overall concept that our classroom and schools are evolving and we have to adapt to make sure that we are providing the education that our students, our parent community, and our school want and crave. If we don’t adapt and evolve we may find ourselves obsolete or like me…feeling stuck.  There is so much truth in this as we have to recruit and retain students as well as advocate for funding for our programs and also change to the ever popular block schedule.

I don’t have a problem with block schedule. In some of ways it’s the best thing that’s happened to me. It is so much easier for me to teacher 3-4 classes per day instead of racing through teaching six ensembles. The hardest thing about block schedule is that you don’t see your students every day which puts more accountability back on the student to make sure that there is “focused daily independent practice” outside the music classroom. It became apparent that when we moved to block schedule while it is fantastic to have more time to warm up and not feel so rushed in rehearsal we still didn’t meet every day and so there was an importance on the outside of class time to review music and actually practice. Something my students have struggled with creating a routine for.

In this new schedule one of the drawbacks to not meeting daily is that there is more importance placed on independent student learning outside of the classroom.

After speaking to other teachers and reflecting on my classroom this school year I realized that the concept of homework was really more “outside of class activities” and that those activities needed to be geared towards encouraging independent and focused practicing on fundamentals and the band music. Rehearsal reflections, graphic organizers, goal setting exercises, playing tests, and practice record type activities would need to be implemented to hold students more accountable and help them organize and record their independent practicing, reflection, and musical practice.

Ultimately in many ways that is what this exactly what this book is about. Block schedule ultimately was my catalyst for change because it forced our situation in our band program to be different. I could not, nor do I want to be, the one who is solely responsible for the quality of our musical product. I want my students to work on their fundamentals and concert music outside of class but I also want to teach my students relevant concepts and strategies that can apply to many aspects of their life as a student and citizen.

One of the quotes that resonated with me in the forward of the book was “Current and future music educators will need to adapt their teaching philosophies, strategies, rehearsals, music selection processes, assessment practices, and grading procedures to justify one of the most important subjects a human can study-music!” (pg.9) It was how I had been feeling about my classroom and my rehearsals-they had to change. And they are changing. Many of the things I had been trying in my classroom fit into these categories. I am changing my philosophy on what I think is important for my students to learn in their music education. Everything was impacted by our change to block schedule, my need to not over work, and our after school program schedule.

The forward of the book discusses things that I want for my students. I want my students to make connections between their music study and their everyday lives and future careers. I want my students to be able to apply higher-level musical concepts independently. I want to find ways to make my performance based music classes connected to my students’ everyday life. I want to find ways for my students to be engaged and held accountable to demonstrate, apply, analyze, evaluate, and create content and skills learned in meaningful, self-directed ways.

I do want my classroom to be in line with Common Core and 21st Century Skills because I do want my classes to be in line with current education trends and other classrooms on our campus. I honestly don’t think it’s that big of a stretch to align the connections between our music classroom practices and these standards. My big take away from this book ultimately is that our schools and classrooms are changing and we have to be ready for that. I couldn’t avoid the fact that our school was moving to block schedule. It was a better schedule for me personally so now as the teacher I am tasked with setting up a curriculum that will work within this schedule to set my students up for the best success possible. This book was an inspiring read about ways that we might be able to set up our lessons and units of study to meet these changes head on and ultimately make more meaningful and independent music education experiences with our students.


What next? Well I am going to be dedicating a series on my blog through this journey of re-imagining my classroom as we move to into the three weeks of rehearsal leading to our Concert Band festival season. I hope you check in and join me on this adventure of discovery and application as I pull many of the suggestions from the book into practice as I re-imagine my music classroom.