With school starting up again in two weeks, I’m back at revising my course descriptions for middle school Band and Chorus.
Course descriptions for grades 5-8? Do they really need one, or care?
A few things point me to yes, yes, and yes. One, I’ve read so much literature on the importance of outlining your policies and procedures in writing, especially for parents and teachers; I trust those experienced teachers’ advice. Two, I experienced a few setbacks last year that could have been more thoroughly and swiftly resolved by referencing a CD. And three, I think students do need them and can be encouraged to care more about music with a well-written but succinct CD.
An ensemble director knows that good CD is a problem resolver and an answer key. It should offer a set of outcomes for all reasonable situations. It should be informative for new students and their families. And it should be an irrefutable reference for when there are conflicts, which there undoubtedly will be.
On top of that, the document should be succinct and easy to read. Since CDs should be general (i.e. not instrument-specific), I make it part of a series of handouts including a grading policy, a detailed materials list (for each instrument), a participation contract, and vocabulary lists. Beginning Band students receive more literature about renting, etc.
A good course description needs a statement of purpose for the course, a materials list, a solid grading policy, a list of expectations, an attendance policy, a concert/event policy, and a description of homework, if there is any. Have you answered the same questions over and over from colleagues and families? Put those in you CD too. It should be clear and informative… but succinct and easy to read.
That’s an art. I’ve had trouble paring down carefully worded statements, which say exactly what I want them to but are not so easily accessible to both students and their families. I want accessibility. I want to incentivize students to read them, and parents to understand them without needing much if any clarification. That is to everyone’s advantage. When I don’t need to answer questions resulting from my own lack of clarity, and when students/families read the documents, we are all on the same page and ensembles can run more smoothly.
But the final point I made above are probably the most elusive. How does a course description encourage students to care more about music?
This is where I’ve added two special categories: what I look for from students, and things it’s okay to do in ensemble.
I want students to be successful and comfortable in my classroom. I want them to feel valued and supported. I want them to try their best and make progress, not always achieve perfection.
Sometimes I get the feeling that students don’t know that their teachers want this for them. There’s so much pressure regarding testing and data-driven instruction. Students become more stressed as they get older and think their high school grades set their immutable course for the future. It doesn’t help much for adults to tell them this isn’t true, at least it hasn’t for me. Stress to do well is a valid feeling, and in the moment it can consume you. Saying it won’t matter in a year or in five years is not helpful in the moment.
So for me, it’s important to communicate my desires for students- verbally (which can be done any time), but also in writing (it can be referenced, re-read, and shown to families).
Special category 1: “What does Mrs. Mauro look for in Band/Chorus?”
This is different from expectations, which I call “What to expect in Band” and puts more onus on the students. This category talks about what I value and what the essence of the ensemble truly is. My description says, “I look for progress, dedication to meeting a goal, and a positive attitude about learning, and a willingness to take healthy musical risks. Show what you have worked on and the progress you have made. Come to lessons with new questions. Learn from your mistakes. At our concerts everyone should play their best even if it’s not perfect.”
I say “progress you have made” instead of “minutes you have practice.” I ask them to come with new questions, because no matter how many times teachers say there’s no such thing as a dumb question, there will be some students who are still afraid to ask a question (so encourage them to do that too!). I admit that mistakes will be made. In general, I am very upfront about how Band can be a struggle at first. This isn’t to deter anyone; it’s to help them see they’re all in the same boat and that anything worth doing is probably not going to be easy.
Special category #2: “It’s okay if…”
This relates back to my spiel about stress. I want students to know, explicitly, that it’s okay if X, Y, and Z happen. It’s okay to sometimes forget your instrument. It’s okay to feel afraid singing in front of peers. It’s okay to not meet the weekly performance goal all the time. I will still support your musicality, and you are still important. This is emphasized by verbal reiteration of these phrases.
I used to think that remarks like “You’re important” and “You can do it” were sugary. Did they really make a difference? Now, I think yes they do. Explicitly saying these can help a child internalize the message. It can help shape the language others use in your classroom. You set a great example by speaking positively in a human-centered way, praising process over results. Rather than inflate a child’s ego, this is hopefully going to help them look into the future with the attitude that their contribution matters.