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If you have been to any meeting, any class, or had a discussion with any teacher in the last five years, then you would know that the hot topic is differentiation. I hear it all of the the time. And last year I thought, there is no way that I can differentiate in the music room.
Turns out, I was wrong.
Now, music teachers are constantly differentiating without realizing it. I have a whole post about that here (which is really great if you need to prove you differentiate on your TKES!). This post is about being intentional with your differentiation.
As far as differentiating goes, we are certainly at a disadvantage. I teach 650 students– and I know other teachers who have even more. Most of us see our kids once a week. And we don’t have any MAP testing or iReady or whatever programs and tests your state uses to tell us what the kids know.
So… how do you actually get started with differentiation? How much work is it to differentiate? And when do I have time to do it? Let’s talk. Because I promise, it is less work than you think it is.
Prefer to watch or listen? You can watch the video version of this post below.
So where do I start?
The first thing in differentiation is finding out what your students currently know– AKA a pretest. You can do this via paper and pencil, or through observation (I talk about a lot of different options for assessment in this post).
I started at the beginning of the year with a (short) pretest and interest survey that covered the major concepts we are working on this year. If it’s the middle of the year, don’t stress. You can also go unit by unit.
For example, my fourth graders have been working on treble clef notes for a few months now. And some of them are still not totally getting it. So, I gave them a super short quiz which told me how much they know and what some struggles are.
You can actually get that quiz in the free resource library– if you have signed up for the library, than you can click the “Free Resource Library” tab at the top of the page. If you haven’t, then you can signup here to get the password. Once you have the password, you can download anything that you want from the library– and check back, because I add more resources monthly!
You could even just use an assignment that they have done and use it as an indicator– even if it is not a quiz. I did this last week with my fifth graders and their write the room activity which told me that they needed some help with differentiating between the brass and woodwind families. It wasn’t an official “assessment” but it game me the information I needed!
So I have data… Now what?
I am a fan of simplicity when it comes to differentiation.
I take out three sticky notes. Then, I write an X on one, a – on one, and a check on the other. Then I divide the number of questions by three. This gives me the ranges for each sticky note. (I like to get these with the lines on them.) So if I had 12 questions on a quiz, students who got 1-4 correct would have an X, 5-8 correct would be a -, and 9-12 correct would be a check. I also like to put a star by anyone who got 100%– more about that later.
These sticky notes are the basis of my student groupings during centers. I like to have six groups, so I will split the names on the sticky notes into two groups. Each sticky note represents two groups. If they are not even, then I will adjust them (or if I have students who should not be together, then I will adjust them). In general, I will put – with X or checks, but do not put checks with X’s.
It is also how I decide who gets which activity when I am doing something like my treble clef dice activity, which has many different versions for different levels of understanding.
So I have groups… Now what?
So now you have to decide how you are actually going to differentiate. There are three main ways that you can differentiate in the elementary music classroom.
Sidenote– you do not have to differentiate every. single. day. I probably do portions of lessons that are differentiated once or twice a month. Because if you are having a drum circle or playing Lucy Locket… how are you going to differentiate that?
Ok. So. On the days that you do want to differentiate (intentionally), there are three main ways: chunking, centers, and tiered instruction. (Although when you think about it, it’s all tiered instruction.) We’re going to talk about each one so that you know what they are and how you can do them.
Chunking is basically the concept of not making students do things they already know how to do. If you have a few students who are a bit ahead of the others and have proven they understand the material, then they can have an alternate assignment.
I did this in January with one of my treble clef activities. On the pretest, I had 1-5 students in each class who got 100%. Instead of continuing to make them practice every day, I had the other students working on treble clef activities, and they worked on their recorder songs. They were still working– even still working on reading because they had to read recorder notes– but they were not bored while going over material they had down.
This is not something I would suggest doing with every activity, but it is good every once and a while, especially if you have been working on the same unit for a while. (Plus it makes the other kids work harder because they want to play recorder too!)
Next week’s blog post is going to be a deep dive into differentiating with centers, so I am not going to go super in depth here. But there are a lot of ways you can differentiate during centers. It is a great way to give students activities tailored to their skill level without them noticing that different people have different activities.
My centers differentiation is really just in one of the groups. One group is always the teacher group, and that is where I assess and differentiate. Sometime I have different lessons for each group, but most of the time, it is pretty much the same, but with different levels of guidance. So the group where everyone understands may not get any help from me while the group that is struggling will have a lot of remediation.
I really love having a teacher group for centers because I feel like I can give more attention to each student. I actually know my students and their musical capabilities much better now than I used to.
Also read: Music Center Classroom Management for “Bad Classes”
The third main way to differentiate is through tiered instruction. This just means that students are doing different activities based on their levels.
If you are just getting started, this is where I would start. I would pick a concept, pick two activities and split the students up based on data from whatever quiz or observation you have.
One thing I will say is try to find things that are equally fun. Don’t give one group a worksheet and the other one a game. They don’t have to be the same, but they do need to be equally fun.
A few examples are:
- Have one set of students play rhythms from flashcards and have the other set make up their own rhythms to play. (You could use these and these.)
- If working on treble clef, one set of students can identify one note while the others find words (such as egg) on the treble clef. You can check that out in my TPT product here.
- Have some students matching notes on the staff while others match notes and staff and recorder fingerings. Or have the second group write notes onto the staff because that is more difficult than matching.
- Have both groups play a game like Kaboom!, but give one group more difficult rhythms. (You can get levels 1 and 2 in my TPT)
- Have students create measures of rhythms with words. (Kind of like in this or this) You can give the lower group only one beat rhythms to manipulate and the higher group one beat and two or three beat rhythms. They will have to work harder to make sure they have the correct amount of beats in the measure.
- When playing instruments, you can tier up by having staff notation and tier down by having just the letters or the letters inside of the note heads.
- Have one group finding all of the letters in words on the treble clef and the other group coming up with their own words (like BAG or EGG or FADE) to put onto the treble clef like on this.
- Have students play hands together instead of alternating hands on the xylophones.
Those are just a few ideas to get you started, but you get the point. It seems sooooo daunting– “I not only have to come up with lesson plans, but now I have to do twice as many!”– but once you start thinking of ideas, it is much more simple than you think.
Also, if your school groups students into classes based on ability level, you can differentiate for whole classes. Even with whole group lessons, I will adjust based on the collective understanding. For example, last week my students did an Orff arrangement of a Japanese song called Star Festival. One group did a great job with four different instruments and different patterns on the xylophones. In another class, it was a hot mess. So I ended up making the arrangement easier for the second class (I took out the glockenspiels and changed the xylophone part to hands together on the steady beat) and they were much more successful. And yes, that counts.
So how often do I have to differentiate?
That totally depends on you! Personally, I think as music teachers, we don’t need to do this every day. I do centers once a month with my upper grades, and I usually do one other differentiated activity in the month– but it depends on what we are working on! Right now my fifth graders are working on Orff skills and drum circles, so, frankly, I am not worried about differentiating right now. Music is inherently differentiated (don’t believe me? Read my post about the differentiation you are doing without realizing it here.)
With my younger students, I really don’t differentiate much at all. That may sound bad, but it’s the truth. I am much more concerned with them singing, playing, listening to music, and more.
Some lessons also lend themselves better to differentiating than others do. That’s why I keep going back to treble clef activities– they are so easy to differentiate!
Basically, you know your students. You know what is best for them. So you should do what is best for them. Sometimes that means tiered instruction, sometimes that means centers, and sometimes that means whole group drum circles. Do whatever is best.
Do you differentiate in your elementary music classroom? How do you do it? Let me know in the comments so that we can have even more ideas!