Across the United States there are music educators that are teaching students with varying levels of exceptional needs. One of the sub-sets within this student population are students with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).
Just as ASD itself lies upon a spectrum, so too does the need for accommodations and supports for students with ASD to have successful musical experiences.
Unfortunately, music educators often find themselves ill-prepared to meet these exceptional needs. I spent my first year outside of the music classroom in various intervention and special education roles. I learned more about teaching students with exceptional needs in that year than I ever thought I could.
Least Restrictive Environment
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) mandates that all students be taught in the least restrictive environment, or LRE. The implementation of this requirement often becomes students with exceptional needs attending music class with age-similar typical students. For others it might mean receiving music instruction as a self-contained classroom, while other students may receive a combination of both.
Depending on the severity, students with ASD are often mainstreamed with age peers on the basis of social development. In these cases, music curriculum is modified, and the student is not expected or required to meet the same educational goals as his typical peers.
In cases of social mainstreaming, the argument relies on students receiving valuable social interactions with like-aged peers. However, the reality is that mainstreaming may not be in the most appropriate setting for music education.
Social Mainstreaming and Adapting Instruction
In social mainstreaming, the goal is not to learn music, but to provide opportunities for students to develop their social skills. However, for many students with ASD the musical content being taught to their typical peers may be too advanced for them to fully comprehend and retain.
In this setting, music educators must adapt activities and curriculum in order for students with exceptional needs to progress musically. Music educators must often use creative problem solving in order to apply modifications and accommodations for students.
Mary Adamek describes the following methods of adaptation that music educators can employ in their classrooms:
The way in which we as music educators implement any combination of these adaptation strategies will vary greatly between students, as all students will have differing levels of musical success without any instructional adaptations. Special educators and any related services therapists can help us determine to what level each student may need adaptations in a classroom with typical peers.
Self-Contained Music Instruction
While there is inherent value in allowing students to experience music through what may be their least restrictive social environment, this often comes at the expense of their least restricting musical environment.
Many of the most common practices among primary music educators is teaching by rote. While this is often regarded as a highly effective strategy for teaching typical students, it can hinder students with ASD. Students with ASD respond differently to imitation than their peers who are typical.
Research suggests that students with ASD imitate the actions of others with a different level of understanding and fluidity than their typical peers. This difference in ability to learn through imitation puts students with ASD at a disadvantage in the mainstream music classroom, as children often learn new skills through imitation of those around them. For this reason, imitative behaviors should be encouraged in students with ASD, but music educators need to properly understand the associated difference in language, play, and joint attention.
Students with ASD may not appear to be responding to the music, but this can easily be attributed to the difference in communication. Specifically, students with ASD tend to struggle with Joint Attention, or the ability to share the attention of observing an event or object with another individual.
For example, many students with ASD struggle with making eye contact, or focusing their attention on a specified object. Due to multiple constraints, initiating Joint Attention in a mainstreamed music classroom would be difficult, if at all possible. However, working within a self-contained classroom, music educators can help use music as a medium to encourage bids for Joint Attention in our student with Autism Spectrum Disorder.
Why Not Both?
As previously stated, there are valuable aspects of having students with Autism Spectrum Disorder in both the self-contained and mainstreamed classrooms. Having students with ASD included with their typical like-aged peers allows them to develop the kinds of social skills they need to improve through interactions in the music classroom.
However, as stated previously, the goal in social mainstreaming is not for improving musical learning, but to expose students to differing social environments. If music educators were to allow our students with Autism Spectrum Disorder to experience music with their typical peers as well as with other students with ASD, they will be able to make both social and musical growth.
These students will be able to grow towards their social goals while attending music class with their typical peers; while attending in a self-contained environment can allow music educators to focus specifically on the musical goals of these students in a more direct setting.
Music educators should always strive to allow all students to experience music in the way that best serves them individually. A student’s Least Restrictive Environment should always be respected, but the way this looks for each student will vary.
Some students with Autism Spectrum Disorder will be able to progress both socially and musical in a music classroom shared with their typical peers. Contrarily, others will require a smaller setting in a self-contained classroom to increase their musical skills and understanding.
Additionally, these self-contained music classes can also help students with their non-musical goals. Music educators should advocate for their students with ASD to receive appropriate instruction in both their social and musical Least Restrictive Environments.
Performance is obviously a large part of what music is and how it is taught in the public schools these days. The thing is, sometimes we as music educators get too focused on the final product and forget about the musical moments along the way. While I personally think that performance experiences in general music are incredibly important, I also believe that they should be stress-free and demonstrative of actually happens in our classrooms!
As I'm sure a lot of you are, I am in the midst of preparing for a holiday program. In my case, its with third grade. Below are the steps that I used to plan this performance, as well as others I've done in the past.
Picking a Theme
Whenever I plan performances, I always start by picking a theme. In all honesty, this theme will probably change a few times throughout the process, but I always start with something to get the ball rolling.
For this year's holiday performance, I ended up with Christmastime around the world. I thought about my students and the population I serve, and I really wanted my students to have their understandings of different cultures expanded upon. I also knew that I wanted to be sure to include songs from Latin America, as I have a large percentage of students that live in Spanish-speaking homes.
Ok, so I had my theme. Now it was time to dig deep into the repertoire books, online databases, and Facebook groups to find high-quality repertoire. I personally use as much repertoire from the oral tradition as possible, especially with the theme that I chose for this performance.
When I am looking at possible repertoire, I am looking for a few things. Firstly, I want to make sure that it is representative of the culture that it is attributed to. I think its important that if I am teaching something as a Mexican folk song, for instance, that I do my homework and make sure that it is really a folk song from Mexico.
Secondly, I look at the melodic and rhythmic elements that I can pull out of each song. For instance, I knew that my third graders were going to be working on Tika-Tika, Tika-Ti, and Ti-Tika, so I paid special attention to those songs that had extractable patterns with these rhythms. That way, I can teach concert repertoire without needing to let my curriculum stall in the process.
Lastly, I look to make sure that each song I choose is developmentally, musically, and thematically appropriate for the age of students I am looking for. I want to make sure that the music I am choosing is challenging enough for my students, but not too difficult for them to learn in the time we have to prepare. I also think it's really important to make sure the songs aren't too simple that they will be perceived as "baby-ish" by the older students.
Making a Plan
Once I have all of the repertoire selected, I sit down and make an outline of the entire lesson sequence, starting from the day of the performance and working backward. I literally sit at my desk with a bunch of post-it notes and go lesson by lesson. I always know that my final two lessons are going to be some variation of a run-through, so that's always where I start.
Next, I go through my list of repertoire, along with the extractable elements of each, and compare them to my rhythmic and melodic sequences. I fill in any presentation moments in my sequence and then work backward from that to make sure I have enough preparation activities so that my students are ready for that presentation moment.
The last thing I do when inserting repertoire into my sequence is build in extension activities. Whether these be adding Orff instruments or creating a B section with rhythm cards, I think it's important to make sure that there are opportunities for extension and synthesis, even during concert preparation.
Creating meaningful performance opportunities for our students can be hard. But it doesn't need to be. If you are looking at the amount of pre-planning I am doing and thinking that I'm crazy, I get it. It's a decent chunk of work on your end up-front. But, I promise that the work that you put in at the beginning of the process will be well worth it.
I love using technology in my classroom to help reinforce musical concepts. There are so many great resources out there that make it easy for students to be creative with the help of technology such as iPads and Chromebooks.
When I started including technology in my classroom, I knew that I wanted to make sure anything I was including served a purpose in my classroom. I think it can be easy to insert technology into our lessons, but sometimes we miss the mark when it comes to making sure that we are using technology in a way that supports our curriculum rather than replacing it.
I'm not going to sit here and pretend that I have all of the answers, because I definitely don't. What I will do is share some of my favorite ways to implement meaningful technology in my music classroom.
Incredibox is a great web-based activity to explore looping and ostinato. Students drag a shirt with a different symbol onto a performer which determines what the performer will loop.
This is a great way to explore a capella singing too! I usually pull this out when I talk about a capella singing and groups like Pentatonix with my 5th and 6th graders, but this site could also be used for younger and older ages.
2. Staff Wars
I have students ask me to play Staff Wars almost every week! I use this game to help my students practice identifying the notes on the Treble Staff, although you can also set it for Bass and Alto Clefs!
One thing that is great about Staff Wars is that you can customize it to meet your students where they are. For instance, I turn off ledger lines when I use this game with my fourth graders, which helps them focus on what they really need to know now.
If you've never tried using Staff Wars before, I highly suggest it! You can download it for free on PC/Mac (I project mine onto my interactive white board) or you can download it on iPad for 99 cents!
Chrome Music Lab is my absolute favorite way to use technology in my classroom. There are so many great experiments (think of them more like individual Apps) on this free website!
Some of my favorite experiments are great for composition and musical exploration. One of my favorite ways to use the Chrome Music Lab is with Task Cards! These are great for centers rotations or group work, as it lets students explore at their own pace.
I also do a project each year with my fifth graders where they create compositions using the Songmaker experiment and then they practice and perform the compositions on color-coded instruments. I find this to be incredibly helpful at bridging the gap between music technology and some of the more 'traditional' musical modalities.
Implementing technology into our music curriculum can be a great way to bring 21st century skills into the music room. I doubt that many teachers would argue that we should exclude technology completely from our lessons.
However, I do believe it is important that we use technology in a way that is purposeful and not just for the sake of including technology. When I'm considering including technology into a lesson, I ask myself "why am I including this?" Does it help solve a problem? Does it engage a different learning modality? Or am I just including this for the sake of including a piece of technology?
I love using picture books in my classroom. It's a great way to promote literacy in my students, but it's also a phenomenal way to reinforce musical concepts in a different modality. What's great about picture books in the music classroom is that pretty much any book with a rhyme scheme can be easily included into our lessons. Beyond that, there are so many books that cover musical concepts and composers.
While there are so many great books that can be used in the music classroom, I wanted to share a few of my absolute favorites and how I use them in my classroom.
1. Please Baby Please, Spike Lee and Tonya Lewis Lee
I had to start out by sharing my all-time favorite book in my classroom. This book by Spike Lee and Tonya Lee Davis is perfect for introducing Ta and Ti-Ti. As the story progresses, the rhythms change their order. I love having my students repeat the words back to me in rhythm when we are working on one sound and two sounds on a beat. This book also has one page that has a quarter rest in it, so I like to use it to see if students can tell why that one page sounds different, which to me is a clue that we are working towards being ready for the presentation of the quarter rest.
2. The Remarkable Farkle McBride, John Lithgow
If this book isn't already in your classroom library, stop what you are doing and go order it! This is such a great book for introducing the instrument families. It's also useful for describing what an orchestra and conductor are.
Farkle McBride starts out as a very young boy that wants to play an instrument. However, he can't seem to find one that he wants to stick with. He tries a bunch of different instruments throughout the story, but eventually he ends up being the stand-in conductor of the orchestra. It's then that young Farkle realizes that he enjoys being able to lead the different instruments together.
3. The Crabfish, adapted by John Feierabend
John Feierabend adapted a lot of really great song tales into children's books as a part of the First Steps in Music curriculum. I have a few of these song tales in my classroom, but one of my favorites is The Crabfish. The pictures are beautiful, and I truly believe that this adaptation does the original song tale justice.
I use this with some of my preschool and Cross-Cat classes, but I think it's also great for some older classes due to its minor modality.
4. Chicka Chicka Boom Boom, Bill Martin Jr & John Archambault
Ok, so this one is a classic. This book was always one of my absolute favorites as a child, and I love that I'm able to share it in my classroom. This book is great for teaching Ta and Ti-Ti. This is also a book that a lot of students have read before, so I've noticed that students get really excited when they see a book they recognize.
Becca over at Becca's Music Room has a great lesson on using this book to practice notating Ta and Ti-Ti. Go ahead and check that out too!
5. There Was An Old Lady Who Swallowed A Fly, Lucille Colandro
This is one of my favorite series of books that are easy to include into the music classroom. I like to start out the year with this particular book in the series, and then sprinkle in some of the other books in the series as the years go on.
The seasonal versions of these books are great at continuing the song tale throughout the year. It's also great at showing students how songs can be parodied and changed to create something new.
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