What’s going on in my classroom: spring 2017… quite a lot on assessment but other stuff too

In case you’re at all interested, I thought it might be good to return to the ‘what I’m up to at the moment’ theme – because so many music teachers are so isolated in their work, it’s always nice to have a chance to be nosey about what other people are doing. So here’s what I’m doing right now.

I know I promised more on the dark art of shitistics – scroll down for the meaty assessment stuff!

Numbers for EVERYTHING

Well, pitch and rhythm. This has developed out of a SingUp warmup called ‘1-121’ – essentially it involves playing around with pitches within a scale, using numbers. Sounds boring, right? WRONG! It is brilliant. There are so many permutations! You can:

  • do rounds
  • build up chords
  • talk endlessly about major/minor, adding 7ths, dissonance, consonance
  • do inversions (one group sings from 1, the other from 8)
  • move about in parallel triads (three groups, one starts on 1, one on 3, one on 5, sing up to 8 and back down to 1, and then back to where you started – leave out all the 7s for a really great effect that is complex enough to keep everyone concentrating)
  • practise holding a harmony line
  • learn about creating your own harmonies for whatever melody you like, because you know about 3rds and 6ths…
  • learn about key changes (the ‘1’ moves to a different pitch – bang)
  • use it when you’re teaching a song – this is so useful! You can learn the whole thing with numbers first, including harmony parts. You can even then translate this to instruments – particularly handy if you have transposing instruments… as long as you know where ‘your’ 1 is, away you go!

Also, you can combine numbers 1-4 (pitch) with beats of the bar – hold up 4 fingers and students need to sing note 4 on the 4th beat, etc. (use a backing track – that’s another thing – there are now so many useful backing tracks, in every key, tempo, and conceivable style, on YouTube – you are very likely to find something that is perfect for what you want to do)

Rhythm: my new favourite way to start a lesson is to put on a piece of music (anything, but perhaps related to what we’re doing) and get them to ‘find the 1’ and clap on it. This develops into finding other beats, doing different sounds on different beats, incorporating the ‘ands’ (the second half of each beat). I have some classes that clap on 2 and 4 no matter what number you ask for! So focussing on this at the start of the lesson is a great way to get them tuned in and thinking actively about the music, before we move on to other things.

Musical Futures: Just Play, and how you might build in assessment

Yes, I mentioned this in my last post, but feel I must come back to it here. I cannot tell you just how much I love this! Just Play is a set of whole-class performing resources from Musical Futures that involves students playing any combination of keyboards, guitars, ukuleles, bass, chair drums, and vocals, all with playalong videos. We are currently using it with year 7, 8 AND 9, because it is so good we didn’t want anyone to miss out!  If you haven’t seen it, you can download some sample materials from the MF website here.

Why do I love this so much? It is really musical. It engages students in improving their instrumental skills, their ability to play in time and respond to visual cues, and moves them on quickly in a way that they find satisfying. It is super-differentiatable (I’ll come back to this in a moment). The resources are great, and although you have to pay for them, they are very much worth it for the return that you get. Plus, the kids LOVE it! So, let’s say we’re working on Uptown Funk. This only has two chords, but there are many changes in texture that you need to watch for. Students are arranged around the room on all the instruments, following the video and playing along. I can differentiate for individuals by:

  • getting them just to play on beat 1 of each bar if they need time for chord changes
  • getting them to strip back to just root notes
  • use a sponge under the 4th, 5th, and 6th strings of the guitar to simplify chords: you only have to worry about strings 1, 2 and 3 because the others are muted by the sponge
  • get them to play a more ‘authentic’ strumming pattern if they can
  • taking out the sponge and asking them to try ‘full’ guitar chords
  • on keys, ask them to try putting in a root note in the left hand while playing chords in the right hand
  • ask them them to try singing and playing at the same time
  • getting them to try different instruments

I have been doing some great video assessment of Just Play lessons. I don’t want stress to assess, but it’s nice to chart progress sometimes, plus students do find it motivating. So I video a Just Play performance, making sure I get everyone in. I don’t have to try to make notes while they’re playing, I can watch it back later (it doesn’t take long). Then I can create a chart that looks like this:


The numbers here are only a shortcut to the colours – it’s these that are the important bits. Red means ‘not yet’. Amber is ‘can do this’ and green is ‘can do this really well’ (there’s more on this below). Generally there are fewer reds by the third week, so if I wanted to ‘prove’ progress (which I really hate doing, but I know a lot of teachers have to) you could put that in your pipe and smoke it.

I can track what they’re up to and give them personalised objectives, like this:


Moving upwards and onwards with assessment

If you want to know all the ins and outs of where I’m at with KS3 ‘life after levels’, then it is outlined in the webinar above, that I did in conjunction with Music Excellence London  and the ISM Trust in January. If you’ve read about radar diagrams and the way that I’ve been using them in previous posts, it’s all about how that is evolving. If you are a fan of the idea of shitistics then watch the last 10 mins or so. I couldn’t say ‘shitistics’ itself in the webinar but you’ll get the idea!

In case you don’t have time to watch the vid, here are the highlights:

  1. Moving to a 3-point system. Before, everything was marked on a 1-5 scale (where 5 is great and 1 is terrible). I’ve changed this now, to a 3-point scale: 3-point-radar-2017

There are still 12 things round the edge – we need 12, our projects are a whole term long. I don’t ever attempt to assess all 12 at once! The main difference is the 3-point scale: ‘not yet’, ‘can do’ and ‘can do really well’. I really like using this. Taking numbers out of the whole thing is good. I like that ‘not yet’ is the lowest one. It all makes sense to everyone and is really simple.

2. All the things round the outside are selected from a list that I’ve now compiled – one of the things I’ve had to do to fit in with the way that we’re moving towards doing KS3 assessment at my school is to create a PLC (personalised learning checklist – although they’re not really personalised – this whole idea is a PiXL thing, for better or worse): this is essentially a list of the skills, knowledge, and concepts that we want KS3 to be all about. Each department had to fill in a jigsaw – here is ours:

music-ks3-jigsaw-revisedI also used the ISM framework for curriculum design and assessment at KS3 (it’s here) which is brilliant – as a process to work through, with its ‘big questions’, I can’t recommend it highly enough.

So, after all that, I came up with a list of all the things that are important enough that we want to assess them. The things round the outside of the radars are selected from these, appropriate to the content of the topic. Over time, we’ll cover all of them, and a picture builds up of where each student is with their skills – can they do each thing at all, do it really well, or not yet? So much more musical, human and real than saying ‘you’re a 3b’.

Bob Marlead


Kids cannot coil jack leads properly, and my attempts to teach them to do so were causing me great frustration. The solution – Bob Marlead. Like all the best ideas, I stole this one, but it has revolutionised lead storage in my classroom. Just stick it on Bob! Made for us out by our fab caretaker Kevin out of a laminated Google Images pic of Bob stuck to a board with two bits of dowel sticking out to hang the leads on. A sequel featuring Alice Cooper will be coming to the classroom next door very soon!



  1. […] To address this we formulated a list of twenty-seven musical chunks that we could teach students and observe them demonstrating to get to our end point. We grouped these into the following musical disciplines: singing, playing, improvising and composing. In each discipline the skills are listed from easiest to execute to most challenging. Formatted in this way the chunks form a progression framework (Table 2). This framework draws on the excellent work of the ISM and Jane Werry! […]


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