Alphabet Soup

PBL. CBL. RAFT. GRASPS. UOI. FBI. SOS. Whew! Nowadays, we educators have to navigate the alphabet soup of teaching and learning. There’s so much to keep up with! So much so, that in my music room, I’ve designed my own word wall – for me, NOT the students – so I can remember the jargon. After reading the articles on problem-based, project-based and challenged-based learning, I’ve discovered that the main tenets overlap in that they all share a similar goal of applying knowledge and skills to a real life situation, collaboration among peers, teachers serve as a mentor or facilitator, and so forth. There are slight differences, but, as we say here in the Middle East, they’re “Same, same!”

Using the RAFT summative assessment model, I recently embarked on a project with my students. I wasn’t aware at the time, but knowing what I know now, it can be categorized under project-based learning.

Task: You are an entertainment company. You are to choose a short story and perform it for the school community. As a class, you must organize yourselves as the the actors/actresses, artists and musicians. You will perform this story in [insert date here]. Good luck!

Personally, it was challenging to ‘let go’ of the reigns. I became a mentor – a facilitator. I supported by taking notes and documenting their thinking and their process; but, the majority of the work was student led. They took ownership of their roles because they were able to choose what and how to contribute to the group. Come October 2018, the enhanced PYP will be introduced where student agency is now a major component. Woohoo! Look at us being ahead of the game!

As weeks went by, I was able to sit with the students and create backdrops, props and masks. Little did I know, my quiet Abdulla* was a fantastic artist. Even the class didn’t know that we had a hidden gem! We discovered the natural leaders of the group because they ended up “directing” everyone on stage by telling them where to go and where to face. My little ensemble of musicians discussed what sounds effects and melodies would help the story come to life. Stepping back and seeing the magic happen was a real treat. The process of organizing, creating and executing the short story and seeing its success was evidence enough for me to reevaluate my teaching approach.  

After the performance, we had a moment of reflection. Could it have been better? Yes. Do the students want to embark on another project? Absolutely! The students had purpose. They wanted to share their talents for the school community. They embraced the idea of performing for their little brothers, sisters, cousins in the younger grades. They wanted to “attend meetings” with the artists or the musicians to discuss their ideas. They felt that the meetings made them feel as if they were “adults” in the real world. (Believe me, kid. You’ll regret saying that later). They gained social skills, communication skills, thinking skills, etc., ALL of the skills necessary to achieve a common goal. Maybe there IS something to this whole alphabet soup of teaching and learning…

But what about me?

Thinking back, I feel that I’ve missed out on this whole problem-based, project-based, challenge-based learning approach. It would have been fun to take part in something that my students get to experience now. If given the opportunity, training teachers using this approach would allow us (especially us as children of the late 80’s and 90’s) to participate in this learning model. If given a task and a deadline, I would seize the opportunity to take on a role that I choose, contribute by utilizing my best skills and learning alongside my peers. Who knows what I could have learned and how I could have turned out! But alas, we can glance at the past, but we must move forward to ensure our students can learn and grow so they can navigate their future.

Jack Ma said it best during his talks at the recent World Economic Forum. Take a look for yourselves. Have a great week!



I admit it. I was a bit skeptical at first when reading about digital storytelling and how it can be done in a music context. However, like (or unlike) Archimedes in the bath, I might have finally arrived at my eureka moment because digital storytelling could be summative assessment option to an existing unit of inquiry. After all, we’re all about student agency, right?

Image via Pixabay (Erika Wittlieb)

My previous blog discusses visual literacy and imagination. The provocation for this unit of inquiry utilises the power of images to stimulate ideas, feelings and sounds; however, what if it was the other way around? I could begin with a musical excerpt and students will create a narrative based on what they hear. One of my go-to listening samples is The Carnival of the Animals by Camille Saint-Saëns. The possibilities are endless with this particular set of tunes! I’ve even used this resource with my kindergarten students. The students draw what they think is happening in the music.  I ask, “What do you see in your mind when you hear this music?” or “How does this music make you feel?” SURELY if the kinders can come up with a piece of visual artwork upon hearing a piece of music, the older students can not only create a visual but also write a short story.

KG sample student work

Because there are heaps of musical variety in The Carnival of the Animals collection, students are bound to find one they can connect with to create a digital story. In music, we can discuss an assortment of musical elements such as form or mood. Obviously, a link to reading and language arts is evident with their story writing skills or even storyboarding skills. Visual arts also take a role in this assessment if the students were to create a piece of artwork. And of course, the creation of these digital stories would include the technology perspective by discussing photo rights/fair useiMovie skills and so forth.

Now. I challenge you to take 60 seconds from your busy schedule to listen to ONE of the musical excerpts below. I purposefully renamed the tracks so you will not have an image in mind prior to hearing the music sample. If you’re keen to know what they’re called, scroll to the bottom of the blog. Do YOU think you can create a short story based on The Carnival of the Animals? How else can I improve this new summative assessment option? 

Looking forward to your thoughts!

The Carnival of the Animals by Camille Saint-Saëns


Sample 1: Aquarium

Sample 2: Characters with Long Ears

Sample 3: The Swan


It’s all fun and games until. . . Course 1 Final Project


I wanted to build upon a prior unit and focus on the process of creating a musical game by incorporating technology in the classroom. In this unit, the summative assessment task is the creation of an original musical game; however, the learning experiences leading up to it include collaboration, reflection and feedback via Google Classroom in order to introduce the concepts of “geeking out” and networks. Although it’s written in the PYP format, the unit plan shares the same principles and outcomes as UbD (Understanding by Design).

Assessment Task (using RAFTS)

You are the music teacher at Qatar Academy Al Wakra. Create an original game for your lower elementary students. Your game must include a title, form (rules of the game), skills, responsibilities and at least two musical elements of your choice. Be prepared to teach your game to the class in four week’s time. Good luck!

Technology Integration
  1.  Google Classroom will be used as a platform to provide resources (videos of games played in class and videos of children playing games from around the world).
  2. Google Classroom will be used for peer evaluation, reflection and teacher assessment. Not only will the students provide constructive feedback to each other in their own class, but to OTHER classes in the school as well . That will amount to SIXTY other students with whom they can collaborate with and enjoy each other’s games.

I chose this particular unit because it was a UOI that my students truly enjoyed. However, I wanted to take it to the next level. I was intrigued about the concepts of “geeking out” and networking after reading about their positive impact on student learning. In my previous post, Geeking Out: A Beginner’s Guide, I was toying around with the idea of introducing  the concepts in a structured way.  The students will collaborate with each other in class, but my hope is to extend the collaboration to other students as well.  Due to my school’s class structure, the classes, for the most part, stay together. There are limited opportunities for students to work with other students in the same grade. Implementing Google Classroom will break down the classroom walls and offer a wider range of perspectives. The musical games unit will, hopefully, be enhanced by the support of Google Classroom due to its collaborating and networking capabilities.

Unit of Inquiry: Music Games

Geeking Out: A Beginner’s Guide

Reading the section “Geeking Out” from the Living and Learning with New Media triggered my curiosity whether or not MY own students can get a taste of what geeking out is all about – albeit in a structured way. Mind you, I teach lower elementary students. The idea of just letting them loose on the world wide web to find a group or network to interact with is ludicrous. But being that this week’s objective is classroom application and building our PLNs, here are my initial thoughts:

Teacher constructs a performance task using RAFT (Role, Audience, Format, Task): You are a composer for an advertising company. Your job is compose a short jingle, a melody, for a tv commercial about children’s toys. Write a melody, perform it on an instrument and video record it for the company’s approval. Good luck!

Naturally, prior to assigning this task, my students and I would have worked on building essential musical elements such as rhythm, pitch, notation, etc. When the students finally receive the task and are on their way to composing and performing, the geeking out phase begins. In the article, “geeking out requires time, space, and resources to experiment and follow interests in a self-directed way.” It also requires “access to specialised communities of expertise.” My PLNs enter the scene. A music teacher in another school has the same performance task. They, too, have been working on building their essential musical elements. And so we combine our powers. Our students are now connected in this semi-controlled network. The students are collaborating by sharing melodies, giving and providing feedback, and experimenting with new and learned techniques. Our students are now engaged in a “mode of learning that is peer-driven [and…] gaining knowledge and expertise in specific areas of interest.”

Although the idea is in its infancy, I feel that it has potential. Connecting our students in this specialised community (through music composition) will allow the students to “hone their craft within groups of like-minded and expert peers.” They gain more than just thinking, communication, and social skills; in addition, they have embodied the very traits of the IB Learner Profile, specifically, inquirers, thinkers, communicators, risk takers, open-minded and reflective students. And of course, they got a taste of what geeking out is all about.

By design, this performance task can be transferred to us as adults. Andragogy, conceived by Malcolm Knowles, is an attempt to develop a theory for adult learning. For example,

  1. As adults, there is a need to explain why specific things are taught (for students who ask why we are learning and for what purpose).
  2. The instruction should be task-oriented instead of memorisation (which should be the case with young learners).
  3. Instruction should take into account the wide range of different backgrounds (hence differentiation in our classrooms).
  4. Since adults are self-directed, instruction should allow learners to discover things for themselves, providing guidance and help when mistakes are made (although it will take time and practice to become independent learners, the same should apply to our students).

Nowadays, I feel that there is a likeness to young and adult learners. Gone are the days of lectured learning and rote memorisation. I know some would argue that some facts should be memorised (i.e. math facts), but the time has come where those facts can take a back seat to practical application and problem solving skills. Besides, that’s what Google is for, right?

What are YOUR thoughts on this method of concept-based instruction for students young and old?