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This week, I started updating my curriculum maps because 1) it was time, 2) the curriculum format had changed, and 3) the standards had recently changed in the past two years. The newest item in the mapping program was to add essential questions to each unit.
What is an essential question?
An essential question is one that cannot be answered with one answer. An essential question has several different answers that change over time. It also does not need to be answered in one lesson since the question can be an overarching question. Some essential questions can also cover high-order thinking skills found in Bloom’s Taxonomy. For elementary music classes, some essential questions range from:
- What is a melody?
- What is good singing?
- How can music tell a story?
- How can music describe a mood?
- How does tempo effect a piece of music?
- What is the function of music in other cultures?
- What is music?
- Is all music sound?
- How does creating and performing music differ from listening to music?
How should I address them during the lesson?
Elementary music educators use a variety of methods to address essential questions in their lessons. Some place them in their lesson plans and address them during the lesson. Others post them in their classrooms and reference them when they are addressed in the lesson. Others use them as questions to ask the students at the beginning of the lesson or the beginning of the school year, if the question will be answered throughout the year. And, other music educators use the essential questions to relate to real life experiences.
Where can I find examples of essential questions for music classes?
Recently, I performed a google search about this topic and found many websites where music educators have listed their essential questions that they are addressing throughout the school year. They varied greatly, but gave me a lot to think about. I realized that music educators have a variety of ways of creating their essential questions from using their lesson objectives to referencing high order of thinking skills in their questions. My current list of websites that list essential questions in music can be found on my pinterest page: https://www.pinterest.com/awillisburns/music-enduring-understandingsessential-questions/
Why do we have to address essential questions?
Though there are many answers and opinions from music educators about this particular question, I thoroughly enjoyed reading about this topic from Robert Adams, a public school music educator for 31 years and currently working on his D.M.A in music education at Boston University. Robert states, “a good essential question bridges the gap between subject content and student interest, relevancy, and applicability. It raises a question that is both at the heart of the discipline, and of high interest and relevancy to students. Essential questions focus content in a direction that is most useful to the learners, and elevates knowledge and skills beyond the theoretical to the practical.”
“A good essential question bridges the gap between subject content and student interest, relevancy, and applicability. It raises a question that is both at the heart of the discipline, and of high interest and relevancy to students. Essential questions focus content in a direction that is most useful to the learners, and elevates knowledge and skills beyond the theoretical to the practical.”
An essential question can assist the students in 1) finding a deeper meaning in the lesson and 2) from this deeper meaning, the students recall the activities and lessons that address the essential question for years to come. An example of this is my second grade music class that focuses on the immigration of the von Trapp family. During this unit, we explore the essential question of, “What is the life of an immigrant?” This is explored in music class by the students learning and experiencing the life of a von Trapp child, who had to sing for a living after the parents lost their money in the stock market crash. They also experience how a von Trapp child felt when they left their home country to immigrate to America as a singing group. In addition, they experience what the life of a professional singer must go through in order to continuously perform live and how it must have to felt to leave their home country (which was going through tremendous changes) to professionally sing and live in a new country. Though some music educators might criticize an essential question that has more to do with social studies than music, when the students experience the lessons, they realize that this social-studies-essential-question has more to do with music than social studies. It is a great unit and one that the students recall for years to come. As Robert states on his blog post about this topic:
What essential questions are you addressing in your music classes?
Amy M. Burns is an elementary music educator, clinician, author, and musician. She currently works at Far Hills Country Day School in Far Hills, NJ teaching PreK through Grade 3 general music, grade 5 instrumental music, and grades 4-8 instrumental band. She is the author of Technology Integration in the Elementary Music Classroom, Help! I am an Elementary Music Teacher with a SMART Board, and Help! I am an Elementary Music Teacher with One or more iPads! She is also an author for Online Learning Exchange™ Interactive Music powered by Silver Burdett. She has given numerous presentations on integrating technology into the elementary music classroom as well as being a keynote speaker for music technology conferences in Texas, Indiana, St. Maarten, and Australia. She is the recipient of the 2005 TI:ME Teacher of the Year Award, the 2016 NJ Master Music Teacher Award, the 2016 NJ Governor’s Leader in Arts Education Award, and the 2017 Non-Public School Teacher of the Year Award. You can find out more about Amy at her website: amymburns.com