Modern Band
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New York City teacher Katherine Stock teaches modern band at school that exclusively serves students with disabilities. Because her students have a wide variety of needs, customizing curriculum is key to student engagement and success.

For Stock, it’s not only important to individually understand students’ educational needs, she also wants her students to have more say in their own education. “I figure out what they need by learning who they are. You can’t do that until you know who they are,” Stock explains. “I never teach two classes the same way. And from year to year my curriculum drastically changes.”

Therefore, every year starts with assessment, but this must be done with care: “When assessing students, I have to make sure they don’t feel like they’re being judged,” Stock says. The framing is important in order to make students feel comfortable. She’ll tell students that she’s going to see where they’re at, rather than tell them they’re being tested. “We’ll do an activity, and as we go around, I’ll listen and focus on each kid one at a time, and I make a little mark on an assessment page,” she says. If anything else stands out, she’ll mark that too: “I’ll add little notes just so I have a starting point for them.”

Beyond that, video assessments help her keep track of student progress throughout the year. “For every single student I have a Google Drive folder,” Stock says. “Today I took a video of each student, and then I stuck it in the folder as something to look back on and something to show the parents.” Keep in mind, check your school’s protocol for videotaping students for portfolios and assessment to avoid any potential issues with parents, students, or administration.

Classroom culture is also key to success. “The students learn to treat each other with respect and kindness regardless of their ability,” she notes. From the beginning of the year, Stock teaches students to lift each other up, rather than to compete with one another: “It’s important that the students encourage someone who is struggling, rather than point them out. And we celebrate all the little things that they do.”

Because her students have a wide range of musical, intellectual, and physical abilities, Stock regularly needs to modify parts to make them easier or more challenging for students. The modern band instrumentation and music caters to this flexibility. “If it’s too simple, I won’t teach them a specific part. I’ll just pose questions,” she says. Because students aren’t working from a strict score, they can come up with their own parts based on what they hear. “I have to pose the questions, but it leads them to listen further and they’ll come up with some amazing stuff.”

The freedom of the modern band class also makes it easier to simplify parts, depending on the challenge. “If the song is in Ab, I’ll just change the key. If there are lots of changes, I’ll create a visual of the song structure and I’ll point to each section as it’s coming so they know what’s next,” Stock says. Her instruments are also color-coded. For example, the Boomwhacker C is red, so the C on the keyboard, guitar, and bass are all marked with a red sticker. “Most of my students use color coding. It works really well for a lot of students because they can identify colors before they can identify letters,” she adds. When a part is too complex for one student, she can also create opportunities for students to work together. “If the drum set part is too hard, I’ll have two drummers play, one on bass and snare and one on hi-hat. For guitar, sometimes we use capos, sometimes we use three-string chords.”

While Stock finds these adaptations useful for her students with disabilities, she thinks all teachers have something to learn from these teaching practices: “We’ll have something visually, aurally, tactilely, and movement-based for every single lesson and activity because all kids learn differently. If you can make each lesson have those things in it, it can provide more opportunity to reach every student in a class.”

Stock sees music class as a place where students with disabilities can fight the stigmas so often placed upon them. “A lot of people assume that a person with a disability can’t do a lot of things, which is not true,” she concludes.

Modern band class allows students to showcase their abilities to their parents and teachers in a way they may not be able to in other classes. “I had a father come up to me after a performance, and he cried. He said, ‘I didn’t know my son could do that.’ I had another student get on stage and sing Matisyahu, and the principal came up to me afterwards and she said, ‘He doesn’t speak. We didn’t know he could sing because he doesn’t speak.’”

Because it’s so adaptable and focuses on skills that aren’t often valued in other academic settings, modern band class allows every one of Stock’s students to shine. “The possibilities are endless,” she says.

Katherine Stock is a music teacher at a high school for students with disabilities ages 14-21 in Queens, New York. Spencer Hale is the senior manager of teaching and learning at Little Kids Rock.



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