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Smartest Thing I Ever Did – Using Smiley Face Stickers


Holding students accountable in a middle school music program is an on-going challenge for music educators. In collaboration with another music colleague, in a middle school setting, we developed a communication tool that helped students, parents, and teachers keep track of individualized goals, progress, and achievement. We discovered that small steps—accompanied with positive feedback—contributed to engaged students, satisfied parents, and clear, daily lessons.


Several years ago I was privileged to work with Scott Schlup; he directed the bands and I directed the orchestras. This rewarding work was due, in part, to having a creative colleague who enjoyed the challenge of pursuing new ideas as much as I did. Such an energized environment shaped us both into mature directors and impacted the quality of our instruction.


Pass-Off Cards Among the creative, unique ideas we tried was a smart, practical management tool that helped us implement the curriculum. Concepts developed in my previous position and refinements added by Scott massaged the idea that eventually became known as a “Pass- Off ” card, (see Figure 1). In addition to their ability to communicate, hold students accountable and show progress, the cards supported individualized learning plans.


Pass-Off cards were printed onto cardstock using school colors to represent the different ensemble levels. Cardstock was important for two reasons. The heavier paper could withstand repeated handling and use during an entire semester, and it conveyed to students that this was an important document. On the first day of class, Pass-Off cards were presented to the students with their handbook, method book and other materials. One side of the card included expected first- quarter accomplishments and the other side included second-quarter skills, thus making the Pass-Off card good for an entire semester.


The Pass-Off card became a snapshot of a student’s progress throughout the semester. The teacher, student, and parent(s) handled the Pass-Off card every week, making it a weekly progress report, an important


48 Becoming a Musician


I emphasized to students the importance of acquiring points as a way to accomplish music skills. Everybody started with nothing and the goal was to build up their grade. I often compared this to acquiring musicianship skills. As musicians, we start the journey with little in terms of talents, but through hard work and dedication we acquire the necessary skills to become accomplished. This adventure does not happen overnight. Nobody is born with great skills, but rather every good musician commits himself or herself to work daily and repetitively on those skills until they become accomplished.


As a young man, Shinichi Suzuki (1898-1998) studied violin in Berlin, Germany. When reminiscing about those early days, he often wrote about his lack of ability. Despite many


October/November 2015


communication, and an accountability tool for all interested parties. Most importantly, the cards helped students celebrate their accomplishments and plan future work, making them accountable for their music learning.


Cards were collected on Mondays and returned to students on Tuesdays. Progress made during the previous week was recorded in the computer and then marked on the card with a “smiley face” sticker if a student earned full points, or a number of acquired points for lesser achievements. There is something encouraging about filling out a card with these visual reminders of a job well done, and the middle school students seemed motivated by a smiley face.


Figure 1


Editor’s Note: This article appears as one of a series written especially for Ala Breve by experts in the field of music education. by Matthew H. Spieker


months of hard work, Suzuki felt he made no progress and eventually decided he was without talent. “Without talent, trying so hard, every day – ‘it’s not worth it,’ I told myself. I felt that I had no ability, and wanted to die” (Suzuki, 1983, p.35). Suzuki eventually learned this thinking served as an excuse for avoiding work. He later writes, “Every child can be educated; it is only a matter of the method of education. Anyone can train himself; it is only a question of using the right kind of effort” (p.36). The Pass-Off card served as a tool that helped keep students on track and use the “right kind of effort.”


Practice The first section on the Pass-Off card displayed nine lines for the nine weeks of practice the student was to complete for the quarter (see Figure 2). Students were required to commit a minimum of 30 minutes per weekday and 30 minutes over the weekend resulting in three hours of weekly practice. If a student didn’t accomplish the three hours, then points were awarded incrementally based on how much they practiced. The information letter to the parents asked them to keep a record of their student’s daily practice, and to only give credit for actual daily practice. Bunching together all three hours of practice on Sunday afternoon defeats the purpose of the critical, daily discipline of practice. Students earned points based on the total amount of practice for that week and smiley faces were reserved for more than three hours. Parents had to sign the card every week acknowledging they had seen the card and their child had practiced for that time amount. Next to the specific week of practice, I asked students to fill in skills I wanted the class to accomplish that week. Sometimes, I would have students identify their own issues such as technique they needed to work on or Pass- Offs still to be completed. Individualized learning was a buil t-in element of the plan.


Figure 2


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