Flexible pathways in digital music
They, along with innovative educator Raymond Cole, shared what makes this project-based learning class such a hit.
A full transcript follows below.
In this episode of The 21st Century Classroom, in tiny Randolph VT, students are turning digital audio producers, complete with a CD release party and plays on local radio.
And they’re doing it in school.
Bailey: Right now, I’m currently working on a more trance piece. If you know DeadMau5, he’s a trance deejay and he makes kind of trance-y song. It makes you, like, get upbeat but it’s kind of like you’re lost in the world. That’s what I’m working on right now. And it’s very… It has live synths and pads, which is all very airy.
Randolph Union High School has begun offering a digital music class that uses a technique known as project-based learning to support students in learning about music, technology.
And more importantly, how they best learn in a classroom setting.
Emma: Well, usually, we come together in the beginning of class and do something together. Maybe we’ll analyze a piece of music, share some of our music, talk about tempo, chord progressions. Then, we branch off a d either work in collaboration with each other or alone. And that’s the time when you really start to need to be… Like your mind goes into its creative space.
I think something I really struggle with sometimes is that writer’s block sort of thing. I think if anybody, or any other student’s experience that while writing music, it’s a really real thing. And it’s hard to overcome and it can feel really frustrating. But if you have somebody to collaborate with and say,
“Hey, come on, will you listen to my piece?”
It can be really helpful to gather other people’s input and really help move along the creative process.
Raymond Cole is teaching Randolph’s digital music course as part of the school’s focus on project-based learning. Project-based learning is a type of personalized learning that fuses student passions with concrete actions in the world.
Students begin each project-based learning cycle by focusing on an idea they want to bring to life in the world, creating meaningful change.
Raymond Cole: My name is Raymond Cole. I am the music teacher here at RUHS, Randolph Union High school. I teach grade seven through 12. I teach jazz band, concert band, choir, digital music, and then a seventh grade general music class here at the school. I have done music technology in the past at other schools that I have taught at, and it’s been a really big part of my musical growth since I started doing music. I thought it was really really cool being able to teach a project based learning class at PBL. I usually teach most of my classes through projects anyways, so it kind of really fit really, really well.
At the beginning of this year I went to a weeklong professional development session on PBLs and project-based learning classes, and learned how to teach a project based learning class, and ended up coming up with this idea, then working backwards from it. And it ended up working out really well.
Cole has found that project-based learning’s focus on creating, making and doing has changed how he approaches his role in the classroom.
But not the content.
Raymond Cole: I’m really more of a facilitator in this class than a teacher. Very rarely do I spend a lot of time in front of the students lecturing or giving out information that way. I usually build projects that allow them to figure out the information for themselves. I ended up having our big end-of-the-year exhibition project planned out, where we were going to create a CD and then broadcast it on a radio station and worked backwards from there.
We started out the year basically saying,
“Okay, this is where we need to be. What do we already know that will help us reach our goal, and what do we need to know in order to reach our goal?”
I already had an idea of what we did, but I wanted the students to be able to kind of figure that out for themselves, and then from there I structured projects that allowed them to gain this knowledge through doing the project. We started out on some more basic softwares, and working with loops, and already premade music, and they had to piece together.
That way I was able to teach the structures of music through a non-traditional sense instead of just saying, “This is form and this is how it sounds.” I have them say, “Okay this is form” and build a song using these pre-made loops to emulate that form. It’s all learning through doing versus learning through absorbing.
A key component of project-based learning requires that students undertake projects that are both personally meaningful and authentically connected to the world around them in some way.
For these students, focusing on their tracks included anticipating releasing them as a digital mixtape, complete with a potential CD release and outreach to local radio stations.
Willam: With this, we have to email and talk to people, call and get communicating with the radio station. It’s been a lot easier to know how to set stuff up. Like groups, parties, releases and stuff like that.We had Adam, one of the students, email the radio station, collaborate with them. Like:
“When do you want it to happen? When is a good time? What’s going to happen? How do you want us to set it up? What do you need?”
Just stuff like that.
Emma: I hope to be able to share something that I feel really proud of and say, “Yeah, I wrote this.” And be a little surprised at where I’ve come. I hope to take away a lot more music theory knowledge of more tempo and stuff like that, and harmony, and just music theory that I could take away to use in the traditional music world.
Meet Emma. She plays multiple traditional musical instruments, and this class is her first foray into digital music.
But she’s already noticed a change in how she approaches both disciplines, and creative effort in general.
Emma: Okay. My name is Emma. I’m in 10th grade and I go to Randolph Union High School.
I had been playing several instruments since I was younger. I mostly played the flute, but I do play a little bit of piano and guitar here and there, and music is just something that really interests me, and I happened to have this period free. Digital music is something I had never really tried out so I figured, “Why not take a chance?” It ended up being something I like. I’m really glad I decided to do it.
Usually, we come together in the beginning of class and do something together. Maybe we’ll analyze a piece of music, share some of our music, talk about tempo, chord progressions. Then, we branch off in either work in collaboration with each other or alone. And that’s the time when you really start to need to be… Like your mind goes into its creative space.
I think something I really struggle with sometimes is that writer’s block sort of thing. I think if anybody, or any other student’s experience that while writing music, it’s a really real thing, and it’s hard to overcome and it can feel really frustrating. But if you have somebody to collaborate with and say, “Hey, come on, will you listen to my piece?” It can be really helpful to gather other people’s input and really help move along the creative process.
When I first started the class, it was a little hard to share my music because music can be a really vulnerable thing. I think I’ve grown though since then like, become more proud of the pieces I’m making; I don’t think that any of the challenges are bad though.
I think that’s helped translate into like other classes or just life in general, like being more proud of what I’m doing and taking pride in the creative process. Yeah.
Bailey: After you make something, and you like it, and you hear it, and you hear it… And if you show someone else and they like it, then that’s probably the most satisfying. As long as you like it. Then when you hear someone else confirm that your feeling is right. Then that’s probably the most satisfying part.
Project-based learning provides a space for different levels of learners to take enjoyment from the shared, collective experience of building. In project-based learning, when you have a shared purpose, it creates something greater than the sum of its parts.
Randolph senior Max came to the class with a very different set of musical experiences, and has taken a different pathway through it.
Max: Yeah, I started producing music on my own when I was in 8th grade and I learned a couple of different types of software. I mostly taught myself how to do it all. I started releasing music on SoundCloud under my name and released an E.P. when I was in 10th grade. I’ve learned all the technology mostly on my own and over the course of it, I got a really solid understanding of using multiple kinds of software.
So I signed up for this PBL digital music class because I’m actually someone who’s been a music producer for a long time, and it’s always been a passion of mine. But it’s never been something that’s been taught at school. I haven’t really seen very other people getting into it. So, I signed up for this class to kind of be a resource, to help others learn and to have fun with people who are into something that I’m really into.
It’s been really good for me in this course to be able to help other people through every step of the process because we have people at every different skill level come into this class.
Yeah, this class isn’t so much about my own goals. I think I’m mostly in this class to really teach others what I know. I think it’s really important to have classes like this, and have this stuff being taught in schools because it enables people to express themselves musically and actually have a platform for that and not just have ideas but not be able to pursue them. I think that’s kind of why I’m in here, is to really make people want to take it seriously and inspire people.
— T. Elijah Hawkes (@ElijahHawkes) January 27, 2018
And for teacher Raymond Cole, all of these outcomes are a success for the class.
And for project-based learning at Randolph.
Raymond Cole: Well, with music it’s all very subjective. Success means a lot of different things. We actually had a discussion about what success was towards the beginning of the year. Because some people might think success would be being able to write their own song without any help and all that kind of stuff. Whereas some people would find success in being able to even understand what they are doing.
It really depends on the student, and I think what we ended up coming up with was success meant reaching the goal they had set for themselves before they started the project.
Being able to write the song that they wanted to write or convey the message they wanted to convey whether it’s through loops or through stuff that they wrote and it’s on varying levels too, which I thought was really cool because each student could kind of have their own measure of success as they went.
I basically tried to sculpt the beginning of the year in a way that everybody could be successful, and that everybody can learn what they needed to in order to progress. Which was really cool because that way I could kind of take my time being a new teacher here at Randolph. I could tell them, okay, this is what we are doing today. And then watch them figure it out on their own versus me having to stand in front of them. Then test to see whether or not they’ve figured out what they are supposed to figure out.
Bailey is an 8th grader at Randolph and when he joined the class, had no prior musical experience.
But he’s already gotten deeply into the production side of things.
Bailey: Right now, I’m currently working on a more trance piece. If you know DeadMau5, he’s a trance deejay and he makes kind of trance-y song… it makes you like get upbeat but it’s kind of like you’re lost in the world. That’s what I’m working on right now. It has live synths and pads, which is all very airy. We’re using popular song form right now — which is intro, verse, chorus — but pretty much what I’m doing right now is I’m adding in the beginning a very mystic feel. Then it’s going to have a lead up, a drop, and it’s just going to hopefully blow your mind.
Obviously, I hope when we release it to the radio station people are like,
“Oh, this is fire!”
And want it. But I guess it’s all up in the air, it depends what people want. If they like it, I guess we’ll go from there.
That’s a key component of project-based learning — and really any transformative learning experience.
Students have the choice of what they learn, how they learn, and why it means something.
Bailey: Hopefully, after this year, I’m hopefully going to be coming back to this PBL, and so hopefully by then I will have a track that I am very proud of. I’m still working on my main track right now, but at a year’s time I hope I have at least a small collection of tracks that I’m really proud of.
This has been an episode of The 21st Century Classroom, podcast of the Tarrant Institute for Innovative Education, at the University of Vermont. Huge, unending thanks to Raymond Cole, Elijah Hawkes, and all the students in Randolph Union High School’s digital music class for their generosity and their patience. The episode was produced by Audrey Homan and Life LeGeros.
It has been a true pleasure to listen to these students and their work, and if you want to hear more of their tracks, head over to Soundcloud.com and look up “The Galloping Circus”. It’s the name under which Randolph’s students released their first collaborative album, “The First Act”. Give it a listen.