Learning Lessons: Adaptive Music Class

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Learning Lessons: Adaptive Music Class

Voice: July 2018

This story is part of a regular series, “Learning Lessons: Great ideas, Great schools,’’ that features educators who are doing great things or conducting great programs in Pennsylvania’s public schools. For other stories in the series go to www.psea.org/learningslessons.

“Welcome to music class; we make good choices here.”

When Andrew Vensel sings to greet the students in his adaptive music class, it lights up their faces. His voice carries easily across the large music room in Middletown Area High School as he provides positive reinforcement to each individual student with acknowledgement, eye contact, and a bright smile.

The welcome song serves as a way to prepare students for the class ahead – to greet them and allow them to greet each other, and to remind them to make good choices. It also lets them know it’s OK to have fun.

Collaboration sparks success

Vensel arrived at Middletown Area High School four years ago – the same year special education teacher Deanna Morder began at the Dauphin County school. In their first year, they collaborated with Vensel’s piano class, which performed a recital for Morder’s life skills class.  After the recital, Morder’s students hosted a reception for the piano class.

“This was a great activity for both groups of students,” Vensel said. “The students in piano class had a fantastic audience for their recital, and the students in life skills class were able to practice following direction in preparing reception goodies, proper audience etiquette, and the opportunity to socialize with similarly aged peers.”

After the success of their collaboration – and seeing the joy music brought to Morder’s students – the team of teachers created a class that would provide an age-appropriate music experience for the students in the life skills class. The class is purposefully not a curriculum, but rather is adaptive to meet the students’ needs.

“They all have different goals. They all have different needs. They all have different requirements,” Morder said. “It’s based on what they’re capable of doing.”

An interactive experience

Students in Vensel’s class are invited to move their bodies to the music, dance along, and find joy in their tasks.

“Music class is interactive, not just observed,” Morder said. “The music program was designed for students to be able to use their senses and use their bodies. It gets them involved, rather than just sitting at a desk and learning. It gets them up and moving.”

The students follow a visual schedule, which Vensel references during the class. It provides them with an expectation of what is coming next and allows them to prepare for the tasks ahead.

The welcome song allows students to use their voices and sign language to greet one another. It allows them to move their bodies in a calm way – swaying and dancing – while getting ready for the learning experience.

Working with instruments, such as egg shakers and Boomwhackers – hollow, color-coded, plastic percussion tubes – allows students to feel the beats in the music and actively participate.

Using Soundbeam, an assistive music technology, students can make sounds with their movement. The students are also given individualized tasks to work on at the keyboards. Some are learning songs, some are improvising with a set of rules (such as, play only the black keys), and one or two students have the opportunity for free expression. It is all based upon the individual students’ strengths.

Morder and Vensel work together to ensure that all learners can find success – whether they are more visual learners or sensory learners or tactile learners.

“Throughout the music class, we have different activities where I know each student can find success. We also have activities where I know each student is challenged,” Vensel said. “It’s important to make sure these students feel challenged, because if they don’t, they will get bored. And I want them to have a feeling of success, so they don’t grow frustrated.’’

Delivering joy

During Vensel’s class, students are exposed to music that is relevant to their lives as high school students.

“We use modern day songs that are on the radio to prepare these students for social events, such as prom or homecoming,” Vensel said. “These students will often listen to the radio at home or have that opportunity to enjoy music.”

Vensel also incorporates dancing so students are well-versed in the appropriate ways to move their bodies – another skill useful in high school.

“Seeing them be able to use the skills they learned in music class in social settings is awesome,” Morder said. “They attend the prom, and dance, interact, and enjoy the music.”

The upbeat manner in which Vensel greets his students for the welcome song is carried throughout the class in the positive behavior support plan he implements.

“There is a certain level of vulnerability, especially in music,” Vensel said. “They need the encouragement to keep going.”

He and Morder believe that positivity goes a long way in all classrooms.

“By having that positive reinforcement, it shows the students that we really care about them,” Morder said. “And we love what we do.”

As a music educator, Vensel finds the experience especially rewarding.

“The joy that music brings into their lives is just remarkable,” he said. 

Tip Sheet

Middletown Area EA members Andrew Vensel and Deanna Morder provide the following advice for those looking to start their own adaptive music class.

  • Collaborate. This course is not possible without the teamwork between the music teacher, special education teacher, support staff, and administration.
  • Get to know the students. Although the IEP is vital, students are more than just a document. Get to know their likes, dislikes, personalities, and behaviors.
  • Have a routine. This can be easily aided by a visual schedule.
  • Be flexible and celebrate learning. Not everything will go as planned; however, helping these students achieve success is highly rewarding.