Teacher Scholar Voices

A New Lens: The Power of Learning Conversations for Berkeley Music Teachers 

Teacher Scholar Voices

“I’d like you to imagine for a moment a music department where all teachers think deeply about student learning, and collaborate to improve instruction for all students. With the assistance of a group called Mills Teacher Scholars, we Berkeley music teachers have done just this. We’ve taken charge of our PD and after six years of working together we have a model of useful inquiry and collaboration that works for us. And it is making a difference for our students.”

Karen Wells opened her presentation at the Music Educators Workshop at the Weill Center, Carnegie Hall in New York in July 2019 with these words. Music educators from around the country gathered there over the summer to think together about how to improve music teaching in their classrooms, in their districts, and throughout the country.

Karen teaches music in the Berkeley Unified School District. She teaches third grade recorder, fourth and fifth grade instrumental music, high school band and orchestra, and AP music theory. She has, for many years, been a teacher leader in the Mills Teacher Scholars work in the Berkeley Music Department. The goal of the department has been to transform music class so that all students, particularly students of color, would want to continue to take music class when music becomes an elective in sixth grade. 

At the heart of Karen’s presentation, and at the heart of this teacher-led collaboration, is the learning conversation. 

What is a Learning Conversation? 

In a learning conversation, colleagues help a teacher, the public learner, grapple with an aspect of teaching that  the teacher is working to improve her teaching practice. 

The teacher brings student data, and colleagues bring new lenses, as they look at what is happening in the teacher’s classroom. Through skillful questions, colleagues help the teacher come to new understandings about how to improve their teaching.  

Inside a Music Teacher Learning Conversation

Karen took the audience right into a learning conversation among three music teachers, Alison Sawyer, Jan Davis, and Georgia Martin, to illustrate the power of this collaborative space. She shared a video of her colleagues talking together:

Alison wonders aloud if asking her fifth graders to play a piece in front of the class would lead to more of a sense of pride and ownership of their learning process. She shares a video of one of her students performing for the class and the audience’s response to the performance. 

After viewing the video clip, Jan notices the way in which the other students in the class are supporting the student who is playing. “I noticed there was a big improvement between the practice run and the performance. Also, I noticed one of the kids prompted her, ‘What are you playing for us?’ which helped her out. She forgot to announce it the first time but remembered in the second try.” 

In a learning conversation such as this one, a teacher has an opportunity to listen to colleagues as they notice particular aspects of her students’ learning. The value of hearing what her colleagues have noticed about her students’ actions and words is that this can help a teacher see something she hasn’t seen before, or it can validate something that she has noticed but not yet fully articulated. Karen continues: 

Georgia offers an observation about the culture Alison has created in the class. Students help each other out, which transforms the experience of performing in front of a group from a frightening one to a positive one. 

Alison ends with a realization about how she can transfer this low-stakes performance experience to their lives outside music class. “Performance anxiety arises in so many situations – even if you don’t play an instrument next year, you’re going to have to get up in front of the class and just having the tools and a little experience really helps.”

From Isolated to Collective  

It is all too rare in education to have colleagues see your classroom in action. This method of bringing colleagues together each month to share video data with one another leads to powerful learning for teachers. 

Colleagues see the student, see what is happening in the lesson, and then ask, “What do you want help thinking about?” The point of observing is to uncover student thinking, and for the teacher to open up new pathways forward. 

As a result of ongoing learning conversations, all 18 music teachers in the department have changed their practice to make students’ experience of learning music more engaging, more inclusive, and more meaningful. Here are just some of the practices that these teachers have developed, shared, and adopted: 

  • Building a positive and supportive community in the music classroom 
  • Making personal connections with students and their families to let students know that their music teacher sees them and cares about them
  • Helping students to own their own musical learning through individual goal-setting followed up by support from the teacher for the students’ chosen goal

The power of this collaborative work is that practices developed by individual teachers are collected and shared in an ongoing way to improve the teaching of all the teachers in the department. 

Karen Wells has been teaching music in the Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) for 26 years. She leads, in partnership with Mary Dougherty, the Berkeley High Band and Orchestra program. In leading this program, she not only nurtures the musicianship of the 220 students who have grown up playing music in BUSD, but provides a community for these musicians where they find a place of caring and creativity in their high school years. Karen also teaches AP Music Theory, and teaches instrumental music in third, fourth, and fifth grades. Karen is a mentor for other music teachers, both informally and as a BTSA support provider. She has received the Berkeley Public School Fund Teacher Fellowship and has been honored by the Berkeley Symphony. Karen is a professional clarinet player who performs with numerous regional orchestras including the Sacramento Philharmonic  and the Oakland Symphony, bringing the experience and expertise of a professional musician to her work as an educator.