Music Class: When Students Have a Choice, They Have a Voice

By Carey Crows, K-5 Music Teacher and Guest Blogger

Jan 29, 2018 · 5 min read

“Mrs. Crows, what do we get when we do this?” This is the question that comes, rather unexpectedly, yet quite often, as I voyage through year one of teaching music in a K-5 setting. I teach in a suburban district outside of Chicago, and although my students come from mostly high-income households, this is not to say that my students are spoiled and unappreciative; most are caring, kind, and grateful, as most children are. However, they, and we, are a product of the world in which we live.

Instant Gratification: Extrinsic Motivation

We live in a world where technology is the nucleus of our lives; if we need answers, we can easily look them up on a device. If we need to order a product, it can be shipped directly to our homes in less than 24 hours. If we want to watch a movie, we can rent it instantly online. If we want anything at all, we receive instant gratification at the touch of a fingertip, at the click of a button. We want things, and we want them now.

For my students, instant gratification from technology goes hand-in-hand with the constant need for stuff: sweets, reward parties, stickers, you name it. When students are rewarded extrinsically, it is often with a material item, and is given when they have reached a short-term goal. After school, I teach an extra-curricular elementary choir with 84 students, and as one may imagine, when all 84 students are in the room at once, it can become difficult to manage. When we are in a concert month, rewards can be an important classroom management tool in order to have a productive rehearsal. When rewards are given, I do my best to glorify their hard work, rather than the reward itself. Yes, I have rewarded my students extrinsically, and I am not ashamed to give material rewards at an appropriate time in an appropriate manner. Meanwhile, I recognize that extrinsic rewards may be beneficial in the short-term, but they do little to fuel the engine of curiosity that leads to lifelong learning, critical thinking, and self-awareness. How then, can I inspire my students to work for the long-term goals, rather than merely the 40-minute ones?

Playing for Approval

Earlier in the school year, my fourth grade students learned to play the recorder. In the beginning of the unit, they were thrilled at the idea of learning how to play. They were motivated by the competition of the recorder karate program, where they earned a different colored “belt” (i.e. loomie band) for each level that they completed. However, their interest in the subject dwindled shortly thereafter. While my students learned a lot about musical notation, they did not have much say in the material being taught, and their disengagement in the material was becoming noticeable. Recorder became something that students had to do for a grade-they were playing for approval, rather than for enjoyment. I tried earnestly to make the content engaging by playing singing games and engaging in kinesthetic activities. Ultimately, though, it did not seem to be enough, so I cut the program short, and gave students the option of continuing on their own at home by sending videos of their songs through google classroom. I gave them all the tools they needed to learn the songs, and have an open door policy on asking questions. However, exactly 2 students out of 185 have continued in the program. I started to feel like an authoritarian, standing in front of my classroom and feeding my students required information; how could I simultaneously teach them things, while allowing them to be the conductors of their own learning process?

Student Choice

Student choice has always been a prominent tenet in my teaching philosophy, but it was not until this year that I realized how vastly student choice can impact motivation. Intrinsic motivation comes from within, and needs to be fostered and cultivated in order to be maintained. Finding this motivation is an important part of life and maturing; adults are often required to complete everyday chores and tasks that do not warrant tangible recognition. Seeking genuine success in a task requires acceptance of delayed gratification, and for many students in this age group, seeing past the immediate can be fairly difficult.

Students find intrinsic motivation when they feel that their voice is being heard and valued. My fifth grade students have been learning to play the ukulele, which has been an important lesson in perseverance, and simultaneously allows them to choose the material that we study. Sure, I can teach them the chords, but why not let them pick the songs that they play? As an end of the year project, they are working in groups to cover a song that they like, which they will perform for the class. When they learned that they could choose their own songs and present them in their own way, I suddenly had children in my room before school, during lunch, and skipping recess to work on their songs. Through the project, they have the ability to choose something they like, the opportunity to present it in their own point of view, and to share it with others.

With choice, students become independent thinkers and learners, and can take the reigns in their own learning processes, rather than completing an assignment for a set, expected outcome. When students have choice, they have a voice; when they have a voice, students become invested in their learning, rather than merely their earning.

Carey Crows is the K-5 General Music teacher and choir director at Elizabeth Ide School (K-2) and Prairieview School (3–5) in the Center Cass School District 66 in Downers Grove, Illinois. In her first year of teaching at Elizabeth Ide and Prairieview, Mrs. Crows implemented new music programs in ukulele and West African drumming. Prior to joining the Center Cass community, Mrs. Crows was a freelancer, teaching early childhood and elementary general music, and singing professionally in choirs throughout Chicagoland. A native of Tampa, Florida, she received her B.M. from the University of Miami in Vocal Performance, and later earned her M.M. in Music Education at Northwestern University. She tweets at @CC66_K5Music.

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Inspired Ideas

Resources, ideas, and stories for K-12 educators. We focus on learning science, educational equity, social and emotional learning, and evidence-based teaching strategies. Be sure to check out The Art of Teaching Project, our guest blogging platform for all educators.


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Inspired Ideas

Resources, ideas, and stories for K-12 educators. We focus on learning science, educational equity, social and emotional learning, and evidence-based teaching strategies. Be sure to check out The Art of Teaching Project, our guest blogging platform for all educators.

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