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Inclusion: In Music Class It Means EVERYONE

Posted by on in Music Education Research
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After 18 years in the music classroom, I have learned something important. Inclusion isn’t just a technique or a tactic; it’s an approach to a roomful of children that treats each one as important as the next. Yes, there are modifications and adaptations that must be made for special needs students, but doesn’t every student deserve to be assessed, have individualized learning goals written for them, and given individualized best-practices instruction to make sure that they understand the material being covered?...


As music teachers, we are extremely lucky in this area. We can be the one class in a students’ day where they can really look forward to being treated on an equal footing with other students. I have been so fortunate as a music educator to see special needs students blossom in a music performance classroom because they were treated the same as everyone else. (As this blog grows, you will see many examples of this.) Indeed, I have had the unique opportunity to see those students sometimes shine above their “regular-ed” colleagues simply because they had the chance to try. Perhaps music is the great equalizer. Perhaps, for some students, it is the sense of belonging that comes with being in a music group. For some, it is a way to find their voice, a way to self-express and be heard.

This is not to say to disregard a student’s special needs and Individualized Education Plans (IEP’s); quite the opposite. Know your students’ needs before the first day of class if at all possible. This, by the way, includes any talented and gifted (TAG) students who may need extra challenge and motivation to keep them engaged in learning. I am saying know these things and then give as little mention to them during class as possible.

Get the students playing together. Find an instrument that is rewarding, even challenging for the student, and strategically place them with other players who you can trust to help. (Don’t fall into that “Well, they can play the triangle” trap. It is a disservice to students unless they want to learn all percussion.) As a teacher of mostly guitar-based ensembles, I find the guitar very adaptable to multi-leveled instruction. Even very obvious special needs such as visual handicaps or ambulatory handicaps can be minimized by the very demeanor and attitude of the teacher. Remember: If it’s not a big deal to you, it won’t be a big deal to them. I had a teacher ask me why I taught blind students how to play the guitar instead of having them play bongos or maracas or something, and my response was, “They signed up for guitar. Anything else would have not occurred to me.” I’m still proud of that answer.

Keep your expectations high. If your procedures and routines are in place, and explained first day, students will rise to follow them. If your behavioral expectations are shown as they come into class the first day of school, you will set a tone for your music room. Many, many music teachers can tell of students who behave well in their class not just because it is music and music is fun, but also because of how veteran music educators set the tone for their rehearsal space on day one. Students are looking for structure, no matter how much they may say otherwise. Do not fall into the trap of letting the lounge gossip tell you how the behavior in your class will be. The same goes for performance expectations – set a habit of excellence on day one.

What do those things have to do with inclusion? It’s simple. Whether your class is an elementary music class or a high school orchestra, you are trying to create a group setting. What we do is inclusion by its very nature. We as music teachers should shout from the rooftops that we provide a setting where all students come into our class on an equal footing and are treated the same. In beginning instrumental classes, most students start out with the exact same knowledge of the instrument on day one. As students progress, it is the teacher’s responsibility to monitor, assess, and help each student grow. That is inclusion. That is music class.
What can this do for a student? I’ll give you one example. At this year’s Grammy awards, every attendee went home with a book that contained an article about one of my special-needs students and how she overcame a battle with a speech impairment to become a magnificent songwriter. Even better: she just graduated high school against all odds.

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  • John Flora Friday, 20 June 2014

    Fantastic article Rodney! I wholeheartedly agree that carefully organized music classrooms create a sense of belonging for everyone. I especially appreciated your candid response to the teacher who questioned your decision to teach guitar to a blind student: “They signed up for guitar. Anything else would have not occurred to me.” Finally, a double AMEN to setting high expectations for behavioral AND performance expectations from day one!

  • Rodney Dittmar Wednesday, 25 June 2014

    Thanks so much John!

  • Rodney Dittmar Wednesday, 25 June 2014

    And to be clear, the teacher who was asking about my teaching guitar to blind students was [u]praising[u] my class and comparing what what what what was going on in that classroom as compared to the "normal" approach of auxiliary percussion, or some other instrument.

  • Anne Tenaglia Friday, 20 June 2014

    Oh Rodney! I know all you said is true. I have seen it first hand in my classes, too. My one selective mute kid, who played guitar with Joshua Radin has graduated 8th grade, speaking now. He chose a high school that has an active guitar class.

  • Rodney Dittmar Wednesday, 25 June 2014

    Good to hear from you Anne! That's awesome!

  • Rodney Dittmar Wednesday, 25 June 2014

    Thank you so much!

  • Mary Dominguez Friday, 20 June 2014

    Hi Mr Dittmar, this is Jared Dominguez mom and I have a special needs son that goes to Seagoville High School and I would love for him to be able to get into your class if possible. His name is Juan Dominguez and he is in the ADL class

  • Rodney Dittmar Wednesday, 25 June 2014

    Thanks Mrs. Dominguez! Would love to help. Just contact me when you can.

  • Tammy Torrens Friday, 20 June 2014

    YES!!! I have had GREAT success with my special learners on xylophones. They are often my best performers & find great pride in being better than the others at something. It also promotes acceptance and positive social interaction between students who normally would never interact at all.
    Great job Rod!

  • Rodney Dittmar Wednesday, 25 June 2014

    Hey Tammy!
    Yes, you have had great success with ALL your learners! Love watching clips of your kids playing xylophones. (Shhhh - they're better at it than me!) Yes, in your group it's a great barrier-crossing instrument. I think any instrument can be, as long as the students are engaged the whole time and working together. Thanks so much!

  • Gregory Pavliv Thursday, 02 October 2014

    Great point! Xylophone and it's Orff equivalent are definitely a great go to to break the barrier. And you're right. The challenge is HOW do you make EVERY instrument a barrier-breaking instrument...

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