My name is Jessica Higbee and I am a music teacher at Uniontown Area High School. I am the assistant band director, choral director, and the steel drum director. I also teach guitar and steel drum classes. I thoroughly enjoy my job and my students, they make me laugh every day.

On a personal note, I recently married my best friend, Ben, this past July 4th. We live together in the rural town of rural in fact that our residential address is Higbee Lane! I absolutely love music and singing...I don't think I could live without it! I am on a women's ministry team at my church in Connellsville, and I also lead worship there and assist with the youth ministry. In my spare time I enjoy watching movies, shopping, decorating, and trying new things.

I hope as an educator to become increasingly more influential in the lives of my students, to not simply inspire them to love music and learning, but to see themselves as invaluable for the effect they can have on this world.


Due to an educational dilemma I found myself in with an ADHD student who was a challenge to engage in my classroom, I decided to explore the wondering more specifically toward students with special needs. On an average, I always have at least one or two students in my classroom with an IEP and often times more, depending on the size of the class. I wanted to discover ways of better engaging those students who need special attention or instruction, but I wanted to do it in a way that would include the entire class and not "segregate" the students who had more challenges to overcome. Basically, I wanted to use strategies that would be "hidden" within my plans so that I could teach the entire classroom and they would never know I was using specific strategies to reach my special needs students. I found the results to be quite amazing.

I began my explorations specifically with ADHD students, but I soon discovered this felt a bit too confined and wanted to broaden my findings from a more generalized special needs view. I decided to use my guitar classes as my test subjects. By implementing various teaching and learning strategies, I would assess their engagement based on my own observations, written assesment, student response, and academic achievement. I read a few chapters from an eye-opening book called "A Framework for Understanding Poverty" written by Ruby K. Payne, Ph.D.. I highly recommend this book to any teacher, especially ones in districts of high poverty levels. The light bulbs in my mind turned on more than I could have thought when I read but a few concepts! Upon reading a list of different behaviors in one chapter, I discovered that it alluded to many of my special needs students and how they are affected by their environment.

After some meetings with my CIG and exchanging ideas and information, I decided to implement and assess the following strategies in my classroom (some of the strategies I had used in the past but I never really took a disective approach toward them): peer instruction, independent learning, collaborative learning, and creative learning.

I chose two students to teach their guitar class about the concept of reading tab music as opposed to notes on a staff. I knew each of the students had a good grasp of the skills it took to successfully read tab. I also gave them the choice to teach because I wanted them to have a desire for that. Each student seemed to have the same problem, which I later discovered was my fault. When they taught the class they did not know how to begin and did not know how to fully explain the concept so that each student could understand. I felt I had to keep asking them leading questions to get them to further explain the process of reading tab. It was not the way I had imagined it would unfold. I learned that before a student can instruct the classroom, I need to teach them how to instruct them. I need to give a prep course in delivering concepts in simple steps, so that each person can understand. I think if I do use this strategy in the future I will change the approach I take with the students who will be teaching.
As a way to better engage my students, I next decided to try collaborative learning. My students were instructed to choose a partner that they would work with on a duet that they would perform for the class. This strategy proved to be very successful, especially for my special needs students. Some of the students who did not often stay on task well were working consistently with their partners. I only had one student who did not seem as successful because he was absent a few days into the assignment and he also tends to prefer working on his own. Overall, I felt this was one of the better strategies I used and benefited more students as a whole. I believe the element of working with a peer whom they chose to partner with and the fact they would be in front of the class seemed to spur them to greater efforts.

Below are some audio examples of duets my students played together:

"Wonderful Tonight" Duet

"Au Claire de la Lune" Duet

Creativity and the arts go hand in hand. I wanted to give my students the ability to have more freedom to express themselves in music. I knew that the best way to do this was to have them create a piece of music. In the past, I had done this using notes of the staff, but many of even my most creative students had difficulty with the assignment because they didn't know all the note positions on guitar. It was a frustrating process for the students who knew where they were placing their fingers, but could not be sure what note they played on the staff. Additionally, many of them did not know how to write rhythms beyond quarter notes, making it more difficult to do music of complexity. I decided to try a simplified version of this strategy. I allowed the students to use tab to write their pieces, which made the correlation between their finger positions and writing out the parts much easier. The only instruction for the assignment was that the song had to be at least two lines in length and it had to use at least two strings on their guitar. They also had to do an original work and invent a title for the piece. They would then practice it and perform it for the class. The results were astounding. Not only did my students flourish with this assignment, but I was able to understand them on a much more personal and deeper level. I wasn't just seeing them as my class, but as artists! This experience was very exciting for me and I will use this strategy in all of my guitar classes because it was incredibly successful. To display their work I chose a variety of students with different skill and academic levels.

Here are some pictures of the students' work accompanied by an audio recording of them performing the piece:

"Stealing the Wind" by Brandon Quinn


"Ghost on a Boat" by John Podolinski


"Creeper" by Matthew Saxon


"Out of the Desert" by Melvin Morgan, Jr.


Student Survey Results

After the conclusion of the strategy experiments, I surveyed my students. I provided them a list of different strategies I used in the classroom and asked them to number them according to the level of benefit it brought to their learning experience. I listed six different categories of strategies and they had to list them as 1 being the best and 6 being the worst. Here are the results of this survey question below:

I also surveyed my students about their learning type or style. It was a testament to the research I had done when most of my students responded they are kinestetic learners. In "A Framework for Understanding Poverty" the author writes about how many students in this environment tend to be more "hands on" learners and do not typically deal well with more static assignments. Here are the results of this survey question.


Lastly, I asked my students what helped motivate them to learn. I never realized how much the aspect of peer pressure affected them in the performance area. I had never thought of this as a form of motivation for them to learn. It was interesting to see how my strategy of having them perform for each other was not just a way for me to assess their progress, but also helped to make them more serious about learning.

This process of trying new strategies and working collaboratively with my CIG has changed my teaching style and broadened my horizons more than I could have ever hoped or imagined. I have learned about so many different approaches to teaching, and have met some exceptional educators as well. My teaching has developed in that I no longer want to teach a concept without also testing out the results and disecting the outcomes. I am also making it a practice to survey each of my classes so I can redefine my teaching strategies each nine weeks. Additionally, I want to design more projects and assignments that will engage my students to expand their creativity and also learn to work together. As many of my group members have stated, and I must concur, it seems as if these discoveries in our wondering are really not coming to a close at this point, but instead, we are only just beginning!