086 – On Assignments and Lesson Planning

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Episode Summary

In today’s episode, we’re talking assignments and lesson planning – two elements in our work that are in and of themselves separate entities, and yet, I think it’s hard to talk about one without the other because they can be intertwined. The whole situation with the upheaval of the Tonara practice app was enough to propel this conversation into the airwaves today.


Items Mentioned

Join the Piano Pantry Patreon Community

085 – Tonara Transitions: A Special Teacher Talk

Assignment Sheet Central

Lesson Planning: A King-Sized Master Spreadsheet

My Top “Buy it Again” Office Products from Amazon

Join the Tonara Transition Power Hour




In today’s episode, we’re talking assignments and lesson planning – two elements in our work that are in and of themselves separate entities, and yet, I think it’s hard to talk about one without the other because they can be intertwined. Planning what you will do in a lesson or even recording what occurred in a lesson may be similar to and yet different from what is actually assigned for home.

The “how to” of all of this is one of those things that we as teachers can get really intrigued by. I don’t think it’s because we’re looking for a perfect solution, but we’re just struggling to figure out and manage how those records work in conjunction with each other.

I remember this being one of the biggest challenges in my early teaching days. While I’m generally pretty organized, I struggled to find a setup and format that worked for me functionally and visually but was easy to streamline across all my students AND see the bigger picture long-term.

I wanted to see actual activities we may have done in our lesson but also see what the students were assigned so I was more aware of things like how long they may have worked on a piece or to have a place to make a note if they forgot their theory book so I had a more concrete way of seeing trends.

While I’ve talked about this on the blog before, the whole situation with the upheaval of the Tonara practice app was enough to propel this conversation into the airwaves today.

Hey, teacher friends! I’m Amy Chaplin, a piano teacher from Indiana and the sole producer of this weekly podcast. It’s hard to believe I’ll soon hit a milestone of being in some of your ears for almost two years and 100 episodes. Not only that, but the Piano Pantry blog has been cheering teachers on in written form since 2016, including almost 275 Friday Finds posts. It’s crazy how time flies.

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As I said in the intro, the tragedy and craziness over the looming shutdown of the Tonara practice app has turned this week’s focus in that direction.

Last week in episode 085, besides sharing some practice steps for managing transitions out of Tonara, you heard ideas from me as well as a large handful of my teacher friends on a variety of ways to go about giving assignments to students.

You could:

  • hand write assignments in a notebook or on a printable assignment sheet
  • type up assignments at the lesson and print off the sheet to send home with the student
  • type up assignments and email the notes to the parents or student (whether that be directly in the email or emailing them a document or link to a folder)
  • Use an online digital lesson tool like the former Tonara or others mentioned in last week’s episode, like Practice Space, the new Vivid Practice, MetaPractice,

Since we were talking specifically about digital options last week, there was one other option I wanted to talk about today. It’s actually quite simple and an absolutely valid way of delivering assignments, in my opinion, and that’s NOT giving formal written assignment pages.

Oh my goodness, did I hear you gasp in shock?! LOL

Hear me out!

I have been teaching for more than 20 years and have been through all kinds of variations and ways of giving students assignments. The most BASIC, bare-bones way of doing so is the one thread that works for ALL my students, and that’s post-its.

Every item they are assigned is marked with a 1/2-inch Post-it tab. If it’s a song they’ve chosen to memorize, we place an uppercase M in the tab.

Goals and practice structures we cover during the lesson are jotted down on a square post-it (I think it’s the 1.5” size) and placed directly on the page as much out of the way of the notation as possible. That’s it. That’s where they GO. That’s where they’ll see it.

Even when I was using written assignment sheets – even when I was using digital practice apps – the post-its were always there, and they always work (well, almost because, as we said earlier, nothing is perfect).

The truth is that some students need a little extra structure, and some students, no matter how hard you try, never look at the assignment sheet, whether physical or digital. You can have conversations about expectations and practice steps (including following an assignment sheet), but if you’re pulling teeth to get them to refer to a practice assignment page, it ultimately doesn’t do anyone any good to pester or shame them over it.

The hard part for us is to decide if you need and want to deliver assignments in the same way to all students for simplicity and perhaps your own sanity or if you want to deliver assignments to students in a way that you know will work better for THAT student.

There’s no right or wrong answer here.

I had a few high school students ask me very directly this year if I would please start printing them assignment sheets they could write their assignments on and track what they practiced each day physically rather than using the Tonara app. Well, I guess it worked out for them since Tonara was toast anyway. LOL

I have a teacher friend who told me when Tonara announced their closure that they were tired of putting assignments in a digital app for some and handwriting for others, so they were going to go back to their handwritten notebooks.

After last week’s episode, I have, of course, had many already reaching out to me asking if I’ve made a decision yet about what I’m doing to replace Tonara. While I honestly haven’t made a final decision, part of me is hesitant to formally declare my decision because what works for me, my students, my brain, and my own personal workflow may not be the right thing for you.

Here’s what I do know:

  • Besides my youngest students, whom I deliver heavy listening assignments to in their first two years, I have decided only to use a digital assignment tool for those who want it and have been demonstrating their use of Tonara somewhat regularly in these past years. I even asked families directly whether or not they wanted access to a new app. If they’re not going to utilize it – that’s fine. I want to make sure I’m only paying for access for students who will use it, even if it’s sporadically.
  • If I decide to use something that has a lesson database option, I’m going to build it first in a spreadsheet so that I have a digital backup of my own records.
  • As long as I keep good lesson planning records, I don’t need to rely on a practice tool or app as a way of tracking my student’s history of assignments. Like many, this was something I did love about Tonara – being able to go back to lessons from months ago and see if we did a particular piece or assignment.

This last point brings me to the other half of this episode – the lesson-planning side.

While I was always big on specialty assignment sheets in my early days of teaching – which resulted in the mass amount of free assignment sheets available on the Piano Pantry blog – I struggled big time with a format I liked for lesson planning.

Around 2014, I was inspired by an article in the September/October 2014 issue of Clavier Companion written by Arlene Steffen, Stephen Hughes, and Craig Sale called “Lesson Plans: A teaching essential?” Thanks to their detailed article, I developed what I call my king-sized master spreadsheet.

As times change, we tend to cycle through various tools and techniques we use in our teaching. After using this spreadsheet for lesson planning for a glorious 5 years, I ventured away from it for a while. I’m not 100% sure why – I think part of it was just that cycle of getting tired of doing things the same way, and part of it was that Tonara was edging into the picture.

I’ll admit, I went through maybe a 2 or 3-year period of very minimal lesson planning, and I don’t feel bad about it at all. Yes, we want to be as intentional and proactive about what happens in the lesson as possible, but this podcast embraces the life side of things, and sometimes we just can’t. I always give as much as I can to my students, and there were periods when I couldn’t give as much to the planning side of things.

Fast forward to this past summer, and I was ready for some more solid plans. I decided to break out my trusty spreadsheet again, and it has been gold these past few months. I’m so thankful that I had this already set up and ready to go before I had to tackle the Tonara transition because having my own record of what students are working on in a lesson-date, calendar-based spreadsheet releases the pressure of needing a digital assignment app for tracking lesson history.

There are 3 major lesson areas I cover:

  • Keyboard patterns & technique
  • Rhythm & Tonal Patterns, Creativity & Improvisation
  • Repertoire

I also keep notes of any written theory page assignments and have an area for notes as well.

I love that I can create a note attached to a cell where I can write things like “student is doing well with these echo patterns” or “do so more work in the Db scale fingers.” The note is inconspicuous to the student as you have to hover your cursor on the cell for the note to appear.

To create these notes, you right-click on the cell and then select “insert note.”

I have a digital keyboard next to my grand piano and a computer monitor sitting behind my music rack on the digital piano. Since the lesson spreadsheet is right there for me to see during the lesson, I like that those personal notes aren’t easily visible to the student.

I don’t care how many fancy new tools have come into the market; a good old-fashioned spreadsheet is still an amazing way to manage and organize.

I have one sheet for each lesson year, so I can see a student’s assignments for years inside of one document.

If you would like to get a deeper look into this document as well as a tutorial for how to create one of your own, visit the link in the show notes or just Google Piano Pantry King Size Spreadsheet.

Remember, everyone, there is no perfect answer or tool that will make everything magically perfect in the assignment-giving or lesson-planning world. All we can do is explore, make a decision, utilize our tool of choice to its fullest, and reassess if and when the time comes.

If you’re listening to this episode first thing when it drops, don’t forget I’m opening up a special 3-hour work time on Zoom for you to jump on and have accountability to do the work you need to do.

Whether you’re transitioning out of Tonara and needing to spend time researching or just trying to set up a better lesson-planning tool, such as designing a spreadsheet or other assignment delivery methods like designing your own assignment sheet, feel free to join me.

I’ll be logged into Zoom from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. ET on Tuesday, September 19. Come when you’re free and stay as long as you like, whether 15 minutes or 3 hours.

Get the link in the show notes to sign up.

Thanks for sticking around to hear today’s tiny tip. Do you have certain things that you buy over and over and over? I think a lot of our grocery lists can be that way.

If you’re a member of Amazon Prime, consider using the Subscribe button for things that you find yourself purchasing over and over. We don’t use it a lot, but we did finally start purchasing our coffee on Amazon Subscribe and Save. We drink and love the Italian brand LaVazza coffee. We buy a 2 lb. bag of whole beans that ships every 3 weeks.

Sometimes you save money subscribing, which makes it worth it and sometimes you don’t save as much – it just depends on the item. Give it a try. I know friends who use it for anything from toilet paper to shampoo, hairspray, Post-it tabs, and more. I have an article on the Piano Pantry website on office supplies I buy over and over on Amazon. You might want to check that out and add those to your subscribe and save list.

Don’t forget to visit PianoPantry.com/patreon to join my new community. I hope to see you there!