Practice / Private Lessons

Retaining Students Over the Summer with a Bucket List Challenge

A few years ago, I made the big decision to keep teaching privately over summer break. Almost immediately, I found myself asking: how do I retain my music students and keep them engaged over the summer?

With the competition of fun activities, beautiful weather, and exciting vacations, a successful summer session of music lessons requires a lot of flexibility and pre-planning. Students need a fun goal to keep interest high. However, to set kids up for success when their lives are going in so many different directions, that fun goal needs to have flexible paths to achievement. After mulling over those requirements, I decided that a fun “Bucket List” challenge would be exactly what my students needed to stay motivated over the summer. Let’s take a look at how I used it to keep students motivated and focused all summer long, and how you can too.

Building Excitement with a Teaser and a Launch

The first key to making my Bucket List challenge a success was to create excitement before it started. I had made the decision to continue lessons through the summer right before my students had their spring recital. This timing allowed me to place a small “teaser” ad on the back of the recital program.

Now that the idea of the summer challenge was out and swirling around with my students and their families, it was time to build a little more excitement. As we chatted about summer plans before and after lessons, I made sure to mention the challenge that would be starting at the beginning of the next session. I also made some cute “promotional poster” coloring pages for my younger students to take home and color. At this stage of the game, I was still a little vague on the details, but was sure to let everyone know that more information would be coming soon.

When we got to the last class of the spring session, I was ready with the specifics. By this point, most of my students were committed to the summer session. They were ready to learn about how the challenge would work, what the achievement levels were, and how we would celebrate the at the end of the summer. I left my students and their families with the Bucket List Challenge welcome letter to look over during our one-week break between sessions so everyone would be ready to hit the ground running.

Making Sure There’s Something for Everyone

Before the challenge had even begun, the need for flexibility was very apparent. Some students were scheduled up to their ears with camps, tutors, and vacations. Others were being bounced from family member to family member for childcare, while another, smaller, group were home most of the time with a parent or nanny.

Having anticipated these differences, I included a variety of activities within the challenge to accommodate students wherever they were. Some activities, like practice in your pajamas or practice after dinner, were simple and could be completed as part of a regular practice routine. Others, like watching a video about the history of your instrument or creating a song in Chrome Music Lab, could be completed without an instrument. Challenges to memorize a piece of repertoire or learn a new song were perfect for self-motivated students who wanted to use the summer to get ahead, and activities that involved taking “field trips” to libraries and museums could be completed on weekends by the entire family.

Giving my students a wide variety of options for participation allowed for the ability to pivot from one type of activity to another as their hectic summer schedules changed. Flexibility kept morale high since students could make progress toward their goal in almost any situation.

Gamified Tracking for Fun Accountability

To keep my students motivated for the duration of the challenge (which spanned the entire 10-week summer session) I tracked their progress each week on a Google spreadsheet. With each update, the sheet acted like a leaderboard to show which students had the most points on any given day. Even though they weren’t competing against each other to see who could get the most points, seeing their progress stacked up alongside the rest of the group proved to be a great motivator for my students. With the sharing features of Google Sheets, students were able to pull the leaderboard up at any time to view (but not edit) the progress of every participant.

This tracking also made goal setting a breeze. Students could visually see how many weeks they had left to reach their desired achievement level (Bronze, Silver, Gold) and how many points they needed to get there. The gamified tracking of progress helped students to take ownership of their learning goals and strategies to reach them which, in turn, greatly reduced the need for their parents – or myself – to provide constant reminders.

A Celebration to Look Forward To

Of Course, my students were interested to know how their achievements would be recognized. This provided a bit of a challenge because organizing a formal recital when people are super busy is always tough. Luckily enough, one of my students happened to miss a lesson for an end of season barbeque held by her softball team at the beginning of my planning process. This got my wheels turning, so I took the idea and I ran with it.

Early in the summer, I reserved a picnic area at a local park which had a built-in barbeque and a power source so we could plug in an electric keyboard and a small sound system. As soon as I had the picnic space reserved, I created an Evite with a potluck list and sent it out to the families of my students.

The next thing to consider was the “prizes” the students would receive for their participation in the challenge. I opted to start with participation medals and certificates for every student who completed at least one challenge item. These were super easy to order and print in advance because everyone who participated received one. For my students who reached achievement levels in the challenge – bronze, silver, gold – I had small trophies made at a local trophy shop. The cost of these awards was covered by the materials fee that I charge my students at the beginning of each session and ended up averaging out to about $8 per student.

Two weeks before school started, we had our barbeque celebration. Students were able to perform some fun pieces they had learned in a low-pressure setting and were able to celebrate each other’s accomplishments. The feedback on the event was unanimously positive. Parents and students both enjoyed the change of pace and informal setting to wrap up our summer challenge and were already asking if I had something similar planned for the fall.

Hosting Your Own Bucket List Challenge

Hopefully, these ideas will help inspire you to host your own Bucket List Challenge with your students this summer. If you’re looking to lighten your workload, check out my Summer Bucket-List resource which includes print and go copies of everything you need to get your challenge up and running!

Have you considered continuing to teach private students over the summer? Do you host any sort of summertime events for your students? What about studio-wide challenges? Let me know down in the comments!

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