March to the beat of your own drum: Personalized learning in music at Asbury Elementary


Sara Brunnschweiler



Asbury Elementary

Give students the opportunity to express themselves through music by collaborating and teaching each other

Learner Collaboration, Learner as lead, Teacher as facilitator, Demonstration of Learning



Sometimes the noisiest classes are the most focused. This certainly seems to be the case in Sara Brunnschweiler's music class, where 20+ fifth graders can be heard playing music and collaborating with each other. Sara teaches music to kindergarten through fifth grade at Asbury Elementary and is one of many Asbury teachers focusing on personalized learning (PL). This means Sara's students are drivers of their own learning, making choices and directing themselves in their work. Sara places a particular emphasis on peer collaboration through project based learning. With her fifth graders, she's doing a blues unit, where students write their own blues songs and perform them for the class. Sara spent the first half of the year teaching students the basics of each instrument. During the second half of the year, students are self-paced in writing and practicing their songs. They must work together not only to create the music, but to learn more about the instruments as well. Students use each other, Sara, and online and in-class resources to help them learn.

Sara has a unique circumstance--she gets to teach students throughout their journey at Asbury. Students become comfortable with performing and expressing themselves through music early on and build on this as they get older. Sara also finds that since most of the school is implementing PL, students are familiar with these practices and understand how to make responsible decisions during her class.

Classroom in Action

During the first half of the year, students learned about each of the instruments and the basics of playing them.

During the second half of the year, students form their own bands to create a blues song. These students chose to work together on their song.

Students work together to write the music and lyrics. These students are refining their song together.

After writing their song, students practice individually or as a group.

Students can also ask other students for help in learning an instrument or working on a song.

At the end of the unit, bands will perform their song for the class. Sara hopes that students will become increasingly comfortable performing and expressing themselves in front of others.

"I don’t want to just see my kids regurgitate information, I want them to create and think and make things for themselves. [...] PL truly is good for students and moving them forward and getting them to be lifelong learners who think for themselves."

-Sara Brunnschweiler

Video Interviews

Intro to the Classroom

Sara talks about her philosophy of PL and her use of projects to enhance student engagement and interest. Students set specific goals about what they want to learn and then move into creating their own music. Sara provides additional scaffolding for younger grades in order to transition students into being more comfortable and responsible with the freedom.

Collaboration Across Subjects

Sara leads by example, collaborating with other teachers to make lessons more impactful for students. She shares examples of how she's collaborated with other teachers to connect content to music class. She's collaborated on a rap and poetry unit, a tech unit, and a unit about access to education.

Student Impact

Sara talks about how she's seen students take increased ownership over their learning and engage with the content. She sees student passion and responsibility increasing.

Student Response

Hear one of the 5th grade bands talk about how they collaborate with each other to create music and what they like about Sara's class. 


Sara shares her advice for other educators trying to do this work. She advises teachers to take it slow and scaffold each grade differently. She describes how she starts the year by setting expectations and creating a safe environment for students to openly express themselves and be vulnerable. 

If you want to try this…

  • Take it slow. Make changes gradually so that students are ready for them.
  • Be comfortable with chaos (and noise). It may feel chaotic at first, but give students the freedom to express themselves and direct their learning.
  • Create a safe environment. Spend time at the beginning of the year creating an environment that feels safe for students to express themselves.
  • Have different scaffolds for different grades. Provide younger students with a bit more structure and scaffolding so they can ease into their freedoms.

More about Sara

Before she started teaching, Sara played the oboe professionally and was pursuing her PhD in music. She realized she wanted more creativity in her work and turned to teaching. This is Sara's sixth year of teaching music at Asbury.

To connect with Sara, email her at





Thanks to Asbury teacher Sara Brunnschweiler, PL lead Desi Kennedy, and principal Alicia FaJohn, Imaginarium staff Sophie Gullett and Elisa Bowers, and the students marching to the beat of their own drum.

A huge thank you to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation whose Next Generation Systems Intiative (NGSI) grant has been instrumental in helping Denver Public Schools design, implement, and study personalized learning.