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Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Best Strategies for Teaching Rhythm

Rhythm is one of those fundamental concepts that gets infused into so many of our lessons, especially in elementary general music. Is there ever such a thing as "too many rhythm teaching ideas"? I doubt it, but it can definitely be hard to keep track of all of those great ideas so we can most effectively implement them in a properly sequenced way in our classrooms. I've written quite a bit about various aspects of teaching rhythm, including most of the month of March this year, so today I want to share some over-arching thoughts on teaching rhythm in general and also round up some of my top strategies from previous blog posts in one place to make it easier to find everything you need for your lesson planning!


1. Start the year right

I start each school year introducing any new rhythm and pitch concepts in each grade level right from the beginning. I like getting those concepts out there as early as I can so I can spend the rest of the year coming back to those every chance I get and solidifying them in students' minds. Of course the first lesson or two of the school year we review the concepts from the year before as a way of leading into the new ones, but I try to get into the new stuff as quickly as possible- if I've done my job the year before, the review part won't take too long or be too painful and they'll be ready for new stuff right away!

Of course which grade should be learning which rhythm concept is a whole separate conversation, but an important one to have in order to sequence out your curriculum in a way that allows students to grasp the material. Read my post on long-range planning here, my post on lesson planning based on the National Core Arts Standards (USA) here, see my templates that I use to create my scope and sequence for each grade here, and see my complete K-6 curriculum here.

2. Build in focused review time

Once I've set each grade up with the new rhythm concepts at the beginning of the year, I try to make sure I include those rhythm concepts anywhere I can throughout the year so that we keep coming back to it over and over again to practice. But I learned in my first couple of years of teaching that just having a general plan to include those concepts throughout the year is not enough- I get too easily distracted my shiny new lesson ideas, concert preparations, and more and those concepts can get lost in the shuffle! 

To make sure I am giving the students some good, concentrated, reviewing and practicing time, I build in some focused time in January (right after the winter/holiday break) and March (as part of Music In Our Schools Month) to specifically review the new rhythmic concepts with each grade as well. In January I focus on keeping students engaged by using movement, instruments, and composition activities to review rhythms. In March, students have an opportunity to really drill those rhythms with a school-wide competition I run called the Rhythm Battle. Read more about my activities for Music In Our Schools Month in this blog post, or get the materials for the Rhythm Battle here. Of course I also include some review of all of the new concepts they've learned throughout the year at the end of each school year as well.

3. Make drilling fun

Drill practice has gotten a bad rap but there's a lot to be said for focused, repetitive practice of certain fundamental concepts. To me, rhythm is one of those areas that begs for it. But drilling doesn't have to be boring- in fact it can be pretty exciting! One of the easiest ways to do this with rhythm is to throw some 1-measure (usually in 4/4) rhythms on the board, with actual flash cards you may actually have, hand-drawn rhythms on the whiteboard, or projected slides like this:


I have volunteers (or students that get "volunteered" by me!) speak each rhythm individually, then the class speaks and claps it together. Once we've practiced each rhythm separately, I give each student an instrument. Even something as simple as rhythm sticks will keep students motivated! The key, though, is to put those individual measures together in different combinations. I always make a big deal about what a big challenge it is to do them all in a row, then we try doing them in different orders- sometimes I'll even label each measure with a letter of the alphabet and we spell words by performing the measures in the order of the letters (like measure B, measure A, then measure D to spell BAD). That's all it takes to keep a class motivated to practice those rhythms over and over again!

Of course there are a million ways to practice new rhythms- here are some of my other favorites:


4. Check for understanding in small groups

Of course it's always easier to perform and read rhythms with the whole class than it is to do it independently. I use centers to do some informal assessments and check to see how students are doing (and sometimes I'm shocked by what I find!). Here are some of my favorite rhythm centers:


5. Work towards mastery with composition 

Just like with any written language, the best way to know if students truly understand a rhythmic concept is to see if they can use it in music writing- composition. But composition doesn't have to take a lot of time or be a drudgery for those students that groan at the sight of a pencil and paper! I try to include several opportunities for students to create rhythms using manipulatives throughout the year, do some written composition in small groups to practice, and culminate with some kind of individual written composition before the end of the year. Read more about how I use manipulatives for composition (as well as what I use and where I get them) in this post, see the composition worksheets I use for written compositions here, and read more tips for incorporating composition in elementary music in these posts:



6. My top lessons and resources

Now that we've talked about some general strategies for teaching rhythm, here are some of my favorite lesson plans and resources for teaching rhythm! First, here are all of the lesson plans I shared this past March for teaching specific rhythm concepts:





If you're looking for lesson plans for other rhythm concepts, like sixteenth notes, syncopation, compound meter and more, have no fear! I collaborated with tons of other music education bloggers this spring to put together an ebook with all of our top tips and strategies for teaching rhythm! There are SO many awesome ideas for teaching rhythm packed in this ebook, and the best part is you don't have to worry about losing track of all of those awesome ideas- you can just save the PDF on your computer and have everything easily accessible whenever you need it! Click below to visit the new Music Ed Blogs Resource Library and download this free rhythm teaching ebook:


I hope you found this post helpful for you! Looking for more teaching ideas? See my full curriculum here.

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Monday, April 17, 2017

Lego Storage Idea

This past Christmas, my 5-year-old daughters graduated from duplos to legos, and they have absolutely loved their new lego sets! With all of these new legos, though, comes the inevitable storage issue. After a few months of having them laying around my living room, here's my storage solution!


First of all yes, I am aware that I am a crazy person, and not everyone wants to sort their legos by color. But let me explain myself. See, along with a wonderfully large set of basic lego blocks in tons of different colors, shapes, and sizes, I got my girls this set for creating a ballet studio and this set for creating a city park (both of which I HIGHLY recommend, by the way), and they also got this book of lego building ideas. The themed sets are great because they come with step-by-step directions for creating every last detail of the set:


I'm sure once the girls are older and get used to the legos, they will do more experimenting and start creating their own things from their imagination, and they are already doing a little bit of that, but they really love the idea of being able to see a picture of something to make and then find out exactly how to create it for themselves, and following along with the directions has been a really great way for them to develop their spatial reasoning (score!).

The problem: any time you're following a specific plan like these, you have to be able to go through and find very specific blocks to create each item. When we had everything dumped into one big bin, that got pretty frustrating! We were spending more time combing through hundreds of blocks looking for one tiny lego in a certain shade of green than we were actually building! Not to mention I was the one doing most of the searching- the girls were getting too frustrated trying to look through all those legos- so they weren't able to work on it independently.

Now that I've attempted to justify my insanity, let me explain my storage solution! :)

It's pretty simple, actually. I found these photo box storage cases on clearance at Michael's and sorted each color into its own case:


The nice thing about this system is that, when the girls decide to make something, they can pull out just the colors they want and look through those boxes to find the blocks they need. It makes it so much easier to find the exact lego they're looking for! And bonus for me: the clean up pretty neatly in those storage cases:


I'm actually thinking about leaving the individual boxes out of the storage cases most of the time. I think when they're put away like that the girls aren't as likely to reach for them on the spur of the moment. But even if I do that, I know I'll be able to use those storage cases for something else, and if we want to tuck them away or take them with us, it's easy to pack them up into the cases!

I know lego storage is a perennial problem, and this is one of those organization challenges that I'm sure I'll be revisiting as our needs change, but for now I'm pretty happy with our solution! What do you do with your legos? Do you attempt to sort them at all or do you dump them all in one spot? Let me know in the comments!

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

My Top Tips for Teaching Ukulele in General Music

This year I taught ukulele for the first time, and it has been a blast! Until this school year, I had never even played the ukulele myself, so it was a whole new adventure. Today I'm sharing some of my top tips for any other music teachers who are just getting started teaching ukulele in a general music setting.


1. Know your purpose

I'm a huge proponent of concept-based curriculum. Basically what that means (because I'm pretty sure I just made that term up) is I don't teach things for the sole purpose of the thing- I choose things to teach based on what overarching skill or concept I want my students to learn. So although there is some benefit inherently in knowing how to play the ukulele, it's important for me to have more of a reason for teaching ukulele than just wanting students to learn to play the ukulele for its own sake.

I chose to introduce ukulele to my 6th graders because I want my students to understand the concepts of chords, chord progressions, and chord functionality (at a very basic level). I've been teaching a unit on songwriting based in basic chord progressions for years now (here are the materials I use, which now include ukulele resources). When I first created the unit, I had students perform chords using familiar instruments that I already had on hand- boomwhackers, xylophones, singing voices, and a website called Jam Studio (really cool if you've never checked it out!). A couple of years ago when I started teaching my 5th graders about keyboard instruments (read about that in this post), I switched to using keyboards to teach chords, which was slightly more effective, but still there was a certain awkwardness in using any of these instruments for teaching chords, because playing multiples notes together did not come easily for my students.

Ukulele, on the other hand, is created for playing chords! Besides the fact that it is physically easier to play chords on the ukulele compared to other instruments I used in the past, somehow the concept of chords itself seems to make more sense to students when they use a chordal instrument to play them! My point is, don't just decide to teach your students ukulele because it would be fun. Think through the purpose of learning ukulele for your students and how it will fit into your curriculum.

2. Find resources that fit your purpose

Once you know what your goals are for your ukulele instruction, it will make it easier to choose the resources you need to help your students reach those goals most effectively. I admit I haven't done extensive research or scoured the internet for all of the best resources out there, but here are some that I found that I have loved using!

There are several great resources available for free online that will help you and your students get a good foundation, especially if you're aiming to primarily teach chords through the instrument like I am. Bernadette Teaches Music has an awesome YouTube channel that walks you through each of the basic chords, along with other ukulele basics like tuning, strumming, and more. Midnight Music has free ukulele chord diagrams you can download to project on a screen or print and use as posters. And once your students have got the hang of a few basic chords, this website has tutorials for several popular songs that can be played with just 4 chords. My students loved learning the songs I picked from this list!

You can get by with just those free resources and get pretty far, but if you want something a little more put together for use in the classroom, I personally purchased the Sing and Strum Intro and One-Chord Songs set by Sing to Kids. It has some great teaching slides that make it easy to take students through the basics, especially with practicing strumming patterns. For a more in-depth curriculum (more for those who want to teach more note-reading and/or instrumental technique through ukulele study), the Rainbow Ukulele set by Pitch Publications is a great one.

3. Get your instruments

Of course any time you're getting started teaching ukuleles you're going to need instruments! I highly recommend this post by Shelley from Pitch Publications if you're looking at which ones to purchase. After watching her demonstration videos and reading about the comparisons, I settled on the Mahalo Rainbow ukuleles.

I was able to get enough ukuleles for a class set, which I highly recommend. You could certainly make it work with half a class set, with students trading off, but they really aren't that expensive (relatively speaking) and there are a lot of options for getting funding! Ukuleles are pretty popular right now so I found I had little trouble getting them funded through DonorsChoose, which I highly recommend for purchases like these. You can get more ideas for finding funding in this excellent post by Jennifer from Sing to Kids, or this one by David from Make Moments Matter. Don't let a small budget stop you from giving students the opportunity to learn ukulele if you feel it will be beneficial for them!

4. Keep instruments accessible

As you can see in the picture above, I have my ukuleles hung on the wall where students can easily get them and put them back themselves. I highly recommend this system if you have the wall space! As with any instrument students use regularly, I think it's important for students to learn how to handle them properly, and for them to be able to quickly and easily get them on their own. This is especially helpful when they use them later for composition projects or other activities where not all students are using ukuleles- they are always there and available if a student needs one. For tons of ideas on ways to store ukuleles in the music classroom, check out this post from Pitch Publications.

The other thing I did was get different colored ukuleles to match my color group seating arrangement (those of you who know me are, I'm sure, not surprised at all!). Even if you don't have your entire classroom rainbow-ed out, having several different colors of ukuleles can be very helpful. Besides the fact that it's more fun (and looks pretty if they're stored in a visible location), it's easier for having small groups of students play for you ("all of the green ukuleles play this time"), or get out and put away their instruments ("all the red ukuleles can go back on the shelf").

5. The tuning question

Of course one of the biggest annoyances with teaching string instruments, especially with younger students, is the issue of tuning. I know a lot of teachers invest in tuners to make it faster and easier to tune. Since I was less concerned with teaching students the finer points of ukulele technique, I decided I was not going to teach my students how to tune at all- in fact, I told them they were not allowed to even touch the tuning pegs! I found that after the new instruments' strings settled in, it took me about 10 minutes to tune the class set of ukuleles.

I also hand-picked a small group of students, most of whom had experience with other string instruments already, and trained them to be my Tuning Experts- we spent a few recess times practicing tuning the ukuleles properly, and after that, if I needed an instrument tuned during class (which was rare) and I couldn't do it myself, I had a few students who I knew I could trust to do it correctly without snapping any strings!

My students and I have thoroughly enjoyed learning the ukulele this year, and I think it is a real asset to my students' overall music learning! Have any of you started teaching ukuleles in the general music setting? I'd love to hear your top tips as well!

Now get strumming! ;)

Looking for more teaching ideas? See my full curriculum here.

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Monday, April 10, 2017

How I Finally Quit My Coffeeshop Habit

I have been a coffee fan for a long time, and I know that many other moms and teachers are too. Who else here has to have a cup of coffee in the morning? I like it in all forms too, from a good cup of plain black drip coffee to a sweet, syrupy caramel macchiato. And although I have always made my own coffee at home, nothing I ever made was quite as good as whatever I ordered at coffee shops. After feeling guilty about the ridiculous amount of money I knew I was spending on coffee shop drinks for a while, I finally found something that combines the convenience and price tag of making my coffee at home with the great, consistent taste of coffee shop drinks! Knowing how many of you share my love of coffee, I thought some of you might like to hear about how I finally found a way to be so happy with my homemade coffee that I don't feel the need to go to coffee shops anymore!


The biggest factor in finally kicking my coffee shop habit is my coffee maker. I've tried a lot of home brewing systems, and the one that each person loves is largely a personal choice for sure, but I haven't heard a lot of people talk about the one I finally fell in love with:


It's called the Mr Coffee Cafe Latte and it is a genius product! It's basically a drip coffee maker with a milk frother built into the lid of the carafe, so it froths and heats the milk and brews the coffee at the same time, into the same pitcher. I've had mine for 3 years and it is still going strong! If you love lattes, cappuccinos, or any other similar drink that mixes some ratio of milk and coffee, I highly recommend it. Even though it's drip coffee instead of espresso, I've figured out how to make the drip coffee strong enough to taste basically the same.

The second part of learning to make my own coffee was figuring out the recipes I liked. I can now very quickly and easily make pretty much all of my favorite coffee shop drinks: vanilla lattes, mochas, peppermint mochas, black tea lattes, chai lattes, and more! Even better, I know exactly what ingredients go into my drink. I admit I like a lot of sweet coffee drinks, but I can use coconut sugar instead of corn syrup and control the amount depending on my mood. If you want to see some of my recipes, here is a post I wrote on how to flavor coffee (you can use these with any drip coffee maker), and here is my recipe for the best chai tea ever (in my opinion)- I make a big batch of tea and then froth and heat it with milk in the latte machine.

I'm not saying I don't still enjoy coffee shops, but I rarely go anymore and when I do, it's either because I'm already out and can't go home or because I'm meeting someone and want to go out- I actually now prefer my own coffee most of the time! It makes me so happy to know that I can now make my own perfect cup of coffee at home. 

If any of you are coffee lovers who wish you could cut back on your Starbucks bill like me, give it a try- I think you'll be impressed with your own coffee making skills! And if you're ready to put away hot coffee in favor of the iced variety, here's my easy iced coffee routine :)

Happy Monday, everyone- go get 'em!