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Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Teaching Recorder: 4 ways to structure instruction

Teaching recorder, or any instrument for that matter, to a full classroom of students working at different paces and with different levels of motivation can be tricky. Throw in popular curricular resources like Recorder Karate and other methods that encourage differentiation/ leveling in a large group setting, and things can get even more confusing! Today I want to give an overview of some different options for how to structure lessons in a full class setting using leveled resources, and offer my suggestions on when you might want to use each one.


1. Whole Class Instruction

Just because you're using a resource that encourages students to learn at their own pace does NOT mean you have to spend all of your class time having students independently practicing on their own. Particularly in the beginning when you are introducing fundamental playing techniques, whole class instruction allows you to make sure everyone is practicing good habits and staying on task.

I always start off my recorder unit working as a full class, and I will often have the whole class work together on their "belts" as well, especially if I have a group that struggles to work independently. I give students specific targets to work on when we are working above or below their individual playing level- I give students dynamics/ articulation etc to add if we are working on a song they've already "passed", and I point out specific attainable passages in a song for students to work on if we're working ahead of their capability. I regularly point out to the class that it's valuable to review and push ahead sometimes, and most students appreciate the change of pace too.

2. Stations/ Small Groups

Small group work can be a great way to strike a balance between encouraging students to work at their own pace and giving students the accountability of working with others. There are 2 ways to approach small group work with recorders:
  1. Have all students working on recorder music but split up into groups by their level
  2. Have students working on related skills at different stations and rotate through
I often will split the class up into groups by level when we first start getting into having students earn "belts" for their leveled songs. In this case, everyone is working in the same way- going through the practice steps that I've taught them to learn whatever song they are practicing together with others working on the same song- so everyone is still playing and working in the same way simultaneously but working on different songs. This is a great way to ease into independent practice and also gives students a chance to help each other rather than relying solely on my help.

The second way to structure small groups is especially great if you and/or the students need a break from the cacophony. In this case each group is working on recorders but in different ways: one station could be identifying letter names of notes, another could be silent practice with fingerings (have them remove the mouthpiece or just tell them they're not allowed to blow into their instrument), and another station could be a playing and/or testing station. If you or students are having trouble focusing with so many different songs being practiced simultaneously in one small space, or if everyone is getting burned out from just playing all the time, this is a great way to break down practice time into some specific steps and give everyone a chance to focus more easily. I've used this occasionally when I have a class that has trouble focusing/ staying on task. I'll still group students working on the same song together in most cases, but if I have a small group that is ahead and a small group that is behind the rest of the class, I'll put them together so the advanced students can help the slower learners and I can give some specific attention to both groups.

3. Extension Time

I know this isn't an option in every situation, but it's worth mentioning: another way to structure leveled/ self-paced learning is to set up time outside of class for students to work on "belts" and independent practice. There are several ways to set this up depending on your teaching situation:
  1. Set up a recess/ before or after school time that is designated as "open studio" time when any student can come in to test, get help from you, or practice with their friends.
  2. Set up a recess/ before or after school time that is designated as a testing time. In this case I have students sign up in advance so that I make sure I have time to listen to those that come prepared to test.
  3. Provide students with a way of sending in recordings of themselves to "earn belts" and/or show their independent learning. They could send in audio or visual recordings via email, upload to a school portal/ shared drive, or set up a call with you to play live.
I use this as a primary method of structuring leveled curriculum when I either need to move on with other topics in class or want to work primarily in whole-group instruction in class but also give students at either end of the spectrum a chance to continue working at their own pace as well.

4. Self-Paced, Simultaneous Practice

Of course you can also have all of the students work individually at their own level at the same time in the same room. The drawbacks are obvious- the noise level and general chaos of having so much happening at once- but when used sparingly it can be a useful way to give students the opportunity to work on independent practice skills when you can monitor and guide as needed. A few tips for making this work:

  1. Even if they aren't necessarily working together, having students who are working on the same song or skill practice in the same area will make it a little less confusing for you and for the students. I designate certain areas of the room for each "belt"/ level and go around to each group to offer my help to the entire group at once while the others are practicing independently.
  2. If you want to give students the chance to practice independently but the noise level is prohibitive, try having half the groups practice without mouthpieces and then swap every few minutes. Not only will this dramatically decrease the noise level, but it will also give students a chance to focus on fingerings, which is generally the most difficult aspect for students anyway.
  3. Have resources available, and systems in place for students to use them independently, so that they do not need your help to answer their questions. Fingering charts, note identification reminders, copies of all the music, practice technique reminders, and extra instruments/ alternatives for students who forgot their recorder should all be accessible for students to get on their own as needed. I keep fingering charts and copies of each song students are working on on a wall display- click here to see my post on how I set that up.
I rarely spend an entire class period on simultaneous individual practice, but I do like to incorporate time for this for part of the lesson most days, especially when we first start self-paced practice for their "karate belts"- I find it gives me a chance to see who is able to practice independently and offer guidance to those who don't.

There is no right or wrong way to structure recorder lessons- I try to keep a close eye on student motivation, individual progress, and engagement levels to figure out the most effective way to structure my lessons from day to day, and that changes throughout the unit, from year to year, and from class to class! Different groups will respond differently to each way of learning and that will change over time as well, so having all of these options available and ready is the best way to go.

If you haven't already, be sure to click here and read all of my other posts on recorders. You can also find all of my lesson plans and materials in my 3rd grade curriculum resource here. And you can get timely resources and ideas sent straight to your inbox, including overviews of my K-6 lesson plans each month, by getting on the Organized Chaos mailing list:




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Monday, February 19, 2018

Stress Reducing Strategies

With winter dragging on and on, holidays past, germs spreading everywhere, and daylight still in short supply, this time of year can get stressful. Today I'm sharing some of my favorite ways to manage my stress levels at home and at school and make sure I'm taking care of myself. Most of these are quick and easy things I can do in the middle of the work day, in the middle of making dinner and supervising homework, or any other time I feel stress levels creeping up!


1. Give yourself a break

This time of year I often find myself pushing hard to do #allthethings before spring kicks in and my schedule gets crazy. Planning ahead and pushing myself to do my best are great, but if and when I find myself getting stressed and overwhelmed, it's helpful to take a step back and give myself a break. This can mean a lot of different things, but I try to give myself permission to take the "easy way out" and give myself a chance to relax a little:
  • Eat out or order takeout on a weeknight. 
  • Stop trying to cram so much into my lesson plans- allow my students to take more time getting settled at the beginning and transitioning at the end of the lesson, and if we have extra time, have a quick dance party.
  • Throw on a movie or watch a TV episode instead of trying to push through that to-do list all the time.
The most important (and most difficult for me) part of this is to release any sense of guilt. I'm no good to anyone at home or at work if I'm overwhelmed and stressed. 

2. Drink a tall glass of water

I've seen this advice so many times and I vaguely agreed with it in the past, but I have become a huge believer in the last few months. Any time I feel tired now, the first thing I do is pour myself a big cup of water. I've found I can slurp it down a lot faster when I drink through a straw, so I keep a tumbler handy on my desk at school and on my kitchen counter at home. It really does make a huge difference! 

3. Phone a friend

I know this comes more naturally to some than others. I have a dear friend from college who still seems to know just the right time to text or call or message me, remembers every holiday/ birthday/ event, and follows up on anything I share with her. My youngest sister is a busy law school student but still finds the time to squeeze in "just because" phone calls with friends and family all the time, and even makes visits to her friends and family across the country a priority. When I get busy, communicating with people is one of the first things to go- my response generally is to hunker down and plow through my to-do list rather than take the time to talk about it. 

There's definitely a healthy balance of doing and talking, but for me, I need that reminder to make the time to talk to people. I never realize just how many thoughts I have swirling around in my head until I sit down with someone who wants to hear about me and my life. Just getting it "out there" makes such a big difference in my stress levels.

4. Exercise/ stretch

I'm not someone who exercises for the purpose of exercise. The older I get the more I realize I probably should, but realistically it just isn't something I am motivated to do. Obviously if you can, going for a run, hitting the gym, or going to an exercise class are all great ways to reduce stress. But there are some quick, easy ways to get in some exercise (of sorts) that help me in particularly stressful moments as well:
  • Turn on some upbeat music. Sing and dance to it like I'm on Broadway.
  • Do the stretch I shared in this previous post a few times.
5. Listen to music

I've developed a list of go-to songs that I can turn on when I feel the tension rising. Sometimes I need a calming song, sometimes it helps to listen to something upbeat and fun, and sometimes I find it helpful to turn on one of those deeply touching songs to get inspired and refocused on my priorities. Here's a previous post with some of the songs that have gotten me through some of my most difficult moments- check out this list if you're looking for some new songs to add to your own stress-busting song list!

These ideas aren't rocket science, but I think we can all use the reminder this time of year to make sure we are taking care of ourselves. What are your favorite stress-busters? Leave your ideas in the comments!

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Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Teaching Recorder: troubleshooting

One of the biggest struggles of teaching recorder is dealing with all the squeaks and squawks, especially in the beginning. After teaching recorder for over a decade I've learned to spot some of the most common issues beginners deal with, and the most effective ways to address them in the classroom setting. Obviously I won't be covering every problem I've ever encountered, nor will the solutions I suggest work for every student, but hopefully you'll find a few new tricks to add to your arsenal as you battle bad recorder sounds!


1. Overblowing

The best way to address students who blow too hard is to work on low notes before introducing higher notes- read this post on my first recorder lesson to hear more thoughts on this, but starting on G and low E right away forces players to blow more softly to have any hope of producing the correct note. This solves 90% of my overblowers, but if and when I do catch a student blowing too hard, a quick "softer" reminder usually fixes it pretty quickly. 

Other tricks you can try: 
  • Have them blow on your hand so you can feel how hard they're actually blowing, then have them blow on their own hand to feel it themselves. If you're both comfortable with it, you can also blow on their hand so they can feel it and compare.
  • Tell them to pretend they are blowing bubbles- if they blow too hard they will pop the bubble!
  • Tell them to pretend they are blowing on a candle to make the flame flicker but not go out.
  • Have them practice blowing softly while you hold the instrument and cover the holes so they can focus on that one skill.
2. Improper (or lack of) Tonguing

I always introduce blowing technique by having students say the number "two", and every time I introduce a new note we practice whispering "two" (off of the mouthpiece) while showing the correct fingering. I also have them practice playing short notes (like sixteenths) from the beginning to force them to have to tongue (I talk about this in my post on the first lesson as well). That frequent practice helps, but there are always still a few students who, I think in an effort to blow softer, start blowing without tonguing, saying "who" instead of "two". I call them my owls 😉 Most of them have tell-tale puffy cheeks so I can spot them right away and have them practice blowing "two" in the air. Every few years though, I've had a student who was sneaky enough to get by blowing "who" (or some other strange variation) without it being obvious from the outside, and those are hard to correct!

A few things that have worked for me in the past:
  • Some of them have gotten away with blowing "who" for a while so they don't see any reason to change their technique. In that situation I have them play something with lots of fast notes and then I play it for them afterwards and we compare- you can always tell that my sound is better (if they need more convincing, play something that switches between low and high notes- that will really get them!). Once they're convinced, sometimes all they need is a frequent reminder to say "two" and they're fine.
  • Surprisingly, one of the most common problems I've found with these students is posture. I think they compensate for shallow breathing and poor posture by avoiding tonguing because they don't have good breath support/ control. One of the first things I'll try is to be very strict about their posture and really focus on proper breathing- sometimes the problem correct itself once they are breathing deeply and properly supporting their air. 
  • Sometimes the reason they aren't tonguing is because of where their tongue is in relation to the mouthpiece. Try having them take more or less of the mouthpiece into their mouth while saying "two" to see if it's easier for them.
3. Slippery Fingers

This is especially difficult if you are introducing recorder to younger students who have smaller fingers (a big reason why I advocate starting in 4th grade- read more in this post)- you get everyone's fingers covering the holes correctly, and then 2 seconds later half of their fingers have slid up away from the holes they're supposed to be covering. To be honest I think this is mostly unavoidable in the beginning- I think the only real "cure" is for students to have the time to get used to the finger positioning. With that said, here are a few things I do to help speed up the process:

  • I constantly walk around while students are practicing, echoing me, etc and tap on any fingers that are coming off of the holes. Usually when this happens they've just forgotten about their fingers because they're focused on one of the other million things their brains have to think about!
  • Some students struggle with this not because of their reach or the size of their hands but because they are double jointed. I try to spot the double jointed students early on and point it out to them. Any time I see their fingers turning "inside out" or their wrists clenching up, I silently shake my hand in front of them as a cue for them to take their hands off of the recorder and "shake it out" and then reset their hands. 
  • One of the most common causes of fingers slipping up is the left thumb. I've never understood this because my hand isn't built this way, but many students naturally point their thumb up towards the mouthpiece when they try to cover the hole on the back, which turns their entire hand in such a position that they can't comfortably cover the holes on the front. I do constant thumb checks, reminding them to point their thumbs towards the side wall, and that helps a lot of students keep their hands in a nice, rounded "C" position.
  • Some students, especially ones who either have played or have seen others play piano or bowed string instruments, naturally try to place their fingers over the holes on the very tips of their fingers (this is also a problem for double jointed people who are over-compensating in an attempt to keep their wrists relaxed and rounded). I always do this with the entire class in the first lesson, but I will have students with this problem repeat this exercise to make sure they are using the pads of their fingers rather than the very tips: get their fingers positioned where they think they should be, then press down hard enough to make a mark of where the hole is under each finger. Take their fingers off and look to see where the circles are (and if it shows a complete circle or a partial one). 
There are so many other little things we could cover here, but those are the top 3 most common problems I've encountered with beginning recorder. I know there are lots of other great tricks music teachers have developed for troubleshooting- please share yours in the comments!

If you want to read more about recorder teaching, here are all of my posts on the topic. If you want to see my complete lesson plans for my recorder unit, along with all of the teaching materials, they are included in my 3rd grade curriculum set.

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Monday, February 12, 2018

Snow Day Activities

We have definitely had more than our fair share of snow days this year, and if my friends' comments are any indication, many people around the U.S. are having similar experiences! Yes, being able to sleep in is nice, but getting cooped up inside, especially with young children, can get old really fast! Today I've got 3 ideas for things to do with elementary-age kids when you're stuck inside on a cold winter snow day- hopefully this will help you mix things up and survive the rest of the winter without losing your mind!


1. Put on a show

A favorite at our house right now is putting on a "show"! Pick out some outrageous costumes, rehearse some choreography, add some music, create set pieces.... the possibilities are endless and we can all let our imaginations run wild. With two 6-year-old's, the stories can get pretty wacky and there's definitely a lot of improvising involved, but it's still a lot of fun! Most of the time the stuffed animals are our "audience", but sometimes I'm permitted to videotape the performance ;)

2. Watch a movie (PJ's and popcorn included)

OK, nothing revolutionary about this idea, but it's nice sometimes to scroll through Amazon video (or Netflix, or whatever else people use these days... technology...) and find a new movie you've never seen before. And of course when one watches a movie on a snow day, one must be sure to wear pajamas and have party popcorn as well (recipe here).

3. Make slime

What is it about slime that makes it so irresistible and endlessly entertaining?? There are several varieties- we like the saline solution slime and fluffy slime the best- and of course you can make them all different colors, or add beads or glitter... Here is a blog post with a great compilation of some different slime recipes to try.

So now it's your turn: what are your family's favorite snow day activities? Leave your ideas in the comments! If you want even more ideas, be sure to check out this post I wrote a few years ago on snow day activities with toddlers- many of these ideas are ones we still love now! :)

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