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Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Sign Language in the Music Room

I have always felt strongly about the benefits of using sign language in the elementary music classroom, and over the years it has become a regular part of my teaching, especially in the younger grades. Today I want to talk a little about why and how I use sign language in my music teaching, along with some resources to help you get started with sign language in your own classroom.


I taught in international schools for the first 6 years of my teaching career, so I developed strategies early on for teaching language through music (since so many of my students were second language learners). This was initially my primary reason for incorporating sign language into my teaching- by using sign language along with the words when learning a new song, more students were able to grasp and retain the meaning of the words and learn new vocabulary.

I quickly realized, however, that using sign language was benefitting all of my students- not just the second language learners! First, there is the obvious benefit of including movement to keep kids actively engaged and involve kinesthetic learning. But I've found that using actual sign language, and not just generic motions, makes a huge difference in learning. The key I think is that with sign language, each word/phrase/concept has a unique gesture, so students can attach meaning to the motion through the word and vice versa, to better remember the music and better understand new songs when they recognize a familiar sign. There have been many instances when students would figure out the meaning of a difficult word in a song because it was a synonym of another word they had sung before and they remembered the gesture/sign. And because the gestures in sign language are designed to communicate the meaning of each word or idea, most of the signs make sense to kids and provides another way for students to understand a word or concept (besides having me bumble through a verbal explanation myself).

I've also found it so helpful to include sign language for any performance songs I do with younger students, particularly up through 2nd or 3rd grade. By having students sing all of their songs with sign language, they are better able to follow my conducting, control their bodies and behavior on stage, and communicate the message of the piece more clearly. If you've ever tried to conduct a group of kindergarteners, you know that it's very hard to get them to stop mirroring your conducting motions- the more focused they are on following you, the more likely they are to move their arms right along with you! With sign language, I can sign along with them rather than using traditional conducting gestures to keep everyone together. Having meaningful movements to do also helps keep those jittery little bodies engaged and controlled on the stage, and no matter how excited or nervous they get, the sign language also helps to communicate the meaning and message of the words to the audience as well.

Convinced yet? Here are my tips for getting started:

1. Pick and choose the most important words to sign

Especially with younger students, signing every word is going to be next to impossible and counterproductive. Choose just the most important words to sign so that the gestures flow together easily and line up with the music more readily. For example, when my students sang, "I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas", they did the sign for the words I, hippopotamus, and Christmas. Depending on how fast the words are being sung, you'll be able to adjust how many words you sign.

2. Modify signs if you need to

Much as I like to stick to the "real deal" as much as I can, some signs are just too intricate for little hands, or take too long to complete. In those cases I've learned that it's OK to simplify things a little. The more you practice the signs, the more easily you'll be able to think of ways to simplify a particular sign without losing the meaning. If you watch people signing fluently, you'll notice that different people will sign slightly differently, just like different people speak with different accents. Just do your best to use whatever your modified version is consistently any time you have the same word or idea in other songs.

3. Learn the actual signs

It may be time consuming at first, but besides all of the benefits to student learning I've already mentioned, using *actual* sign language gives you the side benefit of learning a new language yourself! If you want to use ASL (American Sign Language), the site ASL Pro is awesome for learning new signs. Not only do they have videos for each word so you can see someone signing them, but you can actually rewind, pause, or slow down the video so you can practice it! If you happen to need a word that they don't have on that site (which has only happened a couple of times in my years of using it), do a google search for "(insert word) in ASL sign video" and you're sure to find something. If you're wanting to use another sign language, search for "(insert name of sign language) video dictionary" and see what you can find- there are many free ones available online.

4. Teach the signs before the song

Another benefit of using sign language to teach a new song is that you can have students follow along with you as they listen to you sing it by mirroring your motions/signs (I do everything left handed so they can more easily mirror me). This is a great way to get them listening and paying attention to the words before they start trying to sing! I have them mirror me as best they can while I sing it the first time, then I show them and have them practice any of the more difficult signs separately until they can sign the whole song with my singing, then I teach them the singing (which by that point takes no time at all because they've heard me sing it several times!).

Do you use sign language in your music classes? What are your favorite tips for incorporating sign language, and what have you found to be the benefits of using it? I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!

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Monday, February 20, 2017

DIY Family Game: Rainbow Scavenger Hunt

I'm always looking for new ways to have fun with together with my 5-year-olds at home this time of year. Whether we're home because someone is sick, or stuck in the house during a snow storm, I love to find things to do together that we can all enjoy, but so often end up getting tired of doing the same things over and over again! I threw this game together for my daughters' rainbow-themed birthday party last month, and I had no idea that it was going to be such a hit- the girls are still begging to play it every chance they get (almost two months later). If you're looking for a fun game to play with the whole family, this is a great one- there's little to no cost and anyone can play (even toddlers)!


The rules are pretty simple. One person is selected to be the "hider"- that person takes each of the colored "drops" and hides them while the other players wait in another room. We always try to stick the drops on items of a matching color (so the green drop on something green and the purple drop on something purple, etc) but if you have younger kids you may want to start by placing them on contrasting colors. Once the hider is finished, each of the other players takes a sheet with all of the colors on it and something to write with and goes to look for the drops. If they find one, they leave it there without saying anything and circle the drop on their paper. The first person to find all of them wins! If you want to mix it up, have players race to find a row of 3 (like BINGO) instead of finding all of the colors.

This is a great way for little ones to practice identifying their colors, and the older kids have fun trying to camouflage the drops to blend in with the surroundings. We specified at first that all of the drops had to be visible without having to move anything, but we've eventually evolved to making any spot fair game- some of them get really hard! It's like an Easter egg hunt without worrying about forgetting where you put that 30th egg.

If you want to try this game with your kids, you'll need:


writing utensils (enough for each player)
9 cut out pieces of paper in "raindrop" shapes (one of each color on the game sheet)
printouts of the picture below (set your printer to print the image full-page and in color)

What are some of your favorite games to play as a family when you're stuck in the house? I'm always looking for more ideas- share yours in the comments below!

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Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Music In Our Schools Month: more ways to celebrate!

After 4 years at my current school, I'm ready to make some updates to the ways I celebrate Music In Our Schools Month (MIOSM). Although I have loved the things I've been doing, there were a few things that I knew I could do better, and some new ideas that I wanted to try just to keep things interesting!


If you missed my original post describing all of the ways I celebrate MIOSM, be sure to check out that post, linked at the end of this one, for more detailed descriptions of how I have been doing things up to this point, as well as TONS more bulletin board ideas!

This year I'm making several updates to my tried-and-true MIOSM activities. The biggest change is going to be with my busker-style performance program (read this post for more details on how I have run that in the past), which I am replacing with in-class informances/talent shows. I'm going to be sending home a letter to parents, emails to staff, and putting up flyers at school to invite anyone to come to an "open music class". There will be 1 open class period for each class, most of them falling in the last week of March. Throughout the month, I will spend time with each class preparing a short song for the class to perform together, as well as inviting individuals and small groups of students to perform whatever kind of musical talent they would like to showcase (dance, instruments, singing, etc). On the day of the open music class we will perform for our guests, and for the older students, I am planning to have them talk about their favorite way(s) to enjoy music in or out of school.

To make up for not having music playing as students are entering school in the morning (one aspect of the busker-style performance program that I will lose with this change), the principal is planning to play music from different genres each morning over the loudspeaker during the month of March.

I'm also updating my 2 in-class activities: the Disco Duel and Rhythm Battle. Confession time: I've been using the same materials I made for myself in a Word document 10 years ago for both of these activities until now! I was definitely due for an update. You can read more about each of these activities in my previous blog post, but basically the Rhythm Battle is an ongoing competition between classes within each grade level to see which class can perform the most number of rhythms in a row without mistakes to a steady beat. They get a score each time they come to music class during March, and at the end of the month the class with the most total points wins. The main updates I made to the Rhythm Battle materials were to add more rhythms so none of them were repeated (before I had 50 rhythm patterns but the second half was a repeat of the first 25 rhythms), and to add a button to the bottom of each slide to go back to the beginning. Because classes get to keep trying as many times as they can while a song is playing, I was having to click the back button over and over again before when they messed up in the middle of the song!

I'm most excited, actually, about the updates to my Disco Duel materials. The Disco Duel is a friendly contest within each class (split up into teams) where basically they have to perform certain moves (shown on movement cards) in order for the correct number of beats. When I sat down to spiffy-up the movement cards, it hit me that I should include some of those dance moves that all of the kids are obsessed with right now (like the "dab" and "nae-nae") along with my normal moves. Much as they can get annoying sometimes, I'm all about bringing the musical experiences my students are having outside of class into the music room!

The one thing that IS staying is my bulletin board (It's an acrostic spelling out movement, beauty, soul, intelligence, and connections with MUSIC down the middle to represent the intrinsic benefits of music- get a printable set here), but I'll be having the students make new cards to add to it:


I'm excited to try something a little bit different this year- I think it will be a lot of fun! And I'm so looking forward to using my updated materials for Rhythm Battle and Disco Duel (clicks the links to see the updated materials in my store). Make sure to check out my previous post to get more detailed directions on how to do these activities in your own classroom- they are so much fun and you can use them any time of year!


What are your plans for celebrating Music In Our Schools Month (if at all)? Even though it is admittedly a bit of a push each year to get my act together, I really think it is not only a fantastic, fun way to get kids excited at a time of year when everyone is antsy, but it's a great way to get the entire school community excited (and more educated) about music!

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Monday, February 13, 2017

Party Popcorn: a fun snow day (or any day!) snack

We had several snow days last week and my 5-year-old daughters and I had a lot of fun spending some time relaxing together! One of my favorite things to do when we have a snow day is to make something yummy, and I was pretty excited to bring back one of our favorite snacks from last year this past week: Party Popcorn! Next time you have a snow day, or a family night, or even a birthday party, give this a try :)


The idea is to let everyone create their own snack mix by mixing popcorn with tons of different mix-ins. When we did this last week I pulled out whatever sounded good from the pantry: chocolate chips, fruit loops (mostly because they are so colorful), pecans, raisins, and coconut. In the past we've also used gummi bears, crushed peppermints, mini peanut butter cups.... you get the idea. Basically it's like creating your own trail mix!


Half the fun is deciding what to put in your mix- as we all know, any time a 5-year-old gets to make their own decisions that will always be a good thing :) Someone gifted us these fancy ice cream holders a couple of years ago, so we used those for our popcorn to make it even more fancy.


You could definitely keep things more on the healthy side or go all-out crazy depending on your mix-ins. Have you ever done something like this at home before? What are your favorite things to eat with popcorn? Leave a comment!

Looking for more snow day ideas? Here's a post I wrote a couple of years ago full of my favorite snow day activities with young children! Stay warm everyone! :)