Image Map

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Making Every Voice Heard in Elementary Music: the benefits of circles

In any classroom with more than, say, 12 kids, it's a challenge to make sure every child feels heard- feels that they are an important contributor to the class and that their opinion is important. This challenge is only magnified when you factor in the short and infrequent classes that elementary specialist teachers tend to have, not to mention the hundreds of students in dozens of different back-to-back classes that the teachers are trying to keep track of! But the longer I teach, the more I realize just how important it is to "behavior management" to make sure every voice is truly heard in my classroom.


If you've been around these parts for a while, you may remember me mentioning the training / professional development that I've been attending the last few years on improving school climate and, most recently, Restorative Practices (here's the official website for this approach to "discipline"). One of the key components to this approach that I've been learning about is the use of circles.

"Circle time" is nothing new to elementary school teaching- I'm sure all of us remember sitting in a circle at some point to have show-and-tell time, or talk about the calendar or today's weather. In music class, I've been a huge believer in the benefits of drum circles (read about my favorite drum circle lessons, and my tips for drum circle logistics). There is something uniquely powerful about gathering in a circle as a community- everyone can see and hear each other, and nobody is positioned "above" anyone else. 

What I've learned through my recent training, however, is the benefit of making "circles" a more regular practice in the elementary music room. There are 3 types of circles I am planning to implement more consciously and regularly in my classes this year: community-building circles, problem-solving circles, and applied learning circles. Today I want to talk about the first one (since it is the one I'll be using most at the beginning of the year), and over the next few weeks I'll talk more about each of the others as well.

Sidenote: if you're interested in learning more about Restorative Practices (which I highly recommend you do!), please see if you can find a training session near you. Here's a good starting place to find opportunities in your area. What I'll be sharing here are my own thoughts on how I am, or plan to, apply the general strategies and frameworks to my own teaching situation. 

Community-Building Circles

I'm not using the "official" terminology here- I don't want to replace actual training- but basically the idea behind what I'm calling "community-building circles" is to build community by providing structured opportunities for every child to share something about themselves in a fun, non-threatening way. 

Here's how it goes: everyone (myself included) sits in a circle. I pick an item (an unplugged microphone or puppet/ stuffed animal works well) and establish the ground rules: 
  • we will go around the circle in order until everyone has a turn
  • only the person with the item is allowed to speak- this means even you as the teacher are not allowed to comment or ask follow-up questions when someone speaks (unless you need to intervene to avoid hurt feelings/ misunderstandings/ arguments)
  • we will only go around the circle once- each person will get 1 turn only
  • anyone can choose to "pass"- if they change their mind before the end of the circle they can ask to reclaim their turn at the end
Once the rules are established, I ask an easy, get-to-know-you type question. Here are some examples:
  • What is your favorite color/animal/sport/season/food?
  • What is your favorite instrument/musical genre/performing artist?
  • Tell me about one of your heros.
  • Tell me one thing you love/appreciate about the person to your right.
  • Tell me one thing you love about yourself.
You get the idea. The point is to pick a topic that is non-threatening and doesn't require too much thought, but gives everyone some insight into each person.

Hopefully the benefits of doing this type of circle activity regularly are obvious, but let's talk about them briefly anyway :)
  • This is the perfect way to get to know students, which can be difficult when we have so many for such short periods of time! And once the students get used to the procedures, the circles generally don't take more than a few minutes. 
  • Often by learning about your students, you can tie those interests into your lesson planning- maybe you find out that tons of kids in one class are really into Mario, so you include a reference to the Mario theme in one of your lessons on articulation. Or maybe it gives you some insight into "That Kid" that you're struggling to connect with- if you can get them to tell you something about themselves, it opens the door for more conversations to start fostering that relationship.
  • This can be a perfect segue or introduction to any lesson- if you're doing a song about winter, you can start by asking everyone what their favorite thing about winter is, or if you're going to be talking about major vs minor, you can have everyone tell you their favorite song and then go back later and discuss which one each of the mentioned songs are.
  • Having these types of exercises built into your classroom routine regularly just gives children a sense of belonging, of feeling heard, of being valued. It's impossible for us as music teachers to keep track of who answers questions most often, who has gotten a turn on all the games, and on and on. This is one way to guarantee that each child has had an opportunity to be the center of attention and share something about themselves.
I am hoping to start doing these types of circles about once a month, since I see most of my classes twice a week. I'll definitely do them more often at the beginning of the year, and then as the school year gets into full-swing and the classroom communities become more established I'll start spacing them out more (and start getting into the other types of circles I'll be discussing more in future posts!).

What are your thoughts on doing these types of circles in elementary music class? Have you ever consciously made them a part of your regular routine? I'd love to hear your thoughts- share them in the comments below! If you want to read more about my "behavior management" strategies, click on the image below to visit my post that has most of my ideas compiled in one place:


Stay in touch and get timely ideas and resources sent to your inbox each month!




Monday, August 14, 2017

Craft Supplies for Home Decor: paper cutouts

I hope you've been enjoying my little series on using craft supplies to make easy, cheap, home decor! Today I have a few simple projects using paper cutouts. I've used paper flowers for all of these, but if you go to your local craft store you'll find paper cutouts / die cuts in all different shapes and colors (or of course you could make your own). These are all great ways to spice up boring things and add a personal touch to your space :)


First of all, if you're not sure what I'm talking about when I say paper cutouts or die cuts, here's what I'm talking about:


I often find them on clearance in craft stores, and there are always different seasonal sets, like fall leaves, or even different animals (which would be so cute for a kid's bedroom or playroom!).

The first project is one I've shared before: adding some flowers to the top of push pins. For these, I took 2-3 flowers in different sizes and layered them on top of each other, putting a tiny blob of craft glue in the middle of each one to attach them. I love these! They add so much color to my bedroom wall. Click the picture to read more about that project:


The next two projects are new (and I'm more than a little excited)! I recently updated my daughters' bedroom in their requested fairy garden theme, so I pulled out the paper flowers again for a few projects :)

The first was simple: add a longer pull to the ceiling light switch! I tied some string I had on hand around the short metal pull that came on the ceiling light so that it hung down low enough for the girls to reach. At the bottom of the string, I attached 2 layered (as in the previous project) flowers, sandwiching the string, with a little gemstone in the middle of each flower. Isn't it adorable? And so much easier for little hands. The girls can't stop turning the light on and off ;)


You may have noticed the second project in the photo above: DIY flower bed canopies :) I got these plain bed canopies from IKEA and, as before, made a whole bunch of layered flowers with the tiny gemstones in the middle. Then I used the same craft glue to sandwich the net between two sets of flowers (so that they look nice from the inside or outside).


Aren't these fun? And so easy :) I hope these ideas give you some inspiration for your own projects. Have you used die cuts / paper cutouts for any of your own home projects? I'd love to hear your ideas in the comments! And if you haven't already, be sure to check out my previous posts from this series on using washi tape and scrapbook paper for DIY home decor ideas :)

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

3 Books for Back to School Music Class

I love using children's literature in the music room. It brings ideas to life and sparks kids' imaginations! This summer I discovered a few new books at our local library that I can't wait to use to kick off the school year with my elementary music classes.

This post contains affiliate links.

Each of these books is perfect for motivating students to do their best in music class, each in a slightly different way. Click on the picture to find the book on Amazon :)

1. Mole Music by David McPhail




This book tells the story of a mole who, inspired by a violin player he sees on TV, practices the violin every day for years and years and learns to make beautiful music. At the end of the book, Mole imagines how his beautiful music might change the world, and it does (without his knowledge). This is a great book to both talk about the power and importance of music but also the value of persistence and hard work. Mole definitely didn't start out sounding good! This will be a great way to talk about the many times we will have to work hard and keep practicing to get it right in music class this year.

2. Song of Middle C by Alison McGhee



This book is about a girl preparing for, and performing in, her first piano recital. In talking about her practice beforehand, she talks about how she imagines the characters in the song to perform it "with artistry" (great way to introduce the importance of expression!). Although she is very well-prepared, when she gets on the stage her nerves get the best of her and she forgets her piece. But she ends up improvising a song by playing just middle C in lots of different ways- like thunder, like wind, like a question- and receives a standing ovation. I am always talking to my older students, especially, about performance skills. So many of my students get extremely nervous performing in class, and I always tell them to just pretend like it was fabulous and continue on no matter what mistakes they may make. And I think I will steal the expressive ideas for when we're learning new notes and practicing them on the recorder! 

3. The Really Awful Musicians by John Manders


This book is set in Renaissance period and includes lots of extension opportunities. There are Renaissance instruments, characters named after (and embodying) music vocabulary (like "Fortissimo", the sackbut player), and even a reference to the invention of musical notation. But the reason I think it's perfect for back to school is because of the overall message that musicians have to listen to each other and play as an ensemble to make beautiful music- if everyone just does their own thing and ignores the other players, they'll sound awful (and in the case of this book, get eaten by alligators)! What a great message to send at the beginning of the year! One of the unique features of music, unlike other school subjects, is the emphasis on team work. This book will get kids thinking about the importance of ensemble playing right from the beginning in a humorous way that kids are sure to remember.

What do you think of my new finds? I can't wait to share these with my classes at the beginning of the year. What are some of your favorite books to use in music class? If you want to see some other books I use to teach more specific musical concepts, go check out this post:


Looking for more ideas for the beginning of the school year? Download my September lesson plans for 5th grade for free right here.

Want to get free curriculum resources, tips, and updates sent straight to your inbox?




Monday, August 7, 2017

Craft Supplies for Home Decor: Paper

Scrapbook paper has got to be one of my favorite things! And it is wonderfully easy to use in so many different projects, even home decorating. If you missed it, last week I shared my favorite ways to use washi tape for home decor. Today we're talking about my favorite home decor projects using paper! These are all easy and budget-friendly, so I hope you'll give some of these a try!


I've shared quite a few home decor projects using scrapbook paper over the last few years! Most of them are what I call "functional art", meaning they serve as organizational tools, but because of the pretty paper, they're also decorative! ;) Here are some of my favorites (click on the picture to visit the post and see how I did them):

1. Dry erase organizers


2. Magnet boards



3. Corkboards / wall art


The other project I want to share with you is not mine- it has been on my list of "future projects" for a while now but I'm waiting until I can finish a few other projects first: drawer lining! For kitchens and bathrooms I plan to put clear contact paper over the top of the scrapbook paper, but for other places you can just use the paper as-is. So fun! There are tons of tutorials on this project, but this one from "In My Own Style" is my favorite:


That's about it for home decor projects using paper! I hope you found some new, simple ways to personalize your home. Have you done any home decorating with scrapbook paper? I'd love to hear your ideas in the comments! :)


Tuesday, August 1, 2017

My Favorite Warm-ups for Children's Choir

With limited rehearsal time, finding warm-ups that 1) can be learned quickly, 2) are actually effective in warming up the voice, 3) teach important skills or concepts, 4) are easy enough for very beginning young singers, and 5) aren't boring for the students can be a real challenge! Over the years I've settled on a few favorites that I love for beginning choirs (3rd grade - 5th grade or so) that I wanted to share with you today.


1. The Counting Game

I'm always surprised at how difficult this warm-up is! This one is great for getting brains focused, expanding range and, if you get to the extension warm-up, working on part work.


I'm sure you get the idea. For beginning choirs, I start with just "Part I", working in different keys to expand range, for at least a few months. Eventually we work on Part II, which is of course much harder since they're counting backwards. I extend this with my more experienced groups by having half of the group sing each part simultaneously. Of course you can also do this with solfege instead of numbers!

2. Many Mumbling Mice

I'm not even kidding, I start playing the accompaniment for this and half of my choir (no matter the age) starts squealing! They love this one, and it's a great way to work on phrasing and other expressive elements, as well as diction (for obvious reasons).


Obviously you repeat the pattern going up (or down) a half step each time. Once they get the hang of the words, I have them speed up gradually each time. Once we get to a reasonable speed, I have them work on singing the whole thing legato, particularly connecting "mice" and "are" in the first measure. Depending on the pieces we're working on, this is a great one to have them experiment with different moods, dynamics, and vocal timbres because of the smaller range.

If you're curious, the accompaniment I play on piano is a simple 1-5 bass line on beats 1 and 3, and the root position minor triad on beats 2 and 4. Nothing fancy because I have to be able to play pretty fast once we speed up!

3. Yes / No Game

This is a great way to get brains going while practicing or introducing particular melodic or rhythmic phrases. The conductor sings (or chants, if you want to just focus on rhythm) a short phrase, and the choir echoes it back. BUT the choir has to use the opposite of the words the conductor uses, so if the conductor sings "yes, yes, no, no, yes", then the choir sings back "no, no, yes, yes, no". I always start this by sticking with just one word or the other, but it can get pretty crazy once you start mixing them up (as in the example above)! When the pattern I was aiming for comes up in rehearsal, I'll have them echo it with yes/no again to remind them and then practice the phrase in the music- they'll quickly recognize the connection!

4. Excerpts

This is similar to my last warm-up example, but taking a short excerpt from a piece to introduce or practice a specific element is another great warm-up. Unless the lyrics in that phrase happen to be really interesting (or I'm specifically working on the diction etc), I'll often change the words to something silly, and then repeat it going chromatically up each time. Then when the targeted excerpt comes up in rehearsal, if they are struggling, I'll point out what we did in the warm-up and the light bulbs go off!

That's it for my favorite warm-ups for beginning children's choirs. What are your favorites? I'd love to hear them in the comments below!

Want to get free curriculum resources, tips, and updates sent straight to your inbox?


Monday, July 31, 2017

Craft Supplies for Home Decor: Washi Tape

Raise your hand if you've ever used craft supplies as home decor! I've found that many craft supplies are also perfect home decor items- they're generally cheaper than buying pre-decorated items, there are infinite color and pattern possibilities, and in most cases they're easy to change out if you're renting (or just flaky). Plus if you're like me and already have a craft supply obsession, this just gives you another excuse to buy more pretty things! ;) Today I'm kicking off a series on using craft supplies in the home with my favorite item: washi tape!


I've actually shared quite a few ideas for using washi tape in the home already, so I'll share those posts below for you to see more detailed ideas. But the applications are probably pretty obvious: washi tape is a great cheap and temporary way to add colors and patterns to almost any surface. And of course you can use it to attach things to other things, like hanging (light-weight) pictures on the wall. Click on the images below to see some of my favorite projects:

Disclaimer: some of these posts are OLD! No judging my beginner photo skills from years ago! ;)





Washi Tape Gallery Wall:

Mail Sorters:

I hope you found inspiration for some new home projects! How else have you used washi tape in your home? I'd love to hear your ideas in the comments below! 

Sunday, July 30, 2017

July Favorites 2017

I hope you have all been enjoying this month- I know I have! I took my daughters on vacation, worked on plenty of projects for school and home, and spent plenty of time outside playing with my girls. This really was a month full of amazing things I loved, but here are some highlights from this past month.


1. Updated girls' bedroom


Believe it or not, my 5-year-old daughters have been sleeping in their same (converted) cribs until this summer! This month I finally got them new beds, and updated their room decor while I was at it. We went with a "fairy garden" theme, and I made most of the decorations myself- I'm so happy with the way everything turned out (and they love it too)! These flowers were one of my favorite parts. I'll share more details on this blog later this summer, but stay tuned next week for a new series on using craft supplies to decorate your home ;)

2. New triangle holders


This is, quite literally, a small thing, but I couldn't be more excited about my new triangle holders! I got these from Groth Music and I can't wait for the kids to see them when school starts. SO much easier to hold without the triangle spinning around every time they hit it, and much easier to get them out and put away without the holder falling off! 

3. Summer planner spreads


As much as I love my "regular" weekly lesson planning spreads during the school year, it's so much fun to have the space and time to play around with different decorating techniques and supplies. Space is always at a premium in my lesson planning spreads, so having room to use some bigger stickers, post-its, and other supplies feels like a luxury :) (If you're wondering where these weekly calendar templates came from, they're in the business planning section of my #PlanMyWholeLife planners- you can get that section separately here as well). 

4. Blog posts

Oh my goodness, there were so many awesome blog posts I read this month I don't even know how to narrow it down! If you aren't already, you NEED to go follow the MusicEd Blogs Community page on Facebook. Tons of bloggers share awesome, timely content every day- I am always so inspired reading the posts from all over the internet! Here are some highlights from this month:






I hope you found some new inspiration to help you get motivated for the new school year! If you want to see more of my "favorites", head on over to my Instagram page- I share my favorites from home, school, and more all the time there! What have you most enjoyed this month? What are you looking forward to for August? I'd love to hear from you in the comments! :)

Want to stay in touch? Sign up for my newsletter :)




Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Elementary Music Teacher Wardrobe Essentials

I am pretty active in my classroom, as most elementary music teachers are. Within any given day, I need to have clothes that will allow me to dance, sit on the floor, interact with pre-teen boys, sing, conduct, play instruments (including some that go between my legs), and be comfortable in lots of different temperatures (because does anyone actually have a classroom where the temperature control is reliable???). For all you newer teachers looking to invest in some "professional" clothes, I wanted to share my tips for clothing that will work best in the demands of an elementary music teaching job.


Let me start by saying I am not a stylish person. If you want fashion tips to flatter your body, look good, or stay on top of the trends, you'll have to talk to someone else. But one thing I will say about my clothing choices: I am a very practical person. So please, take these recommendations and adapt them to your own style!

Here are some essentials that I think every elementary music teacher should have in their closet:

1. Layering Pieces

As I mentioned in the beginning of this post, temperatures tend to fluctuate in my classroom. Different parts of the school building are also drastically different temperatures, and I usually have some lessons where I'm moving around a lot and others where I'm less active, so my body temperature fluctuates too. I think the most important thing teachers need in their wardrobe is layers! 

My 2 favorite types of layering pieces are camisoles and button-up sweaters. Camisoles are awesome because they add an extra layer under clothes that you otherwise may not be comfortable wearing to teach, like loose, low-neckline, or shorter length tops, and they don't add too much bulk if you want to add a layer without getting too hot. The best part about the camisoles that I have, though, is the length. 

Whatever you do, you need to have tops that are long enough when you teach music!

Inevitably you are going to need to raise your arms up over your head repeatedly as a music teacher, whether you're conducting, dancing, or just going up the solfege ladder. Long camisoles are great because they're relatively cheap, and then you don't have to worry as much about the length of your existing tops because you can always add a camisole underneath!


The sweaters are pretty self-explanatory but definitely equally important for a teacher's wardrobe in my mind. I seriously take my sweaters on and off multiple times on any given day because of the temperature fluctuations! Having something that buttons in the front is MUCH better than something you have to pull over your head, not only because you won't mess up your hair or get tangled up with your lanyard/jewelry, but also because you don't have to stop teaching to take it on or off. 


Sidenote: if you want to be able to layer effectively, you need to be able to mix and match clothes. But don't think you have to stick to just neutrals or a couple of colors to be able to mix and match everything! Just pick a color palette you like and stick to that RANGE of colors. That might be "earthy" tones, jewel tones, pastels, primary colors, etc. Like I said, I'm no style expert, but there's a little tip for you that helps me a lot when I'm thinking about how to layer different items together! ;)

2. Pants

There are 2 main reasons I think all elementary music teachers need pants, no matter how feminine your style normally might be: sitting on the floor and playing instruments that go between your legs. I've found some ways around needing pants to sit on the floor (see below), but if I'm leading a drumming circle (or playing another instrument like a cello), I absolutely think the only option is to wear pants. 

Because I think long tops are a must, like I mentioned before, I personally stick to skinny style pants that I think look better under long tops. Thankfully those are in style right now so that works in my favor- there are plenty of great options for where to get them! I try to have a few different colors in full-length pants and capris.


Another sidenote: yes, I know that a lot of my clothes look wrinkled.... I pulled a few out of storage or the laundry basket to take pictures, and some of them just don't lay flat on the floor.....

3. Skirts and Dresses

I used to hardly ever wear skirts or dresses to work because I didn't feel like I could move freely or comfortably sit on the floor, but I've figured out that with the right kind of skirt I can comfortably wear them for teaching too, which makes me so happy! For me, the key is to get fuller, knee-length skirts, preferably with pockets. Too short and you have obvious issues with sitting on the floor, too long and you can't move around as freely. Once I found a couple of options I liked, I bought them in at least 2 different colors because this combination is so hard to find! In any case though, I make sure to wear leggings underneath, so I guess another wardrobe essential for me is leggings in a few different lengths and weights (thicker and longer for winter, thinner capri length or shorter for warmer months). 


4. Shoes

Shoes. Probably the biggest dilemma for a lot of people, since we're on our feet so much! No, I don't have a magic answer for this. I will definitely say that flats are a must for me- I stopped wearing heels of all kinds years ago- and currently my favorite shoes are Toms because they are comfortable and breathe well, but the main thing I'll say about shoes is to experiment, find a pair of shoes that are really comfortable, and stock up on them in multiple colors. If you can find a pair of shoes that you love wearing, that is a magical thing that you'll want to hold onto as long as you can!


5. Tops

My favorite tops to wear to school with pants or skirts are 
1) loose-fitting enough to allow movement 
2) long enough so I can raise my arms over my head without showing off my midriff or can be worn over a camisole
3) short sleeves or long sleeves that can easily be pushed up if I need to
4) thin enough to be worn with layers over and/or under
5) not too low-cut of a neckline or can be worn over a camisole

I think my list is pretty self-explanatory based on the points I already talked about with layering pieces and bottoms, so I won't rehash those points here, but I will say that my current favorite type of top is the tunic top. They have 3/4 length sleeves that I can easily push up if I get hot, and they fit loosely so I can wear a camisole underneath and move freely.


6. Performance outfits

Most every music teacher is going to need some dressier clothes to wear for concerts and performances! I'm a traditionalist- I stick with all black most of the time for concerts. But the same general rules for work clothing apply to concerts too- I need layers, I need to be able to stand and sit in the clothes comfortably, and I need to be able to move freely and raise my arms up comfortably for conducting. I have a couple of black dresses, black pants, and a black top so I can have a bit of variety in what I wear to different performances.


Outfit examples

Now that I've talked a little about my teacher wardrobe essentials, here are some examples of some of my personal favorites to give you an idea of what I wear to school on a typical day:




I hope you found this post helpful- I feel weird talking about fashion but it took me a while to figure out what I could and couldn't practically wear to teach in as an elementary music teacher, so hopefully you found some useful tips to make it easier for you to find the right clothes for you. 

Now it's your turn: what are your elementary music teacher wardrobe essentials??? Leave a comment below!

Get more timely tips sent straight to your inbox each month: