Image Map

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

January Favorites 2018

I hope everyone has had a fantastic start to 2018- this month has definitely flown by but it has been full of some fantastic highlights at school and at home! I'm back this month to share some "favorites" of the month, and I hope you'll join me in celebrating the fun and the awesome by sharing your own favorites in the comments- it's a great way to get inspired for the month ahead!

1. My daughters' 6th birthday

I know as parents we say this all the time but HOW IN THE WORLD do I have two 6 year olds?!? Crazy. The girls chose a unicorn theme for their party and we had a lot of fun celebrating with friends and family. Definitely the highlight of the month! ;)

2. New pencils

Maybe this sounds silly but I am super excited about the new mechanical pencils I found at the Dollar  Tree over the holiday break. The students are loving them and I am just enamored with how well they match my color-coded supplies, of course! ;) I was a little worried that they would fall apart quickly but after being used for several weeks they are still in great shape- I have high hopes for these! Much easier than dealing with sharpening pencils constantly, and actually the erasers on them work really well too.

3. Fresh Start 2018 Challenge

If you've been reading and following my Monday home/life posts this month, you know that I've been putting some focused time and effort into cleaning out my house a little more thoroughly than usual. I'm trying to be realistic about the amount of time and energy I can devote to it with everything else going on, but also pick projects that will make a significant dent in the clutter. I have found it to be such a great way to stay motivated and feel good about the progress I'm making without feeling stressed or overwhelmed by it. You can read my kick-off post, where I tackled my closets, right here if you haven't already.

4. Music education blog posts

I love finding awesome music teaching-related posts to share with you each Friday on Facebook- check out the ones I found this month below if you missed any!

Want to see more timely resources and updates in your inbox?

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Teaching Recorder: the first lesson

Teaching recorders can be a lot of fun (and so rewarding!) but it can also be pretty overwhelming (and headache-inducing!), especially in the beginning when you're trying to cover the fundamentals. Once you've taken care of the logistics (read all of my tips for getting everything set up in this post), it's time to get those instruments into the students' hands and start playing! Today I want to share how I get everyone started on the right foot and excited about the recorder on the first day.

1. Holding positions

My #1 rule when I teach any instruments in class is this: "if you play before I say you'll make the instrument go away". The same policy applies with recorder- even more so, in fact. There's nothing worse than a stray toot on the recorder in the middle of giving directions. I make it very clear from the beginning that I do not distinguish between accidental and purposeful playing when I haven't told them to play- no matter what the circumstance they will have to put their recorder away for the rest of class and play on their "air recorder" for the rest of the period. 

This may sound harsh but I quickly also teach them how to 100% ensure that they don't "accidentally" blow into their instruments by learning 3 holding positions: rest position, practice position, and play position. Rest position is for when I'm showing or telling them something- for this one they keep their recorders in their laps. Practice position is for when they are practicing their hand position but aren't ready to play yet- for this one they hold their instrument the same way as they would when playing but rest the mouthpiece under their chins instead of in or near their mouths. This is the most important skill for them to learn from the beginning- there is very little chance of them blowing into the instrument, even if they sneeze or cough, but they can still effectively practice their fingerings without making any sound or worrying about how they blow. 

We practice the 3 positions over and over again until they can do it quickly and quietly (with their left hands on top, although they haven't learned the exact finger positions yet). It turns into a game for them and helps set the tone from the beginning.

2. Proper blowing technique

The 2nd thing I teach my students is how to blow into the recorder to produce a pleasant tone (anyone who has taught recorder for more than 5 minutes knows how important this is for everyone's sanity!). This is how I introduce the concept:
  1. I play a short melody for them on my recorder, and afterwards point out that the volume level I was just playing for them is the maximum volume the instrument can physically produce without sounding ugly. We talk about how the recorder comes from a time when all instruments were much softer, and is not intended to play as loudly as a saxophone or trumpet.
  2. I have my students echo me as I speak 4-beat rhythm patterns on the number TWO, using a quiet speaking voice the whole time, then they echo me on the word "two" again, but using a whisper voice.
  3. Once they have gotten the feel for how to blow softly, I have them echo me, still "whispering two", into their instruments. I have them hold the instrument with their left hand on top but tell them not to worry about whether or not they're covering any holes.
  4. One thing I find helpful for making sure students are in the habit of tonguing properly with a "t" sound is to do some rhythm patterns with fast notes like sixteenths. It's the best way to pick out the students who are blowing with a "hoo" sound and point out that they physically cannot play fast without using a "t" sound to tongue the note.
3. The first note

I have gone through various sequences over the years with this, but currently I like to start my students with G. It is a nice, medium note that allows for good tone without too much complexity in terms of fingering. A few tricks I use to help them learn how to cover the holes correctly:
  1. When I show them a new note, I always turn around to face the same direction they are and show them that way, holding the recorder up and to the side so they can see what I'm doing- since I always mirror them for pretty much everything else we do in class, it is very confusing for them if I don't!
  2. One of the first things I point out to them is that the left thumb should be pointing out to the side when it covers the hole on the back, not pointing up towards the mouthpiece. This is the #1 problem I find with students who don't cover the holes completely! 
  3. Once I have them place their fingers over the 4 holes they need to play a G, I have them squeeze down a little harder until they get marks from the holes on their fingertips. Then I tell them to check and make sure that a) they have complete circles, not partial circles, on each finger, and b) the circles are on the soft padded part of their finger, not the very tips near the nails (a common problem with kids who have some background with strings and piano). 
  4. Once we have gone through all of that, I remind them of how to blow softly into the instrument, and I have them echo me on 4-beat patterns again, this time on G. While we do this, I walk around the class and physically move their fingers when I see they aren't covering the holes (always tell them you're going to do this beforehand of course)! 
Since I teach 30-minute classes in my current schedule, that is usually as far as we get in the first lesson. But when I used to have 45-minute classes, I would really try to get to 1 more note in the first class, so I'm including that here in this post:

4. The 2nd note

There's been some debate amongst music teachers on this, but I am a firm believer in moving to low E after teaching G. I tried going with the methods that say to start on B, A, and G a few times, and found that a) it took students much longer to learn proper hand placement because the right hand had nothing to do, b) it was harder to break students of the habit of over-blowing because you can get away with blowing harder on high notes, and c) it was much harder to motivate students to work on those more difficult low notes later in the game- they're much more motivated to work longer at those hard notes when they're first starting (seems counterintuitive, but in my experience, consistently true).  

With that in mind, after I teach G, I show students how to play low E next. I always preface it by telling them that I'm teaching them some of the hardest notes first, so they shouldn't feel frustrated if they can't get it to sound good in the beginning. We repeat the same process I use to introduce the first note above. Usually I only have a handful of students who can play a nice low E in the first lesson, but by the next period they can usually all have at least partial success!

5. Cleaning up

The last thing I teach students on the first day, of course, is what to do with their recorders at the end of class. I always have students keep their instruments at school for the first few weeks so that I don't have to worry about students forgetting to bring them in those first few critical lessons, and so that I know they aren't developing bad habits at home if and when they do practice independently. I have students keep their recorders in magazine holders, marked with the colors to match the rows of chairs they sit in:

I don't have students clean out their recorders. The reality is, most of the time with plastic recorders that have gotten the amount of play time they have in our short class periods, it's just not necessary, especially with drawstring cases like we have that are breathable. I have them put the recorders into the cases upside down (head joint at the bottom) and put the instruments in the corresponding box to match their color row.

How do you start off recorders to get everyone started on the right foot and keep them motivated and excited? I'd love to hear your ideas in the comments!

Want to get more content like this, see what I'm teaching each month, and get the latest updates sent straight to your inbox?

Monday, January 29, 2018

Fresh Start 2018 Challenge: pick a room

Welcome back to the Fresh Start 2018 Challenge!

This is the final installment of my weekly series this month to try to give my home life a bit more of a New Year's kick in the pants while dealing with the reality that school is back in session and I do NOT have the time or energy for a full-on deep clean/purge. I'm making an effort this year to find small but impactful ways to make my home a priority during the month of January. So far I've tackled closetspurses, the car, and craft supplies. What an awesome journey it has been! If you feel like your home life is always getting pushed to be bottom of the priority list, or you just feel like your house could use a little refresh, I highly recommend challenging yourself to something like this!

This week's challenge is a little bit different than the others: I've decided to focus in on one room and really try to clear away all of the clutter and give the space new life.

This week's Fresh Start task: pick 1 room that feels cluttered and disorganized and spend time clearing out the space. I think most of us have that one room or area in our house that we feel guilty about every time we go in. For me right now it's my bedroom- to be totally honest I have a couple of piles of stuff waiting to be put away that have been sitting on my bedroom floor for over a year. Not cool. The problem is I always end up putting it on the back burner because of course I'm the only one who ever spends time in that room, but I often end up feeling guilty and overwhelmed whenever I walk into the room because of the clutter!

Of course as usual, I need to make sure I don't try to turn this into some major task because if I do, it's very unlikely I'll actually get it done! What I have found the most helpful for these types of tasks is to set a timer. By giving myself a set amount of time to work on it, the entire task becomes a lot less overwhelming (and I'm always surprised at how much I get done!). To get my room cleaned up, I'm going to give myself 30 minutes to clean up as much as I can, mainly focusing on finding a place for everything that doesn't have a purposeful home (like those piles on my floor!). No major rearranging furniture or deep cleaning- just clearing out the space and putting everything where it belongs.

Want to join me in this Fresh Start 2018 challenge? I'm going to be posting a photo on Instagram on Sunday of what I accomplished for the challenge this week. If you want to join me, share your own pictures and include #FreshStart2018Challenge in the description. You don't have to stick to any schedule either- join me any time! The goal is to get a cleaner, more organized home without the guilt or stress.

This has been a great way for me to force myself to set aside some time to clear things out and clean up without feeling overwhelmed. Here's to a fresh start this new year!


Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Teaching Recorder: the basics

I love teaching recorder. I loved learning recorder as a child, and even played with some early music groups in college, and I love passing along one of my favorite instruments to my students. I know not everyone feels that way, and no matter how much you love or hate it, teaching recorder can be quite a headache (literally and figuratively)! Today I want to talk about some basic considerations for recorder teaching: everything from choosing a recorder for students to use, to what age to teach it, and other basic questions to think about before you get started. Whether you're just getting started teaching recorders for the first time, or are unhappy with how you teach them now, I hope these ideas will help!

1. Communal or personal instruments?

I'll be honest- when I first found out that there were schools where students a class set of recorders rather than getting their own, I was pretty shocked. I know there are a lot of reasons why schools/ districts/ teachers end up doing this, but I highly recommend looking into ways to get students their own new recorder. I teach in a school where, for many students, paying $5 for an instrument is no simple request. Here's what we've done in my district: the district purchases a class set of recorders each year, and students are given the option to buy one of those new recorders from the school or rent a sanitized old one from the school (I only ever have 1-2 students who rent, so I actually just buy it for them and tell them an anonymous donor paid for it). We keep the rented ones from year to year, and we use the money from the previous year's purchases to buy new recorders the following year.

The nice thing is I'm able to keep the old rentals as spares when students forget to bring their instrument to class (more on that below), and because everyone buys their recorder from the school, parents are much more likely to buy them for convenience's sake, and I am ensured that everyone has an appropriate instrument with the same fingering and a decent tone.

2. Which recorder to buy?

I like 3-piece recorders with Baroque fingering (you can see if it's Baroque or German by looking on the back, just above the thumb hole, for a small B or G). I like 3-piece so that students can practice proper tonguing and breathing with just the mouthpiece and adjust the foot joint's angle so that their pinkie finger can reach the holes. It's also easier to clean it if you need to.

The Baroque fingering is more of a personal preference, but I do find it is more common in schools and in professional practice and I think the tuning is better on the low F's (and I actually like the idea of teaching students forked fingering, which prepares them for other instruments later on).

I'm honestly not too picky about brands, but trust Yamaha and Aulos the most. And this may come as a surprise to my long-time readers: I do NOT get recorders in different colors. Much as we all know I love rainbows and color groups for everything in my room, I feel strongly that it is my job to make sure students take the recorder seriously. There is so much disdain for the recorder by most people in the United States, and too often because the instrument is made of plastic, the students treat it like "baby instrument" or a toy. I like to stick with black, brown, or white for that reason.

3. What age is best?

In my current district we teach recorder in 3rd grade. As a student, I started recorder in 3rd grade myself. In my experience, though, recorder works best with 4th graders. Our district does recorder in 3rd grade to prepare students for instrument lessons, which they can start in 4th grade, but I find everything takes a lot longer, and the whole experience is much more frustrating for students, because we teach it in 3rd grade. If you have a choice, I would teach recorder in the fall of 4th grade- they have better fine motor skills, their note reading is better, and they have more maturity to handle the new challenge and the responsibility of bringing an instrument to class, practicing at home, etc. In my previous districts I always taught recorder in 4th grade, and in 3rd grade I focused a lot more on xylophones to get them ready for general instrumental skills and note reading skills on an instrument that was easier for them to play.

4. To karate or not to karate?

I love the idea behind the Recorder Karate method books. I see so many students be so motivated by the concept of earning "belts". I've written a number of times about how I manage all of the logistics of the program- you can read about how I organize all the sheet music here, and what I use for belts (and how I store those) here- but ideally I think the program is best suited as a supplemental program rather than an instructional method for classroom use. It is an awesome way to motivate those students who either need some extra help and a slower pace, or to give enthusiastic students an additional challenge. In my previous districts, I had some days where students could sign up to come test on their belts during their recess time- they worked at their own pace of their own initiative outside of class to learn the songs, and it was a great motivator for them!

For large group instruction, I think there are a number of method books that work well- the key is in the delivery and sequencing, which I'll be writing more about in the future. If you're looking for some resource recommendations, though, check out EEEase Into Recorder by Angie Kelton, or the Complete Recorder Resource Kit by Denise Gagne (to name just a couple of favorites). Truthfully, I pull from all different sources to keep things interesting for the students!

With all of that said, my current district uses Recorder Karate, so that is what I use now. As with any resource, though, there are many different ways to deliver it- stay tuned for a future post on some options for how to structure your class when using it as your primary recorder resource!

I hope this helps answer some of those basic questions as you get ready to start teaching recorders! I just started with my students last week and we are all. so. excited.

Want to get awesome content like this, see what I'm teaching each month, and get the latest updates sent straight to your inbox?

Monday, January 22, 2018

Fresh Start 2018 Challenge: craft supplies

Welcome back to the Fresh Start 2018 Challenge!

This is week #4 of my weekly series this month to try to give my home life a bit more of a New Year's kick in the pants while dealing with the reality that school is back in session and I do NOT have the time or energy for a full-on deep clean/purge. I'm making an effort this year to find small but impactful ways to make my home a priority during the month of January. So far I've tackled closets, purses, and the car. This week's focus: craft supplies!

If you haven't already, I hope you'll look through all of the "fresh start" posts and maybe get that extra motivation you need to do a little cleaning up! It has been so helpful for me to stay motivated by picking a manageable task each week and keeping myself accountable on Instagram.

It's no secret that I love crafting. I love making things to use or decorate around the house, decorating in my planner, or just creating art for the fun of it (especially with my daughters!). Because of this hobby, I have quite a collection of stickers, washi tape, scrapbook paper, pens, and more. And that's not even counting all the art supplies my daughters have!

This week's fresh start challenge: purge and organize all of the craft supplies!

This is a 2-part process: step 1 will be to get rid of supplies we're no longer using. I know I have some old washi tape I've had for years that is all stuck together and doesn't work. My daughters have old markers that have dried up, tiny pieces of broken crayon, small scraps of paper that never get used, and random stickers from grocery stores and dentists that nobody has touched for months. The first step to giving our craft supplies a "fresh start" is to go through and get rid of all of that! Hoarding isn't helping anyone.

The 2nd step is to get everything that's left re-organized. I have to confess, I have collected enough additional sticker books and washi tape rolls that I need to revisit my organizational system- yikes! I currently have several things just floating around aimlessly in my drawer, which means it's hard to find what I need when I want it, and I often forget about things that I have.

If you're joining me in organizing your craft supplies, you'll want to create an organizational system that works for you and the supplies you have. If you need some ideas, here are some of the systems I've used in the past:

Want to join me in this Fresh Start 2018 challenge? I'm going to be posting a photo on Instagram on Sunday of what I accomplished for the challenge this week. If you want to join me, share your own pictures and include #FreshStart2018Challenge in the description. You don't have to stick to any schedule either- join me any time! The goal is to get a cleaner, more organized home without the guilt or stress.

This has been a great way for me to force myself to set aside some time to clear things out and clean up without feeling overwhelmed. Here's to a fresh start this new year!


Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Current Musicians of Color for Black History Month and Beyond

In the United States, February is Black History Month. Making sure my teaching values the broadest spectrum of music and musicians possible has always been a passion of mine, but this year I feel an even greater sense of responsibility to my students (and to myself) to make more room in my classes for musical role models who are people of color.

I think as music teachers when we consider ways to incorporate Black History Month into our lessons, the history of jazz, a study of Scott Joplin, or maybe even protest songs or hip-hop come to mind. But today I want to focus on current musicians of color outside of the traditional "pop music" realm who are making music in a variety of genres with "kid-friendly" songs.

Of course there is an endless amount of material out there I could include and dozens more musicians I wish I could feature in this post, but I hope these examples will spark further exploration of other music by these artists as well as many other musicians as well. The videos and music below would be great to play "just for fun", to use as a listening example and discuss the musical and/or lyrical content afterwards, to introduce instruments of the orchestra or genres, and more- both during the month of February and beyond.

Kevin Olusola, best known as a member of Pentatonix, is an amazing cello player and composer:

Esperanza Spalding is an amazing bassist, singer, and composer:

Daniel Bernard Roumain is a violinist and composer:

Robert Glasper is a grammy award-winning jazz pianist:

Leon Bridges has lots of great songs with jazz influences:

India Arie's song "Breathe" is a great conversation-starter:

So much amazing, positive music from the show "Empire"- this is one of my favorites:

Alex Boye has written lots of positive, empowering songs, including this one which also features people with different abilities:

Alright, it's time for me to stop and pass the baton to all of you: what current musicians of color have/will you share with your students? I'd love for my readers to add to the list in the comments to create an even more amazing resource for all of us to use! It's so important for all of our students to see themselves reflected in the role models we choose to present to them in class. 

If you're looking to explore more ways to foster understanding amongst your students, here are some other related topics to explore:

Happy Black History Month.

Want to get more timely ideas and resources sent straight to your inbox? 

Monday, January 15, 2018

Fresh Start 2018 Challenge: car

Welcome back to the Fresh Start 2018 Challenge!

This is week #3 of my weekly series this month to try to give my home life a bit more of a New Year's kick in the pants while dealing with the reality that school is back in session and I do NOT have the time or energy for a full-on deep clean/purge. I'm making an effort this year to find small but impactful ways to make my home a priority during the month of January. So far I've tackled closets and purses. This week's focus: the car!

I know the car isn't *technically* a part of the house, but I know my car could use a good "fresh start" right about now with all the "living" we do there! So this week's fresh start task is to clean the outside and inside of the car! 

The outside is easy: I'll be taking my car to the carwash and I'm getting that nasty salt and snow scrubbed off. Even better, Santa gave me a gift card to the local car wash (best stocking stuffer ever), so I don't even have to pay for it!

The inside will take a little more doing, but that's the area that really needs some attention. My main goal is to go through every nook and cranny to clear out the stuff that has gotten left in the car and doesn't need to be there: the trunk, glove compartment, and all those little side pockets and other compartments still have stuff in them from months, even years ago!

Bonus: here are a few things I do to try to keep the car clear and clean:

1) I try to go through and clear out the trunk every 6 months. I like having a few things stored there, like a small snow shovel in the winter and a bucket of sand toys in the summer, but I have to make sure I don't permanently leave everything back there or it becomes impossible to find anything!

2) I empty the trash out that collects in little compartments etc every time I get gas. I always seem to end up with dirty tissues, wrappers, and other random things left in the car, but making it part of what I do while the car is filling up with gas has made it easier to keep the junk from getting out of hand.

Want to join me in this Fresh Start 2018 challenge? I'm going to be posting a photo on Instagram on Sunday of what I accomplished for the challenge this week. If you want to join me, share your own pictures and include #FreshStart2018Challenge in the description. You don't have to stick to any schedule either- join me any time! The goal is to get a cleaner, more organized home without the guilt or stress.

This has been a great way for me to force myself to set aside some time to clear things out and clean up without feeling overwhelmed. Here's to a fresh start this new year!

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Elementary Choir: tips for the first rehearsal

So you've got a whole bunch of eager singers signed up for your elementary choir class. You've got a very short amount of time to establish procedures, assign seats, and take care of other logistics to make the rest of the semester runs smoothly, but you also want to get them SINGING because hey, that's why they're here, right? Today I want to share my basic lesson plan for the first day of elementary choir that ensures I am setting the right tone, taking care of logistics, and getting kids singing as quickly as possible so they leave the first rehearsal excited about the next one.

1. Establish Behavior Expectations

The very first thing I do when students walk into the room on the first day of choir is talk to them about my behavior expectations. I do this before I even show them where to sit- on the first day I tell them to come in and sit down on the floor so I can talk to them first. I've narrowed my speech down to 2 basic components: 1) there is no speaking at all in choir, and 2) we don't have time to mess around in choir. You can read more about how and why I establish my very strict no talking policy in this post on Elementary Choir Rehearsal Procedures, but the basic idea that I try to communicate is that we are here to SING, and talking takes away from that. It both establishes my high expectations and gets kids excited about the right thing: singing.

The second point is primarily where I reinforce what I have students and parents agree to when they sign up: after a certain number of disruptive behavior incidents, you can no longer participate in choir. For me, because choir is a pull-out elective class, I can use this consequence. Depending on how your class is set up, you will of course have different consequences, but whatever they are it's important to make them clear from the beginning so you don't have to argue with anyone about it or waste rehearsal time explaining it later! I also make it clear that I can't take a bunch of rehearsal time to sit and chat with individual students about behavior like I might in general music, and I explain my process for enforcing expectations (I silently point and they go sit out for a few minutes to give them a "reminder", and after that they get a note sent home- 3 notes in a semester means you can no longer participate). It's worth noting that I've only had a student dismissed from choir twice in 5 years- once students (and parents) know you're serious, it tends to become a non-issue for most students.

My goal with this part of rehearsal is to keep my "speech" as short as possible while making sure I communicate both the seriousness of my expectations and the fun I anticipate having as a result. Once I've established my expectations, I enforce them for the rest of rehearsal, even as we go over logistics etc. It sets the tone for the rest of the semester so I'm very strict with them!

2. Assign Seating

Once I've established my expectations, I show them their assigned seats. I always give the caveat that I may move them around once I see and hear them in their spots, but I do always start with a premade seating plan. The one exception is when I'm coming in to a new school and don't know any of the students. In that case, I make mental notes as I give my behavior speech and assign seats on the spot based on those observations. This is a great time to reinforce how serious I am about the no talking rule as they wait to hear their name called!

3. Practice Routines/ Warm-ups

Now that they're in their seats, I walk them through the most essential parts of the rehearsal routines and procedures they need to know so they are ready to start rehearsal the right way the next time we meet. This includes procedures for entering the room, getting out folders/sheet music (more on that in a future post), and routines for the beginning of rehearsal (for me that involves stretching and vocal warm-ups- read more about my routines/procedures in this post and see all of my favorite vocal warm-ups here). As much as possible, I have them practice doing each of these procedures.

4. Quick Song

I never want students to leave choir without singing! I always want them to walk out of the first rehearsal excited about singing, so my goal here is to choose something that feels good to sing, is quick to put together, usually involves some movement, and sounds cool in a large group (which usually means having some kind of partwork happening). Usually I choose a round/canon for this purpose- read about how I teach rounds and see one of my favorites to start with in this post- but sometimes I'll also pull out a short phrase or section of music from their concert literature if it is easy enough to learn, or choose a silly song with actions like these. A lot of this will depend on how much rehearsal time we have and how experienced the singers are, but it's important for everyone to leave feeling excited about singing!

5. Affirmation

On the topic of leaving rehearsal feeling excited: I always end rehearsal with positive affirmation. My favorite way to do this is by telling the teacher who picks the students up how awesome this group of singers is and how excited I am for the semester ahead. But out of the 3 choirs I teach, only one is picked up by a teacher. For the students who are dismissed by me, I make sure to tell them how excited I am and how great they sound directly. It may seem like an obvious thing but with everything we are trying to juggle in our brains as teachers in that first rehearsal, it's important to make it a priority!

The number one thing I try to remind myself of before the first rehearsal is the importance of my energy level and enthusiasm! It's hard sometimes, when I'm using a lot of mental energy to remember all the logistical things I need to address, thinking about that last lesson that bombed, or just feeling tired from the start of the year/semester, to muster up the energy to make the rehearsal as fast-paced and positive as I'd like it to be. It really does set the tone for the rest of the rehearsals, though, and affects how students view singing as a whole, so I try to keep that at the forefront of my thoughts.

I love teaching elementary choir, and I can't wait to welcome a fresh group of students this week in my choir classes this way! What are your top priorities for your first rehearsal with elementary choir? I'd love to hear about them in the comments!

Want more timely, useful ideas and resources to maximize your creativity and organization in and out of the classroom?

Monday, January 8, 2018

Fresh Start 2018 Challenge: purses and bags

Welcome back to the Fresh Start 2018 Challenge!!

This is week #2 of my weekly series to try to give my home life a bit more of a New Year's kick in the pants while dealing with the reality that school is back in session and I do NOT have the time or energy for a full-on deep clean/purge. I'm making an effort this year to find small but impactful ways to make my home a priority this month. Last week I focused on closets (click here to see my post), and after doing some serious purging in my closets I thought I would stick with an easier but equally impactful project: purses and backpacks.

Remember if you're looking for a fresh start at school or home, you can download my Fresh Start Checklists for free (and they're editable!) and work at your own pace!

This week's fresh start task: clean out your bag(s) (and family members' bags)!

I'm sure I'm not the only one whose purse has collected little bags of cheerios, stray chapsticks, meeting handouts, and everything in between. Not to mention the expired or never-used membership cards and coupons hanging out in my wallet. And then of course there's my daughters' backpacks- as much as we try to clean them out every day, there are all these random little pieces of paper, pencils, and other items that seem to find their way to the bottom of the backpack! It's time to clean everything out (so that, let's face it, we have room to accumulate more unnecessary junk until the next time we do this).

Just like with the closets, my main goal here is to purge effectively but with as little time commitment as possible. Here's my plan:

  1. Empty the bag completely and clean up any messes on the bag itself
  2. Sort through everything that was in the bag and separate into 3 piles: 
    1. things to keep in the bag
    2. things to keep but put somewhere else
    3. things to throw away.
  3. Put things away in their proper place
Honestly this shouldn't be too difficult of a process- it's just a matter of setting aside the time to actually sit down and DO IT!

Bonus: I am not a huge purse person, so I don't claim to have the best system for keeping my purse organized, but I am happy enough with it and I usually have what I need. If you want to see what I tend to keep in my purse, here are some previous blog posts you can check out:

Want to join me in this Fresh Start 2018 challenge? I'm going to be posting a photo on Instagram on Sunday of what I accomplished for the challenge this week. If you want to join me, share your own pictures and include #FreshStart2018Challenge in the description. You don't have to stick to any schedule either- join me any time! The goal is to get a cleaner, more organized home without the guilt or stress.

Here's to a fresh start for the new year!

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Balancing Teaching and Home Life

With each new year, whether it's the calendar year or school year, one question that always comes up in my mind and in conversations with other teachers is work/life balance. It is a never-ending struggle and one that needs constant adjustment as responsibilities, perspectives, and priorities change. Obviously there's no magic formula for achieving a perfectly balanced life, but today I want to share some of my thoughts on how I have found contentment with the many responsibilities I balance in my own life- hopefully these thoughts will provoke meaningful reflection of your own!

1. Integrate instead of separate

I've noticed this trend of trying to find work/life balance by setting strict boundaries on when you think about and do things for work vs personal/home life. Many people have a separate planner or calendar for home and another for school and lesson plans. I hear teachers urging colleagues to "leave work at work" by refusing to check school emails over vacation or weekends, setting a deadline and leaving school at that time each day no matter what, or putting all thoughts about school aside over breaks. Maybe this is effective for some, but for me it doesn't make sense.

Yes, making sure you don't let work completely take over your life is important, and it is a danger we need to all be aware of as teachers (especially new teachers). But I don't find it helpful or balancing to take an all or nothing approach. I find if I refuse to think about school over breaks, I'm a lot more stressed out when I come back to work because I'm not prepared. My home life demands that I leave work at a certain time most days because I have to pick my daughters up from school, but if I have a responsibility for school that I need more time to work on outside of my usual hours, I don't have a problem setting time aside for that.

Rather than trying to balance priorities by hyper-focusing on only work or home at certain times or places, I find it more effective to think of my responsibilities more holistically. So as I look at each week or month, I list out everything that needs to get done in all arenas of my life. As I plan out my time, I try to make sure I'm balancing my priorities so I can take care my most important responsibilities in the least stressful way possible, no matter when or where. Sometimes that means bringing work home to do over the weekend because I know I'll have time to sit and think. Sometimes that means saying no to a committee or planning some lessons that require little setup or forethought so I can take care of more things at home. 

The main point I'm trying to make is this: you don't have to completely separate home and school to have a balanced life. In fact, working steadily and consistently on both rather than shoving each one into rigid time or space constraints is far less stressful (and more effective) for me!

2. Plan ahead

I've already touched on this in my first point, but there's no way around a solid and consistent planning routine for finding better work/home balance. If you're always just taking things as they come, you will be more likely to find you're neglecting things you intended to prioritize in favor of tasks and people that present themselves more immediately. 

A few examples: if you don't plan out your meals at home, you're more likely to have to make multiple trips to the grocery store throughout the week, have food delivered (spending more money and probably eating less healthily), or spend time stressing over what to make for dinner. If you don't plan out your lessons for the week/ month/ year, you're more likely to end up missing important concepts you intended to cover, get stressed trying to teach a labor-intensive unit or lesson in the middle of concert season, or find students struggling to grasp the lesson because the concepts aren't being taught in sequence. And if you don't plan ahead for doctor's appointments, errands, meetings, and other commitments, you're more likely to end up double-booking yourself or scrambling to take care of things you just assumed you would have time for.

For all these reasons, I highly recommend writing things down and planning ahead for both work and home in one place. If you're new to my site and want to learn more about my work/life combination planning, here are some good places to start:

3. Get your priorities straight

As I said in the beginning, what a "balanced life" looks like will change as responsibilities, perspectives, and priorities change over time. I have no regrets about the amount of time I spent working on school responsibilities when I first started teaching and had fewer responsibilities at home, but I would definitely not want to be spending that much time at school now, and I don't need to. I also spend less time and energy on my parenting responsibilities now that my daughters are 6 compared to when they were babies! 

I think it's really important to take some time to consciously reflect on all of your responsibilities and figure out where your priorities are. I try to take some time to write everything down every new calendar and school year, and think through any adjustments I need to make to make sure I'm staying focused on the things that I want to keep as my top priorities. If you want to read more about what I do, here is a more detailed post on that. 

Having a clear hierarchy of priorities will help when you need to choose between responsibilities. 90% of the time, if my children are sick, I will stay home with them rather than find a babysitter because it is a priority for me to be there for them no matter how much of a headache it might be to have a substitute come in my room. But if it's approaching concert time and staying home would mean missing a critical rehearsal, for example, I might look for someone to watch them so I can go to work. Life is full of choices, but having a clear sense of your priorities can make those choices easier and help keep life in balance when the unexpected interrupts your plan!

4. Make sleep a priority

I think one of the keys to a happy and productive life is sleep. I am so much more optimistic and energetic when I'm well-rested! When I'm running on inadequate sleep, I inevitably end up stressed, overwhelmed, and cranky. When I'm at work I feel like my work responsibilities are too much, and when I'm at home I feel like my responsibilities at home are too much. Life ends up constantly feeling out of balance. Sometimes finding a good work-life balance has more to do with our perspective on our responsibilities than the actual responsibilities themselves! If you want to read more about my tips for being healthily productive, here are a few posts to check out:

I hope you are able to find and maintain balance and contentment in your life this year! I've said it already and I'll say it again: this is a lifelong process of regularly reflecting and adjusting, but I think you'll agree that it is worth the time and energy to do so! What are you putting in place this year, or what are you maintaining that you've already started doing, to try to achieve balance between work and home? I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

Want more timely ideas and resources sent straight to your inbox?

Monday, January 1, 2018

Fresh Start 2018 Challenge: closets

Happy 2018, everyone!

In past years, I've updated and shared my Fresh Start Checklists just before New Year's each year so I can get the important things at home and school in order and get excited for the year ahead. This year, I felt like I needed a bit more of a thorough refresh at home- things are starting to pile up, projects are getting put off for months and months... But the reality is, school starts tomorrow and I don't have time to get everything spick and span before I'm knee-deep in school work again!

Over the next few weeks I'm going to be sharing the small but impactful ways I'm challenging myself to tidy up, purge, and clean up at home. These tasks are designed to be manageable with school back in full swing, but still make noticeable progress toward a refreshed home. If you want to join me in any of these challenges and/or help keep me accountable, stay tuned until the end of this post to learn how you can join in the fun over on Instagram and share our progress together!

This week's fresh start task: go through your closet (and your family members' closets) and pull out anything you don't need anymore.

It's time to get rid of any clothes you haven't worn in 2 years, things that don't fit, or things that you just don't feel good wearing anymore. If you're in a purging mood, take them all straight to the local Goodwill or Salvation Army. If you find you're hesitant to get rid of all or some of the things you pull out, try putting them in a box and keeping it in the attic or basement for 6 months or a year. If you don't miss them, you'll probably be ready to get rid of them at that point!

This is my realistic #teachermom version of the "konmari" method and capsule wardrobe idea: I'm not going to pull everything out of my closet to contemplate each item, but I am going to consciously look at each thing and err on the side of pulling out too much rather than too little- if I'm not sure if I should keep something or not, I'll put it in a bin to keep in storage for a while to see whether or not I ever choose to go pull it out.

Remember, the goal is to only keep things that:
  1. have been worn in the last 2 years
  2. fit well
  3. I like
For my daughters' closet it should be an even faster process- because they outgrow things so quickly they don't have a lot of extra clothes laying around in their closet. I am often pretty bad about going through their socks and underwear to throw away old ones and make sure they have enough that fit, and sometimes I'll find something in their closet that's out of season or that no longer fits. So the only part that will be different when I go through their closet will be to also see if there's anything new I need to get, especially socks/underwear. Otherwise the process is the same as for my own clothes.

I'm giving myself a time limit so that this doesn't become an overwhelming, drawn-out task: 30 minutes for my closet, and 15 minutes for my daughters' closet. See, that's not so bad!

Bonus: I'm pretty happy with how my closet, and my daughters' closet, is organized. If you want to get a better idea of how I organized everything in each of our closets fairly cheaply (mostly with IKEA organizers) and made them easy to maintain, check out each of the posts below (it has totally been worth it having things organized!):

If you don't have your clothes organized in different bins or drawers, I highly recommend you find a way to do that- it will make a huge difference in your ability to keep things where they're supposed to be (and find things when you want them)!

Want to join me in this Fresh Start 2018 challenge? I'm going to be posting a photo on Instagram on Sunday of what I accomplished for the challenge this week. If you want to join me, share your own pictures and include #FreshStart2018Challenge in the description. You don't have to stick to any schedule either- join me any time! The goal is to get a cleaner, more organized home without the guilt or stress.

Here's to a fresh start for the new year!