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Tuesday, August 11, 2020

First Day of Music Lesson Ideas: 2020 edition

After more than a decade of teaching general music I feel like I have a pretty good handle on how to start off the school year. I don't do the same exact lessons every year, but I have a formula that works! But this year... nobody has a "pretty good handle" on anything! My district is preparing for a hybrid model to start the school year with me on a cart, but with almost a month left before the first day of school I know things could change so I'm preparing for all eventualities. Here are my plans to kick off the school year socially-distanced, live online, and through posted online assignments.

A couple of years ago I shared my basic formula for my lessons at the beginning of the school year- if you missed it, you can catch up on that post below. Depending on what my teaching situation is, my plan is to adapt the formula to what I'm doing, so my ideas are based on the normal lessons I detail here:

The basic outline of my normal first day lessons goes like this:
1. Names and seats
2. Tour the room
3. Practicing procedures/ expectations (instruments, singing, movement)

Here are my plans to adapt those elements to different teaching situations.

1. Socially Distant / On a Cart

If I'm on a cart pushing into other classrooms, there's no need to assign seats or talk about the physical space! I can jump straight into an activity that allows me the opportunity to practice names and make an individual connection with each student. For older students I plan to use "Jump In, Jump Out" and just have students stay next to their desks, and for younger students I'll use a few different versions of "Hickety Tickety Bumblebee"- for K/1 I will probably do something like this video, and for 2nd/3rd grade I'll probably do something like the modified version Jennifer shared in her post here- but no matter which version we do I'll have them stand up.

One of the key elements of a fun first day in my experience is to actually try the "procedures" I want students to understand rather than explaining them. As we do things, I can naturally point out the ways we do things that work and don't work to communicate my expectations. The name games will give us a chance to practice using our voices and getting up out of our seats/ moving appropriately with the new social distancing guidelines in the classroom (whatever those may be). 

To practice instrument procedures, I'll do the same thing I normally do and have students echo a few quick patterns after me, using any instruments they may have in individual kits or trying out some "found sound" ideas by tapping desks with pencils, etc. Doing some echo patterns gives me a chance to review rhythms and also practice one of the fundamental procedures in my class: "If you play before I say, you'll make the instrument go away"! If they play out of turn they put their instrument down for one turn, then I have them join back in right away to practice waiting for the right time to play.

I'm not expecting much more than that for the first class period, but if we have more time I'll turn on some music and play some freeze dance! This will be another great way to practice movement in a confined space. At the end of class, we'll need to take some time to practice how we'll finish class and transition back to a different teacher, put away supplies, and sanitize if needed. We'll see what those specific procedures need to be!

2. Live Online

Depending on how things go in the next month, it's possible we will end up having to start the school year virtually- I know many schools are already preparing for this reality! If we do, my hope is that I will be having live class sessions on Zoom or some other similar platform. 

If we're on a live video call, we'll need to practice how to make music together while dealing with technology and sound delay! The first thing we'll practice is mute/ un-mute to make sure students know how to do it and understand why we'll have to mute for group singing. I'll introduce the song, "I Know a Song" and then tell everyone to mute their microphones and start singing along with me. I'll have signs for "mute" and "un-mute" to hold up/ point to and they have to keep singing with me while they adjust their mics accordingly. Every time they un-mute we'll all hear the cacophony of delayed singing, which will hopefully get everyone laughing but also give me a chance to explain why we mute for group singing!

To get students saying their names and using instruments, I'll have them take turns saying their name twice, once loudly and once quietly, while playing an instrument from their kits (or "found sound") with each syllable. It will be a quick way to hear everyone's name and practice waiting their turn- students need to know that even from separate homes they're expected to listen to one another! 

The last thing I'm hoping to do is a few rounds of freeze dance. Not only will it get everyone up and moving but it will be a good opportunity to practice adjusting camera angles if we need to so they can do movement activities (which will be a big part of live virtual lessons for sure)! 

3. Online Posted Assignments

It would be a real bummer if I had to start the year with asynchronous online assignments, but depending on how our district can allocate staffing for students who opt for full distance learning in a hybrid model, it's possible that I'll need to do that for a portion of my students. Hopefully they'll have a way to join in with live classes virtually somehow, but for posted assignments I'll want to practice some basic technology as well.

My first lesson for posted assignments will primarily be a recorded video of me introducing myself and welcoming them to the new year. I'll tell them who I am and what I did this summer, and then demonstrate saying my name 5 different (musical) ways- singing, saying it while clapping the syllables, saying it loudly/ quietly, fast/slow, etc- and then invite them to do it themselves. I loved using Flipgrid for my assignments this past spring, and I know it will be a big part of my teaching for any online assignments this year, so we'll start off the year by making sure students are familiar with how to post videos there. Their assignment will be to record a short video of themselves saying their names 5 ways, including at least one "instrument" and at least one non-speaking voice. I'll include a tutorial in my recorded video that walks them through Flipgrid and how to record so they can see how to do that.

No matter what situation we go back to, this school year will be a year like no other. I need to constantly remind myself to let go and give myself (and my students) plenty of grace! There will be changes and challenges but we will continue to adapt and do the best we can. 

Have you thought about what your first day will look like this year? Or have you already started back? I'd love for you to share your ideas in the comments! I will continue to save all of my ideas related to pandemic teaching on the page below, so check there for more ideas!

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Tuesday, August 4, 2020

July Favorites 2020

This July is definitely not like other July's.... I am never one to completely unplug from school in the summer but this year in particular has been full of reopening committee meetings, curriculum re-writes, and general sitting around worrying about how in the world this is all going to work. But there was still plenty of family time, outdoors time, and some good progress towards a sense of what "school" could look like in the fall (which is always a good thing). Here are some highlights from this past month, taken from my Instagram photos!

1. Virtual Conference

One of the highlights of the month was definitely presenting and participating in the Music Crew virtual conference! I presented 2 sessions, one on curriculum planning for the upcoming Year of Insanity, and one on diverse cultural perspectives in general music, and I thoroughly enjoyed the conversations that came from both of those. I also learned a ton from watching the other presenters- I got so many great ideas for distance teaching for early childhood classes, google slides hacks, and more! If you didn't get a chance to see the sessions yet you can still access all of them for free here on Facebook.

2. Curriculum Work

This may sound silly if you don't know me well, but making some concrete progress this month on my curriculum planning to prepare for the upcoming school year has been a major highlight for me because it has helped ease so much anxiety. I wrote a whole blog post about what I did here if you missed it!

3. Teacher Community

I know, this doesn't look like a happy picture. I definitely wasn't happy when I took it. But as I was working on clearing out my classroom to get it ready to be used by someone else while I go on a cart, I shared the process on Instagram and was so encouraged by the response I got from the teacher community! It was another reminder that we're all in this together, and I ended up feeling so much better about my situation and the prospect of the school year after reading the responses!

4. Articles I Read

I love finding articles from other music education blogs to read and share every week on my Facebook page- here are the ones I read and loved this month (be sure to click on each image to read the full posts)!

That's it for this month! Honestly there was a lot I didn't capture in a photo- the lazy days at home, time with extended family, hikes, and spontaneous trips to the ice cream store- that I loved in July too, that I can't forget about either. In the midst of the crazy there is plenty for which to be grateful. I hope you have those moments of joy to look back on as well.

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Restorative Practices in the Music Room

As we consider anti-racist practices in our teaching practices, one key element to consider is our "behavior management". It's relatively easy to take out offensive songs from our literature, throw some posters of non-white musicians up on the walls, and add some books with non-white characters to our libraries. But the real work begins when we start to look at the human interactions in our classes. The framework of Restorative Practices has a lot to offer teachers as we continue this work, but it can often seem difficult for music teachers to implement because of the number of students we teach and the short class times we have. I've gathered together some music teachers from a wide range of backgrounds and experiences to share how Restorative Practices can be implemented in practical, concrete ways in the music classroom (including in a distance environment).

I'm so grateful to the wonderful people who shared their insights with me to include in this post! Be sure to read to the end of this post to read more about who they are and find ways to connect with them: David Ryan Barcega Castro-Harris, the founder of Amplify RJ, Alice Tsui, elementary instrumental/ choral/ general music teacher in NY, Czarina Francisco Jimenez, elementary general and choral music teacher in CA, and Michelle Rose, secondary virtual music teacher in NC.

What is Restorative Practices?

Let's start with the basics: what are we talking about when we use the term "Restorative Practices"? 

David: "I don’t use the words Restorative Practices on their own. RP is often referred to as a social science, or a system of behavior management, or alternative school discipline, but that’s such a small part of the picture and it doesn’t acknowledge the roots of the work.

In short this work is about remembering and embodying the value of interconnection and interdependence that indegnous people all over the world have held as their core beliefs for generations (ubuntu, in lak’ech, mitakuye oyasin, kapwa, etc.) Colonization and now global capitalism have removed us from those values, so this work is reclaiming those and figuring out how to build, maintain, and repair relationships and meet the needs of the people in our communities.

I define Restorative Justice as “a philosophy and set of practices, rooted in Indigenous teachings, that emphasize our interconnection by repairing relationships when harm occurs while proactively building and maintaining relationships to prevent future harm.” Restorative practices can be a part of that. Many people think of RP as the proactive things that you do to build and maintain relationships and help people heal. The Restorative Justice Process is when we are addressing conflict and harm in a way that meets the needs of all the people involved. Doing this work first requires teachers (and everyone who calls themselves a practitioner) to do the internal work of embodying a restorative mindset and values, not just asking a different set of questions or sitting in a circle with students."

As David points out, Restorative Practices / Restorative Justice is not a quick-fix or a simple program that can be summed up neatly in one blog post. It requires ongoing reflection and internal work by the teacher. If you want to explore the framework further, I highly recommend David's video here. You can also sign up for one of these workshops he hosts on Zoom to deepen your understanding.

What does Restorative Practices look like in actual music classrooms?

Beyond developing an understanding of Restorative Practices, one of the most common reasons music teachers don't implement it in their teaching is because it's hard to picture in concrete ways what that looks like! As David mentioned already, Restorative Practices is focused on relationships. It impacts every single part of teaching. So truly, my thinking about students, their families, my colleagues, and the community, the way I speak to others, the way I conceptualize the logistics of running my classroom, my lesson content... everything is affected in different ways by approaching teaching from this framework. But here are some concrete ways this plays out in different music classrooms, to give you an idea of what this looks like in day-to-day life.

Alice: "As students are empowered with language, I have asked students to listen carefully to each other whenever something comes up, and without interrupting each other in doing so. This includes in music making as well and expression: why are we playing this this particular way? How do we feel when our entire section isn’t getting something “right”? What can we do to build our team up instead of tearing each other down? My opening and end chant for my Orchestra is two words: “ONE ORCHESTRA”. I say “One”, and the students say “Orchestra”. It reminds us all that we are all part of this one team actively creating, making, interpreting, and expressing music together to create one whole sound."

Michelle: "Checking In is a really simple way to build relationships with students and to help them where they're at. As a virtual teacher, I usually have a bell ringer displayed on the screen as the students enter. I also take the time to message at least 2-3 students privately. I'll ask them how they're doing, what's happening for them, or follow up on something they've mentioned to me previously (an interest, event, etc.). I also include check-in questions as warm ups or exit tickets. For example, in Nearpod, I'll use the "collaborate" feature and ask students to find a gif or picture of how they're doing. On exit tickets, I'll ask questions like "How did your week go?" "What are you most looking forward to right now?" "What support do you need right now?"

Additionally, at the beginning of the year, students work together to come up with class expectations. They also come up with teacher expectations to hold me accountable to their learning. I guide students through a series of questions including "How do you want to be treated in class by your classmates?" "When and how should the chat feature be used?" "What is the most/least helpful thing a teacher can do?" Instead of setting the rules myself, I give students to collectively come up with these expectations. This creates much more buy in and trust right at the beginning of the year."

Czarina: "One of my favorite Restorative Practices is to co-create classroom values with my students. It's all about creating a culture of care within our music room. We talk about who and what we value and the way we show that they are valuable to us. Our class values this year are "We value ourselves, each other, and our room." I then invite the students to share the way those values would play out in their choices."

You can read more about some specific examples I use in my elementary music classes in these posts as well, including a range of circle discussion ideas and specific ways to talk to individual students:

This may seem like an out-of-touch topic to be discussing in this moment when our entire profession is being flipped on its head, but I want us to be careful not to lose sight of what really matters in the midst of all the craziness, and to start to think about how these ideas can be translated to the new ways we will be doing "school" in this upcoming year. Look for more posts on specific aspects of this topic in the future, with further input from the wonderful teachers who shared their insights in this post- be sure to connect with them:

Czarina is an elementary classroom music and choir teacher in Southern California. Her passions are creating culturally responsive music lessons and incorporating anti-bias/anti-racist social emotional learning into her curriculum. Connect with her at

Michelle Rose works at a full time virtual school where she teaches middle and high school music and directs the extracurricular virtual band and choir. You can connect with her on Instagram @the_musical_rose or by visiting her website

Alice Tsui (pronounced TSOY) is an Asian American/Chinese American pianist, music educator, scholar, activist, lifelong Brooklyn, New Yorker, and the founding music teacher at P.S. 532 New Bridges Elementary, an arts-integrated public elementary school in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. As a product of the NYC public school system, Alice is passionate about decolonizing, anti-racist, abolitionist public music education and empowering the individual and collective voices of youth through music as expression. Learn more about Alice at and on Instagram at @MusicWithMissAlice.

My name is David Ryan Barcega Castro-Harris (he/him). I am the founder of Amplify RJ, a digital platform dedicated to educating folx about Restorative Justice philosophy, practices, and origins. Find us on Instagram at @amplify.rj or

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Elementary Music Without Singing

There are so many questions right now, and very few answers. The one that melts my brain the most right now, though, is how to teach elementary music class without anyone being able to sing (and I know I'm not the only one struggling with this)! If we are teaching in-person in some way, shape, or form, there is a good chance that singing won't be safe to do. I don't have many answers but here are some of the thoughts and ideas I've come up with so far.

1. Non-singing participation

So much music involves singing, but we can have other people do the singing on a recording (or pre-record ourselves singing) and join in with the music in other ways:
  • Play an ostinato on instruments or body percussion
  • Show melodic contour, steady beat, dynamics, or mood through movement
  • Dance
  • Use props- cups, bean bags, scarves
  • Play along with the melody on a pitched instrument (boomwhackers, xylophones, virtual instruments like Song Maker)
  • Show solfege pitches with hand signs

2. Non-singing vocal performance

How much of this we can and cannot safely do will depend on ongoing research findings, but it seems likely that we will be able to use our voices in ways that don't project as much, whether that's humming, whistling, or speaking. Depending on what I'm trying to teach through the song, I can adjust the activity: humming for melodic elements and speaking for rhythmic elements. We could even switch back and forth between the two to get a little bit of both! This would actually be a great way to really focus on what we're trying to practice.

3. Singing outside the classroom

This option depends on what our school model looks like, but I could potentially have students learn how to do something vocally while they're in class, then have them practice doing it themselves at home and even record themselves (via something like Flipgrid). Those recordings could potentially be used in the next class period, or individual recordings could be combined to create a "group singing" experience that we all watch together. 

4. Approaching concepts through non-singing

My primary solution that I keep coming back to as we try to completely reinvent ourselves is to go back to the concepts I'm trying to teach and come up with different ways to "get there". So if the concept I want to teach is singing in canon, I can have students perform in canon with movement, instruments, or body percussion. If the concept is 4 voices, we can listen and identify recordings of the different voices instead of performing them all ourselves. If the concept is showing high and low, we can do that with our bodies, on instruments, or with online notation (like Song Maker mentioned above).

The thought of music class without singing is depressing and terrifying. It seems completely ridiculous. We may find in a few weeks that we're all back to distance teaching and all of this will be a moot point. Or we may somehow find out that there are, in fact, safe ways for us to sing in groups in school. But for now, I think it's important for us to at least think through our options in case we're presented with this situation, whether it's at the beginning of this school year or later on when buildings start to reopen. We are all being stretched in ways we never even dreamed, and it's critical that we collaborate as a profession and support each other! If you have other ideas you've come up with for in-person music teaching without singing, please leave a comment. 

I will be continuing to update the Distance Learning Resources page to include ideas for social distancing and modified teaching through covid- don't forget to look there for all my posts related to these unusual times we're living through.