Image Map

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Summer Reading List for Music Teachers

One of the best perks of summer break for teachers is having the time and energy to read, enjoy, and process books in a way that you just can't during the school year, and especially books that make us reflect on our teaching practice in a fresh way. It's much easier to think critically and objectively about our teaching when we're not in the thick of it! Today I want to share some books that I've read in the last few years that have challenged or validated me as an educator. If you're looking for a good book to read this summer, I hope you'll pick up one of these!

This post contains affiliate links which do not affect the purchase experience or the thoughts shared here.


This is a great book for diving into race issues in schools. If you haven't read it yet, I urge you to do so! It's definitely a lot of material and requires plenty of time for thought.


This is a much quicker read than the previous book I mentioned, but equally important and thought-provoking. If you're just dipping your toe into conversations about race as a white person, I would start with this one.


Another relatively-quick read that isn't too heavy but offers a lot of insight, inspiration, and motivation. And the added bonus for music teachers is the author's use of DJ's, MC's, and other musical elements as metaphors throughout the book!


If you are a general music teacher and you haven't read this book, this is a very helpful one! The great thing is there are chapters exploring each of many different general music pedagogical approaches/ frameworks, so you can pick and choose the ones in which you're most interested. As a long-time fan of Carlos Abril, one of the book's editors, the one chapter I will urge everyone to read is "Thinking About and Responding to Culture", which he co-authored with Jacqueline Kelly-McHale.


If you have any students with special needs (which I can't imagine any teacher who doesn't to some degree), this book is another must-read. Everything from general advice to specific strategies, and so practical. 


I've been involved with Restorative Practices for years now, including leading PD and designing systems for my building. If you're looking for a "behavior management" system that promotes social-emotional learning over punitive punishments, this is the one for you. If you've heard of Restorative Practices and want to dig into it a bit more, this book is great for that- it's not a long, heavy book but is full of information and ideas. 

What books are you reading this summer? Any favorite books you'd recommend for music teachers? I'd love to add some titles to my own wish list for this summer- share you favorites in the comments!

Blogger Widgets

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Summer Reflection: Challenges and New Ideas

I like to take time at the end of each school year to reflect. It's easy for me to get so caught up in the excitement of new ideas I have for next year that I don't spend enough time really processing the year that has just passed! This year I thought I would share my reflections here, not only so others can possibly learn from my mistakes and successes, but also to hopefully inspire others to do some reflection of their own! I shared my highlights in a previous post, but today I'm focusing on challenges I encountered this year- mistakes I have learned from, and new ideas I hope to implement next year.


I shared the questions I ask myself at the end of each school year in this post several years ago, and I'm using those same ones here (see my answers to the first 3 questions in my last post here):

1. What did I do differently this year that didn't work?

I tried quite a few new things this year, and I already talked about the many ways they were overall successful. But there were specific aspects of many of the new things I tried that did not work and I hope to work on for next year!

The warmups I added to the beginning of my lessons were a huge success, but some of the activities I originally had in mind didn't work well and I ended up dropping them from my list of warmups early in the year: choosing a prompt for a listening activity, and choosing a question or topic for a circle discussion. The problem with choosing a prompt was that it just wasn't that interesting for the warmup leaders to choose which element they wanted the class to listen for- it didn't require any actual leadership from them so they weren't invested. With the circle discussions, my students are just too young to be leading circles, so it was too awkward to try to lead it while making it seem like the students also had leadership.

For the listening prompts, I found that just having the leaders choose a mystery song from a playlist by picking a number was more fun for them and gave me a chance to ask questions afterwards that tied back to our objectives. For the circles I'm still thinking about what to do. I will absolutely continue to incorporate circles regularly into my classes, but I found it difficult to incorporate circles, warmups, and my closing routine without taking up the majority of the class time! I'd really like to find a way to use circles in our warmups without taking away the student leadership element since that's a classroom job I want to keep, but I'm not sure yet how to effectively and meaningfully give students leadership in circles.

I was happy with the many successes I had with my first hip-hop unit this year, but there were also quite a few challenges that I am going to be spending significant time working on for next year. Co-teaching with the local hip-hop artist was in itself a challenge, because it is a delicate balance between deferring to his expertise in the genre and asserting my own expertise in teaching in a classroom setting. I think that part, though, was mostly worked out as we went along by continuing to keep an open line of communication between the two of us. The main area where I feel the unit fell short this year was in giving enough time for students to dive into the history and broader world of hip-hop itself. Because I wanted students to experience the musical skills of creating and performing within the genre, there wasn't enough time to really sit with the genre, which is so important. Next year I'm planning to rework how I teach the unit to shorten the composition process and add in time at the beginning and end of the unit to dive into the broader world of hip-hop.

2. What were the biggest stressors this year?

My biggest stressors this year were related to areas outside my own teaching that had indirect effects on my classroom. I am finding that as I dig more into district policies and why things are the way they are, the more I feel the need to speak up for improvements I feel need to be made, and with that comes an inevitable increase in conflict. I don't see it as a bad thing, necessarily, and in fact most of the time I am grateful to be in a position to voice my opinion, but it is of course very stressful for a conflict-avoidant person like me to challenge anyone, particularly people who are above me, and to watch people make decisions that I feel are not in students' best interest despite my best efforts to the contrary. Don't get me wrong, I am overall in a very supportive and wonderful district with lots of great people, but as with any organization there is always room for improvement.

3. What can I do to minimize those stressors next year?

There are two things I found most effective this year that I'd like to continue to work on next year (because I certainly don't plan to stop trying to make changes when I see a need!): keeping like-minded colleagues close, and reflecting on my circles of control. I became much more intentional about leaning into the work relationships with people that would help me focus on solutions and kept me positive with their encouragement and support, and that made a huge difference in keeping me grounded and reminding me that the world was not coming to an end when it seemed like nobody cared about my concerns. I also learned this year the importance of letting things go that are out of my control. The idea of circles of concern, influence, and control (see a good graphic and explanation here) was really helpful for me, and it's something I want to continue to reflect on. I also came across this quote and hung it up in my classroom right next to my computer desk so I would have that reminder whenever I was reading or writing an email or working on something:

"People are often unreasonable, illogical, and self-centered. Forgive them anyway. If you are kind,
people may accuse you of selfish ulterior motives. Be kind anyway. If you are successful, you will win some false friends and some true enemies. Succeed anyway. If you are honest and frank, people may cheat you. Be honest and frank anyway. What you spend years building, someone could destroy overnight. Build anyway. If you find serenity and happiness, they may be jealous. Be happy anyway. The good you do today, people will often forget tomorrow. Do good anyway. Give the world the best you have, and it may never be enough. Give the best you've got anyway. You see,  in the final analysis it is between you and God; it was never between you and them anyway."



4. What new ideas do I want to try next year?

My main focus for next year is going to be revamping my hip-hop unit now that I have tried it and have a better sense of what works and what doesn't. I have some significant changes I want to make to how the unit is set up and how I teach it, so that will be plenty of new material to keep me busy!

I did this last summer as well, but I will be going through all of my lessons again this summer to look for songs that I need to replace (as I continue to learn new information about the dark history behind the songs touted as "standards" in US American elementary music) and ways to make my teaching more anti-oppressive. If you want to read more about my social justice journey, start with this post from last fall.

Has this prompted your own thinking? My ultimate goal with sharing my own reflections is to encourage other teachers to reflect as well. If you want the added accountability of sharing your thoughts, I encourage you to leave a comment below. And don't forget to celebrate all of your successes as you reflect on improvements you want to make- if you missed last week's post on this year's highlights you can check it out here.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Summer Reflection: School Year Highlights

I like to take time at the end of each school year to reflect. It's easy for me to get so caught up in the excitement of new ideas I have for next year that I don't spend enough time really processing the year that has just passed! This year I thought I would share my reflections here, not only so others can possibly learn from my mistakes and successes, but also to hopefully inspire others to do some reflection of their own! Today I will be focusing on my highlights, and you can read about things I've learned and new ideas for next year in this follow up post.


I shared the questions I ask myself at the end of each school year in this post several years ago, and I'm using those same ones here (see the second half of the questions in this post):

1. What are my favorite memories from this school year?

Oh boy, that's hard to pick...

The International Music Festival is always a highlight and it's fresh in my mind- I do a school-wide informance with each grade performing music and dance from a different country. It is so much work but so rewarding, and the students always love it too!

Of course there's all those "little moments"- the look on his face when I showed a kindergarten student with special needs how to play the cello, the first grade boy who often ends up in the principal's office who said out loud to himself, "Man I am killin' it today!" in the middle of class, the look of pride on the fourth graders' faces when the whole grade level learned a complex instrumental piece and the whole ensemble "clicked", the time my 5th and 6th grade chorus first sang in 3-part parallel harmony a capella...

Yeah, OK, I'm crying now. Time to stop!

2. What am I most proud of from this school year?

I think I'm most proud of the new material I put together and taught for the International Music Festival this year. I've been teaching in-depth units on music from one country in each grade for over a decade, but this is only my 2nd year presenting those songs as a performance. Since students had shared the songs and dances I have been teaching all these years in last year's festival, I decided I needed to come up with new material so it wasn't all the same songs. It was extremely challenging to learn so much new music in so many different languages etc well enough to teach them to all 7 different grade levels, but it was worth all the effort.

3. What did I do differently this year that worked?

I actually made some pretty significant changes this year and for the most part they were successful. I already mentioned the changes to my cultural deep-dive units, but besides that one new thing I did was adding warm-ups to my daily lesson routine- you can read about how I set it up in this post from the beginning of the year, but basically I had some type of student-led activity at the beginning of each lesson to get everyone going right away and review basic concepts. It worked so well- the students and I loved it, and it was a great way to review basic rhythm and pitch literacy skills especially.

Another new thing this year was the hip-hop composition unit I did with my 6th graders. I brought in a local hip-hop artist to help teach the unit, and overall the project was successful and accomplished what I hoped it would- giving more legitimacy to the genre and to the unique skills needed to perform and create hip-hop music, flipping which students are comfortable and which aren't, and engaging a tough-to-please age group.

I also added several new books to my classroom and those were a huge success, especially for my self-contained special education class (which was also a first for me this year). Snake Alley Band, Allie All Along, My Family Plays Music, and Max Found Two Sticks were all new for me this year- you can see all of my lesson plans for these and other books in this post.

I also changed up my Music In Our Schools Month celebration quite a bit this year, and I did a musical "march madness" bracket for the first time, having students vote on their favorite songs each day. It was fantastic! Everyone loved it, and it wasn't a tremendous amount of work on my end either, which is always a win. I explained how I ran the bracket, including the songs I used this year, in this post.

This is not part of my actual teaching or my classroom itself, but one more thing I did differently this year that definitely worked was being more deliberate about regularly complimenting and encouraging my colleagues and administrators. I'm lucky to have some pretty fantastic colleagues and bosses but I have never been good at telling people how much I admire them or complimenting people. I tried to do so verbally too, but my biggest success this year was dropping a card in people's mailboxes every now and then- not just for teacher appreciation, birthdays, end of the semester/year or other milestone events when it would be more expected to send cards, but at random times during the school year. You know how they say showing gratitude makes you feel better yourself? It's absolutely true. And it's getting less and less awkward for me the more I do it.

Inspired to share your own successes? Let's all celebrate together- I promise, it's good for you to toot your own horn! Leave a comment below and share your highlights from this past school year!

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Best Strategies for Teaching Tempo

One of the fundamental aspects of music that students need to explore in general music is tempo, but it can be difficult to come up with different lesson ideas to keep students engaged while giving them the practice they need. Today I want to share some of my most effective strategies and lesson ideas for teaching tempo, no matter what grade level or specific aspect of tempo I'm working with.


Stationary movements: of course one of the easiest ways to have students follow the tempo is to show the beat with motions, whether it's patting, clapping, waving, or anything else they can do without leaving their spot. My favorite, though, is to use dance moves. The best way I've found to expand "movement vocabulary" to give shy students ideas and expand other students' repertoire, is to use visual prompts like these cards.

Conduct: sometimes the entire class will conduct with a recording, or I'll have one student conduct at whatever speed they choose and have the class follow their tempo.

Move around the room: students follow each other around the circle, or follow in a line that I lead around the room (songs about trains are perfect for this!), or I tell students to move within a specified area in any direction they want in scattered formation.

Dance: beyond just moving one way with the beat, it's fun for older students especially to experience the tempo with more complex choreography, whether it's a folk dance or a more modern dance sequence. This is particularly helpful when I want students to repeat a song several times, particularly when we're working on changing speeds, because it's less mundane.

Vocabulary: to practice using specific tempo vocabulary, I'll have students point to different words on the board and have the class sing at the speed indicated by the words they point to. I also make it a point to say the word at the given speed whenever we are practicing saying it out loud (so I always say "largo" slowly and "presto" quickly, for example).

Composition: I confess I don't do this as often as I'd like, but it is great practice to have students choose a specific tempo for their compositions whenever they are creating their own music. Even with my youngest students, when they create their own short rhythmic patterns, it's meaningful to have them try it fast and slow and decide which they prefer.

Examples to Use
One of my favorite ways to compare tempi (and have students identify the speed of each with specific vocabulary) is through Irish music- the hornpipe is slow, the reel is medium, and the jig is fast. I like teaching students some simple dance steps for each and then comparing the speeds.

A great way to compare multiple speeds in one piece is with Hungarian Dance No. 5 by Brahms. This is a great one to have students identify each tempo by pointing to the matching words.

I hope you find these ideas helpful as you plan your lessons for teaching tempo at any age! If you are looking for more comprehensive lesson plans to cover all of the fundamental musical skills and concepts in engaging and meaningful ways, you'll find everything you need in my general music curriculum sets. Have a favorite lesson for teaching tempo? I'd love for you to share them in the comments below!