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Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Now What?

It's the question we're all asking ourselves: what comes next? As we start closing out this period of crisis management, as government agencies and organizations start releasing guidelines and recommendations, with budgets on the chopping block and all our plans covered in red x's and question marks, how do we even begin to wrap our heads around what our future looks like as music teachers? We want to prepare for what we know will be a daunting task, but how? I obviously have no answers but here is how I am beginning to organize my thoughts.


What will music teaching look like in the fall? The only thing we know for sure is that we don't know. If your primary coping mechanism for stress is organizing and planning (hello, hi, that's me), that can be very disconcerting. But while we can't know what music teaching will look like in the fall- if it will be virtual or in a building, on a cart or in our rooms- we can think about the concepts we want to teach in a general sense. We can't predict the HOW but we can plan for the WHAT.

This is where writing your long-range plans based on skills and concepts is so important! We don't know if we'll be able to teach recorders, or sing in groups, or do movement activities. But we can decide when to teach half notes and when to teach rondo form. And by doing so, we can maintain continuity (to some degree) in our teaching even when we have to adjust our teaching platform mid-year (which will more than likely be the case)!

Here is how I am setting up my long-range plans for next school year to plan for what I can:

1. Identify the key skills and concepts for each grade

If you haven't already, you need a list of the most important skills and concepts you want to cover in each grade level. Narrow it down to the essentials, and make sure you're listing concepts and skills, not materials (if you aren't familiar with that distinction, read this post). For mine, I have a list of rhythm and pitch elements, expressive elements (dynamics, tempi, articulation), instrumental and vocal techniques, and harmonic and form elements for each grade. The list I normally have for my scope and sequence goes into much greater detail, but for this year I am just listing the most important ones- the concepts and skills that I build on year to year and that take time to process.

2. Map out skills and concepts by month

I am planning for 2-3 concepts per month, depending on how much time needs to be spent on each one, and a few of them (the rhythm and pitch elements in particular) I'm listing multiple times spread out over the year. The key here is I'm not planning too many things in each month, because I want this plan to be transferable to in-school or distance teaching, and I know I can't weave in multiple concepts in the course of a virtual lesson the same way I can in the classroom. I'm also realistic about the possibility that even less time could be given to music instruction altogether, and if there are breaks in the school year or significant absences I want it to be manageable to catch up.

3. Start lists of ideas

Now that I know the most basic concepts and skills I want to cover, I can start thinking of ideas to teach those concepts in different settings: how could I teach treble clef letter names if we're in the building but socially distancing, or if I'm giving online assignments? I'm creating lists of ideas for both scenarios by concept so that when the time comes, I at least have a starting point no matter what situation I find myself in at that time.

These are the things I think we can do now to make our jobs easier and more effective in the fall without wasting time and energy trying to predict the things we can't. This will be an ongoing process of adjusting and adapting, to be sure, but it has helped me to have something concrete to look at and feel confident that I have a roadmap for the year, no matter what else may happen. I know this whole situation can be stressful and overwhelming, but I hope this helps us all focus on the things we can control and try to let go of the rest!

I'm continuing to compile all of my school closure-related posts on one centralized page- click below to visit:


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Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Distance Music Lesson Ideas: Composition

Composition is one of those areas that actually lends itself to distance learning in many ways. Students can explore individually and take as much time as they want to work on their compositions, they can express themselves more freely if they're hesitant to share with classmates, and if they have technology access, they have so many more tools at their fingertips than they would have in most general music classrooms. Whether you're sending home packets, putting lessons online, or teaching live virtual classes, here are some of my favorite lesson ideas for teaching music composition.


1. Online Teaching

With online teaching there are so many options for composition! If you're able, I recommend creating a video demonstrating how to use whatever online tool you're asking students to use by showing your screen (with something like zoom or screencastify). Give students a clear but simple direction for their composition and set them loose!

My top recommendation by far is chrome music lab song maker. It is so easy to use even for the youngest students, the notes are color-coded to match boomwhacker colors, and students can save and send their compositions to their teacher very easily! There are a million ways to use this tool for assignments, but my favorite use is to give students a specific set of solfege notes to use to create a melody (which varies depending on the grade). I show them which colors they can and cannot use in their melody and then send them on their way. It's the perfect way to experiment with composing using the specific solfege notes that they've been working on this year!

My other favorite online composition tool is mario paint music composer. I love that it has lots of different timbres to choose from represented by different icons, and it has you put the notes on the actual staff (including treble and bass clef)! This one is perfect for upper elementary and middle school to practice using specific letter names in both clefs, compose in specific time signatures (there are several choices in the program), or write music for a video game (more on that below). It's also easy to save songs with this program, and there are several choices including saving to a url or as a file download.

One of my favorite units for upper elementary / middle school is actually perfect for distance learning: music of the movies! Students can watch YouTube videos to learn about movie music composers, explore how music affects a film, and learn about Foley artists (who create live sound effects), then they can choose music to go with a specific scene of a silent film, or create music to go with the scene themselves (using one of the online tools above) and practice adding their own sound effects using objects around their house. I have all the materials and plans for this unit here.

Another of my favorites from brick and mortar teaching that translates well to distance learning: video game music composition. Students create the concept for a video game and then add music to go with each scene. In the lessons I do (resources linked above) I also have them explore video game composing and learn about some famous composers for video games. It's a great way to get students thinking about communicating a clear image through their music, and it definitely sparks their imaginations.

2. Packets / No Tech

If you're sending home packets or hard copy assignments that don't require any technology, composition is still a great way to go. Send home one or two very simple composition worksheets (you can see some examples of what I use here) that include clear directions and a rhythm/ pitch bank so they can practice notating independently. You can also encourage creativity with a choice board like this one (feel free to copy the image below for your own use!):


3. Virtual Teaching

If you're teaching live classes virtually, you can of course use any of the ideas above by explaining and showing the assignment and then sending them off on their own to work on their compositions, but there are other fun things you can do as well, like having share sessions where students share the compositions they've created before your class session, or improv sessions where students take turns improvising. It's impossible to perform things simultaneously but taking turns will work even over video calls!

I hope this gives you some ideas to use, regardless of your situation, to get students composing. If you've come up with more great composition lesson ideas for distance learning, please share them in the comments below. Don't forget, I'm compiling all of my posts for school closures into one page for easy access- head to that page for more ideas:


Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Ideas for Closing the Distance School Year

With the school year now officially ending without re-opening our buildings, it's time to think about how to provide some sense of celebration and closure without being able to gather in person. From school-wide events to special student send-offs and distance assignments for the end of the year, here are my ideas to try to end the year the best way we can.


Virtual Talent Show

I am so in love with this idea and can't wait to get mine going! While there is definitely more than one way to make this happen, my favorite option for this is Flipgrid. I am setting up a "grid" for the whole school with the talent show as the "topic". Students will be given the link to submit their videos one week in advance, and all the videos will go live on the "show date". A few tips to keep in mind:
  • Make sure the topic is set to be moderated. That way you can collect videos before the show date so you can have all the videos go live at once while giving everyone time to get them in, and you can obviously make sure the performances are school-appropriate before sharing them with the school.
  • Set a short time limit for the videos. I'm doing 3 minutes. 
  • As with an in-person show, set out clear guidelines for performances. What types of "talents" are allowed? Can they do group numbers with family members? What type of music/ clothing/ etc is appropriate? I am telling students to make sure they have a plain background and a quiet space to record to avoid distractions (or accidentally inappropriate things). Check with your district guidelines and school social worker to make sure you've taken everything into consideration.
  • Get explicit permission from families to share student videos before posting. I am requiring families to email me giving permission to share with the school. Our school grid is set up to only be accessible through our school domain so it's not a public website, but it's still the internet and still shareable if someone really wants to.
  • Consider turning off the ability to like or leave responses to avoid it turning into a popularity contest.
If you want to try out Flipgrid, Katie Wardrobe has an excellent tutorial specifically for music teachers- she has tons of amazing ideas for lessons as well- which you can watch right here.

Student Send-offs

We are a K-6 school so we usually have a special ceremony at the end of the year for 6th grade and for Kindergarten. There are lots of cute ways to celebrate them but one of my favorites is to set up a google doc for each student and invite staff to write messages, memories, and other celebrations for individual students. Then at the end of the year, save the docs as a PDF and send them to each student. Students get personal messages from their favorite teachers and they can keep it forever!

End of Year Lessons

I always like to end the school year with fun lessons that are active and keep the focus on student interests and community building. It's so much harder to do that without being together in person, but my favorite ideas that I'll be using are:

Choice Boards (give students a choice board and invite them to choose their favorite ones)

Song Suggestion Playlists (invite students to suggest their favorite songs to you, then add their suggestions to a playlist to share with the class)

Talent Show (same format as the idea above, but just do one within the class rather than school-wide)

This is most certainly not the way any of us would like to close the school year, but I hope these ideas help you still create memories and some amount of closure for your students and school community! Don't forget you can find all my posts on distance learning topics on this page below:


Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Your Missing Students Aren't Behavior Problems

I have been trying to put my finger on what it is that bothers me about the way teachers are talking about all the students who aren't logging in or completing their distance learning assignments, and I think I've finally formed some concrete thoughts. This whole school closure situation is stressful for everyone. If you've been worried about low participation levels in your distance learning activities, I hope this will help re-frame your thinking.


The basic point is this: the students who don't participate in our distance learning lessons should not be equated in our minds with students who refuse to participate in an activity in the classroom. They should be equated with students who are absent. 

There are completely different issues at play when a student becomes defiant in a brick and mortar classroom- take some time to reflect on these posts on behavior and equity if you want to explore that topic. But in this crisis management, distance learning period we're in right now, we can't look at the blanks next to a student's name and imagine them deliberately choosing not to click on the music assignment out of defiance or disregard. I assure you, most of the time that is not the case.

The underlying thought process that I am hearing from the music education community bemoaning the lack of participation seems to go back to the idea that students are choosing not to do the music lessons because they (or their families) don't care, or because their lessons aren't engaging enough. I just don't think that's the case for most of them.

In many cases it's just a matter of not understanding fully what they're supposed to do, or having difficulty with one of the many technological steps required to simply submit an assignment. I'm sure many students and families don't know, or forget, that there are separate assignments, usually in a different place than their homeroom assignments, for music. 

Are some students and families making a deliberate choice not to do music assignments and only focus on math and reading? Yes. Are they doing it out of defiance or ill-will? No, I don't think so. It's less like the kid sitting in class saying "I don't wanna" and more like the kid who has limited energy because they're just getting over the flu so they only go to school for part of the day and miss music class. Are there issues with valuing some subjects over others as a society that we should address? Definitely. But that's not the battle to fight right now. The truth is humans everywhere, whether they realize it yet or not, have reawakened to the importance of music through this experience. They're listening to it more, they're turning to it for comfort, they're singing, dancing, playing instruments more. When families and students make the choice to only certain assignments, I promise you it is because they have limited energy, time, technology, all of the above.

Let's also keep in mind that some students are doing the assignments and activities but we just don't see it. I know I've had a few parents comment in an email or on the phone how much their whole family has enjoyed their child's music assignments and I've just stared in disbelief because they haven't turned in a single assignment throughout the entire closure! We're not there in the room. There are more students participating, or attempting to, in our lessons than we think.

Why is this distinction important? When we have a student not participating in class, we react by trying to figure out what the problem is, whether that's with our teaching, their situation, or both. We ask the student why they aren't joining in, we enforce consequences, we reflect on our teaching to try to make it more engaging- in short there is a problem that needs to be fixed. When we have a student who is absent, it is what it is and we do our best to catch them up when they return. Maybe we inquire why they're absent from class, especially if they miss more than one class period in a row. Maybe we follow up to make sure they aren't missing class for avoidable reasons- did their transportation accessibility change? Are they dealing with a home situation that keeps them from coming to school? But we don't generally start looking for a problem to fix (outside the chronic absences)- we encourage our students not to miss class as much as they can, help students catch up on what they missed, and move on without placing blame on ourselves, the students, or the families.

Should we follow up when we have students who are chronically absent from our distance learning assignments? Sure. Of course we want to make sure that students have equitable access, help where we can with any difficult life situations our students may find themselves in, and make sure our kids are OK. But rather than treating it as an engagement issue, let's treat it as an attendance issue. Stop assigning blame to yourselves, your students, or their families. Teach the ones that are there the best way you can, and check in on the ones who aren't. We'll catch up when we're back together.

I'm collecting all of my posts, both for home and for music teaching, related to school closures on this page- check here for all my past posts and stay up to date on the latest: