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Tuesday, September 18, 2018

World Cultures in the Music Room: avoiding exoticism

This school year my primary focus is on creating a more equitable classroom for each and every one of my students, no matter who they are or where they come from. Over the course of a series of posts, I am focusing on particular people groups and perspectives that tend to be marginalized in US-American music education. My hope is to give music teachers practical suggestions and thoughts to ponder to encourage all of us as a profession to have more open and honest conversations about these topics. None of us is able to perfectly understand every perspective in the world, but we are all capable of expanding our worldviews- in fact I believe we have a responsibility as educators to do so!

Today's topic is a familiar one for this site: world cultures. How can we better reflect the wide variety of cultures that our students encounter in their lives? How can our classroom be more responsive to the needs of students from cultures different from our own? How can we model respect for, and teach our students to respect, a broader range of cultural perspectives? Today's focus is on one key aspect of these important questions: avoiding exoticism.

No matter what your local neighborhood or student body may look like, we all live in a global world. Although chances are good that you have multiple countries represented in your student population in one way or another in this day and age, even if you teach in a completely mono-cultural setting, I believe it is important to help students understand and respect the perspectives of cultures around the world to give them the tools they need to be successful in today's society, and to be better humans who can empathize with a broader range of perspectives.

With all of that said, I know that authentically and appropriately representing cultures with which you yourself are not familiar is no easy task! I have talked with so many music teachers who are too scared to incorporate perspectives and material from other cultures because they're afraid they'll "do it wrong". My top suggestion for better reflecting, responding to, and respecting a broader range of cultures from around the world in our music classrooms is to

Avoid exoticism.

This is one of the most difficult concepts to explain but also the key to creating a classroom climate that celebrates and normalizes cultural perspectives from around the world. Whenever we're presenting ideas or music from unfamiliar cultures, we need to do our best to avoid presenting them as "interesting", or as "curiosities", and instead present them as facts of life. A lot of this comes down to checking our own perspectives as teachers: do we think of other cultures as exotic, or just another example of what "normal" look like?

As a US American who grew up mostly in Japan, a common reaction I hear when people find out about my upbringing is the question, "what was THAT like?". My life seems very exotic, unusual, interesting, maybe even cool, simply because I was in a country with which they are not familiar. The problem is I never know how to answer that question- to me, my life was my life. It is my normal. The same is true for everyone- it's important to remember that for Japanese children, going to a festival in the summertime and doing a traditional dance (bonodori) with the other festival-goers is not particularly noteworthy- it's normal.

It's difficult to adequately explain this concept in concrete terms, but here are some practical suggestions for working to avoid exoticism in the way we present world cultures in our classrooms:

1. Present facts of life as facts, not anomalies 

This may seem counter-intuitive, but I find that teachers who get overly excited about little details of life or music from other countries when they present them to their students often end up conveying this sense of exoticism rather than the appreciation they're really going for. I find it more helpful to present material regularly and matter-of-factly, and avoid spending a lot of time giving students too many examples of random little factoids they find interesting but aren't directly related to the lesson content. Those random factoids just create more of a sense of "other" for students.

It can be exciting and intellectually stimulating to have our ideas of normal shattered by encounters with new perspectives, worldviews, and ways of life. There is certainly nothing wrong with modeling that excitement for learning new perspectives and appreciating different points of view. But if we as adults can treat these new perspectives with more of a sense of normalcy when we're sharing them with our students, they will be more likely to internalize them in the same way they learn that ice cream comes in more than one flavor and fire is cool to look at but not to touch: new information for them, but that is normal for others.

2. Don't limit musical examples to "folk"/ traditional styles

One important, concrete way to normalize other cultures is to present visual and musical examples that are current, not just historical. Too often the way we present cultures in our classes leads students to think that all men in Scotland walk around in kilts, Ethiopian people are all naked and starving, and people in Mexico only listen to Mariachi music. We know that's not true, but how many of us grew up thinking this way and were, at some point later in life, startled to realize that the rest of the world doesn't fit such outdated caricatures?

Preserving traditions that have been around for hundreds and thousands of years is important, but we need to be careful not to give students the impression that the rest of the world is living in the past. The truth is, good or bad, that our day-to-day lives have a lot more in common with the lives of those around the world than they ever have before, and showing students modern examples of music and culture, while perhaps less "interesting", will better help our students relate to other cultures and treat people as normal rather than "other".

3. Use musical material from a range of cultures when the culture is not the point

Another way to normalize world cultures for students is to use material from a variety of countries in day-to-day lessons without focusing on the cultural background of the material. Just because the song is in Korean doesn't mean you need to spend 10 minutes talking about Korea, any more than you need to do a lesson on German culture when you use music by Beethoven. Making it a normal part of your classroom to include examples in different languages and from different cultures will make it less of a curiosity and more of a normal part of how we go about our lives.

And please, whatever you do, don't use the phrase "world music"! Let's remember that our native culture is part of the world just as much as all the others. Creating a category of "world music" implies that there is music that is not from "the world" (which leads to that exoticism I keep talking about, where the native culture is "normal" and "the world" is "other than").

4. Avoid putting students from other cultures on the spot

Of course you want to bring your students' backgrounds into your classroom and into your lessons- that's the whole point of this series! Finding musical material that represents the cultures of the students in your classes is absolutely a wonderful idea, and when you do, you of course will want to allow those students who are familiar with the culture to share their insights and experiences, or help with pronunciation if they speak the language.

However, in the same way that we need to be careful of making too much of a "fuss" over the music and customs of other cultures, we need to be careful not to exoticize our students. If you are hoping to have a student share something about their culture in class, talk to them beforehand to ask how and what they would be comfortable sharing- they'll need time to think about what would be interesting to non-natives, because remember, all those things that are so "interesting" to outsiders are normal for them!

We also have to be careful not to make assumptions about how familiar students are with their passport culture and/or language. With all of the global mobility in today's society, there are many children who grow up without ever setting foot in the country of their nationality, and/or do not speak the language their parents speak. Make sure you know for sure what your students' backgrounds are before putting them on the spot to share in class.

And just as I said already with the music, allowing students to share perspectives and experiences from their cultures when the culture is not the point can also go a long way in normalizing these perspectives. Don't limit the times that students can share insights into their worldviews only to times when you're teaching a song from that culture! Making it a part of your normal discussions will help students feel more comfortable interacting with a variety of perspectives and with sharing their own.

If you haven't already, I encourage you to go back and read my introductory post for this series on the topic of "reflecting, responding, and respecting" in general. Reading that post will help to frame the discussion and I have also included several reflection questions that I think are helpful for teachers as they begin to think about creating a more just classroom for all students and perspectives.

What are your thoughts? Questions? Experiences? Let's start talking! Share in the comments or send me an email. Next week I'll be continuing the conversation about presenting world cultures in the music room with resource recommendations and other practical tips for incorporating music from around the world in a way that is reflective and respectful of, and responsive to, our global society. Stay tuned!

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Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Reflecting, Responding, Respecting: making room for every student

This school year my primary focus is on creating a more equitable classroom for each and every one of my students, no matter who they are or where they come from. This is something that has been at the forefront of my teaching philosophy since I first started teaching, but the longer I teach (and the older I get) the more blind spots I find. It doesn't matter who you are as a teacher, or how well you master all the tools of the trade- as human beings we all have unconscious biases and can only process a certain amount of information, so there is no way for any of us to fully understand, respond to, and build upon every single perspective that our students bring to the classroom (let alone the millions of other perspectives out there in the universe that deserve to have a place in our teaching)!

Over the course of a series of posts, my hope is to share some of my latest thoughts on how to more fully include some of those people groups and perspectives that tend to be marginalized in Western (particularly US American) music education. Of course this is a life-long journey, and one that requires ongoing input from all kinds of perspectives, so I hope you will read, engage, and join in the conversation to help me, and all of us, continue to learn and grow!

In today's post I want to introduce this huge topic with some questions for all of us to consider:

1. Who is in my classroom? What backgrounds and perspectives do my students represent?
2. Who am I? What cultural values, religious beliefs, personality traits, race/gender/other aspects of my identity do I bring to my teaching?
3. Who/what is represented and valued in my physical classroom space and/or materials?
4. What kinds of people are being valued in my behavior management systems?
5. Who/what is represented and valued in my lesson content/ repertoire?

I'm sure you can see where this is going. 

I've titled this series, "Reflecting, Responding, Respecting" because that is my goal: to have more perspectives and people reflected in my room, my materials, my lesson content, and my values, to be more responsive to each student's needs, values, and perspectives, and to learn how to better respect (and teach my students to also respect) more perspectives and people in my classes.

Music teaching is hard. There's so much to think about, and so many little humans to care for! No matter where you are on your teaching journey yourself, I hope you don't read these posts and 
a) feel like you are a terrible person or teacher, 
b) get completely overwhelmed by all the changes you want and need to make (especially if that overwhelm leads to giving up and doing nothing), or 
c) think that there's no way for you to have an impact on your students' lives because of the amount of time you have with each one in class.

Instead, my hope is that these posts will help to spur ongoing conversations in the music teaching profession and encourage all of us to continue to strive to improve our practice, create a more just classroom environment, and better reach and teach each one of the students that enter our room. I'd love for you to share your thoughts in the comments below!

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Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Whole Class Behavior Management Systems in Elementary Music

Behavior management in elementary music can be tricky. With such short class periods and so many different classes to teach, the traditional behavior management systems we see other elementary homeroom teachers using don't usually work well in the music room. And don't even get me started on the benefits of encouraging intrinsic and relational motivators over punitive systems that rank or rate student behavior...

My whole class behavior management systems have shifted over my decade of teaching. My goal is to find the right balance between giving students regular, concrete feedback and positive reinforcement to teach and foster positive character as a part of a team where each member is responsible to the whole, and staying away from too many extrinsic, punitive rewards that do not lead to lasting change and create inauthentic, competitive rating systems. Today I want to describe for you my current approach that tries to strike that balance!

In some ways, I would love to throw out "behavior management systems" entirely. I am always working towards fostering positive character in each of my students, developing relationships with them, and creating a positive classroom environment. But for young students, especially those who come from backgrounds of trauma and high social / emotional needs, concrete systems are an important part of teaching them those character traits and giving regular feedback on their behaviors and attitudes.

One unique aspect of music that I always emphasize in my classes is the team aspect. Outside of PE / sports, it is very rare for a student's ability to succeed in a task to be so dependent on other students' success! That's part of the beauty and magic of the music-making experience. So while philosophically I go back and forth on whether it is "right" to continue to use these whole class management systems, I think it is important to find ways to focus specifically on that aspect of their musical growth.

So here's what I do (I promise I'm done philosophizing now...):

1. I have letters velcro-ed to the wall that spell "MUSIC".

Every class starts with that word. If the class as a whole is off-task, not giving their best effort, etc despite some initial reminders, I take a letter down. I tell my students that this should be an instant cue for them to get back on track (and it usually does work that way). It's a non-verbal way for me to cue students to consider their behavior without disrupting class.

On the other hand, if the class as a whole does something extraordinarily well, beyond the standard expectations, I will add a letter. This gives me a concrete way to reinforce hard work, teamwork, and exceptional music-making beyond just a verbal "good job" from me. If they've lost letter(s) I of course add those back first, but I also have additional letters that I can add beneath MUSIC to eventually spell MUSICALITY.

2. Classes move up a "keyboard" at the end of each period.

The number of letters they have at the end of each class translates directly to how many keys they move up on the piano visual. The word MUSIC is 2 piano keys. Any additional letters are 1 piano key each. If the class has lost letters, they get 1 piano key (if they lose all of the letters then of course that would be 0 keys, although that has never happened except with a substitute).

3. Classes earn incentives when they reach certain goals.

I've adjusted these over the years but currently I have 3 "levels" towards which classes are working. They first go up just the black keys to earn a music-related YouTube video of my choice at the beginning of the next class, then they go up just the white keys to earn a day of centers, then they go up all of the keys chromatically to earn a "music party" where the class votes on their favorite music activities to do as a class for one period.

I explain to my students at the beginning of the year that these are opportunities for us to celebrate our hard work and change up our usual routine every now and then. I make it clear that each class is working at different paces and it is NOT a race. I explain to my older students, for example, that I have different expectations for them than I do for my younger students. Some classes may need more reminders (via positive reinforcement) for simpler things like listening to directions, fully participating in singing games, etc, while other classes can meet those expectations without needing so much prompting and reinforcing. I make a bigger deal of their progress each period with classes that need more support, but barely mention it with others who are more intrinsically motivated. Somehow my students seem to understand that!

For more specifics on the "incentives" I use:

  • Here is a post with some of my favorite YouTube channels to use in elementary music (and I share a lot of other favorites on Facebook!)
  • Here is a post with some of my favorite center activities (don't miss the links at the end of this post to more rhythm centers and more pitch naming centers)
  • For the parties, students usually choose games like freeze dance, a musical talent show, opportunities to choose a favorite instrument to play, or a favorite singing game from class. 

All of this is part of a comprehensive set of expectations, systems, and procedures that I have established to help foster each of my students' growth and develop a positive classroom environment. You can read more about all of that in this post:

I would love to have you join in the conversation- leave a comment below with your thoughts and questions, and be sure to sign up here for the Organized Chaos newsletter to get timely ideas and exclusive content sent straight to your inbox!

Friday, August 31, 2018

August Favorites 2018

What a glorious month it has been! I've been on vacation with my family, welcomed a nephew into the world, and just this week my students came back and I got to go back to one of my greatest loves: making music with my kiddos! Here's a look back at some of the highlights from this past month, including some of my favorite new ideas for this school year.

Affiliate links may be included in this post. This does not affect your purchase price or experience but gives me credit for sharing!

1. New books for the music room

While we were on that family vacation I mentioned, we stopped at a fun, quirky used book store where I found SO many great new books to add to my classroom library! I seriously only brought home about half of the ones I initially picked out! I hope to share more specific lessons and uses for each of these books in future blog posts, but for now here is a compilation of all of my favorite lessons using children's literature that I've shared already, and if you're interested in the specific titles I picked up, here's the list:

The Bat Boy & His Violin
Grandfather's Dream
Whistle for Willie
Snake Alley Band
Why the Sun and the Moon Live in the Sky
Sam and the Lucky Money
Nine in One, Grr! Grr!
Chanukah Guess Who?
Nine O'Clock Lullaby
Passover Is Here!
Take Me Out of the Bathtub and Other Silly Dilly Songs
The Journey
The Little Banjo

2. New word wall replacement

I mentioned this in my classroom tour, but I got rid of my word wall this year. It was a great idea in theory- I had all of the new vocabulary for each grade up on the wall, sorted and color-coded by grade- but I frankly never used it and the students rarely did either. So instead I decided it would be more useful to have one poster that lists every major concept that I cover in each grade. It's basically straight out of my scope and sequence, but condensed into more concise wording. If I'm really on the ball, it will be a great way to check in midyear and see how much we've covered so far and how much work we have left to do, and also use it as a review tool at the end of the year. Even if I don't do that, it's still a really concrete way of showing the progression of skills from grade to grade and giving everyone a better sense of the scope of what we do!

3. The end of summer, the beginning of school

Also, dollar spot sticky notes. I have a bit of an obsession with the colors and designs on the teacher-themed sticky notes (and matching washi tape) from Target dollar spot- the planner spread above is almost entirely made up of those items. I show you this week in my planner mostly, though, to signify the end of summer and the beginning of school. This was the last week of summer planning in my planner, because Thursday and Friday I went back to work for teacher work days, and the following week I got back into lesson planning! I didn't accomplish everything I had hoped for home, school, or Organized Chaos, but I am satisfied with the pace and balance I kept over break, and I felt ready to get back in the classroom. Here's to another amazing school year!

4. Back to school music teacher blog posts

If you want to see more peeks into my life like the snippets above, you'll want to head over to Instagram- I pulled all of the pictures above from my Instagram feed and I share these kinds of tidbits there throughout the week. But to see all of my favorite reads from other amazing music education blogs and websites, you'll want to head to Facebook! I share great posts I find every Friday, and I've compiled all of the ones I shared during the month of August below- just click on the pictures to read each post. Tons of great reads this month that you won't want to miss!

I hope you found some fresh inspiration in this post, and I hope you all had a wonderful month! I'd love to hear your highlights from August- share them in the comments below! And if you want to stay on top of all things Organized Chaos and get exclusive access to content I don't share anywhere else, be sure to sign up here for the Organized Chaos Newsletter.

Happy September!