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Tuesday, August 14, 2018

How Can I Get My 5th Graders to Sing?

It's amazing what a difference a couple of years can make! Lower elementary students will quite literally cheer with excitement when you suggest singing a song together, but somewhere along the line they hit a point when suddenly singing is one of the worst activities you could possibly suggest! There are a lot of factors that obviously play into this change, and there are a lot of things you can do to foster a classroom culture where singing continues to be fun well into the upper elementary and middle school grades, but today I want to share my favorite tip for getting those reticent big kids singing less painfully.

For me the key has been to get the students to focus on something else and make the singing secondary. A big part of the resistance to singing at this age is obviously self-consciousness, so anything you can do to keep their mind on other things besides their singing will help! Any time I want to sing a song with older grades (or actually any grade!), I make sure I have something else for students to do while singing. This could include:

  • an instrumental ostinato / accompaniment (pitched or unpitched)
  • a body percussion pattern
  • hand signs / sign language / motions to go with the lyrics or steady beat
  • dance / movement
  • a cup routine
  • movement or passing game with props (scarves, bean bags etc)
  • hand clapping game 

With younger grades, I may teach students the singing first and then add the movement / accompaniment parts later, teach them simultaneously, or start with the added part. But with upper elementary students who are resistant to singing, I always introduce the added part without the singing first. It may seem silly to do motions silently without any lyrics, but it actually just adds to the mystery! The key is to make sure that the movement / accompaniment part is challenging enough to engage their brains and force them to focus in order to do it correctly (one simple way to make an added part harder is to speed it up!).

Once they've learned the added part, I challenge them first to do it without my help, then to do it while I sing a song. Now the song is an added challenge- a "level up"! Once they can do it while I'm singing, I pause and teach them the song (or part of the song if it's longer), then challenge them to do the previous activity while they simultaneously sing. This process has the added bonus of giving the students an opportunity to hear the song a few times before they're asked to sing it, making them more comfortable with the song before they even open their mouths.

Want some fun lessons to get upper elementary or even middle school students singing and learning important rhythm and pitch concepts? Download this free 5th grade curriculum set for the first month of school to get several great lesson ideas along with the materials to teach them:

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Tuesday, August 7, 2018

The Music Teacher Administrators Love

I'm continuing my series with insights from administrators on how we as music teachers can improve our relationships with administration and with colleagues and raise the level of respect they have for us and our profession, and today I'm sharing administrators' thoughts on what they think makes a great music teacher.

Nobody knows better than music teachers what truly makes a great music teacher. But I'm sure we've all heard those horror stories (or maybe experienced them ourselves) of good teachers who were treated unfairly because colleagues/ administrators didn't value the amazing work that they were doing, either because they weren't aware of what they were doing or didn't understand how the things the teacher was doing were effective (especially when it's a teaching practice that is unique to music)! And for those of us who are well-supported by our school community, it's always helpful to take some time to really reflect on our teaching practice and what we can do to continue to improve, and it's always a good idea to get some outside perspective as we reflect!

The thoughts I'm sharing below are a compilation of responses I got from two interviews: one with my building principal, and one with the district fine arts director. Neither has experience teaching music, but both are extremely supportive and thoughtful administrators. As you read their thoughts, I hope you'll consider how you can better make your administrators aware of these qualities that you probably already possess so that they see those things that they value more readily! At the same time, this is a good opportunity for some honest self-reflection. What areas mentioned here have I let fall to the way-side? What areas of my teaching practice could I focus on this year?

With all of that in mind, here are 3 questions I asked them, and the responses they gave:

What makes a good music teacher?
  • A love of students and a true desire to see them grow. 
  • An understanding of how to help students grow- this comes down to effective planning. An ability to figure out how to most effectively teach the skills and concepts in the curriculum to meet each student's needs.
  • Energy and passion for music and music teaching.
  • Creativity- fresh, new ideas for lessons and programs / performances.
  • Openness to new ideas- don't just keep teaching the same lessons the same way you've always taught them. Focus on skills and concepts and be open to new ways to teach them.
  • Relentlessness- the energy to keep pursuing excellence, to keep trying when you aren't getting through to a student or a lesson falls flat.
  • A dedication to your own musicianship.
How can music teachers be more effective members of the school building staff?
  • Be willing to collaborate with non-specialists. If you're teaching something that could be reinforced in other subjects (like the science of sound or music from a particular country), ask them if they have any resources for you or if they can tie it into their own classes somehow. If they come to you with a topic they are working on in their class, work with them to find musical ways to further student learning, whether you reinforce it in your music classes or give them resources to include a musical activity in their own teaching. Colleagues will come to respect you as an expert, and the students will benefit from the cross-curricular connections!
  • Get involved in school-wide (non-musical) events, programs, and/or committees, whether it's helping to plan an assembly or joining a staff committee. You will be seen as more of a team player and as a teacher deserving of equal respect by colleagues and administrators if you are involved in non-music-specific work in the building, and the other teachers will be much more likely to want to help with music events.
How can music teachers be more effective members of the music department?
  • Be open-minded. Be honest and open in your collaborations with your department colleagues so that you can reflect on areas where you can continue to improve your teaching practice. Often teachers are happy to share their own successes with colleagues but aren't as eager to truly listen to and take into consideration the ideas of other teachers.
  • Don't think that you can't have an impact on the district / department beyond your classroom because you're "just a teacher". Be proactive and get involved in department-wide efforts, especially when you see places where you can contribute a particular interest or expertise.
Do I think that exhibiting all of these qualities will ensure all music teachers are treated fairly and with the respect they deserve? Nope. The reality is, of course, that it doesn't always work that way. But I hope these insights are helpful in at least thinking about what we can do as music teachers to work towards improved relationships and respect.

What are your thoughts on this? It can sometimes be hard to have outsiders tell us how we can do our job better, but I think these suggestions are all quite insightful. I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments below, and if you'd like to get more content like this sent to your inbox and join in a more direct and personal conversation, please sign up for the Organized Chaos Newsletter right here.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

July Favorites 2018

July has officially ended and that means it's time to pause and look back at some of the highlights from the past month- what a wonderful month it has been!

1. Summer planning

One thing I love about summer vacation is the chance to play around with my planner in a more relaxed way. Without tons of lesson plans and other information to cram into each week, I can use more decorative elements and play around with different supplies! If you want to see some of my favorite tips for "functional planner decorating", here's a video I made on that. The flexible weekly layout I use in the summer is in the "business planner" section of the #PlanMyWholeLife planners.

2. Family time!

Of course one of the best parts of summer vacation is getting more time with my daughters! They are just such wonderful humans 💓

3. New school year setup

I don't start school until the very end of August so no, I haven't set up my classroom yet, but I have set up my planner for the new school year (and isn't that the most important part?!?). It's one of my favorite rituals every summer to flip through and reflect back on the previous year's planner and get it set up with fresh new pages for the next school year- click here to watch the video of that whole process.

4. Music education blog posts

As always I've collected some of my favorite blog posts from around the web that I read this month- don't miss these! There's something for everyone from early childhood to secondary music!

Elementary general music classroom setup tips from Anacrusic:

Tips for making KidStix kits from Ponderings from a Finch:

"Genius Hour"-style project from Off the Beaten Path in Music:

A book-based lesson to connect with Mariachi music from Tiny Tapping Toes:

I hope you all had a wonderful July and that you have an even more amazing August ahead- exciting times!! I'd love to hear how your summer is going or chat about your plans for the new school year- send me an email! You can get in touch with me, and stay on top of my latest news, by signing up for the Organized Chaos Newsletter right here. And remember I always share little peeks into various aspects of my life more regularly over on Instagram- I'd love to connect there as well :)

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

A Music Teachers' Guide to Fostering Mutual Respect

Raise your hand if you have ever been told, in words or in actions, that you are somehow less than a "real teacher" by administrators, colleagues, or both! I think most of us have at some point felt disrespected for being "just a music teacher". I know this feeling all too well, and I think it is one of the biggest sources of stress in our line of work today. So I decided to get an outside perspective on this problem: I spoke with two of my administrators to get their perspective on how music teachers can build respect for themselves and for their program within the broader school community, particularly amongst other staff and administration.

The perspectives you will read below are a compilation of the answers I got from two separate interviews: one with my building principal, and one with the director of the district fine arts department. Both of them are amazing administrators who are very supportive and insightful, but neither of them have ever been music teachers themselves. I think hearing their thoughts gives good insight into how we can "speak their language" so that administrators and colleagues better understand and value all of the work we're doing as music teachers.

So here's the question I posed to them:

How can music teachers advocate for themselves as professionals and for the importance of the music program?
  • Get yourself, your students, and your program out there! Public performances keep you and your students' work in music in everyone's minds in a positive way. And don't be afraid to think outside the box- often creative ideas beyond the standard concerts and programs are what capture colleagues', administrators', and the community's attention. 
  • No matter what type of performance you choose to do, make sure it is enjoyable for the audience, musically challenging, and logistically smooth. Present yourself, the director, as a professional. Taking the time to make sure you know how you plan to introduce each song, how each group will enter and exit the stage, etc can make a huge difference in how the performance is received and how professional you and your program appear.
  • Collaborating with non-music colleagues will demonstrate your expertise and professionalism, which in turn causes the broader school community to think more highly of the music curriculum and program as a whole. And that collaboration should be a 2-way street: as you look for ways to incorporate things students are learning in their other subjects into your class, you can and should be offering ideas for how teachers can incorporate music into theirs (in fact, that is often even more effective in advocating for the value of music because teachers and students will see and experience it for themselves)! You don't have to (and shouldn't) scrap your own content to teach another subject, but you can (and should!) make connections to other learning when it fits with what you're doing.
  • Get involved in school- and district-wide discussions on engagement, behavior management, and even IEP and other accommodations for individual students. Music has a unique role to play in these areas, and you can help colleagues and administrators to see the value of music in students' social-emotional lives and in meeting specific learning and academic needs by sharing your knowledge and expertise and sharing ideas of the unique role that music can play in each of those areas. Music teachers often will also see completely different sides of students who may struggle in other subjects but thrive in the music room. Sharing your perspective will help advocate for the importance of music in those students' lives.
  • Be proactive in going to administrators and colleagues with ideas for things you can do to help support work they are doing. Whether it's offering an idea of something that seems to work for a behaviorally challenging student in your class, or a musical spin you want to put on a school-wide initiative, it's important to get out of your own world, be involved with the rest of the building, and put yourself in front of administrators and colleagues.
  • Speak positively about your work, especially when you're talking to colleagues and administrators outside of the music department. Talk about all of the positive things that are happening in your classes, how excited you are for your concert, and those special moments when a particular student is able to shine for the first time. It's easy to get sucked into the endless complaining in the staff room- try not to fall into that trap.
  • Invite administrators to come into your class to see the work you're doing outside of public performances, especially when you know you'll be doing something exciting and rigorous in class that day. It helps them see the more "academic" side of what you're doing and gives them a broader perspective on everything that goes on within a typical music class.
Important note: reading all of this can make it seem like all of the responsibility for improving the level of respect for music education and music teachers rests solely on the shoulders of music teachers themselves. That is of course completely untrue, and please believe me when I say the administrators I interviewed do not feel that way either! I believe reflecting on what we ourselves can do is ultimately the most productive way to get the ball rolling, but if you are looking for concrete ways to encourage others to treat music teachers more respectfully, this post is a good start:

I hope you find some ideas here that will help you make positive changes in your relationships with your colleagues and administrators and promote the importance of music education! It takes effort from all of us to foster mutual respect and ultimately provide a better school experience for everyone.

Please stay in touch and join in the conversations- sign up here for the Organized Chaos Newsletter!