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Monday, November 19, 2018

24 Low-Stress Family Advent Activities

The Christmas season as a parent of young children is a two-sided coin. On the one hand it is the most magical way to experience the holiday, but on the other hand it can get overwhelming trying to fit in all the things you want to do with your kids! My solution for the last several years has been a low-key list of small things to do each day in December to save me the worry of figuring out how to fit everything in while keeping the holiday cheer going strong in the most low-maintenance way possible!

4 years ago I made an advent calendar out of a mini muffin tin and filled each day with a small Christmas-related activity to do each day in December, and I have never looked back! Each year I've made a list of tiny holiday tasks for each day leading up to Christmas, modifying my list each year as my daughters get older. Here's my list for this year now that my girls are almost 7 years old:

1. Put up the Christmas tree
2. Put out the nativity scenes
3. Put (electric) candles in the windows
4. Put up Christmas lights around the house and on the tree
5. Hang ornaments on the Christmas tree
6. Decorate the front door
7. Bake Christmas cookies
8. Donate old toys and clothes
9. Make an advent wreath
10. Make Christmas cards
11. Deliver Christmas cards (in the mail and in person)
12. Shop for/ make presents
13. Wrap presents
14. Take family pictures
15. Call family and friends to wish them a Merry Christmas
16. "Jingle" a neighbor
17. Make a gingerbread house
18. Go on a train ride with Santa
19. Hang the stockings
20. Watch a Christmas movie in our pajamas
21. Read Christmas books
22. Put out cookies and carrots for Santa and the reindeer
23. Make peppermint hot chocolate with all the fixings
24. Drive through the local light display to see the Christmas lights

Here's last year's list for 6 year olds, my list for 5 year olds, my list for 4 year olds, and the one for 3 year olds, if you're interested in more ideas for the littles. I love putting the calendar together each year because it relieves the pressure I would otherwise feel to make sure I'm taking the time to enjoy the holiday with my girls, and doing small things each day makes the whole month more fun without anything getting overwhelming! 

What holiday traditions do you have with your family? I'd love to hear your favorites in the comments below. 

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Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Students with Special Needs: Representation

As I continue to think about ways to better reflect, respect, and respond to traditionally marginalized people and perspectives in the music classroom, I am turning my attention today to people with special needs. In particular, today I want to focus on ways to better reflect examples of people and musicians with different needs in the music classroom to work towards normalizing and making all students feel more comfortable and welcome in music class.

A common theme in all of my reflections on ways to better serve marginalized people and perspectives has been the need for more diversity in the resources, visuals, and examples I use in my classroom. Including people with special needs in this move towards diversity has admittedly been an area that I have overlooked in the past. Along with some of my own ideas, I am grateful to have gotten input and ideas from music teachers and special education teachers around the world on ways they include representation for students with special needs in their classrooms: Helga Thordsen from Priest Lake Christian Academy, Amy Corvi, and Laura Allison.


So the obvious first step in better representing people with differing abilities is to include them in regular education music classes whenever appropriate/ possible. I know in many cases music teachers don't have much say in when, how, or with whom students come to their classes, but when you can, I encourage you to be an advocate for inclusion. Of course there are situations when it's not appropriate, but in more cases than not, I have found all of my students and I reap huge rewards from the additional work I put in to include everyone in the same class. The best way to make sure inclusion happens in the most successful way possible is to communicate regularly with and do everything you can to be an ally for special education teachers, aids, and students. You can read more of my specific suggestions for inclusion in music class in next week's post (so stay tuned!), but it's worth mentioning the importance of inclusion here as we talk about representation.

Examples of Musicians

One of the best ways to better represent people with differing abilities in the music room is to feature examples of musicians! Here are some examples of musicians to incorporate:

Evelyn Glennie (musician who is deaf)
Mandy Harvey (musician who is deaf)
John Mellencamp (musician with spina bifida)
David Byrne (musician with Asperger's)
Jose Feliciano (musician who is blind)
Stevie Wonder (musician who is blind)
Ray Charles (musician who was blind)
Bill Withers (musician with speech impediment)
Django Reinhardt (musician who was partially paralyzed)


Books, movies, and other stories that include people with special needs are another way to represent students with differing abilities in our teaching:

Moses Goes to a Concert by Isaac Millman (story about children who are deaf who go to a concert)
Let's Hear it for Almigal by Wendy Kupfer (story about a girl with hearing aids- great way to explore found sounds)
All Are Welcome by Alexandra Penfold (the rhyming words and repeated refrain lend themselves to singing or beat-keeping)
Music by Prudence  (documentary of woman with physical disabilities who starts a band)
Beethoven Lives Upstairs (story of Beethoven)


What students see in the music classroom and other visuals is so important to what they view as "normal" and whether or not they are welcome and included! Include picture books and posters with images of people with special needs in the classroom. Use video examples that include people with differing abilities in them. Incorporate images of people with special needs into other visuals like projected slides, worksheets, and handouts. Incorporating these images more regularly, rather than only focusing on them when their difference is the main point, will help to normalize and make everyone feel more included.

I hope these ideas help you find ways to more regularly include people with differing abilities into your classroom! I would love to hear more ideas and resources as well- please share them in the comments as we continue to learn from each other. 

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Monday, November 12, 2018

Today I Did Nothing

Today I did nothing.

It was so wonderful getting a chance to stay at home and relax with my family without any responsibilities- just a chance to unwind after a crazy week.

Plus it gave me time to clean the bathtub and the garbage can. They were getting pretty gross and I had been meaning to clean them both for weeks! Feels so good to get that taken care of!

I even had time to sit down and sort through the mail, write out a few checks, and fill out the rest of those school forms.

Having a day to do nothing is so awesome.

I had time to cook meals that would be too much trouble on a busy weekday. We even baked pumpkin bread together and I had time to make a full pot of coffee to keep in the fridge for extra-crazy mornings. Oh and clean the coffee maker!

And of course the best part was having time to relax and play with my kids. They come up with so many creative ideas for pretend play at this age! I was a student, a monster, and a queen all in one day. The trick, of course, is getting them to clean up all of their messes afterwards!

Oh, and while I'm downstairs playing school I might as well throw in a load of laundry.

I love having time to just chill at home with my family!

My daughters kicked me out of their bedroom- they're busy with some kind of secret project- you know what, this would be a good time to send out a few emails about next week's meetings...

Better make sure the kids get their practice time in. They're both getting ready for their recitals in a couple of weeks! And when they're done we can finish that board game we started on Thursday. Hey and now that the board game is put away I can vacuum the floor!

Weekends like this, when we can stay in our pajamas all day and do nothing, are so refreshing. So glad I decided to do nothing today.

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Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Bringing Hip-Hop to the Music Room

I have been focusing lately on strategies for better reflecting, respecting, and responding to traditionally marginalized people and perspectives in the music room. Today we're tackling a specific musical genre that has been largely ignored by mainstream music teachers in the United States: hip-hop. It's pretty mind-blowing to think about just how little we even reference hip-hop in music class compared to how widespread its popularity is outside of the school setting. My hope is to give music teachers some simple entry points to help us at least begin to scratch the surface.

Let me start by saying I am in no way, shape, or form an expert in hip-hop music. I am a white woman who grew up in East Asia in a conservative missionary family. There's not much that's more foreign to my upbringing than hip-hop. That being said, for the last 6 years I have been teaching in a school where the vast majority of the music my students (and the wider community) listen to is hip-hop. No other genre comes close. So I have spent a good amount of time and energy over the last few years familiarizing myself with the genre and exploring ways to incorporate it into my teaching. Please understand that these ideas should by no means be the end product, but rather the starting point for those of us who are just beginning to learn!

School-Appropriate Songs

Because one of the characteristics of most hip-hop music is hard-hitting social commentary, it is notorious for being laced with vulgarity, violence, and adult themes. I am certain this is the number one reason music teachers avoid the genre in the school setting. So let me start by offering just a few examples of hip-hop songs that are appropriate to use in class (this list starts with the most recent):

General Music Lesson Ideas

For general music there are lots of ways to use hip-hop to teach concepts and skills we already teach. Here are just a few!

Music History: Hip-hop should be a focus of any discussion of modern music within any music history lessons, whether it's a "composer/ artist of the month" or an overview of music's development through time. The Netflix series Hip-Hop Evolution has lots of great information and interviews with a wide variety of artists.

Syncopation: Use examples from songs or even just loops to demonstrate syncopation- here's a loop you can download for free that accentuates the "1-syncopa-4" rhythm pattern. You could also use those same song excerpts and loops as accompaniments for students to play along with as they read and/or perform syncopated rhythms.

Contrasting Sections: One of the easiest ways to incorporate hip-hop into general music is through the study of form. Many songs have a clear distinction between the chorus, which is often sung, and the verses, which are often rapped. Use a song like "I'll Find You" (above) to identify contrasting sections and label the form, or use the chorus from a song as the "A section" and have students create new sections to go with it.

This is a good place to incorporate songs that as a whole may be questionable for use in the classroom but will immediately connect with students: "I Like It" by Cardi B (instrumental version here) is definitely not something I would use in class but the chorus would be an excellent starting point for having students create their own raps about things they like. "I Can" by Nas (instrumental version here) may actually be OK for high school age but the verses are probably too adult for elementary. The chorus, though, has an excellent message that would be the perfect starting point for contrasting sections.

Composition: One way to incorporate some of the skills hip-hop musicians need into our teaching is to give students opportunities to create music using online MPC's and apps that allow students to manipulate loops and create their own tracks. Here are some free ones:

EasyBeats Drum Machine
Splice Beat Maker

Ensemble Music Lesson Ideas

For instrumental and choral teachers, the obvious answer is to use hip-hop songs in the literature the students are learning and performing. But there are other ways to incorporate hip-hop into everyday lessons beyond performance literature as well:

Practicing New Notes: When beginning instrumentalists are practicing a new note on their instrument, have them improvise with that note (or a small set of notes) over a track. Use any drum track you have (you can download for free here).

Playing a Concert Bb Scale: It is fairly standard practice for bands to begin rehearsals with some version of a concert Bb scale. Mix it up by having the ensemble play along with a drum track (see above) or use a pitched loop that fits the scale (here's a free one).

Vocal Warm-ups: As with the scale example above, choirs can sing their warm-ups with a drum track. Another way to incorporate hip-hop into warm-ups is to take a phrase from a familiar song and sing it (going up or down chromatically) as the warm-up. The last phrase of the chorus from "I'll Find You", with the words "hold on and I'll find you" (see above), is sung on do-re-mi-fa-mi-re-do-re-do and would be perfect for a choral warm-up.

Simply adding a drum track may not seem like much but it can be a powerful way to begin to infuse hip-hop musical practices, especially if you can have some conversations to contextualize it for your students. Compare the addition of a track to your warm-up to DJ's pulling a loop off of a record to mix with another on their turntable. Talk about the emphasis on the backbeat and syncopation in different genres (this article by Ethan Hein gives a great, more in-depth explanation of this). Making these connections conscious for your students will get them thinking and exploring hip-hop in meaningful ways, just from a simple warm-up practice!


As I have said from the beginning, the ideas I'm presenting here are merely a starting point. As always, finding local experts with whom you can have face-to-face conversations (or maybe even have them come to your classroom as guest artists) is the best way to learn more! Here are some other great places to look for further study:

Very Sick Beats
Hip Hop Music Ed website
Hip-Hop Music Ed facebook group
Hip-Hop Evolution Netflix series
Ethan Hein Blog
Hip Hop Resource List from Ithaca College (this page has a HUGE list of more websites, books, and articles on a wide range of topics related to hip-hop)

I hope these ideas will help to make the idea of using hip-hop in music class less intimidating and more accessible, but I also hope they will spur further study and exploration. The genre of hip-hop deserves more than a box to check off in our teaching! I would love to hear more ideas from you in the comments section as well.

Special thanks to Jamie Ehrenfeld, Gerard Langley, Jarritt Sheel, and others for sharing their thoughts and helping to inform my writing for this post.

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