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Tuesday, October 8, 2019

What to do with THAT Class: scattered and chatty classes

The helpless feeling you get when nothing you do seems to work with that one class can be absolutely horrible. Over the years I've had classes that leave me in tears, fill me with dread, make me want to take a sick day, or just leave me feeling like I have no idea what I'm doing. It's disconcerting at best, and can leave you completely miserable if you let it get the best of you. Over the next few weeks I'll be sharing some strategies that have helped me improve my ability to work with some challenging classes with various difficulties- I hope they help you if you find yourself in the same situation! Today I'm focusing on classes that are so unfocused and chatty that you cannot get anything done.


At the beginning of this series I shared my advice to keep those challenging groups from making you miserable- if you haven't already, I encourage you to read that post by clicking here. Hopefully the solutions I'm sharing today will help you improve your relationship with your tough class, but that process is going to take time and you need to make sure you keep the situation manageable (for you and your students) in the meantime.

One of the points I shared in that post is to be prepared with a plan B, C, D, and E. There's a good chance the first strategy you try won't work! Remember that this is a process, and a very important one at that. Don't give up.

Scattered and Chatty Classes

Sure, some students have more trouble focusing than others. Some groups are a little bit more social than others and need more frequent reminders to raise their hands, listen, and stay on task. But every now and then I have had classes that are so scattered it feels like I'm playing whack-a-mole every time I teach them! I can't ever finish a sentence without being interrupted by someone calling out, and as soon as one student says something 3 others make a comment about that comment. While I'm reminding them not to call out, two other side conversations have started, another student gets up to get a tissue to blow their nose, and another is raising their hand to use the bathroom. Not to mention the upset student crawling around on the floor making cat noises... And as soon as I get everyone back on track and try again to start our first activity or explain something, the whole process starts all over again!

tip #1: change seating If you don't already have assigned seats, the first step should definitely to assign them. If you're already using assigned seats like I do, then my first thought is always to go back and look at my seating chart and see if I can try moving some students around to different seats to help them stay focused. Sometimes an easily distracted student I thought would benefit from close proximity to where I normally teach, actually does better in the back row. Sometimes I can split up people that tend to distract each other. If you want to read about my thought process for assigning seats, here is my post on that.

tip #2: start in silence One of the first things I try with groups like this is silent stretching. I tell the class in advance that every class will begin with silent stretching: they need to come in without speaking and walk straight to their assigned seat but not sit down. I will go to the front of the room and start doing some very simple stretches without talking, and the students should mirror my stretches. Because everyone already knows what to do there is no need for any speaking, and the stretching can help to calm and focus everyone's brains and bodies.

tip #3: remove distractions Talk to the homeroom teacher to see if they can make sure to give students time to use the bathroom before class, and warn students that you won't be sending anyone to the bathroom during music class unless it's a true emergency. If you have windows, try closing the blinds to eliminate the distraction of outside. Take a look at your classroom to see if you can remove clutter or reduce the number of visuals up around the room. Maybe there are noise distractions you can reduce- if there are classes that always walk noisily by your room during that class time, talk to their teacher about staying quiet when they go by your room. If the class next door is particularly loud, ask if there's anything you can do to soundproof.

tip #4: talk less This is easier said than done, but the more we can talk less ourselves as teachers the less likely students are to get off-task. Try using non-verbal cues for things like standing up, sitting down, lining up, and other things you do every day. Instead of explaining what you're going to do, just start doing it- instead of telling students you want them to copy your clapping patterns, clap a pattern and then point to them. There are so many ways we can always reduce the amount of talking we do! It's difficult because talking is what allows us to process what's happening next ourselves. The most important thing you'll have to do in order to be able to talk less as a teacher is to have the lesson completely memorized. If you always know what's coming next it's a lot easier to jump into the activity with fewer verbal instructions.

tip #5: give opportunities for sharing It may seem counter-intuitive but giving chatty classes a chance to talk can often help students be more focused for the rest of the lesson. My first year of teaching I started every kindergarten lesson by going around the circle and giving each student a chance to tell me one thing. Some students don't have anything to say at that moment and pass, but anyone who has something they wanted to say has a chance to tell me so they aren't distracted by that thought any more! For older students having some type of circle discussion (read about those here) every period gives them an opportunity to speak and be heard. Then you can always say, "you had your turn to speak, now it's mine" and it's much less frustrating for everyone!

tip #6: increase predictability If you aren't a structured teacher to begin with, you're going to need to get structured for groups like this. Have a set routine and stick to it so students know what to do next without you needing to tell them- maybe start with stretching, then vocal exploration, then a rhythm reading exercise, then a song, then a closing discussion- try to follow the same basic formula for your lessons as much as possible. Practice procedures for everything from entering and exiting the room, getting out pencils or instruments and putting them away, moving from chairs to floor, circle to scattered formation, and getting tissues and using the bathroom. Students will feel more settled if they know what to do and how to do it!

I hope these suggestions help you find a positive way forward together! They may not ever be your most focused class, but if you continue to work at it you're bound to see improvement in their ability to stay on task!

If you have any suggestions of your own or questions you'd like to ask about this topic, please leave them in the comments below! And if you'd like to read more about how I handle "behavior management" as a whole, here are all my top posts on the topic.

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Tuesday, October 1, 2019

What to do with THAT Class: toxic negativity

The helpless feeling you get when nothing you do seems to work with that one class can be absolutely horrible. Over the years I've had classes that leave me in tears, fill me with dread, make me want to take a sick day, or just leave me feeling like I have no idea what I'm doing. It's disconcerting at best, and can leave you completely miserable if you let it get the best of you. Over the next few weeks I'll be sharing some strategies that have helped me improve my ability to work with some challenging classes with various difficulties- I hope they help you if you find yourself in the same situation! Today I'm focusing on classes that seem to be completely negative about everything you try to do.


Last week I shared my advice to keep those challenging groups from making you miserable- if you haven't already, I encourage you to read that post by clicking here. Hopefully the solutions I'm sharing today will help you improve your relationship with your tough class, but that process is going to take time and you need to make sure you keep the situation manageable (for you and your students) in the meantime.

One of the points I shared in last week's post is to be prepared with a plan B, C, D, and E. There's a good chance the first strategy you try won't work! Remember that this is a process, and a very important one at that. Don't give up.

Toxic Negativity

Some classes seem to have a negative attitude about you and your class, no matter how hard you try to engage their interests. This is probably the hardest type of class for me to deal with because it's just mind-boggling to me. How can an entire group of children be so negative? It throws me for a loop, big time. Sometimes this results in students just not being willing to participate in anything, sometimes they insert negative comments every time you introduce an activity, or sometimes they are more combative and completely refuse to listen to you, follow any directions, or participate in any class activity.

tip #1: find the source(s) Usually when an entire class (or at least the majority) seem to have a negative attitude about the class, there are a few strong leaders that have decided they don't like the class and the rest are following along, getting drawn into the negativity, or just staying out of it. Figure out who those students are that are leading the charge by reflecting on who is the most vocal in expressing negativity, who initiates conflicts, who is the first to refuse to join in an activity. Talk to their homeroom teacher about who they see as the "ringleader".

tip #2: start the conversation Once you've narrowed down the key players, try having individual conversations with them outside of class. Pick a non-threatening time, like sitting with them at lunch, or stopping them in the hallway before school. Tell them the behaviors that you see them exhibiting in class and why you see it as a problem. Ask them 1) if your description seems accurate, 2) if they can identify any reasons for those behaviors, and 3) what suggestions they have to help music class be a more positive experience in the future. It may take a few tries but I've found persistence usually pays off. Show them you're open to their feedback on things you can do, while also holding them accountable for ways they can help to improve the situation as well.

tip #3: divide and conquer When an entire group is feeding off of each other's negative energy, splitting them up can often be the best thing to do! Try centers or small group projects. Depending on the specific students and the personality mix, sometimes I've found it best to put all the "ringleaders" in one group to contain the negativity in one place (and focus your energy on them), and other times I've found it best to split them up so that they don't feed off each other. If you're not sure how to have the class work in small groups, here are some of my favorite ideas that I've used in this situation (and in general for centers and group projects!):





tip #4: build relationships I almost think this goes without saying but it's important enough to say it anyway: it's so important to invest the time and energy to foster positive relationships with all students, but especially with those that don't seem invested or interested in your class. Here are some practical, simple steps to build relationships with students when you teach so many, and here are ways to build community in your classroom through community-building circles. Not only is this important for the "ringleaders" that are causing the most headaches, but it's also important for the other students who may be unable to connect with you even though they want to, because you're having to focus so much attention and energy on the other students in class.

tip #5: have a heart-to-heart I would try to avoid a group conversation in this situation unless you've exhausted all other options, because if the problem is toxic attitudes then giving students an opportunity to express their opinions even more openly and trying to respond to them in front of the whole class can often just lead to the negativity spreading even further. But if you've tried all of the other options, including multiple individual conversations with specific students over time, and still feel like you're not making headway, this may be something to try. If you do, it's important to lay some ground rules: remind everyone that they need to all be willing to take some ownership of the problem, tell students they cannot point out specific individuals by name if they're expressing what they think the problem may be, and encourage them to try not to complain but instead either pinpoint the cause, describe what they see as the problem for the group as a whole, or offer a specific solution- preferably all of the above!

I can think of 2 instances in my career when I had this conversation with the entire class. In both cases it was late in the year after trying everything else I could, both were upper grades (4th grade and 6th grade), and both times the conversation was mildly successful. The conversations did give me a better understanding of how students were feeling, and in both cases we were able to come up with a few plans that we were able to try afterwards that did help improve the overall tone of the classes and lead to other strategies that helped us move forward.

If you do decide to have a conversation with the class as a whole, I have found the format of problem-solving circles to be very helpful for structuring the conversation:


I hope these suggestions help you find a positive way forward together! They may not ever be your most enthusiastic class, but if you continue to make it a priority to improve the class for everyone involved, you're bound to see positive changes over time!

If you have any suggestions of your own or questions you'd like to ask about this topic, please leave them in the comments below! And if you'd like to read more about how I handle "behavior management" as a whole, here are all my top posts on the topic.


Sunday, September 29, 2019

September Favorites 2019

As the month of September comes to a close (boy, was that fast!), I'm sharing some of my highlights and favorite finds from the past month. These were some of my favorite lessons to teach, moments at home, and new ideas and resources I found- I hope you find some inspiration here yourself!


1. First grade compositions


I always love doing this lesson with my first graders- it's the first time I have them notate a song with a paper and pencil, so I make a big deal about writing "a real song" and they love it! I have them choose 4 beats using a rhythm bank and write it in the boxes, then the next class they practice saying and clapping it and choose an unpitched percussion instrument to use, and then the following class is their "concert"- I put a music stand at the front of the room, and each student brings their paper to the front of the room to place on the stand, picks up the instrument they chose, and plays their rhythm. We clap for each student and they each take a bow. They're so proud of themselves and it's a simple way to introduce so many important concepts to my first graders!! Here are all my composition worksheets if you want to see how I set them up.

2. Changing weather


I have never been a huge warm-weather person, so fall is always a welcome relief from the summer heat! And the best part this year has been a decent amount of sunshine. I'm getting outside as much as I can and soaking it up before the dark and cold of winter sets in!

3. My daughters' growth


I get so much joy from watching my daughters grow and being surprised by the stuff they come up with! Both girls still love cooking, and they've been insisting lately on kicking me out of the kitchen completely and coming up with their own menus without using cookbooks etc- my daughter's recent breakfast idea to fill banana peels with fruit was mind-blowing! And I'm always amazed at how perceptive they are- my other daughter came home with a book from the library called "My Mom is a Foreigner, But Not to Me" (which, if you know anything about me, is truly perceptive).

4. Music Education Blog Posts

I always love finding the best music education resources from other blogs- if you aren't already following my Facebook page I'd encourage you to do so just to see the articles I share on Fridays! You can catch up on the ones I shared there below- they're all worth a read:

Ye Toop Doram


Turkey in the Straw from Decolonizing the Music Room


The REAL Origin of the Song "Funga Alafia" by Pancocojams


Instrument Exploration Day by The Yellow Brick Road


I hope you are all having a wonderful school year and have exciting plans for the month ahead. Got some highlights of your own to share from September? I'd love to hear about them in the comments below!

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

What to do with THAT Class (part 1)

You know exactly what I'm talking about: yeah, THAT class. The one that you dread every time you see them on your schedule for the day, the one that keeps you up at night, the one that you keep talking about with your colleagues trying to figure out how to get through to them, the one that your family and close friends know so much about because you're always coming home with stories.

We've all had classes that seem to confound us, no matter how long we've been teaching. I've had one most years, including this year, and I'm well over a decade into my career. Today I want to share some general, practical tips to hopefully help the students in that class be more successful, and help you feel less anxiety when you know that class is coming.


To be perfectly honest, I'm writing this advice just as much to myself as I am to every other reader. I had a tough go with this year's "that class" this past week, and I need a reset. I know I'm not alone in feeling this way, and I also know it will get better! Today I want to remind all of us of the most important general steps we need to take, regardless of what the specific issues are, to make sure we don't spend the entire year miserable.

1. Stop venting

OK, I'm not saying you have to stop completely, but one of the most important steps you need to take is to change your mindset about the class, and the more time you spend talking about the negative things that happen in that class, the more likely you are to continue to have negative expectations for them (which are always self-fulfilling prophesies). Pick one trusted person at work who can listen to you when you're frustrated and then help you move on. If you are having a particularly frustrating time, vent to them and only them. Then try to come up with a plan for what you're going to do differently next time- don't let it be just a chance to talk about the problems without looking for a solution. With everyone else, do everything you can to find something positive to say about that class, or just don't talk about them as often- when someone asks you how your day was, talk about a different class. The less you talk about it, the less you'll keep dwelling on it yourself.

2. Make a plan B, C, D, and E

When I suggest not venting, I'm not suggesting you don't talk about that challenging class with colleagues- rather than just focusing on the problems, have conversations with colleagues about solutions! Ask the homeroom teacher what they've found successful (or even see about observing them). See if there are any incentives they have in their classrooms that you could tie into. Maybe they have certain classroom procedures in place that you could replicate. Talk to the art teacher, the PE teacher, the school counselor, and anyone who may have some insight into how to help the class be successful. Not everything will work in your classroom, but there may be ways you can adapt strategies to fit in with what you do.

And don't expect the first thing you try to work! Some things may take time, and sometimes you may have to go through 5 different ideas before you find something that works! The key is to keep thinking, keep trying, and don't ever give up. It may never be perfect, but there is always opportunity for improvement.

The point here is to keep trying, and be prepared to go through lots of different ideas before you find a solution that truly works! Here are some of my specific suggestions for various types of challenges:



3. Get focused

It's so important, if you have a class that just isn't working, to make it a priority to figure out how to make it work. Just hoping they'll somehow eventually get it and continuing to teach that class the same way you do all the others will only end in misery for everyone and very little learning for students. Whatever the issue is, focus on addressing the problem(s) that are preventing the class from going well, and developing positive relationships with the individual students in the class and with the class as a whole. Instead of trying to do 3 activities to practice half notes, pick one (and make it the one that you think is most likely to be successful with that group). Narrow your focus to the most essential elements so that you can slow down and be more intentional with the class.

4. Celebrate successes

Going along with the idea of reducing the negative talk you do with your peers, it's important to try to focus on the positive with the students as well. Don't lower your expectations, but do be very intentional about pointing out genuine successes as often as possible! If the whole class enters the room the way you expect them to, note it verbally. Not in a condescending or patronizing, "I'm so glad we finally figured out how to enter the music room appropriately!", or even, "Good job coming in the room!" (which, come on, students know shouldn't need praising), but a simple "class is off to a great start!" or "everyone's ready to go, let's do this!" can be powerful.

5. Problem-solve with students

If a class isn't going well, stop. If you're feeling stressed out, overwhelmed by the noise, or personally hurt, tell them you need a minute. If you can, explain to the class what you think isn't working and why, and tell them what you're planning to do next time (or right then, if you still have enough time left in class) to help them be able to succeed. If they're old enough (and you have the class time), ask them to discuss what they think is the problem and why, and offer their own suggestions for solutions. Problem-solving circles are ideal for this situation- read about how I do those in this post.

6. Get help

If you feel like you've exhausted every option you can think of and the class still isn't running the way you'd like, call for back up. There's nothing wrong with asking for help, and often a second, third, or fourth pair of eyes are just what you need to get some fresh perspective! Ask another music teacher or even a non-music colleague that you respect to come and observe a lesson. If you have an administrator or teaching coach/ specialist you trust, ask them to come and sit in on a class. See if the school psychologist, social worker, or other support staff can come.

Hopefully these initial thoughts will give some much-needed perspective and relief to what can be a very overwhelming and stressful situation! To read more about specific strategies for fostering a positive classroom climate and supporting students' character development / handling challenging behaviors, head to this post.