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Tuesday, April 9, 2024

Keeping Positive: post-spring break teaching

I'm not quite there yet but I know in many places, teachers are coming back from spring break and saying to themselves, "oh boy, hang on tight because here we go". Teaching between spring break and the end of the school year can be wild ride, and it can make you dread going to work. Here are some things I do to take control of my mood and keep myself in a positive mindset.

1. Monitor your mood

The first step I have started taking more and more consciously during stressful times of year is keeping a close eye on my own mood/ stress levels. I can't do anything well if I'm overtired, stressed, or anxious, least of all handle end of year teaching. I have a regular year-round habit of sitting with a cup of coffee in silence each morning, and this is always my time to process and gauge where my mood is as well. It's important to find ways to stay in touch with your own mental and emotional wellness regularly- if you aren't a morning person like me with the luxury of slow mornings, printing out a poster that asks, "how are you?" and putting it somewhere you'll see it every morning (in the bathroom/ on a bedside table/ in your closet), designating something you wear every day to be a mental cue to check in with yourself (I have an elastic bracelet I wear for this purpose when I know I'm stressed), or asking a trusted friend to check in with you can be good ways to keep reminding yourself to check in.

2. Identify the source

If I realize I'm feeling stressed or anxious or dreading the day in general, I try to go through the list of things I'm thinking about/ preparing to do that day to identify more specifically what it is that's causing my stress/ dread. Sometimes it's one specific class that has been difficult to manage, a lesson I've planned that I'm not sure will go over well, a particularly hectic work schedule, or something totally unrelated to teaching entirely. Identifying the source of the stress more specifically makes it more concrete, gives me more clarity on how I can address and manage it, and often makes it less overwhelming when I realize it's not my entire life I'm dreading!

3. Make a plan

It wouldn't be an "organized chaos" strategy without putting a plan in place! Once I've identified what it is that's got me in a funk, I try to think concretely about how to address it. If it's a difficult class, I come up with a strategy to help the class go better. If it's a hectic schedule, I look through my day and come up with ways to make my life easier, whether that's ordering takeout for dinner or making some of my lesson plans less complicated. 

Writing it all out like this makes it seem like this is a long and involved process- it usually isn't. Because I make sure I'm monitoring myself regularly, I usually catch things before it gets too overwhelming, and it's not that hard to identify what's bothering me and come up with a solution. Oftentimes the whole thought process takes all of 2 minutes. Sometimes when things get really stressful I do have to take more time to work through the whole thought process- I might be processing what's going on and thinking through solutions the whole time I'm getting ready for work, getting the kids to school, and driving to my school. But it really does make a big difference in my effectiveness, especially this time of year!

If you're feeling like you're in the thick of it, I hope this helps you break out of the depressing "just survive until summer" mindset and find ways to get yourself in the right frame of mind to actually enjoy this time of year! I'd love to hear other things you do to make the end of the school year more enjoyable- leave a comment down below. 

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Tuesday, April 2, 2024

Designing a Unit on a Culture's Music

Every spring I look forward to the unit I include in every elementary grade level I teach, doing a deep dive into one culture's music. I've shared lesson plans for many of the units I've taught over the years from cultures all over the world, and over time I've developed a formula for what elements I include in each of these units. Here is that formula, which you can apply to any culture you may want to study in your general music classroom, to help students get as much breadth and depth as possible in the limited class time that we're given.

1. Travel videos

Whether it's an official video from the tourism bureau of that country, a vlog from a tourist, or anything in between, I find it really helps students get a glimpse of what the area is like when I can show them footage from different parts of that region. Nowadays I can find high definition, high quality footage pretty easily on youtube that is current, and I always try to find a mix of videos that show industry and agriculture, urban and rural, traditional and modern, and representative glimpses of all the different types of terrain they have. I like to throw in 1-2 minute clips into the lessons each day so students can picture what it looks like in the modern day.

2. Language introduction

This is something I started doing in more recent years and I don't know why I didn't do it sooner! When I am first introducing the culture to the students, if it is not primarily an English-speaking culture, I teach them a few basic words and phrases in the primary language(s). If I know it well enough I will teach them myself, otherwise there are, again, so many great youtube videos where you can listen to native speakers teaching you basic greetings and phrases in quick, engaging formats, including videos specifically for kids/ youth. I've found starting with some basic language introduction again makes them feel more immersed in the culture in general and also makes them more comfortable with the language when we start learning songs in that language.

3. Traditional instruments

I find instruments are such a great entry point for learning about a culture's music, and obviously the more distinct instruments will be the traditional ones from that culture (rather than the ones often being spread around the world in modern music). I use these resources to introduce what the instruments look and sound like, explore how they're used in context, how they work, and compare and contrast them with other instruments students already know.

4. Current music

Another great entry point for learning about a culture's music is the music that is popular today. I like to sprinkle in some different examples of music videos of songs that are popular now from a broad range of genres throughout the unit, and I always try to find some examples of fusion music, where traditional musical elements are incorporated into modern music, whether that's a traditional instrument, vocal style, or other musical element. It really helps students start to see how different cultures preserve and respect their traditions in different ways.

5. Children's song(s)

I always try to find a song or two that children in that culture around the age of the students I'm teaching would learn in school and/or play on the playground themselves. I especially look for songs that have games with them, whether it's a passing game, a circle game, or some type of movement to go with the song.

6. Traditional dance and/or instrumental piece

In most cultures around the world, dance is an integral part of their musical traditions. In many cultures, there are specific instrumental ensembles that are archetypal features of that culture's music. I often include dance in the younger grades and instrumental ensembles in the older grades, but sometimes I'll switch that up- it mostly depends on what the primary features are of that culture's musical traditions, and what is going to be accessible for the students. 

If you want to learn more about how I find resources for each of these categories, and how I check to make sure they are "authentic" to that culture, here is a previous blog post I wrote on that. If you want to see all of the units I've shared (11 so far!), this blog post has links to all of them. 

Of course this list is certainly not exhaustive! I'd love to hear your questions, and what other elements you include in your units, in the comments.

Tuesday, March 26, 2024

Teaching Major and Minor

To be honest I was shocked to realize recently that I've never written a blog post on my favorite ways to teach major and minor- I love teaching tonality in my upper elementary grades! It's so much fun when they finally start to get it. They always seem to feel like they've unlocked the mysteries of the universe! Here are a few of my favorite ways to teach the difference between major and minor.

1. Demonstrate familiar songs in both tonalities

I think the easiest way to demonstrate the difference between major and minor is to take a song students already know that is originally major and show them what it would sound like in a minor key. When I'm first introducing the concept I'll play a few different major and minor chords and scales on the piano for them to get the basic idea, then I play something simple like "Twinkle Twinkle" in the original major key and then change it to minor (added bonus= students always think I'm a genius when I whip this out). I also use youtube videos that do this exact thing: I love showing the original "What a Wonderful World" and then this minor version by Chase Holfelder, and this compilation of major songs turned minor AND minor songs turned major by The Gregory Brothers (note: I don't show this whole video- some of the songs included in the compilation I'm not comfortable showing in 4th/5th grade- but it's perfect to show an excerpt). These videos are also a good opportunity to tease out what else besides the tonality they've changed to make them sound happy or sad.

2. Sing and play 2 similar songs

One of my favorite ways to really get students to experience the difference between major and minor, once they've got the basic idea, is to have them sing and play instrumental accompaniment with 2 songs- one major and one minor- with a similar theme. For example when I do this in the fall with 5th grade, we compare the song "Down, Down, Yellow and Brown" and "Autumn Leaves Are Falling". They're both actually songs meant to be done with much younger children, but that makes them perfect to learn both very quickly, and add accompaniment parts on barred instruments really easily, in one lesson to compare and contrast the two. I've done this other times of year with other themes, but the key is to pick really simple songs that can be learned quickly to get to the concept of tonality.

3. Listening examples

Obviously there's no substitute for listening to lots of different examples of major and minor tonalities. I actually like to take current songs students are familiar with from social media or the radio, but there are also really great collections on youtube like this one that I've used in sub lessons because it will play several in a row and give the answer after each one. Either way, I really try to find examples of minor songs that are fast and major songs that are slow, minor songs that have high notes and major songs that have low notes to try to throw them off and also get them to really focus in on the tonality and not just the immediate impression of happy vs sad. One great example is "Someone Like You" by Adele- most people will confidently say that song is minor but it's actually major! They don't believe me until I show them this minor version, then they hear the contrast. It always leads to really great conversations about why a composer would choose a major key for a song with those lyrics. "Panini" by Lil Nas X is a great example of a song everyone thinks is major but is actually minor.

These are all activities that I include in lessons starting in the middle of 4th grade into 5th grade, when we start getting into composing melodies in minor, and we continue to review with more and more complexity through 6th grade. I find that when I first introduce the concept they are easily thrown off if I play a minor chord on high notes or play a major song softly, but by 6th grade, my students are very good at distinguishing the two tonalities and it becomes almost second nature. If you want to see how I weave this concept into my upper elementary lessons, here is my curriculum set!

Tuesday, March 19, 2024

Using Viral Songs in Elementary Music

How can we continue to include music that is "of the moment" in our music lessons now that trends come and go so quickly? And how do we really create meaningful lesson plans with these little snippets of songs that our students are most likely to recognize from social media clips that are under a minute? Here are some of my favorite ways to incorporate those viral songs from social media platforms into my elementary music classes.

In some ways it's harder than ever to keep up with the music our students are listening to because trends come and go so much more quickly, but in other ways I think because we have these little snippets of songs that go viral on social media, they can be a really easy swap for other song material we may have in an existing lesson plan.

theme and variations/ arranging/ remixing

My favorite way to incorporate viral songs and snippets from social media is as examples of arranging/ remixing, or to show a modern example of theme and variations. So much of the music that people are using in viral videos are edited versions of old songs, or edited versions of a currently popular audio. Once a song has been viral for a minute, there is usually someone who will compile all of the different versions of a particular audio people have done into one youtube video. So it's easy to take a few isolated versions to show examples of arranging/ remixing- have students listen to each and identify which musical characteristics were preserved and which were modified- and the compilations are a perfect example of theme and variations (since these compilations almost always start with the original).

use in place of folk songs

There has been a lot of conversation around removing many of the "folk songs" that had been passed around so much in U.S. American music education circles based on the discoveries that many of these songs come from questionable origins. The problem with that has been that it's way harder to reinvent the wheel than to keep doing what you were doing! These simple little "folk songs" are really convenient to use in elementary music lessons because they are short little songs that are easy to learn quickly and easy for us as teachers to find a song with a specific musical element in it that we want to teach. Good news: the songs (or snippets of songs) that go viral on social media are also short and easy to learn (and in many cases even easier than folk songs for students to learn, because half of them already know it)! If I stumble on a song I know could work well, I stop and think through the concepts I'm teaching over the next few weeks in each grade and see if any of them are embedded in that song (usually a specific rhythm or pitch element).

identify musical characteristics

This idea goes along the lines of the first 2 examples, but it's important enough to mention as a separate point that, since students are often at least somewhat familiar with this music, it's an easy way to give students practice identifying specific musical elements and characteristics, whether it's an instrumental timbre, a pitch or rhythm element, tonality, or expressive elements like dynamics, tempo, and articulation. They work great as examples and using them helps answer the question of "why does this matter" before it is even asked.

keep in mind...

There are 2 important notes we need to keep in mind with all of this that are hopefully self-evident but worth mentioning: 1) obviously not all viral songs are appropriate for elementary-aged students, and 2) the only way to realistically be able to quickly swap in songs in our lesson plans as they are trending is if you have a solid foundation in concept-based lesson planning/ curriculum. Simply put, if you know what the purpose of an existing lesson plan is- if you know what concepts/ skills you're wanting students to learn through the song/ activity- you can easily identify those same concepts/ skills in other songs as they come across your radar and use that instead of the song you have in an existing plan. If you don't, that process will take hours of reinventing the wheel to figure out where you can add in a new song, and that's not something any of us has the time for!

If you want to learn more about concept-based curriculum writing and lesson planning (which, quite honestly, is my answer to many struggles we face in effective elementary music education), I highly recommend this free series I've compiled. It walks you through the entire process from the ground up with all the free templates you need to create a curriculum for yourself, or make sense of the one you have: 

I'd love to hear your thoughts, questions, and lesson ideas you've tried! Leave a comment below or email me to join the conversation!