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Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Elementary Music Center Activities (part 2)

It has been well over a year since I last shared some favorite center activities, so it's time for an update! I've found some new favorites since my last post, but be sure to check out my other center ideas linked at the end of this one for more ideas- all of them are still ones I use and love as well!


1. Chromebook Activities

I love pulling out the chromebooks for centers- I have 3 in my classroom and have found so many great free sites that are perfect for elementary students to explore! I save Incredibox for the older students, but Chrome Music Lab is one I use with all grades- sometimes I will give them a specific activity within the lab, like songmaker, to work with, and other times I will let them explore whichever ones they want.

2. Truth or Dare

I wrote an entire post about this, which you can read right here, but this is probably my top favorite of my new center ideas. This is another one I save for upper elementary (gotta keep things fresh!), and they absolutely love it. Basically there are 2 decks of cards: one for "truths" (trivia questions about music) and one for "dares" (actions to complete, like performing a rhythm or singing a song). It is so easy to set up and explain, the students get so much great exploration and review time, and it is pure fun at the same time!

3. Vocal Exploration

This is one I use just with lower elementary: I put out pipe cleaners (I find them at Dollar Tree or on clearance at Walmart) in all different colors and sizes, and have students create a line that the others then sing as they trace it with their finger. So simple but they love it!

4. Instrument Dice

This is another new favorite for all grades (and the older students don't mind doing it over and over either!). I use 2 dry erase dice: one with classroom percussion instrument names on each side, and the other with a simple 4-beat rhythm on each side. They roll the dice, then play the rhythm they rolled on the instrument they rolled. Sometimes I mix it up with a third die for older grades that has dynamics or tempo words on it!

5. Coloring

I have been amazed at how much my students enjoy coloring. I found this coloring book that I have copied pages from, and I've also used the coloring pages from World Music with DARIA (she has lots of free ones!). I like using the ones that encourage reflection, like listing their favorite songs or artists, for the older ones, and the instrument pictures for the younger ones so they can learn what the instruments look like.

Looking for more center ideas? This post has more of my favorite centers:


I love using centers to mix things up every now and then and give students a chance to explore and practice in a low-pressure setting. Have other favorite center activities you've had success with in the elementary music room? Please share them below in the comments!

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Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Self-Contained Special Education Music Classes: tips and resources

After writing a couple of posts on strategies for teaching students with special needs in integrated music classes in the fall, I got a lot of requests for tips on teaching students with differing abilities in the self-contained setting. While I am certainly no expert in this field, I have had the opportunity to teach a few self-contained classes over the years, including the current school year, and I have done a good bit of research in the area and spoken with several more experienced teachers about their best strategies. Hopefully these tips will serve as a starting point for music teachers like me who don't have specialized training in special education but are thrown into this teaching situation!

This post contains affiliate links, which do not affect the buying experience or opinions shared in the post.

First of all it's important to note that, since no two people are alike, no two self-contained classes are alike either. There are vast differences in setting, class size, available staffing, materials and resources, and most importantly, student strengths, needs, abilities, and interests. The ideas I'm sharing today are general enough to apply to most situations, but as with any aspect of teaching, it's important to take individual factors into account as you consider these suggestions!

All of the things I mentioned in my previous post on integrated classes definitely still apply here- be sure to read the full post for more detailed suggestions for each of these areas:
  • communicate with special education teachers and other staff and seek out as much information as possible about individual students' strengths, needs, and interests
  • build relationships with paras, aids, and other staff members
  • provide opportunities for students to share areas of strength in class
  • use lots of visual cues
  • give time for exploration
  • build in lots of repetition and structure 
Beyond these strategies, though, I have found a few key tips that have helped make lessons with my self-contained classes much more successful:

1. Consistency and predictability

All elementary students benefit from predictable routines, but the benefits are magnified for most students in self-contained classes. I've had a lot of success picking a set lesson structure and using the same sequence every time. Depending on the needs of the students in each class, it may even be best to do the exact same lesson plan at least two times for students to better process and have more opportunities to fully participate and engage. Regardless of how much you repeat an exact lesson or activity, though, it's very helpful to find a formula that works and vary the activities within each segment of the lesson as often or as little as appropriate.

For example, you might start with a story, then do some vocal warmups, then instrument exploration, listening and movement, and singing. I've found that each group of students responds differently to different types of activities, so I play around with the sequence and type of lesson activities until I find the formula that's most successful. The key is to find a formula and stick to it.

2. Involve all staff members

For self-contained classes, the class sizes are usually much smaller, which can make things like singing a lot more difficult because each voice is more exposed. Students also need as much modeling as possible. So getting the aids, paraprofessionals, and other staff in the room directly involved in the lesson is critical! Of course you'll want to warn them ahead of time, but if we're playing instruments, each adult gets their own instrument. If we're moving with scarves, the adults get scarves. If we're taking turns doing something, all the adults get turns too. Some of the staff may be hesitant at first, but if you're working to build positive relationships and treating them respectfully, and if you can explain why you're asking them to be involved, they should be able to get on board with what you're doing (and hopefully learn to enjoy it more as they get comfortable!).

3. Individual attention

Of course we want to do this for all of our students, but it's so important to make eye contact, say each students' name, and give plenty of individual positive reinforcement throughout the lesson. One of the benefits of self-contained classes is the freedom we have to spend more time focusing on each child- take advantage of that! It's easy to forget how much effort it sometimes takes for students to do things that we may take for granted, and if we take the time to acknowledge their efforts it will go a long way towards building trust and respect.

Along the same lines, don't be afraid to take that extra time to work with a student who is struggling with a particular assignment. Whether it's vocalizing, doing a physical activity, or even waiting for their turn, the best learning happens when we can stop and give them the extra time and support to work on that skill. And if a student has a breakthrough moment in class (or seems poised to) and starts doing something they weren't able to before, take the time to celebrate and reinforce that! I can always tell when something I didn't know was a big deal for a particular student is a brand new skill, because the staff's faces will light up and somebody will usually start frantically documenting the moment :)

4. Lesson content

This is the part where what works for one student, one class, one situation will not necessarily work for another, but here are some lesson activities that I (and other colleagues I've sought advice from) have found the most successful in self-contained music classes:
  • Literature-based lessons: here is a post with some of my favorite lesson plans using children's books
  • Movement with music: give students props like scarves, ribbon wands, etc, give them time to move freely with the music, have them mirror you, have students take turns coming up with movements for the rest of the class to copy, move on the beat
  • Instruments with music: simple instruments like rhythm sticks and hand drums are great for this- have students take turns playing a simple rhythm ostinato or steady beat with the music
  • Singing games: games like Apple Tree, Bluebird, Pass the Pumpkin, Acka Backa, etc 
  • Echo and call and response songs
5. Resources

I mentioned these in my previous post but they're worth mentioning again: if you're working with students with differing abilities, I highly recommend these two books by Alice Hammel for great insights into overarching issues as well as specific strategies that directly apply to music teaching:

Teaching Music to Students with Special Needs: A Label-Free Approach
Teaching Music to Students with Special Needs: A Practical Resource

These websites have lots of information for specific needs and strategies:

Coast Music Therapy
Intervention Central

I want to note that, whenever we can, I think it's important for us to advocate for inclusion as much as possible. As I discuss in my previous posts on inclusion, it's beneficial for all students when everyone can be included in the same class together. Don't think that as a music teacher you have no say in the matter- I have found that there are a lot more opportunities for me to advocate for the needs of my students with special needs than I realized when I first started teaching, so stay in close communication with colleagues and look for those opportunities whenever you can. That being said, I know that there are many times when we don't have control over where students are placed, and there are times when a self-contained setting is the most appropriate for particular students for one reason or another. For those situations, I hope you find these suggestions helpful!

Please help us all continue to learn and continue the conversation by sharing your thoughts in the comments below. I'd love to hear your success stories, favorite lesson ideas, and helpful resources!

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Elementary Music Supplies: my top picks in order of priority

One of the unfortunate situations in which many music teachers find themselves is needing to figure out what the most important items are to buy for their music class when they have a tiny budget and nothing (or next to nothing) available. Having been through this experience myself, and now also having some experience with different classrooms with different resources at my disposal, I thought I would share my list, in order of priority, of elementary music supplies.


I have been very lucky in terms of resources in most of the schools I've taught in, but my very first year of teaching I was the first elementary music teacher they had ever had, so I was faced with the decision, without having any real teaching experience, of deciding what was most important to get for my classroom for that first year. In every job since then I have come into a program that was already pretty well-stocked, but in every case I have found several gaping holes in inventory that just puzzle me. Why have 20 guiros and no rhythm sticks???? (True. Story.)

If I was starting from scratch, and had a limited budget each year, here is the order in which I would try to acquire things. Keep in mind, even if your school budget is very small, there are plenty of other ways to get supplies and/or funding! I have used DonorsChoose successfully to get a lot of my instruments and other "big ticket" items. Jennifer Bailey from SingToKids has more great suggestions for funding options in this post. Don't get totally discouraged by a tiny budget!

1. rhythm sticks and hand drums: class sets

These are the first things I look for in a music room and are absolutely the highest priority for me- rhythm sticks and hand drums are versatile for all elementary ages and can be used for rhythm practice, adding instrumental ostinati, and other basic lesson content we all want to cover effectively for a relatively low cost. Ideally I think the Remo Fiberskyn hand drums are the best- I like to have maybe one of each of the different sizes and then the rest in the 8" or 10" size (those seem to be the most versatile size for elementary students). For rhythm sticks I prefer wooden ones without the ridges (I know, it seems like you're getting more "bang for your buck" with the ridged ones but they're honestly more of a distraction than anything else in my opinion).

2. diatonic boomwhackers: 1 octave per 3-4 students

For a tiny budget, boomwhackers are next on the priority list so that I can have some pitched instruments. Boomwhackers are another instrument that can be used with a wide range of ages, and can be used for pitched ostinati and melodies, composition, etc. I don't think it's worth the cost to get the extended octaves, but octavator caps are a great way to expand the range at a much lower cost (and far less storage space).

3. barred instruments: at least half of a class set

Here's where a lot depends on the budget size: ideally, it's great to have a variety of barred instruments so you can have more varied timbres and have a wider range in ensemble pieces. If I could get any combination of 12 total barred instruments, I would get 2 soprano glockenspiels, 3 soprano xylophones, 4 alto xylophones, 1 bass xylophone, 1 soprano metallophone, and 1 alto metallophone. If I had enough to get a set of 24 instruments, I would add 1 bass xylophone, 1 more soprano glockenspiel and 3 alto glockenspiels, 4 more soprano xylophones, and 3 more alto xylophones.

That said, if I can only get 1 or 2 instruments at a time, I would start with soprano and alto xylophones, then glockenspiels, then bass xylophones, and add metallophones last. For the xylophones I don't recommend skimping too much on the quality, but if you can't afford any of the nicer barred instruments, these boomwhacker color glockenspiels are a great way to get some barred instruments for students to use that are worth the price (and, bonus, they're great for composing etc because the bars match the boomwhacker colors).

4. tambourines and triangles: half a class set

My next priorities for unpitched percussion instruments would be tambourines and triangles- they are, again, great for a wide range of ages, and they add a good variety in timbre to go with the rhythm sticks and hand drums. I think the tambourines with heads are definitely preferable to the headless ones. For triangles it's hard to go wrong as long as they're not the teeny tiny toy ones or the giant orchestral ones, but for me the one non-negotiable is these rubber triangle holders. They are cheap and make a huge difference for young players, because they keep the instrument relatively still while it's being held up and played.

5. scarves and bean bags: class sets

Movement props are such a great addition to elementary music lessons. Scarves in assorted colors are perfect for lower elementary, and bean bags are great for lots of singing and circle games for all ages.

6. wrist bells and egg shakers: class sets

I mostly use wrist bells and egg shakers for lower elementary students but they are great for adding variety for the younger crowd who may not be ready for some of the other instruments, and they're cheap. They're also great sounds to have for soundscapes and rhythm compositions for the older students.

7. "color" instruments: 2 of each

Beyond the basics that I want to have for all my students to use regularly, I like to have a variety of other unpitched percussion instruments for adding more variety to instrumental ensembles, giving more choices for student compositions, and adding more timbres for soundscapes. I would try to get 2 of each (you'll avoid a good amount of arguing just by having 2 instead of 1- trust me, it's worth it) in the following order: cowbell, vibraslap, ratchet, sandblocks, guiro, slapstick, cabasa, gong, sleigh bells, finger cymbals, maracas, rainstick, tone/ temple block, stir drum, wind chimes, flexatone, and agogo bells.

8. dry erase staff boards: class set

Once I have a good classroom set of instruments and movement props, music staff dry erase boards are my next priority. You can definitely use paper, or even laminated paper, but the boards are so much sturdier so students can use them in their laps, and the younger students can use them to place manipulatives on the staff as well.

9. ukuleles: class set

If you can't afford a class set you can definitely do a lot with half of a class set, but ukuleles are surprisingly affordable and they are a fantastic thing to have for older elementary and middle school students. They are a great tool for learning about chords, and older students can use them for composition and adding chordal accompaniments. These are the ones I have, which I love, and I've written a whole separate post about all my tips for ukuleles here.

10. larger drums

If you can afford them, having some larger drums to add some more low tones to your instrument selections and give your older students more variety of drumming resources is a great addition. A gathering drum works well, and tubanos add a lot of versatility.

other considerations

There are obviously some broader categories and big ticket items that are important to an elementary music classroom but are not included here: every elementary music room should have a piano, sound system/ music player, computer, and projector at a minimum, and ideally you would want an interactive board and student laptops and/or tablets as well. Recorders are another priority instrument for me, but I don't think they're worth teaching if you have to have students share a class set- students should be purchasing their own, and if you can't do that, I would stick with barred instruments and boomwhackers.

For furniture, I think decent chairs are a must- I don't like having older students sitting on the floor or even risers, because it promotes poor posture. I've been lucky enough to have these Wenger student chairs in most of my classrooms and they are ideal. Circle rugs that seat at least 24 students comfortably are also really awesome, especially if you have hard floors, but are usually quite expensive.

Texts are a whole other category as well, which I haven't touched on at all here. There are a LOT of amazing text resources that I love, but if you are on a limited budget and don't have curricular resources, this is what I would recommend buying. You can also learn about setting up your own curriculum resource for free in my Lesson Planning Made Awesome course.

Of course there are plenty of other things that are great to have: manipulatives, puppets, other movement props, conducting batons, visuals and decor, recording microphone, music notation software, etc. But when I look at what I need to be able to teach students all of the concepts I want them to learn, the priorities above are most important to me.

So now I turn it over to you: what did I miss? Which things on my list surprised you? Would you put things in a different order? Share your advice in the comments to help other teachers make the most informed decision possible!


Saturday, March 2, 2019

February Favorites 2019

February has been a busy but very fun month, and it has me looking forward to all the March excitement as well! So many new ideas I am itching to implement- I hope you find some inspiration today to get you excited too.


1. New books, more representation


I have been so happy with the new books that I got for my classroom library! I've used several in lessons with my students, many have come in handy as impromptu references, and when classes have time to read independently they have been excited about the new additions. You'll have to check out my post on Instagram to see all of the books I got this month because they are all wonderful- the picture above is just one of five!

2. MIOSM preparations


It has been so exciting to be getting ready for Music In Our Schools Month this year, as I have been working on several new ideas that I'm incorporating for the first time this year based on the new theme- I can't wait to see my students' reactions! I've been sharing my plans on the blog all month long- here is the post on the Musical March Madness bracket shown above, here is a post on my favorite new lesson idea incorporating exploration of a wide range of genres, and here is my post on how I plan to incorporate informances. It's going to be a fun month ahead!!

3. Music Education Resources

I love reading all of the great ideas shared within the online music education community! Here are some of my favorite ideas from this past month- click on the pictures to read the full posts.





I share these articles and resources each week over on my Facebook page, so if you want to stay updated on my latest finds you should follow me there!

I'd love to hear about some of your highlights from February as well- it's fun to celebrate the "highs" and get inspiration from each other! Happy Music In Our Schools Month!