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Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Teacher Tuesday: music lessons for testing season

Testing season is just around the corner at my school, and I know many others are in the thick of it as we speak! Testing season is hard. It's hard on the kids, first and foremost, but it's hard on the teachers too. Often times music teachers deal with modified schedules, weeks of missed classes, mandates to have quieter classes, and other constraints on our teaching. Not to mention dealing with kids who are just out of sorts and plain old cranky.

The most important component of successfully teaching music during testing season for me is reading the mood of the class when they show up at my door. Some classes show up antsy from hours of pent-up energy. Others show up completely drained. Some are frustrated or even in tears because of a difficult test. Others, honestly, show up completely "normal". I try to have a few options prepared for the beginning of class so that, depending on the overall mood of the class, I can respond appropriately to draw students in (and hopefully improve their moods in the process!).

For the class that is drained:

I try to have some calm music ready for a class that shows up exhausted. These kids need time to regroup and recharge without being asked to think or do anything that requires their energy. Usually I will announce SQUILT to start (Super Quiet Un-Interrupted Listening Time), and if I think the group can handle it I usually let them choose to either stay in their seats or spread out on the floor. Any slow, peaceful piece will work for this- classical or new age instrumental styles are perfect. Try Bach's Air on the G string:

After a few minutes of SQUILT, I have them move with the music. For the Bach example above, I had them mirror me as I showed the melodic contour with my arms, then had them make up their own movements when the melody repeated. For this type of activity, having them all mirror the teacher first helps give them some ideas of what they could do. Have them all face the same way so nobody is looking at each other. Closing their eyes in another option but it can throw some kids off when they can't see. (Pssst, the great thing about the video above is that it shows the melodic contour along with the sheet music, so I like to show the video after the movement activity and have a short discussion at the end!)

For the class that is antsy:

I keep a playlist on iTunes full of a wide variety of music specifically for this purpose. I have the students spread out and then I tell them to move in ways that match the music- the most creative and appropriate (matching the music) dancer wins! Then I start playing something from the list, and I change the song every 20-30 seconds. I have everything from The Nutcracker to dubstep, the theme from Jaws, and Native American flute music. It's great because it helps get out some of that pent-up energy while getting them to use their creative thinking skills (the complete opposite of what their brains were probably doing during the test!).

If the class is engaged enough to feel comfortable dancing in smaller groups, it's even more fun to split the class in half like a dance battle! Every time the music switches, one side starts dancing and the other side sits down. Make sure you don't have too many self-conscious kids if you do it that way though!

For the class that is frustrated:

If the students are in a bad mood, it's time to get their minds off of the test and onto something FUN! Try rhythm chairs. Have the class stand in 2 lines (to make 2 teams), with 4 chairs in a row at the front of each line. Tell the class that a chair is a beat and a person is a note, then write a 4-beat pattern on the board. The teams race to get the correct number of people in each chair. So if you have ta-ta-titi-ta (1,2,3&4), they should have 2 people in the third chair and 3 people in each of the other chairs. Try throwing a whole note up there and see how long it takes them to figure out that someone needs to lie down across all the chairs! Or put it in 3/4 (you'll want to make the time signature clear) and let them figure out that they need to remove a chair (or else it looks like a rest beat). So much fun and it's a great way to get in some more rhythm practice too! Because it is a team activity, it's a great way to get everyone to experience success. If you're worried about students being on the losing team and getting discouraged, just have one team and make it race against the clock!

Those are some examples of things that have worked well for me, but the main idea is to be sensitive and responsive to the mood of the class. Of course as teachers we always try to do that to a certain extent, but I think it is infinitely more important during testing season! If you have other ideas that have worked well for you, I'd love to hear them in the comments!

Monday, March 30, 2015

Mommy Monday: chalkboard labels

So I have these cute chalkboard labels that I use in my kitchen:

They are not the most practical thing I have in my home (note smudging on the coffee canister), but darn it they are cute and trendy, and I do actually like that I can change the words on the label so easily. I've even used some tiny ones on some spice bottles for the spice blends I make:

You can buy chalkboard labels, but I really don't know why anyone would buy those. I got this roll of black contact paper from Amazon a long time ago and I just cut whatever size and shape I want. So much cheaper, easier, and more customizable too! If you missed last week's post, here's a picture of the large piece I used on the inside of one of my closet doors to create an inspiration board (click on the picture to see the post for more info):

The moral of the story: buy a roll of black contact paper! You can use it so many different ways! :)

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Teacher Tuesday: color coding keys

In all my teaching jobs, I have found myself responsible for an inordinate number of keys. One for my room, one for the music storage room or closet, one for the auditorium, and sometimes even more for practice rooms, other music rehearsal rooms, or the fine arts wing. Music teachers are almost always responsible for more than one space, and those spaces usually come with their own keys.

I recently got fed up with trying to remember which key was on which part of which key ring, and decided to label all of the keys so I could find the one I need more quickly. I knew exactly what I was going to use too: my trusty duct tape, of course!

Since I already had duct tape on hand in lots of different colors, I cut off a small piece and attached matching colors to the locks and their corresponding keys. It had made it so much easier to find the key I need right away, and of course it always makes me happy when I can add lots of colors to something I have to look at every day! :)

Monday, March 23, 2015

Mommy Monday: chalkboard inspiration inside doors

Chalkboards seem to be pretty trendy for DIY home projects. Apparently you can paint almost anything with chalkboard paint, and in almost any color too, and transform it into an area for creativity. I love the idea of having surfaces that can be written on and erased easily for organization and creativity, and I love the chalkboard look, but I do not have the time and patience required to cover anything in chalkboard paint.

Enter black contact paper.

I bought a big roll of black contact paper from Amazon, but you can get it many different places. As far as I know, there is no difference between regular black contact paper and the stuff that is marketed as "chalkboard" contact paper. I just cut out whatever size and shape I need, and stick it right on.

I've used this stuff all over the house, but my favorite is the chalkboard I have on the inside of my armoire. I use the armoire as a dresser and storage in my bedroom, and I put some of the contact paper on the inside of one of the doors. I use it as my inspiration board- I currently have a list of small projects I'd like to complete someday, but I've also put up inspirational quotes that I find, or random doodles and thoughts. I like the flexibility of writing and erasing things, but I also like the secrecy of having a space that only I see. It's something fun to see every time I open the door to get dressed or find something I need, and is another small way I help myself stay positive.

It's a simple thing but I love it! Do you have an inspiration board in your home? Or have you ever used black contact paper to create a chalkboard surface?

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Teacher Tuesday: morning routines for the teacher

Yesterday, I told you about my morning routine at home, when I first wake up. By giving myself time to relax, take care of logistics, and solidify my plans for the day, I am able to start each day with a better attitude and be more productive the rest of the day. You can read more about that here.

Today I want to talk about the morning routine I have when I walk into my classroom each morning. I have the same philosophy for the start of my teaching day as I do for my day as a whole: allowing time to relax, take care of logistics, and solidify my plans for the day makes me more productive and positive all day. By establishing a routine for myself each morning, I can feel more confident that I am prepared for the day.

I usually try to allow myself about 30 minutes in my room before my first morning duty starts each day. When I get in, the first thing I do before I even set down my purse is turn on my computer. Unlike my morning at home, when I avoid my computer as long as possible, I want to get my technology pieces going as quickly as possible, so I can trouble-shoot if anything goes wrong. After I turn on my computer, I set down my purse and set my planner, open to that day's lesson plans, on my desk. By that point my computer is on, so I turn on my projector and start connecting my DIY smartboard setup. I depend on being able to use my interactive whiteboard in almost every lesson, so if something is not working I need to know!! While the rest of the technology is booting up, I make sure my seating charts are in order for that day's lessons, and that I have enough happy notes and behavior slips on my clipboard. (click the picture to see the post about my clipboard, which also links to my posts on behavior notes and seating charts)

Once I've got my technology running and my seating charts set up, I sit down with my lesson plans. I copy the basic outline of each lesson I'm teaching onto a small sticky note and put it next to that day's schedule on the class schedule on my music stand (see picture above). I write down just enough to remind myself of what each class is doing, so I can switch gears quickly between classes. Then I get out any materials I need between the first class and my first break (which, depending on the day, is anywhere from 2-6 classes in a row) and set them up so I can quickly get what I need.

By this point it's usually time to head downstairs for morning duty! The final piece of my morning routine is the 10 minutes I have between the end of duty and the beginning of my first class. I try to get everything done before duty so that I have that time to relax before my first class walks in the door. I hate it when I am running around, thinking about 20 different things, right as my students show up! Not only do I feel rushed and out of sorts, but it's takes me longer to focus on the kids- their moods, who's absent, who needs to talk to me- and the lesson material! Those last 10 minutes of time to sit and get focused really help me start the day off on the right foot.

What is the first thing you do when you walk into your classroom? Are you usually rushing in just before the bell, or do you like to come in early?

Monday, March 16, 2015

Mommy Monday: morning routines for a more productive day

How we start our day can make a huge difference in how productive we are. The best way to have a great start to the day is to establish a predictable morning routine, so we always know that we aren't forgetting something before we head out the door! Today I want to share the morning routine that I have found works great for me. I'm sure everyone has their own spin on what a great morning routine looks like, but I think there are some factors that can be helpful no matter who you are: allowing time to relax, eating, and mentally establishing a clear plan for the day.

The key elements of my morning routine are coffee/breakfast, quiet time, planner review, food prep, and emails. I often have time to do other things because I am a morning person and I would rather do stuff in the morning than at night any day, but those are optional. I always do things in the same order, too, so that I don't have to think about whether or not I'm remembering anything. I start my coffee, then shower/wash up, then sit down with my coffee and some breakfast while I enjoy some quiet reading time. That is my time to relax and wake up gradually- I don't rush and I try not to start thinking about all the things that need to get done that day.

Next I take out my planner and go over my plans for the day. I make sure I have everything ready for my lessons (if it's a day I'm teaching), and double-check any appointments or other commitments I might have. I also check my command center to make sure I didn't forget to write something in my planner and see what, if any, food I need to prepare for dinner (I use my crock pot a LOT). Going over everything helps me feel confident that I have a plan and I know what I'm doing, and keeps me from getting too stressed.

Once I've gone over my planner and command center and prepped any food that I need, I take out my computer. I intentionally avoid my computer until as late as possible because if I do it too early, I will get distracted by other work projects and neglect the other things I want to do so I feel good about my day! I do the bulk of my emails (and social media posts if I have time) in the morning. I know a lot of people do this in the evening, but I am so tired at night, I find I am much more efficient if I do it in the morning. And since I'm on a stricter deadline of needing to leave the house, I stay focused on the important emails and social media posts, instead of getting sucked into watching 20 buzzfeed videos or looking at cool DIY projects on pinterest.

By the time I finish those things I feel ready for the day and (usually) refreshed from a relaxing morning (and a good night's sleep, since I went to bed early instead of surfing the internet all night!). Do you have a morning routine? If so, what do you do? If not, do you wish you had one, or do you feel you are better off without one? I'd love to hear your thoughts!

If you want a glimpse of how my whole day goes, check out my "day in the life" post :)

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Teacher Tuesday: centers in general music

Centers are becoming a hot topic in the elementary general music teaching world, it seems. Does anyone else feel that way? In the past I had done quite a bit of small group activities, including composition and small ensemble tasks where students where working independently in small groups, but no center activities that involved students doing different tasks with different materials at the same time. After studying the benefits of center activities in early childhood for my masters degree, and hearing tons of great ideas from other elementary music teachers online, I decided this was my year to take the plunge! With just over half of a school year under my belt, here are my tips for those thinking of getting started with centers themselves.

1. Less is more
When I first started doing centers, I consistently planned 6 centers each time because I had 6 color teams already set up in my room. It was too many. Not because it was too difficult to manage, but because I wanted students to go to each station and they weren't getting to spend enough time at each one. I also found that, with groups anywhere from 2-4 students (with absences, small classes etc), it was difficult for students to really "get into" most of the activities. I have since shifted to having around 4 centers, with 4-6 students in each group, and it is infinitely better. Students have more time to enjoy each activity, and it's less awkward with the slightly larger groups.

2. Choreograph the movement
I know some teachers give students the freedom to go between various centers at their own pace, with guidelines about how many they should each complete or how many students can be at a center at a time. If you're just getting started, DON'T do this. Split up the class into set groups and rotate all of them through the centers at the same time. I turn off the lights after a set amount of time (enough for them to have time at each center before the end of class) and wait for students to sit silently, looking at me, before giving the directions for where each group will be moving next. After I have told every group where to go next, they all move at the same time to the next station, and I turn the lights back on.

3. Plan for variety
One of the best things I have done is to plan centers that engage a variety of learning styles and personalities. For example, I usually have one fast-paced, competitive activity, one slower, low-pressure one, a center that involves movement, and one that involves technology (either a computer or iPad). That way you can be sure that most (if not all) of the students are really excited about at least one center, and you are differentiating for more learners so more students have a chance to develop their skills and understanding. This is the number one advantage of centers in my opinion- don't miss out on the chance to really differentiate for your kids because you saw these fun ideas on Pinterest that you want to try!

4. Give instructions at the beginning
I don't put written directions at each center because it becomes too much of a distraction for students- they spend too much time arguing about the "correct" way to do the activity and reading the directions instead of just diving in. Instead I verbally give directions for all the centers before we start, and make sure I answer any and all questions in advance. With fewer centers it's not too confusing, and I always make sure the activities are easy enough for students to do on their own anyway. Even if the activity is one that you've done a million times, I still go over the directions. There always seem to be a few students who don't remember how to do an activity and it inevitably leads to those same discussions about how to correctly do the activity instead of starting.

5. Wander the room
I always make sure I am free to walk around and trouble shoot, rather than trying to use a center for an assessment or other activity for which I have to be present. I manage technology problems, referee the occasional disagreement over turns, sharing etc, answer questions and, most importantly, offer lots of "I see you" comments. Statements like, "Wow, I saw that awesome dance move you just did! Cool!", "Whoa, you got 100 points already?!?", or "Yeah, level three is hard, right??" encourage students to keep working and give them positive feedback without directing the activity.

Have you used centers in your classroom? Share your tips in the comments!

Monday, March 9, 2015

Mommy Monday: remembering first words

Those first 18 months or so are full of new milestones- first tooth, learning to crawl, eating solids, first step, first words, and on and on. I wanted to remember them all but as a single mother with twin infants, I definitely did not have baby books to record that stuff, and even if I did, I certainly wouldn't have had the energy to remember to pull out the books and write things down before I forgot. I used a few quick ways to record the big milestones, like a little notebook where I jotted anything and everything that needed to be written down, and an app on my phone (where I mostly kept medical information).

But when the vocabulary explosion started happening, I needed to be able to write down words as soon as the girls said them. If I waited even an hour I usually forgot completely or couldn't remember the exact word or which kid had said what! Neither the phone app or the notebook strategies were cutting it because it was never there when I needed it and it took too long to write down the word, plus which kid said it.

Enter my word wall:

I already had a roll of black contact paper, which I had gotten to make labels for my pantry and other things around the house, so I cut out two speech bubbles and stuck them on the wall (I'm a renter so I try to use non-damaging stuff on the walls whenever I can!). I printed out a picture of each of their faces and stuck those on the wall with non-damaging command strips and voila! I kept a couple of pieces of chalk in a couple of places around the house. This wall is right outside the bathroom, pretty much right in the middle of our apartment but out of the main high-traffic areas. Any time I heard a new word, I just grabbed a piece of chalk from wherever I was and wrote it down in that child's speech bubble. So much easier!

It quickly became a nice conversation starter for family members and house guests who loved looking for new words that had appeared since their last check. And it was a fun way to have a mini-celebration with the girls each time they said a new word, because they could watch me write it on the wall next to their picture. Later, when I had time and some portion of my wits about me, I recorded the new words in one of my notebooks so I had it together with their other milestones.

I meant to take it down a long time ago, but I just never got around to it. Now that the girls are starting to sound out letters, they have a new-found interest in the words next to their names! They ask me to read their "baby words" to them all the time, and love hearing and seeing what they said when they were first learning to talk :)

How do you keep track of milestones? Leave a comment!

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Teacher Tuesday: routines for the end of class

So, you've been moving, playing, singing, discussing, writing, and everything else an awesome music class does, and now it's time for the party to end. How do you get your students ready for the hallway? It's not as simple as telling them to line up and be quiet. I went to an intensive training on improving school climate recently, and one of the major topics was transitions. Transitions are hard for anyone, but they are especially difficult for children- even more so for children who face social/emotional challenges (which many of my students face).

Today I want to share the routines I have in place for the end of music class. Several of the ideas I will reference here are ones I have discussed in more detail in previous posts- click on the links if you want more details. If you still aren't sure or just want to discuss something further, please leave a comment! I love hearing from you!! :)

My general goal is to finish the main "class work" 5 minutes before the end of class. If there are instruments or materials that need to be put away, I try to have that done by this time as well. No matter what you do, giving students TIME to transition is essential. At this point, they are all sitting in their assigned seats, and I say the exact same phrase every class period, while raising my hand in the exact same way: "OK, raise your hand and tell me one thing that we did today!". Having some kind of specific and consistent CUE helps students know that a transition is coming. 

This is where my behavior management system comes into play. I have a full-class reward system for classes to work towards earning a "free choice" time in class. I track their progress during each class period with a letter system, which is purely based on behavior, but I tell them at the beginning of the year that if they can't remember everything they did that day, they will lose a letter. Giving students a chance to REVIEW the class material not only helps them academically/intellectually, but it helps them process everything we did and reflect on it, which is a key component of transitioning. I find that since I don't see them every day, giving students a chance to review at the end of class is critical to helping them remember the material for the next lesson. Plus I figure it really is a reflection of their behavior if they can't remember what they learned in the last 30-60 minutes. It is an indication of how focused they were during the lesson.

Once we have reviewed the lesson, it's time to line up. I use my hand signals to have them stand up quickly and silently, then they are to fix their chairs so they are lined up neatly for the next class. Once everyone is quietly standing in front of their nicely-lined-up chairs, I cue them (again with my hand signals) to turn and walk to the door, one row at a time. They line up on the tape I have on the floor so they know exactly where to go. Having as FEW VERBAL COMMANDS as possible makes transitions faster, calmer, and gives fewer opportunities for misbehavior.

While they are lining up, I quickly select and fill out a happy note for one student. Occasionally I am also writing a behavior slip at this time, but usually I do that whenever it is needed during class. If the class has a lot of students who get discouraged when they aren't the ones to get the happy note, I do that first and then quickly move on to the overall class' points on the board. If not, I usually save the happy note for last. Ending with something POSITIVE always helps the students' moods as they prepare to leave. A quick reminder of hallway behavior (quiet, walking) and where they are going (to Mrs. Smith, to gym, to lunch) and we're out! PREPARE students for the next activity by talking about it beforehand.

What do you do at the end of class to help students transition well from your class? Share your ideas in the comments below!

Monday, March 2, 2015

Mommy Monday: a day in the life of a single working mom

Today's post is a little bit different. People tell me all the time, "I don't know how you do it!", and shake their heads. As a single mom with twin 3-year-olds, a full-time job as an elementary music teacher, and the side project that is this blog (and all the other online pieces that connect to it), yes, I am busy. The short answer to how I do it all: routines and planning. The long answer? Well that might take a while. Today I wanted to give you a glimpse into my life by giving you the blow-by-blow from a randomly selected day: last Thursday. Some things are typical, others are out of the ordinary. But let's face it: it's hard to find a day that is completely "typical". So here's the run-down. I'll put some thoughts/comments at the end of the post.

3:30am: I'm awake before my alarm, but there's no going back to sleep- my mind is already racing. Might as well lie in bed and check all the bajillion emails that came in while I was asleep.
4:00: Alarm goes off. Go start my coffee, then hop in the shower.
4:20: Sit down with coffee, bagel, and my daily devotional reading.
4:45: Get my computer. Write some emails, update my Facebook page, check store sales (we're having a sale today!)
5:15: Get out planner and go over lesson plan book. I missed school yesterday because the kids were sick, so I have to adjust some of my lesson plans to make up the classes I missed.
5:30: Get dressed, pack lunch, finish getting ready for work. Text mom, nanny, and kids' dad to discuss today's plans, since kids are still sick and can't go to nanny's house. Agree their dad will pick up at 7 so I can go to work.
6:00: Kids get up. Snuggle and sit around while everyone wakes up. Assess their health: still runny noses and coughs.
6:20: Talk to the kids abut the day's plans. Good thing we're not going to the nanny's. We would need to be out the door by now, but they're still refusing to take off their pajamas.
6:30: Start getting the kids dressed, give them some cheerios to snack on, field texts from mom, nanny, and kids' dad.
7:00: Kids leave with their dad, They're clingy but seem happy to get some fresh air.
7:10: Take a deep breath. Clean up the toys, realize I have nothing planned for dinner because our afternoon plans have shifted, forget again, and leave for work.
7:20: Get to work. Clean up classroom from the mess left from having a sub. Try to figure out what the sub did, because the materials I left for them to do are untouched.
8:00: Students arrive. Teach two 3rd grade, one 4th grade, and two kindergarten classes.
11:35: Lunch. I've got to eat at my desk so I can keep working on the paperwork for the upcoming all-district honors choir concert.
12:20: Teach two 1st grade classes and a 6th grade class, then go downstairs for bus duty.
3:15: Students are gone. Pack up my classroom and head to another elementary school for a fine arts department meeting. I'm going to need to tell the department chair I have to leave on time- I need to pick up the kids from their dad's house.
4:15: Leave the meeting, which is just getting started. Oh well, this is when my single mom card comes in handy, right?
4:30: Pick up the kids. They are cranky, both feel warm, and the more they cry the more their noses run, which makes them cry more. Buckle them into their car seats, get them calmed down so we can leave.
5:00: Get home. Remember that I don't have anything for dinner. Start running through my list of foods I can pull out.
5:30: Dinner. We've got sweet potato, frozen peas, kiwi, and fried eggs.
6:00: Clean up the dishes while the kids are playing.
6:15: Play with the kids for a while.
6:45: Clean up toys, brush teeth, get kids changed into pajamas.
7:00: Read a couple of books, sing a couple of songs, lights out.
7:30: Turn on my heated blanket on my bed, finish cleaning up dishes, text people about options for tomorrow's child care.
7:45: Check email, blog, Pinterest, Facebook.
8:00: Crawl into bed.

That was my day! Obviously having sick kids is not typical, nor was our morning routine. Normally, the kids are up at 6am and we are in the car by 6:30, at the nanny's house by 7:00, and I arrive at work around 7:30.

One thing to note: I have always been a morning person. My morning wake up has definitely shifted earlier since having kids, but I really need that alone time in the morning! When I don't get it I am totally thrown off all morning. I need time to process everything that happened the day before and prepare for the new day that's about to begin.

Hope you enjoyed this little peek into my day! :)