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Tuesday, July 5, 2016

new ideas for upper elementary lessons

It has been really fun to look back on all of the new ideas I tried this past school year and loved- what a great way to celebrate success and get motivated to try more new ideas next year! I hope you all are reflecting on what worked for you this year as well. Today I'm sharing my favorite new ideas for upper elementary lessons, which for my purposes is talking about grades 4-6. I tried several new things that I loved this year, so I'm excited to share some of these with you!

Keyboard instrument unit

I spent a lot of time last summer re-writing our district's curriculum to align with the new national core arts standards. Most of the curriculum fit well with what I was already doing, but one gaping hole that I needed to fill this year was a requirement for 5th graders to be able to identify some of the basic keyboard instruments (piano, organ, accordion etc). While I have always taught the orchestral instruments and also spend quite a bit of time on instruments from non-Western cultures, I had never actually taught keyboard instruments (other than to mention that a piano could be a string instrument or a percussion instrument, but let's not get into that debate here, shall we?). I also had one of the toughest group of kids I have ever had in 5th grade this past year, so I knew I couldn't just show them some pictures, lecture them for a bit, and expect them to learn anything.

What I ended up with was actually the single most successful unit I taught in 5th grade this year (go figure)! I started by showing them several YouTube videos of different keyboard instruments. I knew they had to be interesting enough to keep this group engaged (and hopefully get them to remember the instruments), so I searched high and low for the most varied examples I could find while still showing what the instruments sound like and how they are played. These are the ones I chose:


Electric keyboard:

Pipe organ:



After each one we discussed how each produced sound, and what (if anything) they already knew about each instrument. 

But the real fun began when we pulled out the keyboards to *actually* play them! I've had some pretty old keyboards in my room since I started at the school, and I hadn't pulled them out for anything other than the occasional student that would use one for a talent show or a composition activity, mostly because I only have 4 and on 2 of them half of the keys were stuck and didn't work. These kids did not care one iota about any of that- there is something so LEGIT about playing a keyboard, and they loved it! The first day (after spending most of the time discussing the various instruments) I just let them take turns playing around on the instruments. The second day (after reviewing the instrument names etc) I challenged them to all play C-D-E-F-G-F-E-D-C in "home position" (right hand thumb on C, pinky on G). It was harder than I thought but they LOVED it! Finally I gave them a simple 2-measure phrase using only those 5 notes and challenged them to read it from notation. They all performed in a "piano recital" in front of the class. And you know what? They remembered the names of all those instruments, and they can all tell you how they work, the basic setup of a keyboard, and more! 

Next level clapping games

This was something I stumbled onto at the end of the school year this year. I happened to read Jennifer's awesome post on the singing / clapping game "Four White Horses" (bless her) and remembered how much I love that game, so one day when I had some extra time at the end of class with my 6th graders, I pulled it out. We started first with pairs, then I put them together in groups of 4, then 8, and so on until the whole class was in one big group! They loved it. Then when I was doing a simple clapping game with "Long-Legged Sailor" with 1st grade, I realized that I could do the same sort of process that I used with "Four White Horses" with almost any clapping game to make it more challenging for older students. The next day I tried it- I had my 4th graders do the same clapping game as the 1st graders did, but quickly put them into larger and larger groups until the whole class was clapping together. It was awesome! Besides being fun and engaging, it was a great way to end the school year because the students had to cooperate in order to get it right. 

With a few of my classes I had some extra lessons at the end of the year, so I showed them a few videos like this one:

Then I let them get into small groups and come up with their own "epic patty cake" routines to whatever song they chose. It was a great way to get them creating, working together, and singing!

5/4 meter (Take Five bean bag routine)

I saw this video on Pinterest several years ago and fell in love:

Then I forgot about it and never did it. Do you ever do that with awesome Pinterest finds? Well I finally went back and found it and decided it would be the perfect addition to our focus in 4th grade on time signatures. It went really well- I first had them listen to the music and try to figure out "how many beats are in a group", then we learned just the opening "A section" bean bag pattern together. It really got them to feel and experience 5/4 meter, and the students were fascinated by it!

Composition unit updates

This last one may not qualify is a "new idea" per se, but for me it was a pretty big change and required quite a bit of planning and thinking and preparing on my part. When I started in this school 3 years ago, I learned quickly that my students were under the impression that they loved music, but not "school music". It quickly became my mission to change that mindset, especially for my older students who were obviously the most difficult to convert. I came up with a unit on video game music for my 5th graders, and another unit on movie music for my 6th graders my first year at this school, and both units have been a work in progress ever since.

This year I finally spent some time reflecting on what skills and concepts I really wanted to focus on with the units, and which logistical aspects of the units had gone well / not gone well in the past, and put together a more formalized structure for each one. The results were fabulous- in the past my students would be engaged at the beginning but quickly lose interest when we got to the actual composition part of the unit, but this year the units held their attention all the way through because the end goal was clear from the beginning and the lessons were more streamlined.

For the video game unit, I have students create their own video game concept, create music for it, and then "act it out". This year I created a worksheet to help them organize their thoughts for each section and gave them more guidelines for what their game should look like, and the unit was very successful. Some of the games they came up with were amazing! By the end they were all begging for me to give them websites where they could try to actually "code" some of their games so they could play them!

For the movie music unit, I had students listen to a lot more examples of different sound tracks that create different moods and selecting the best ones for different movie scenes before having them create their own music. Having those clear examples in their heads made it a lot easier for them to envision what they wanted their own music to sound like.

I've been asked by quite a few people to share these two units- they are great for incorporating several of the national standards for these grades in creating, analyzing, and selecting. If you're interested, I've finally added them to my store:

You'll also find most of my online resources, including the videos for all of these and other upper elementary lessons, on my upper elementary Pinterest board.

What are your favorite lesson ideas for upper elementary? I'd love to get some new inspiration for next year!! Leave your ideas in the comments.

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  1. I love everything about this post! Your video game project sounds like it would be a blast. I'd love to see it in action!

    1. Ha, maybe I'll try to share one of the kids' final products sometime, they are pretty hilariously awesome. It really is a fun and meaningful project for us!

  2. I like that you posted the video of Rick Wakeman playing keys. I'm actually sitting here with his niece Sarah (my wife) watching the video. :)

    1. That's awesome! So glad you enjoyed the post, and the video in particular :) My students enjoyed it as well!

  3. Replies
    1. Such a great way to really get students to "feel" the unusual meter!