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Tuesday, January 31, 2017

How to Teach Beginning Harmony

I'm continuing my series on teaching part-singing today with my method for getting students singing in harmony for the first time. If you missed them, be sure to catch up on my previous posts in this series on teaching canons and partner songs (linked at the end of this post)- those two steps absolutely need to be mastered before you start working on singing in harmony! Here are the steps I take to help students be successful with this new challenge.

1. When to start

The exact age when students will be ready to sing in harmony will vary. The key is to make sure that they are comfortable singing canons and partner songs independently before attempting this step! Usually that happens around 5th or 6th grade. That's not to say that younger students can't sing in harmony, especially if they are in a choir where they can spend focused time working on their singing and on specific pieces for a longer chunk of time, so if your students are ready for it earlier, I say go for it!

2. Picking a song

With beginning 2-part harmony, I try to pick songs that have more contrary motion than parallel (meaning one melodic line is moving up while the other is moving down, instead of both parts going up and down together). This makes it a lot easier for students to hear the difference in their parts, and it makes it a lot easier to help both parts along as the conductor/teacher (more on that later). Another thing I usually do is to choose a song that only has short sections in harmony. Singing in 2-part harmony for the first time is definitely not easy, so doing it in short spurts is a good way to get students' feet wet without completely overwhelming them. There are a lot of great choral pieces written for beginning 2-part choirs that will mostly have the 2 parts echoing each other or singing partner melodies, with an occasional harmony part thrown in.

3. Divide and conquer

When I first started teaching, I always started off teaching the harmony part first and the melody second. I reasoned that the harmony part was harder, so if students on that part heard that part first they would be more likely to be able to stay on that part than if they learned the melody first, even if they were just listening to the other part learn their notes. But over the years I've discovered that that method doesn't always work out- sometimes the end result is better when I start with the melody part first!

My tactic now is to teach both parts simultaneously, but going back and forth between parts every few lines. Not only does this help students learn their parts better, but it's a better technique for behavior management and engagement because students spend shorter chunks of time waiting to practice their part. Basically I have part 1 learn 1-2 lines, then part 2 learn their notes for the same 1-2 lines, then part 1 learns the next 1-2 lines, then part 2, then I have part 1 sing the first and second set of lines in a row, then part 2, then continue on in the same fashion until each part can sing the entire section independently (without the other part singing with them).

Obviously if the harmony section is very short (less than a couple of phrases), then I only need to go back and forth once. Still at this point, I don't have the parts sing together. If, for example, part 1 and 2 sing together until the last phrase when they split into harmony, I'll have each part learn their notes separately from the beginning of the section (I'll just point out to the 2nd part that learns it that they have the same notes as the other part in this line). I've found that they are able to hear their part when they get to the split much more easily this way.

One important element when students are learning their parts separately is to show the melodic line with your conducting as you model/teach them their parts. Often I use solfege hand signs, and I'll even have the students do them with me as they initially learn their parts, but I'll continue doing the hand signs every time they sing. If the hand signs are too cumbersome, I'll just motion with my hand to show the notes going up or down.

**A quick note about assigning students to a singing part: I've found it best to keep the strong singers evenly split between the 2 parts, regardless of which part has more harmony or melody lines, or which part is more vocally challenging. You need strong singers who can confidently sing their notes on each part to avoid having one part drowned out by the other.

4. Putting it together: lend your voice

Once the students can sing their own parts confidently without your help, it's time to put the 2 parts together! If students are elementary age, I've found playing their notes on the piano is little to no help to them at this stage- they are too focused on the voices around them to hear the timbre of the piano over the voices and be able to match those pitches. The strategy that works best for me is to sing along with whichever part is struggling more while you conduct the other part. This is where the conducting/motions/hand signs come in handy! Using your hands to show the same motions you did when they were initially learning the part will help the part you aren't singing with remember their notes.

5. Independence

Once they start to get the hang of singing with both parts together, the next step is to get them singing without you! I start pulling away from singing along by singing just the first few notes, and then once both parts are singing without me, I'll use 1 hand to show the hand signs/motions for each part (and yes, I do practice this ahead of time if it's a tricky line to show with both hands at once).

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, it's important to make sure students have mastered canons and partner songs before moving into harmony. Read about my teaching strategies for each of those steps by clicking on the pictures below:

I've hope you've found this series on teaching part-singing helpful! I'd love to hear about your favorite tips and strategies for teaching part-singing. What are your favorite beginning harmony songs? Leave a comment below!

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Monday, January 30, 2017

Tax Documents Organization

Documents that I need for my taxes are starting to show up in my mailbox. It's times like these when the magnitude of adulting hits me the hardest- how in the world am I supposed to keep track of this stuff? Last year I used a simple system to keep all of the documents I needed to file my taxes in one place and it worked really well, so I wanted to share it with all of you- hopefully it will make your tax season a little less cumbersome this year!

The problem with all of these documents, besides the fact that there are so many of them, is that they are all coming from different places, in different forms, at different times, and at a time of year when all I want to do is curl up on the couch with a cup of hot tea, not go through my mail to see which ones are junk mail and which are actual important documents (anyone else feel like the junk mail looks more and more similar to the actually important stuff??). And I have to keep track of many of these documents for months before I actually file my taxes! 

Of course my original thought was to keep a hanging file in my office/bedroom and put everything there, but that assumes that I will go through the extra step of filing away these documents after I sort through my mail. Which doesn't always happen. And then I get stressed out because I have some stuff filed and some stuff sitting somewhere in a pile waiting to be filed. So I simplified my system:

I have a mail drop spot just inside my front door (I shared my system in my old apartment in this post- the setup is almost identical in my current house) where I put my incoming and outgoing mail until I can go through and sort things. Whenever I get my first tax document that needs to be saved, I keep the envelope that it came in and write "TAXES" on the blank side, then drop it back in the incoming mail slot with the label facing out. After that, whenever I get another document, I add it to the envelope. When I'm ready to file, I pull out the envelope and everything is ready! 

I like this system because it doesn't require any extra effort on my part but allows me to keep everything together in one spot as stuff trickles in through the mail. How do you keep track of everything during tax season? I'd love to hear your tips in the comments! 

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Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Teaching Students to Sing Partner Songs

Last week I went through my process for teaching canon singing, one of the first steps in part-singing. Once students have mastered canons, it's time to move on to partner songs! Today I will be going through my teaching process for teaching students to sing partner songs for the first time.

1. When to start

I save partner songs for 4th grade. As I mentioned in my previous post, I primarily teach canons in 3rd grade, so this is the natural next step as students develop their part-singing skills. I have done a few partner songs with my 3rd grade choir, but it definitely requires a good bit of extra practice and some serious concentration for them to do it!

2. Picking a song

There are so many great partner songs to use! I don't really have one favorite that I always start with, but I always make sure to pick something that is fun, to keep the students engaged while working on this difficult skill, and songs that pair nicely but sound fairly different from each other. Some partner songs have very similar melodies, which makes it more difficult for students to keep track of which song they're singing. One of my favorites that definitely fits the bill is "One Bottle of Pop"/"Fish and Chips"/"Don't Chuck Your Muck":

You can find tons more partner songs to choose from in this list from Beth's Music Notes.

3. Teaching the song

As with canons, the key to successful partner singing is making sure students are confident and comfortable with the songs before they start trying to sing them as partner songs. I always teach them each of the songs as separate songs at least 1 class period before I teach them to sing the songs together. Besides teaching it to them in advance, the other key to helping students be more comfortable with the song is adding motions. I always make sure to have contrasting motions for each of the songs they will be singing together as partner songs, which makes it much easier for them to stay on their part later on.

I always teach the motions first by having them mirror my motions while I sing the song. Once they know the motions, then we work on the singing. For "One Bottle", I count with my fingers, we sway back and forth for "Fish and Chips", and make scolding motions for "Don't Chuck".

4. Developing independence

The true test of how well they know the song is if they can sing it without my help. After they've learned the songs and practiced them, I first have them sing the song while I do only the motions, without singing along, then I have them sing each song without me doing anything at all. I make sure they can all do this comfortably before we move on, and tell them that they'd better know the songs well, because things are about to get crazy!

5. Teacher as partner

The next step is to get the whole class to sing one of the songs while I sing one of the others. I choose whichever one they are most comfortable with, and have them sing that one, telling them not to get distracted by me as I sing another part. The first time I sing very softly, just barely doing the motions, and if they stay on their part, we do it again with me singing full volume and getting up in their faces with my over-exaggerated motions! ;) We do the same thing with them singing each of the songs while I sing one of the others with them.

6. Divide and conquer

Now it's time to split the students up and assign each group to a song. If I'm doing a song with 3 songs together like "One Bottle of Pop", I start with just 2 groups and use 2 of the songs. First I split the class in half, making sure there are strong singers in each group, and I have each group sing their song on their own.

Once each group can sing their assigned song independently, I tell one of the groups to sing their song twice, and have the other group enter the second time through with the partner song. This allows me to help each group get started with their song so they have a better chance of staying on their part.

7. Partner up!

Once they can sing 2 songs together with their entrances staggered, I tell them it's time for the real deal! I make sure each one has their starting pitch and have both groups start their respective songs at the same time.

Once they've got the hang of that, I just keep changing it up! First I have the groups swap songs, then (if it's a song with 3 parts) we split up into 3 songs and go back to staggered entrances, then all starting together, then swapping songs again, until each group has done all of the songs as a partner song. Success!

Once students have mastered partner songs, they're ready to start learning some basic harmony! To read about how I teach canon singing (to lead up to partner songs), make sure to check out this post.

What are your favorite partner songs? What strategies have worked for you when you're teaching students to sing partner songs for the first time? Leave a comment below! :)

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Monday, January 23, 2017

My Top 3 Tips to Help Make Laundry Easier

I know some people despise laundry. I don't hate it, but it's definitely a nuisance, mostly because it's such a time commitment, what with the loading, stain removing, unloading, drying, folding, and put-awaying. Since having my twin daughters my laundry loads have obviously gotten way bigger, and I've developed a few ways to help make laundry a little bit easier and the process a little faster.

*this post contains affiliate links*

1. Easily accessible supplies

My very first "home/parenting" blog post ever was this tip: stick a pen holder on your washer or dryer to keep stain removers handy! Click on the picture to see that post (remember, it was one of my first posts ever.... it's uh, not fancy):

When I wrote that post, I was in a 2-bedroom apartment with my stackable washer and dryer in a tiny closet next to the kitchen. Although space was definitely tight, it was really nice having everything so close by. Now that I've moved into a house, things are much further away from each other, so having everything I need right there in the laundry room became even more important. One of the biggest downsides of my laundry setup in this house is that there is no sink anywhere in the basement where my washing machine and dryer are, which makes it difficult when I need to work on stains or rinse something out. Enter my latest solution to keep things nearby: a drink dispenser. These slim kinds are cheap and I've seen them at several stores (I picked mine up at Walmart, but this one looks very similar). I love it because it takes up very little storage space but holds a good amount of water. I've had mine for several months and haven't had to refill yet. Pair that with a bowl and voila! No need for a sink!

2. Reusable dryer sheets

I shared these recently in my post on 5 Eco-Friendly Ways for Busy Moms to Save Time and Money- they are great time-savers because I never have to take them in or out of the dryer! I don't even think about them! It's just one less step I have to go through every time I do laundry.

3. Organized closets

This last tip saves me a lot of time in the sorting and putting away after the clothes are cleaned: having our closets organized so that it's easy for me and my daughters to know where to put everything has made it so much easier and faster to put clean clothes away! My favorite thing about our closets is that every type of clothing has its own bin. We can all quickly find our items and throw them in the right bin. Click on each picture below if you want to read my previous posts on how I set up my closet and my daughters' closets. My girls have been putting their own clothes away since before they turned 4, which is awesome for me!

I hope you found at least 1 small way to help make your laundry time a little bit quicker and easier! How much do you love or hate laundry? What are your favorite laundry tips? Let's hear them in the comments! :)

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Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Teaching Canon Singing

One of the first steps in learning part-singing is through canons/rounds. I love teaching students how to sing in canon- their faces just light up when they are first able to sing in two different parts without my help!! Here is a step-by-step walk through of the teaching process I use to get students singing canons for the first time.

First, a disclaimer: yes, I am aware that canons and rounds are two different things. For the sake of this post I'm going to primarily use the term canon, since that is what is used in most music textbooks that I've seen, but I've included a few references to "rounds" in case some readers are confused ;)

1. When to start

I've honestly taught students as young as pre-kindergarten to sing a canon independently- it can be done at almost any age. BUT I think the ideal age to start working on part singing is at the end of 2nd grade. I focus on it mostly at the beginning of 3rd grade, but I like to throw it out there at the end of 2nd grade as an exciting challenge to keep them engaged when the end of year crazies set in. Although younger children can certainly be taught to perform a song in canon independently, most of them will do so by ignoring the other part completely and won't have a true "part-singing" experience (so what's the point?). Focus on pitch matching and quality vocal tone with your younger students.

2. Picking a song

Of course to teach students to sing in canon, you need a good song to start with! My favorite one to use is this one about an obnoxious cat. This is a loose translation of a French song called Miaou, Miaou, La Nuit Derniere:

The kids love this song because it's funny. I like it as a first canon song because each phrase that the students end up singing simultaneously has a different rhythm and pitches so you can clearly distinguish each part, which helps them stay on their own part when they first start singing in canon. You can find lots more great canons in this list from Beth's Music Notes.

3. Teaching the song

The key to any new part singing endeavor is to make sure students are able to sing their part confidently. I always start teaching the song without doing it in a round at least 2 classes before we start talking about canon singing. The other key element for helping them sing their part confidently is motions. Although having different rhythms and pitches for each phrase helps them distinguish their parts, having the motions to go with it make a huge difference because they can visually see which part they are singing, and kinesthetically show what they're singing. It engages them more fully in the song and helps them stay on their part. It doesn't matter what the motions are, but make sure that each phrase has its own motion.

I start off teaching the motions first- I tell them we are learning a new song and have them listen to me sing it while they mirror my motions (in the case of the cat song, I make sure to make angry faces etc as well!). Then students learn the song by echoing after me one line at a time with their voices and the motions, and finally sing the song together with me, still doing the motions. We review the song again next class as a "regular song" to make sure they know the words, melody, and motions well.

4. Developing independence

Once they've had a few days to let the song "sink in", it's time to get them singing in canon! Hopefully after singing the song several times over a period of a week or so this step is easy, but I make a big deal about telling them that they are going to learn something tricky today and tell them the first step is to sing the song without my help. First I stop singing and just do the motions with them, and then I stop doing the motions as well (at each step in this process, if they seem at all hesitant I have them try again and make sure they can do it confidently before moving on to the next step).

5. Teacher as "part 2"

Once they can sing the song on their own confidently, I tell the students I am going to try to be sneaky and distract them, but they should do their best to sing the song again exactly the way they just did and don't let me distract them (they usually get really excited about this!). I have them start the song, then I enter (singing softly and without the motions) as part 2 (in measure 5 for the cat song). If even my quiet singing is too much for them, I'll try avoiding eye contact as well- I've even done it by going behind them and singing from the back where they can't see me. If they can stay on their part, I tell them, "Well that was obviously too easy for you! I went easy on you that time, but I'm gonna really try to get you this time!" and have them do it again while I sing full volume and with the motions. Once they can do that, it's time to split them up into parts themselves.

6. 2-Part canon

The next step is to split them up into 2 parts. The key here is to make sure you have your most confident singers split up between the 2 groups- while they're practicing singing in canon with me, I watch to see which students are able to confidently hold their own and make sure they are split up between the parts. I start each part and then help them along with motions and/or singing if either part starts to lose it! Once they make it through the song, I switch part 1 and part 2 and do it again.

7. 3 (or more)-Part canon

If the song is long enough to allow it, I like to split up the class into more parts after that! With the cat song you can go up to 3 parts, which is plenty for 2nd graders. Again, I make sure to give each group a turn singing the first, second, and third parts, and I make sure to split up the most confident singers on each of the parts.

Once the students have mastered canon singing, they're ready to move on to partner songs! Check out my next post in this series to read about how I teach those :) What are your favorite rounds/canons to start your students on? What age do you start teaching canon singing? I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!

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Monday, January 16, 2017

Fostering Empathy

Empathy. I've been thinking about empathy a lot lately for a variety of reasons, and today I wanted to talk about fostering empathy as parents. I've always been very conscious of wanting to encourage my daughters to be highly empathic people. I'm not a psychologist or parenting expert, so these are just my personal thoughts on how I think empathy was fostered in my own character and what things I am consciously doing to foster empathy for my daughters.

The first and most important component that comes to mind is being physically present in places where you are not in the majority, whether that be in race, nationality, gender, worldview, religion, or otherwise. Obviously empathy comes directly out of understanding the "other", and there is no substitute for being physically present in the place where they live and breath when it comes to growing in our understanding a person or people group outside of who we are. In practical terms, this means I have been deliberate about where I live and where my children and I spend our time. The girls' school and neighborhood are very diverse. Having grown up as a foreigner in 3 different continents myself, I know that having someone come into your sphere and talk to you, whether that's a guest speaker in your classroom or a visitor in your home (as helpful as that can be as a starting point), can't take you out of your element and into another world in the same way that planting yourself in a setting where you can see their worldview being worked out in everyday life can. And while you can grow in understanding by talking to people, until you are physically in "their space" and put in the position of learning to live within that space, it is hard not to think of those other people groups as distant or "other" from who you are to some degree. It is always so encouraging for me to hear my daughters come home talking about the people they meet at school in a very matter-of-fact way. I know that growing up with an awareness that different people do things and think about things in different ways will serve them well.

Another component of encouraging empathy in our children is modeling. We all know that we learn a lot of our worldview, our personalities, and our opinions from what we see the important adults in our lives model for us. More than what they say, it's what we see them act on that has the greatest impact. This is a scary one for me as a mother, because I know how many times I have modeled things that I would never want my daughters to imitate, and I know pretty much every parent has the same worries. But there is also encouragement in knowing that our children learn from and take on a lot of our positive character traits that we model for them just by watching us live out our lives. One thing I have been more conscious of as the girls get older is voicing out loud the thoughts in my head so that they know what I'm thinking and can hear my empathy, my concern and respect for others, etc.

I'm sure there are much more sophisticated and complex ways to foster empathy that I haven't thought of, but I'll end with one final thought: the importance of practicing acceptance before intervention. When we see someone who is upset, we are often quick to want to "fix" the problem to help them stop being upset. Although there is a lot that is right with that instinct, I think it is important to first acknowledge and legitimize what the person is feeling before we launch into trying to change those feelings. Since the girls were tiny, I have been very aware of how often we as adults jump straight to telling crying children that it's OK. Clearly it's not OK- that's why they're crying. And while of course I know (trust me, I have two 5-year-old girls here) that there are very good reasons for comforting children in that way- they need to know that it's actually OK, and that they are more than likely WAY overreacting to whatever has upset them- I think often that can de-legitimize the child's feelings. We do it as adults too. Someone shares something that has deeply hurt them, and we immediately launch into, "have you tried this?", and "well at least_____" before taking the time to simply be with them in their pain. I still catch myself doing this with my daughters and my friends, but I want to continue to try to remember to legitimize/accept/acknowledge their feelings in a real, non-cursory way before offering any help.

I hope these thoughts will spark some thoughts and conversations about how we can all continue to foster emphathy in our children and in our own lives! If you have thoughts on the subject, I'd love for you to leave a comment below.

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Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Music Classroom Organization

With the New Year still fresh in our minds, a lot of teachers (including me!) have organization on the brain! I've shared quite a few organizational tips on this blog over the years- it is half of my name after all- so today I thought I would share some of my favorite organization tips for the music classroom. I hope you find some fresh ideas in this post, and if you have other organizing tips for the music room I'd love for you to share them below! Click on each picture to read my tips for organizing every aspect of your music classroom (warning: this post is LONG)!

First, here's a tour of my latest classroom to give you a sense of the big picture:

1. Instrument Storage

2. Sheet Music

3. Recorders

4. Manipulatives

5. Seating

6. Teacher Area

7. Grades / Data / Records

8. Substitutes

9. Centers

10. Behavior Management

11. Planning

I think that just about covers it for today! If you made it to the end of this post: congratulations, and thank you ;) I hope you found some new ideas to help you be more organized in your music room! Which one(s) are you planning to implement? What are your top organization tips for music teachers? I love hearing from you- leave a comment below! And if you love these organization tips and want to make sure you catch my future posts, there are a few ways you can do so: follow me on Bloglovin', Facebook, or Pinterest, get my posts sent straight to your email inbox (there's a place to signup in my blog sidebar), or subscribe to my newsletter. Thanks for reading!

Monday, January 9, 2017

Small Ways to Fight the Winter Blues

Now that the holiday season has ended, many of us are heading into that dreary time of year when it can be hard to maintain a positive disposition. Whether you struggle with Seasonal Affective Disorder or just have a mild case of the winter blues, here are a few strategies that can help lighten your mood in the winter months (and beyond!).

*this post contains affiliate links*

First, a disclaimer: as someone who has struggled with anxiety, PPD, and PTSD, I cannot say enough how much I recommend therapy / counseling for anyone going through a period (whether short or long term) of emotional/psychological struggle. In fact, I would recommend therapy to everyone on the planet if I could- all of us struggle in one way or another and there are few things better than a good therapist to help you develop strategies to manage those struggles. If you try some of these small strategies and they don't make much difference, or if you already know your struggles are bigger than the scope of these little tips, go find someone- you won't regret it!

For those pesky, seasonal "winter blues" though, I have found these strategies very helpful!

1. Vitamin D

A few years ago I started taking a vitamin D pill every morning from November until March (or so), and I have found it makes a significant difference in my mood. It's a simple way to get more vitamin D during those dark winter months! Here's the one I use- my doctor recommended 2000 IU and I find this brand available at most of my local stores- but you should ask your doctor to see what they recommend for you before starting.

2. Inspirational Mementos/ Visuals

There are a lot of ways to do this, but the basic idea is to keep visual, concrete reminders of things that make you happy / grateful / inspired handy. I've got a small box of inspirational quotes and family photos that I keep in my purse, a display of treasured mementos from my students/friends and family at home and at work, and a folder stored at home and work with more letters and gifts that remind me that others care about me. Even just printing off an inspirational quote and hanging it on the wall where you'll see it every day can help! You can read more about how each one works and how to make one for yourself, by clicking on each of the pictures below (the folder idea comes from Sally's Sea of Songs):

3. Set Up a Morning Routine

If you don't have one already, setting up a morning routine can make it a lot easier to get going each day, especially when it's still cold and dark outside when you're trying to get out of bed! If you have a morning routine but you're finding it hard to get out of bed, try changing or adding something to get you more motivated- maybe a new creamer for your morning cup of coffee, or adding some time to read a fun book for 15 minutes in the morning, or a short stretching or exercising routine. You can read about my morning routine below if you're looking for more inspiration:

4. Get the right amount of sleep

This goes both ways- after parenting twin infants, one of whom was a terrible sleeper, I am a firm believer in the importance of getting enough sleep. So set aside your worries and tasks at a certain point (the last 2 suggestions will help with that) and just go to bed. With a good morning routine in place, you can be confident that you'll be able to start the day off right and figure out any neglected tasks tomorrow. But I've also found that getting too much sleep can be a problem for me in winter- when I'm feeling down or anxious, it's easier to hide in bed than to get up and get going. Try to wake up around the same time each morning. A good morning routine will help with this too!

5. Phone a Friend

Of course one of the best things to do is some quality time with people you love! See if you can set up a regular meeting time, whether it's in person or on the phone, with a close friend or relative. As an introvert, I find myself making excuses for why I'm too busy to get together with people, but when I make a commitment to someone and start spending time with them regularly, I see the difference it makes! Join groups for people with similar interests in your community and/or online. Talking to people who can relate, and who are there to listen when you need to vent, can make a big difference in your mood! If you can't find (or afford the time or money) for face-to-face meetups (exercise classes, crafting parties, book clubs....), there are TONS of Facebook groups you can join for pretty much any people group you could possibly imagine.

6. Write It Down

Besides the change in weather, the other reason winter months can be difficult is because of the growing list of things to do paired with the lessening motivation to get out from under the cozy blanket and do the things! I find myself often stressing myself out because another thing I forgot to do keeps popping into my head. Writing those things down, no matter how big or small the task may be, takes the idea out of the spinning wheels in my brain and onto paper, and also makes me less worried that I'll forget it 5 minutes later! You could use something as simple as a stack of sticky notes that you keep handy, or get a notebook or planner to help you organize the information. If you're looking for planner inspiration, here are some places to get started:

I hope you found some fresh ideas to help you fight the winter blues this year! What are some things you do to keep moodiness at bay? Leave a comment down below- I love hearing from you!

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