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Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Bring Winter to the Music Room

One of the easiest ways to make class more engaging, especially in those challenging months when students are preoccupied with upcoming vacations, is to incorporate the very thing they're thinking about into the lesson itself! This time of year, referencing winter themes can be a great way to engage students without worrying about excluding anyone with a specific holiday.

1. Snowball Fights

Such an easy way to practice/ review vocabulary, notation, or facts! Write words, notes, definitions, questions, or other prompts on pieces of paper and crumple them up into snowballs. Split the class into 2 sides and give each side a set of snowballs. Each side could even make barricades with chairs. Each side throws the "snowballs" at the other side. Any snowballs that hit the other team (or get past the barricade or line on the floor etc), the other side has to open and answer.

You could do this to review letter names by writing notes on a staff and having students identify them by letter, write musical terminology like dynamic and tempo words and have students give the definition, put pictures of instruments and have students identify the correct instrument family.... so many ways to go with this game!

2. Manipulatives

I love using manipulatives for composition (read this post for what I use and how), and this time of year I love pulling out winter shapes like snowflakes, snowmen, mittens, and hats. I've found little sticker shapes, mini erasers, and foam cutouts in these shapes and they're so easy to use! You can also use little cotton balls as manipulatives and call them snowballs :)

3. Winter Stories

I have a few books that I love to use for music lessons, especially with my Kindergarten students, that refer to winter. Click on the pictures to see my detailed plans for each of the books below- they are seriously some of my favorite lessons to teach!

4. Winter Songs and Music

Of course one of the best ways to incorporate winter is to use music with a winter theme! You'll find tons of lesson ideas to go with Sleigh Ride and The Nutcracker below, and here are some ideas for Vivaldi's Winter, and here are some for Frosty Weather.

I hope this gives you some ideas for easy ways to bring the season to your classroom without too much extra effort- it always makes school a little more fun for the students and for me when I change things up a little to fit with the season! I also wrote a similar post with ideas for incorporating summer themes if you're reading this by the pool (luck you!):

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Monday, November 27, 2017

Top 3 Teacher Gift Ideas

I think it's so important for kids to show their appreciation for their teachers, but I also know how incredibly time-consuming it can be to put them together (especially when you're including all the specialist teachers etc, which come on, of COURSE!). Today I want to share some of my favorite gift ideas for teachers that are inexpensive, not too hard to put together, and will still be appreciated by the teachers.

1. Handmade card

Seriously, this is the best gift you could ever give a teacher in my opinion (and in the opinion of pretty much every other teacher I've ever talked to about this), and it costs no money. Have the kids make a card for each of their teachers. Pre-K and Kindergarten- age kids for whom writing is either not possible or extremely time- and energy-consuming can just draw a picture or, depending on their age/ability, they could write "Love, (name)" or even "thank you (teacher name)"- there doesn't have to be a long, heartfelt message, especially from the littles, for it to be truly meaningful. And I can tell you from my own experience that those gifts have a much higher likelihood of being saved and enjoyed for years and years. 

2. Edible treats

... with a handmade card ;) Teachers always appreciate edible treats, and they're another idea that's inexpensive. Coffee/tea pods for the school keurig, a chocolate bar, cookies, a candy cane... they don't have to be fancy or big to be a great little pick-me-up! And these are an easy thing to stick inside a handmade card or add a little note to- the kids could even write directly on a candy wrapper, or you can stick a piece of paper on or around it for them to write their note on.....

3. Containers 

.... with a handmade card (do you see where I'm going with this?). Teachers can always use more containers to contain all the random STUFF we have to organize and keep track of. This year we gave coffee cups, last year we did little tupperware containers from the dollar store, other containers could be a simple basket or box, pencil pouch, or even a mason jar. Trust me, teachers never have enough containers! Add a handmade note or card to it, and you can even take it up one more notch by filling the container with some of those edible treats, or desk supplies (paper clips, erasers, push pins, pencils, pens... all things teachers can always use more of and are readily available in bulk at the dollar store). 

Have I made my point clear enough that the best gift you can give a teacher is a handmade card from the child (and that the card doesn't have to be that involved)? :) There's no better way to make a teacher's day and make them feel appreciated than to remind them that their student(s) care about them! 

What are some of your favorite easy and cheap teacher gift ideas? I'd love to hear them in the comments! 

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Sunday, November 26, 2017

November Favorites 2017

At the end of each month I like to share some of the things that made my heart happy, made my life easier, or that I just thought were cool. This month I've got a favorite first grade music lesson, a fun breakfast idea, an easy but awesome teacher gift idea, and teaching ideas for ukulele, middle school choir, sub plans, and more!

1. Animal toast

I am officially obsessed, you guys. Aside from the bunnies above, I've also made owls, bears, monkeys, and foxes (which I also shared on Instagram). They're so easy to throw together in the morning and when we're all feeling a little less than enthusiastic about getting to school in the morning, it's a great way to get my kids excited for the day! :) The bunnies were made with carrots, raisins, blueberries, bananas, and cream cheese on bread.

2. Teacher gifts

I figured since I was going to be seeing all of my daughters' teachers for conferences anyway, we could go ahead and give them a little thank you gift instead of waiting for Christmas. I think this needs to be a thing. It was a perfect way to get in the Thanksgiving spirit, and I had a lot more energy to help the girls put them together since it wasn't crazy holiday/concert season yet. We made some hot peppermint hot chocolate mix (got the recipe from The Domestic Geek here) and put them in baggies inside these travel mugs we got at Target Dollar Spot. The teachers loved them, it was relatively cheap, and didn't take too long to put together. The girls wrote personal notes to each teacher on the back of the recipe cards :)

3. Mortimer

I love doing my Mortimer lessons in November with my 1st graders! If you haven't seen it already, here's my post with everything I do with this story- it is honestly one of my all-time favorites.

4. Music education blog posts

So many things to love this month- what were some of your favorites? If you haven't already, be sure to sign up for my newsletter. I have something extra special coming in the next one! Plus I always share timely ideas and resources that you're sure to find useful ;) Click here to sign up for the Organized Chaos newsletter!

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

DIY Composition Manipulatives

Composition can be a daunting task for elementary students, but manipulatives can make the task a lot less intimidating and also help students better comprehend what they're doing visually, kinesthetically, and spatially. Today I wanted to share a relatively simple composition manipulative that I use primarily with my upper elementary students that I've found very successful.

This post contains affiliate links.

I've talked extensively about the power of manipulatives in a previous post- you can click here to read more about that topic and get more ideas for different things you can use as manipulatives- but the 2 biggest advantages in my mind are that you can 1) visually represent musical concepts more clearly, and 2) you are taking out the writing process altogether, allowing students to focus on the process of creating music itself. Many young students struggle to write down a rhythm or melody on a piece of paper because their brain has to focus on the actual writing itself, hindering their thinking about creating, or because the plain black and white lines and dots all start to become a blur and they get lost and confused. Manipulatives ease both of those common struggles.

I'm a huge fan of manipulatives in general, but this has got to be one of the simplest: I happened to find these foam sheets at Walmart a little over a year ago and thought, "For that price on that amount of sturdy material in that many colors, surely I can do something useful with it!" and into my cart it went. I paid under $5 for this set of 50 sheets (here is the same thing on Amazon, but not nearly as cheap):

Eventually I decided I could use them for rhythm composition. First I cut each sheet in half long-ways to make two longer rectangles. I assigned one color to be whole notes and made those full rectangles each 1 whole note, writing the note on each card with a permanent marker. From there, I cut the rectangles into different sizes to correspond with the number of beats- for quarter notes I cut each one into 4, for half notes I cut them in half etc- with each different note being a different color. I also made cards for the rests in the appropriate lengths, but kept them all the same color:

It may seem like a simple idea but the results have been pretty powerful: I use these for a wide range of games and composition tasks with lots of ages, because they're easy to pull out whenever I need them, but I particularly spent focused time using these with my 4th graders last year, who I found were really struggling with understanding how to properly fill a measure with the correct number of beats. This year as 5th graders, I was shocked at how easily they were able to write out a rhythm, including all different lengths of notes, even in September. I really think these cards made a difference! 

Of course with my older students especially, I will have them transfer their compositions to a piece of paper after working with the manipulatives. That allows them to focus on one thing at a time- first creating, then writing- and makes the whole thing much smoother. When we're working with multiple measures, I hand out popsicle sticks to use as bar lines. Easy!

The great thing about these, compared to printed cards, is that they are colorful, they are durable, and they are fun for the kids to touch (they're a little bit squishy!). I used these heavily last year and they still look almost brand new. And I have plenty more foam sheets I can quickly cut up if I ever need to replace some or add to my collection ;)

Do you use manipulatives like these for composition in your classroom? I'd love to hear your ideas in the comments below! And if you want to stay in the loop with timely and helpful ideas and resources from me, be sure to sign up for the newsletter. Click here to sign up!

Monday, November 20, 2017

24 Easy Christmas Activities for the Whole Family

With Thanksgiving coming up in just a few days, that means Christmas is just around the corner! Each year since my daughters were almost 3, I've put together an advent calendar (see how I made the calendar itself here- super easy) with a different, small Christmas activity for us to do as a family each day in December leading up to Christmas. As the girls have gotten older, I've changed some of the activities we do, but I've definitely kept the low-key spirit up- no music teacher has time for fussy projects or glitter all over the house in December! Today I wanted to share my list of easy Christmas activities I'll be starting next week with my almost-6-year-old girls.

There are a few things I look for when I'm thinking about what to put on our list: 1) things that we're going to do anyway, like putting up a Christmas tree or wrapping presents, 2) things that are quick and easy but are still Christmasy, like eating a candy cane or singing a Christmas carol, and 3) things that I don't want to forget to do as a family that could easily get lost in the craziness of December, like making cookies or going to see a lights display. So here's my list for this year (in no particular order):

1. Put up the Christmas tree
2. Put out the nativity scenes
3. Put (electric) candles in the windows
4. Put up Christmas lights around the house and on the tree
5. Hang ornaments on the Christmas tree
6. Make a wreath to hang on the front door
7. Bake Christmas (sugar) cookies
8. Decorate Christmas (sugar) cookies
9. Make an advent wreath
10. Make Christmas cards
11. Deliver Christmas cards (in the mail and in person)
12. Shop for/ make presents
13. Wrap presents
14. Take family pictures
15. Call family and friends to wish them a Merry Christmas
16. Make paper snowflakes and hang them up around the house
17. Make a gingerbread house
18. Go on a train ride with Santa
19. Hang the stockings
20. Watch a Christmas movie in our pajamas
21. Read Christmas books (including one new one)
22. Put out cookies and carrots for Santa and the reindeer
23. Drink hot chocolate with all the fixings
24. Drive through the local light display to see the Christmas lights

Here's last year's list for 5 year olds, my list for 4 year olds, and the one for 3 year olds, if you're interested in more ideas for the littles. I love putting the calendar together each year because it relieves the pressure I would otherwise feel to make sure I'm taking the time to enjoy the holiday with my girls, and doing small things each day makes the whole month more fun without anything getting overwhelming!

What holiday traditions do you have with your family? I'd love to hear them in the comments below! Happy Holidays, everyone! :)

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Tuesday, November 14, 2017

6 Ways to Add Challenge to Music for Young Musicians

So you're 4 weeks away from the concert but your students have already learned and memorized all of their music. Or you're looking for some repertoire for the next performance and find a song that's really great but way too easy for your students. Last week I shared my favorite ways to simplify a piece of music to fit your students' needs, and today I'm sharing some ways to do just the opposite by increasing the difficulty level to appropriately challenge your students!

One of the keys to putting together a successful performance with young musicians is making sure the difficulty level of the material is right in that "zone of proximal development". Obviously it won't work if the music is too hard, but I get just as nervous if the music is too easy! Students lose focus and interest so quickly when they learn the music too far in advance of the performance or feel the music is "beneath them". Here are some easy ways I like to add a little extra challenge to a piece to keep students engaged and add to their learning!

1. Add a harmony part

It doesn't have to be the whole song, but adding a harmony (or counter-melody) line to a piece is a great way to up the ante. In a standard verse-chorus song, adding a harmony part to the chorus section is a great way to add a short harmony part that the students can repeat throughout the song.

2. Add instrumental accompaniment

If you're working on a vocal piece, adding instruments is a great way to increase the difficulty and interest! Simple ostinati on unpitched percussion are always a safe bet, but if you can have some students play a counter melody on recorders or a band or string instrument, even better!

3. Add body percussion

This is similar to the last one, but even without instruments you can add accompaniment parts using body percussion! I love adding body percussion patterns if my choir is singing a song with an instrumental interlude in the middle- that way I don't lose their attention while they're not singing, and it keeps the audience more engaged as well. But you can also add body percussion ostinati while a group is singing to add more accompaniment without having to mess with instruments.

4. Split up into sections

If your vocal or instrumental group is not quite ready for harmony or other accompaniment parts but you want to increase the challenge a little bit, splitting one line up between different groups can be a great way to introduce students to partwork. Have half of the students sing the first line, then the other half sing the second line, and work on following the conductor's cues. I am always surprised at how this simple change can add just enough challenge to refocus the group and keep them on their toes!

5. Add more expressive contrast

Hopefully you're already working on changing up dynamics, timbre, and articulation to fit the mood of the piece, but you can make a piece more challenging by really focusing on those expressive elements and adding more dramatic contrast to the piece. Tell students you're going to change it up each time and force them to really respond to your conducting cues by asking for different dynamics etc each time you perform the song!

6. Add props, dance, or dramatic elements

You may have noticed that "add motions" is not on my list- that's because in my opinion, for young musicians, adding motions actually makes the piece easier (here's a post I wrote on that)! However, there are other things you can add to the performance to increase the difficulty, like props (think paper plates, flashlights, scarves, etc) or stage movement/ acting (have some students silently act out the story of the song in front of the ensemble as it is being performed, move around the stage with the music like a very simplified marching band, or even choreograph a full-out dance routine).

There are plenty more ways to "up the ante" and make the material more difficult for young musicians, but those are some of my favorites. What are your favorite tricks for adding extra challenge to performance music? I'd love to hear your ideas in the comments below!

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Monday, November 13, 2017

Spiced Milk Steamers

After an unusually warm October, the weather here has gotten chilly the last few weeks- and that has me craving a hot mug of something cozy all day every day! My 5-year-olds like to get in on the coziness too, but most of the kid-friendly warm drinks, like hot chocolate or hot apple cider, are so sugary. Today I've got another option for a kid-friendly, non-caffeinated warm drink that has a lot less sugar: milk steamers!

I hope I'm not the last person on earth to discover these things.... I have gotten steamed milk for my daughters a couple of times at Starbucks when we went together, but I didn't know it was an actual thing until recently. I started making them for myself on cold winter evenings last year and this year I've loved trying some new flavor combinations!

The basic idea is simple: add some spices and/or sweeteners to some milk and heat it up. Done. I have this latte maker which can froth and heat milk, so I use that, but you can easily make it in a saucepan- just heat everything together on medium low heat, stirring occasionally with a whisk.

Obviously the sky's the limit in terms of flavor combinations- if you aren't worried about the sugar you can do it like Starbucks and just add a little flavored syrup- but here are some of my favorite things to add to my milk steamers:

Sweeteners: honey, molasses
Spices: cinnamon, cardamom, ginger
Extracts: vanilla, peppermint

My absolute favorite combination right now is a little cardamom and molasses. So cozy!

Have you ever tried milk steamers before? What are some of your favorite ways to flavor them? If you've never had one before, give it a shot- it's a really great way to mix up your tea/ coffee/ hot chocolate routine and unwind on a cold evening :)

If you want more hot drink ideas, don't miss my chai tea recipe and my ideas for spicing up your coffee at home:

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Tuesday, November 7, 2017

6 Ways to Simplify Music for Young Musicians

You're 4 rehearsals away from the concert and your choir is nowhere near ready to perform. Or you find a really great piece for your ensemble that would fit perfectly with your theme and you know your students would love, but it's too difficult. I often find myself adapting music to my students' ability levels- sometimes making a piece more challenging, and other times simplifying- and it gives me a lot more flexibility in choosing repertoire and preparing for performances! Today I want to share some easy ways to simplify a piece of music for your students.

1. Leave out parallel harmony (or other tricky harmony) parts

This is an easy one, especially if you're still in the stage of selecting repertoire and haven't begun rehearsing yet! You can remove the harmony parts completely and have everyone sing in unison, or you can leave in just a few notes or phrases if you think your students are up for a little bit of a challenge- it often works out well to have students split into parts at the end of a phrase or section.

2. Repeat lyrics instead of learning all the verses

Obviously this one is specifically for singers: if the song has multiple verses, you can have them repeat the same lyrics for consecutive verses to give them fewer words to learn and memorize. This is a go-to for me if I feel like we're getting too close to a performance and the students aren't on track to finish learning a song in time!

3. Simplify rhythms

I don't like to do this very often but sometimes it can make a big difference in what a group can perform if you simplify the rhythms, particularly if there is a lot of syncopation, shifting meters, rests on downbeats, and other difficult rhythms. I rarely do this with a melody, but I have done it a few times with a harmony or ostinato part to make it easier for students to hear how the parts line up with each other and stay together as an ensemble.

4. Turn a section into a solo/ small ensemble feature

Rather than changing the music itself, you can also just reduce the number of students that have to learn that tricky phrase or memorize that 4th verse! This is a great strategy if you have mixed levels in a larger ensemble (don't we all?!?). Bonus: it's a great way to give those high achievers a little extra challenge while still making the music accessible for the group as a whole.

5. Adjust the key signature

I'm surprised at how many times I've found a piece that was perfect for my students in every way except for the range! If I'm lucky, it's simply a matter of lowering or raising the key to put it in a more comfortable range for the students' voices.

6. Narrow the range

If simply changing the key of the entire song isn't enough to make the music appropriate for your students, you can also narrow the overall range of each part. You'll need a pretty good understanding of chord structure/ melodic contour etc to do this, but even with the most recognizable melodies it can work just fine to lower those high notes to the next chord tone (or vice versa)- it's just a planned way of improvising on the original melody! ;)

There are plenty of other ways to simplify music depending on the piece of music and the students' abilities, but those are some of the easiest and most common strategies I use in my teaching. I hope this opens up new possibilities as you explore repertoire for your students, and eases your mind as you plan ahead to make sure students are ready for their performances!

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Monday, November 6, 2017

DIY Tea Box

It's been a while since I shared a quick and easy DIY project, so I'm excited to have another fun one to share today that's perfect now that the weather is getting cooler: a DIY tea box! Even better, this is a simple way to upcycle something you would otherwise throw away, so it's a great way to do a little planet saving too :)

I am a hot drink lover. Whether it's hot chocolate, coffee, or tea, I love it all! So naturally I have a bit of a tea collection in my pantry. That's all well and good when it's just me, but when I have guests over it can be pretty cumbersome (and overwhelming) to pull out 10 different boxes just to offer them a drink! This tea box solves that problem.

Another thing I love are those "cracker cuts"- cheese that is pre-cut into squares. They are so easy to pack in lunches and they're great to put out as a no-fuss appetizer or a quick snack after school. So I started accumulating these nifty long, rectangular plastic boxes that the cheese came in- I knew there had to be a way to reuse them!

Turns out, they are a great size for tea bags:

Besides the nice shape, these boxes also have a pretty good seal on the lid, so I can keep some of those tea bags that aren't individually packaged in there too- I just cut out a piece of the box so I know what type of tea it is, and stuck a few of each tea behind the cutout.

Honestly if you don't care about aesthetics, you could just rinse out the box, flip it over, and throw some tea bags in there. But of course I wanted mine to look a little more fun, so I cleaned off the original label and stuck some washi tape around the outside and on the lid. I put a few stickers on the top to write the word "tea" on the lid, and that's it!

I'm happy to have this little box on hand for the next time I have people over! Now to find some people to invite...... ;)

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