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Tuesday, September 18, 2018

World Cultures in the Music Room: avoiding exoticism

This school year my primary focus is on creating a more equitable classroom for each and every one of my students, no matter who they are or where they come from. Over the course of a series of posts, I am focusing on particular people groups and perspectives that tend to be marginalized in US-American music education. My hope is to give music teachers practical suggestions and thoughts to ponder to encourage all of us as a profession to have more open and honest conversations about these topics. None of us is able to perfectly understand every perspective in the world, but we are all capable of expanding our worldviews- in fact I believe we have a responsibility as educators to do so!

Today's topic is a familiar one for this site: world cultures. How can we better reflect the wide variety of cultures that our students encounter in their lives? How can our classroom be more responsive to the needs of students from cultures different from our own? How can we model respect for, and teach our students to respect, a broader range of cultural perspectives? Today's focus is on one key aspect of these important questions: avoiding exoticism.


No matter what your local neighborhood or student body may look like, we all live in a global world. Although chances are good that you have multiple countries represented in your student population in one way or another in this day and age, even if you teach in a completely mono-cultural setting, I believe it is important to help students understand and respect the perspectives of cultures around the world to give them the tools they need to be successful in today's society, and to be better humans who can empathize with a broader range of perspectives.

With all of that said, I know that authentically and appropriately representing cultures with which you yourself are not familiar is no easy task! I have talked with so many music teachers who are too scared to incorporate perspectives and material from other cultures because they're afraid they'll "do it wrong". My top suggestion for better reflecting, responding to, and respecting a broader range of cultures from around the world in our music classrooms is to

Avoid exoticism.

This is one of the most difficult concepts to explain but also the key to creating a classroom climate that celebrates and normalizes cultural perspectives from around the world. Whenever we're presenting ideas or music from unfamiliar cultures, we need to do our best to avoid presenting them as "interesting", or as "curiosities", and instead present them as facts of life. A lot of this comes down to checking our own perspectives as teachers: do we think of other cultures as exotic, or just another example of what "normal" look like?

As a US American who grew up mostly in Japan, a common reaction I hear when people find out about my upbringing is the question, "what was THAT like?". My life seems very exotic, unusual, interesting, maybe even cool, simply because I was in a country with which they are not familiar. The problem is I never know how to answer that question- to me, my life was my life. It is my normal. The same is true for everyone- it's important to remember that for Japanese children, going to a festival in the summertime and doing a traditional dance (bonodori) with the other festival-goers is not particularly noteworthy- it's normal.

It's difficult to adequately explain this concept in concrete terms, but here are some practical suggestions for working to avoid exoticism in the way we present world cultures in our classrooms:

1. Present facts of life as facts, not anomalies 

This may seem counter-intuitive, but I find that teachers who get overly excited about little details of life or music from other countries when they present them to their students often end up conveying this sense of exoticism rather than the appreciation they're really going for. I find it more helpful to present material regularly and matter-of-factly, and avoid spending a lot of time giving students too many examples of random little factoids they find interesting but aren't directly related to the lesson content. Those random factoids just create more of a sense of "other" for students.

It can be exciting and intellectually stimulating to have our ideas of normal shattered by encounters with new perspectives, worldviews, and ways of life. There is certainly nothing wrong with modeling that excitement for learning new perspectives and appreciating different points of view. But if we as adults can treat these new perspectives with more of a sense of normalcy when we're sharing them with our students, they will be more likely to internalize them in the same way they learn that ice cream comes in more than one flavor and fire is cool to look at but not to touch: new information for them, but that is normal for others.

2. Don't limit musical examples to "folk"/ traditional styles

One important, concrete way to normalize other cultures is to present visual and musical examples that are current, not just historical. Too often the way we present cultures in our classes leads students to think that all men in Scotland walk around in kilts, Ethiopian people are all naked and starving, and people in Mexico only listen to Mariachi music. We know that's not true, but how many of us grew up thinking this way and were, at some point later in life, startled to realize that the rest of the world doesn't fit such outdated caricatures?

Preserving traditions that have been around for hundreds and thousands of years is important, but we need to be careful not to give students the impression that the rest of the world is living in the past. The truth is, good or bad, that our day-to-day lives have a lot more in common with the lives of those around the world than they ever have before, and showing students modern examples of music and culture, while perhaps less "interesting", will better help our students relate to other cultures and treat people as normal rather than "other".

3. Use musical material from a range of cultures when the culture is not the point

Another way to normalize world cultures for students is to use material from a variety of countries in day-to-day lessons without focusing on the cultural background of the material. Just because the song is in Korean doesn't mean you need to spend 10 minutes talking about Korea, any more than you need to do a lesson on German culture when you use music by Beethoven. Making it a normal part of your classroom to include examples in different languages and from different cultures will make it less of a curiosity and more of a normal part of how we go about our lives.

And please, whatever you do, don't use the phrase "world music"! Let's remember that our native culture is part of the world just as much as all the others. Creating a category of "world music" implies that there is music that is not from "the world" (which leads to that exoticism I keep talking about, where the native culture is "normal" and "the world" is "other than").

4. Avoid putting students from other cultures on the spot

Of course you want to bring your students' backgrounds into your classroom and into your lessons- that's the whole point of this series! Finding musical material that represents the cultures of the students in your classes is absolutely a wonderful idea, and when you do, you of course will want to allow those students who are familiar with the culture to share their insights and experiences, or help with pronunciation if they speak the language.

However, in the same way that we need to be careful of making too much of a "fuss" over the music and customs of other cultures, we need to be careful not to exoticize our students. If you are hoping to have a student share something about their culture in class, talk to them beforehand to ask how and what they would be comfortable sharing- they'll need time to think about what would be interesting to non-natives, because remember, all those things that are so "interesting" to outsiders are normal for them!

We also have to be careful not to make assumptions about how familiar students are with their passport culture and/or language. With all of the global mobility in today's society, there are many children who grow up without ever setting foot in the country of their nationality, and/or do not speak the language their parents speak. Make sure you know for sure what your students' backgrounds are before putting them on the spot to share in class.

And just as I said already with the music, allowing students to share perspectives and experiences from their cultures when the culture is not the point can also go a long way in normalizing these perspectives. Don't limit the times that students can share insights into their worldviews only to times when you're teaching a song from that culture! Making it a part of your normal discussions will help students feel more comfortable interacting with a variety of perspectives and with sharing their own.

If you haven't already, I encourage you to go back and read my introductory post for this series on the topic of "reflecting, responding, and respecting" in general. Reading that post will help to frame the discussion and I have also included several reflection questions that I think are helpful for teachers as they begin to think about creating a more just classroom for all students and perspectives.

What are your thoughts? Questions? Experiences? Let's start talking! Share in the comments or send me an email. Next week I'll be continuing the conversation about presenting world cultures in the music room with resource recommendations and other practical tips for incorporating music from around the world in a way that is reflective and respectful of, and responsive to, our global society. Stay tuned!

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Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Reflecting, Responding, Respecting: making room for every student

This school year my primary focus is on creating a more equitable classroom for each and every one of my students, no matter who they are or where they come from. This is something that has been at the forefront of my teaching philosophy since I first started teaching, but the longer I teach (and the older I get) the more blind spots I find. It doesn't matter who you are as a teacher, or how well you master all the tools of the trade- as human beings we all have unconscious biases and can only process a certain amount of information, so there is no way for any of us to fully understand, respond to, and build upon every single perspective that our students bring to the classroom (let alone the millions of other perspectives out there in the universe that deserve to have a place in our teaching)!

Over the course of a series of posts, my hope is to share some of my latest thoughts on how to more fully include some of those people groups and perspectives that tend to be marginalized in Western (particularly US American) music education. Of course this is a life-long journey, and one that requires ongoing input from all kinds of perspectives, so I hope you will read, engage, and join in the conversation to help me, and all of us, continue to learn and grow!


In today's post I want to introduce this huge topic with some questions for all of us to consider:

1. Who is in my classroom? What backgrounds and perspectives do my students represent?
2. Who am I? What cultural values, religious beliefs, personality traits, race/gender/other aspects of my identity do I bring to my teaching?
3. Who/what is represented and valued in my physical classroom space and/or materials?
4. What kinds of people are being valued in my behavior management systems?
5. Who/what is represented and valued in my lesson content/ repertoire?

I'm sure you can see where this is going. 

I've titled this series, "Reflecting, Responding, Respecting" because that is my goal: to have more perspectives and people reflected in my room, my materials, my lesson content, and my values, to be more responsive to each student's needs, values, and perspectives, and to learn how to better respect (and teach my students to also respect) more perspectives and people in my classes.

Music teaching is hard. There's so much to think about, and so many little humans to care for! No matter where you are on your teaching journey yourself, I hope you don't read these posts and 
a) feel like you are a terrible person or teacher, 
b) get completely overwhelmed by all the changes you want and need to make (especially if that overwhelm leads to giving up and doing nothing), or 
c) think that there's no way for you to have an impact on your students' lives because of the amount of time you have with each one in class.

Instead, my hope is that these posts will help to spur ongoing conversations in the music teaching profession and encourage all of us to continue to strive to improve our practice, create a more just classroom environment, and better reach and teach each one of the students that enter our room. I'd love for you to share your thoughts in the comments below!

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Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Whole Class Behavior Management Systems in Elementary Music

Behavior management in elementary music can be tricky. With such short class periods and so many different classes to teach, the traditional behavior management systems we see other elementary homeroom teachers using don't usually work well in the music room. And don't even get me started on the benefits of encouraging intrinsic and relational motivators over punitive systems that rank or rate student behavior...

My whole class behavior management systems have shifted over my decade of teaching. My goal is to find the right balance between giving students regular, concrete feedback and positive reinforcement to teach and foster positive character as a part of a team where each member is responsible to the whole, and staying away from too many extrinsic, punitive rewards that do not lead to lasting change and create inauthentic, competitive rating systems. Today I want to describe for you my current approach that tries to strike that balance!


In some ways, I would love to throw out "behavior management systems" entirely. I am always working towards fostering positive character in each of my students, developing relationships with them, and creating a positive classroom environment. But for young students, especially those who come from backgrounds of trauma and high social / emotional needs, concrete systems are an important part of teaching them those character traits and giving regular feedback on their behaviors and attitudes.

One unique aspect of music that I always emphasize in my classes is the team aspect. Outside of PE / sports, it is very rare for a student's ability to succeed in a task to be so dependent on other students' success! That's part of the beauty and magic of the music-making experience. So while philosophically I go back and forth on whether it is "right" to continue to use these whole class management systems, I think it is important to find ways to focus specifically on that aspect of their musical growth.

So here's what I do (I promise I'm done philosophizing now...):

1. I have letters velcro-ed to the wall that spell "MUSIC".


Every class starts with that word. If the class as a whole is off-task, not giving their best effort, etc despite some initial reminders, I take a letter down. I tell my students that this should be an instant cue for them to get back on track (and it usually does work that way). It's a non-verbal way for me to cue students to consider their behavior without disrupting class.

On the other hand, if the class as a whole does something extraordinarily well, beyond the standard expectations, I will add a letter. This gives me a concrete way to reinforce hard work, teamwork, and exceptional music-making beyond just a verbal "good job" from me. If they've lost letter(s) I of course add those back first, but I also have additional letters that I can add beneath MUSIC to eventually spell MUSICALITY.

2. Classes move up a "keyboard" at the end of each period.


The number of letters they have at the end of each class translates directly to how many keys they move up on the piano visual. The word MUSIC is 2 piano keys. Any additional letters are 1 piano key each. If the class has lost letters, they get 1 piano key (if they lose all of the letters then of course that would be 0 keys, although that has never happened except with a substitute).

3. Classes earn incentives when they reach certain goals.

I've adjusted these over the years but currently I have 3 "levels" towards which classes are working. They first go up just the black keys to earn a music-related YouTube video of my choice at the beginning of the next class, then they go up just the white keys to earn a day of centers, then they go up all of the keys chromatically to earn a "music party" where the class votes on their favorite music activities to do as a class for one period.

I explain to my students at the beginning of the year that these are opportunities for us to celebrate our hard work and change up our usual routine every now and then. I make it clear that each class is working at different paces and it is NOT a race. I explain to my older students, for example, that I have different expectations for them than I do for my younger students. Some classes may need more reminders (via positive reinforcement) for simpler things like listening to directions, fully participating in singing games, etc, while other classes can meet those expectations without needing so much prompting and reinforcing. I make a bigger deal of their progress each period with classes that need more support, but barely mention it with others who are more intrinsically motivated. Somehow my students seem to understand that!

For more specifics on the "incentives" I use:

  • Here is a post with some of my favorite YouTube channels to use in elementary music (and I share a lot of other favorites on Facebook!)
  • Here is a post with some of my favorite center activities (don't miss the links at the end of this post to more rhythm centers and more pitch naming centers)
  • For the parties, students usually choose games like freeze dance, a musical talent show, opportunities to choose a favorite instrument to play, or a favorite singing game from class. 


All of this is part of a comprehensive set of expectations, systems, and procedures that I have established to help foster each of my students' growth and develop a positive classroom environment. You can read more about all of that in this post:


I would love to have you join in the conversation- leave a comment below with your thoughts and questions, and be sure to sign up here for the Organized Chaos newsletter to get timely ideas and exclusive content sent straight to your inbox!


Friday, August 31, 2018

August Favorites 2018

What a glorious month it has been! I've been on vacation with my family, welcomed a nephew into the world, and just this week my students came back and I got to go back to one of my greatest loves: making music with my kiddos! Here's a look back at some of the highlights from this past month, including some of my favorite new ideas for this school year.

Affiliate links may be included in this post. This does not affect your purchase price or experience but gives me credit for sharing!

1. New books for the music room


While we were on that family vacation I mentioned, we stopped at a fun, quirky used book store where I found SO many great new books to add to my classroom library! I seriously only brought home about half of the ones I initially picked out! I hope to share more specific lessons and uses for each of these books in future blog posts, but for now here is a compilation of all of my favorite lessons using children's literature that I've shared already, and if you're interested in the specific titles I picked up, here's the list:

The Bat Boy & His Violin
Grandfather's Dream
Whistle for Willie
Snake Alley Band
Why the Sun and the Moon Live in the Sky
Sam and the Lucky Money
Nine in One, Grr! Grr!
Chanukah Guess Who?
Nine O'Clock Lullaby
Passover Is Here!
Take Me Out of the Bathtub and Other Silly Dilly Songs
Oops
The Journey
The Little Banjo

2. New word wall replacement


I mentioned this in my classroom tour, but I got rid of my word wall this year. It was a great idea in theory- I had all of the new vocabulary for each grade up on the wall, sorted and color-coded by grade- but I frankly never used it and the students rarely did either. So instead I decided it would be more useful to have one poster that lists every major concept that I cover in each grade. It's basically straight out of my scope and sequence, but condensed into more concise wording. If I'm really on the ball, it will be a great way to check in midyear and see how much we've covered so far and how much work we have left to do, and also use it as a review tool at the end of the year. Even if I don't do that, it's still a really concrete way of showing the progression of skills from grade to grade and giving everyone a better sense of the scope of what we do!

3. The end of summer, the beginning of school


Also, dollar spot sticky notes. I have a bit of an obsession with the colors and designs on the teacher-themed sticky notes (and matching washi tape) from Target dollar spot- the planner spread above is almost entirely made up of those items. I show you this week in my planner mostly, though, to signify the end of summer and the beginning of school. This was the last week of summer planning in my planner, because Thursday and Friday I went back to work for teacher work days, and the following week I got back into lesson planning! I didn't accomplish everything I had hoped for home, school, or Organized Chaos, but I am satisfied with the pace and balance I kept over break, and I felt ready to get back in the classroom. Here's to another amazing school year!

4. Back to school music teacher blog posts

If you want to see more peeks into my life like the snippets above, you'll want to head over to Instagram- I pulled all of the pictures above from my Instagram feed and I share these kinds of tidbits there throughout the week. But to see all of my favorite reads from other amazing music education blogs and websites, you'll want to head to Facebook! I share great posts I find every Friday, and I've compiled all of the ones I shared during the month of August below- just click on the pictures to read each post. Tons of great reads this month that you won't want to miss!






I hope you found some fresh inspiration in this post, and I hope you all had a wonderful month! I'd love to hear your highlights from August- share them in the comments below! And if you want to stay on top of all things Organized Chaos and get exclusive access to content I don't share anywhere else, be sure to sign up here for the Organized Chaos Newsletter.

Happy September!

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Elementary Music Classroom Tour 2018-2019


Time for a classroom tour! I've made a few upgrades that I'm excited about for this school year, but the basic setup of my room has stayed the same. First here's a quick video tour:


Find out more about specific things I mentioned by clicking the links below:
color coded seating
classroom jobs
MUSIC letters
ukulele
small percussion storage
circles
teacher desk
rainbow patterns decor set

And here are some highlights of things that have changed this school year:


I added a new classroom job this year: warmup leader (currently in the yellow box in the picture above)! Read more about why I made the change and what I have planned for them in this post. I also added a few more minions to my walls, mostly to cover up some ugly walls with peeling paint and graffiti I just haven't been able to clean off- you can see one of them peeking out of the top of the magnet board, but you'll see more in another picture below :)


I added the strings of colorful balls (from the Target dollar spot) to the wall above my instrument storage- those posters that I had up before looked a little lonely and out of place before. The music pennants I added in the middle of the school year last year (also from the dollar spot!).


Another element I added to those same open shelves are labels! These are clear adhesive pockets I got at the Target dollar spot. I just cut up some strips of paper, wrote the instrument names on each one, and stuck it on the front of the shelves.


I used to have a plastic milk crate to hold my books, but I upgraded to a wooden one. It looks a lot nicer and it does seem a bit sturdier. I'll still have to keep students from sitting on it though- I tried and it definitely is not strong enough to hold anyone's weight! I also got that little rainbow pillow from the dollar spot (are you sensing a theme?...) to add to my pillow collection.


This is probably my biggest change to my classroom: I have now replaced my word wall with these condensed posters that list all of the major skills, concepts, and topics we cover in each grade level. Get them here if you want your own copy :)


Another minor change, but I found those colored mechanical pencils on sale at Staples this summer so I'm excited to try them out. Last year was the first year I used mechanical pencils at all, and it went pretty well. My main issue was dealing with students who would try to get more lead and would end up dropping the entire piece of lead out of the pencil and onto the floor. Once they got used to them they handled it pretty well, so I'm hoping for another good year with these slightly sturdier ones (the ones I got last year were from Dollar Tree).


This may seem minuscule but I turned my hanging files under my desk sideways so I now have better leg room under the table! Small change, but it makes it so much more comfortable for me to sit and work at my computer there.


Last but not least, here's a better look at some of my newly-added minions! :) This wall was the spot with the worst marks on the wall so there's a higher concentration of minion population in this spot. I love that the stacked up minions have the sign saying something like, "caution minions at work"! Perfect for the classroom!

I think that does it- the school year just started this week and I'm so excited to be seeing my students again! I hope all of you are off to (or getting ready for) a great start this year. If you have any questions or comments about anything you see, feel free to ask away in the comments! :)

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Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Class Openers for Elementary Music

The tone we set at the beginning of class can have a tremendous impact on the success of the rest of the period. And establishing routines for the beginning of class can help students transition more quickly and comfortably into music time. This year I'm establishing some new routines for the beginning of class to address a number of goals I have for my students and I, so today I'm sharing those plans with you!


I've had a set procedure for the end of my elementary general music classes since the beginning of my teaching career (read about that in this post), but I've never actually had a set routine for the beginning of class, other than always meeting the class in the hallway and giving them a specific direction for where to go/ what to do when they come in.

There are a few reasons why I've decided to add more structure to the beginning of my classes this year:
  1. Last year there were several times when I had to mediate a conflict from before music at the beginning of my class, and I wished I had something already established that the rest of the class could do independently without needing my help.
  2. I have been looking for more ways to have students take leadership in class.
  3. I have been looking for a way to have students practice reading/ performing solfege more regularly.
  4. I wanted to replace one of the student jobs I used last year with something new.
I think this new plan will address all of these issues, at least to some extent, and will also give more predictability and structure to the beginning of class, which is good for everyone!

My plan is to have a set of warm-ups, or opening activities, that I select from each day. I'll have a word to describe the type of activity we're doing up on the board, and I'll give my student leaders who are assigned to lead warmups as their job any tasks they need to do to get the activity started. Usually I'll still be leading, but this way if the situation does arise it will be easier for me to manage a conversation with an individual or small group of students while the rest of the class gets started on their own more quickly.

The new job I am planning is called warm-up leader, and my plan is to make sure that no matter what the opening activity is, those students have some leadership role to play in it. Depending on the grade level and the specific students who are doing the job at that time, I can give them more or less independence while still encouraging more ownership and leadership within the activity. I'm also hoping that, as the year progresses and the students gain experience, they'll be able to lead the activities more independently.

Here's the "menu" of general ideas I plan to use throughout the course of the year. For each one, I've listed the word I'll have on the board to act as a visual cue as students enter, and the different ways I plan to have students take leadership in each type of activity.


Here's a little more explanation of what each type of activity will entail:

  • Move: a) class face one leader and mirror their slow movements (no music), b) class copies one leader's movements with the steady beat of track, or c) class moves with the music but has to change their movement every time a leader calls out "switch"
  • Listen: listen silently to a piece of music, sometimes with a particular student-chosen element to listen for (what instruments are playing, how loud, what type of mood....)
  • Circle: these will be a continuation of the circle discussions I detail in this post
  • Rhythm: class practices reading rhythms from notation
  • Melody: a) students identify individual pitches, either by solfege or letter name, that leader notates, or b) class sings patterns with solfege names and hand signs that leader selects
  • Play: class echos leader on body percussion or unpitched percussion instrument(s)
  • Draw: vocal exploration, following a line with their voice

I tried to make sure that in every case, the leadership roles are low-pressure. This is supposed to make students more comfortable, not less, after all! And I am hopeful that with the variety of options I have to draw from, I will be able to create predictability without making it monotonous.

Do you use openers to start your elementary music classes? How do you structure them, and what sorts of activities do you like to include? I'd love to hear your ideas in the comments below!

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Tuesday, August 14, 2018

How Can I Get My 5th Graders to Sing?

It's amazing what a difference a couple of years can make! Lower elementary students will quite literally cheer with excitement when you suggest singing a song together, but somewhere along the line they hit a point when suddenly singing is one of the worst activities you could possibly suggest! There are a lot of factors that obviously play into this change, and there are a lot of things you can do to foster a classroom culture where singing continues to be fun well into the upper elementary and middle school grades, but today I want to share my favorite tip for getting those reticent big kids singing less painfully.


For me the key has been to get the students to focus on something else and make the singing secondary. A big part of the resistance to singing at this age is obviously self-consciousness, so anything you can do to keep their mind on other things besides their singing will help! Any time I want to sing a song with older grades (or actually any grade!), I make sure I have something else for students to do while singing. This could include:

  • an instrumental ostinato / accompaniment (pitched or unpitched)
  • a body percussion pattern
  • hand signs / sign language / motions to go with the lyrics or steady beat
  • dance / movement
  • a cup routine
  • movement or passing game with props (scarves, bean bags etc)
  • hand clapping game 

With younger grades, I may teach students the singing first and then add the movement / accompaniment parts later, teach them simultaneously, or start with the added part. But with upper elementary students who are resistant to singing, I always introduce the added part without the singing first. It may seem silly to do motions silently without any lyrics, but it actually just adds to the mystery! The key is to make sure that the movement / accompaniment part is challenging enough to engage their brains and force them to focus in order to do it correctly (one simple way to make an added part harder is to speed it up!).

Once they've learned the added part, I challenge them first to do it without my help, then to do it while I sing a song. Now the song is an added challenge- a "level up"! Once they can do it while I'm singing, I pause and teach them the song (or part of the song if it's longer), then challenge them to do the previous activity while they simultaneously sing. This process has the added bonus of giving the students an opportunity to hear the song a few times before they're asked to sing it, making them more comfortable with the song before they even open their mouths.

Want some fun lessons to get upper elementary or even middle school students singing and learning important rhythm and pitch concepts? Download this free 5th grade curriculum set for the first month of school to get several great lesson ideas along with the materials to teach them:


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Tuesday, August 7, 2018

The Music Teacher Administrators Love

I'm continuing my series with insights from administrators on how we as music teachers can improve our relationships with administration and with colleagues and raise the level of respect they have for us and our profession, and today I'm sharing administrators' thoughts on what they think makes a great music teacher.

Nobody knows better than music teachers what truly makes a great music teacher. But I'm sure we've all heard those horror stories (or maybe experienced them ourselves) of good teachers who were treated unfairly because colleagues/ administrators didn't value the amazing work that they were doing, either because they weren't aware of what they were doing or didn't understand how the things the teacher was doing were effective (especially when it's a teaching practice that is unique to music)! And for those of us who are well-supported by our school community, it's always helpful to take some time to really reflect on our teaching practice and what we can do to continue to improve, and it's always a good idea to get some outside perspective as we reflect!


The thoughts I'm sharing below are a compilation of responses I got from two interviews: one with my building principal, and one with the district fine arts director. Neither has experience teaching music, but both are extremely supportive and thoughtful administrators. As you read their thoughts, I hope you'll consider how you can better make your administrators aware of these qualities that you probably already possess so that they see those things that they value more readily! At the same time, this is a good opportunity for some honest self-reflection. What areas mentioned here have I let fall to the way-side? What areas of my teaching practice could I focus on this year?

With all of that in mind, here are 3 questions I asked them, and the responses they gave:

What makes a good music teacher?
  • A love of students and a true desire to see them grow. 
  • An understanding of how to help students grow- this comes down to effective planning. An ability to figure out how to most effectively teach the skills and concepts in the curriculum to meet each student's needs.
  • Energy and passion for music and music teaching.
  • Creativity- fresh, new ideas for lessons and programs / performances.
  • Openness to new ideas- don't just keep teaching the same lessons the same way you've always taught them. Focus on skills and concepts and be open to new ways to teach them.
  • Relentlessness- the energy to keep pursuing excellence, to keep trying when you aren't getting through to a student or a lesson falls flat.
  • A dedication to your own musicianship.
How can music teachers be more effective members of the school building staff?
  • Be willing to collaborate with non-specialists. If you're teaching something that could be reinforced in other subjects (like the science of sound or music from a particular country), ask them if they have any resources for you or if they can tie it into their own classes somehow. If they come to you with a topic they are working on in their class, work with them to find musical ways to further student learning, whether you reinforce it in your music classes or give them resources to include a musical activity in their own teaching. Colleagues will come to respect you as an expert, and the students will benefit from the cross-curricular connections!
  • Get involved in school-wide (non-musical) events, programs, and/or committees, whether it's helping to plan an assembly or joining a staff committee. You will be seen as more of a team player and as a teacher deserving of equal respect by colleagues and administrators if you are involved in non-music-specific work in the building, and the other teachers will be much more likely to want to help with music events.
How can music teachers be more effective members of the music department?
  • Be open-minded. Be honest and open in your collaborations with your department colleagues so that you can reflect on areas where you can continue to improve your teaching practice. Often teachers are happy to share their own successes with colleagues but aren't as eager to truly listen to and take into consideration the ideas of other teachers.
  • Don't think that you can't have an impact on the district / department beyond your classroom because you're "just a teacher". Be proactive and get involved in department-wide efforts, especially when you see places where you can contribute a particular interest or expertise.
Do I think that exhibiting all of these qualities will ensure all music teachers are treated fairly and with the respect they deserve? Nope. The reality is, of course, that it doesn't always work that way. But I hope these insights are helpful in at least thinking about what we can do as music teachers to work towards improved relationships and respect.

What are your thoughts on this? It can sometimes be hard to have outsiders tell us how we can do our job better, but I think these suggestions are all quite insightful. I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments below, and if you'd like to get more content like this sent to your inbox and join in a more direct and personal conversation, please sign up for the Organized Chaos Newsletter right here.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

July Favorites 2018

July has officially ended and that means it's time to pause and look back at some of the highlights from the past month- what a wonderful month it has been!


1. Summer planning


One thing I love about summer vacation is the chance to play around with my planner in a more relaxed way. Without tons of lesson plans and other information to cram into each week, I can use more decorative elements and play around with different supplies! If you want to see some of my favorite tips for "functional planner decorating", here's a video I made on that. The flexible weekly layout I use in the summer is in the "business planner" section of the #PlanMyWholeLife planners.

2. Family time!


Of course one of the best parts of summer vacation is getting more time with my daughters! They are just such wonderful humans 💓

3. New school year setup


I don't start school until the very end of August so no, I haven't set up my classroom yet, but I have set up my planner for the new school year (and isn't that the most important part?!?). It's one of my favorite rituals every summer to flip through and reflect back on the previous year's planner and get it set up with fresh new pages for the next school year- click here to watch the video of that whole process.

4. Music education blog posts

As always I've collected some of my favorite blog posts from around the web that I read this month- don't miss these! There's something for everyone from early childhood to secondary music!

Elementary general music classroom setup tips from Anacrusic:

Tips for making KidStix kits from Ponderings from a Finch:

"Genius Hour"-style project from Off the Beaten Path in Music:

A book-based lesson to connect with Mariachi music from Tiny Tapping Toes:

I hope you all had a wonderful July and that you have an even more amazing August ahead- exciting times!! I'd love to hear how your summer is going or chat about your plans for the new school year- send me an email! You can get in touch with me, and stay on top of my latest news, by signing up for the Organized Chaos Newsletter right here. And remember I always share little peeks into various aspects of my life more regularly over on Instagram- I'd love to connect there as well :)

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

A Music Teachers' Guide to Fostering Mutual Respect

Raise your hand if you have ever been told, in words or in actions, that you are somehow less than a "real teacher" by administrators, colleagues, or both! I think most of us have at some point felt disrespected for being "just a music teacher". I know this feeling all too well, and I think it is one of the biggest sources of stress in our line of work today. So I decided to get an outside perspective on this problem: I spoke with two of my administrators to get their perspective on how music teachers can build respect for themselves and for their program within the broader school community, particularly amongst other staff and administration.


The perspectives you will read below are a compilation of the answers I got from two separate interviews: one with my building principal, and one with the director of the district fine arts department. Both of them are amazing administrators who are very supportive and insightful, but neither of them have ever been music teachers themselves. I think hearing their thoughts gives good insight into how we can "speak their language" so that administrators and colleagues better understand and value all of the work we're doing as music teachers.

So here's the question I posed to them:

How can music teachers advocate for themselves as professionals and for the importance of the music program?
  • Get yourself, your students, and your program out there! Public performances keep you and your students' work in music in everyone's minds in a positive way. And don't be afraid to think outside the box- often creative ideas beyond the standard concerts and programs are what capture colleagues', administrators', and the community's attention. 
  • No matter what type of performance you choose to do, make sure it is enjoyable for the audience, musically challenging, and logistically smooth. Present yourself, the director, as a professional. Taking the time to make sure you know how you plan to introduce each song, how each group will enter and exit the stage, etc can make a huge difference in how the performance is received and how professional you and your program appear.
  • Collaborating with non-music colleagues will demonstrate your expertise and professionalism, which in turn causes the broader school community to think more highly of the music curriculum and program as a whole. And that collaboration should be a 2-way street: as you look for ways to incorporate things students are learning in their other subjects into your class, you can and should be offering ideas for how teachers can incorporate music into theirs (in fact, that is often even more effective in advocating for the value of music because teachers and students will see and experience it for themselves)! You don't have to (and shouldn't) scrap your own content to teach another subject, but you can (and should!) make connections to other learning when it fits with what you're doing.
  • Get involved in school- and district-wide discussions on engagement, behavior management, and even IEP and other accommodations for individual students. Music has a unique role to play in these areas, and you can help colleagues and administrators to see the value of music in students' social-emotional lives and in meeting specific learning and academic needs by sharing your knowledge and expertise and sharing ideas of the unique role that music can play in each of those areas. Music teachers often will also see completely different sides of students who may struggle in other subjects but thrive in the music room. Sharing your perspective will help advocate for the importance of music in those students' lives.
  • Be proactive in going to administrators and colleagues with ideas for things you can do to help support work they are doing. Whether it's offering an idea of something that seems to work for a behaviorally challenging student in your class, or a musical spin you want to put on a school-wide initiative, it's important to get out of your own world, be involved with the rest of the building, and put yourself in front of administrators and colleagues.
  • Speak positively about your work, especially when you're talking to colleagues and administrators outside of the music department. Talk about all of the positive things that are happening in your classes, how excited you are for your concert, and those special moments when a particular student is able to shine for the first time. It's easy to get sucked into the endless complaining in the staff room- try not to fall into that trap.
  • Invite administrators to come into your class to see the work you're doing outside of public performances, especially when you know you'll be doing something exciting and rigorous in class that day. It helps them see the more "academic" side of what you're doing and gives them a broader perspective on everything that goes on within a typical music class.
Important note: reading all of this can make it seem like all of the responsibility for improving the level of respect for music education and music teachers rests solely on the shoulders of music teachers themselves. That is of course completely untrue, and please believe me when I say the administrators I interviewed do not feel that way either! I believe reflecting on what we ourselves can do is ultimately the most productive way to get the ball rolling, but if you are looking for concrete ways to encourage others to treat music teachers more respectfully, this post is a good start:


I hope you find some ideas here that will help you make positive changes in your relationships with your colleagues and administrators and promote the importance of music education! It takes effort from all of us to foster mutual respect and ultimately provide a better school experience for everyone.

Please stay in touch and join in the conversations- sign up here for the Organized Chaos Newsletter!

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Music Teacher Job Search: advice from administrators

Going through the job search process can be intimidating. No matter how confident you are in your qualifications for a position, the real mystery is in how to communicate that effectively to the people that can get you that job: administrators and others on the hiring committee who may or may not know much of anything about music teaching and most certainly don't know who you are and what you're like in the classroom!

Did you ever wish you could get some honest feedback from those administrators on the other side of the table and find out what they're really thinking when they sift through the stacks of resumes or listen to your answers in an interview? Well today we all get that chance! I sat down with two of my administrators- the fine arts department director and my building principal- and got their honest thoughts on how to handle everything from job search to resumes, interviews, and beyond.


First of all let's acknowledge that obviously not every administrator thinks the same way. I am lucky enough to have solid relationships with excellent, supportive administrators. Not everyone is so lucky, and even among the best administrators there are certainly a broad range of leadership styles, personalities, and philosophies that come into play in the job search process. But having seen both of them in action as they go through all of the steps of hiring a new teacher, I can confidently say that they are both insightful about what works and what doesn't, and they were also both very good about answering broadly for a range of administrative perspectives based on their interactions with others in similar administrative positions. This is the kind of insight that, at the very least, should help make the job search process a lot less mysterious and intimidating!

I interviewed each of the administrators- my department director and my building principal- separately about a broad range of topics (you'll be hearing more from them over the coming weeks!), and in this post I have compiled their responses on various aspects of the job search process by topic. If you have any follow-up questions for them, please leave them in the comments section below- I know they would be more than happy to answer!

1. Looking for jobs
  • Go ahead and apply for those jobs that may not be the "perfect fit" for you! You don't necessarily want your first interview to be for the job you most want- your interview skills will improve the more you interview.
  • If you have a break in your teaching career, stay involved in music somehow! It will show future potential employers your commitment and passion for music, and it will give you opportunities to network with others in the field. See if you can come in and accompany the local school choir, go to music teacher workshops and conventions, or participate in a community music ensemble!
  • If you find yourself in a less-than-ideal job, do everything you can to still do it to the best of your ability. If your administrators and coworkers can tell others what a fantastic teacher you are, it will serve you well when you're looking for other positions in the future. Don't go into the job thinking "oh well, I'm only going to do this for a year anyway". Go into the job thinking, "I'm going to do this job so well that they'll be begging me to stay and telling everyone what a great job I'm doing, and I'm going to have all of these accomplishments to share with future employers". You'll also just feel better about yourself if you do.
2. Resumes
  • For instrumental teachers, I'm looking for time spent focusing on a particular instrument and experience on the other instruments you would be teaching as well.
  • For general music, I'm looking for a reason you got into (or are hoping to get into) general music teaching- something that tells me this isn't "just a job".
  • For younger candidates, I do look at your grades, especially in your major- if you got consistently poor grades in your major area of study then I question how hard you were working and how much you care! If you do have some inconsistencies or low grades, be prepared with an explanation.
  • In the letters of recommendation, I look for statements beyond the standard- something specific that you did, a specific initiative or program that you were involved in, specific qualities or actions you took in your relationships with students and the community. I want to see something that set you apart in the eyes of the writer.
  • Your cover letter is important! Make sure to tailor your cover letter to the specific job you're applying for, and focus on communicating your passion for teaching, for music, and for students- there is plenty of space to talk about accomplishments and qualifications in the rest of your resume. 
  • Tailor your philosophy of education to the specific job you're applying for- it should be written differently if you're applying for an elementary general music class vs a high school band job. (For more tips on writing your philosophy of education, see this post.)
3. Interview: questions to expect
  • What do you love most about music? I'm looking for a spark in your eye, and I'm also looking to see that you have spent time working on your craft, especially if you are applying for an instrumental or choral music position- I want to know that you have been practicing and performing on a primary instrument/ voice if you are going to be teaching in that type of position!
  • What do you love most about teaching? I'm listening for something about children/students. If a love of children isn't part of your passion for teaching, I'm concerned about your ability to connect with students and your passion for student-centered learning.
  • How do you effectively assess all of your individual students without taking too much time away from teaching? This is particularly for general music teachers, as truly assessing all of the hundreds of students on all of the many areas general music covers can be a particular challenge.
  • How can you contribute to the school community beyond being a good teacher in the classroom? 
  • What are some programs outside of the standard curriculum that you have implemented in the past and/or would hope to implement in our school? This is your chance to highlight some of your specific interests, demonstrate your passion for teaching and for music, and your willingness to get involved in the school community. It could be things you do within the classroom, like a "composer of the month" program or specific unit of study, a performance or school-wide event, or an extracurricular program or ensemble. I'm looking for energy, creativity, passion, and team spirit.
  • If you current/ former students were asked to describe your teaching style, what adjectives would they use?
4. Interview: other advice
  • I'm looking for a spark in an interview- I want to see enthusiasm for your subject, for teaching, and for students! No matter how thoughtful you are in your answers, there needs to be some enthusiasm and energy to accompany your knowledge.
  • Arts teachers can often be somewhat scattered, and while some of that is understandable, I'm looking for a certain level of organization that is necessary for effective teaching. I'm looking for organization and thoughtfulness in your answers that shows me a certain deliberateness to organize/ plan/ reflect to go along with your passion and creativity.
  • Give specific answers to situational questions (like, "what would you do in this situation with a student?"), not just textbook/ buzzword answers. Explain the actual steps you would take in that situation- it helps me to visualize the kind of teacher you are.
  • Ask good questions in the interview yourself! You'll find out a lot about your future administrators and the job itself that will help you decide if it's a good fit for you. Questions like, "would you be open to such-and-such programs or teaching ideas for the music program?" will give you a good sense of how supportive your administrators are and also give you a chance to showcase some of your creative ideas. (For more tips and examples of good questions to ask of an interview panel, see this post.)
  • Talk about the creative or unique things you've done in your classes and/or extracurricular programs. Building principals in particular want to know how you will contribute to the broader school community and how you'll engage students in a unique way. I'm looking for music teachers who can think "outside the box" and bring something special to my school!
  • I want to know that you're willing to collaborate with other teachers- give some examples of ways you have (or hope to) worked with teachers in other subject areas and within your department. I want someone who is going to be a team player!
I hope you find these insights from administrators' perspectives helpful in demystifying the job search and interview process- I know I found it helpful and interesting myself! If you are in the process of looking for a new position, best wishes in your job search! And if you have any further questions on this topic, please leave them in the comments section below- you'll help all of us learn more!

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