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Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Elementary Music Center Activities (part 2)

It has been well over a year since I last shared some favorite center activities, so it's time for an update! I've found some new favorites since my last post, but be sure to check out my other center ideas linked at the end of this one for more ideas- all of them are still ones I use and love as well!


1. Chromebook Activities

I love pulling out the chromebooks for centers- I have 3 in my classroom and have found so many great free sites that are perfect for elementary students to explore! I save Incredibox for the older students, but Chrome Music Lab is one I use with all grades- sometimes I will give them a specific activity within the lab, like songmaker, to work with, and other times I will let them explore whichever ones they want.

2. Truth or Dare

I wrote an entire post about this, which you can read right here, but this is probably my top favorite of my new center ideas. This is another one I save for upper elementary (gotta keep things fresh!), and they absolutely love it. Basically there are 2 decks of cards: one for "truths" (trivia questions about music) and one for "dares" (actions to complete, like performing a rhythm or singing a song). It is so easy to set up and explain, the students get so much great exploration and review time, and it is pure fun at the same time!

3. Vocal Exploration

This is one I use just with lower elementary: I put out pipe cleaners (I find them at Dollar Tree or on clearance at Walmart) in all different colors and sizes, and have students create a line that the others then sing as they trace it with their finger. So simple but they love it!

4. Instrument Dice

This is another new favorite for all grades (and the older students don't mind doing it over and over either!). I use 2 dry erase dice: one with classroom percussion instrument names on each side, and the other with a simple 4-beat rhythm on each side. They roll the dice, then play the rhythm they rolled on the instrument they rolled. Sometimes I mix it up with a third die for older grades that has dynamics or tempo words on it!

5. Coloring

I have been amazed at how much my students enjoy coloring. I found this coloring book that I have copied pages from, and I've also used the coloring pages from World Music with DARIA (she has lots of free ones!). I like using the ones that encourage reflection, like listing their favorite songs or artists, for the older ones, and the instrument pictures for the younger ones so they can learn what the instruments look like.

Looking for more center ideas? This post has more of my favorite centers:


I love using centers to mix things up every now and then and give students a chance to explore and practice in a low-pressure setting. Have other favorite center activities you've had success with in the elementary music room? Please share them below in the comments!

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Self-Contained Special Education Music Classes: tips and resources

After writing a couple of posts on strategies for teaching students with special needs in integrated music classes in the fall, I got a lot of requests for tips on teaching students with differing abilities in the self-contained setting. While I am certainly no expert in this field, I have had the opportunity to teach a few self-contained classes over the years, including the current school year, and I have done a good bit of research in the area and spoken with several more experienced teachers about their best strategies. Hopefully these tips will serve as a starting point for music teachers like me who don't have specialized training in special education but are thrown into this teaching situation!

This post contains affiliate links, which do not affect the buying experience or opinions shared in the post.

First of all it's important to note that, since no two people are alike, no two self-contained classes are alike either. There are vast differences in setting, class size, available staffing, materials and resources, and most importantly, student strengths, needs, abilities, and interests. The ideas I'm sharing today are general enough to apply to most situations, but as with any aspect of teaching, it's important to take individual factors into account as you consider these suggestions!

All of the things I mentioned in my previous post on integrated classes definitely still apply here- be sure to read the full post for more detailed suggestions for each of these areas:
  • communicate with special education teachers and other staff and seek out as much information as possible about individual students' strengths, needs, and interests
  • build relationships with paras, aids, and other staff members
  • provide opportunities for students to share areas of strength in class
  • use lots of visual cues
  • give time for exploration
  • build in lots of repetition and structure 
Beyond these strategies, though, I have found a few key tips that have helped make lessons with my self-contained classes much more successful:

1. Consistency and predictability

All elementary students benefit from predictable routines, but the benefits are magnified for most students in self-contained classes. I've had a lot of success picking a set lesson structure and using the same sequence every time. Depending on the needs of the students in each class, it may even be best to do the exact same lesson plan at least two times for students to better process and have more opportunities to fully participate and engage. Regardless of how much you repeat an exact lesson or activity, though, it's very helpful to find a formula that works and vary the activities within each segment of the lesson as often or as little as appropriate.

For example, you might start with a story, then do some vocal warmups, then instrument exploration, listening and movement, and singing. I've found that each group of students responds differently to different types of activities, so I play around with the sequence and type of lesson activities until I find the formula that's most successful. The key is to find a formula and stick to it.

2. Involve all staff members

For self-contained classes, the class sizes are usually much smaller, which can make things like singing a lot more difficult because each voice is more exposed. Students also need as much modeling as possible. So getting the aids, paraprofessionals, and other staff in the room directly involved in the lesson is critical! Of course you'll want to warn them ahead of time, but if we're playing instruments, each adult gets their own instrument. If we're moving with scarves, the adults get scarves. If we're taking turns doing something, all the adults get turns too. Some of the staff may be hesitant at first, but if you're working to build positive relationships and treating them respectfully, and if you can explain why you're asking them to be involved, they should be able to get on board with what you're doing (and hopefully learn to enjoy it more as they get comfortable!).

3. Individual attention

Of course we want to do this for all of our students, but it's so important to make eye contact, say each students' name, and give plenty of individual positive reinforcement throughout the lesson. One of the benefits of self-contained classes is the freedom we have to spend more time focusing on each child- take advantage of that! It's easy to forget how much effort it sometimes takes for students to do things that we may take for granted, and if we take the time to acknowledge their efforts it will go a long way towards building trust and respect.

Along the same lines, don't be afraid to take that extra time to work with a student who is struggling with a particular assignment. Whether it's vocalizing, doing a physical activity, or even waiting for their turn, the best learning happens when we can stop and give them the extra time and support to work on that skill. And if a student has a breakthrough moment in class (or seems poised to) and starts doing something they weren't able to before, take the time to celebrate and reinforce that! I can always tell when something I didn't know was a big deal for a particular student is a brand new skill, because the staff's faces will light up and somebody will usually start frantically documenting the moment :)

4. Lesson content

This is the part where what works for one student, one class, one situation will not necessarily work for another, but here are some lesson activities that I (and other colleagues I've sought advice from) have found the most successful in self-contained music classes:
  • Literature-based lessons: here is a post with some of my favorite lesson plans using children's books
  • Movement with music: give students props like scarves, ribbon wands, etc, give them time to move freely with the music, have them mirror you, have students take turns coming up with movements for the rest of the class to copy, move on the beat
  • Instruments with music: simple instruments like rhythm sticks and hand drums are great for this- have students take turns playing a simple rhythm ostinato or steady beat with the music
  • Singing games: games like Apple Tree, Bluebird, Pass the Pumpkin, Acka Backa, etc 
  • Echo and call and response songs
5. Resources

I mentioned these in my previous post but they're worth mentioning again: if you're working with students with differing abilities, I highly recommend these two books by Alice Hammel for great insights into overarching issues as well as specific strategies that directly apply to music teaching:

Teaching Music to Students with Special Needs: A Label-Free Approach
Teaching Music to Students with Special Needs: A Practical Resource

These websites have lots of information for specific needs and strategies:

Coast Music Therapy
Intervention Central

I want to note that, whenever we can, I think it's important for us to advocate for inclusion as much as possible. As I discuss in my previous posts on inclusion, it's beneficial for all students when everyone can be included in the same class together. Don't think that as a music teacher you have no say in the matter- I have found that there are a lot more opportunities for me to advocate for the needs of my students with special needs than I realized when I first started teaching, so stay in close communication with colleagues and look for those opportunities whenever you can. That being said, I know that there are many times when we don't have control over where students are placed, and there are times when a self-contained setting is the most appropriate for particular students for one reason or another. For those situations, I hope you find these suggestions helpful!

Please help us all continue to learn and continue the conversation by sharing your thoughts in the comments below. I'd love to hear your success stories, favorite lesson ideas, and helpful resources!

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Elementary Music Supplies: my top picks in order of priority

One of the unfortunate situations in which many music teachers find themselves is needing to figure out what the most important items are to buy for their music class when they have a tiny budget and nothing (or next to nothing) available. Having been through this experience myself, and now also having some experience with different classrooms with different resources at my disposal, I thought I would share my list, in order of priority, of elementary music supplies.


I have been very lucky in terms of resources in most of the schools I've taught in, but my very first year of teaching I was the first elementary music teacher they had ever had, so I was faced with the decision, without having any real teaching experience, of deciding what was most important to get for my classroom for that first year. In every job since then I have come into a program that was already pretty well-stocked, but in every case I have found several gaping holes in inventory that just puzzle me. Why have 20 guiros and no rhythm sticks???? (True. Story.)

If I was starting from scratch, and had a limited budget each year, here is the order in which I would try to acquire things. Keep in mind, even if your school budget is very small, there are plenty of other ways to get supplies and/or funding! I have used DonorsChoose successfully to get a lot of my instruments and other "big ticket" items. Jennifer Bailey from SingToKids has more great suggestions for funding options in this post. Don't get totally discouraged by a tiny budget!

1. rhythm sticks and hand drums: class sets

These are the first things I look for in a music room and are absolutely the highest priority for me- rhythm sticks and hand drums are versatile for all elementary ages and can be used for rhythm practice, adding instrumental ostinati, and other basic lesson content we all want to cover effectively for a relatively low cost. Ideally I think the Remo Fiberskyn hand drums are the best- I like to have maybe one of each of the different sizes and then the rest in the 8" or 10" size (those seem to be the most versatile size for elementary students). For rhythm sticks I prefer wooden ones without the ridges (I know, it seems like you're getting more "bang for your buck" with the ridged ones but they're honestly more of a distraction than anything else in my opinion).

2. diatonic boomwhackers: 1 octave per 3-4 students

For a tiny budget, boomwhackers are next on the priority list so that I can have some pitched instruments. Boomwhackers are another instrument that can be used with a wide range of ages, and can be used for pitched ostinati and melodies, composition, etc. I don't think it's worth the cost to get the extended octaves, but octavator caps are a great way to expand the range at a much lower cost (and far less storage space).

3. barred instruments: at least half of a class set

Here's where a lot depends on the budget size: ideally, it's great to have a variety of barred instruments so you can have more varied timbres and have a wider range in ensemble pieces. If I could get any combination of 12 total barred instruments, I would get 2 soprano glockenspiels, 3 soprano xylophones, 4 alto xylophones, 1 bass xylophone, 1 soprano metallophone, and 1 alto metallophone. If I had enough to get a set of 24 instruments, I would add 1 bass xylophone, 1 more soprano glockenspiel and 3 alto glockenspiels, 4 more soprano xylophones, and 3 more alto xylophones.

That said, if I can only get 1 or 2 instruments at a time, I would start with soprano and alto xylophones, then glockenspiels, then bass xylophones, and add metallophones last. For the xylophones I don't recommend skimping too much on the quality, but if you can't afford any of the nicer barred instruments, these boomwhacker color glockenspiels are a great way to get some barred instruments for students to use that are worth the price (and, bonus, they're great for composing etc because the bars match the boomwhacker colors).

4. tambourines and triangles: half a class set

My next priorities for unpitched percussion instruments would be tambourines and triangles- they are, again, great for a wide range of ages, and they add a good variety in timbre to go with the rhythm sticks and hand drums. I think the tambourines with heads are definitely preferable to the headless ones. For triangles it's hard to go wrong as long as they're not the teeny tiny toy ones or the giant orchestral ones, but for me the one non-negotiable is these rubber triangle holders. They are cheap and make a huge difference for young players, because they keep the instrument relatively still while it's being held up and played.

5. scarves and bean bags: class sets

Movement props are such a great addition to elementary music lessons. Scarves in assorted colors are perfect for lower elementary, and bean bags are great for lots of singing and circle games for all ages.

6. wrist bells and egg shakers: class sets

I mostly use wrist bells and egg shakers for lower elementary students but they are great for adding variety for the younger crowd who may not be ready for some of the other instruments, and they're cheap. They're also great sounds to have for soundscapes and rhythm compositions for the older students.

7. "color" instruments: 2 of each

Beyond the basics that I want to have for all my students to use regularly, I like to have a variety of other unpitched percussion instruments for adding more variety to instrumental ensembles, giving more choices for student compositions, and adding more timbres for soundscapes. I would try to get 2 of each (you'll avoid a good amount of arguing just by having 2 instead of 1- trust me, it's worth it) in the following order: cowbell, vibraslap, ratchet, sandblocks, guiro, slapstick, cabasa, gong, sleigh bells, finger cymbals, maracas, rainstick, tone/ temple block, stir drum, wind chimes, flexatone, and agogo bells.

8. dry erase staff boards: class set

Once I have a good classroom set of instruments and movement props, music staff dry erase boards are my next priority. You can definitely use paper, or even laminated paper, but the boards are so much sturdier so students can use them in their laps, and the younger students can use them to place manipulatives on the staff as well.

9. ukuleles: class set

If you can't afford a class set you can definitely do a lot with half of a class set, but ukuleles are surprisingly affordable and they are a fantastic thing to have for older elementary and middle school students. They are a great tool for learning about chords, and older students can use them for composition and adding chordal accompaniments. These are the ones I have, which I love, and I've written a whole separate post about all my tips for ukuleles here.

10. larger drums

If you can afford them, having some larger drums to add some more low tones to your instrument selections and give your older students more variety of drumming resources is a great addition. A gathering drum works well, and tubanos add a lot of versatility.

other considerations

There are obviously some broader categories and big ticket items that are important to an elementary music classroom but are not included here: every elementary music room should have a piano, sound system/ music player, computer, and projector at a minimum, and ideally you would want an interactive board and student laptops and/or tablets as well. Recorders are another priority instrument for me, but I don't think they're worth teaching if you have to have students share a class set- students should be purchasing their own, and if you can't do that, I would stick with barred instruments and boomwhackers.

For furniture, I think decent chairs are a must- I don't like having older students sitting on the floor or even risers, because it promotes poor posture. I've been lucky enough to have these Wenger student chairs in most of my classrooms and they are ideal. Circle rugs that seat at least 24 students comfortably are also really awesome, especially if you have hard floors, but are usually quite expensive.

Texts are a whole other category as well, which I haven't touched on at all here. There are a LOT of amazing text resources that I love, but if you are on a limited budget and don't have curricular resources, this is what I would recommend buying. You can also learn about setting up your own curriculum resource for free in my Lesson Planning Made Awesome course.

Of course there are plenty of other things that are great to have: manipulatives, puppets, other movement props, conducting batons, visuals and decor, recording microphone, music notation software, etc. But when I look at what I need to be able to teach students all of the concepts I want them to learn, the priorities above are most important to me.

So now I turn it over to you: what did I miss? Which things on my list surprised you? Would you put things in a different order? Share your advice in the comments to help other teachers make the most informed decision possible!


Saturday, March 2, 2019

February Favorites 2019

February has been a busy but very fun month, and it has me looking forward to all the March excitement as well! So many new ideas I am itching to implement- I hope you find some inspiration today to get you excited too.


1. New books, more representation


I have been so happy with the new books that I got for my classroom library! I've used several in lessons with my students, many have come in handy as impromptu references, and when classes have time to read independently they have been excited about the new additions. You'll have to check out my post on Instagram to see all of the books I got this month because they are all wonderful- the picture above is just one of five!

2. MIOSM preparations


It has been so exciting to be getting ready for Music In Our Schools Month this year, as I have been working on several new ideas that I'm incorporating for the first time this year based on the new theme- I can't wait to see my students' reactions! I've been sharing my plans on the blog all month long- here is the post on the Musical March Madness bracket shown above, here is a post on my favorite new lesson idea incorporating exploration of a wide range of genres, and here is my post on how I plan to incorporate informances. It's going to be a fun month ahead!!

3. Music Education Resources

I love reading all of the great ideas shared within the online music education community! Here are some of my favorite ideas from this past month- click on the pictures to read the full posts.





I share these articles and resources each week over on my Facebook page, so if you want to stay updated on my latest finds you should follow me there!

I'd love to hear about some of your highlights from February as well- it's fun to celebrate the "highs" and get inspiration from each other! Happy Music In Our Schools Month!

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Music March Madness: exploring musical genres

I'm trying some new ideas for recognizing Music In Our Schools Month this year, and one of them is a March Madness- style bracket for songs from a variety of genres. I'm excited to use this as a way to generate thought and discussion around a wide range of genres among students and the broader school community, and it ties in perfectly with this year's theme: "All Music. All People." so I think it's the perfect time to try it out!


The basic idea is to play 2 songs over the announcements each morning and ask students to vote on which one they prefer, then gradually put the winners of each round against each other in a bracket format until we end up with one top favorite song for the school! Because we have 21 school days in March this year, I came up with this bracket so that we would have one round for each school day:


That's 24 songs that get narrowed down to 1 by the end of the month! As you can see, I had to have one round where 3 songs go against each other to make the math work out, but that will just keep it interesting towards the end, right?

I decided to choose songs that I don't think my students will be familiar with, because I don't want certain songs to have the advantage of being well-known. Some genres will definitely still be more familiar than others, of course, but hopefully it will help students be more open-minded if they don't instantly recognize certain songs.

Here's the list I've come up with for this year (in no particular order), or you can see them all in this YouTube playlist:
























Of course you can do this with any songs you like! Although they will all be unfamiliar to most of my students, I tried to also pick songs that would be appealing to at least some portion of my student population rather than pick things that are so foreign that students would immediately tune it out. I do use a lot of music that is less comfortable for them in my own classes, but since I won't be there to help them know how to listen to it, I thought it would be more of a "fair fight" to choose things that they will at least be able to appreciate at some level without my input.

I don't know if this will work out, but I'm hoping to also have staff from around the district vote as well. I'm hoping to send out a simple poll they can click in their email that would make it easy for them to listen and vote- it would be interesting to see what the staff would pick compared to the students, and it would be great to involve more of the adults from around the district to raise awareness as well!

Have any of you tried a "march madness" bracket like this before? What songs or genres do you think I should include next year? I would love to hear your thoughts and ideas in the comments below!

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Informances 4 Ways

I asked my readers recently to tell me what they would like to see me write about, and one of the most-requested topics was informances. I think a lot of music teachers are intrigued by the idea of moving away from the time-consuming and stressful process of performance and concert prep (music education's version of teaching to the test), but are confused about how to go about putting together a meaningful informance (or aren't quite sure what an informance even is). Today I want to share some general tips for different ways you can structure an informance with your students- with Music In Our Schools Month fast approaching, this is the perfect time to try!


First, what even is an "informance"?

The idea of an informance, as I understand it, is to present music to an audience, like you would in a performance, but with a focus on informing the audience about the day-to-day musicking process rather than showcasing one, shiny, final product. It's more about the "audience" being invited to observe and experience a fuller breadth of students' musical development rather than being presented with a set of particular songs that students have perfected. Less about product and more about process. Less for the audience to consume and more for the audience to learn.

If this is your first time hearing about informances, I'm sure you can see why the idea is both intriguing for educators and also confusing. Less time spent drilling students on memorizing specific songs and more time for a rich and broad music education? Less pressure for young students to achieve a certain performance standard, and more opportunity to showcase student creativity? Yes please! But how?

I've done this a few different ways over the years. Here are some basic ways to think about structuring an informance:

1. Full School Assembly

One option is to set up your informance as essentially a full-school assembly, where each class or grade shares something with the rest of the school. This works especially well if you have some kind of unifying theme. I did this last year as part of our school's international festival- each grade shared a song or dance from a particular country. I stationed each grade in one area around the gym with their instruments and props already set up where they were. They stood up when it was their turn to share, and watched the other grades from that same spot, so there was minimal transition time.

2. Grade Level or Class On Stage

Most "standard informances" will probably fall in this category, and if you are worried about parents or administration complaining about moving away from more formal "concerts", this may be your foot in the door. The idea is to still have a class or grade up on the stage sharing their music, but rather than a strict "stand and sing/play", have students share original compositions or improvisations, incorporate movement, or otherwise involve other aspects of music-making that you would find in your normal classes. You have options for how you inform the audience about the purpose behind what students are doing: students can give verbal explanations as part of the program, you can act as the narrator yourself, or you can include written explanations either in a printed program or projected on a screen.

3. Invitation to Class Time

Of course one way to truly invite the "audience" to learn about what is happening in music class is to actually invite them into the music room during a normal class period! Sometimes if a class is working on putting a song together with different instrument parts etc, or is creating a piece based on a book, I will invite parents and any available staff/ administration in the building to come and watch our final class period when we put all the parts together. I've also sometimes been able to arrange to have another class or grade come to watch- this is especially fun when an older grade shares with a younger one, or vice versa. In my current school each 6th grade class is paired with a kindergarten class as "book buddies" and they meet every few weeks to do something together- if your school has something like this already set up, that is an easy way to bring in a musical sharing time!

4. Sharing Recordings

If logistics are too difficult to manage getting people to observe your informance in person, don't negate the impact of sharing a recording from class! Although you'll need to be careful to make sure you have the appropriate permissions before sharing a video, if you make sure to protect student privacy appropriately, this can be an easy way to help others in the community see what students are doing in music class, and give students a chance to share what they can do. I record my classes quite often when they are working hard on something together as a group, and I'll share the video with administrators and their homeroom teachers with a brief explanation of what the students have been learning, and a request that they send back a comment after they watch. The students are always thrilled to hear me read the comments they receive, and it's a fantastic way to advocate for what you do with others in your building without having to organize an event in advance!

If you want to see what a more formal, on-stage, fully-developed informance can be like (with lots of information and ideas on how to do it yourself), you'll want to read this post (and the rest of the ones in the same series) by We Are the Music Makers- hers are definitely more involved but she has lots of wonderful ideas for tying the informance to literature as the connecting theme, which you can absolutely use as a starting point for any of the more informal structures I've described.

Music In Our Schools Month is a great time to include an informance, because it draws attention to the important work that we do each and every day in our classrooms. This year in particular, NAfME has been encouraging music teachers to focus more on sharing process over product, and has several resources available to help you put together an informance or share things from your classroom in other ways- be sure to check out their resources on their website!

I hope these ideas make informances less intimidating and helps spark some new ideas to try in your own classrooms! If you have had experience doing an informances, I'd love to hear about your tips and ideas in the comments below. There are so many ways to incorporate this idea in your school!

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

My Family Plays Music: exploring musical genres

I found a new book for my classroom that I can't wait to share with every single class, and it is absolutely perfect for Music In Our Schools Month too (but really would be great any time of year)! I don't know why I didn't hear about this book sooner, but I'm so glad I found it and I hope you all enjoy these lesson ideas as much as I am.

This post may contain affiliate links, which will not affect the purchase price or buying experience but will support this blog.

My Family Plays Music by Judy Cox is a beautiful book about a young girl who comes from an diversely musical family- from a great-grandmother who plays organ at church to an aunt who plays vibes with a jazz combo (and everything in between). On each page, the girl introduces us to a family member and the music they play, and shares a classroom percussion instrument she likes to play with each genre. The book features people of all ages, gender, shades, and sizes, and of course a wide range of musical genres.

The MIOSM theme for 2019 is "All Music. All People". What could possibly be a more perfect fit for this book than that?!? I am planning to use this lesson during the month of March this year to explore and celebrate the variety of musical genres and ways we can participate in music-making, no matter who we are.

For this lesson, I'll be stopping after each page to show students an example of the genre that is mentioned on the page. Before we start the story, I will pass out one of the instruments the main character plays to each student. After watching the video/ listening to the excerpt for each genre once and discussing what we see/hear, I'll have a small group of students play along with a short repeated rhythmic pattern on the instrument that she mentions on the same page while we listen/watch again. Of course there are plenty of recordings you could use for each one, but these are the ones I found that best match the descriptions in the book:

1. Mom's country-and-western fiddle (play along on tambourine)

*note there is one swear word in the first verse of this- I plan to start the recording midway through around 1:03



2. Dad's string quartet cello (play along on triangle)



3. Sister's marching band clarinet (play along on cymbals)



4. Brother's rock 'n' roll guitar (play along on cowbell)


5. Aunt's jazz vibraphone (play along on woodblock)


6. Uncle's big band saxophone (play along on maracas)



7. Grandma's bluegrass banjo (play along on jug)



8. Grandpa's polka band tuba (play along on rhythm sticks)



9. Great-grandmother's pipe organ (play along on hand bell)



10. Cousin's spoken word bongos (play along on wind chimes)



11. Niece's pots and pans (play along on pots/pans)



The story ends with the entire family dancing together, with the text:

"...And when we get together, we celebrate!"

That's when we'll watch this rendition of "Celebration" and dance along with the music.


After finishing the story, we'll review the genres and instruments we read about and have a discussion about which genres and instruments (either from the story or otherwise) we enjoy and why. Then we'll talk about how different people can enjoy different styles, and the variety of ways that we can make music in our lives. Then we'll talk about how all the different children around the world came together for the song in the final video, and how the family came together to dance at the end of the story, and we'll practice having the whole class play together on their different instruments (for kindergarten I'll have them all play the same rhythm together, 1st-4th grades can layer one instrument in at a time on different rhythm ostinati, and the oldest grades can come up with their own patterns for each instrument).

There are so many musical concepts you can address through this lesson: musical genres and instrument names, names and playing techniques for classroom instruments, musical elements (through the discussions about genres etc), performing and/or creating rhythm ostinati, and rhythm reading (if you have students read a rhythm from notation for their play-along patterns). Most importantly, it is such an accessible and engaging way to expose students to a wide range of musical genres, musicians, music-making opportunities, and instruments!

I love using books as a basis for music lessons, especially with my younger students! You can see all of my literature-based lesson ideas in this post:


Have you ever used this book in your classroom? This book was first published in 2003- why in the world am I just now discovering it?!? If you have used it before I'd love to hear how you used it in your music classroom- leave a comment below. I hope you get some fresh inspiration to use during your Music In Our Schools Month celebrations or any time of year!

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Current Musicians of Color for Black History Month and Beyond (Part 2)

In celebration of Black History Month, I'm sharing more current musicians of color that I like to use in my classroom. These are artists who are currently active and have school-appropriate music- in fact many of these artists have created music specifically for the classroom. These are also lesser-known artists who you may not have heard of before- I hope you'll find a new song or artist to share with your students this month and all year long.


My goal in including these songs and artists in my lessons is to provide students with more role models, and to "normalize" musicians of color. If the only time students see people of color represented in the classroom is in February, or only when you talk about Jazz or spirituals, it limits their understanding of the contributions people of color have made to the world of music, and the contributions that they themselves can make.

1. Desmond Dennis



2. Resound


3. Asia Monet



4. Griot B



5. Ms. Niki



6. Black Violin



7. The Roots


8. Our Native Daughters/ Rhiannon Giddens


I know there are plenty of other musicians that could be mentioned here, particularly more well-known ones, but my hope is to share some artists you may not have heard of before. I'd love to hear what other names you would add to the list- share them in the comments below! If you want to see more musicians that I shared last year for Black History Month, here is that post:


To read more about how we can all better respect, reflect, and respond to students of color in our music classrooms all year long, check out these posts:



Although Black History Month is a great opportunity to focus our attention on better representing people of color in our classrooms, it's important for this not to be a one-month change but rather be the impetus for lasting improvement! 

Monday, February 4, 2019

January Favorites 2019

It's crazy to be typing "2019"- one month already gone in the new year! January is always a busy month in my house- here are some highlights from last month as told by pictures from my Instagram photos!


1. Birthdays



One of the biggest reasons January is busy for me is because of all the birthdays! Besides a few friends who have birthdays this month, my daughters and my mom both have January birthdays. This year my mother turned 60, so we had some extra planning for that, and I loved hosting my daughters' bug-themed party. Each year the girls pick out a theme and we figure out snacks and activities to go with it. It's so much fun to see how creative they get, making up their own games and coming up with fun snack ideas :) Busy but fun!

2. Hip-Hop Unit



I am partnering with a local hip-hop artist to take my 6th graders through a class project creating their own hip-hop song and recording it. This has definitely been a new adventure for me in so many ways, but an important one, and I am learning a lot as I go (as are the students!). The books in the picture above are not for the 6th grade unit specifically, but I also ordered these books for my classroom library to add more variety to my book selections, and I'm so happy with these!

3. Planner Updates



If you've been around these parts for a while you'll know that I start working on next school year's planners in January. I've gotten several great suggestions from members of my Facebook Planner Collaborative group- if you want to have input into the 2019-2020 planner updates, or just want to hang out with other planner lovers, come join us! For anyone who owns one of my planners, the free updates should be available by May, so stay tuned...

4. Music Education Articles

I always round up my favorite finds from the month in music education blogger world- click on the pictures below to read each of these awesome posts! I share these each week over on my Facebook page, so follow me there if you want to stay up to date on all my favorite posts :)






I hope you enjoyed this trip down memory lane, and best wishes on a wonderful February ahead!

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Pop Songs for Elementary Choir: Finding the Right Song

For the last 6 years, I have been incorporating at least one "pop" song into my 5th and 6th grade choir's performances at every concert. I have found it to be a great practice for so many reasons, and over the years I have learned how to make it work most successfully for my students. Last week I shared the benefits I see for incorporating pop music in choir literature, as well as how I take a pop song and make it work in a choral setting- you can catch up on that post here. Today I want to share how I find and choose songs that will be successful and effective with my elementary choirs, and give you some examples of songs I have used over the years.


1. The best pop songs for choir

One of the biggest challenges to incorporating pop music in elementary choir, of course, is finding the right song. My criteria in selecting a pop song to use with my choir are:
  • Age-appropriate material: Obviously one of the first things I consider is the lyrical content. But besides vulgar language and "adult themes", I also tend to steer away from most "love song" material (no matter how tame or wholesome it may be). One of the goals I have for my students in learning pop songs is to work on expressive performance. I am not comfortable (nor are my students!) asking them to sing expressively about romantic love at this age! Unfortunately this makes up a giant portion of pop music, so having this criteria definitely makes my life more difficult (but I think it's worth it). Ideally, I look for songs with a truly powerful and meaningful message that my students can connect with.
  • Melodic and harmonic content: Of course the song needs to be in an age-appropriate range and be singable in an choral setting! Often if a song meets every other criteria on my list I can get around this one with the way I arrange the song (see my previous post for some examples of how I do this), but some songs just cannot be arranged for elementary voices without making the song unrecognizable.
  • Diverse sources: If you've been reading my blog this school year you know that I am very focused on inclusive, anti-oppressive teaching. A big part of this is representation, which includes the artists whose work I use in my teaching. As much as possible, I have tried to incorporate artists of color when choosing my songs (including the performers and the composers), as well as drawing from different styles/ genres within current popular music. 
  • Current: Most of the time I choose songs that were released within the last year. I find that songs from 2-5 years ago generally get a lukewarm response from students- they tend to think that I'm trying too hard to be cool but am actually out of touch with current trends ;) The occasional exception to this rule is when I've done a "standard" from decades ago. When I do that, I usually explain to students that we're doing it more for their parents' benefit, which they seem willing to accept!

2. Sources for finding songs

Another challenge with incorporating pop music is you can't pick out a few songs that work well and then keep using them or they will be outdated! Over my years of using pop songs with elementary choir I have found some go-to ways of searching out new songs that will work well:
  • Students: The best way to find out what students are interested in and stay current on what they are listening to is to ask the students themselves! I will admit I don't often end up using the exact songs they suggest because they don't understand the criteria I need to consider for choral settings, but I often discover artists or sources (like radio stations or specific styles) that I can draw from.
  • TV and movies: I've found a lot of great songs that have the content I'm looking for by looking at music made for the TV shows and movies my students are watching. While there are still romantic themes in some of them, there is usually a lot more diversity in the topics they cover and a lot more age-appropriate.
  • Radio: I've written an entire post about this, but to stay on top of what is current there's really no substitute for listening to the radio! And I've found it's important to find out what stations the students are listening to. In my case the majority of my students are not listening to "top 40" radio- I have 3 different stations saved in my car radio now that different students listen to most often that I try to tune into whenever I can.
  • PS22: If I'm really struggling to come up with song ideas, I'll go to the PS22 chorus YouTube channel and see what they've been up to lately! They do pop songs almost exclusively and I'll often find inspiration from their song selections. They are also a great source for getting ideas for how to arrange the songs!

3. Song examples

Of course I don't recommend necessarily using these specific songs because this list will quickly become outdated, but hopefully this will help give you some ideas of the types of songs and artists that I have found work well with my elementary choir! This list starts with my most recent song selections and goes back to when I first started using pop songs years ago- you'll see that there are a few older songs thrown in there, but most of them were released within the year we performed them.

If you haven't already, be sure to go back and read last week's post on why I use pop songs with my elementary choir, and how I arrange the songs to make them work in a choral setting. What are your thoughts on using pop music in elementary choir? What are some songs you have used that have worked well with your chorus groups? Share your questions, ideas, and suggestions in the comments below!

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Pop Songs for Elementary Choir: Why and How?

For the last 6 years, I have been incorporating at least one "pop" song into my 5th and 6th grade choir's performances at every concert. I have found it to be a great practice for so many reasons, and over the years I have learned how to make it work most successfully for my students. Today I want to share some of the benefits I see, and how I use the songs in a choral setting.


1. Benefits of pop songs for choir

I know there is some disagreement over the merit of including pop music in choral literature, so let's start with the WHY. Here are some of the reasons I decided to incorporate pop music initially, and the benefits I have seen that convince me to continue doing so:
  • Engagement: I readily admit this was the #1 reason I started looking for ways to include pop music initially. I have two pull-out/ optional choirs at my current school: one for 3rd and 4th grade, and one for 5th and 6th grade. I found that there was a significant drop off in interest/ enrollment in the upper grades, because many felt they had already "been there, done that". I save the pop songs for my 5th and 6th grade choir, which gives them something to look forward to and helps the class feel different from what they did in 3rd and 4th grade.
  • Parallel Harmony: This is a natural way to work on students' ability to learn and perform parallel harmony parts by ear. Because many of them are familiar with the song already, many students find it easier to hear the chords/ harmony lines. For students who are just starting to learn to sing parallel harmony, this is an excellent entry point! 
  • Solo Opportunities: One of the other ways I distinguish my upper grades choir from the lower grades choir is by offering opportunities for solos only in the upper grades. Pop songs are usually where these solos are included, and they are a natural place to include them! I find students are generally more eager to audition for these solo parts as well, because they are more confident on the pop songs and because there is an increased "cool factor".
  • Singing Styles: Different genres call for different styles of singing, and including pop songs in our choral literature provides an opportunity to work on a more pop-style of singing. I find including this style in what we learn makes it easier to encourage students to then practice singing in a more traditionally choral/ art music style as well, and in truth, the majority of my students are more likely to find use for pop-style singing in their adult lives anyway!
  • Expression: Pop music (if chosen properly) is one of the best ways to get students this age to work on expressive performance and communicating a message through their song. The right pop song can connect with students' emotions in a way that few art songs/ traditional choral pieces can, so this is a great opportunity to work on communicating those emotions and messages through their performance.

2. Arranging pop songs for choir

Obviously transferring a solo song to a choral setting requires some arranging! Here are some things that I find myself doing most often to make a song most appropriate for an elementary choir:
  • Parallel Harmony: I tend to add a harmony line on the chorus and keep the verses in unison. Sometimes there will be section(s) that already have a harmony singing part in the original recording- sometimes I use the same lines, but often I don't. My main consideration of course is vocal range, so I often end up adding my own harmony line.
  • Simplified Runs: Over the years of doing this I've moved more and more away from simplifying rhythms and melodic lines too much in an effort to make it more "choral"- I find students think it sounds too childish, and often end up more confused anyway- but I do find ways to simplify or remove vocal runs and ornamental notes. Sometimes I do this by making a section with lots of runs into a solo, removing the line altogether, or simplifying the line. 
  • Include Solos: My standard formula tends to be to have everyone sing the first verse in unison, sing the chorus in parts, and then make the subsequent verses (and sometimes other sections like a bridge) into solos or small ensembles. 
  • Partner Singing: Obviously this doesn't work in many songs, but there have been a few times when a song will have 2 sections with the same chord progressions that work together well so I can have them sing the two sections as a partner song. It is a great way to increase the difficulty, add some musical interest if a section is repeated a lot in a song, and incorporate more choral skill-building!
  • Remove Sections: Sometimes there will be just one section of the song that doesn't work for elementary choir for one reason or another. In that case I have sometimes removed the section altogether or replaced it with another one from a different part of the song.
  • Accompaniment: Sometimes there is a great arrangement already written for choir, but I rarely use those- I find these arrangements usually take out too much of the stylistic elements and defeat the purpose of including pop music in the first place! I am often able to get "karaoke" tracks to use, or depending on the song, I have also been lucky enough to have live instrumentalists play with the choir sometimes as well. 

You can read about my criteria for selecting pop songs, how I find them, as well as some examples of songs I have used successfully in the past few years in this follow-up post. For now I'd love to know: what are your thoughts on using pop songs with elementary choir? Have you ever done pop songs with your own choirs? What questions, ideas, and suggestions do you have? I'd love to hear from you and chat with you in the comments below.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

15 Fun Videos for Music Class

I tend to avoid showing full-length movies in my classes, even when I'm out with a sub. I just find my students watch TV and movies so many other places in their life that they truly aren't interested. But for a quick break, an example of a musical concept I'm teaching, a wind-down activity at the end of class, or just a funny momemt to share, I have found lots of great uses for short video clips from YouTube! Today I want to share some of my favorite music-related (and school-appropriate) videos to share with my students in class.


Over the last few years I've found some favorite videos that are

  • entertaining for my elementary and middle school students, 
  • encourage students to think about music in a new way,
  • reflect a variety of backgrounds of musicians and musical genres,
  • are appropriate for even my youngest students,
  • and are short enough to take very little class time.
Of course the internet is an endless source of material- I could keep going and going for days and days with videos like this, but these are some representative favorites!



















These little videos are frivolous is many ways but I've come to realize just how important they can be to my classroom. Often it's one of these videos that will inspire a student to go home and try something themselves (like beatboxing with their recorder), help students to see themselves as musicians regardless of their background, build relationships with students by showing a lighthearted side of music and connecting over a shared sense of humor, help them finally grasp a concept, or introduce them to a new genre or instrument. 

What are some of your favorite videos you've shared with your students? I could probably do 5 more of these posts and still not run out of material.... I'd love to see some of your best finds! Leave a link or title in the comments below so we can all find some new videos to love :)