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Tuesday, July 16, 2019

The Administrator Music Teachers Love

A year ago I interviewed my administrators about the kinds of qualities they view as important to being a successful music teacher. But what qualities do good administrators have that make them successful leaders for music teachers? After years of working with mediocre administrators, supporting some friends who worked with horrific ones, and now working with one of the best administrators I've ever come across in my career, I've nailed down a few key traits that I think are important to music teachers for administrators to have.


The points below are in no particular order, and they are all strictly my own personal opinion. Obviously different teachers with different personalities will work better with certain types of administrators, but I tried to think about those qualities that are most universally-important to successfully leading music teachers within a school or a music or arts department.

If you have a good administrator that you appreciate, when is the last time you told them? If you ever have the opportunity to contribute to hiring an administrator, what will you look for? And if you've had to work with some particularly bad administrators, what will you look for in an administrator when you're looking for a new job? Most importantly, if you're considering going into administration, I hope you'll reflect on how you can be the best possible administrator for music teachers!

1. Strong Leadership

As much as we, as teachers, may think we don't want to be told what to do, in my experience good leadership requires a certain decisiveness and control. Of course administrators need to be able to back up their decisions and opinions with insight and experience, but there needs to be clear leadership for any organization to run successfully or nothing will ever get done, and we need a clear direction and vision to work cohesively. The beauty of working under strong leadership is it takes so much of the guess work and stress of decision making off of our shoulders!

Part of successful strong leadership, however, involves responsibility and ethics as well. A strong leader without ethics is an evil dictator. A strong leader without responsibility to their commitments is a lazy tyrant. To be a good administrator, strong leadership must go hand-in-hand with a commitment to all the responsibilities that come with the job and a strong sense of ethics.

2. Genuine Support

Music teachers are always underappreciated and often are an island, the lone music teacher in their building or even their district. We need to feel genuinely supported and cared for by our administrators! One of the most basic ways to show support for music teachers it to attend our concerts and events (and pay attention during the program). Even better are those who offer to help in practical ways, whether it's setting up/ tearing down equipment, managing students back stage, or helping with crowd control in the audience.

Beyond that basic level, though, great administrators listen to and address our concerns. So often within schools- elementary schools in particular- homeroom teachers' concerns are prioritized over music teachers'. Showing genuine care for our concerns, and demonstrating that with action, will go a long way! Even better: an administrator who has good enough interpersonal skills to show genuine interest and concern for us as people and not just workers.

Support doesn't always have to mean agreeing with everything we say and do. But when a good administrator sees areas for improvement, they will offer constructive feedback, give us direction for how to improve, and provide the resources we need to address those areas. And the feedback should be based on accurate insight, not baseless personal opinion- they need to know what they're talking about before telling us how to improve!

3. Good Teacher

Good leadership skills alone will not get you anywhere as an administrator if you aren't a great teacher yourself. To be able to give feedback to teachers, make good decisions for the school/ department, and support music teachers, you need to know what a great music teacher looks like and have experience doing that yourself. I don't think you have to have been a music teacher specifically to be a great administrator and mentor for music teachers, but experience in the arts will give a lot of insight because music teaching is different in many ways from other subject areas!

All too often, the great teachers who are passionate about children are, for obvious reasons, the ones who stay in the classroom, while the ones who don't have as much of a heart for students are the ones who end up in administrative positions. Great administrators are the ones who still have a heart for students- they will be able to keep their priorities in the right place even when they're surrounded by adults, and they'll be a better mentor for teachers.

4. Seek Input

It will be rare for an administrator to be a former music teacher, so there are going to be areas of music teaching with which administrators are unfamiliar. It's possible to still be a great administrator for music teachers, though, by seeking out input from teachers. We certainly don't want to be explaining everything to our administrators, but great administrators are willing to admit they don't know everything and ask for advice!

It's also important for us to feel heard and included in decisions- seeking out teachers' input, including us music teachers, regularly in meetings, individual conversations, or even emails before making major decisions that affect our jobs is so important. We will be a lot more likely to be invested in new initiatives and willing to go along with changes in policy if we feel genuinely included in the decision-making process. Similarly, great administrators also foster collaboration among teachers. As music teachers in particular, we crave opportunities to collaborate and contribute to conversations with colleagues!

5. Advocate

As music teachers we constantly have to justify our programs and promote the importance of our classes to students, parents, and colleagues. It is so important to have an administrator who advocates for the importance of our program and curriculum to higher-up administrators and politicians, parents, and our non-music colleagues! Promoting our performances and events, sharing the great things that are happening in our classrooms, and talking about the importance of music in the lives of our students is a key element to successful leadership of music teachers and programs.

6. Promote Teacher Agency

Teaching is an art, and so is music- there is no way to standardize or script music teaching! Music teachers need administrators who understand that good music teaching will come in many different forms, and will be able to foster great teaching regardless of the form that may take. A lot of that comes down to giving teachers agency- give us direction, hold us accountable to high standards, and then give us control over how we make that happen. Yes, we need strong leadership, mentorship, and vision, but we also need to feel like we have agency over our classroom. No teacher wants to be micro-managed!

Besides giving us agency in our own classrooms, great administrators will also draw on the strengths we have and foster teacher leadership. Music teachers are often very good at managing schedules and organizing events because we do it so much in our jobs. Many of us are good at managing large groups of students, public speaking, or organizing community volunteers. I'm not saying music teachers should have more tasks assigned to their already busy jobs, but great administrators give music teachers (especially the veteran teachers) opportunities to take on responsibility and leadership in areas they enjoy and are passionate about. We will feel more like we're working alongside instead of under our administrators.

What do you think of this list? Are there things you don't agree with or think are not important? Traits that I missed? I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Color Teams in the Music Room

If there is one thing that I do that has the biggest impact on my classroom procedures, it is color teams! Color teams make everything easier: transitions between activities, beginning and end of class procedures, student jobs, managing student supplies, assigning instruments, seating arrangements, small groups, and so much more. Today I'm sharing how I use color teams in my elementary/ middle school music classes- if you're looking for ways to improve your classroom procedures, this is one thing I would highly recommend.


There are many benefits to assigning students to groups/ teams, but I think that using colors, specifically, for the groupings has a lot of benefits too: the colors work easily into a bright and cheerful classroom environment without creating more visual clutter, and lots of typical classroom items already come in different colors so you don't have to label things as much. I've seen teachers who label their groupings with composer, instrument, note, or time period names to promote the use of music vocabulary, but those tend to add to the visual clutter when the seating is labeled with those words or symbols, it's harder for students (especially the youngest ones) to remember their team, and you end up having to label everything if you want to assign items to specific groups (more on that in the supplies section below).

1. Seating

The foundation of the color groups begins with seating- I have assigned seating in all of my classes, both for the Kindergarten classes who sit in a circle on the floor and for the older students who sit in chairs. I tell them from the very first day to notice the color to which they are assigned, and I refer to the colors regularly.



I am a big fan of assigned seating for a multitude of reasons:
  • I find that many difficulties with individual student attention, personality conflicts, etc can be solved by changing the seating arrangement, 
  • I can take IEP accommodations and other individual needs into consideration without drawing attention to individuals who need to be in a specific spot, 
  • it gives structure and predictability for students (which all young students need),
  • it makes it easier for me to learn student names if they're new,
  • and it makes the beginning of class a lot faster because there is no confusion or discussion about who is going where.
The other benefit of having color groups with seating is that you have the option of giving some flexibility within your seating arrangement- if you want, you can assign students to a color but not a specific spot, giving students choice while still having most of the advantages of assigned seating I already discussed above.

I do assign specific spots most of the time, but I like being able to incorporate choice when, for example, students move from their normal chairs to the circle- I tell students to pick a spot from their color group, so they have some choice but with limited options, which limits the time it takes to choose and the potential arguments that can arise.

2. Teamwork/ Belonging

The advantage of having designated colors assigned to groups of seats/ spots is that it creates a sense of camaraderie- instead of being forced to sit in a certain spot, which might feel limiting or constricting (at least initially) for some students, they're being given membership into a team/ group/ club! The more I refer to the color teams in class, the greater the sense of belonging it creates as well. Because so much of how I manage procedures is tied to the color groups, it fosters teamwork within the groups.

This aspect of the color teams is really the biggest advantage of the system, especially for older grades. As students approach middle school age, the importance of having a sense of membership and belonging cannot be overstated! Having these small groups established and incorporated into the running of the class promotes that sense of teamwork for everyone. For younger students it gives them the opportunity to practice cooperative skills like shared responsibility, group decision-making, and collaboration. These are critical skills that need to be practiced regularly, and having these teams established in the classroom gives students more opportunities to practice.

This same team spirit plays into incorporating the teams in how I offer positive reinforcement in class. I have moved more and more away from value statements as a form of "behavior management", but there are still certain times when I find positive reinforcement (like, "I see the red team is ready for the next step", or "Everyone on the yellow team is playing on the beat!") appropriate and helpful, and I find it is often more effective to talk about groups rather than individuals. 

3. Classroom Jobs

For elementary teachers, student jobs can be a great way to empower students, and foster important character traits like independence, responsibility, and leadership. It also makes our lives a lot easier and improves the running of the classroom if we as teachers aren't the only ones doing everything! Almost every elementary homeroom teacher I know uses student jobs in some way in their classrooms, but it can be difficult for music teachers and other specialists to use them because we don't see students as frequently.

The solution I've found is group jobs, and I use color teams for that too (duh)! Rather than assigning jobs to individual students, I use jobs that can be shared (in one way or another) by a small group of students. I've written several posts detailing how I do this, but it has been a game-changer for me since I implemented them a few years ago.



This past school year I changed out one of my jobs to add the job of "warm-up leaders" and it was a huge success- I am definitely keeping it for the upcoming school year and this is the happiest I've been with all of my jobs since I started! Here is my post on how I have students lead warm-ups at the beginning of each class:


4. Managing Supplies

One of the procedures that can be time-consuming and difficult for music classes is managing supplies, whether it's pencils and other writing/ drawing supplies, manipulatives, clipboards, or anything else that needs to be passed out and collected. Because we don't see students as frequently as homeroom teachers, it takes longer for students to learn procedures (and for us as teachers too!), so the process takes longer and things get lost, damaged, or disorganized.

Color teams help with this in two ways: by having students assigned to help with passing out and putting away supplies, and by having specific supplies assigned to smaller group of students. Two of my classroom jobs are for handing things out and collecting things, which makes the procedures a lot easier by limiting who is getting things out and putting things away. But the key (and the main reason I like color teams specifically and not just any sort of team labels) is being able to assign specific supplies to smaller groups of students. It's a lot easier for the students putting supplies away to keep things organized if they know to put all the blue pencils in the blue box. It's a lot easier to keep track of who hasn't turned something in yet if you can see that you're missing one from the green team. And students are a lot more responsible and careful with their supplies when they have shared ownership- if they damage something they are damaging "team property" rather than school or teacher property, which is psychologically more removed.


Having supplies assigned to specific color teams also limits arguments over who uses what when there are different colors of the same item. I apply this same strategy to as many supplies as I can (which, again, is why I advocate for using rainbow colors specifically for teams because many items come in those colors to begin with)- I have colored djembes, ukuleles, ukulele picks, and cups (for cup games), for example, all in the same team colors. There's no need for the "you get what you get" discussion with my youngest students with these items because they already know they're using the color that matches their team!



5. Small Group Assignments

Before I had color teams, I often struggled to effectively come up with student groups that would work well together when I needed to do a quick small group activity. Because I take time to think through my student groups when I assign their teams at the beginning of the year, if I'm doing a quick activity in small groups I can easily have them work with their color team and know it will work out well.

I don't always have them work only with their color team though- that would get monotonous and doesn't encourage students to learn to work with different people- and color teams help with the process of assigning other groupings as well. I will sometimes have one person from each team work together, or group 2 colors together, to quickly mix up the groupings without having to think too hard. I can also split the class in half more easily too- warm vs cool colors, or primary vs secondary colors- and get in some visual art vocabulary in the process!

As you can see I'm a big fan of color teams- do you use color groupings in your music classes? How do you use them in your classes? I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments!

Friday, July 5, 2019

June Favorites 2019

Well that was fast! It's hard to believe a whole month even just happened, but it certainly did- here are some highlights from the month of June.


1. Endings and beginnings



June marked the end of the school year and the beginning of summer break! Of course I love the time I have to spend with my daughters, visit extended family, and work on all those things I just can't get around to during the school year, but I honestly do miss my students and miss teaching. Thankfully I don't have to entirely pack up my classroom for the summer but it is always sad to see the room so empty as I leave.

2. Inherited treasures



A close colleague of mine retired this year and he passed along quite a few of his personal collection of instruments, books, and recordings! I was completely overwhelmed and so grateful. I've already added the instruments to my shelves and can't wait to look through the books and resources. Hopefully someday I can pass along the favor to another teacher when I retire (many many moons from now!)- I feel so privileged to inherit all of these treasures.

3. Summer planning



While leaving the classroom for the summer is not my favorite, one thing I do enjoy is the chance to change up my planning routine with no lessons to plan over the summer! Although I do still have to keep track of meals, kids' activities, and other plans, there is not nearly as much information for me to keep track of so I can be creative with the weekly format I use and be a little more decorative than functional. I love having the chance to do things differently in my planner! I've been using a condensed one-page weekly format in the summer time for the last few years but this year I'm using a different one than I have in the past and so far I'm enjoying it! All of these undated weekly and monthly calendars are in the business planner section of the #PlanMyWholeLife planners (here's that section separately) if you're curious where it came from.

4. Music education blog posts

I am always so inspired by the articles I find each week from other music education blogs- click each picture to read the posts. They are all fantastic!


Games in General Music:

Dreaming of You: Identities of Me:

The Qualities of an Empowered Music Student:

What were some highlights from June in your life? Here's to another wonderful month ahead!

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Summer Listening List for Music Teachers

Last week I shared a summer reading list for music teachers, with my recommendations of books that I have found helpful in reflecting on my teaching practice, especially in addressing marginalized people and perspectives. Books are great! But what about the music we're listening to? Summer break is the perfect time to explore new genres and artists to bring into our lessons!


As I continue to explore the topic of equity in music education, the idea I keep returning to is the importance of listening. More than anything else we can do, listening to different perspectives- not just hearing but actually listening- has the power to foster true empathy. For music teachers in particular, one area where we tend to be most overtly exclusionary is in the musical material we consider worthy of using in our classrooms. Not only does that severely limit many of our students from feeling connected to our lessons, but it also presents a hierarchy of musical genres that is rooted in our own personal biases. Taking time in the summer to dive into genres and artists with which you are less familiar will give you a chance to gain some appreciation and understanding that you can bring into your teaching!

With that thought in mind, here are some suggestions of music that you could explore this summer- I recommend picking a couple of the ones with which you are least familiar right now to focus your attention. You need to have the time to really get to know the music if you are going to get to know it well enough to use in your teaching! It can be hard during the school year to push yourself out of your comfort zone- summer is a great time to expand your horizons and try something new.

1. Local Radio

How much do you listen to your local radio stations? I know I was not always the best about this in the past, but I've found there are a couple of radio stations that the majority of my students listen to outside of school. Pick one or two local stations and set your car radio to them this summer- besides the music they play, local stations will also keep you more in tune with your community!

2. Hip-Hop

I've written already about the importance of bringing more hip-hop into our teaching. I believe it is one of the most glaring disconnects between the typical music curriculum in schools and our students' musical experiences at home. If you normally don't listen to the genre, I highly recommend spending some time with it this summer. Most places will probably have a hip-hop radio station you can listen to. You can also look up current hits with lists like this and listen to specific songs on any streaming service.

3. Current Non-Western Music

It's pretty common for music teachers to only present traditional/ folk music when we incorporate music from cultures outside our own. But doing this presents a distorted view of the rest of the world to our students (read more about how to respectfully, accurately, and holistically bring the world into your music classes in this post). One of the great things about the modern age is the ease of accessibility to music from all over the world! One of the easiest ways to find the latest popular music from any country is to type in the country name and genre in Online Radio Box- you can listen free online. You can also explore stations by region, and often you can get song information as you listen so that you can find out more about songs and artists you might want to include in your lessons.

4. Music by Artists of Color


Don't limit representation of Black musicians to hip-hop, or East Asian musicians to "world music" and string quartets! Use the summer to seek out musicians of color in all different genres to include in your lessons. For younger students in particular, start with artists like Desmond Dennis, Black Violin, and Andrew Huang. You can discover more current artists with classroom-appropriate music in this post.

I'd love to hear about what you're listening to this summer, or new artists you've discovered recently that you're looking forward to bringing into your music classroom next year! Share your ideas in the comments below.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Summer Reading List for Music Teachers

One of the best perks of summer break for teachers is having the time and energy to read, enjoy, and process books in a way that you just can't during the school year, and especially books that make us reflect on our teaching practice in a fresh way. It's much easier to think critically and objectively about our teaching when we're not in the thick of it! Today I want to share some books that I've read in the last few years that have challenged or validated me as an educator. If you're looking for a good book to read this summer, I hope you'll pick up one of these!

This post contains affiliate links which do not affect the purchase experience or the thoughts shared here.


This is a great book for diving into race issues in schools. If you haven't read it yet, I urge you to do so! It's definitely a lot of material and requires plenty of time for thought.


This is a much quicker read than the previous book I mentioned, but equally important and thought-provoking. If you're just dipping your toe into conversations about race as a white person, I would start with this one.


Another relatively-quick read that isn't too heavy but offers a lot of insight, inspiration, and motivation. And the added bonus for music teachers is the author's use of DJ's, MC's, and other musical elements as metaphors throughout the book!


If you are a general music teacher and you haven't read this book, this is a very helpful one! The great thing is there are chapters exploring each of many different general music pedagogical approaches/ frameworks, so you can pick and choose the ones in which you're most interested. As a long-time fan of Carlos Abril, one of the book's editors, the one chapter I will urge everyone to read is "Thinking About and Responding to Culture", which he co-authored with Jacqueline Kelly-McHale.


If you have any students with special needs (which I can't imagine any teacher who doesn't to some degree), this book is another must-read. Everything from general advice to specific strategies, and so practical. 


I've been involved with Restorative Practices for years now, including leading PD and designing systems for my building. If you're looking for a "behavior management" system that promotes social-emotional learning over punitive punishments, this is the one for you. If you've heard of Restorative Practices and want to dig into it a bit more, this book is great for that- it's not a long, heavy book but is full of information and ideas. 

What books are you reading this summer? Any favorite books you'd recommend for music teachers? I'd love to add some titles to my own wish list for this summer- share you favorites in the comments!

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Summer Reflection: Challenges and New Ideas

I like to take time at the end of each school year to reflect. It's easy for me to get so caught up in the excitement of new ideas I have for next year that I don't spend enough time really processing the year that has just passed! This year I thought I would share my reflections here, not only so others can possibly learn from my mistakes and successes, but also to hopefully inspire others to do some reflection of their own! I shared my highlights in a previous post, but today I'm focusing on challenges I encountered this year- mistakes I have learned from, and new ideas I hope to implement next year.


I shared the questions I ask myself at the end of each school year in this post several years ago, and I'm using those same ones here (see my answers to the first 3 questions in my last post here):

1. What did I do differently this year that didn't work?

I tried quite a few new things this year, and I already talked about the many ways they were overall successful. But there were specific aspects of many of the new things I tried that did not work and I hope to work on for next year!

The warmups I added to the beginning of my lessons were a huge success, but some of the activities I originally had in mind didn't work well and I ended up dropping them from my list of warmups early in the year: choosing a prompt for a listening activity, and choosing a question or topic for a circle discussion. The problem with choosing a prompt was that it just wasn't that interesting for the warmup leaders to choose which element they wanted the class to listen for- it didn't require any actual leadership from them so they weren't invested. With the circle discussions, my students are just too young to be leading circles, so it was too awkward to try to lead it while making it seem like the students also had leadership.

For the listening prompts, I found that just having the leaders choose a mystery song from a playlist by picking a number was more fun for them and gave me a chance to ask questions afterwards that tied back to our objectives. For the circles I'm still thinking about what to do. I will absolutely continue to incorporate circles regularly into my classes, but I found it difficult to incorporate circles, warmups, and my closing routine without taking up the majority of the class time! I'd really like to find a way to use circles in our warmups without taking away the student leadership element since that's a classroom job I want to keep, but I'm not sure yet how to effectively and meaningfully give students leadership in circles.

I was happy with the many successes I had with my first hip-hop unit this year, but there were also quite a few challenges that I am going to be spending significant time working on for next year. Co-teaching with the local hip-hop artist was in itself a challenge, because it is a delicate balance between deferring to his expertise in the genre and asserting my own expertise in teaching in a classroom setting. I think that part, though, was mostly worked out as we went along by continuing to keep an open line of communication between the two of us. The main area where I feel the unit fell short this year was in giving enough time for students to dive into the history and broader world of hip-hop itself. Because I wanted students to experience the musical skills of creating and performing within the genre, there wasn't enough time to really sit with the genre, which is so important. Next year I'm planning to rework how I teach the unit to shorten the composition process and add in time at the beginning and end of the unit to dive into the broader world of hip-hop.

2. What were the biggest stressors this year?

My biggest stressors this year were related to areas outside my own teaching that had indirect effects on my classroom. I am finding that as I dig more into district policies and why things are the way they are, the more I feel the need to speak up for improvements I feel need to be made, and with that comes an inevitable increase in conflict. I don't see it as a bad thing, necessarily, and in fact most of the time I am grateful to be in a position to voice my opinion, but it is of course very stressful for a conflict-avoidant person like me to challenge anyone, particularly people who are above me, and to watch people make decisions that I feel are not in students' best interest despite my best efforts to the contrary. Don't get me wrong, I am overall in a very supportive and wonderful district with lots of great people, but as with any organization there is always room for improvement.

3. What can I do to minimize those stressors next year?

There are two things I found most effective this year that I'd like to continue to work on next year (because I certainly don't plan to stop trying to make changes when I see a need!): keeping like-minded colleagues close, and reflecting on my circles of control. I became much more intentional about leaning into the work relationships with people that would help me focus on solutions and kept me positive with their encouragement and support, and that made a huge difference in keeping me grounded and reminding me that the world was not coming to an end when it seemed like nobody cared about my concerns. I also learned this year the importance of letting things go that are out of my control. The idea of circles of concern, influence, and control (see a good graphic and explanation here) was really helpful for me, and it's something I want to continue to reflect on. I also came across this quote and hung it up in my classroom right next to my computer desk so I would have that reminder whenever I was reading or writing an email or working on something:

"People are often unreasonable, illogical, and self-centered. Forgive them anyway. If you are kind,
people may accuse you of selfish ulterior motives. Be kind anyway. If you are successful, you will win some false friends and some true enemies. Succeed anyway. If you are honest and frank, people may cheat you. Be honest and frank anyway. What you spend years building, someone could destroy overnight. Build anyway. If you find serenity and happiness, they may be jealous. Be happy anyway. The good you do today, people will often forget tomorrow. Do good anyway. Give the world the best you have, and it may never be enough. Give the best you've got anyway. You see,  in the final analysis it is between you and God; it was never between you and them anyway."



4. What new ideas do I want to try next year?

My main focus for next year is going to be revamping my hip-hop unit now that I have tried it and have a better sense of what works and what doesn't. I have some significant changes I want to make to how the unit is set up and how I teach it, so that will be plenty of new material to keep me busy!

I did this last summer as well, but I will be going through all of my lessons again this summer to look for songs that I need to replace (as I continue to learn new information about the dark history behind the songs touted as "standards" in US American elementary music) and ways to make my teaching more anti-oppressive. If you want to read more about my social justice journey, start with this post from last fall.

Has this prompted your own thinking? My ultimate goal with sharing my own reflections is to encourage other teachers to reflect as well. If you want the added accountability of sharing your thoughts, I encourage you to leave a comment below. And don't forget to celebrate all of your successes as you reflect on improvements you want to make- if you missed last week's post on this year's highlights you can check it out here.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Summer Reflection: School Year Highlights

I like to take time at the end of each school year to reflect. It's easy for me to get so caught up in the excitement of new ideas I have for next year that I don't spend enough time really processing the year that has just passed! This year I thought I would share my reflections here, not only so others can possibly learn from my mistakes and successes, but also to hopefully inspire others to do some reflection of their own! Today I will be focusing on my highlights, and you can read about things I've learned and new ideas for next year in this follow up post.


I shared the questions I ask myself at the end of each school year in this post several years ago, and I'm using those same ones here (see the second half of the questions in this post):

1. What are my favorite memories from this school year?

Oh boy, that's hard to pick...

The International Music Festival is always a highlight and it's fresh in my mind- I do a school-wide informance with each grade performing music and dance from a different country. It is so much work but so rewarding, and the students always love it too!

Of course there's all those "little moments"- the look on his face when I showed a kindergarten student with special needs how to play the cello, the first grade boy who often ends up in the principal's office who said out loud to himself, "Man I am killin' it today!" in the middle of class, the look of pride on the fourth graders' faces when the whole grade level learned a complex instrumental piece and the whole ensemble "clicked", the time my 5th and 6th grade chorus first sang in 3-part parallel harmony a capella...

Yeah, OK, I'm crying now. Time to stop!

2. What am I most proud of from this school year?

I think I'm most proud of the new material I put together and taught for the International Music Festival this year. I've been teaching in-depth units on music from one country in each grade for over a decade, but this is only my 2nd year presenting those songs as a performance. Since students had shared the songs and dances I have been teaching all these years in last year's festival, I decided I needed to come up with new material so it wasn't all the same songs. It was extremely challenging to learn so much new music in so many different languages etc well enough to teach them to all 7 different grade levels, but it was worth all the effort.

3. What did I do differently this year that worked?

I actually made some pretty significant changes this year and for the most part they were successful. I already mentioned the changes to my cultural deep-dive units, but besides that one new thing I did was adding warm-ups to my daily lesson routine- you can read about how I set it up in this post from the beginning of the year, but basically I had some type of student-led activity at the beginning of each lesson to get everyone going right away and review basic concepts. It worked so well- the students and I loved it, and it was a great way to review basic rhythm and pitch literacy skills especially.

Another new thing this year was the hip-hop composition unit I did with my 6th graders. I brought in a local hip-hop artist to help teach the unit, and overall the project was successful and accomplished what I hoped it would- giving more legitimacy to the genre and to the unique skills needed to perform and create hip-hop music, flipping which students are comfortable and which aren't, and engaging a tough-to-please age group.

I also added several new books to my classroom and those were a huge success, especially for my self-contained special education class (which was also a first for me this year). Snake Alley Band, Allie All Along, My Family Plays Music, and Max Found Two Sticks were all new for me this year- you can see all of my lesson plans for these and other books in this post.

I also changed up my Music In Our Schools Month celebration quite a bit this year, and I did a musical "march madness" bracket for the first time, having students vote on their favorite songs each day. It was fantastic! Everyone loved it, and it wasn't a tremendous amount of work on my end either, which is always a win. I explained how I ran the bracket, including the songs I used this year, in this post.

This is not part of my actual teaching or my classroom itself, but one more thing I did differently this year that definitely worked was being more deliberate about regularly complimenting and encouraging my colleagues and administrators. I'm lucky to have some pretty fantastic colleagues and bosses but I have never been good at telling people how much I admire them or complimenting people. I tried to do so verbally too, but my biggest success this year was dropping a card in people's mailboxes every now and then- not just for teacher appreciation, birthdays, end of the semester/year or other milestone events when it would be more expected to send cards, but at random times during the school year. You know how they say showing gratitude makes you feel better yourself? It's absolutely true. And it's getting less and less awkward for me the more I do it.

Inspired to share your own successes? Let's all celebrate together- I promise, it's good for you to toot your own horn! Leave a comment below and share your highlights from this past school year!

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Best Strategies for Teaching Tempo

One of the fundamental aspects of music that students need to explore in general music is tempo, but it can be difficult to come up with different lesson ideas to keep students engaged while giving them the practice they need. Today I want to share some of my most effective strategies and lesson ideas for teaching tempo, no matter what grade level or specific aspect of tempo I'm working with.


Stationary movements: of course one of the easiest ways to have students follow the tempo is to show the beat with motions, whether it's patting, clapping, waving, or anything else they can do without leaving their spot. My favorite, though, is to use dance moves. The best way I've found to expand "movement vocabulary" to give shy students ideas and expand other students' repertoire, is to use visual prompts like these cards.

Conduct: sometimes the entire class will conduct with a recording, or I'll have one student conduct at whatever speed they choose and have the class follow their tempo.

Move around the room: students follow each other around the circle, or follow in a line that I lead around the room (songs about trains are perfect for this!), or I tell students to move within a specified area in any direction they want in scattered formation.

Dance: beyond just moving one way with the beat, it's fun for older students especially to experience the tempo with more complex choreography, whether it's a folk dance or a more modern dance sequence. This is particularly helpful when I want students to repeat a song several times, particularly when we're working on changing speeds, because it's less mundane.

Vocabulary: to practice using specific tempo vocabulary, I'll have students point to different words on the board and have the class sing at the speed indicated by the words they point to. I also make it a point to say the word at the given speed whenever we are practicing saying it out loud (so I always say "largo" slowly and "presto" quickly, for example).

Composition: I confess I don't do this as often as I'd like, but it is great practice to have students choose a specific tempo for their compositions whenever they are creating their own music. Even with my youngest students, when they create their own short rhythmic patterns, it's meaningful to have them try it fast and slow and decide which they prefer.

Examples to Use
One of my favorite ways to compare tempi (and have students identify the speed of each with specific vocabulary) is through Irish music- the hornpipe is slow, the reel is medium, and the jig is fast. I like teaching students some simple dance steps for each and then comparing the speeds.

A great way to compare multiple speeds in one piece is with Hungarian Dance No. 5 by Brahms. This is a great one to have students identify each tempo by pointing to the matching words.

I hope you find these ideas helpful as you plan your lessons for teaching tempo at any age! If you are looking for more comprehensive lesson plans to cover all of the fundamental musical skills and concepts in engaging and meaningful ways, you'll find everything you need in my general music curriculum sets. Have a favorite lesson for teaching tempo? I'd love for you to share them in the comments below!

Saturday, June 1, 2019

May Favorites 2019

Today is the day I get to look back on the past month and celebrate some of my highlights with you! I admit, some months I have a harder time coming up with things to share because life seems pretty mundane. Not so in May!


1. International Music Festival



I've been teaching in-depth units on music from a specific culture to each grade level in April/May for many years now, but last year I had students share the songs and dances they learned with the rest of the school in an assembly-type performance I've dubbed the International Music Festival. We just had it again this year and, while it is definitely a massive organizational undertaking for me, it is by far the highlight of my year. I've been teaching the same songs and dances, for the most part, for over a decade now but since they had performed them last year I pushed myself to come up with mostly new material this year. It made my brain hurt trying to memorize 10 new songs in unfamiliar languages, plus all the movements and instrumental parts I added, but it was worth it. If you're curious about how I go about incorporating music from around the world into my classroom, here's a good blog post to start with.

2. New Instruments



It has been a good fundraising year for me this year! The single biggest addition to my classroom, though, got funded this past month: 16 new tubanos from DonorsChoose! I already had 8 of the "rainforest" ones, so now I have 12 each of the black nesting ones and the rainforest ones. We used every last one of them in the International Music Festival, and they are awesome instruments!

3. Mother's Day



I was pretty blown away by the support and encouragement I got from friends and family and even the online community for Mother's Day this year, but especially from my daughters. So many cards, pictures, and even full-blown posters, flowers, and gifts! It was really special. I shared this open letter to newly-single moms on Instagram and got such a positive response from everyone- read it for yourself here.

4. Music Education Blog Posts

I always enjoy curating my favorite new posts from other music teaching blogs each month to share with you- click on the pictures to read the full articles.


(keeping students connected to and enjoying music class by Mr A Music Place)


(ending the year with purposeful fun by O for Tuna Orff)


It's always motivating and meaningful to take the time to celebrate some "favorites" from the past month- what were some of your highlights from the month of May? I'd love to hear about them in the comments!