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Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Contemporary Instrumentalists of Color to Share with Students

As I continue to explore ways to better reflect minoritized people in my music classroom, I have become more conscious of the examples I show students in class on everyday topics, whether it's teaching students about a genre, an instrument, or a musical element or concept. I've recently discovered several new-to-me instrumentalists that I've enjoyed sharing with my students, so today I wanted to put together a list of contemporary instrumentalists of color. These are all musicians who are currently active- some names will be familiar, some are more obscure, but I think they are all excellent musicians to feature in class!


With any list like this there are, of course, plenty more musicians out there that I could include! I hope this list is just the beginning of discovering other artists that you may not have come across before to incorporate into your lessons. And if you have particular musicians you love, please share their names in the comments below so we can all add them to our lists as well!

I should also note that this list is limited to Western classical instruments, in the hopes of providing music teachers with some alternatives to easily incorporate into current lessons we already teach on instruments of the orchestra. In reality there are so many more instruments out there in the music world that we can and should be featuring- here are the resources I use to teach about other instruments around the world. I don't treat them as separate categories of "specialized" instruments, but this list would be too long if I included them all in one post!

flute- Rachel Ombredane


clarinet- Anthony McGill


saxophone- Kamasi Washington


trombone- Trombone Shorty


trumpet- Wynton Marsalis


tuba- Kenneth Amis


french horn- Zeng Yun


violin- Black Violin


viola- Jeremy Green


cello- Yo-Yo Ma


double bass- Esperanza Spalding


piano- Jon Batiste


harp- Naoko Yoshino


percussion- Questlove


Tuesday, October 8, 2019

What to do with THAT Class: scattered and chatty classes

The helpless feeling you get when nothing you do seems to work with that one class can be absolutely horrible. Over the years I've had classes that leave me in tears, fill me with dread, make me want to take a sick day, or just leave me feeling like I have no idea what I'm doing. It's disconcerting at best, and can leave you completely miserable if you let it get the best of you. Over the next few weeks I'll be sharing some strategies that have helped me improve my ability to work with some challenging classes with various difficulties- I hope they help you if you find yourself in the same situation! Today I'm focusing on classes that are so unfocused and chatty that you cannot get anything done.


At the beginning of this series I shared my advice to keep those challenging groups from making you miserable- if you haven't already, I encourage you to read that post by clicking here. Hopefully the solutions I'm sharing today will help you improve your relationship with your tough class, but that process is going to take time and you need to make sure you keep the situation manageable (for you and your students) in the meantime.

One of the points I shared in that post is to be prepared with a plan B, C, D, and E. There's a good chance the first strategy you try won't work! Remember that this is a process, and a very important one at that. Don't give up.

Scattered and Chatty Classes

Sure, some students have more trouble focusing than others. Some groups are a little bit more social than others and need more frequent reminders to raise their hands, listen, and stay on task. But every now and then I have had classes that are so scattered it feels like I'm playing whack-a-mole every time I teach them! I can't ever finish a sentence without being interrupted by someone calling out, and as soon as one student says something 3 others make a comment about that comment. While I'm reminding them not to call out, two other side conversations have started, another student gets up to get a tissue to blow their nose, and another is raising their hand to use the bathroom. Not to mention the upset student crawling around on the floor making cat noises... And as soon as I get everyone back on track and try again to start our first activity or explain something, the whole process starts all over again!

tip #1: change seating If you don't already have assigned seats, the first step should definitely to assign them. If you're already using assigned seats like I do, then my first thought is always to go back and look at my seating chart and see if I can try moving some students around to different seats to help them stay focused. Sometimes an easily distracted student I thought would benefit from close proximity to where I normally teach, actually does better in the back row. Sometimes I can split up people that tend to distract each other. If you want to read about my thought process for assigning seats, here is my post on that.

tip #2: start in silence One of the first things I try with groups like this is silent stretching. I tell the class in advance that every class will begin with silent stretching: they need to come in without speaking and walk straight to their assigned seat but not sit down. I will go to the front of the room and start doing some very simple stretches without talking, and the students should mirror my stretches. Because everyone already knows what to do there is no need for any speaking, and the stretching can help to calm and focus everyone's brains and bodies.

tip #3: remove distractions Talk to the homeroom teacher to see if they can make sure to give students time to use the bathroom before class, and warn students that you won't be sending anyone to the bathroom during music class unless it's a true emergency. If you have windows, try closing the blinds to eliminate the distraction of outside. Take a look at your classroom to see if you can remove clutter or reduce the number of visuals up around the room. Maybe there are noise distractions you can reduce- if there are classes that always walk noisily by your room during that class time, talk to their teacher about staying quiet when they go by your room. If the class next door is particularly loud, ask if there's anything you can do to soundproof.

tip #4: talk less This is easier said than done, but the more we can talk less ourselves as teachers the less likely students are to get off-task. Try using non-verbal cues for things like standing up, sitting down, lining up, and other things you do every day. Instead of explaining what you're going to do, just start doing it- instead of telling students you want them to copy your clapping patterns, clap a pattern and then point to them. There are so many ways we can always reduce the amount of talking we do! It's difficult because talking is what allows us to process what's happening next ourselves. The most important thing you'll have to do in order to be able to talk less as a teacher is to have the lesson completely memorized. If you always know what's coming next it's a lot easier to jump into the activity with fewer verbal instructions.

tip #5: give opportunities for sharing It may seem counter-intuitive but giving chatty classes a chance to talk can often help students be more focused for the rest of the lesson. My first year of teaching I started every kindergarten lesson by going around the circle and giving each student a chance to tell me one thing. Some students don't have anything to say at that moment and pass, but anyone who has something they wanted to say has a chance to tell me so they aren't distracted by that thought any more! For older students having some type of circle discussion (read about those here) every period gives them an opportunity to speak and be heard. Then you can always say, "you had your turn to speak, now it's mine" and it's much less frustrating for everyone!

tip #6: increase predictability If you aren't a structured teacher to begin with, you're going to need to get structured for groups like this. Have a set routine and stick to it so students know what to do next without you needing to tell them- maybe start with stretching, then vocal exploration, then a rhythm reading exercise, then a song, then a closing discussion- try to follow the same basic formula for your lessons as much as possible. Practice procedures for everything from entering and exiting the room, getting out pencils or instruments and putting them away, moving from chairs to floor, circle to scattered formation, and getting tissues and using the bathroom. Students will feel more settled if they know what to do and how to do it!

I hope these suggestions help you find a positive way forward together! They may not ever be your most focused class, but if you continue to work at it you're bound to see improvement in their ability to stay on task!

If you have any suggestions of your own or questions you'd like to ask about this topic, please leave them in the comments below! And if you'd like to read more about how I handle "behavior management" as a whole, here are all my top posts on the topic.

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

What to do with THAT Class: toxic negativity

The helpless feeling you get when nothing you do seems to work with that one class can be absolutely horrible. Over the years I've had classes that leave me in tears, fill me with dread, make me want to take a sick day, or just leave me feeling like I have no idea what I'm doing. It's disconcerting at best, and can leave you completely miserable if you let it get the best of you. Over the next few weeks I'll be sharing some strategies that have helped me improve my ability to work with some challenging classes with various difficulties- I hope they help you if you find yourself in the same situation! Today I'm focusing on classes that seem to be completely negative about everything you try to do.


Last week I shared my advice to keep those challenging groups from making you miserable- if you haven't already, I encourage you to read that post by clicking here. Hopefully the solutions I'm sharing today will help you improve your relationship with your tough class, but that process is going to take time and you need to make sure you keep the situation manageable (for you and your students) in the meantime.

One of the points I shared in last week's post is to be prepared with a plan B, C, D, and E. There's a good chance the first strategy you try won't work! Remember that this is a process, and a very important one at that. Don't give up.

Toxic Negativity

Some classes seem to have a negative attitude about you and your class, no matter how hard you try to engage their interests. This is probably the hardest type of class for me to deal with because it's just mind-boggling to me. How can an entire group of children be so negative? It throws me for a loop, big time. Sometimes this results in students just not being willing to participate in anything, sometimes they insert negative comments every time you introduce an activity, or sometimes they are more combative and completely refuse to listen to you, follow any directions, or participate in any class activity.

tip #1: find the source(s) Usually when an entire class (or at least the majority) seem to have a negative attitude about the class, there are a few strong leaders that have decided they don't like the class and the rest are following along, getting drawn into the negativity, or just staying out of it. Figure out who those students are that are leading the charge by reflecting on who is the most vocal in expressing negativity, who initiates conflicts, who is the first to refuse to join in an activity. Talk to their homeroom teacher about who they see as the "ringleader".

tip #2: start the conversation Once you've narrowed down the key players, try having individual conversations with them outside of class. Pick a non-threatening time, like sitting with them at lunch, or stopping them in the hallway before school. Tell them the behaviors that you see them exhibiting in class and why you see it as a problem. Ask them 1) if your description seems accurate, 2) if they can identify any reasons for those behaviors, and 3) what suggestions they have to help music class be a more positive experience in the future. It may take a few tries but I've found persistence usually pays off. Show them you're open to their feedback on things you can do, while also holding them accountable for ways they can help to improve the situation as well.

tip #3: divide and conquer When an entire group is feeding off of each other's negative energy, splitting them up can often be the best thing to do! Try centers or small group projects. Depending on the specific students and the personality mix, sometimes I've found it best to put all the "ringleaders" in one group to contain the negativity in one place (and focus your energy on them), and other times I've found it best to split them up so that they don't feed off each other. If you're not sure how to have the class work in small groups, here are some of my favorite ideas that I've used in this situation (and in general for centers and group projects!):





tip #4: build relationships I almost think this goes without saying but it's important enough to say it anyway: it's so important to invest the time and energy to foster positive relationships with all students, but especially with those that don't seem invested or interested in your class. Here are some practical, simple steps to build relationships with students when you teach so many, and here are ways to build community in your classroom through community-building circles. Not only is this important for the "ringleaders" that are causing the most headaches, but it's also important for the other students who may be unable to connect with you even though they want to, because you're having to focus so much attention and energy on the other students in class.

tip #5: have a heart-to-heart I would try to avoid a group conversation in this situation unless you've exhausted all other options, because if the problem is toxic attitudes then giving students an opportunity to express their opinions even more openly and trying to respond to them in front of the whole class can often just lead to the negativity spreading even further. But if you've tried all of the other options, including multiple individual conversations with specific students over time, and still feel like you're not making headway, this may be something to try. If you do, it's important to lay some ground rules: remind everyone that they need to all be willing to take some ownership of the problem, tell students they cannot point out specific individuals by name if they're expressing what they think the problem may be, and encourage them to try not to complain but instead either pinpoint the cause, describe what they see as the problem for the group as a whole, or offer a specific solution- preferably all of the above!

I can think of 2 instances in my career when I had this conversation with the entire class. In both cases it was late in the year after trying everything else I could, both were upper grades (4th grade and 6th grade), and both times the conversation was mildly successful. The conversations did give me a better understanding of how students were feeling, and in both cases we were able to come up with a few plans that we were able to try afterwards that did help improve the overall tone of the classes and lead to other strategies that helped us move forward.

If you do decide to have a conversation with the class as a whole, I have found the format of problem-solving circles to be very helpful for structuring the conversation:


I hope these suggestions help you find a positive way forward together! They may not ever be your most enthusiastic class, but if you continue to make it a priority to improve the class for everyone involved, you're bound to see positive changes over time!

If you have any suggestions of your own or questions you'd like to ask about this topic, please leave them in the comments below! And if you'd like to read more about how I handle "behavior management" as a whole, here are all my top posts on the topic.


Sunday, September 29, 2019

September Favorites 2019

As the month of September comes to a close (boy, was that fast!), I'm sharing some of my highlights and favorite finds from the past month. These were some of my favorite lessons to teach, moments at home, and new ideas and resources I found- I hope you find some inspiration here yourself!


1. First grade compositions


I always love doing this lesson with my first graders- it's the first time I have them notate a song with a paper and pencil, so I make a big deal about writing "a real song" and they love it! I have them choose 4 beats using a rhythm bank and write it in the boxes, then the next class they practice saying and clapping it and choose an unpitched percussion instrument to use, and then the following class is their "concert"- I put a music stand at the front of the room, and each student brings their paper to the front of the room to place on the stand, picks up the instrument they chose, and plays their rhythm. We clap for each student and they each take a bow. They're so proud of themselves and it's a simple way to introduce so many important concepts to my first graders!! Here are all my composition worksheets if you want to see how I set them up.

2. Changing weather


I have never been a huge warm-weather person, so fall is always a welcome relief from the summer heat! And the best part this year has been a decent amount of sunshine. I'm getting outside as much as I can and soaking it up before the dark and cold of winter sets in!

3. My daughters' growth


I get so much joy from watching my daughters grow and being surprised by the stuff they come up with! Both girls still love cooking, and they've been insisting lately on kicking me out of the kitchen completely and coming up with their own menus without using cookbooks etc- my daughter's recent breakfast idea to fill banana peels with fruit was mind-blowing! And I'm always amazed at how perceptive they are- my other daughter came home with a book from the library called "My Mom is a Foreigner, But Not to Me" (which, if you know anything about me, is truly perceptive).

4. Music Education Blog Posts

I always love finding the best music education resources from other blogs- if you aren't already following my Facebook page I'd encourage you to do so just to see the articles I share on Fridays! You can catch up on the ones I shared there below- they're all worth a read:

Ye Toop Doram


Turkey in the Straw from Decolonizing the Music Room


The REAL Origin of the Song "Funga Alafia" by Pancocojams


Instrument Exploration Day by The Yellow Brick Road


I hope you are all having a wonderful school year and have exciting plans for the month ahead. Got some highlights of your own to share from September? I'd love to hear about them in the comments below!

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

What to do with THAT Class (part 1)

You know exactly what I'm talking about: yeah, THAT class. The one that you dread every time you see them on your schedule for the day, the one that keeps you up at night, the one that you keep talking about with your colleagues trying to figure out how to get through to them, the one that your family and close friends know so much about because you're always coming home with stories.

We've all had classes that seem to confound us, no matter how long we've been teaching. I've had one most years, including this year, and I'm well over a decade into my career. Today I want to share some general, practical tips to hopefully help the students in that class be more successful, and help you feel less anxiety when you know that class is coming.


To be perfectly honest, I'm writing this advice just as much to myself as I am to every other reader. I had a tough go with this year's "that class" this past week, and I need a reset. I know I'm not alone in feeling this way, and I also know it will get better! Today I want to remind all of us of the most important general steps we need to take, regardless of what the specific issues are, to make sure we don't spend the entire year miserable.

1. Stop venting

OK, I'm not saying you have to stop completely, but one of the most important steps you need to take is to change your mindset about the class, and the more time you spend talking about the negative things that happen in that class, the more likely you are to continue to have negative expectations for them (which are always self-fulfilling prophesies). Pick one trusted person at work who can listen to you when you're frustrated and then help you move on. If you are having a particularly frustrating time, vent to them and only them. Then try to come up with a plan for what you're going to do differently next time- don't let it be just a chance to talk about the problems without looking for a solution. With everyone else, do everything you can to find something positive to say about that class, or just don't talk about them as often- when someone asks you how your day was, talk about a different class. The less you talk about it, the less you'll keep dwelling on it yourself.

2. Make a plan B, C, D, and E

When I suggest not venting, I'm not suggesting you don't talk about that challenging class with colleagues- rather than just focusing on the problems, have conversations with colleagues about solutions! Ask the homeroom teacher what they've found successful (or even see about observing them). See if there are any incentives they have in their classrooms that you could tie into. Maybe they have certain classroom procedures in place that you could replicate. Talk to the art teacher, the PE teacher, the school counselor, and anyone who may have some insight into how to help the class be successful. Not everything will work in your classroom, but there may be ways you can adapt strategies to fit in with what you do.

And don't expect the first thing you try to work! Some things may take time, and sometimes you may have to go through 5 different ideas before you find something that works! The key is to keep thinking, keep trying, and don't ever give up. It may never be perfect, but there is always opportunity for improvement.

The point here is to keep trying, and be prepared to go through lots of different ideas before you find a solution that truly works! Here are some of my specific suggestions for various types of challenges:



3. Get focused

It's so important, if you have a class that just isn't working, to make it a priority to figure out how to make it work. Just hoping they'll somehow eventually get it and continuing to teach that class the same way you do all the others will only end in misery for everyone and very little learning for students. Whatever the issue is, focus on addressing the problem(s) that are preventing the class from going well, and developing positive relationships with the individual students in the class and with the class as a whole. Instead of trying to do 3 activities to practice half notes, pick one (and make it the one that you think is most likely to be successful with that group). Narrow your focus to the most essential elements so that you can slow down and be more intentional with the class.

4. Celebrate successes

Going along with the idea of reducing the negative talk you do with your peers, it's important to try to focus on the positive with the students as well. Don't lower your expectations, but do be very intentional about pointing out genuine successes as often as possible! If the whole class enters the room the way you expect them to, note it verbally. Not in a condescending or patronizing, "I'm so glad we finally figured out how to enter the music room appropriately!", or even, "Good job coming in the room!" (which, come on, students know shouldn't need praising), but a simple "class is off to a great start!" or "everyone's ready to go, let's do this!" can be powerful.

5. Problem-solve with students

If a class isn't going well, stop. If you're feeling stressed out, overwhelmed by the noise, or personally hurt, tell them you need a minute. If you can, explain to the class what you think isn't working and why, and tell them what you're planning to do next time (or right then, if you still have enough time left in class) to help them be able to succeed. If they're old enough (and you have the class time), ask them to discuss what they think is the problem and why, and offer their own suggestions for solutions. Problem-solving circles are ideal for this situation- read about how I do those in this post.

6. Get help

If you feel like you've exhausted every option you can think of and the class still isn't running the way you'd like, call for back up. There's nothing wrong with asking for help, and often a second, third, or fourth pair of eyes are just what you need to get some fresh perspective! Ask another music teacher or even a non-music colleague that you respect to come and observe a lesson. If you have an administrator or teaching coach/ specialist you trust, ask them to come and sit in on a class. See if the school psychologist, social worker, or other support staff can come.

Hopefully these initial thoughts will give some much-needed perspective and relief to what can be a very overwhelming and stressful situation! To read more about specific strategies for fostering a positive classroom climate and supporting students' character development / handling challenging behaviors, head to this post.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Modified Entries and Exits: Individual Behavior Supports for Music Class

With so many students to teach and so little time with each class, managing to give each student the kind of individual support we'd like to is a monumental task! And often when individual students are struggling in school, music teachers are left out of any individual plans that are created for them. I've found a few strategies in the last few years that have been very helpful for students who need individualized support that are realistic for me to implement as a music teacher. I hope they will be helpful for others as well. One strategy that has been helpful for students who either struggle to settle in or lose steam before the end of the class period is modified entries and exits. Transitions can often be the most disregulating part of the day for many students, so this strategy can be helpful for a wide range of individual needs.


Transitions are hard for everyone, and as music teachers we manage transitions all day long. If you haven't already, take a close look at your transitions into, during, and out of music class- I've found a lot of "behavior challenges" can be solved simply by looking closely at how my students and I are managing transitions. Here are a few previous posts on the topic for managing transitions more effectively for all students in general:





For some students, though, transitions can still be difficult. These are the students who, even with a very structured class, spend the first 10 minutes arguing or wandering the room and then seem to eventually "settle in", fly off the handle, start calling out, or completely lose focus in the last part of class after being completely fine in the beginning, or inexplicably resist coming into or leaving your room. For these students, modifying entrance and/or exit procedures can help support them through the transitions so their school day isn't completely derailed. In most every case implementing these modifications will necessitate another adult's support- I have most usually found this help from the psychologist/ social worker, or a paraprofessional/ intern.

1. Come in early

Some students need extra time to adjust to the room, to you, or just to the idea of music class in general. Some students need advance warning of what they'll be doing in class that day so they can mentally prepare. Some students need a little extra individual attention from you to feel safe and cared for in your class. For those students, having them come early can be helpful for transitioning them into music class. It doesn't need to be much before (none of us have much time between classes anyway)- when I've done this 1 minute has been enough- but if you have the ability to, make arrangements for the homeroom teacher to send that student to your room a little early. Depending on what their individual needs are, the student may benefit from just being with you and in the room by helping you finish setting up for class, or talking through the upcoming lesson with you and seeing what you're getting ready, or just talking about something outside of school to give them a chance to connect and have some one-on-one attention.

2. Come in late

Some students actually benefit from coming to class a little bit after the lesson has already started- they feel less self-conscious if they see everyone else already involved in something and can just quietly join in rather than figuring out what to do from instructions (this happens sometimes for students with language or comprehension difficulties, or if a student has a long history of getting called out for inappropriate behavior in the hallway before class, etc, and is in defensive mode about entering with the class). Some students also just can't last an entire period in music class, but don't want to leave early- coming in late can be beneficial for those students as well. I have usually worked with the psychologist or other staff to come up with an "excuse" for where they have to go while the rest of the class is going to music- maybe they go have a check-in with the social worker, read a short book with the para, or sort the mail in the office. Whoever is with them for that planned break can then bring or send the student once the class has gotten going.

3. Leave early

The other option for students for whom the music class just seems to be too long, obviously, is for them to leave early. I often find this can be difficult to manage because it's disruptive to have a student get up and leave in the middle of an activity, and many times the student is resistant to leaving early because they aren't yet disregulated and want to continue with whatever fun we're having! But in a few cases where students really struggle to maintain focus and energy, setting a timer and having someone plan to come and pick them up, or sending them to an inconspicuous corner (or area just outside your open door) can help prevent melt-downs at the end of class. The best solution I've found to make this work is to have an agreed-upon incentive, like a small toy or fidget, coloring page, or book, that they will go to for a quick break before their next class.

4. Come and/or leave with support

In some cases, students can come in and leave with their class, but just need individual prompting to help them manage the transition(s). This might involve another staff member talking them through the transition beforehand or physically walking with them to help give individual reminders, or having some specific visual cues you show them to remind the individual student of how to enter or exit appropriately. This isn't a strategy I've used often, but something to explore with other staff members if you find the usual supports aren't working for a particular student.

I hope this helps you find manageable ways to support students in their behavior goals! What are some tools that you use in your own teaching practice? I'd love to hear more ideas in the comments below! And if you want to learn about how I build a classroom community and foster positive character in my music classes you can read about all of my procedures and strategies in this post, which also includes all of my previous posts on individual behavior supports for other specific needs.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Teaching Theme and Variations

I love teaching form. I didn't think much of it at the beginning of my teaching career, but it has become one of my favorite areas to explore with students because there are so many opportunities for creativity, and it's one of the easiest places to incorporate almost any genre of music. Today I want to share one of my favorite upper elementary lessons on Theme and Variations.


Within the topic of theme and variations, I want students to be able to aurally identify it, perform it, and create/ compose it. These lessons allow students to explore each of those areas.

I introduce the idea of theme and variations with this performance:


After we watch the video, I ask students to describe what happened, making sure they all notice that it is the same song different ways, and discussing which things you can change and which things you can't in order for the listener to identify it as a version of the same song rather than a new song entirely/ contrasting section. Once we've talked about the sorts of musical elements you can change and which you can't, I show them this:


For students that struggle initially to concretely identify what constitutes a variation on a theme and not a completely new piece, the visuals in this video seem to be very helpful. After watching this video, I introduce the term "theme and variations". 

Once students understand the concept of Theme and Variations and can identify it, I give students the task of creating their own variation on a given theme. There are a lot of ways to structure this task, but the basic idea is to take a short song (or part of a song) and have students create their own variation, usually in small groups. 

This is a great place to incorporate a song or genre that you don't normally use in your lessons, because you can pretty much take any section of any song for this project! I like to use the chorus from a current song (here are some hip-hop songs you could consider from various time periods) or a silly camp song. 

Start by learning the song together as a class. This could be done by singing a song with lyrics or you could also do a simple melody on instruments. Once students are comfortable with the song (it should be SHORT- no more than 4 lines), split them up into small groups and tell them to come up with their own variation- review the different musical elements that they previously identified could be changed or retained to create a variation, and have them start by coming up with a descriptor for their variation. They might choose a genre, like "country western version", or they could choose an adjective, like "peaceful version", "sad version", etc.

The important thing to remind students as they work is to keep coming back to their descriptor for their variation, reflecting on whether or not the musical choices they're making reflect that descriptor. They could certainly change their minds about which descriptor they use, but their variation needs to be cohesive.

Once each group has come up with their variation, all that's left is to put them all together to create a class performance in Theme and Variations form! I find it helpful to have groups physically sit in the order that they will perform their variation, then have the entire class perform the original "theme", followed by each group performing their variation in succession. 

There are so many ways to get creative with Theme and Variations form, and older students love the creative freedom it gives them when they create their own variations! This lesson is included in my 4th grade curriculum if you are interested in using the full sequence of lessons along with all the supporting visuals and materials. 

Have other ideas you love for teaching theme and variations? I'd love to hear them in the comments!

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Nine-In-One, Grr! Grr! Elementary Music Lesson

As I look for more ways to incorporate representation for a wide range of cultural perspectives in my music class, I am excited about this new lesson I taught for the first time this school year, using a Hmong story to practice sol-mi and instrument techniques with my 1st graders!

This post contains affiliate links, which do not affect buying experience or the contents of the article. This post is not sponsored.

I actually picked up this book at a used book store while I was on vacation last summer. As soon as I saw it I knew it would be perfect for a music lesson, but as with many things it has taken me over a year to finally sit down to figure out a concrete, meaningful lesson plan to use in my classes. It was worth the wait, though!

The book is Nine-In-One, Grr, Grr! and is a story originally told by Blia Xiong, adapted by Cathy Spagnoli, and illustrated by Nancy Hom. The story is a traditional Hmong story from Laos about why there are so few tigers. If you are not familiar with the story, here it is:


There are 3 main characters in the story: the tiger, the bird, and Shao. When I first read the book to the class, I tell the students to motion with their hands next to their face showing their "claws" every time I say Tiger, flap their "wings" every time I say Bird, and point to their forehead (like they are thinking) every time I say Shao. After reading through the story one time, we quickly discuss what happened in the story.

In the story, the tiger sings a short song ("nine in one, grr, grr") several times. When I read the story, I sing "nine in one" with the melody "sol-sol-mi" while showing the hand signs. After we've read the story and discussed it, I have the students practice singing and signing the song with me and identify the notes in the melody.

Once we've sung it and identified sol and mi, we review how to notate sol and mi on the staff and then I show them how to play it on a xylophone (I have them use G and E). Then I have students work in pairs, and they take turns having one of them sing and sign it while the other plays it. This is the first time they've really played a melody on the barred instruments, so even though it's quite simple it's great practice and the students get so excited!

Now it's time to put the whole story together. I split the class up into 3 groups: one group to sing and sign the song, one to play the song on xylophones, and one to play an instrument for each of the 3 characters: I use gongs for Shao, tubano drums for Tiger, and hand bells for Bird. These are instruments I don't use very often with my 1st graders, so it's a great chance to give them practice using these instruments and review playing technique and instrument names!

We read through the book 3 more times (so each group can take a turn on each part), and the third time I like to take a video of the performance so the class can hear themselves and I can share with their other teachers. It's so easy to put together but it gives the students great practice with some important concepts and it's a perfect opportunity to expose them to a culture most of them have never interacted with before. One nice bonus is actually the biographical information in the back of the book about each of the three contributors, which opens up some great conversations about the refugee experience, Hmong culture, and the importance of cultural preservation (yes, with 1st graders!).

Have you used this story in your classroom before? I had never heard of it until I found it at the bookstore and I love it! If you have more ideas for using this book in music class I'd love to hear your ideas in the comments below. If you're looking for more ways to bring children's literature into your elementary music lessons, you can find tons more lesson ideas here:


Sunday, September 1, 2019

August Favorites 2019

August certainly zoomed by! Summer vacation is officially over and with a week of the new school year under our belts, our family is getting settled back into a routine. As I do each month, today I'm looking back on some of my highlights from the past month, including things from home and school, with photos from my Instagram account, as well as articles from other music education bloggers I found this month and shared on my Facebook page.


1. Xylophone Mallet Hack



I saw this idea in a music teacher Facebook group and my mind was blown- I attached these pen holders to the sides of all my barred instruments and now the appropriate mallets for each instrument are stored directly on the coordinating instruments themselves! This is going to save me so much time when I'm setting up for the whole class to play an ensemble piece, and it makes it so much easier when students are independently getting out an individual instrument to use for composition! It certainly wasn't cheap to outfit my entire instrumentarium with these, but it was worth it for me.

2. Family Vacation



To be perfectly honest, we didn't do a whole lot of actual "vacationing" this summer- we mostly stayed in the area, practicing riding bicycles with no training wheels and swimming without floaties, working on school stuff here and there, and relaxing. But this month we did manage to get away for a week with my extended family at a lake house we rented, and it was so much fun! I loved spending time with my niece and nephew and the rest of my family, and it was so fun to see my daughters having so much fun swimming in the lake.

3. Back to School



We just finished our first week of classes, and it really is great to be back! I loved wearing my new music dress from Modcloth for the first day of school too ;) Somehow every year I feel like I love my job more and more- elementary music really is my passion, and I'm so grateful to be able to do something I love this much and get paid for it!

4. Music Education Blog Posts









What were your highlights from the month of August? I know this month is always pretty crazy, at least in the US, with back to school season in full swing! I'd love to hear about your favorite moments in the comments below, or come find me on social media and leave me a message!

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Another: Elementary Music Lesson

I recently came across a wonderful new book that I'm so excited to use in my music classes this year: Another by Christian Robinson. I'm planning to use the book to talk about different sound sources, timbre, and communicating meaning through music with my Kindergarten classes. Here is the lesson plan I've come up with for this adorable book!

This post contains affiliate links, which do not affect buying experience or the contents of the article. This article is not sponsored.

If you aren't familiar with the story, this book is a picture book with no words at all. This video gives a sense of what it's like:


First, I'll show my students the entire book. As we look at each page, I'll invite students to share what they notice, and what they think is happening. At the end of the story, we'll discuss what the basic story line was.

Next we'll go through the book again, but I'll tell students we're going to add "sound effects" without using any words. On each page we'll practice making different sounds that I or the students suggest would fit with the page, whether it's the cat meowing, or the sound of the girl sliding through the ball pit. Children at this age love showing off the different sounds they can make with their mouths, so I'm sure they will have even better ideas than I do! This is a great place to have conversations about how loud, how fast, how high etc the sound should be to best communicate what's happening.

Once we've done that, I'll tell students that we're going to add sound effects to the story again, but this time using instrument sounds. I'll assign students to different pages- many of the pages only need one sound by one person, but some of them would probably need a larger group- and tell them when it's their turn they will make a sound to match the picture using only instruments.

I've found with this type of lesson it's easiest to sit close to the instruments, either by putting all of the instruments I want them to use out on the floor in front of the class or by moving to go sit near the shelves where I keep the instruments. Then students can quickly get the instrument they want, play it, and sit back down when it's their turn. Before we go through the story, I always take the opportunity to review classroom instrument names and playing techniques too.

By the end, my Kindergartners will have created their own soundscape from the book- this is a great introduction to the idea of communicating a story, mood, or scene through sound. If you want to see more ideas for incorporating lots of different types of soundscapes into lessons for a wide range of ages, this post has lots of other ideas:


And if you want to see all of my lessons using children's books, I have all of them collected in this post:


Have you ever heard of this book before? I am so thrilled to be adding it to my classroom this year! If you have more ideas for ways to use it in the music room, I'd love to hear them in the comments below!

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Wrist Bands: Individual Behavior Supports for Music Class

With so many students to teach and so little time with each class, managing to give each student the kind of individual support we'd like to is a monumental task! And often when individual students are struggling in school, music teachers are left out of any individual plans that are created for them. I've found a few strategies in the last few years that have been very helpful for students who need individualized support that are realistic for me to implement as a music teacher. I hope they will be helpful for others as well. One strategy that has been helpful for targeting one specific behavior goal for individual students has been the rubber band method. I've since learned that this strategy is fairly well-known within some circles, but it was new to me when the school psychologist shared it with me a few years ago and it has been very effective for some situations!


I have used this strategy as a way to give a student a silent reminder when they are working to reduce the frequency of a specific targeted behavior. That could be roaming the room when it's not appropriate to do so, calling out/ interrupting, name-calling, throwing, or any other behavior that the student exhibits frequently within a class period.

The basic idea is simple: I start with a certain number of rubber bands on one wrist. Any time the student exhibits the targeted behavior, I silently move a rubber band from one wrist to the other. The goal is for there to be at least 1 band left on the first arm when the class period is over. Once the student starts to adjust their behavior and is consistently successful, I can reduce the number of bands that I have to start with.

This strategy works within the context of my job as an elementary music teacher because I can just put the bands on my arm in the morning whenever I know I have that student in class that day, and if I happen to need it for more than one student within the building I can use the same bands and just replace them after each class leaves. I don't have to create a new individual chart for them, and I don't have to set something up for that student that stays out in the room somewhere (like many homeroom teachers might do with a visual on their desk etc).

The rubber band strategy works in general because it doesn't draw attention to the behavior- for the other students in the class, who generally don't even notice me moving bands so it doesn't create any sense of shame for the student, or for the individual student, for whom it avoids giving any sort of positive reinforcement for the behavior but still gives them the reminders that they need. It also works because it's very concrete, and it allows us to work with realistic goals- we aren't expecting a behavior to immediately disappear, but to help students be more aware and gradually correct it over time. And it helps me keep track of data without having to stop to write things down, which is never convenient, and often it helps me see the student making progress more easily- it can be hard to remain patient when a student's progress is slow, but it's easier to notice that gradual progress happen when I notice I only have to move 3 bands instead of 5, etc.

When I have used this I have done it in tandem with an individual behavior plan that the support team creates for the student for their overall school time, so I fill out their chart, give them a sticker, check off a list, or whatever they are using outside of my room based on how they did with the rubber bands in my class. It saves me some of the headache of trying to remember lots of different individual plans while I'm in the middle of teaching, while still working with whatever they are doing in the rest of their classes with other teachers.

I hope this helps you find manageable ways to support students in their behavior goals! I'm planning to share more of my favorite strategies for individual behavior supports in the future. What are some tools that you use in your own teaching practice? I'd love to hear more ideas in the comments below! And if you want to learn about how I build a classroom community and foster positive character in my music classes you can read about all of my procedures and strategies in this post.