Image Map

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Planner Tour 2019-2020

It's that time of year again: I've got my planner set up for the new school year and I'm so excited! Today I have a video tour of the entire planner, with links to everything I used and information on how I set everything up.

This post contains affiliate links which do not affect my sharing or your purchase experience.

First here's the video tour:

If you're looking for more information on my planner, here's everything you need to know:

Supplies I'm using
Happy Planner Rainbow Expander Metal Discs
Happy Planner Rose Gold Snap-In Cover
Happy Planner Folder Rainbow Heart
Arc Clear Zippered Pocket
Staples Clear Pocket
Rainbow Paper Tabs
Frixion Erasable Pens
Magnetic Clip (similar)

How I set up my planner
Bookmark/ Sticky Note Dashboard DIY tutorial
Printing and Binding Information
Digital Customization Tutorial

All of the monthly lesson banks, scope and sequence, and other curriculum documents are in this set:

And you can get all the planner printables I'm using here:

I hope you enjoyed this tour of my music teacher planner for the 2019-2020 school year- I absolutely love the thrill of putting together a new year's planner! It's one of the best things about summer!

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Am I Cut Out to Teach Music?

There are lots of reasons people ask themselves, "Am I cut out to teach music?". I hear it most in the springtime, both from college students curious about the field, and from weary teachers overwhelmed by stress. My intent with this post is three-fold: to reassure and help burned out music teachers refocus on their "why", to guide prospective music teachers in thinking through career choices, and help struggling music teachers identify possible causes and find a path forward. I do not think there is one way to be a good music teacher, but I do think there are certain "keys to success", mostly in terms of mindset, that can make or break a music teacher's career. If you or someone you know is wrestling with this question, I hope these thoughts bring some clarity!

If you're wondering whether or not you're "cut out" to be a music teacher, here are some important questions to ask yourself:

1. Do I love and respect the children in this community?

I don't mean in a patronizing, "I'm here save these poor little children, bless their hearts" kind of way. I mean do you actually care about their well-being and success, and want to build personal connections with them and get to know them as human beings? If you feel like you don't have enough in common with them to connect with them right now, are you interested in learning (rather than interested primarily in sharing yourself and your background with them)? It's important to ask this question specifically about the community you are in/ entering- I've met plenty of teachers who "love children" but don't realize they have a very specific idea of what children are like that doesn't match the population they are working with, and that leads quickly to resentment.

2. Do I love and respect music?

Do you honestly believe that music is important for humanity or do you think it's just frivolous fun? If the main reason you went into/ are thinking about going into music education is because you want to have fun making music, and you think the primary purpose of music class is for children to have fun or "get a break", then that may be a recipe for burnout. As soon as those 5th graders become too cool for school and tell you everything is boring, you're going to lose your purpose. Sure, absolutely, music is fun! But it is so much more than that. You need to have an honest belief that music is fundamentally important for its own sake and that it is equally important to math, literacy, and other school subjects.

3. Do I have a foundational understanding of music pedagogy?

You can love and respect the students and your subject matter all you want, but if you don't know how to teach effectively you most likely aren't going to get the results you're hoping for. This is a common problem in education in general: people who have a passion for children and education but think they can be an effective teacher without ever learning how to teach. I think instances of these types of people in music education may be higher, though, because of people who enter music education from other areas of teaching (or other areas of music) without any understanding of effective music teaching specifically. Obviously you are going to grow a lot in this area the longer you teach, but if you don't have a fundamental understanding of what works and what doesn't, you'll grow frustrated with your students' lack of progress.

4. Am I disciplined?

This may sound odd, but I really don't think you can last long in the teaching profession without a certain level of self-discipline. So many music teachers fail because they can't keep up with everything! By nature as a music teacher you are responsible for hundreds of humans and to do your job well you need to keep track of all of them. You also need to figure out how to get large groups of children to stand in a specific location at a specific time and do a specific thing in front of large audiences. This kind of stuff doesn't happen by winging it! You may get lucky a time or two but if you don't have a way to keep yourself accountable for all of your responsibilities, you won't make it very far. Sure, all of us drop a ball here and there, and we all hope to be extended grace when that happens, but you can't rely on colleagues or administrators to do your job for you without losing their respect. 

5. Am I a proficient musician?

I hesitate to even say this because I see it blown way out of proportion and too narrowly defined within the music education field. There are many ways to be a good musician- performing at a professional level is not the only way. Still, there is a certain amount of truth to the underlying concept that we ourselves must be able to do what we are hoping our students will be able to achieve in our classes. It will be difficult to be an effective teacher or gain the respect of students and coworkers without it.

What are your thoughts on this topic? I firmly believe that the aspects of a successful music teacher I described above are not innate- all of them can be learned, and all of them are areas in which we can (and should) continue to grow throughout our careers. Sometimes we can get overwhelmed by secondary things in our work life that feel way more important in the moment than they actually are, and it's important to return to the core of what brought us into the profession in the first place. I'd love to hear your thoughts on my list in the comments below so we can continue the professional dialogue!

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Soundscapes 4 Ways

One of my favorite lesson ideas to keep in my back pocket is soundscapes. I use soundscapes for sub plans, for when I have to change my lesson at the last-minute, when I need to do a one-off lesson with one class to catch up the rest of the grade, or when I'm just too exhausted to think straight (any of those scenarios sound familiar right about now? just me? ok great...). Today I want to share several ways I like to use soundscapes to give my students opportunities to explore sound sources, using music to communicate meaning, classroom instruments, and more.

For the purposes of this post I'm defining soundscapes broadly as a way to communicate an image through organized sound. When I explain it to my students, I compare it to the word, "landscape"- just like landscapes are a broad picture of a specific place, soundscapes communicate a broad, general image of something.

Here are several examples of different prompts I use with my students to explore the concept of communicating an image through sound:

1. Places

Of course the most common one I use is to have students portray a particular location. Usually I set this up as a small group project, but it can also be done as a whole class activity. I give each group a general location, like a beach, airport, playground, or city street. I have them make a list of all the sounds they might hear if they were standing in the middle of that location. Then I have them think of ways to imitate those sounds using different sound sources: found sounds, instruments, body percussion, and voice. Sometimes if we are working on a particular concept like vocal timbre, instrumental technique, or exploring found sounds, I will limit them to certain sound sources, but most often I will tell them they need to have at least one example of each category.

Once they have their list of sounds, the next step is to organize the sounds into a performance. This is where students tend to struggle the most. It's important to guide them in thinking through how to draw the listeners' attention to different sounds to convey the overall image- maybe some of the background sounds are performed throughout the piece, while others are performed once in a particular order, or layered in on top of each other.

When the soundscapes are ready, I have the audience close their eyes while they listen to each group perform, then try to guess what the location was supposed to be. If they have done their jobs, it should be obvious what image they were trying to convey through their sounds!

2. Poem / Story

The second most common way I incorporate soundscapes is using a book, story, or poem as a prompt. This is a more concrete way to introduce the concept with younger students, because I can ask students to come up with a "sound effect" to go with specific words or characters from the story. I first read the poem or story, then I tell students I want to add some sound effects to it. I go through and assign each student (or small group of students) to a specific word. Depending on what concept we're working on, I'll have them choose an instrument, vocal timbre, etc to match the word. Then I read again and have students perform the sound whenever they hear their word. To make it more like an actual "soundscape", though, it's fun to do it again but with silent reading- this works well if you have a picture book so that early readers can still follow along- by pointing to the words without reading out loud and having students perform their sounds when you point to their word. Then you can discuss how well the sounds communicated the story/ poem when the words are removed. Besides being a great way to explore sound, it's pretty fun to "hear the story" without the words!

Here are some examples of books I use in this way:

3. Silent / Muted Film

This is a bit of a departure from a true "soundscape" concept, but gets to the same idea: show students a short film with no sound and have them add sound effects to it. I do an entire unit on music and sound in movies with my 6th graders each year (here are the materials I use for this), and one part of that unit is learning about Foley: the art of live sound effects. This is a great extension of the idea of using a variety of sound sources to evoke a scene and contextualize this process for older students! Again this is a good opportunity to guide students in thinking about how to organize the timing of each sound: they are quick to identify specific sounds that happen with a specific event, like footsteps when a character is walking or a loud noise when something is hit, but the background noises that are a part of the scene are equally important to setting the scene!

4. Other Prompts: visual/art, feeling/adjective

Another way to extend the concept of soundscapes for older students is to have students use sounds to evoke a non-concrete concept rather than a concrete place or image. I love using this as a way to explore how music can communicate different moods and feelings, and also explore connections between music and visual art. I introduce the concept of conveying feelings through music to my younger students with lessons like these:

With older students I will use the same process as I do for more traditional soundscapes but instead of giving each group a location, I will give them a feeling word or adjective (like happy/ sad/ angry, or jagged/ fluffy/ bumpy, etc). I have each group come up with a list of words they associate with their assigned feeling or adjective, then come up with sounds that they think will communicate that idea. In this case I also prompt students to think about HOW they can play the sounds to communicate the idea- besides timbre, the tempo, dynamics, etc can also communicate a particular feeling.

Soundscapes, however you use them, can be a great way to explore music and sound in a structured way that allows students to be creative and think about the purpose behind the sounds. Are there other ways you have used this idea of soundscapes in your lessons? I'd love to hear about your ideas in the comments below!

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Best Strategies for Teaching Dynamics

The expressive elements of music are something I admittedly teach as an after-thought on many occasions. Obviously everyone knows the difference between loud and quiet, right?? Over my years of teaching, however, I have found that if I don't teach expressive elements consciously and regularly, it is difficult for students to perform expressively when I expect them to, even if they understand the idea conceptually. Today I am sharing my favorite ways to teach dynamics: identifying, performing, and creating with them, from kindergarten up through middle school.

It's worth noting that dynamics (and other expressive elements) are a key element addressed in the National Core Arts Standards for general music. As with many concepts, the expectations in the NCAS go beyond being able to demonstrate and identify dynamic contrast, or even using specific vocabulary and symbols- students are expected to understand how dynamics convey intent in a musical performance. That means it's not enough for students to be able to sing loudly and quietly, or to know that "forte" means loud. Students need to understand the importance of dynamic contrast in music, and be able to use it effectively as a creator and performer.

If you're starting to sweat a little, don't worry. I did too when I first read through the standards and realized how little time I had spent on the WHY of expressive elements. But what I've come to realize is that to develop that understanding, the best thing I can do is give students more opportunities to explore dynamics, from creating, performing, and responding perspectives, and take a minute to make that exploration conscious as they do so. And fostering this understanding for my students is valuable- they are much more perceptive creators, performers, and consumers of music, and their musicking is much more meaningful.

Still a little overwhelmed? Here are some of my favorite ways to get students responding, performing, and creating with dynamics.


The most fundamental step in understanding dynamics is identifying and responding to dynamic contrast. My favorite way to help students demonstrate and explore this is through movement.

1. Big and small 

While listening to a recording (or your own live performance) with dynamic contrast, have students respond to the dynamics they hear by spreading their body wide for loud sounds and scrunching up small for quiet sounds. They can also do a movement with the beat (like swaying their arms or walking) and make those movements bigger or smaller with the dynamics. 

2. Conducting

Students can practice the basics of conducting dynamics by spreading their arms out for loud and putting their hands close together for quiet. Then when they learn basic conducting patterns to show meter, they can practice doing those conducting patterns bigger and smaller to show dynamic contrast as well. 

3. Props

For some students nothing helps the concept "click" faster than a visual, and for dynamics I love stretchy bands. These are especially great for exploring crescendos and decrescendos because they show gradual expansion and contraction so perfectly! Have students show the music getting louder and softer by making the circle bigger or smaller while they listen to the music.

To connect these concepts to specific music vocabulary and symbols, I give students a set of visuals showing the words or symbols and have students point to, mark, or hold up the corresponding one: they can circle or write down the dynamics they hear on a paper, point to the one they hear on the board, or hold up the one they hear on separate sheets of paper.

To help students think critically about the purpose and impact of dynamics in music, I like using stories with younger students and circle discussions with the older grades.

4. Stories

There are lots of books that lend themselves to thinking about how different feelings are conveyed through various musical elements, but these are some of my favorites (click to read the full lesson plans):

5. Circle discussions

With older students, circle discussions can be a great way to get everyone talking about how dynamics can convey meaning and intent. Here is a detailed description, with some specific discussion prompts, of how to run effective circle discussions:


Of course one of the other fundamental components of understanding dynamics is performing with dynamic contrast. I often connect performance tasks with the movement tasks I described for responding to assess their understanding of each: I show bigger or smaller motions and have students respond by singing or playing instruments louder or softer to match, conduct bigger or smaller for students to follow with their performing, or point to a symbol or word on the board and have students sing or play at that dynamic level. 

One key element that I'm working to include more frequently is to take a minute after these performing activities to ask students which dynamic level they prefer for a particular song and why. It's a great way to get students used to the idea that different dynamic levels can convey different meanings and to start thinking critically about why and how that happens.

Of course this type of performing exploration can be added to basically any song or performance activity we're working on- I've even done it when we're practicing reading rhythm notation with 4-beat patterns on the board by having the class, or a group of students, perform the rhythm "forte" or "piano", etc to give them additional practice and get students to apply the rhythm reading to a more musical performance- but especially in the younger grades, I've found one of the best ways to explore performing dynamic contrast is through stories. Here is one example of a book I love to use to explore loud and quiet (click to read the full lesson plan):


One of the best ways to assess student understanding of dynamics and their importance in expressive music making is to use them in composition! This is the area I have been focusing on adding more regularly to my lessons, especially in the younger grades. Giving students the opportunity to create with dynamics is actually very simple- it's really just a matter of letting students choose which dynamic level they want to hear and then evaluating those choices.

Sometimes in lower grades I will specifically question students. I have them choose a dynamic level for a song we are about to sing or play and give me a reason for their choice. But most of the time I give students opportunities to explore creating with dynamics by letting them "conduct" in some way- usually by having one student use the same type of movement and vocabulary exploration I described for "responding" and having the class perform whatever the leader is demonstrating.

1. Big and small / conducting

One of the easiest ways to have students choose dynamics is to have them do gestures of some kind, whether it's "actual" conducting or just moving their hands apart and together, to adjust the volume of the rest of the class' performance while they sing or play instruments.

2. Props

There are a few props you can use to show loud and quiet (like lion vs fish puppets, for example), but my favorite one to use for this is the Hoberman sphere. This is the perfect way for students to practice showing louder and softer dynamics visually, especially including gradual changes.

3. Vocabulary

Of course students can also take turns pointing to dynamic markings on the board, or holding up cards that show different dynamics, to show the class which dynamic level they want.

For older students, I try to work in opportunities for students to make expressive decisions for their original melodic, rhythmic, and harmonic compositions as well. For written compositions, I'll have them practice writing in the dynamic markings on their scores. Other times, I may just ask students to perform their compositions again but include a change in dynamics, after they've performed their composition for the class the first time. This gives them more chances to focus on the purpose of dynamics and the process of making purposeful expressive decisions about dynamics without worrying about writing or specific vocabulary.

What are your favorite ways to teach dynamics? I'd love to hear your ideas in the comments! If you're interested in seeing how all of these different ideas are laid out over the course of my elementary music lessons, here is my full curriculum set.