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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!