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Tuesday, October 29, 2019

What to do with THAT Class: high needs

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. In this series I'm 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 have a high percentage of students with high needs.


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.

High Needs

Classes with a high percentage of students with high academic, social/ emotional, and other needs can be a particular struggle for music teachers because often these students are being given a lot of support from additional staffing, pull-outs, and other individualized supports in the homeroom but those same supports are not given in their other classes, including music. It's also difficult because we're teaching so many students, that staying on top of the individual needs and plans for each student is nearly impossible and certainly unreasonable. On top of that, the music class environment is different from their other classes, so many students respond differently to our class environment, and those challenges are not usually addressed in individualized plans for these students. So dealing with these classes appropriately can be a monumental task for us. 

tip #1: consolidate important information

The first hurdle with these classes as music teachers is sorting through, processing, and keeping track of all the important information we need to know about individual student needs, whether that's medical information, home life situations/ background that affects behavior, IEP's, or any other information we receive formally and informally about all our students. Once we've made sure we have as much information as we can get about our students (more on that later), we need to find a way to use that information to inform our teaching. I have found it most helpful to go through all of the information I have and, for the students that I know I need to be mindful of, consolidate the information into one form. I use these IEP and medical information sheets to write down the most important information about those students that need any type of specific support in my classroom and keep them in my planner. Just the act of processing the information enough to consolidate it and then handwriting it helps tremendously with my own ability to stay on top of everything, and it's really helpful to have as a reference whenever I find myself running into problems.

tip #2: integrate individual plans

Often one of the frustrations with classes with high needs is that individual students will have plans in place to support them academically, behaviorally, or otherwise but a) those plans aren't shared with us, b) those plans don't include their time outside their homeroom, or c) the plans are too difficult to implement in the music room and manage alongside our hundreds of students. As frustrating as it is to take these extra steps to do so, it's in our best interest (not to mention the best interest of the students, obviously) to find ways to tap into those individual support plans. For most of us that means:
  • continuously advocating for the need to keep us non-homeroom teachers in the loop when individualized plans are created,
  • talking to staff members creating and implementing individual plans about how to make it work in the music room, and
  • creating reminders for ourselves to stay on top of all these different plans.
Often integrating an individual plan into our classes is as simple as including a spot for specials on any chart that is being filled out to monitor how students are doing and either making sure the chart is brought to specials for you to fill out or reporting to the homeroom teacher with how students did at the end of each class (if it's not a simple piece of paper that they can carry around). If they're earning some type of points/ rewards to reinforce specific behaviors, they should be able to earn them in your room as well and add it to their total. I find the easiest way for me to track things like how many "points" they earn in class or progress monitoring on a specific behavior is using rubber bands on my wrist, and I tell the student that the rubber band is the equivalent of their token/ dollar/ star/ whatever they're earning in their homeroom. You can read about how to do this in this post.

If there are academic support tools they're using, like using a specific tool on an iPad for writing, grips for pencils, glasses, visual reminders, translation apps, etc, make sure they're bringing them to music class as well. And if they have one-on-one support staff working with them in the homeroom, advocate for the importance of having that same staffing available for music and other non-homeroom classes! Often this is a harder sell for administration but if you can document the difficulties the student is having in your class you can make a case for the importance of having them there.

If there is something I need to track or equipment I need to have available to be able to bring these individual plans into my teaching, post-it note reminders directly on the seating chart for their class help me remember before they walk in the door. I use bright orange page flags with a note like "Aniya- bands" or "Jaden- chart" so that I remember to stay on top of using whatever system I have in place for them.

tip #3: collaborate and communicate

It's a lot of work and it's frustrating that the onus of responsibility falls on us, but the only way for us to be included as part of the team effort to support individual students, in most schools, is for us to take the initiative to include ourselves in as many meetings and conversations as we can and be proactive about staying involved in them throughout the year. Attending every single IEP meeting for the entire student population is certainly out of the question but I have asked to be added to emails so I am notified when meetings are happening so that I can give my input for others to take to the meeting, or ask to join if a student is a particular concern of mine as well.

Beyond formal meetings, though, keeping the lines of communication open with colleagues is so important! Any time I notice a certain recurring behavior, or a sudden change in a student, I try to have a quick conversation with the homeroom teacher. Often they have either started noticing the same thing and my thoughts reinforce their thinking and lead to a plan, or they have a plan already to address it and I learn about it because I asked. The same goes the other way too- if I find success with a particular strategy, I try to share it with the other teachers. 

tip #4: prioritize procedures and structure

One of the best things we can do for all of our students with behavioral and academic needs is to make our classes more predictable and structured. If your classroom isn't normally highly structured, this is probably the best place to start to help students be more successful in class! Explain and practice procedures for everything until students are all comfortable with the process, whether it's getting out pencils and paper, moving from chairs to carpet, or lining up at the end of class. Think through how to streamline each of those processes as well to make everything as straight-forward as possible. I've been freshly reminded this year that, as much as I feel like I'm repeating myself over and over again with these procedures, the students need those reminders WAY longer than I think because they're only coming into my room twice a week! For students who take longer to process things or don't instinctively do things the same way other kids their age might, these kinds of procedures have to be explicitly practiced.

tip #5: provide opportunities for student collaboration

For students who might be more defiant listening to a teacher or who struggle to understand a concept in the way we explain it, sometimes the best learning happens with their peers. I'm always surprised at the one thing that finally helps them understand something! Pairing up or putting students into small groups also allows me to work with students in the specific way that works best for them instead of interacting with the whole class at once, and many students learn better in a small group anyway. It's hard in elementary music where we're so used to working primarily with whole class activities, but for classes with high needs it's good to step back and give students time to process. Even just 2 minutes to share ideas or practice a part with a partner can help, doing a composition with a small group, or centers (here are lots of ideas about how to run centers, and my favorite center activities).

I hope these suggestions help you better address the needs of your students in these types of classes! I'm not saying it will be easy, but these strategies have certainly made it more manageable for me to meet my students' needs as best as I can within my classroom setting.

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 22, 2019

15 (more) Fun Videos for Music Class

I tend to avoid showing full-length movies in my classes, even when I'm out with a sub. I just find my students watch TV and movies so many other places in their life that they truly aren't interested. But for a quick break, an example of a musical concept I'm teaching, a wind-down activity at the end of class, or just a funny moment to share, I have found lots of great uses for short video clips from YouTube! I shared 15 of these videos in this previous post, and today I want to share more of my favorite music-related (and school-appropriate) videos to share with my students in class.


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
























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

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

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.