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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.