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Tuesday, December 31, 2019

December Favorites 2019

The last "favorites" post for 2019- crazy! Of course December is always a fun-filled month so it's hard to choose, but here are some highlights from the past month, told through some of my Instagram photos. Come follow along for some inspiration, and share your own favorites in the comments!

1. Sing Along Updates

I wrote an entire blog post about this but I was so happy with the updates I made to my whole-school holiday sing-along this year. I added in songs for Eid and Lunar New Year, and they were both big hits with the students. This year the sing-along almost didn't happen at all because of snow, but thankfully we were able to reschedule it, and I'm so glad we did in spite of the craziness of running around to make it happen.

2. Advent Activities

Of course the advent activities I do with my daughters each day in December are always one of the highlights of the month for me. I made this little advent calendar back in 2014 when my daughters were almost 3, and we've been doing it every year since then. The best part now is that my girls remember and look forward to it when December is approaching! It was so much fun and so little work, honestly, which is the best part- it just keeps me from spiraling out of control thinking about all the stuff I have to do at work and helps me stay focused on being with my family when I'm at home.

3. Christmas Planner Spreads

I always love playing around with planner decorating- it's my way of keeping my scrapbooking and crafting hobby going- but it's especially fun in December because it's one of the few holidays I really enjoy acknowledging in thematic spreads. A lot of the sticker books I have collected over the years have specifically Christmas- themed stickers in them so I spend the rest of the year basically waiting for the chance to use them! You can read about how I decorate my planner in a way that still keeps my pages super functional in this post (with accompanying video):

4. Music Education Blog Posts

Here are some of my favorite posts I found this month! I share these weekly over on my Facebook page. Click the images to read each post:

I hope you all had a wonderful December as well and are looking forward to a fantastic 2020- can you believe it?!? Here we go to another new year!

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Mid-Year Reflection: Wins and Wishes

Now that I'm on break and have a chance to breathe, I'm taking a little time to reflect on how the school year is going so far. I always find it helpful to reflect on my successes and focus on my future goals and priorities while I have the time and energy to think about it with some proper perspective! So here is my mid-year reflection, if you're inspired to share your own I'd love for you to do so in the comments!

My "wins"

1. maintaining my vocal health

I won't say my voice is in top shape, but I can definitely still sing and speak in my normal range right now and that is HUGE! I am not kidding when I say this was my number one priority going into November / December this year. Last year I lost my voice for over a month (and barely had it for about a month on either end of that) this time of year and I was miserable- as in it was physically painful to do my job. I made sure to be more conscious of not pushing my voice both in and out of school, and I made a few deliberate choices in the interest of saving my voice as well: I said no to church choir, I asked my principal to buy me a megaphone for my outside duties, and I rested my voice as much as possible every weekend in the fall and winter. This is usually the worst time of year for my voice so I am celebrating my success, but I'm going to continue to be mindful through the rest of the school year so I can maintain my vocal health through the rest of the winter too!

2. including Ramadan/ Eid in my holiday sing-along

My whole-school holiday sing-along is definitely still a work in progress (read about that in this post), but I have spent a couple of years trying to find a way to include a recognition of Ramadan in a meaningful way that students would enjoy, and I feel like I did that this year. The students who celebrate Ramadan and their families in our school community were so happy to see themselves reflected in our preparations, and in some of my upper grade classes the students voluntarily started sharing about their fasting and other ways they celebrate and the rest of the class responded with genuine excitement and interest. It was the absolute best outcome I could have hoped for!

3. banner year for choir

I teach pull-out choir classes for 3rd-6th grade, and this semester was by far the best I've ever had with my choir classes at this school. I made a point of going around to individual students that I thought would be interested but hadn't signed up yet when the deadline was approaching this year, and got a tremendous response- my 3rd and 4th grade groups were the largest they have ever been, and my 5th and 6th grade group was double the normal size! Not only that, they were all incredibly motivated and focused- I was so nervous about having these giant groups but there were very few disruptions to rehearsal. In the 5th and 6th grade group in particular, every rehearsal was magical. We did challenging literature, singing in multiple languages, parallel harmony, and with dynamic contrast, and we had fun doing it. I really really really hope the magic continues this spring!!

4. parent communication

I finally got myself set up on ClassDojo by getting grade level teachers to add me to their classes, and it has been a fantastic way to communicate quickly and easily with parents. I've used it to communicate with individual parents when a child had a difficult time in class, but mostly I've used it to send little video clips of things we're doing in class, or send announcements to everyone when our concert got snowed out!

My "wishes"

1. lessons for self-contained classes

I almost put my self-contained special education classes in the "wins" too- I'm actually quite happy with how much I've learned as I'm teaching some self-contained classes that are completely different from any class I've ever taught before this year. But one of my goals for the rest of the year is to continue to learn more about the students in these classes and learn how to teach them more effectively- I know there's still so much more to learn.

2. pushing aside toxicity

This school year has been full of toxic negativity from other adults for some reason. I've had a few very difficult interactions with parents and seen a lot of colleagues treat me (and other "specials" teachers) like a lesser teacher. I'll continue to work to build respect for myself and my program, but the main thing I want to focus on is to not let that toxic negativity get to me so much! When I step back I can see that there are hundreds of parents that have lots of positive things to say about their child's experience in my class, and have had very productive conversations with me when there was a problem we needed to tackle. I also have plenty of colleagues who treat me like the professional equal I am. I want to learn to not let a handful of negative interactions affect my self-image or my mood.

How about you? Whether you choose to share publicly in a comment or not, this is an effective, easy way to take stock of where you are in the school year and get some perspective before heading into January. What are your wins and wishes?

Monday, December 23, 2019

How to Give Intangible Gifts

Maybe you've heard about the idea of giving experiences instead of things, but you just don't think your children will buy into the idea. Maybe you'd love to do it but have trouble coming up with concrete ideas. If you're looking for "last-minute gift ideas" you don't have to fall victim to all the retailers scrambling to get you to buy more stuff to clutter up your house (and your life)- here are my suggestions for giving intangible gifts that everyone will be excited to give and receive!

There's a lot of gift-giving happening in my life right now. My family celebrates Christmas, and my twin daughters have their birthday the beginning of January. It's a lot to think about all at once! But luckily it's also the time of year when I'm most anxious to purge my house of all the clutter, which means for the last several years I've been focused on making sure I don't add to the clutter by giving my kids a bunch of toys.

I think the key to helping kids get excited about an intangible gift the same way they would about a shiny new toy is 1) making sure they still have something to unwrap, even if it's just a piece of paper that has a note about the gift, and 2) giving them time to adjust to the idea. I wouldn't worry if they are clearly a little disappointed with an intangible gift initially- I find once they actually have a chance to experience those gifts they realize how fun it is!

Another way to help children get used to the idea of giving experiences over things is to suggest that they give intangible gifts themselves! Here is a post I wrote on how I do this with my young children. I find it's perfect because the children can actually give it themselves rather than having to have someone else pay for it because they don't have their own money.

With all of that said, there are so many great ways to give intangible gifts- click each post below to read specific ideas that have been favorites in my family:

I hope this gives you some ideas that will make your next gift-giving opportunity more meaningful! If you have stories of how you've given intangible gifts (to kids or adults!) we'd love to hear them in the comments :)

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

One-Off Music Lessons That Don't Waste Time

We've all been there: one class is ahead of the rest of the grade level, it's the last day before a vacation, you're stressed/ tired/ sick and can't think straight to teach a regular lesson, it's a weird schedule day and the kids are spinning in circles, there's a last-minute change and you can't do the lesson you had planned... Whatever the reason, we all have days when we need to step out of our regularly-scheduled sequenced curriculum and do something different for one class period. Sure, you could throw on a movie or pull out some worksheets. But those types of classes can result in lots of behavior difficulties (and no wonder, the students are usually bored!). Here are my favorite ways to use those "one-off" class periods in meaningful musical ways.

These ideas are ones that don't require too much thinking on my part, don't require advance planning to set up, can be done with large or small groups, and keep students engaged for an entire class period.

1. instrument merry go round

I actually use this activity as a part of my regular "curricular" lessons as well, but it's a good one to pull out when I want everyone to stay focused and engaged but I know they're going to be antsy. I have every student pick out one instrument (usually I limit their options to small percussion on specific shelves in my room) and bring it to sit in a circle on the floor. Then I tell them to play when my hands are open, and stop when I close my hands. If they play/ don't play at the wrong time, they're out for the next round.

Once they get the hang of starting and stopping, I have them leave their instrument on the floor, stand up, and move over one spot around the circle. Then they pick up the new instrument and repeat. Keep going around the circle and switching instruments! The great thing about this is I can use it to review a variety of concepts. Instrument names and playing techniques are obvious ones, but I can also teach dynamics by having them play louder/ softer when I hold up dynamic symbols or move my hands bigger or smaller, review instrument classification by calling out certain types to play on different turns, or practice rhythms by having them echo patterns instead of starting/ stopping. Lots of ways to change it up!

2. Musication

I purposefully save videos from this awesome YouTube channel to use only for this purpose so that I know students won't get tired of them. They are most well-known for the play-along videos for Boomwhackers and hand chimes with color-coded notes, but there are also play-along videos for percussion (which is great for large groups and younger students), and even chord play-alongs (which I use with ukulele but could also be done with guitar, piano, etc).

One other pro tip for these: you can slow down or speed up the videos on YouTube without distorting the sound by clicking on settings (the gear icon at the bottom of the video) and selecting "playback speed". This is a perfect way to keep classes engaged and "up the ante" by repeating the same song but speeding up each time! Of course switching the parts/ notes they're playing is another great way to change it up and keep everyone on their toes.

3. posters

I don't do this often but every now and then, especially if I'm under the weather and I don't think the students will be too high-energy, I'll have the class make posters to hang up on the walls. Sometimes I'll have them make posters for an upcoming music event to hang up around the building, including reminders about concert etiquette. Other times I have them make posters about something they're learning: instrument families, a musical element, music vocabulary, etc. Bonus: it's great to have student work to actually display on the walls because most of our student work isn't visual, and administrators (and kids!) love to see that in the classroom!

4. soundscapes

There are so many ways to do soundscapes- I've written an entire blog post just about all the ways to do them here- but the most basic one I pull out most often in this scenario is to write down names of places on slips of paper, fold them up and have students draw one from a jar, and then have small groups come up with a soundscape to match that scene using only their voices and found objects they have in the room. So for example if a group has the beach, they may make the sounds of waves by flapping a piece of paper, seagulls with their voice, beachballs getting hit by hitting a chair, etc.

If you're reading this right now and thinking ha, I wish I had a sequenced curriculum laid out for me that I could even stray from in the first place! Don't worry, you're definitely not alone- I talk to so many music teachers every week who are planning their lessons week by week or even day by day from scratch! You can get my complete curriculum with all the plans and materials for the entire school year for K-6 general music here, or learn exactly how to make your own in this free e-course here.

I hope these lesson ideas are helpful the next time you find yourself in one of those situations- I'll be using a few of them this week after I finish my concerts and try to finish the week until our vacation!

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Boomwhackers in the Music Room

I love using Boomwhackers in my elementary music classes! Not only are they fun and accessible for even the youngest students to play, but they are a really helpful tool for exploring some key musical concepts that make them useful well into the upper grades. Today I want to share some of my favorite ways to use Boomwhackers in the elementary general music classroom. 

1. Melodic composition

Boomwhackers are a great tool for melodic composition in elementary music because students can use the color-coding of the notes to add pitch to rhythms. My favorite way to do this is with "solfege stickers"- adding stickers to the note heads in the colors that go with the Boomwhackers. The nice thing about that is there is no writing required, and if I want them to use a limited set of pitches (like the pentatonic scale, etc) then I just give them those colors. You can read more about how I make and use them in this post- it's super easy and so much fun!

Another way to use the colors to have students compose is with the Chrome Music Lab Song Maker. It's set up so you click on different squares to add pitches, and the colors match the Boomwhackers perfectly! This is a great way to get them practicing and experimenting with melodic composition, because there's no rhythm or traditional notation involved at all but they can hear the notes as they click them.

2. Practicing scale types

Boomwhackers are also a great way to reinforce different scales. I use them in my classes to teach pentatonic scales and minor scales- I find the visual is really helpful for many of my students to practice and understand which pitches go in what order when they use the Boomwhackers as a visual / manipulative to put together the scale. I'll give a small group of students a set with 1 of each diatonic pitch, and have them pick out the ones they need and put them in the correct order on the floor, and/or play a scale in order.

3. Practicing chords

I use Boomwhackers to introduce the concept of chords and help my students practice building triads to help them understand how to start with the root of the chord, then skip every other pitch to find the other two notes they need. They're also helpful for looking at chord functionality and "translating" between roman numerals and letter names of chords (in C major) because they can use the solfege and letter name labels to help them remember which is which.

4. Centers

Boomwhackers are perfect for centers because they are easy to play without supervision and they're not too loud. Sometimes I'll have students "notate" a melody using matching colored bingo chips (see picture) that they lay out on the floor, or notate in Chrome Music Lab and then play the song on the instruments. I've also printed out melodies from Chrome Music Lab for students to practice playing.

5. Play along videos

One of my go-to lessons on days when I know I can't continue with my normal sequenced curriculum for whatever reason is play-along videos. They're a great way to keep students engaged and mix things up while keeping it low-key, and it's still a valuable musical experience! I use the diatonic play-alongs by Musication on YouTube, but there are plenty more options for play-along videos around, especially if you have chromatics in your room!

I hope you find some new ideas to use in your music classes here, and if I missed any of your favorites, please share them in the comments below! If you love Boomwhackers as much as I do but hate trying to keep them organized, be sure to check out my previous post where I shared my storage solutions. If you're looking for tips and lesson ideas for teaching other instruments, like ukulele, recorder, keyboards, xylophones, and more, head to this post:

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Toward an Inclusive Holiday Sing-Along

Holiday sing-alongs are something many music teachers are tasked with. They can be a lot of fun, and they're a great way to bring the entire school community together. But they also inherently center certain religions and cultures while ignoring others, and that is problematic. I cannot say that I'm completely happy with my sing-along just yet, but after doing a lot of thinking over the last few years I have made some changes that have certainly brought it a long way in making it more reflective of our school community and our world, and I want to share where I am in this journey to hopefully help other teachers think critically about their current practice and encourage others to join me in my journey.

First, if you haven't already read my previous series of posts on Reflecting, Responding, and Respecting all students in the music room, I encourage you to catch up on those. I have written extensively about my thoughts on inclusion and decolonization in music education, along with specific action steps and resources, on everything from race to students with special needs, and those thoughts play a big role in my journey to change my school's sing-along. In a nutshell, focusing on Christmas (and maybe throwing in a Hanukkah song) centers Christians (even if all the songs are "secular") and excludes all of our students of other religions and backgrounds, and talking about December as "the holiday season" ignores the fact that the majority of the world's major holidays do not fall in December!

Last year I made the conscious decision to include as many different winter holidays in my sing-along as I could, but limiting it to winter holidays still excluded a large part of the world's holidays. I realized that there was really no reason for me to limit the holidays to only winter ones, since we don't do any sort of holiday celebration in the spring/ summer, and I expanded my song choices further. I still have several changes in mind for next year, but this is as far as I was able to get with the time constraints and resources that I had to prepare. Here are the songs we'll be singing this year:

1. Hanukkah, Oh Hanukkah
2. Jingle Bells
3. Feliz Navidad
4. Diwali is Here
5. Gong Xi, Gong Xi
6. Eid Mubarak
7. 12 Days of Christmas

The main criteria I'm looking for when I'm choosing songs are 1) songs that are easy enough for Kindergarten to learn in just a couple of rehearsals, and 2) songs that we can do something fun with rather than "just" singing. So for each song, I have instruments, motions, a game, or something that goes along with the singing to make it more fun for everyone- that's a lot of songs to sit and sing, especially right before break when students are antsy!

Here's what I'm hoping to work on improving in the future:
  • Find songs that are more traditional/ representative for Diwali, Eid/ Ramadan
  • Choose a different Spanish language song
  • Do some research on Jingle Bells- I've just recently come across some information that it may not be an appropriate song choice for elementary school because it originated in minstrel shows, but I haven't had time to dig into it (I plan to replace it with Sleigh Ride or something if it turns out to be a song rooted in oppression)

I'm also aware that doing a holiday sing-along at all is questionable in itself, but I am doing my best to make this a learning opportunity for all of my students by discussing the many different holidays celebrated around the world, and I have been pleased with the responses I have gotten from families in my school community who celebrate Lunar New Year and Ramadan who have been so happy to see their tradition represented and acknowledged in some way.

Do you do a sing-along at your school? I'd love to hear your thoughts on holidays in public school classrooms, how to make holiday sing-alongs more reflective of our world, and whether holiday sing-alongs are even a good idea to begin with! Please share your thoughts in the comments below. I hope this sparks some conversation in the music education community as we continue to look for ways to value and respect all of our students and their backgrounds.

Sunday, December 1, 2019

November Favorites 2019

November is always one of those weird months for me. It's a lot of "squirreling away" to get ready for crazy concert season in December, while also keeping in mind that everyone is getting sick and tired and cranky, dealing with the silly daylight savings clock change, watching daylight get shorter, and adjusting to the colder weather. This is when I'm especially grateful for the opportunity to think back on the month's highlights, because otherwise I don't think I would even remember anything that happened this month! So today I'm happy to pause and look back on some of my highlights pulled from my Instagram and Facebook posts- I hope you find some new inspiration to get you going in the month ahead, and share your own favorites in the comments!

1. Chorus

This has honestly been a highlight of this entire school year thus far, but I am just so happy about my choral groups this year! I teach 3rd and 4th grade chorus and 5th and 6th grade chorus as pull-out classes during the school day, and this year my enrollment in both groups has doubled overnight. I was so intimidated by how many extra chairs I was having to pull out when I first started the semester just to accommodate the number of kids in each group, but now it makes me giddy. There have been very few disruptive behaviors of any kind, and they have been SO amazing to work with! I can't wait for the concert in a few weeks. I look forward to "chorus day" every week!

P.S. You can read all about how I teach my elementary choir classes in this post if you're interested.

2. Composition

I do the bulk of my composition lessons in October/ November because it's a great way to synthesize and apply those fundamental rhythm and pitch notation concepts that I introduce at the beginning of the school year, and it gives me a good sense of where they are so I can focus in on what we need to work on in the spring. I love using color coded stickers to match Boomwhacker colors as a way to introduce my upper elementary students to melodic composition in a less intimidating, more playful way, and they always love it too! Here's how I make my "solfege stickers" if you're wondering where I got them.

3. Making My List

I started making some basic plans in my holiday planner printables this summer (yeah, I'm that person, hi). But this month I started finalizing all my gift lists for Christmas with this little makeshift insert. I love having this list tucked right in my planner so I can jot down ideas whenever I think of things, and now my Christmas shopping is just about done!

4. Music Education Articles

I share favorite blog posts from other sites each week on my Facebook page, so if you've missed any of these you'll want to be sure to catch up on your reading- they are all fantastic!

See? There were great things to celebrate, even in November! :) I'd love to hear about those highlight moments, new ideas you found, or just something fun you did this month- leave a comment below to share!