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Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Restorative Practices in the Music Room

As we consider anti-racist practices in our teaching practices, one key element to consider is our "behavior management". It's relatively easy to take out offensive songs from our literature, throw some posters of non-white musicians up on the walls, and add some books with non-white characters to our libraries. But the real work begins when we start to look at the human interactions in our classes. The framework of Restorative Practices has a lot to offer teachers as we continue this work, but it can often seem difficult for music teachers to implement because of the number of students we teach and the short class times we have. I've gathered together some music teachers from a wide range of backgrounds and experiences to share how Restorative Practices can be implemented in practical, concrete ways in the music classroom (including in a distance environment).

I'm so grateful to the wonderful people who shared their insights with me to include in this post! Be sure to read to the end of this post to read more about who they are and find ways to connect with them: David Ryan Barcega Castro-Harris, the founder of Amplify RJ, Alice Tsui, elementary instrumental/ choral/ general music teacher in NY, Czarina Francisco Jimenez, elementary general and choral music teacher in CA, and Michelle Rose, secondary virtual music teacher in NC.

What is Restorative Practices?

Let's start with the basics: what are we talking about when we use the term "Restorative Practices"? 

David: "I don’t use the words Restorative Practices on their own. RP is often referred to as a social science, or a system of behavior management, or alternative school discipline, but that’s such a small part of the picture and it doesn’t acknowledge the roots of the work.

In short this work is about remembering and embodying the value of interconnection and interdependence that indegnous people all over the world have held as their core beliefs for generations (ubuntu, in lak’ech, mitakuye oyasin, kapwa, etc.) Colonization and now global capitalism have removed us from those values, so this work is reclaiming those and figuring out how to build, maintain, and repair relationships and meet the needs of the people in our communities.

I define Restorative Justice as “a philosophy and set of practices, rooted in Indigenous teachings, that emphasize our interconnection by repairing relationships when harm occurs while proactively building and maintaining relationships to prevent future harm.” Restorative practices can be a part of that. Many people think of RP as the proactive things that you do to build and maintain relationships and help people heal. The Restorative Justice Process is when we are addressing conflict and harm in a way that meets the needs of all the people involved. Doing this work first requires teachers (and everyone who calls themselves a practitioner) to do the internal work of embodying a restorative mindset and values, not just asking a different set of questions or sitting in a circle with students."

As David points out, Restorative Practices / Restorative Justice is not a quick-fix or a simple program that can be summed up neatly in one blog post. It requires ongoing reflection and internal work by the teacher. If you want to explore the framework further, I highly recommend David's video here. You can also sign up for one of these workshops he hosts on Zoom to deepen your understanding.

What does Restorative Practices look like in actual music classrooms?

Beyond developing an understanding of Restorative Practices, one of the most common reasons music teachers don't implement it in their teaching is because it's hard to picture in concrete ways what that looks like! As David mentioned already, Restorative Practices is focused on relationships. It impacts every single part of teaching. So truly, my thinking about students, their families, my colleagues, and the community, the way I speak to others, the way I conceptualize the logistics of running my classroom, my lesson content... everything is affected in different ways by approaching teaching from this framework. But here are some concrete ways this plays out in different music classrooms, to give you an idea of what this looks like in day-to-day life.

Alice: "As students are empowered with language, I have asked students to listen carefully to each other whenever something comes up, and without interrupting each other in doing so. This includes in music making as well and expression: why are we playing this this particular way? How do we feel when our entire section isn’t getting something “right”? What can we do to build our team up instead of tearing each other down? My opening and end chant for my Orchestra is two words: “ONE ORCHESTRA”. I say “One”, and the students say “Orchestra”. It reminds us all that we are all part of this one team actively creating, making, interpreting, and expressing music together to create one whole sound."

Michelle: "Checking In is a really simple way to build relationships with students and to help them where they're at. As a virtual teacher, I usually have a bell ringer displayed on the screen as the students enter. I also take the time to message at least 2-3 students privately. I'll ask them how they're doing, what's happening for them, or follow up on something they've mentioned to me previously (an interest, event, etc.). I also include check-in questions as warm ups or exit tickets. For example, in Nearpod, I'll use the "collaborate" feature and ask students to find a gif or picture of how they're doing. On exit tickets, I'll ask questions like "How did your week go?" "What are you most looking forward to right now?" "What support do you need right now?"

Additionally, at the beginning of the year, students work together to come up with class expectations. They also come up with teacher expectations to hold me accountable to their learning. I guide students through a series of questions including "How do you want to be treated in class by your classmates?" "When and how should the chat feature be used?" "What is the most/least helpful thing a teacher can do?" Instead of setting the rules myself, I give students to collectively come up with these expectations. This creates much more buy in and trust right at the beginning of the year."

Czarina: "One of my favorite Restorative Practices is to co-create classroom values with my students. It's all about creating a culture of care within our music room. We talk about who and what we value and the way we show that they are valuable to us. Our class values this year are "We value ourselves, each other, and our room." I then invite the students to share the way those values would play out in their choices."

You can read more about some specific examples I use in my elementary music classes in these posts as well, including a range of circle discussion ideas and specific ways to talk to individual students:

This may seem like an out-of-touch topic to be discussing in this moment when our entire profession is being flipped on its head, but I want us to be careful not to lose sight of what really matters in the midst of all the craziness, and to start to think about how these ideas can be translated to the new ways we will be doing "school" in this upcoming year. Look for more posts on specific aspects of this topic in the future, with further input from the wonderful teachers who shared their insights in this post- be sure to connect with them:

Czarina is an elementary classroom music and choir teacher in Southern California. Her passions are creating culturally responsive music lessons and incorporating anti-bias/anti-racist social emotional learning into her curriculum. Connect with her at

Michelle Rose works at a full time virtual school where she teaches middle and high school music and directs the extracurricular virtual band and choir. You can connect with her on Instagram @the_musical_rose or by visiting her website

Alice Tsui (pronounced TSOY) is an Asian American/Chinese American pianist, music educator, scholar, activist, lifelong Brooklyn, New Yorker, and the founding music teacher at P.S. 532 New Bridges Elementary, an arts-integrated public elementary school in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. As a product of the NYC public school system, Alice is passionate about decolonizing, anti-racist, abolitionist public music education and empowering the individual and collective voices of youth through music as expression. Learn more about Alice at and on Instagram at @MusicWithMissAlice.

My name is David Ryan Barcega Castro-Harris (he/him). I am the founder of Amplify RJ, a digital platform dedicated to educating folx about Restorative Justice philosophy, practices, and origins. Find us on Instagram at @amplify.rj or

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Elementary Music Without Singing

There are so many questions right now, and very few answers. The one that melts my brain the most right now, though, is how to teach elementary music class without anyone being able to sing (and I know I'm not the only one struggling with this)! If we are teaching in-person in some way, shape, or form, there is a good chance that singing won't be safe to do. I don't have many answers but here are some of the thoughts and ideas I've come up with so far.

1. Non-singing participation

So much music involves singing, but we can have other people do the singing on a recording (or pre-record ourselves singing) and join in with the music in other ways:
  • Play an ostinato on instruments or body percussion
  • Show melodic contour, steady beat, dynamics, or mood through movement
  • Dance
  • Use props- cups, bean bags, scarves
  • Play along with the melody on a pitched instrument (boomwhackers, xylophones, virtual instruments like Song Maker)
  • Show solfege pitches with hand signs

2. Non-singing vocal performance

How much of this we can and cannot safely do will depend on ongoing research findings, but it seems likely that we will be able to use our voices in ways that don't project as much, whether that's humming, whistling, or speaking. Depending on what I'm trying to teach through the song, I can adjust the activity: humming for melodic elements and speaking for rhythmic elements. We could even switch back and forth between the two to get a little bit of both! This would actually be a great way to really focus on what we're trying to practice.

3. Singing outside the classroom

This option depends on what our school model looks like, but I could potentially have students learn how to do something vocally while they're in class, then have them practice doing it themselves at home and even record themselves (via something like Flipgrid). Those recordings could potentially be used in the next class period, or individual recordings could be combined to create a "group singing" experience that we all watch together. 

4. Approaching concepts through non-singing

My primary solution that I keep coming back to as we try to completely reinvent ourselves is to go back to the concepts I'm trying to teach and come up with different ways to "get there". So if the concept I want to teach is singing in canon, I can have students perform in canon with movement, instruments, or body percussion. If the concept is 4 voices, we can listen and identify recordings of the different voices instead of performing them all ourselves. If the concept is showing high and low, we can do that with our bodies, on instruments, or with online notation (like Song Maker mentioned above).

The thought of music class without singing is depressing and terrifying. It seems completely ridiculous. We may find in a few weeks that we're all back to distance teaching and all of this will be a moot point. Or we may somehow find out that there are, in fact, safe ways for us to sing in groups in school. But for now, I think it's important for us to at least think through our options in case we're presented with this situation, whether it's at the beginning of this school year or later on when buildings start to reopen. We are all being stretched in ways we never even dreamed, and it's critical that we collaborate as a profession and support each other! If you have other ideas you've come up with for in-person music teaching without singing, please leave a comment. 

I will be continuing to update the Distance Learning Resources page to include ideas for social distancing and modified teaching through covid- don't forget to look there for all my posts related to these unusual times we're living through.

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Lesson Planning for a Year of Uncertainty

Lesson planning and curriculum development for general music is difficult enough in normal times, but this year presents challenges far beyond anything we have seen in our lifetimes! We don't know if we'll be teaching on a cart, in a "socially distant" music room, online, or all of the above. We don't know if we'll be allowed to sing with students, if we'll be able to use instruments, whether we'll be able to have ensembles or performances. It's a lot to think about!

In the midst of all of this, it's important to get laser-focused on the true essence of our curriculum, and set up our long-range plans to adapt to a year of change, reduced class time, and new ways of teaching and learning. Here's what I'm doing to prepare my lesson plans for the fall.

1. Solidify Scope and Sequence

I am so grateful to have a clear list of skills and concepts for each grade level outlined in my curriculum and sequenced across grade levels! If you don't already, it's so important to have a solid lists of skills and concepts you plan to address in each grade level to be able to create any semblance of usable plans for the fall. The key is to make sure you're thinking about the "what" and not the "how"- the skills and concepts, not the forms of "musicking" and materials. Here are some resources to help you improve what you may already have from district curriculum, state standards, textbooks etc, or create your own if you need it:


2. Prioritize Key Concepts

We already have had to narrow down our curriculum to the most essential with the limited class time we have in a normal school year, but this year is going to be even more limited, no matter what our teaching ends of looking like! I went through my list of skills and concepts for each grade and marked which ones were the highest priority: which ones do I build on from year to year, which ones take the most practice to learn, and which ones are most critical to overall musicianship? 

3. Map Out the Year

I have always been a huge advocate for mapping out which concepts I'll be teaching in each grade broken down by month, and this is another component of my curriculum that I am so grateful to have in place! Rather than starting over from scratch with a completely new monthly outline, I prioritized the concepts within each month based on my overall priorities for the year so that I only have a couple of concepts I truly need to focus on each month. If you don't already have concepts outlined for the year by month, this is a critical next step to being able to stay on track throughout this year of uncertainty! Here are some posts on how to set up year-long outlines:

4. Start "Lesson Banks" for Multiple Scenarios

There's no way around the fact that we're going to be reinventing ourselves throughout this school year- it seems very unlikely that we'll be teaching the same way for the entire school year, so we need to be prepared to change and adapt. Having the year mapped out by concepts makes that a lot easier, because regardless of how we have to teach we can continue to stay on track with the sequence of skills we've mapped out for the year, keeping the same "what" while we adjust the "how". 

To give myself a bit of a head start on the "how", I am setting up places to list ideas for how to address each concept for the month for in-person modified teaching and for distance teaching, organized by month within each grade level. To make it easy to store and find everything, I've set up my yearly outlines in google drive and linked each month to folders for in-person and distance teaching ideas with 2 icons next to each month (you can get mine filled in HERE):

I already have my regular lesson plans organized this way, with lists of lesson activities under each concept. Those can be modified for social distancing etc (see the "tiered approach" link above for details on how I set those up). I am focusing on starting lists of ideas for distance learning for each of those concepts as well, and planning to add to those as I go through the year (and as the need arises). It will be important to have both so I can switch back and forth more quickly without losing too much learning time!

Jump Start Your Plans!

I know everyone is in the same boat I am, trying to come up with some sense of a plan with very little information and so many unknowns. If you haven't already, I highly recommend signing up for my free email course on curriculum design and lesson planning! It's not specific to this upcoming school year but will give you a strong foundation for creating or updating existing scope and sequence, yearly outlines, and monthly lesson banks, including the templates I used to set up my normal curriculum resources. I'm also happy to talk through specific considerations for the unique situation we're in this fall and your own individual teaching scenarios as you go through the material! Sign up for free here:

I am also making the specific outlines I have created for this upcoming school year, with the filled-in monthly outlines, concept lists by grade, and the template you see above to link each month to in-person and distance teaching ideas, in one download. You can use those templates on your computer to link to specific files or upload them to google drive like I have, and the monthly concepts are fully editable so you can fit them to whatever scope and sequence you have:

If you want to access my full curriculum, with all of the lesson plans and materials I would use in a normal year organized by month in this sequence, you can get those here. Although many of the lesson activities will have to be modified depending on the situation, it will give you a solid starting point to adapt from and clarify how I address each of the concepts each month where the rubber meets the road. If you already own and use my curriculum, the additional resource above will be very helpful for adapting to whatever comes our way in the new year- you can quickly link the current materials for in-person teaching like I have, and add your own lesson ideas to adapt to whatever teaching situation you find yourself in as well. You'll find lots of ideas for teaching many of those fundamental concepts and skills in the posts I shared for school closures this spring- check my closure page for all of those lesson ideas (and check back for ongoing updates):

I hope this helps you wrap your head around the upcoming school year and relieves some anxiety by helping you feel more prepared for the fall! I am learning and adapting right along with you all, and plan to continue to update the resource above and write more here on the blog as I learn more together with you. Stay up to date on my latest thoughts, posts, and resources through my free email newsletter- click here to sign up if you aren't on my list already!

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

5 Things You Didn't Know About #PlanMyWholeLife Music Teacher Planners

Most Organized Chaos readers will know about the #PlanMyWholeLife planners I use and design for music teachers- if there is one tool I use more than any other to keep my act together it has to be my planner! If you don't know much about them, you can watch this video to get a quick introduction- there are printables with lesson planning formats and organizers for pretty much every music teacher situation you can think of! But whether you're a long-time user or just getting started, here are some things you may not know that just might make you love your planner even more!

1. Flexible undated calendar options

One of the best-kept secrets of the #PlanMyWholeLife planners is the weekly and monthly calendar section in the business planner! There are quite a few different undated calendar templates that are great for when you need something different- I've used a few different weekly calendars for planning over summer break, since obviously there is no lesson planning to do, and I've used the monthly template a couple of times for long-range planning for specific things like concert and holiday prep. 

2. Go digital!

Want to try out digital planning? The great thing about using a printable file like these is you can use it digitally as well! There are several teachers who have used their #PlanMyWholeLife planners exclusively as a digital planner and have loved it! Here's how one teacher set hers up using the rotational planner:

All it takes is saving the file with the pages you want in Keynote, loading it into Goodnotes, and it's ready to use on an iPad with an Apple pencil. Here is a tutorial from KDigitalStudio that shows you how to set up tabs to different sections to make it easier to navigate.

3. Organize everything

Of course there are lesson planning, gradebook, and calendar pages, but I like to organize everything in one place so I can keep track of everything. When you set up your planner, you can choose which pages you want to include in yours: meal planning, private studio organization, concert planning, budget, classroom inventory, address book, PD hours, and so much more. 

Those are all included in every #PlanMyWholeLife planner, but there are also add-on's you can get for holiday planning, summer planning, more monthly and yearly calendar templates, and even teacher quotes. These pages get updated often based on feedback from planner users, which is one more reason to join the...

4. Facebook group

Many planner users don't know that there is a Facebook group just for #PlanMyWholeLife planners! It's a great place to see how other teachers set up and use their planners (like the digital planner above), ask questions (especially when you're setting it up for the first time), share fun planner supplies and decorated pages you create, and get updates on the latest planner news. This is the group I go to when I start creating the new school year's planners each spring to get feedback on any updates they want to see, and I have gotten so many great ideas for new pages to add, cover designs, and more. Click here to join the group. 

5. Free updates every year

Most teacher planner printables you'll find, for music and non-music teachers alike, are undated- you go through and add in your own dates each year so you can use it any time. The #PlanMyWholeLife planners already have the dates added in so you don't have to do all that typing, copying and pasting, and updating your calendars! But you can still use it any time without buying anything new- just go back to your purchased planner when you're ready for the new year and re-download for free to get the new dates! I often get messages from teachers who are so surprised to find out after their first year that they don't need to buy a new planner. It's true!

Which of these surprised you the most? If you knew them all: you must be a true #PlanMyWholeLife fan! :) Have questions about planners? Leave a comment or send me an email, you will make my day! Want to find more of my planner tips, whether it's printing and binding, decorating, personalizing, or lesson planning? You can see all of my planner-related posts here. Want to check them out for yourself? See all the planners available here.