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Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Planning for Long-Term Elementary Music Subs

Writing plans for a substitute is hard enough to begin with, but when you know you're going to be out for multiple weeks or even months it can be completely overwhelming to think about plans! In some cases teachers do not have to leave plans when they're out long-term, but many teachers are expected to leave something, and others do just to make it easier to transition when they come back and know that students are still engaged in some form of meaningful learning while they're out. Here are some tips for planning for long-term substitutes for elementary general music.


1. Identify the most critical concepts

The first step is to take a look at your yearly curriculum outline and see which skills and concepts you would have been working on during your planned absence. If you don't have a yearly outline for when you are going to cover what, you'll need something to go off of! List the concepts you've covered so far this school year and identify what needs continued practice/ what hasn't been addressed yet this year for each grade so you have an idea of what would normally come next in your teaching (this post includes a lot more specifics about developing long-range plans).

Once you know what would have normally been covered in your absence, it's time to prioritize. Which skills and concepts are ones that students will be building on for future learning? Rhythm and pitch concepts are the obvious ones where students are learning a few new concepts at a time that build on each other from year to year, and are harder to make up if students lose a lot of learning time. Are there certain topics that are too difficult/ nuanced for a substitute to handle? Introducing recorder playing for the first time, or exploring the music of Cambodia, for example, probably require more background knowledge and experience than most substitutes can be expected to have.

Out of the list of concepts you would normally cover, identify the ones that are most important for students to work on, and practical for a sub to be able to cover, in your absence. For those that you're taking out, decide if they are things that you can trade with other things you would have covered later in the year (like switching the Cambodian music unit with the lessons on treble clef letter names), condense into future lessons (like introducing the new dynamics vocabulary they miss when you introduce the other new dynamics vocabulary the following year), or just skip (maybe recorders are just not practical for this school year).

2. Identify a few manageable activities for each

If you are in a situation where you have a long-term sub with a music education background and/or you don't need to provide plans, you may want to stop at step 1 and just give the substitute the list of concepts to cover. If not, once you have a shortened list of concepts you hope students can work on in your absence, the next step is to identify some manageable activities for each of those concepts. Those may be review games, play-along or sing-along videos, composing and creating projects, or other activities where substitutes are primarily managing the activity itself rather than being responsible for modeling a musical concept or teaching a new song etc. If you're clear on the specific concepts you're targeting, it's much easier to come up with a few activities for each one!

3. Find (or make) demonstration videos

If you have the time to work ahead, and especially if you know your substitute has no musical background, the best way to make sure students are able to practice the concepts correctly is to include some demonstration videos: clapping and counting rhythms, singing and showing the hand signs for solfege, demonstrating playing techniques, etc. Just having those short videos demonstrating the concept that can then be practiced in the activities will take so much pressure off of the substitute, ensure the concepts are being practiced correctly, and the same video can be used over and over for any activities that go with that concept.

The good news here is that 1) I know I'm not the only one who has gotten so much faster at whipping up quick videos like this on Screencastify or Zoom and 2) there are SO MANY videos already made by other music teachers on YouTube that you can use instead of making your own! Just search for the concept ("quarter notes lesson") and you can probably find something already made from all the distance learning lessons we were all making earlier in the pandemic. 

4. Include some generic, multi-age activity ideas

Substitutes can't possibly be expected to cover the same amount of material we normally would within a certain time frame- even the most well-prepared subs need time to build relationships with students. Along with more content-specific lesson activities, it's helpful to include materials for some generic music-related activities that can be done with multiple grade levels. These are great for when the sub first starts to get to know the students, to have as back-up if they have extra time, or to switch gears when something isn't working. Boomwhacker play-along videos, musical instrument bingo, freeze dance, music-related books, and playlists of videos or audio recordings to listen and respond to are great low-prep examples that can be done with a wide range of ages and repeated throughout the absence. 

5. Identify a go-to (or two)

One of the best gifts to give a long-term sub, and yourself, is to identify someone in the building and/or in your department who is willing and able to be the contact person for advice and trouble shooting while you're out. That person should be familiar with whatever plans you've left, how you generally run your classes, what your schedule is like etc, or know who to ask if they don't know something. If you're going to be out for a long-term absence you don't want to feel any responsibility to be answering questions and putting out fires while you're away, and the substitute will feel much more comfortable reaching out to someone if they know they've agreed to be the contact person and they know they don't have to bother you while you're out! 

Important Reminder

Again, it's important to say that how much responsibility a teacher has to provide plans and materials for a long-term sub will depend on the situation- you may only need one or two of the points above, or you may want to use them all. And let's be honest, sometimes the best laid plans don't end up being used at all! It's good to keep in mind that some lost learning time is not the end of the world- you will figure it out when you get back- so if you don't have the capacity to prepare for your substitute for any reason, or if you find out partway through your absence that your plans have been ignored, make like Elsa and let it go. But I know for me I have a much easier time stepping away if I at least equip the students and the substitute with the opportunity to continue their learning and stay engaged, so this is what I've found most practical and helpful for doing that.

If you've been out for a long-term absence recently and have words of advice or caution based on your positive or negative experiences, please leave them in the comments! It can be overwhelming to prepare for an absence while also dealing with your ongoing teaching responsibilities and no doubt dealing with whatever you are needing a long-term absence for! 

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

My New Favorite Sub Plan Format

Planning lessons for a non-musical substitute has got to be one of the hardest parts of being a music teacher. No matter how hard I try to make the plans simple but engaging, they never seem to work out well! I'm not saying I've found a magic formula that suddenly makes it a breeze to be out, but this new format has definitely been a huge improvement.


The key for me has been the ability to leave a chromebook that has an HDMI port with the substitute so that they can connect to the projector. Before now I was not able to use any technology beyond a CD player for my sub plans, which made things infinitely more challenging! I still have those plans on hand and they are the best I've found of the non-tech ones I've tried over the years- you can see those in this post and this one. But now that I have a chromebook I can leave for the substitute, I can have them show things on the screen and that is huge!

My favorite thing to leave for subs now is a Google Slides file with a short video of me introducing an activity, followed by any visuals/ videos/ links needed for the activity itself. I usually have a couple of activities per lesson, depending on what they're doing. I have gotten pretty fast at recording short videos on Screencastify (Zoom works too, but you have to download the recording and upload to Google Drive) so it doesn't take me too long to put together. A few examples of activities I've left:
  • "Around the World" game with treble or bass clef letter names 
  • Rhythm play-alongs
  • Vocal exploration- tell students to follow my finger with their voice, then tell them to take turns drawing in the air for the class to follow
  • Composition- review whatever concept they've been learning (dynamics, tempo, rhythm etc) and tell students to come up with a found sound/ body percussion piece with a small group that includes that concept
The idea is to use activities that are easy for students to do independently and for a substitute to be able to run that also give them practice with some of the musical concepts they're working on. The great thing about Google Slides is I can embed the video directly in the slide with everything else in the next slide so the sub just goes through the slides in order. I include any directions for the teacher in the instruction video ("your teacher will be putting you in small groups and telling you where to work" etc) so I don't have to write much in the written plans. 

To set it up for the sub to access, I set up a folder in Google Drive and make it shared so anyone with the link can view, then make an easy to remember tiny url so that I can put the link in the written sub plans and they can pull it up easily. Key pointer: the instruction videos, and any embedded audio etc, need to be shared so anyone with the link can view as well! If I need multiple plans for multiple grades, I just add separate slides files for each grade in that folder, and I can switch them out for new plans any time without changing the link I give.

I know this may be nothing new at all for other teachers but it has been a game-changer for me the last year and a half being able to use this format for non-musical subs so I had to share! I've done this for my usual, one-off absences, as well as long-term absences where I was making plans for colleagues who had to be out for months and it worked well without being too overwhelming for me to put together. Have you used Slides for sub plans? If you want to see my top tips for using Google Slides as a music teacher, check out this post for more ideas.

Tuesday, November 16, 2021

One Jeans Day Won't Cut It (and what school leaders can do instead)

It has been said many times by this point but I'm adding my voice to the chorus: random, superficial rewards from administrators that are supposed to make teachers feel better just don't cut it when the stress and the pressure are this high. Teachers don't want a pat on the back when they're drowning. Here are a few things I see many school leaders trying that don't work, and a few that do.


It's worth mentioning that, this year, I am straddling the line between teacher and school leader as a department chair in my district. I see both sides of the problem in some ways- I definitely roll my eyes at a lot of the lame attempts at morale boosters, but I also heave a huge sigh at some of the suggestions I hear teachers making that leadership should try instead. Most of the suggestions are for structural, systemic changes that are often unrealistic or impossible for administrators to achieve, at least in the short term where it would make a difference in the lives of the teachers making the request. There are a lot of restrictions school leadership deal with that teachers simply aren't aware of. Yes, systemic changes are needed, but we also need some triage right now with shorter term solutions that can make a difference.

What doesn't work: one-off, surface-level tokens

Small tokens of appreciation, whether it's donuts in the staff lounge, a "jeans pass", or a jolly rancher on teachers' desks, are nice. The problem is most of the time, school policies, reality of life, and overall school climate communicate a lack of appreciation that one small gesture won't counteract. In fact, many school leaders use these little tokens as a way to mentally check off the "be nice to the teachers too" box and teachers know it, so these small gestures end up coming off as disingenuous, and often just create more dissatisfaction.

What does work: a consistent pattern of appreciation

Patterns of behavior speak louder than individual actions. Small reminders that teachers are appreciated can in fact be an effective way to build a positive climate if they are done regularly, and backed up by genuine support. Tokens alone aren't enough to improve teacher morale but if they are a consistent, regular occurrence they can build a positive culture over time and add a spark of fun without feeling superficial.

What doesn't work: motivational speeches

Whether it's an actual speech in a staff meeting, a pep talk in the hallway, or a motivational meme at the end of an email telling teachers it's going to be OK, or that they are superheroes, general motivational messages without concrete action are another great way to elicit eye rolls from staff. 

What does work: specific affirmation

Specific compliments and thanks, on the other hand, are one of the best ways to improve teacher morale. It needs to be a specific statement about a specific thing to a specific person ("I saw the way you responded to the student running down the hall to calmly redirect them, Ms. Johnson."), not a general "You all are awesome", for it to be meaningful. Verbal comments are great, a quick card or even an email is even better because it can be read back again later.

What doesn't work: assigned self care

This seems to be all the rage right now: using meeting or PD time to have all teachers practice a certain form of self-care, whether that's bringing in a yoga instructor or practicing specific meditation techniques. While helping staff develop healthy habits is great, one-size-fits-all is usually not effective. Some of the teachers will love it, and the rest will feel like it was a waste of time and check out.

What does work: encouraging healthy habits and offering support

Instead of dictating how teachers should take care of their physical, mental, and emotional health, send the regular message that healthy living is important. Take the money that you might have spent paying an outside presenter to come and work with the whole staff, and reserve it for things teachers actually request, or whether it's yoga mats for a small group of interested teachers, a certain type of tea in the staff room. Support teachers in their decision when they choose to take a day off to care for a sick child or recuperate themselves. Let teachers know that if they need to take a walk around the block at the beginning of their planning, you know they will be more productive afterwards. 

What also works: do the heavy lifting

Take care of menial tasks that need to get done. Move boxes to the upstairs copy room, put a new roll of laminate in the laminator, transfer teachers' goal write-ups to the new platform. Just being able to check something off their lists can make a world of difference in a teacher's day, and doing so (in visible, concrete ways that teachers will notice) regularly will help everyone feel like they're part of a real team.

What really works: honest dialogue

Ask teachers for suggestions of ways to make their work less stressful and relieve some of the pressure. When they give suggestions that are impossible to fulfill, tell them honestly why you don't believe that's possible, and work with them to come up with alternatives. Teachers will appreciate the opportunity to give input on what will actually make a difference, and they probably will gain a better understanding of why some things aren't happening that they think should be. 

I could keep going but let's stop there for now! What would you add to this list?

Tuesday, November 9, 2021

Be the Encourager

It's tough out there. Pandemic protocols, lack of respect from society, systemic inequities, trying to meet the increasing needs of students with decreasing budgets, and a growing teacher shortage make an already mentally, emotionally, and physically taxing profession even more stressful. I know so many are just plain burned out, and many are contemplating leaving the profession. I'm not here to offer a solution to these issues, but rather offer one intentional change I've made that has improved my outlook.

Be the encourager. 

I know for me personally, I feel a little uncomfortable offering overt words of affirmation to colleagues- it felt very weird the first time I did it. But I realized a few years ago that the one thing that improved my attitude, reduced my stress, and strengthened my relationships with the people around me more than anything else was hearing words of affirmation and encouragement from other people. Whether from a student, colleague, or administrator, when I'm feeling most worn down with the worries and stress of everyday life, the smallest compliment or expression of gratitude can completely change my outlook on everything.

Of course all of us need the time and space to vent, and it can be helpful to share struggles and know that others are in the same boat as you, but often we can get stuck in a pattern of negative thinking and self-talk that only serves to sink us further and further into stress. 

A few years ago I made the conscious decision that, no matter how uncomfortable it felt, I was going to be intentional about regularly writing cards, and verbally telling people, to let my colleagues, students, and administrators know the positive things I notice about them. I've been pretty intentional about doing this with my students in the classroom for a while, so that part was easy, but I found it much more awkward at first to compliment colleagues and administrators. But I found that when I started thinking about what I could say and who might need to hear it most, it dramatically improved my mental and emotional state in the day to day. And as you might expect, others appreciated the affirmation, and started to return the favor more often as well.

This isn't a magical fix for the very real problems we're dealing with, or an attempt to minimize those problems. But focusing your attention on looking for people who need encouragement and thinking of positive things to say can have a much bigger influence on your own outlook at work, and on the climate in the building as a whole, than you might imagine.

So if you haven't already, give it a try: be the encourager.

Tuesday, November 2, 2021

Performance Possibilities in an Ongoing Pandemic

We're definitely not where we were a year ago with the pandemic, but we also aren't back to where we were two years ago either! What protocols you follow and what mitigation strategies you need to consider for in person musical performances will obviously vary a lot depending on your local situation, and conditions could certainly change between now and whenever we put on our next show, but I've heard a lot of questions from music teachers struggling to figure out a good solution for their situation so today I'm sharing a few options to consider.


Whether any of these solutions are right for you and your situation will depend on a lot of different factors, but if you are in the position of having to figure out creative ways to put on an in-person musical performance while still needing to follow certain mitigation protocols, hopefully these ideas will at least help you get the ball rolling and figure out what will work for you!

I really think it's important, when we can do so safely, to try to find ways to allow our students to perform together live again. Virtual ensembles are great for certain situations, but there are certain things you definitely miss out on when you can't perform together! After going so long without having the opportunity to perform live, I am trying to find any way I can to give my students that experience.

1. alternative venue

One of the most obvious solutions if you're having a performance but need better ventilation or more space, is to hold the event outside. Besides the parking lot, field, or other outdoor space at the school, you could also consider local parks, or churches or other community buildings with larger parking lots or outdoor space. The most important things to think about if you're outdoors will be how to keep any sheet music from flying away in the wind, plans to deal with inclement weather, getting power for any sound systems etc, making sure the audience can hear the music, and transportation of people and equipment (especially if you're off campus). 

Of course there also may be alternative indoor venues that would work, especially since many of us are planning performances in the winter when performing outside just isn't practical! If the usual performance space is too small to allow adequate distancing, other rooms in the school, rooms at other schools in the district, or even other spaces in the community may work.

2. no (or limited) in person audience

Another way to have an indoor performance without crowding the space, if you don't have a big enough alternative venue, is to limit or eliminate the in person audience, and instead use zoom or another video call/ streaming platform to allow the audience to watch "live" from other rooms. In my building I'm planning to have all of the performers in the gym, with students watching from zoom in their homerooms (projected on the board by their homeroom teachers) and families watching from home. It's not the same when you can't see and hear the audience, but it's better than making a recording! The most important consideration with this scenario is making sure you have any necessary licensing to allow you to perform the music over zoom (here is a helpful guide on that). 

3. split up performances

This can be done a few ways: you can perform the same show multiple times for smaller audience groups, or split up the performers and have smaller groups perform at different shows- if you normally have the whole school in the audience, you could have a few grades at a time come and watch, or if you normally have the band and choir perform, you could have separate concerts for the band and chorus. The most difficult consideration with this scenario is scheduling- making sure you have enough time to fit all those performances in.

4. other mitigation options

Besides distancing, there are other ways to add layers of mitigation to make in-person performances safer. The most obvious one is masks and bell covers, but you can also make the performances shorter, increase ventilation by opening windows and doors, or bring in additional air filtration systems. The more we can do to mitigate risk, the more likely we are to be able to continue having musical performances safely.

5. alternative performance types

One more option for mitigating risk that's worth mentioning is to replace performances that have increased aerosol risk (singing, wind instrument playing, projecting) with other means of performing! Movement based performances, routines done to recorded music with cups/ scarves/ other props, percussion ensembles and orff ensembles, string instruments, and other non-aerosol producing options are great, and this may be an opportunity to explore alternatives that we can carry into future years.

6. other considerations

Beyond safety precautions, it's helpful to remember that we are easing back into this. We are not magically reset to pre-pandemic times. We shouldn't have the same full performance calendar, and we shouldn't expect the same level of performance refinement from our students. Fewer songs, easier repertoire, and more selective performances are all appropriate right now. It's also good to remember that there is benefit, both for the students and for the community, to having these performances again even if the level of difficulty or polish is not what it used to be! After all of the separation, these shared experiences are more important than ever, even if they don't look the same as they used to, and even pre-pandemic, the value of these performance opportunities is not in the polish of the performance but in the process of preparation and the opportunity to share and showcase their learning.

As I said in the beginning of this post, what solutions will work for you will depend entirely on your local situation. If you haven't seen it, you can catch up on the latest guidance from NFHS and NAfME from August 2021 at this link. I am certainly not a public health expert, so I cannot tell you what is safe or not safe for your area and your situation, but I hope these ideas are helpful if you're wanting to get your students performing live again but feeling stuck on how to make it happen. Have other ideas you've come up with that work for you? I'd love to hear them in the comments so everyone can benefit from hearing your ideas!

Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Favorite Halloween Week Lessons

It's the week of Halloween and you know what that means.... kids are HYPED beforehand, and exhausted after. It's also the time of year when music teachers, at least in the U.S., seem to want to go all-in with the holiday-themed lessons. I do not do directly Halloween-themed lessons, but I do try to plan for the general high energy and distraction. Here are some of my favorite lesson activities for the week of Halloween.

First on the point of Halloween-themed lessons: I do not think we have to remove all references to holidays. I actually teach my students about different holidays throughout the year, from around the world. But Halloween is not really a holiday I feel is important for my students to learn about from a cultural or musical perspective, and using it as a theme without teaching about it directly makes students who don't celebrate Halloween feel othered, excluded. When I reference holidays in my classroom it is with the intent of having students learn about the holiday at some level, not to treat it as a "norm". I encourage you to think twice about Halloween-themed lessons before using them this week!

What I've found most successful for this week surrounding Halloween are lessons that are highly structured and require focus and teamwork, but don't require too much higher-order thinking. Without structure and focus the class can easily fall apart, but students are generally too preoccupied and/or tired to be doing any deep thinking!

1. Mountain King Play-Along

OK for those people who want to infuse some Halloween spirit, this is the closest we're gonna get in this post! I like this play along because it gradually speeds up, keeping students' attention, it's easy enough to follow, and depending on what we're doing I can repeat the play along multiple times and have them switch parts. There are 5 parts so I usually do this with 5 different percussion instruments, and it keeps them focused because the parts are not in predictable patterns that allow you to zone out! Split the class into 5 groups, assign each group to one instrument and one color icon to follow, and have them play each time the conductor lands on their icon.

2. Sarasponda

First, just to clear up any misconceptions: my research indicates that this is a nonsense song made in the US, not a Dutch "spinning song" as some sources will say. I can't say my research is super extensive, but if you use this please do your own research before telling students it's Dutch (and if you have credible sources indicating it actually is, please let me know in the comments)!

That said, this is a great one to use because the song is relatively short and easy to learn, and there are a lot of possibilities for stick games and passing games to build in that concentration factor I'm looking for. Here is an example of a partner stick game (for upper elementary- it's on the trickier side), here's an individual stick routine (perfect for social distancing protocols- I used this last year), and you can also do it as a passing game by having students pass bean bags or any other object around on the steady beat (up the challenge by switching directions for the A and B sections).

3. Pass the Beat Around the Room

This is another game that requires a lot of focus! You'll see older students playing in this video but I've done it with younger students (just much slower and we don't take out any words)- I don't recommend this for younger than 2nd grade at the very youngest though.

4. Note Swat

I like this one because it's active, fast-paced, and competitive but still easy to control because there are only a couple of students competing at a time. Write notes on the staff scattered around the board (or if you have flashcards with individual notes you can stick those on the wall). Split the class into 2 teams. Have one person from each team race to find the note that matches the letter you call out. It's fun to give them fly swatters (and keeps them from smacking the board too hard), but I've also done it by just having them point with their finger, and I've heard other teachers have them throw a beanbag or something at the note. The first person to touch the correct note gets a point for their team. I find it works best if I tell them they only get one shot- the first thing they touch is their final answer. That prevents them from randomly swatting at every note on the board!

You can do this with any clef, of course, but if you'd like an image to project to do this with treble clef, here's the one I made for my classes:


What are your favorite lesson activities for the week of Halloween? I'd love to hear your ideas in the comments (and I'm sure many other tired music teachers will thank you as well)! I hope you have a fun week- may the force be with us all. 

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Tideo: socially distant movement lesson

I, along with many other music teachers I'm sure, use the song "Tideo" as a way to introduce barred sixteenth notes. For the last few years I've done a folk dance with the song to get students experiencing the rhythm, but with covid protocols still in place I needed a movement activity that students can do independently. Here's what we did!

I actually used to use this movement activity with the song before I came across the folk dance and it has always been a big hit- few lesson activities elicit as much focus as this one- and I was reminded of that when I brought it back this year. I cannot find a source for this activity nor can I remember if I got it from somewhere or made it up! If anyone knows of another source for this please let me know.

The idea is for it to be a cumulative movement activity, adding one move at a time to go with different words or phrases in the song. There are many different versions of the lyrics but it would be easy to modify to fit whatever version you use! Here's a demonstration of what I do:


Besides introducing barred sixteenth notes, this song lends itself well to a review of pentatonic solfege. I use the song to get students experiencing sixteenth notes before they are ever formally introduced to the concept or notation, and then use it as a review of the solfege notes after they've heard it over and over again as well. If you want the full lesson plan, it's included in the 3rd grade curriculum!

Now that I remember how engaging this format of introducing a song is, I'd love to use the same technique with other songs! Let me know in the comments if you've ever done something similar with another song (or with this one). 

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Ambos a Dos: Puerto Rican game song

It may be the very end of Hispanic Heritage Month but I just recently came across this song and it's a great lesson to use any time of year! The Puerto Rican game reminds me a lot of some games I grew up playing in Japan, and it was a great song to use with my Kindergartners because it reinforced some concepts they were working on and it is easy to learn the words in Spanish.

There is a great explanation of the game, with lyrics to the song, on page 15 of the book "Juegos de mi Isla" by Marta Monta├▒ez. The basic idea is to have 2 lines facing each other, and they walk towards each other and back away on the beat while singing their verses back and forth. At the end everyone join hands in a circle. Here's a video:


The first obvious concept this game can reinforce is steady beat. I love that there is mixed meter thrown in there as well- actually I find young kids aren't that thrown by it when they do it with the steps and kicks because it makes sense with the phrasing, it's the adults who find it more difficult! But any time we can use music in lower elementary grades that's not straight duple meter is a good thing!

I also happen to have several instruments from Puerto Rico given to me by a friend and retired music teacher, so I had students take turns playing those instruments on the beat while others did the steps and kicks with this recording. Maracas, guiros, tambourines, bongos, and congas are good choices if you don't have instruments directly from Puerto Rico- I would recommend showing a video like the first minute of this one to show students examples of the instruments being played in context.

The other concept students are able to practice with this song is call and response. Once students have heard the song a few times it's easy for them to sing the repeated lines, "matarile, rile rile" and "matarile, rile, ron". Older students could probably learn the verses in Spanish, but for Kindergarten I just had them learn the first verse, "Ambos a dos", then I did the rest of the lines in English: I sing "(name of student) do your job", then the student whose name I sang responds "what's my job?", I respond with "you can be a (job title)", and the student sings back "I like that job" or "I don't like that job" (the whole class sings the repeated lines in Spanish in between throughout), and at the end everyone sings "celebramos todos juntos" in Spanish together while we go around in a circle. If you would like to see musical notation for the melody, you can find that here.

Have you heard of this song before? This was a great addition to my lessons this year and, now that I'm more familiar, I'm excited to use it more effectively next year as well. 

Tuesday, October 5, 2021

Socially Distanced Elementary Choir

After 18 months of no in-person chorus, this school year I have my choirs back! And while that's super exciting, it also presents many challenges- in my district, we are currently required to maintain 6 feet distance between singers with masks on. I had so many concerns about how this would work going into it, but now that we are a few weeks into the school year I am feeling much better about it- here are my top tips for making it work when your elementary chorus is socially distanced.

1. Choosing Songs

As much as I want to dive back into the 4-part a capella singing we were doing pre-pandemic, we're not there yet (and that's OK). Besides not having the background from missing over a year of choir, students are also not used to singing that much in a mask- and that's tiring. And because they are so spread out, it's harder for them to hear the other singers on their part. So I think going with simple part singing, or even unison pieces, is the way to go.

Along with an uncomplicated arrangement, I'm looking for songs where the vocal parts are easy to sing- lyrical lines in a limited range that's comfortable for everyone. Because they aren't taking as deep of breaths through their masks, they don't have as much breath support to sing vocally challenging parts. The songs should feel comfortable and good to sing!

The other most important consideration for me is to choose songs that are engaging and fun. One of the biggest difficulties with socially distanced choir is that students won't sing out as much because they can't hear the other singers' voices around them as much. They're more likely to get to a place where they're not too self-conscious to sing out confidently if it's a song in which they are invested and enjoy singing.

2. Seating

I have chairs in 6-feet-apart rows, all facing straight forward, with the rows staggered so nobody has another person right in front of them. I also made sure to put all the students from the same class / cohort together. As much as I would normally prefer to split them up by vocal range, right now minimizing spread has to take priority! Obviously this means I have assigned seating, in which I am a firm believer whether I'm dealing with pandemics or not. 

3. Regular Singing Breaks

To keep energy up while they're singing in a mask, I build regular breaks for the students into the rehearsal. Sometimes that's me talking to them, sometimes it's listening to a recording or me demonstrating something, sometimes it's a random team-building game etc, but I've found that even with the relatively short 30 minute rehearsals I have, the students need time to build up to singing that whole time. Building in some breaks in singing helps keep them from wearing out.

4. Turn Up the Volume

One of the biggest hurdles with socially distanced / masked singing is kids not being able to hear the others around them. My way of combatting that is to turn up my personal amplification microphone and sing along with them, and use recordings that have the singing and accompaniment for them to sing along with. So far I think this has been the most important change that has helped my singers sing more confidently!

I hope this helps any other music teachers teaching choir (or singing in general music) with these protocols in place. It's definitely not ideal but I try to keep reminding myself how grateful I am to have chorus happening in-person at all! If you have other tips that have worked for you, please leave them in the comments. I'd love to hear them!

Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Our "New Normal" in Elementary General Music Class

After over 18 months of teaching through a pandemic, I think I expected this school year to be "back to normal". Many aspects of my music teaching look more like pre-pandemic teaching than they did 6 months ago, for sure, but they are definitely not fully back to the way things used to be! I can't list them all in a single post but here are some things that are different now compared to my pre-pandemic teaching that I expect is now my "new normal".

1. one-to-one student devices

If there's one good thing that has come from the pandemic it's the warp-speed development of our district's technology infrastructure. Before the pandemic I used DonorsChoose to get 3 Chromebooks for my students to share in my classroom and I thought I was fancy. Now I can have students bring their own devices to class and there are so many more possibilities for what I can do, especially with my older students! This has opened up a whole new world of options for in-class learning.

2. technology integration

This is similar to my first point but worth mentioning separately: my students and I have all become much more adept with the technology we have. I had used Google Slides before, but not until the pandemic did I learn how to embed audio and video (and trim the videos to the clip I want), use drag and drop worksheets, explore the full capabilities of SongMaker, or start using rhythm play-along videos to practice reading new rhythms. My teaching is so much more streamlined now that I know how to put everything I need in one place, and my lessons are so much more varied with all the new options I have for addressing pitch and rhythm concepts.

3. personal amplification

The 2020-21 school year was the first year in my entire teaching career I did not lose my voice, and I attribute that to masks keeping us from all getting colds as much, and my personal amplification system that I got to be heard through my mask. I am definitely still using my voice amplification system right now since we are still masked, but I plan to continue using it most of the time even when we're done with regular mask wearing. It is so helpful not only for saving my voice by not projecting but also for getting the attention of a rowdy group quickly without raising my voice.

4. ear training

When we couldn't sing in class last fall, I had to focus more on aural skills for learning solfege concepts. I was shocked at how good my students got at aurally identifying pitches with the extra practice! Of course I am thrilled to now be able to sing them too, but I am committed to maintaining more regular opportunities for focusing on aural skills from now on.

5. family communication

During the pandemic I traded in my handwritten "happy notes" that I gave students for direct messages to families via Class Dojo, and I saw tremendous benefits from that regular, positive interaction directly with families. I have gone back to the handwritten notes this year because I know my students like having something physical to keep, but I am committed to maintaining regular, positive communication with families by sharing updates through Class Dojo. 

6. home office

I have had a desk in my bedroom since I moved into my own place 8 years ago, but I never sat at it to do anything- it was my "junk drawer". During our shutdown and periods of full distance learning, I had to set up a decent workspace for myself- I finally got an office chair, cleaned up my desk to make it useable, and put it facing the front window with the best view. It has made all the time I spend here on my blog, and doing schoolwork at home, so much more pleasant, which has improved my mental health tremendously.

7. communication with colleagues

Last school year our district made sure we had extra planning time, including common planning time with colleagues, and it was a game-changer. We all know in elementary music it's rare to have an opportunity to collaborate with other elementary music teachers! This year we don't have common planning time anymore but we have found ways to still collaborate weekly and plan all of our lessons together. And with our 9 elementary schools being so spread out, having the ability to use zoom has made meetings with colleagues much more convenient. I'm talking to other teachers in my department more than I ever have before!

What things have become your "new normal" this year? I know the pandemic has affected every aspect of our lives, and many of those effects will be felt for years to come. 

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

General Music Skill Index

As general music teachers, not only are we helping students understand fundamental musical concepts, like rhythm, pitch, and expression, but we're also developing their musical skills, whether on instruments, singing, or composing (and more). Figuring out the best way to teach all those skills in an effective and sequential way from year to year, decide which instruments to teach when for what purpose, and more can be challenging! Here are my favorite lessons, suggestions for sequencing instruction in each grade, and more tips and ideas for teaching these different skills.


First please note that this post is focused on skills rather than concepts- if you want to see my lesson ideas and strategies for musical concepts like pitch, rhythm, expressive elements, etc, you can find those here. Each of these categories has tons of specific lesson ideas and teaching strategies for specific elements within that category- click below to see each one:





Building a curriculum and deciding what to teach when should start with concepts first, but skill development should be an integral part of our curricular frameworks as well. In particular, I think it's easy to get caught up in developing a specific skill, whether that's playing technique on recorder or singing in tune, and lose sight of the bigger picture of holistic musicianship. The skills I've outlined here are broad and incomplete, but I hope they help you think through what to teach when and how to do so effectively, and incorporate each area into the bigger picture of your entire curriculum. 

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

What the First Day of Kindergarten Music Is REALLY Like

Sure, we can talk about our best-laid plans, our procedures, and our welcome songs, but we all know reality is never quite what we hope it will be on the first day of Kindergarten. There's just no predicting what may happen! Even for me, having taught Kindergarten music every year since I started teaching in 2006, I always walk away from the first lesson feeling like a tornado just came through. For teachers new to Kindergarten music it can be tempting to wonder if you're the only one experiencing this level of chaos! So here's a peek inside what the first lesson with Kindergarten looked like for me this year.

My first lesson with Kindergarten was actually pretty tame compared to some years, but it's still a good dose of reality to remember how tedious it can be in the beginning!

1. Stand in the hallway trying to get everyone's attention at the same time for several minutes so I can make sure they all follow me into the correct room and I don't lose any children. This is hard because I don't know anyone's name so I can't get their attention by calling them.

Quick tip: my favorite trick for this exact moment is one I stole from my daughters' preschool teacher: I call out "milkshake" while wiggling my body, then "popsicle" while I stand straight like a pencil. I go back and forth between milkshake and popsicle until they are all doing it with me.

2. Get the whole line to follow me into the room. Make it into a game where they freeze every now and then, really because there are random kids wandering around the room reaching out for instruments every 3 seconds, whose name I don't know, so I need to go physically stand in front of them to get their attention and get them back in line.

Quick tip: I tell them to copy me and keep it interesting by switching between marching, tip-toeing, hopping, etc with freezing in between to keep their attention. The goal is to give them a chance to look around the room while also getting them to follow directions.

3. Lead the line over to the side wall, introduce myself, then assign each of them a spot to sit on the floor by asking them their names, showing them their spot, and writing it down on my seating chart. This always takes way longer than I think it should and it makes me want to poke my eyeballs out but I need that individual interaction and I need to assign spots as soon as possible.

4. Field requests to play the purple guitar and redirect students who have started a tickling game on one side of the room and another student who is pulling their spot off the floor on the other side. Tell students who ask when lunch is, when it's time to go home, and when we will play instruments: "later".

5. Introduce the name game I planned. Get through 3 students and realize I'm out of time. Tell students they will all get a turn on another game another day. I've got to make sure everyone does something active together before we leave!

6. Have everyone stand on their spots and tell them to dance when the music plays. Play 2 rounds of freeze dance, each round lasting about 10 seconds. Done.

6. Get all the students to stand still and tell them to listen carefully for how to line up. Slowly and clearly show the first row of students where to go. Stop them after they take 2 steps because they are all confused. Have students line up one student at a time while constantly stopping to redirect the rest. Do more milkshakes and popsicles.

7. On the way to PE class, show them the bathroom to use during music.

Quick tip: I always do this at the end of the first class and tell them this is "not for today, but in case there is an emergency sometime on another day". That avoids the immediate need for every student to try going to the bathroom right after I show them.

Does this sound anything like your first day? I have each class for 30 minutes, including the time it takes to get them to (or from) PE class, so it goes by quickly! I always feel like I've failed after the first couple of lessons but then the effort of reinforcing procedures starts to pay off and I start to see the light at the end of the tunnel. I'd love to hear your craziest first day of Kindergarten stories in the comments, I'm sure we've all got some good ones!

Tuesday, September 7, 2021

Top 5 Strategies to Support Individual Students

In my last post I shared my top 5 strategies for fostering positive classroom climate- in other words, how to deal with classes as a whole. In today's post I want to talk about my top 5 strategies for dealing with each student individually, and doing everything I can to allow each student to thrive in my classroom. That's no small task when we're talking about hundreds of students at a time! But it is so important- in fact it's at the very core of why we do what we do. 

1. Reflecting, Respecting, and Responding to Identities and Needs

The most critical strategy for allowing each individual student to thrive in our classrooms is our ongoing work towards equity. If we don't truly understand who are students are and actively work against systems of oppression, we will never have a classroom where all students can thrive, no matter how much we want them to! Click on the picture above to read more about specific strategies and resources for engaging in this process.

2. Opportunities to Listen and Be Heard


With as many students as we have in music, it's so important to have systems and procedures in place that hold us accountable to giving every student opportunities to listen and to be heard. Circles, in all the forms they can take in the music room, are one of the best ways to do that.

3. Regular Positive Reinforcement


One of the best things I've ever done as a teacher is happy notes. I give one note, with one specific compliment written on it, to one student every class period. This is another way I keep myself accountable for making sure I am giving positive reinforcement to every student- the key things to make this work are to 1) keep track and make sure every student has a turn, and 2) make it clear that this is NOT a ranking of the "best" student of the day, but an opportunity for each person to get a direct compliment. 

4. Names


It seems to simple and obvious but the importance of learning every student's name, and learning to say them correctly, can't be overstated. But I know it can be incredibly difficult when you have hundreds of students! Here are some of my favorite ways to learn them all.

5. Specific Behavior Supports



Some individual students will struggle more than others with regulating their behavior and emotions. For those students there will often be a plan in place to help support their needs in their homeroom class, but either it's never communicated to us as music teachers or it doesn't translate well to our setting. Here are some strategies I've found helpful for supporting individual student needs.

Those are my top 5 strategies for supporting each student as an individual to give them the opportunity to thrive in my music class. Really, when it comes down to it, nothing is more important to me as a teacher than this. And yet it is one of the hardest things to do! I hope something in this list helps you connect more deeply, respond more effectively, and build on each student's success in your classes this year.

Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Top 5 Strategies to Foster Positive Classroom Climate

In working towards fostering positive interactions and creating a productive learning environment for our students, there are fundamentally two different categories of strategies we use as teachers: those interacting with the class as a whole and those working with individual students. This is what we like to call "behavior management", right? With such limited class time and so many students to work with, the strategies we use to interact with each class as a whole are very important to fostering a positive classroom climate in the music room. Here are the things I do that I think make the biggest difference in my classes.

Before I get into my list, I want to make one important point: fostering a positive classroom environment is not synonymous with me, the teacher, getting what I want. A lot of talk around behavior management centers around getting kids to do what we want, but that's not the ultimate goal here- the goal is for students to be successful, in every sense of the word, in our classrooms. That won't always mean students doing what they're told, but it means everyone is interacting with each other in positive ways and building each other up constructively.

1. Consistent Feedback, Working Towards Goals

Yes, getting away from the extrinsic "carrots and sticks" and focusing on fostering intrinsic motivation is the ultimate goal. But 1) we all need things to look forward to when we need extra motivation to work hard, 2) we as teachers need concrete systems to remind ourselves to provide consistent feedback and positive reinforcement, and 3) it's important to build teamwork in music. So I think having a "behavior management" system for the class as a whole, that gives classes positive reinforcement for hard work and reminders when the class gets off track without pitting classes against each other in a competition or race, is helpful and important. Click on the picture above to read about the system I use in my classes.

2. Seating Arrangement


I spend a lot of time and mental energy deciding on my seating chart for each class at the beginning of the year, and when group dynamics are off, it's one of the first things I look at. How close students are to other specific personalities, who is in each person's line of sight, how well they can see the teacher and class visuals, whether they're surrounded by other people or have more physical space around them, and so many other factors can play a huge role in how students feel and how they interact with each other in the classroom!

3. Systems of Teamwork and Leadership


Students need to feel a sense of ownership in the running of the classroom to feel that they belong, and they need to practice working with others and taking leadership in the class as a whole. Color teams, which I use for classroom jobs, supplies, seating, and more, provide an easy, concrete, and fun way to address all of those needs.

4. Ongoing Work Towards Equity


None of the above matters unless the identities and needs of all students are equitably represented in how we run our classrooms. 

5. Responding to Difficult Group Dynamics


Some groups just have a much harder time clicking, whether they have an overall negative dynamic, are very needy and attention seeking (relationship seeking), or are scattered and high energy. I have found some specific strategies in those situations that can help when dealing with more difficult group dynamics. 

Those are my top 5 strategies for fostering a positive classroom climate in the music room! Establishing a positive environment and managing group dynamics is so important, especially in the beginning of the year, for making sure students can be successful. And in a year like this one as we deal with the ongoing effects of the pandemic and distance learning, this has never been more important or as challenging! I hope these ideas are helpful as you work with your students this year.

Tuesday, August 24, 2021

Elementary Music Classroom Tour 2021-22

Welcome to my socially-distanced elementary music classroom tour for the 2021-2022 school year! As frustrating as it is sometimes to still have to keep pandemic protocols in mind, I'm grateful my district does have guidelines in place to keep everyone as safe as possible, and I'm so happy to have an actual room to set up this year! Last year I was on a cart while my room was being used for cohorts, so we have taken a huge step in the right direction compared to 12 months ago.


You'll find a video tour at the bottom of this post, but first a few highlights of things that are new for this year:

1. Seating Arrangements


I have velcro strips to mark where the front of each chair should go, and dots to mark where students sit or stand on the floor, all with 3-4 foot spacing. Normally I would have chairs in rows and spots in a circle, but with the distancing protocols I had to spread out my chairs and put my floor spots in rows. I still have my 6 colors to use for student groupings though, so we're keeping the color teams (read about those here)!

2. Instruments


After having all my instruments tucked away in storage last year I'm so happy to have my instruments back out and available this year! We'll still be sanitizing between uses but with the concern for spread from surfaces lessening our district is allowing more shared supplies this year.

3. Teacher Workspace


Believe it or not I think I spent more time trying to figure out my teacher desk situation than any other part of my classroom setup this year! I'm trying to balance the need to have reduced space at the front of the room because the students are spread out, with the need for more workspace than pre-pandemic because I'll still need a second monitor for hosting zoom staff meetings. In the end I put a small desk to have some workspace while I'm actively teaching at the front of the room, and a slightly larger desk (where you see the rolling office chair and monitor) at the back of the room for meetings, planning, etc. I have a feeling I will be tweaking this again before the end of the year... we'll see how long this one lasts!

With that, here is the video tour of the entire classroom- if you have any questions about anything please leave a comment and I'll answer as best as I can!