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Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Black History Month in Elementary Music

With Black History Month around the corner, today I want to share some thoughts on how to recognize Black History Month in the music classroom appropriately, respectfully, and effectively. While the month of February should certainly not be the only time we share Black music and people with our students, it's an important opportunity to shine the spotlight on a historically marginalized people group.

DO celebrate Black excellence.

Black History Month is the perfect time to celebrate accomplishments of Black musicians throughout history, across genres, and in a variety of musical roles. I often use warmups at the beginning of class to do something related to a Black musician, and then take a few minutes to talk about the person, their life, and their contributions and achievements. If you're looking for some fresh names to explore, there are many contemporary Black musicians featured in these posts (please note most of these posts include non-Black people of color as well):



DO NOT focus only on slavery, or the music from that time.

So many teachers think only of slavery when they hear "Black history". There is so much more than that. There is certainly a place for discussions of slavery and what people did to overcome their circumstances and fight injustice, the powerful effect of music in enduring hardship etc, but it should not be the primary focus or treated as the defining feature of Black history.

DO incorporate more representation into the rest of the school year.

Yes, take advantage of the opportunity to really shine the spotlight and focus on Black excellence. But don't let February be the only time students see a Black face, hear Black music, or learn about Black history in your classroom. That is something that should be done all year long as a matter of course, not just for one month and not just when you're making a point to showcase Black people or culture.

DO NOT play into stereotypes.

Sure, hip-hop, gospel, and jazz are important parts of Black musical history and should be celebrated and recognized. But don't give your students the impression that Black people are only successful in certain genres or areas of music! Showcase a broad spectrum of performers, composers, producers, and dancers, working in traditional, bluegrass, classical, rock, and so much more, throughout history.

DO listen to, learn from, and compensate Black educators

I'm not sharing any specific lesson plans to use during Black History Month because I'm white. I am here to point my fellow educators in the right direction, not center my opinions or my ideas in something that should be centering and uplifting Black voices. If you are looking for ideas for what to teach during Black History Month, seek out Black voices. If you are going to purchase any resources to use to teach Black history, support Black authors and creators. Here are a few places to get started (many have shared insights and resources specifically on the topic of BHM music lessons, some have not, but all will help shape your understanding of how to do so better):

Franklin Willis (find his BHM webinar recording here)

Maria Ellis (Girl Conductor) (find her BHM PD session replay here)

Tosin Moji (Primarily Music) (search her store for BHM-themed lessons and resources here)

Brandi Pace (Decolonizing the Music Room) (see her post on BHM here)

Charissa Duncanson (Music With Mrs. Dunc)

Brandon Brown (The Griot B) (get his BHM album here)

Niki Addison (Ms. Niki) (get her single, Big Curly Afro, here)

I hope this helps steer you in the right direction as you prepare for Black History Month! If you know of more resources by Black authors, please share them in the comments below. 

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

SEL-Focused Music Lessons

We all know how critical it is to care for our students' social emotional well-being right now. The question, of course, is how! In my last post I shared some overall strategies that I have found successful for fostering social-emotional wellbeing, and today I'm sharing some specific lesson plans, that can be used in person or online, that more overtly focus on social emotional learning (SEL) for different age groups.

1. Allie All Along

I absolutely love this lesson for Kindergarten, and I think would work well with Preschool up through 1st grade students. The book gives some great strategies for managing emotions in a way that is so relatable for young children, and it is a perfect segue into a very basic introduction to the idea of communicating emotions through music! This lesson can easily be adapted to any teaching situation, but if you're posting an asynchronous lesson online and don't have time to make your own video reading the book, I recommend this read-aloud done by the author herself. Click below for the full lesson plan I use with this story:

2. Niko Draws a Feeling

This lesson works best with 1st grade through 3rd grade- the book introduces the idea of abstract drawing, which I have found very helpful for getting students away from visualizing concrete things as a response to music and focusing on abstract ideas like colors, emotions, and patterns. Again, if you need a read-aloud video, I recommend this one, and you can click below for the full lesson plan:

3. Soundscapes

This is a great one for older students: assign individuals or small groups the task of creating their own music to convey a specific emotion, then have them share it with the class and see if others can identify the intended emotion. This is a great conversation starter for older students to talk about emotions because sometimes people have different conceptions of what an emotion might "sound like"! Click below for more details on how I use soundscapes and how I guide students in coming up with a soundscape based on a feeling- the ideas for using classroom instruments can be adapted by using only vocal or found sounds, and/or with online software like Song Maker or Mario Paint Composer:

4. Movie or Video Game Music Creation

For middle and high school students, exploring the role of music in film and video games in conveying emotion is a great way to get students talking about emotions and connecting it to music! I have used these projects with my 5th-8th graders but others have used them successfully with older students as well. Click below to see an explanation of how I teach these units and the resources I use:

I hope these ideas are helpful! I'd love to hear about your favorite lesson ideas that focus on SEL in the comments below. And if you're looking for more ideas to help you through pandemic teaching, be sure to check out this page where I am collecting all of my related posts:

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Fostering Social-Emotional Health in Elementary Music (pandemic edition)

We all know how critical it is to care for our students' social emotional well-being right now. The question, of course, is how! This is already a tall order for elementary music teachers with our short class times and hundreds of students to contend with, but the difficulty is magnified this year with, depending on our situation, even less class time, the loss of our classroom spaces, the difficulty of connecting with virtual learners, heavy restrictions on singing, dancing, and other activities that would normally be at the top of music teachers' lists for class activities that promote social-emotional health, and so much more. Nonetheless, the importance of tending to our students' needs remains. Here is what I have found success with so far this year.

1. Restorative Mindset

This is not so much a practical strategy but, I think, centrally important to making those practical strategies actually work: we as teachers need to approach our students and their families with a restorative mindset. I have written extensively about applying principals of restorative practice/ restorative justice in the music classroom, and of course there is a lot of wonderful literature out there by many others as well. In practical terms, I see this mindset playing out this year in how I approach common stressors and difficult situations. If a student always has their camera off, I (privately) ask them why. If a student is in a bad mood or refusing to participate, I ask them what happened. If a student is not showing up to class online, I ask the family how I can help and find out what their situation may be. These may all sound like common sense, but in my observation there are a lot of teachers who, in all of those examples, are jumping straight to making demands (you must have your camera on during class) and giving ultimatums (if your child doesn't show up on time for class they will fail/ get a zero/ be marked absent and put you on track to be reported for educational neglect). I understand why many teachers are doing this- we are under a lot of pressure to prove that we can still provide students with a worthwhile education remotely, and this form of teaching is so new and foreign for most of us- but that does not change the harmful effects these responses have. If you're new to the concept of restorative practices, start here:

 2. Routines

With so much upheaval in every aspect of our lives, predictability is critical to our emotional well-being right now. As hard as it may be with our teaching modalities changing constantly and so many new things to adapt to, class routines are an important and effective way to promote emotional health. This can be as simple as a hello and goodbye song to start and end each lesson, or using the same format for posted lessons so students know how to complete their work! I have found a few key routines very helpful both for in-person and virtual teaching this year, which you can read more about in this post.

3. Individual Connections

I can't say enough about the importance of making individual connections whenever we can! I make it a point to greet every single student by name at the beginning of class. I'm also leaning hard into any sorts of inside jokes/ nicknames I have with students (being careful, of course, to avoid anything that would offend or embarrass students)- some love to change their name on zoom and have me call them by that name the entire lesson, some have told me a funny story, even in previous years, that I'll try to reference randomly in class, etc. I also encourage and praise any aspect of students' personal lives that they share with me, whether that's siblings joining in with the lesson, their bedroom decor, or pets in their laps. Of course I am mindful of any students who don't want to be publicly pointed out (for those students I will send them a private chat or speak with them privately if we're in person), or things I see in their homes that students didn't intend to share, but anything that helps students feel seen and gives us a way to connect on a personal level, and encourages them to connect with each other (which is where pointing out students in front of the class helps the others notice each other), is a good thing. 

4. Talk Time

Since we started teaching fully remotely, I have quickly learned that I need to give kids the time to just chat with me- especially the younger ones! Not since my first year of teaching have I felt the need to give students time to just tell me whatever they want, but my younger students are so much more motivated to come to class, and are so much happier and engaged, when they have time to tell me that their uncle's birthday is tomorrow, or show me the toy their baby brother is playing with, or explain their theory on why snails have shells. I've realized that, without the usual ways I connect with them in person, they need that time to just say whatever they're thinking about, and I am a fresh audience for them! I let them unmute for the first few minutes while students are joining, and I try to end the lesson a few minutes before the end of class and let those who want to stay and chat unmute then as well. Of course, there is almost always someone who doesn't get to say everything they wanted to- I always tell them before I end the zoom that they should send me a message in Google Classroom if they didn't get to share something verbally!

I have been intentionally giving more time to chat with my in-person students as well. I use the time when I am coming in and setting up my cart, and then packing up to leave, to let students share and chat with them about life. They aren't as desperate for conversation because they have each other and can make those social connections, but we are all desperate for more human connections these days, right?

Of course these points barely scratch the surface of this enormous and important topic, but it is a start. What strategies have you found most helpful for fostering social-emotional well-being as a music teacher in pandemic times? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Class Routines in Pandemic Times

If there's one thing children (and, let's be honest, grownups too) need more than anything during uncertain times, it's routine. Consistency. Predictability. But it's also one of the hardest things to accomplish when our world keeps getting flipped on its head and everything is different! Here are some routines I have established this school year through in-person teaching on a cart with simultaneous virtual learners, and full live distance teaching, that have been helpful for all of us.

1. Stretching

I cannot take credit for this idea- this came from one of my 2nd graders! At her suggestion one morning when I walked in and commented on the gloomy faces in the first week of school, we all stood up and I led the class in some simple stretches. It felt great, so I did it with my next class too. I haven't stopped since. Every single class period, with every single grade, we start with the exact same stretching sequence. Every now and then I throw in something different just to mix things up, but for the most part it is the exact same thing every day. 

There are so, so many benefits to starting each class this way: 1) it establishes predictability and routine, 2) it is physically helpful for all of us since we're hunched in front of a screen or stuck in our socially-distanced bubble, 3) it is very easy, after the first few days, for even my kindergartners to self-direct, which gave me time to plug in my cart and set things up when I was teaching in person, 4) it gives kids time to sort out tech issues and get logged in while keeping everyone else busy, 5) especially with the older grades, it gives me a chance to connect with individual students- when we're in person, I can chat with kids about life while we're stretching, and on zoom (since they're muted) I can comment on and say hello to each student individually (oh look there's Jaiden's little brother, I love your hair today Chloe, your bedroom is so cool Davonte... etc).

I also manage to sneak in some musical concepts (because why not?): I raise and lower the pitch of my voice when I say "everybody reach up high/ down low", match the tempo of my speaking with how fast or slowly I want them to do something, etc. Every little bit counts when we're working with reduced class time, and I have noticed when students jump in to announce the next stretch (which happens quite often) they will often do the same thing with their voices without even realizing ;)

2. Upbeat Closer

I end most classes with either a rhythm play-along or movement/ dance activity with an upbeat song that has an uplifting, positive message. I can't waste the opportunity to use the power of music to lift everyone's spirits! For kindergarten and 1st grade I generally have them copy me and/or each other in doing movements with the steady beat. For the middle grades I do that, or a quick round of freeze dance (though nobody gets out because of zoom lag), or a rhythm play-along. For the older grades I use rhythm play-along's as well, or a play-along video where they do body percussion or movement. Thanks to the many creative and tech-savvy people out there, I've found no shortage of rhythm play-along videos for all skill levels on YouTube, but for this purpose specifically at the end of class, I am looking for ones that are upbeat instrumental or have an encouraging message. I also use a lot of the tracks from my dance playlist for the movement activities or make it into our own simple "play-along" by putting a few rhythm patterns we're working on up on the screen and playing those with the beat of one of those songs. I honestly get a little choked up sometimes watching my students happily dancing along with words like, "it's gonna be OK", or "keep your head up"- I hope the words soak in.

3. Happy Notes

Happy notes are not new for me- I've been giving out happy notes at the end of every single class period since 2013- so I knew at the start of the year that it was important to find a way to keep that routine going. You can read about how I normally use them and get the link to the free printables I use in this post from 2014, but essentially the idea is that I give one student a note with a specific compliment, and I announce it in front of the class. Rather than being a ranking system of any kind, like a traditional "star student" or "student of the day", I make it clear that everyone gets a turn and whoever gets it is NOT getting it because they were the "best" but because they are awesome and they matter.

Because of our circumstances, I did have to make a few adjustments this year. Since I can't give out actual pieces of paper, I started sending a message on ClassDojo (a parent communication tool our school is using this year) to the family of the student instead. I still announce it in front of them at the end of class, but this has actually been such an unexpected positive because I am communicating more directly with the families, and they are getting quick little positive notes from me instead of the flood of tasks and information us parents are getting so much of this year! I have gotten a lot of positive feedback from families because of these happy note messages, and the students are so proud to know that I'm sending those messages to their families. The other adjustment I made was to break my strict one student per class rule- if I have a full class (and not a small in-person cohort by themselves) I give a happy note to 2 students each day, so that students are getting more frequent compliments. I think we can all use extra compliments right now!

How are you establishing routines in this year of unpredictability? I think it's so important to find ways to create structure and routine for everyone's sanity this year. If you have other ideas that have worked for you, please tell us in the comments! If you want to read about the routines I use for the beginning and end of class in "normal times", check out the posts below: