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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.