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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!