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Tuesday, November 22, 2022

Decolonizing Our Approach to Hip-Hop

I've been reflecting on how we approach the hip-hop genre in US American schools, and the many ways that we tend to caricature, devalue, and ostracize the genre in our attempts to include it in our school music curricula. It is a long and arduous process to get to where we need to be, but that shouldn't stop us from embarking on the journey! Here are my thoughts on what needs to change.


1. Holistic Approach

We need to teach hip-hop holistically, teaching students the context and culture of hip-hop and all of the major pillars and elements that are a part of the genre. Too often we pull out the one element that sticks out to outsiders- rapping- and think that giving students one isolated experience with rapping, or writing raps, means we have successfully incorporated hip-hop into our music curriculum. Compare that approach to the hours and hours we spend teaching the elements and "pillars" of Western classical music, from music history to music theory, repertoire to instrumentation. 

2. Scaffolded Skills

Just like we sequence out our instruction on reading Western classical music notation, and understanding fundamental concepts from Western classical music like steady beat, tonality, harmony, and skills like singing or playing instruments, we need to incorporate skill development in the skills and concepts that are at the core of hip-hop musicianship into our teaching as well. There is definitely some overlap between the skills and concepts we teach already and the skills and concepts that are a part of hip-hop, but things like flow, rapping, mixing, and beatboxing etc are separate skills that need to be scaffolded and embedded in our scope and sequence. And time spent on skills and concepts from one genre will only improve skill development and understanding in other genres as well- rather than stealing time from one area to teach another, we will be enhancing student learning.

3. Regular Examples

This is a much easier fix than the first two and many of us are on our way to doing this already- make hip-hop music a part of the regular course of learning alongside any other genre. When we're practicing steady beat movement with Kindergarten, playing rhythm examples, learning about famous artists, or playing a Bb major scale as a warmup in band class, hip-hop music should be incorporated not as a "special topic" but as a part of regular instruction along with a broad range of other genres.

4. Teacher Education

I am far from the first person to say this but we will never embed change in music education practice until we start training teachers how to do things differently. We need music education programs across the country to start including training in how to teach hip-hop skills and concepts in our school music programs so teachers enter the profession with some background in how to do so effectively and appropriately. That means bringing in people who know what they're talking about to help re-write the curriculum for music education courses, serve on faculty, and come in as guest speakers.

5. Listen and Learn

Hip-hop has not been a part of classroom music education, so it can feel like talking to someone in a foreign language when you talk to hip-hop artists and educators about the culture and genre to try to learn how to incorporate it authentically in your teaching. It might seem easier initially to just listen to people like me and just absorb the "translated" information second-hand, but we all need to be learning from culture-bearers directly. It took a few years for me to wrap my head around how to take what hip-hop artists and educators were telling me and bring it to my classroom, but the time, effort, and trial-and-error process were necessary for my journey, as they are for all of us. 

What are your thoughts? I know this post is a departure from my usual- I'm not at the point in my journey where I can offer concrete, specific steps towards solutions yet, I just have gotten some clarity on where I'm headed. I know I'm not the only one thinking about and reflecting on this topic and trying to bring about change in music education- I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments.



Monday, November 21, 2022

24 Days of Family Christmas Activities

One of our most treasured family traditions is our advent calendar. Since my daughters were 2, I've been putting together an advent calendar with a small holiday-related activity to do each day leading up to Christmas. I never thought it would become such an important part of our lives but now, with my girls about to turn 11, they start asking about the calendar several months in advance! The last few years our options were a little more limited by the pandemic, but this year that's less of a concern- here's what I'm planning to do this year (and you can too with very little prep work).

Because I am all about low-maintenance, especially as a music teacher in December (if you know you know), most of the things are things that might normally be considered "chores", like decorating and sending cards, but now they are fun family activities! It's a great way to really focus on the small joys of the holiday. Here is a list of what we're doing this year:

1. Put up the Christmas tree

2. Decorate the tree with ornaments

3. Hang the Christmas lights

4. Make gingerbread truffles

5. Make hot chocolate with all the fixings

6. Put out the advent wreath

7. Make plastic cup ornaments

8. Decorate the front door

9. Make and send Christmas cards

10. Write gift idea lists (to receive and to give)

11. Bake cookies

12. Decorate sugar cookies

13. Put up the rest of the decorations around the house

14. Shop for/ make gifts to give

15. Read some Christmas books

16. Wrap gifts

17. "Jingle" a neighbor (here is an explanation and free printable)

18. Watch a Christmas movie (this year will be Hip-Hop Nutcracker)

19. Do this salt crystal snowflake experiment

20. Go caroling to friends and family's houses (in person and video call)

21. Drive through a lights display

22. Hang the stockings

23. Make a gingerbread house

24. Set out cookies, milk, and carrots for Santa and the reindeer

This kind of Christmas countdown / advent activity calendar is so easy to set up because the activities are low-prep, low-mess, quick activities, most of which are things families celebrating Christmas would do anyway. If you want to do something similar this year but don't have time to make a calendar, all you really have to do is write down each activity on a piece of paper and fold it up with the number for the date you want to do it on the outside. Then open a paper each day to reveal that day's activity!

Here is how I made the calendar we use every year (so easy if you have the supplies)- click the image to see the tutorial:

And you can see how my list of activities has evolved over the years as my daughters get older in these posts from previous years: my list for 9 year oldsfor 7 year oldsfor 6 year oldsfor 5 year oldsfor 4 year olds, and for 3 year olds.

If you're looking for ways to add a little cheer without a lot of effort I hope these ideas will help! 

Tuesday, November 15, 2022

(Further) Toward an Inclusive Holiday Sing Along

Holiday sing-alongs are something many music teachers are tasked with. They can be a lot of fun, and they're a great way to bring the entire school community together. But they also inherently center certain religions and cultures while ignoring others, and that is problematic. I have been reflecting on my practice and seeking input from culture bearers and educators from a range of backgrounds, and after doing a lot of thinking over the last few years I have made some changes that have certainly brought it a long way in making it more reflective of our school community and our world. I have shared a couple of times in the last few years about what I'm doing as I continue on this journey to hopefully help other teachers think critically about their current practice and encourage others to join me in my journey- here is my latest update on what I'm planning this year.


A few important thoughts I've had as I continue to reflect on this that I think are important for everyone to consider in planning a holiday sing-along:

1. The songs we choose should invite students to learn about the holiday more than they invite students to participate in celebrating them. 

I used to be a little uncertain about my choice to include the Eid song in particular, because it isn't traditionally sung by culture bearers during the actual holiday as part of the traditional celebrations. I've since come to understand from the culture bearers I've spoken to that this is fine and in fact better. The song was created by culture bearers to teach others about the holiday and that's exactly the way that they want the holiday to be presented in school- trying to have students experience each holiday by participating in them does a disservice to the religious meaning of each one and can put students and families in an uncomfortable, offensive situation.

2. Any decision to include songs about holidays in class or in a whole school sing- along assembly should be accompanied by deliberate communication with families to ensure anyone who objects to all holiday content can be accommodated, the actual holidays celebrated by the community is represented, and families understand the intent and purpose behind the lessons and/or event.

I do have a very small number of students who do not participate in recognizing or learning about holidays at all, and I'm very careful to make sure those students have alternate assignments (and the one time I had more than one student in a grade I changed the lessons entirely). But I've also found that when I explain that students are learning about the holidays rather than participating in songs that celebrate them, several of the families who originally were hesitant actually were excited to have their children participate.

My song selections for this year have not changed since last year, when I hosted it on zoom, but it will be great to get to have students fully engage with the activities for each one as a group with us all physically in the same space this year!

1. Hanukkah, Oh Hanukkah (we do a very simple circle dance- each class in a circle)
2. Feliz Navidad (I use this song as a jumping off point in class to talk about the ways to say "Merry Christmas" in different languages. in the assembly one grade level will have maracas to play with the Spanish section.)
4. Diwali is Here (we will sing in canon, and one grade level will have mini flashlights to wave around as we dim the lights for this song)
5. Gong Xi, Gong Xi (we sing the verses in English standing in a circle with hand motions that match the lyrics, then on the chorus in Mandarin turn to one side and shake hands, then turn to the other side and shake hands on the beat)
6. Eid Mubarak (we stand in scattered formation and do a clapping pattern with a partner at the beginning of each verse, then while singing the last line quickly find a new partner to face for the next verse)
7. Happy Kwanzaa Song (one grade is assigned to stand and sing each of the 7 principles during the verse, then everyone drums on the floor during the chorus)

This is a topic that we need to continue to engage in professional discussions on as music educators, and we need to continue to be open to new insights and thoughts on how to do it, and even whether or not to continue the practice, to be as inclusive and respectful of all of our students as possible while giving students opportunities to learn about different cultures. I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments below, and you can catch up on my ongoing journey of learning how to do this better in my previous two posts on sing-alongs:

 


Tuesday, November 8, 2022

This School Year is One Long October

This school year is one long October.

I came to this realization a couple of weeks ago, when it was mid-October, and as I've shared the thought with a few colleagues I've found it a really helpful thought to hold onto in those challenging moments when student behaviors are so disruptive, when adults are frustrating, and when things just seem suddenly completely overwhelming. If you've felt like this year has been frustrating and exhausting, maybe you can relate.


Most teachers with a certain number of years of experience know what October is like every year. You spend the month of September patiently reviewing expectations, taking the time to establish routines and build relationships, and giving yourself and everyone else grace because hey, it's the beginning of the year, of course we're all overwhelmed, we're all tired, and we're all still learning how to do stuff. We've got time. Then October comes. Finally, all that hard work you put into introducing and reviewing and practicing and reviewing procedures and expectations, all the time you've had to get settled into a routine and get to know each other, all of that time and effort will pay off and we can really start chugging along with the school year. 

Except then come to find out, we don't magically all become superstars in October. Actually there is still practice and reviewing of expectations that needs to happen, and there is still a lot of relationship building that needs to happen. October is when we think things will be smooth sailing, and we're incredibly frustrated when it isn't. Every. Year. Then one day a few days or weeks into October we realize hey, I remember this, and we take our expectations down a couple of notches and start giving ourselves some grace again.

This entire school year is like one long month of October. For the last 2 years we've been giving ourselves and everyone else grace because hey, it's a pandemic. We've been learning and reviewing and revisiting expectations because nobody knows what they're doing. We've been patient and understanding with emotional outbursts and disruptive behaviors because we've all experienced trauma in ways we don't fully fathom ourselves. 

But the pandemic protocols have been mostly set aside. No more mask mandates, social distancing, cohorting, dual teaching, or incessant hand washing. This is the year we can finally get back to real teaching and learning! This is when things will finally, after two years of intense struggle, be smooth sailing, right?

It's incredibly frustrating to realize that we're not there yet, but it's time to realize hey, I know what's going on, and take our expectations down a couple of notches and start giving ourselves some grace again. 

Tuesday, November 1, 2022

Music Teacher Vocal Health

It's that time of year: it was my annual tradition to lose my voice a couple of months into each school year for my first decade of teaching! As much as I tried, I could never seem to kick the habit. Over the years I've learned more about how to maintain vocal health as a music teacher, and honestly, started taking more seriously the things I have long known I *should* be doing. Here are some of my top tips for maintaining a healthy voice when you're teaching elementary music.

This post contains affiliate link(s) that do not impact the price, purchase experience, my opinions, or my writing.

First, of course, a disclaimer: I am definitely not a doctor and have no medical background! If you have serious vocal health concerns, or just want to get more specific, data-based recommendations for your individual health needs, please go see a doctor. Our voices are so important as music teachers and we need to treat our vocal health with the same importance we place on our overall health. So please don't hesitate to seek professional help! 

That being said, these are some things that have worked for me, in order from biggest impact to smallest (from my very informal, unscientific observations!):

1. Talk less

It's amazing how much of the time we spend talking is superfluous. Take one class period and try to focus on speaking as few words as possible. I've found that the longer I teach, the less I talk in class. Of course I know that's easier said than done! The main factor that makes it possible for me to speak very little is good preparation. I find when I'm talking a lot in class it's because I am processing and talking through what we just did or what we're about to do. If I already know what's next, a lot of times I can just start- no need to say anything at all! Instead of saying "OK everyone, I'm going to teach you a new song today- everyone listen and echo after me", just sing a line while you point to yourself, then point out to them. Most of the time they'll get it, and if they don't, do it again and they will the 2nd time. Trust me, the more times you practice talking less, the more ways you'll find to reduce your talking time!

2. Drink more

When we came back on a cart in a hybrid model fully distanced and masked in 2020, I suddenly found myself drinking over 70oz of water just during the school day which was a huge jump for me! Not only was I expending more energy running all over the building, but because I had more passing time between classes and I was often passing by bathrooms, I was able to use the bathroom more often and got into the habit of drinking between every class. Now that we're back to more pre-pandemic schedules I'm still drinking way more than I used to, and it has made a significant difference. I know, I have days with many classes back-to-back, but I've learned it's important enough to just drink the water and if I have to ask a homeroom teacher to wait a minute while I use the bathroom, so be it. 

3. Use a voice amplifier

I always swore I would not be one of those people but yes, here I am. The 2020-21 school year was the first year of my teaching career that I did not lose my voice. It was partly, I think, because of other things like drinking so much more water and being exposed to fewer germs because of the covid protocols, but I am convinced the biggest difference was that I wore one of these personal voice amplifiers every lesson, every day, all year. I stopped wearing it at the beginning of this school year because I wasn't wearing a mask, but now as I feel a bit more of a tickle in my throat I am putting it back on, mask or no mask- I plan to continue to keep it in rotation any time I feel my voice getting tired! 

4. Take care of your overall health

Obviously you're more likely to have vocal health issues if you're sick. It's easy for me to put my own health on the back burner when life gets busy but I've started taking my own health more seriously and it really does make a difference. Eating and sleeping well are the main things I focus on, and of course you can talk to your doctor about what they recommend for maintaining and improving your overall health!

5. Use attention getters

There are so many attention getters out there, I'm not going to repeat them all here, but if you don't have an attention getter you use to quiet a classroom you need one (and calling loudly to them over the noise doesn't count). Even better, use attention getters that don't use your voice. I have 2 attention getters and neither of them require anyone's voice (nor do they involve clapping that one pattern everyone loves to use). If we're in the middle of a whole group lesson activity and the class gets chatty, I use my hand signals (read about them here) to silently have them go from sitting to standing, or vice versa. It becomes very obvious very quickly who is paying attention! If students are working independently, my attention getter is to turn off the lights. My students know that lights off= sound off. 

6. Warm up your voice

I haven't gotten to the point where I feel the need to do actual vocal warmups, but I do make a conscious effort to hum along, and then gradually switch to singing along, with the radio in the car on the way to school and in my classroom before classes start, ESPECIALLY on the days I have choir first period. It makes a huge difference!

Remedies to try

None of these are prescriptions or anything, but when my voice gets tired in spite of the vocal health strategies above, these are my go-to remedies that help a lot:

  • gargle with hydrogen peroxide (or salt water): I know it sounds ridiculous but it really works! 1 part 3% hydrogen peroxide with 2 parts water, gargle for 1 minute. Read more here.
  • throat coat tea
  • drink warm water with honey and ginger
  • breath in steam: I like to use this as an excuse to make a giant pot of chai. I get a big batch of chai to keep in the fridge, a wonderfully scented house, and some lovely smelling steam to breath in over the simmering pot all in one! Here's my basic recipe if you want to try, or just boil a pot of plain ole' water or run a hot shower.
What do you do to maintain your vocal health as a music teacher? Teachers and musicians in general use their voices a lot, so music teachers get a double-whammy that makes proactive vocal health strategies so important! I'd love to hear what you've found works for you in the comments.