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Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Lesson Warmups to Practice Rhythm

I've been using student-led warmups at the beginning of my elementary general music lessons for years now and I am a big fan! I've gotten a lot of questions about the warmups I do and how I do them, so today I'm sharing my favorite warmups to practice rhythms.

You can read more about why I do student-led warmups and how I manage the logistics of warmups in general in this post, but essentially I have a small group of 2-4 students who are assigned to lead the warmup / opening activity / do now at the beginning of class. These warmups are super easy to implement and a great way to review rhythms in a different, fresh way without taking a lot of class time.

1. Note name identification

This is an easy one to use that I pull out every now and then to review the names of different note values (quarter note, whole note, etc). I find most of our time in actual lessons is spent on being able to use the rhythms- read, write, perform, and identify them- so I don't reinforce the names of the notes that often. This is a quick and easy way to review them in a low-pressure way.

To set this up, I have a slide with all of the different rhythms they know in scattered formation on the board. The warmup leader points to a note, and students identify the name of the note.

2. Rhythm identification variations

Besides naming the notes, I also use the same idea in a few other ways: 

a. students say how many beats the selected note gets

b. students demonstrate how to clap and count the selected note, assuming it starts on beat 1

3. Rhythm selection

This one is also very simple: I have a slide with several lines of rhythms on it. The leader chooses a line, and the class claps and counts whichever line they picked. Often I'll turn on a track and have the class clap and say the rhythm with the beat of the track, just to make it more interesting (and contextualize the reading practice a little more).

4. Rhythm composition

I used to try to do this in slides, with images of notes students would drag and drop to create a 4-beat rhythm for the class to copy. You can certainly do it that way, especially if you have a good quality interactive board that makes it easy and intuitive for students to drag notes around, but I found the technology aspect got in the way of the thinking aspect since I don't have a good interactive board. Instead I have a bunch of cards with different rhythms on them (here is the post with pictures and explanation of how I made them) and I have the warmup leaders choose cards to create a 4-beat rhythm and put it up on the board with magnets for the class to read.

5. Rhythm play along's

There are so many great rhythm play along videos out there, it's impossible to use them all! For this warmup I will make a slide with 4 different rhythm play along videos on it and have the warmup leaders choose one (in this case, rather than having each student in the warmup leader group have a turn, I have them choose one together- we don't have time to do 3 or 4 different play alongs!). They can get a sense of the theme of the play along from the thumbnails so it's a fun way to give them some ownership and choice.

There are so many fun ways to put students in charge and practice rhythms! These only take about 3 minutes at the beginning of class and they really help keep a skill that really needs to be "drilled" regularly feel less like a chore. You can find my post on warmup activities for steady beat in here, and my post on activities for pitch letter names here. I'll share more warmups for other skills and concepts in a future post- if you have any questions or more ideas please leave them in the comments!

Tuesday, September 19, 2023

Elementary Music Classroom Tour 2023-24

Well, it took me longer than I'd like to share this post, but here's a tour of my elementary music classroom as it currently stands, starting off the 2023-24 school year! I didn't change much about the actual setup of the room, but did make a few significant changes to the visuals and posters I have on the walls that I'm excited about!

First here's a quick video tour of the entire room to get you oriented to how the whole thing is set up:

I changed a few things from last year's classroom (click here to see last year's post) that I should explain:

So I had (what felt to me like) an epiphany this summer. For over a decade now I have had my orchestral instrument posters on the wall behind where my student chairs are. I put them there when I first started teaching in this room because the band and orchestra rehearsed on that side of the room. A few years ago, I made big posters showing the main concepts students learn in each grade level to replace the word wall I used to have on the magnetic chalkboard next to that wall. 

This summer I realized the grade level expectations posters are ones that students refer to often but I rarely, if ever, need to show them in the middle of a lesson, but the instrument posters are ones that I do refer to during lessons when we are talking about instruments and instrument families. I also add to the instrument wall every year posters that the students make when they are researching a particular instrument and make their own posters, and then I take them down for each new year. It makes a lot more sense for the instrument posters to be on magnets so I can take them off the wall to show students and change out the student work each year, and for the grade level expectations posters, which students refer to on their own more often than the instrument posters, to be right behind their chairs. 

So I swapped their spots, and I feel like a genius.

I guess these are the kinds of things that feel monumental when you've been in the same room for over a decade?!? But I do think it's worth noting- it's good to rethink how you've always done something. I never questioned why I had these two walls the way I did until I finally did, and now it makes so much more sense.

The other main change has been the addition of my new learning target displays:


We are being required to post written learning targets with specific, 3-sentence language for every lesson this year, which I have certain feelings and opinions about that I won't get into right now, but that meant I needed to get rid of the small frames I had used to write my objectives on for the last 10 years because there's no way I could fit 3 sentences on those! I now have a row of bigger, letter size frames for 1st through 6th grade under my whiteboard at the front of the room, and I laminated 3 letter size sheets with the same 3 sentence starters for Kindergarten next to the floor circle (where they mostly sit). More explanation on that coming in another post...

The last main change in my room is this corner, where I have a small place for students to sit and take a break, and my boomwhackers hung on the closet doors with velcro:

I got 3 sets of the accidentals so I added those to the sides next to the rest of the boomwhackers, and I got a new minion poster (from the school book fair last spring, actually- thanks to a parent who spotted the poster and knew I would love it) and added that to my rest area. The poster is perfect because it says "Today I am..." and then had lots of different moods. 

I'm so excited to get started on the new school year. I hope you get some fresh inspiration for your own room! If you have any questions about anything you see in the video or photos, please let me know in the comments, I'm happy to answer.

Tuesday, September 12, 2023

Lesson Warm-ups to Practice Pitch Letter Names

I've been using student-led warmups at the beginning of my elementary general music lessons for years now and I am a big fan! I've gotten a lot of questions about the warmups I do and how I do them, so today I'm sharing my favorite warmups to practice note letter names for treble and bass clef!

Most of my warmups are focused on practicing/ reviewing a basic skill or concept I want my students to practice regularly. Identifying the letter names of notes on the staff is definitely one of those things that is best learned through regular practice, so this is one I use a lot with my upper elementary classes.

You can read more about why I do student-led warmups and how I manage the logistics of warmups in general in this post, but essentially I have a small group of 2-4 students who are assigned to lead the warmup / opening activity / do now at the beginning of class. These warmups are super easy to implement and, for the upper elementary grades I use them with, one of the easiest ones to get buy-in because they don't require the leaders to "perform" anything in front of their peers.

1. Space and line note naming

This is the first one I use at the beginning of the year or when students have just been introduced to a particular staff (I introduce treble clef fully in 3rd grade, and bass clef in 6th). I have whole notes on each of the ascending spaces on one staff, and each of the ascending lines on another. Student leaders take turns coming up to the board and pointing to one space note, which the rest of the class then raises their hand to name, and one line note. **Important side bonus: I specify if I want the leader to point to a space or line note, and I switch up the order from person to person. There are always a few who seem to confuse the concept of line note vs space note so this is good practice for them, and a good assessment for me.

2. Scattered note naming

This one is almost the same as the first but I use this to increase the difficulty once students are comfortable with the notes in a particular clef. I put up a slide that has individual whole notes on their own (short) staff with the clef in front of each, scattered in random formation around the screen. Otherwise the process is the same: the leader points to a space/ line note (as specified by me) and the others raise their hands to name it.

3. Note naming: other variants

Once classes are really comfortable with naming notes with just whole notes, which really isolates the pitch element from rhythm and other elements, I throw in other variations:
1) use the same scattered formation of notes from #2 but this time have notes with different note values, like quarter notes, half notes, etc to mix it up
2) show an actual excerpt from an actual song, and have the student leaders point to random notes in the excerpt for the class to identify (bonus: I will usually do this with a song they already know, and ask them at the end if anyone can identify the song)

4. Note writing

The student leader is given a set of cards, each card having one alphabet letter for the 7 note names. Individual or small groups of students are given a dry erase marker and staff board. The leader pulls out a card to show the class, and they race to write the corresponding note on their boards and hold it up to show them. I actually use this one as a teacher-led lesson activity as well when they are first practicing notes in a new clef, but after that I use it as a warmup activity to review.

There are so many fun ways to put students in charge and practice naming notes! These only take about 3 minutes at the beginning of class and they really help keep a skill that really needs to be "drilled" regularly feel less like a chore. You can find my post on warmup activities for steady beat in here, and I'll share more warmups for other skills and concepts in a future post- if you have any questions or more ideas please leave them in the comments! 

Tuesday, September 5, 2023

Lesson Warmups to Practice Steady Beat

I've been using student-led warmups at the beginning of my elementary general music lessons for years now and I am a big fan! I've gotten a lot of questions about the warmups I do and how I do them, so today I'm sharing my favorite warmups to practice steady beat!

Most of my warmups are focused on practicing/ reviewing a basic skill or concept I want my students to practice regularly. Steady beat is definitely one of those things I focus on heavily in Kindergarten and then just assume my older students don't need to practice it after that, but I've learned some students need more time to really solidify their sense of beat, and students need practice feeling and demonstrating the beat with different meters, tempi, and styles of music.

You can read more about why I do student-led warmups and how I manage the logistics of warmups in general in this post, but essentially I have a small group of 2-4 students who are assigned to lead the warmup / opening activity / do now at the beginning of class. These steady beat warmups are ones that I always have ready and probably use the most often out of all the warmups we do throughout the year because they are easy and active.

1. Movement Mirroring

Before class, I get an audio track ready. As soon as the class starts walking in, I start the track and pull a chair over in front of the students to start doing different moves on the steady beat. Everyone copies me for a while, then I call up one of the student leaders, and they take over leading the class in steady beat moves. The leaders keep going until I call up the next person or stop the track.

2. Music Selection

Before class, I have a slide ready with several different audio tracks embedded in the slide with just the same speaker icon for each one. I try to choose tracks that are different tempi/ styles/ etc. One of the student leaders picks a track at random from the slide, and all students choose their own moves to show the steady beat to whatever track was selected. After playing it for a bit, I stop the track, and the next student leader comes up and chooses a different track.

3. Movement Selection

I have a slide up on the board that shows picture icons for several different body percussion sounds (clap, snap, stomp, etc). I turn on some music, and student leaders take turns pointing to different icons, and the rest of the class does the corresponding move with the beat of the music.

4. Body Percussion Groups

Similar to #3, in this one I split up the class into 3 groups (since I have 3 rows of chairs), and assign each group/ row to one body percussion sound that is on the board. Then I turn on the music and student leaders point to one of the 3 that were assigned- only the group that was assigned that sound does the steady beat when the leader is pointing to their icon.

There are so many fun ways to put students in charge and practice steady beat! These only really take about 3 minutes at the beginning of class and they really help set the tone and keep things moving. I'll share more warmups for other skills and concepts in a future post- if you have any questions or more ideas please leave them in the comments!

Tuesday, August 29, 2023

My Favorite Kindergarten Welcome Song

There's no better way to start early childhood music class than with a song! I've tried a few different ones over the years with varying success, but today I want to share my favorite one that I've stuck with for the last several years- it still hasn't gotten old for me all these years later!

I have been using the same welcome song to start my Kindergarten music classes for the last few years, and I realized I have never shared a post specifically about the song despite singing it at the beginning of pretty much every single Kindergarten music lesson for at least 5 years.
The original song is by Angelique Felix. I came across this video from her channel and knew I wanted to try it with my classes, especially since my Kindergartners seemed to have a particularly difficult time with directional language (left/ right, up/ down):

I made a few changes from her original version to make it work for me. First I changed the speaking part to be sung, and I changed the words slightly in the second line to "stretch your hands up to the sky" (honestly it was just easier for me to remember for whatever reason). I also of course sing it in a higher key that's more in the students' singing range. After doing the song a few times with the kids I quickly realized it was wise to change "turn your body round and round" to "turn your body ONCE around" to avoid the inevitable never-ending spin. So with those small changes, this is now how I do the song with my classes:

I love this song and more importantly, so do my students! It's the perfect way to start class with singing and movement but also get them all sitting down in their spots to start the first lesson activity. The great thing is, throughout the year if we are doing something standing up and it's time to sit down, I just sing the last line of the song and the students all join in with me to sing and sit. So much better than just TELLING them to sit! 

I know there are lots of other great ones out there- I'd love to hear your favorite welcome songs for Kindergarten/ early childhood in the comments below!

Tuesday, August 22, 2023

Teacher Hack: make a perfect floor circle

I've been asked more times than I can count how I lay out my carpet spots on the floor to make a perfect circle- I know many teachers do this so today I thought I'd share my quick and easy way to make a perfect circle on the floor every time!

All you need is a piece of string and a piece of tape. Figure out where you want the center of your circle to be, and how big you want the circle to be (this might take some initial experimentation if you're figuring out a new classroom to know how big of a circle you need to give each student enough space to sit without running into the wall). Cut a piece of string the length of the circle's radius (from the center of the circle out to the edge), and tape the end of the string in the center of the circle. I actually have some extra floor spots I will never use because they are a color I don't need- the set I bought just happened to come them- so I taped the string to one of my extra floor spots and keep it that way so I can reuse each year (and it's easier to play around with where my center should be).

Now all you have to do is take the string and use it to measure out to where each spot should go! I always start with 4 spots in a box to divide the circle into quadrants, then do the spots halfway between each of those, to get the spacing between each spot even.

I know it's a little hard to see the string in the photos... here is a video explaining the process (don't mind my out of breath talking.... I was setting up my classroom with no A/C.... what else is new?!?). 

This is a simple trick but I hope this helps someone else's classroom setup a little easier! Stay tuned for a full tour of this year's classroom, I'm excited to show you!

Tuesday, August 15, 2023

Choosing Classroom Decor

It can be hard, especially when you're starting your first year of teaching or moving into a new position, to figure out where to start with decorating your classroom. It's impossible to get a classroom from "bare bones" to "ready for instagram" in one swoop! We want our classrooms to be inviting, and for the visuals to be meaningful learning tools. We want the space to be a place we enjoy, but also be kid-friendly. There's a lot to think about! After setting up many different elementary music rooms in my 17 years of teaching, here's what I think is most important to consider when choosing classroom decor.

1. Pick a widely-available color palette

If you want everything to look "put together", the easiest way to do that is to pick a color palette and stick to it for all of the basics. If you want to be able to pick up things here and there and add to your visuals, storage bins, etc over time, the most practical thing to do is to pick colors that are commonly available for those items. I use basic rainbow colors for this reason, but black and white with some bright accents also works, pastel rainbow can work, or pick a few basic colors like blue and green. You won't have to stress about a specific line of items going out of stock and feel pressured to spend a bunch of your own money buying all the things at once if you have a color scheme that's easy to match.

One additional consideration for elementary music: I love that my color scheme also matches my color-coded instruments, like the boomwhackers®, handbells, and glockenspiels with colored bars. If you're thinking of putting instruments in open storage or on the wall, that's another reason to consider going with the basic rainbow colors.  

2. Use supplies as visual elements

If you notice from my pictures, the posters really just add to the main visual elements which are the instruments and the storage bins- practical supplies we are all using and need to have in the room anyway! As I mentioned already, using a color scheme that matches those basic items you already have, or will be using, can make it much easier to make a room feel put together and organized. By putting the instruments and student supplies out where everyone can see, it not only makes it easier for students to access everything independently, but it also means the instruments (and other supplies) become part of the "decor"! 

3. Get the basics

When I start in a new classroom I have a few priority items that I make sure to have in terms of visuals:
-solfege hand sign posters
-management visuals (keyboard keys, classroom jobs, rules)
-recorder fingering charts
-ukulele chord charts

Those are all things that I want to have up in the room at all times, that make teaching a lot easier and more effective. They are things that I want students to be able to reference any time, so they are a high priority to have up on my walls first.

I also always set aside a section of the wall to be my "wall of fame". Any time a student gives me a picture or card, I ask them if I can add it to the wall of fame- sometimes they want to keep it private, but most of them are eager to have it displayed. It shows them that I love what they gave me, and it reminds me of why I do what I do every day. I also hang all our concert programs there as well to show the pride I have in what they have done.

4. Add some character

My classroom is covered in minions® and has been for years. I often get asked, by students and by other teachers online, what my connection is to the characters- the answer is nothing. I don't have any sort of personal connection to them. But whenever my students ask me why I love minions® so much, I tell them why: they are always messing up but they never stop trying, they work together, they support their friends, and they are completely comfortable being "weird". That's exactly how I want everyone to be in my classes! And that's the actual reason I started using them in my classroom. Thinking through what students can connect with, that also shows a little quirkiness and character, is a good way to make a classroom more inviting for students. And if you can send a message about what is accepted and encouraged at the same time, even better. 

The nice thing about starting with a basic color scheme is it's easy to add a few things with a more specific theme/ character that will go with the all the basics, and they can easily be changed out. This is where I think it can be fun to do a theme you change out more frequently, like some teachers do with their decor every year, to keep things fresh without having to re-do the entire room every year! 

5. Other good visuals to add

Beyond the basics, the other things I love having up in my classroom are:
-grade level expectations
-positive sayings/ quotes
-instrument posters
-anchor charts of musical elements

These are all things that I reference in my teaching, and that my students reference as well, but I can get by without them by projecting them on the board etc when I'm just getting started.

To put all of the thoughts above in context, here's a quick tour around my classroom from last year:

If you want to get printable files of the posters I use, which are all in those basic rainbow colors, you can get the full set here (or there are links to specific portions of the full set). I love that they coordinate with everything, but I also love that everything is purposeful. 

Obviously the minion® items are trademarked and I either make or buy them from various places, but if you are looking for ways to add some "character" with different themes, there are tons to choose from on TeachersPayTeachers- I love the ones from Music In the Meadow. They have everything from ocean to jungle, fairies to monsters, and it would be easy to pick out a couple of elements to add to a basic color scheme to change things up and add some character.

I hope this helps narrow your focus, think about the purpose behind the aesthetics, and make it easier to prioritize as you make your classroom a fun, inviting space that supports student learning! 

Tuesday, August 8, 2023

Empowering Students to Feel Successful in Elementary Music

I've been writing over the last few weeks about the core need I see students having for a greater sense of agency, and how we can foster agency for our students in the elementary music room. In my previous article I shared my top ways to foster student ownership in elementary music. Giving students a sense of agency is obviously a complex, multifaceted issue with no one clear solution, but ownership of the space, the supplies, and of their learning is a big part of that. Another key component I see is feeling successful. Today I'm sharing my top strategies for giving students the belief that they are and can continue to be successful in my elementary music classroom.

It's the irony of elementary education especially: success breeds more success. If students feel like they can't do something, they won't be motivated to try harder to learn how. The more students experience being successful, the more they believe in themselves and want to learn more to continue to be successful. And giving students a belief in their ability to succeed is critical to ownership as well- we can give students the opportunity to take ownership all we want but if they feel like a failure they won't want to. Which leads us back to a lack of a sense of agency, no matter how much ownership we try to give them. So finding ways to make students be successful, no matter how little they know or can do in the beginning, is critical to student learning.

1. warmups/ hand signals

The biggest key I've found to fostering a feeling of success is building "easy wins" into how I run my classroom. I have mentioned a few times already how powerful my student-led warmups have been for fostering agency and ownership, but they are also a great way to start class with something in which students can immediately be successful so they all start off feeling like they are doing well. 

I learned early on that easier is better than harder, simpler is better than complex, when it comes to these warmups. I used to try to push it a little with notation reading practice etc on things they had just learned, but now I use activities that I know most of them are already comfortable with. It's still valuable learning time, but I'm using it to maintain concepts that need frequent review rather than working on something new, as well as more foundational, fun things like moving with the beat of music from a variety of genres.

I use hand signals to cue students to stand up/ sit down/ sit up (read about my hand signals here- highly recommend). It's mostly a way to save me from repeating directions but I also use it when I feel a class starting to fall apart. I just stop what we're doing and do the signal for the opposite of whatever position they were just in, and keep switching signals until everyone is doing it.

It serves as an attention-getter, because I have established that they are supposed to move silently and it requires everyone to look at me to follow, but it also gets them to all work together to do something right, however inconsequential the task of sitting/ standing may seem. Sometimes I make a comment (especially with the younger ones) like, "Oh OK good, I knew we were still awesome", most of the time I just give them a letter (see next section) and move on. But it works almost every time!

2. whole class systems

One of the reasons I continue to believe in some type of concrete system of whole class "behavior management" is because I need an easy way to acknowledge their success in a way that concretely reinforces it for them without disrupting the flow of the lesson. You can read the full details of what I do in this post but the key to any type of system is having a way to recognize incremental success, and for classes to "recover" when they get off-track.

I use a system of letters where each class starts off with the word "MUSIC" and I add or remove letters based on how the class is doing. The great thing about this system is it happens in real time, it's completely nonverbal, and classes can quickly "earn back" what they lose. In the scenario I mentioned before where a class is falling apart, I silently take off a letter while holding up the hand signal, then stand there holding the letter in my hand. When the class can all stand up/ sit down, I put it back. It's not punitive, it's a concrete way of holding kids accountable and showing kids there is always an opportunity to try again.

At the end of class, the number of letters they have translates to them moving up a certain number of keys on the piano (read the post linked above for a detailed explanation). Again, I try to make sure they are always moving forward and making progress, no matter how small, and I also make sure the first goal is attained as quickly as possible- I have classes go up the black keys first, then white, then all of them chromatically so that they get that feeling of success more quickly. Once they have that success they are more motivated to work a little harder and a little longer for the next one, and so on. 

3. happy notes

The final key component in giving each and every student the experience of being successful is through happy notes. I give one happy note at the end of every class period, but as I explain to my students, it's not like the "star student" system I often hear about other teachers doing where I'm picking "the best" student of the day. I keep track of the date I give each student a happy note on my seating chart and I rotate through the entire class, making sure every student gets an individual, specific compliment from me. Every student needs to know that they are doing something right, even (and especially) while I'm holding them accountable for the things they need to improve. Sometimes, especially in the older grades, I will give a happy note to a student who had a tough day and they will all, including the one I gave it to, protest my choice. But I reiterate the specific compliment (which I say out loud) that I gave them, whether it was playing a specific instrument well, or being brave and trying something new, and ask them if it's a fair statement and they agree. It really helps reframe everyone's perspective of what it means to be successful, and it can have a dramatic impact on students' self-perception of whether or not they are "good at music" or "a music person". 

I've recently added all of the materials and visuals I use for all of the systems mentioned in this post to this "rules and procedures" poster set download if you're hoping to implement any of them in your own classroom. I hope this helps give someone else some food for thought, and I would love to hear your own thoughts and ideas on this in the comments!

Monday, August 7, 2023

Bathroom Makeover

Our downstairs powder room was super boring and inconvenient- completely covered in flat white paint, with nothing but a toilet, sink, and chipped mirror- nowhere to put anything, not even a toilet paper holder. I'm so happy with the changes we made with very little time and money- it is certainly overflowing with personality and has so much more storage now!

This post contains affiliate links

Here's a quick video tour of the space before and after (don't mind the terrible "before" video at the beginning- per usual I was a bad blogger and forgot to take before pictures or video so I had to use what I had):

The first thing, of course, was to give the walls some color. When I saw this removable peel and stick wall paper I knew this was the place to use it- it's a very bold pattern I wouldn't use on a huge wall but for this tiny bathroom it is perfect! And the colors coordinate with the wall color of the dining room/ kitchen that leads to this powder room, so it all flows together really nicely. Plus I already had a few pink bathroom items, like the little corner trashcan and toilet brush, a vase, and some artificial flowers from our the powder room in our old place that had a lot of pink in the wallpaper, so it would fit with those as well! I picked out the light blue color for the rest of the room to match the wallpaper as well, and I love how it all came together. The wallpaper was exactly as hard as I thought it would be- the first piece was a little frustrating to figure out how to put up, but once I did it once the rest was pretty easy.

Next up was getting some storage in there to make the space more usable- not having a toilet paper holder on the wall got really old really fast! I moved the small shelf in from my daughters' old bedroom and used that to hold extra toilet paper, some scented candles, cleaning supplies (in a pink bin at the bottom) and some decorative items that I already had from our old bathroom. Because the room is relatively small I knew I wanted a wall-mounted toilet paper holder that could also store some extra toiletries for guests- this one I got has been perfect and it was pretty easy to assemble and hang!

I was prepared to keep the old mirror, honestly out of laziness more than anything else, but my mom (who helped us paint the walls) talked me into getting something a little more updated, especially since it was getting corroded at the bottom. I tried to look at a couple of hardware stores to pick one up but couldn't find exactly what I needed in stock so I ended up getting this one from Amazon- it arrived in perfect condition and I definitely like the oval shape better than the old rectangular one. This room also desperately needed towel holders! This one that I got has 2 bars but is still pretty compact which is great for this small room.

The pink towels we found at IKEA- I actually took a small piece of the wallpaper to the store so I could make sure the colors matched! And we ended up finding these small artificial potted plants in a set of 3 similar to these on clearance- one of my daughters had first picked them out for her bedroom, but when I saw the price we got a few more and put some in the bathroom too! They're small but I think they make the space feel so much more fancy- my daughters said it looks like a fancy hotel bathroom now :)

The moral of the story is, if you like the idea of a bold pattern or color scheme but you're scared to do it in your house or worried that the next people won't like it... Do it. I smile every time I walk past our bathroom now, and we will definitely be enjoying it for a long time even if we eventually decide to change it for one reason or another.

Tuesday, August 1, 2023

3 Ways to Foster Student Ownership

There is a lot that's broken in education right now, and I have been reflecting all summer- actually, since the spring- on what it is that we need most to start to move forward. The word I keep coming back to is agency, and I really believe that, as we come out of the pandemic, agency is what both students and teachers need. But what does that really mean, and how do we make that happen? Ownership in the classroom is one of the biggest keys to fostering agency for students- today I'm sharing 3 ways I encourage students to have a sense of ownership in my elementary music classroom. 

Agency is a bit difficult to define, but here is one definition I found helpful:

"The sense of agency refers to the subjective feeling of controlling one's own actions, and through them, external events." (source)

So agency is control. Giving elementary students a sense of control can be challenging, especially when we know kids need structure and boundaries to learn what is and is not appropriate, and even more so when we have so little class time in elementary music that we have to maintain a fast pace to make sure we get through everything we want our students to learn! In fact maintaining "control" of the classroom is the number one goal most teachers are striving for when behaviors are OUT of control, right? 

What students need to have a greater sense of control is ownership. They need to feel that they are involved in what's happening rather than just doing what they're told, or having things happen to them. Yes, the teacher needs to ultimately be "in control", but students need to have a say in what's happening. Here are 3 concrete ways I foster a sense of ownership in my elementary music classroom.

1. student jobs

The single biggest change I made in my classroom almost a decade ago now to give students more ownership in my classroom was giving them all jobs. Every single student has a job in my class at all times, and everyone takes turns doing each of the student jobs at some point during the school year. Even just knowing that they have a job immediately gives students a sense of ownership, but when they have the opportunity to control a task, and they see their peers doing so, on a constant basis throughout the year, that has the biggest impact on ownership and responsibility- ultimately leading to a greater sense of agency.

The basic structure for my jobs is I have 6 general jobs that can be shared by a small group of students. I split my classes up into 6 color teams (read more about that here) based on their seating arrangement (which stays permanent throughout the year, partially for this reason). Each team is assigned a job that they keep for 30 school days (dividing the school year into 6) and then they rotate.

I have gone through a few iterations with different jobs over the years, but the ones I have landed on that I find work best are:

  • Supplies (handing things out)
  • Clean up (collecting/ putting things away)
  • Warmup leader (more on that below)
  • Line leader (they go to the door first at the end of class)
  • Compliment (each student gives a specific compliment to a classmate at the end of class)
  • Teacher helper (the catch-all for things like turning off the lights, running errands, etc)

It may not seem like a big deal, but even having students be the ones to hand out pencils to the class when they need it, or be the ones to lead the line to the door, gives students the sense that they are involved in leading, guiding, and controlling what's happening. They are involved in all of the processes, day in and day out. That is powerful. 

It can test your patience as a teacher in the beginning because in some ways it would be so much easier and faster to just do it yourself, but like everything else with teaching if you put in the initial time and energy to teach them how to do it themselves, not only will it give students a sense of ownership but it will genuinely make the classroom run more smoothly and speed up the process (especially over time as the younger students get older and have done the jobs for a few years).

2. warmups

Out of all the student jobs in my classroom, I think the most powerful one for fostering agency and ownership (among other things) is the job of warmup leader. A few years ago I started a new procedure for the beginning of class, having a sort of student-led "do now" activity at the beginning of every lesson. These are very simple activities and I have just a handful of warmups that I cycle through during the year, but they immediately require students to control what happens, to lead the class in an activity, to physically be at the front of the room- that has been huge.

You can read more about how I run them and the full list of warmups I use in this post, but honestly over the years I have really narrowed my list of commonly-used warmups down to a few categories:

  • mirroring steady beat movement 
  • echoing body percussion rhythm patterns
  • identifying music symbols/ notes on the staff/ note values
There are a multitude of benefits to these student-led warmups both from a student learning and from a management perspective, but it definitely is one of the most effective, concrete ways to show students they are "in control" from the moment they walk into my classroom, and that really sets the tone for the rest of the lesson.

3. accessible supplies/ instruments

It really makes me cringe every time I hear music teachers say they "had to" put away their instruments, hide their pencils, etc because the students "weren't being responsible enough". Sometimes teachers will stop allowing students to use these things entirely, and sometimes they will hide them so they can't touch them or use them independently. How are students ever going to learn to be responsible with the instruments and supplies if they are never given the opportunity to practice?

As with everything else, teaching students to take responsibility for something requires a lot of patience, and yes, sometimes things will get lost or broken in the learning process. But just like parents talk about the importance of letting our kids fall sometimes to learn how to be safe, students will learn how to treat things responsibly by trying, and sometimes failing. 

I think the key is to make the smaller "failures" with supplies both acceptable and understood to be part of the learning process, and also definitely a failure that needs to be learned from. I teach students the expectation that every pencil should be put back facing eraser side up in the corresponding color team's cup in the corresponding color team's supply caddy. If a blue pencil ends up in the orange cup, I don't berate them, but I do correct them. If I set the bar high for the "line" I draw for what is acceptable, and I put in the time and energy to empower them be successful in reaching that bar, I am not only teaching them how to be responsible but I am significantly reducing the chance that when a student "fails" to do something correctly it ends up being something truly damaging, like breaking the pencil or letting it fall between the bars of a xylophone. 

Making instruments and supplies accessible is more than just putting them within the reach of the students, although that is a big part of it! I use open shelving, rolling carts, and caddies to put everything students use regularly visible and within their reach. But what I've learned is even more important is to make sure the way things are stored is easy for students to understand and maintain. Color coding supplies like pencils, erasers, and clipboards makes it easier for students to distribute those things and put them back (and make sure they're all accounted for). Labeling shelves with the names of instruments makes it easier for students to find what they are supposed to get and put things back where they belong. It's important to make it as easy as possible for students, no matter their age or their height, to be able to safely and quickly get, use, and put away everything.

There is so much more I could continue to say about each of these 3 points, more ways to foster ownership, and certainly more facets to fostering agency besides ownership- more thoughts to come! But I would love to hear your questions and thoughts on this in the comments. 

Monday, July 31, 2023

3 Fridge Organization Items

We're continuing the home organization projects with the fridge today- no, there are no clear stacking bins to color coordinate your produce like all the beautiful fridges I see on social media these days, but I do have a few super practical, inexpensive items I've added to my fridge that have made it so much easier for me to keep everything accessible and easy to find in my refrigerator! 

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1. Turntables

I saw these at IKEA and got so excited- rectangular lazy susans! Why didn't we think of this sooner?!? I've seen people use regular round lazy susans in their fridge to make it easier to reach and see things, but I never liked the way it wasted space in the corners- it's truly a round peg, square hole. But these have the same functionality of regular lazy susans with the added benefit of fitting the rectangular fridge shelves, leaving no empty corners. I know IKEA changes out their items pretty often, so if you can't find them there this one seems to be similar.

2. Hanging Drawers

Not only do these function as, essentially, an additional shelf, but because they are drawers they are perfect for the kinds of things that would normally roll around on a shelf. I usually keep a few rolls in a can on hand, and these drawers fit those perfectly. 

3. Egg Storage

OK this is probably the one thing on this list that is not entirely necessary, but I actually love it for multiple reasons:

  • I can easily grab the eggs I need without having to take out the entire carton
  • I can easily see how many eggs I have left without having to take out the entire carton to check every time I'm making my grocery list
  • It freed up shelf space

Here's a video to show you how each of them works:

They're nothing earth-shattering but they really have made my fridge so much more organized! If you want to see other organization tips and items for the rest of the kitchen, be sure to check out this post:

What do you use to organize your fridge? Let me know in the comments!

Tuesday, July 25, 2023

The #1 Thing We All Need This Year

Last school year was really hard in new ways I don't think any of us fully anticipated. And the years before that too. As I'm putting together my purchase orders and Amazon wish lists, reflecting on last school year and thinking ahead to next year, I have been thinking a lot about the main things my students need to be successful this year, and realizing the things they need are the same things my colleagues and I need as teachers as well. While there are a lot of things that play into it, there is one thing I keep coming back to that I think all of us- students and teachers- need most this year.

First of all yes, we still definitely need more funding- for supplies and for salaries- I'm not saying that we don't need the material things too! But truly solving the teacher shortage, the student behaviors, the mental health crisis... that will take more than anything money can buy. 


The number one word I have been reflecting on since the middle of last school year is agency. We all lost our sense of control over our own lives during the pandemic (which led to a lot of conflict over masking, vaccine mandates, etc) and we are all looking to regain some sense of control- of agency- over our situations. At the same time, students in particular experienced a different type of agency and control over their situation during distance learning. They could stay in their pajamas all day, eat and use the bathroom freely and, let's be honest, mute the teacher whenever they wanted. One of the advantages I saw in distance learning was the freedom for each student to say whatever they wanted whenever they wanted and be heard by the teacher. Whether it was on Zoom or asynchronous, students could type in the chat or comments without raising their hand, waiting for someone else to finish talking, or waiting for an opportune moment when the teacher found it convenient for them to speak. 

Similarly we as teachers have repeatedly joked about how nice it was to be able to mute students, but it's more than a joke- there were advantages to being able to finish my sentence without being interrupted, but still allow students to ask questions in the chat and be able to address them without stopping the flow of the lesson, and have students be able to say things to me without distracting the other students.

Last year I sensed a lot of pushback from students and adults looking for more agency. A lot of conflicts in the classroom and disruptive behaviors stemmed from students who weren't getting to do what they wanted when they wanted, who didn't want to be told what to do, who just wanted to have more snacks. And a huge part of the frustrations for teachers centered around not being able to teach because of the student behaviors disrupting the lesson, feeling powerless to properly hold students accountable for their behavior, being severely restricted in what books we are allowed to have in our rooms and what we can and cannot say because of politics. Teachers are leaving because they have lost their sense of agency.

There is a whole treatise of things to be said on this topic, and I am planning to flesh this out more in the future with concrete thoughts on how we can foster agency (and other things that contribute to a sense of agency) for students and for adults. And obviously the struggles we are facing are multifaceted- there are other major factors besides agency, I'm definitely not saying this is the one key to solving all of our problems, just that it is one of the central ones. But I needed to put this thought out into the world and would love to hear your thoughts on this- I really believe that if we are going to find our way through this, we need to find ways to foster agency for everyone. Please share your reactions, thoughts, and ideas in the comments below.

Monday, July 24, 2023

Visual Calendar for Preteens

I never thought I would still be using a visual calendar for my daughters when they were this age, but they're now 11 and we're still going strong! Between extracurriculars, parenting schedules of when they're with me or with their dad, and their class rotations at school, there's a lot to keep track of for each of them, and I want them to take part in keeping track of those things for themselves rather than me tracking it for them on a family calendar. I recently updated their magnetic visual calendar to be more tailored to the needs and tastes of my budding preteens- here's what it looks like now (and how we're using it)!

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I completely started over from scratch with their new visual calendar and now it is so much more geared to their needs and tastes! 

  • Changed the scrapbook paper to match their current style/ taste
  • Gave them each their own space for daily schedules
  • Updated the magnets to be more sophisticated
  • Added a space for self-expression

If you aren't familiar, I made a DIY magnetic visual calendar for my daughters 9 years ago (!!) when they were 2 years old. I used an oil drip pan as the "board", used scrapbook paper and stickers to mark off the different sections, and made magnets using these adhesive magnet sheets. In addition to their weekly calendar, I also had a chore chart for them- here's what it first looked like (click on the photo to see the original blog post where I explain in more detail):

When the girls were a little older and starting preschool, I adjusted the chore chart so they each kept track of their own chores they had done, and added a monthly calendar at the bottom (click on the photo for the blog post):

When they started Kindergarten I added magnets for their school classes, swapped their chore chart for dry erase checklists to keep track of homework etc, and added a spot to keep school papers and flyers:

The board pretty much stayed the same after that- I changed some of the magnets for new extracurriculars, but that was about it. It was definitely time for an upgrade! I decided it was time to start over completely- I took off all of the old scrapbook paper and stickers that marked the days, and the checklist papers, and decided to rethink the entire board. 

I wasn't even sure the girls still needed a visual calendar at all, but when I asked them they said they still wanted to have one to keep track of their own schedules. But I did rearrange it so they now each have their own sides for their individual schedules, and I made it dry erase by adding single-sided laminating sheets on top of the paper, since they can read and write now. We picked out scrapbook paper that each of them liked too, to fit each of their styles.

The monthly calendar stayed the same- they still draw their own pictures to add to the top and write in the major upcoming dates on the calendar each month (highly recommend as it has become a super fun tradition to look back at them all around new year's- here's the blog post about our calendar). But I also knew I wanted to add a way to encourage self-expression, have another way for us to communicate when they're hesitant to talk, and also encourage positive self-image. One of my daughters in particular is really into writing and poetry, so I got some poetry magnets to add to the bottom as well:

The pink container at the bottom holds the extra magnets, and I added some dry erase markers there so my daughters can write down things on their schedules. The magnets got a major update as well! The old clipart I had picked out years ago was too childish so we looked at clipart together and decided to go with a watercolor theme for all of their icons. They picked out their own clipart for their activities, and they're now so much prettier!

We're all really happy with this update- it's much more grownup looking and it fits their growing needs perfectly! I am so glad we've been able to use this still, all these years later.