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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.