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Tuesday, October 31, 2023

3 Common Consequences Music Teachers Need to Stop

We need to be able to enforce boundaries and standards of behavior, but it can be hard to come up with consequences that we can use as elementary music teachers when our class times are so short and there are often several days between the times we see them. But there are some common practices I hear teachers recommending to others regularly that I think do more harm than good- here are my top 3 consequences I wish elementary music teachers would stop using, and what I do instead.

1. Give a class intentionally boring worksheets as a consequence for expressing or demonstrating negative attitudes towards regular lesson activities

As logical as it may sound to think that students will appreciate the fun and exciting lesson activities more if they experience what a boring lesson is like, if there is toxic, negative energy going around for whatever reason about your class, making it more boring is not going to help- it's going to make it worse. There is always a ringleader or two that is the root of the negative energy, even if it feels like the whole class is against you. Start by explaining at the end of the lesson that the negative energy is ruining the vibes and preventing the class from having fun and from learning- not every activity or class has to be their favorite, but everyone needs to do their best and have a positive attitude: "don't yuck someone else's yum". Tell them that starting next lesson, you are not going to allow anyone to ruin the positive energy.

If possible, make someone- the principal, the social worker, etc- aware of the situation and that you are trying to turn around the negative energy in a class. Warn them ahead of time that you may need backup during a particular class period while you handle the situation, and work out a plan, either for someone to push in or be prepared to take students, if you need it. I know sometimes teachers don't have adequate support staff or their administrator is unsupportive- in that case I would get a colleague on board who is willing to have a student or two come in their room. But I would encourage you to try to advocate for someone to be available to come in if needed- I've found administrators and support staff appreciate when you explain all the things you've already tried and that you are wanting to do this as a short-term strategy to keep everyone in class instead of having to throw them out or stop your lessons in the long run.

Once you've established that you expect everyone to keep negative energy to themselves, start the next lesson overflowing with positive energy, grinning as soon as you see them to show you're excited about having a good time that day. Don't plan anything different than what you normally would have, but be super excited about everything. Give positive reinforcement for all the students who are engaged, whether that's points or whatever other positive reward you have in place in your school or classroom (if you don't have one, start one and explain what it is to everyone!). As soon as the first person starts to make a negative comment/ face (even if it's right as they enter the room), try to quickly catch them and remind them to keep it positive. If they don't, ask them to sit away from the rest of the class and take their negative energy elsewhere and go back to having fun with the others. If they are still disrupting the lesson, offer to let them write down their negative thoughts instead of saying them out loud and spreading their negativity. If that doesn't work, put the backup plan into action: ideally I think it works best if there is someone that can be on call to come and sit with the negative student(s) while you proceed with the others, but if not, get them to leave the room, whether it's the principal's office, another classroom, or somewhere else. The goal is to turn the tide so that the majority of the class that was getting sucked into the negativity before, gets sucked into your positive energy instead. 

If you have to have a student (or several students) leave the room, it will be important to follow up with that student after class. Often they will be happy that they got to leave the class they were complaining about (which is why it's best to find a way for someone to come in if at all possible)! So there needs to be a consequence for that specific student, whether that's giving makeup work, calling/ writing home, or something else to make sure that student doesn't want this to keep happening. Having that positive reward for the students who were engaged will help here too, since obviously the ones who left will not get whatever the others did. It will get easier and easier to get those students to at least tone down their negativity to a manageable level once the attitude of the rest of the class is positive- it has never taken me more than 4 class periods of this to turn the class around.

2. Put away instruments and ban their use from the entire class because of chaotic behavior while using them or damaging an instrument(s)

If students don't know how to use instruments properly, giving them less opportunity to learn how is not going to help long-term. It's also never helpful to punish an entire class for something that most likely wasn't something everyone did. First of all, I have a strict rule in place of, "if you play before I say you'll make the instrument go away". I tell them every single time we get out instruments, and I also remind them often that I'm not here to judge if it was intentional or accidental- if you touch/ make sound with something when you're not supposed to, you will miss a turn with that instrument. The key is to make sure the time they lose the instrument is short and then they quickly get a chance to try again and do it right.

If as a group a class is too chaotic while using/ getting out instruments, slow it way down to whatever point you need to be able to monitor each student more closely. Sometimes that means only half the class plays at a time instead of everyone at once, having one student at a time go and get out their instrument while the rest of the class waits and watches and you narrate the correct way of doing it every step of the way, or having a few students designated to get out an instrument for others, etc. 

3. Having a class practice coming into class silently/ calmly over and over until they are all coming in the way you expect

I used to do this ALL THE TIME at the beginning of my career. Having students practice a behavior or procedure the right way when they do it wrong is obviously a good thing. But again, punishing an entire class for something that is probably not something everyone is doing is only going to make students feel frustrated and agitated, not calm and focused like you want them to be.

If the vast majority of a class comes into my room too rambunctiously, I will definitely stop and have them go back and try again. But 1) I only do it one time and I make sure to give positive reinforcement to the ones that do it right, and 2) I do not have them go back in the hallway- I have them line up as close to the door as possible but still inside my room, and then walk to their spots from there. I find going back in the hallway is counterproductive because I never know who else is going to walk by making noise and/or distracting my students, and usually sound carries a lot more in the hallway so every little noise is amplified. I keep them in my controlled environment to practice instead.

If it's just a few students, obviously I just ask those few students to do it again. If the class has practiced once there will only be a few students, if any, who still aren't doing it right- in that case I will have those few students try it again by themselves. But again, only once- after that it just turns into a power struggle and it's not effective. If I still have students who are running/ talking loudly etc after that, I tell them we will practice another time and move on. I talk to the homeroom teachers and/or principal and figure out a time when I can take them by themselves and practice walking appropriately (some years I've been lucky enough to be available to do it during their recess, other times I take them first thing in the morning when everyone else has circle time, or immediately after class).

As a sidenote, one thing that has helped tremendously with this problem specifically is I've stopped needing my students to walk in silently. Yes, they should not be yelling, running, or touching other people or things, but the thing that has helped me get everyone focused right away without requiring them to be silent is to immediately start student-led warmups. It took away so many power struggles to start class this way! Check out this post on how I do that, and this post for a whole bunch of activity ideas for warmups.

I know this may ruffle some feathers but I hope this gives teachers some new ideas to try that will help turn the tide in a positive direction! I would love to hear your thoughts on these common consequences, and any other strategies you have used effectively in these situations, in the comments below. 

Tuesday, October 24, 2023

Elementary Music Lesson Warmup Activities

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, and over the last few weeks I've been sharing my favorite activities for lesson warmups in my K-6 general music classes (26 in all!) that focus on important musical skills and concepts. In this post I've compiled all of my posts on how I set up and manage the student-led warmups in general, all of the different activity ideas, and the visuals I use to run them.

First of all, my warmup activities start as soon as students start coming into the room- it's more like a "do now" where I don't wait for the class to all be seated before I start. Once I get it going, I hand it off to the small group of students assigned to lead warmups (the job rotates throughout the year) and they take over, giving me time to finish setting up, pull aside a student who needs a checkin, etc while the others are engaged in the activity. Here's the full post on how I run my warmups:

Besides the benefits from a management perspective, I've found the warmups very helpful for student learning because it gives me an easy way to quickly touch on those skills and concepts that need regular "drilling" for students to attain and maintain fluency, especially steady beat, rhythm, pitch, reading notation, and music vocabulary. In each of the posts below you'll find 4 or 5 different activities I use with different grades to practice these fundamental skills and concepts in quick and easy (and fun!) ways:



All of these can truly be done without any special slides or equipment, but I got several request to share the slides I use- for those who want something ready-made at your fingertips to implement all of the different warmups mentioned above, here they are:

If you haven't tried using warmup activities at the beginning of your elementary music classes, I highly recommend trying them out! It took me a long time to be convinced I should do it, but I have been hooked ever since I started. If you have more ideas for activities, or questions about anything, please leave a comment below.

Tuesday, October 17, 2023

Lesson Warmups to Practice Listening / Responding

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 listening to and responding to music.

In this post I'm focusing on warmups that help students practice listening to and responding to music in different ways. Most of my warmups are focused on practicing/ reviewing a basic skill or concept I want my students to practice regularly. Including these warmups gives me a chance to introduce students to musical genres, artists, and styles I may not be able to incorporate into my lessons as often, and gives students a chance to practice and review music vocabulary.

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. The idea is to keep it quick, easy, and low-pressure so everyone can be successful right from the beginning of the lesson.

1. Pick a song

I have a few slides premade with lots of tracks embedded in them, grouped in different ways- sometimes I intentionally have a wide range of all different tracks, and sometimes I have tracks that all represent one specific musical element, genre, or theme. Student leaders pick a track, we listen to a snippet of the track, and then I ask the class a question about it: identifying a musical element, asking them what characteristics of the focus genre they hear, etc.

2. Pick a question

This warm-up is similar to the previous one but in reverse. I have a song (usually a video recording of a performance) picked out, and each warmup leader chooses one element that the class will identify in the song (dynamics / tempo / timbres / mood / genre / etc). 

3. Be the DJ

For this one, rather than the class describing the music, the class responds to the music with movement. Each warmup leader chooses a track and the class "shows the music" with movement. This is when I tend to pull out the biggest variety of tracks for leaders to choose from so that it's easier for them to differentiate their movements.

4. Pick a prompt

This warmup gets students to use and think about musical vocabulary while also building conversational skills through circle discussion. I give the warmup leaders a category (instruments, musical genres, etc) and each leader chooses 2 things from that category. We go around the circle passing a talking piece (whoever is holding it is the only one that can talk) and each person chooses which one they would pick out of those two choices (like "trumpet or clarinet" or "hip-hop or K-pop").

5. Movement mirror

This warmup is similar to the steady beat warmups I shared in a previous post except the movements are slow and fluid and have no beat. I turn on some soft, ambient music (like you would hear in a spa) and have each leader take turns doing slow movements at the front of the room while the class mirrors their movements. The goal is for the leader to move slowly enough for the class to mirror their movements without having to wait to see it first.

There are so many fun ways to put students in charge and practice listening and responding to music, and they are so much fun! These only take about 3 minutes at the beginning of class and they are so easy. You can find my post on warmup activities for steady beat in here, my post on activities for rhythm here, my post on activities for solfege/ pitch here, and my post on activities for pitch letter names here. If you have any questions or more ideas please leave them in the comments!

Tuesday, October 10, 2023

Lesson Warmups to Practice Solfege/ Pitch

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 solfege and pitch concepts.

In this post I'm focusing on general pitch concepts and solfege practice, not note letter names. If you want ideas for practicing treble and bass clef (or any clef, really) letter names, I've already written a post on that hereMost of my warmups are focused on practicing/ reviewing a basic skill or concept I want my students to practice regularly. Solfege has always been one of the areas my students have struggled with the most, so it's an important one for them to review often.

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. The idea is to keep it quick, easy, and low-pressure so everyone can be successful right from the beginning of the lesson.

1. Draw the line

There are several easy ways to get students to do some quick vocal exploration- for this one, I have the warmup leaders each take a turn drawing a line on a whiteboard, and then the class sings the line as I (or the student leader) point. It's a great way to get kids connecting abstract visuals with music, and picturing melodic lines in a way that eventually can translate to the staff.

2. Show the line

The second vocal exploration warmup is similar to the first but instead of actually drawing a line with a marker, the leader "draws" the line in the air with their finger for the class to follow.

3. Solfege pointer

I've experimented with lots of different ways to make it easy for students to lead solfege warmups and this one is by far the most successful: I have noteheads showing each of the solfege notes they know on the staff (color coded like our classroom instruments to help differentiate) on the board. The leader points to different notes and the class sings the note while doing the hand sign.

4. Solfege pattern selection

For this warmup, I put several short solfege patterns on the board and number them. Each warmup leader chooses a pattern for the class to sing on solfege with hand signs. Sometimes I write the names of the notes (like "mi sol la"), sometimes I draw noteheads on the staff, and sometimes I just draw noteheads with the color coding and note names underneath, depending on what they've been doing in class. It's a great way to get the class sight-reading at a basic level without being too intimidating.

5. Solfege composition

I only use this one with my older students, 4th-6th grade, because it puts a lot more pressure on the warmup leaders: I have a "bank" of solfege notes at the bottom of the screen, showing where they go on the staff, and each leader takes turns notating a short pattern using those notes for the class to sing. 

There are so many fun ways to put students in charge and practice solfege and pitch! 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, my post on activities for rhythm 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, October 3, 2023

3 Ways to Foster Teacher Agency

I've been thinking and writing a lot lately about fostering agency in our schools- I think in this phase of post-pandemic that we're in right now, it's the #1 thing that people need, and finding ways to foster it will help address a lot of the biggest crises we're facing in education today. I've been focusing on ways teachers can foster agency for our students first, but today I want to talk about ways school systems and administrators can foster agency for teachers. 

First I think it's important for me to explain my positionality in this conversation- I am on a full-time teacher contract but I am also what my district calls a department chair. That means 40% of my work load is administrative. I teach 60% of a normal full time teaching load. So I have my feet in both spaces, I have, I think, pretty good insight into both perspectives, and I certainly am on both "teams"- I am not here to villainize one side or another. 

I've been writing about agency over a series of posts (links to those at the end of this post for more in-depth discussion of the overall issue), but I think this definition is worth re-sharing:

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

So agency is control. And I think one of the biggest reasons for the teacher shortage- one of the biggest problems we're facing in education today- is the loss of autonomy, or sense of control teachers feel they have over what happens in their classrooms. Teachers feel like they can't teach the way they want because the volatile behaviors they see in their classes prevents them from doing so. They feel constrained by the ever-present fear that something they do or say could be taken out of context and get them fired and/or publicly shamed. They feel misunderstood and mistrusted by society because the "bad apples" in the profession who do in fact do or say shameful things are the ones that are constantly in the news. They're forbidden from using the materials they want or bringing up the topics they want students to discuss and consider because of misguided and oppressive laws and bans. Just like we have a responsibility to foster agency for our students, we also have a responsibility to foster agency for teachers.

And just like the conversation around student agency, the topic of fostering teacher agency is obviously complex, multi-faceted, and not something I (or anyone else) have a complete answer for. But here are some things I believe school systems, policy makers, and school administrators can do this year- within the confines of the systemic issues that exist- to foster teacher agency.  

1. Hold teachers accountable for the end result, not the process

One of the best ways to foster teacher agency is to hold teachers accountable for the end result but be open to teachers having different ways to get there. Instead of "everyone must use this lesson activity to introduce fractions", let's try "we want all students to understand fractions at this specific level/ meet this criteria on this rubric by this time- here are a few tested and proven lesson plans that are effective for helping students learn this effectively, let us know if you have another idea that you think is equally effective and we'll talk". 

There are definitely areas where we want common language to ensure the most effective implementation, or common experiences we want to ensure all students have across the school or district, and we most definitely want to ensure all students have the best opportunity to be successful. But that doesn't always mean there is one most effective way to do something that will be the best way for every teacher, every student, every classroom situation (actually it rarely does). 

2. Create opportunities for discovery

In my experience the best way to get teacher buy-in on a new strategy, program, etc is to provide ways for them to experience / see it working (and maybe discover other strategies, programs etc that get to the same goal... going back to my first point). Give teachers time to go watch other teachers teach, talk to each other to get ideas of what's working and ask questions to figure out why something might be working for other teachers and not for them. Give teachers the tools and materials, and give them the opportunity to learn how to use them effectively from other teachers who are doing it well. 

This also goes back to my first point in the sense that teachers are more likely to buy into an effective strategy or program if they discover that it's better than what they're current doing (or not doing) on their own. That can come from seeing another teacher using it and seeing the results, or it can come from a conversation asking teachers questions that encourage them to reflect on whether what they are doing is getting those end results we want. School leaders can walk teachers through the thought process that leads them to discover new ideas, or how to effectively use them, or question what they are doing in ways that hadn't occurred to them before.

3. Maintain advisory groups

It is understandably difficult to find good ways to have teachers be meaningfully involved in policy decision-making processes, curriculum assessment, and other processes that teachers need to feel they have more say in to create a sense of agency in the workings of the school and district, because teachers are tired and overworked, and it's simultaneously very difficult to get teacher coverage. But it's important to find ways to have teachers involved in important conversations! The truth is most of the people in administration, boards of education, and other school leadership right now did not teach during the pandemic. As much as good leaders will listen and seek to understand, they will never be able to completely take on that perspective, and that perspective of pandemic teaching is a lens through which all school decisions must be viewed to be effective in today's classrooms.

Rather than pulling teachers out of the classroom to meet during the school day, or inviting teachers to attend meetings or do other work outside of contractual time and hoping they will give up personal time because they care, my best suggestion is to "flip" staff meetings the way we've all heard people talking about "flipping the classroom". Put all the announcements, information, and materials in an email, cloud storage, etc and use staff meeting time to get teachers involved in focus group conversations. 

I could write an entire sermon about each of these points, but I'll save those for future posts another time. For now I'll put the question to everyone reading this: what are your suggestions for fostering teacher agency? I'd love to hear your answers in the comments. And if you're just tuning into this discussion of agency, here is my introductory post on the need for agency for both students and teachers, my post on fostering student ownership, and my post on empowering students.