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Tuesday, March 26, 2024

Teaching Major and Minor

To be honest I was shocked to realize recently that I've never written a blog post on my favorite ways to teach major and minor- I love teaching tonality in my upper elementary grades! It's so much fun when they finally start to get it. They always seem to feel like they've unlocked the mysteries of the universe! Here are a few of my favorite ways to teach the difference between major and minor.

1. Demonstrate familiar songs in both tonalities

I think the easiest way to demonstrate the difference between major and minor is to take a song students already know that is originally major and show them what it would sound like in a minor key. When I'm first introducing the concept I'll play a few different major and minor chords and scales on the piano for them to get the basic idea, then I play something simple like "Twinkle Twinkle" in the original major key and then change it to minor (added bonus= students always think I'm a genius when I whip this out). I also use youtube videos that do this exact thing: I love showing the original "What a Wonderful World" and then this minor version by Chase Holfelder, and this compilation of major songs turned minor AND minor songs turned major by The Gregory Brothers (note: I don't show this whole video- some of the songs included in the compilation I'm not comfortable showing in 4th/5th grade- but it's perfect to show an excerpt). These videos are also a good opportunity to tease out what else besides the tonality they've changed to make them sound happy or sad.

2. Sing and play 2 similar songs

One of my favorite ways to really get students to experience the difference between major and minor, once they've got the basic idea, is to have them sing and play instrumental accompaniment with 2 songs- one major and one minor- with a similar theme. For example when I do this in the fall with 5th grade, we compare the song "Down, Down, Yellow and Brown" and "Autumn Leaves Are Falling". They're both actually songs meant to be done with much younger children, but that makes them perfect to learn both very quickly, and add accompaniment parts on barred instruments really easily, in one lesson to compare and contrast the two. I've done this other times of year with other themes, but the key is to pick really simple songs that can be learned quickly to get to the concept of tonality.

3. Listening examples

Obviously there's no substitute for listening to lots of different examples of major and minor tonalities. I actually like to take current songs students are familiar with from social media or the radio, but there are also really great collections on youtube like this one that I've used in sub lessons because it will play several in a row and give the answer after each one. Either way, I really try to find examples of minor songs that are fast and major songs that are slow, minor songs that have high notes and major songs that have low notes to try to throw them off and also get them to really focus in on the tonality and not just the immediate impression of happy vs sad. One great example is "Someone Like You" by Adele- most people will confidently say that song is minor but it's actually major! They don't believe me until I show them this minor version, then they hear the contrast. It always leads to really great conversations about why a composer would choose a major key for a song with those lyrics. "Panini" by Lil Nas X is a great example of a song everyone thinks is major but is actually minor.

These are all activities that I include in lessons starting in the middle of 4th grade into 5th grade, when we start getting into composing melodies in minor, and we continue to review with more and more complexity through 6th grade. I find that when I first introduce the concept they are easily thrown off if I play a minor chord on high notes or play a major song softly, but by 6th grade, my students are very good at distinguishing the two tonalities and it becomes almost second nature. If you want to see how I weave this concept into my upper elementary lessons, here is my curriculum set!

Tuesday, March 19, 2024

Using Viral Songs in Elementary Music

How can we continue to include music that is "of the moment" in our music lessons now that trends come and go so quickly? And how do we really create meaningful lesson plans with these little snippets of songs that our students are most likely to recognize from social media clips that are under a minute? Here are some of my favorite ways to incorporate those viral songs from social media platforms into my elementary music classes.

In some ways it's harder than ever to keep up with the music our students are listening to because trends come and go so much more quickly, but in other ways I think because we have these little snippets of songs that go viral on social media, they can be a really easy swap for other song material we may have in an existing lesson plan.

theme and variations/ arranging/ remixing

My favorite way to incorporate viral songs and snippets from social media is as examples of arranging/ remixing, or to show a modern example of theme and variations. So much of the music that people are using in viral videos are edited versions of old songs, or edited versions of a currently popular audio. Once a song has been viral for a minute, there is usually someone who will compile all of the different versions of a particular audio people have done into one youtube video. So it's easy to take a few isolated versions to show examples of arranging/ remixing- have students listen to each and identify which musical characteristics were preserved and which were modified- and the compilations are a perfect example of theme and variations (since these compilations almost always start with the original).

use in place of folk songs

There has been a lot of conversation around removing many of the "folk songs" that had been passed around so much in U.S. American music education circles based on the discoveries that many of these songs come from questionable origins. The problem with that has been that it's way harder to reinvent the wheel than to keep doing what you were doing! These simple little "folk songs" are really convenient to use in elementary music lessons because they are short little songs that are easy to learn quickly and easy for us as teachers to find a song with a specific musical element in it that we want to teach. Good news: the songs (or snippets of songs) that go viral on social media are also short and easy to learn (and in many cases even easier than folk songs for students to learn, because half of them already know it)! If I stumble on a song I know could work well, I stop and think through the concepts I'm teaching over the next few weeks in each grade and see if any of them are embedded in that song (usually a specific rhythm or pitch element).

identify musical characteristics

This idea goes along the lines of the first 2 examples, but it's important enough to mention as a separate point that, since students are often at least somewhat familiar with this music, it's an easy way to give students practice identifying specific musical elements and characteristics, whether it's an instrumental timbre, a pitch or rhythm element, tonality, or expressive elements like dynamics, tempo, and articulation. They work great as examples and using them helps answer the question of "why does this matter" before it is even asked.

keep in mind...

There are 2 important notes we need to keep in mind with all of this that are hopefully self-evident but worth mentioning: 1) obviously not all viral songs are appropriate for elementary-aged students, and 2) the only way to realistically be able to quickly swap in songs in our lesson plans as they are trending is if you have a solid foundation in concept-based lesson planning/ curriculum. Simply put, if you know what the purpose of an existing lesson plan is- if you know what concepts/ skills you're wanting students to learn through the song/ activity- you can easily identify those same concepts/ skills in other songs as they come across your radar and use that instead of the song you have in an existing plan. If you don't, that process will take hours of reinventing the wheel to figure out where you can add in a new song, and that's not something any of us has the time for!

If you want to learn more about concept-based curriculum writing and lesson planning (which, quite honestly, is my answer to many struggles we face in effective elementary music education), I highly recommend this free series I've compiled. It walks you through the entire process from the ground up with all the free templates you need to create a curriculum for yourself, or make sense of the one you have: 

I'd love to hear your thoughts, questions, and lesson ideas you've tried! Leave a comment below or email me to join the conversation!

Tuesday, March 12, 2024

Accountability Without Escalation

Kids want to know, when they do something wrong, that they can recover. I've found that it's important for me to remind myself of this truth lately to help keep me responding in constructive ways while also holding students accountable for their actions. Here are two concrete strategies for de-escalating a situation and helping students to solve problems, while still acknowledging and holding students accountable for problematic behaviors: one for classes as a whole, and one for individual students.

Whole Class Response: The Reset Count

There's a good chance you've heard of this strategy or seen another teacher use it- maybe, like me, you used to use it and forgot about it- but I pulled it out with a second grade class a couple of weeks ago on a whim after not using it for a few years and it has been amazing. When there are a lot of students that are "off" in one way or another (a bunch of kids start calling out at once, kids are playing instruments when they're not supposed to, they're all distracted, a bunch of them are not controlling their bodies, etc), I say something like "wait a minute this isn't right, I gotta turn around and count to 3 and when I turn back around I'll have my star students back", then turn away from the class, count to 3, then turn back around. I have done this when I seriously thought there was maybe 1 student who actually heard me, and it still worked- and it turns a situation into an opportunity for them to get each other back on track instead of me telling them to. This one works best with younger students but depending on the age, I would recommend it up through 3rd grade at least.

Individual Response: Whoops

Sometimes the answer is as simple as me saying "whoops!" to assure a student that you don't hate them while acknowledging that whatever happened wasn't right. So imagine a student goes to the bathroom in the middle of class and when they return, comes running back into the room and crashes into their chair, swinging their arm and hitting the person next to them in the process. One response I have given, in my moments I am less proud of, is something like "what do you think you're doing running in here, you know you're supposed to walk, look what you did- you hurt so-and-so! you need to say sorry, then you need to go sit out and don't you ever ask to leave the room in the middle of class again!". That generally results in the student getting angry, and often ends up with them getting more escalated, leading to more problems I then have to address. A whoops response, in my better moments, goes more like "whoops!", then I wait. Most of the time the student will apologize to the other student, apologize to me, then walk themselves back over to the door and enter the room appropriately (sometimes they don't and then I point out what happened, and again, they are usually much more likely to apologize on their own). Then everyone moves on. The same response works when a student blurts out something rude, plays an instrument without permission, etc- and this strategy I find effective at all ages.

Neither of these are groundbreaking new ideas, but they can be life changing, and when patience runs thin it's important for us to remind ourselves that these responses will always produce better results long-term than immediately "coming down hard" on someone (and believe me, I'm saying this to myself just as much as I am to others!). 

Tuesday, March 5, 2024

3 Advocacy Resources for Music Education

It's sad that this is still something we have to fight for, especially after everyone proclaimed newfound appreciation for the arts during the pandemic, but in the United States and in many other countries around the world, music teachers are continuing to face lack of respect for music as a school subject. In honor of Music In Our Schools Month® just starting, today I want to share 3 resources to use as reference in advocating for the importance of music education.

First let me be clear: I am intentionally not calling these my 3 "favorite" or the 3 "best" resources because there are so many great ones out there. There are piles and piles of published research studies showing the positive impact of a strong music education on students and student learning that I have used over the years. Don't miss those if you have access to educational research journals etc to look for specific articles and studies! But these are some more general resources, most that have many different specific resources that can be used as effective advocacy tools and references, and are available online to anyone without an account, so they are good ones to keep bookmarked and are my current first stops when I'm looking for material.

1. NAfME

Obviously one of the primary purposes of the National Association for Music Education is to advocate for the importance of music education in the United States, so they are a good starting point for advocacy references, especially in the US. Some of my most commonly referenced resources in recent years have been the Opportunity to Learn Standards, and their publications on Title-IV-A funding, but there are lots of other excellent resources that can help you navigate and leverage current legislation at the federal and state level on their advocacy page.

2. Bigger Better Brains

This is an Australian-based organization but they have done an amazing job compiling, and keeping up with, current research on music education specifically. Their whole site is worth exploring, but their page on research updates, which you can scroll through to see the latest updates and search by specific topics, and their social media (I follow their facebook page), where they post shareable, high-impact advocacy graphics (if you're a music teacher on social media you probably saw some of their graphics getting passed around in the last couple of years, like the "this is not a (fill in instrument name)" series) are my top 2 go-to sources for reference material.

3. John Hattie

I am assuming this will be the least-known resource for music education advocacy material within music teacher circles, and he has far fewer resources specific to music education advocacy than the first 2 I've mentioned (especially available free online), but I am incredibly excited to have come across his materials this school year and really want more music teachers to know about him and take advantage of his content! If you haven't heard his name before, John Hattie is the person who wrote "Visible Learning" (and its sequels/ companions), a synthesis of thousands of meta-studies, that has become one of the primary resources school leaders reference for best practices and school improvement. I guarantee most administrators today know who he is or are at least familiar with the findings from his publications. What many people don't know, though, is that he started as a music teacher! Because he is so widely known and respected in the broader field of education and educational leadership, I think it is so powerful to be able to reference him and his research to advocate for music education specifically. He has several research articles on music education- most you need an account for- but the one thing I love sharing most as a "sound bite" is this video where he is responding to the question a school principal asked about the effect of music, art, and physical activity on student learning:

For someone like me who strongly believes in advocating for music education for its own sake rather than the impact it has on student learning in other academic areas, this one little video has been a dream come true!

I hope these resources help you when you are looking for ways to advocate for the importance of music education. There are so many more I could mention here, of course, but if there are specific references you've found particularly helpful in your own advocacy I'd love for you to share them in the comments for all of us to benefit!