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Tuesday, April 30, 2024

Rain Songs Around the World: あめふり (Amefuri, Ame Ame)

I love using different songs with similar themes to compare and contrast specific musical elements- I find using songs with lyrics that are about the same topic makes it easier to draw young students' attention to the musical aspects of the songs. Today I want to introduce you to one of my favorite examples of this using a song from my childhood in Japan, あめふり ("Amefuri", aka "Ame, Ame"). 

I don't know why more music teachers outside of Japan don't use this song- it's easy to learn because the refrain is just onomatopoeia, and the pentatonic melody is so fun to sing! The video below shows the pronunciation of the lyrics with English alphabet letters and animation to show the meaning if the words:

There are several verses that together tell a sweet story about helping a friend with no umbrella, but I just use the first verse which basically translates to, "Let it rain, I'm so happy my mom is meeting me with an umbrella". 

To introduce the song, I tell students I am going to sing a Japanese song about rain, and I ask them to listen for the sound of raindrops first ("picchi picchi"), then listen again to find the sound of rainboots splashing in puddles ("chappu chappu"), then the sound of happy humming ("ran ran ran"). Then I ask students to listen to the whole song again and decide if they think the person singing the song is happy or sad about the rain (they always immediately know they're happy), and have them skip around the room on the beat and sing the onomatopoeia refrain at the end. Then I tell them what the rest of the lyrics mean and it all makes sense!

The obvious pairing for this song in the US is "Rain, Rain, Go Away". I sing the song one time and ask students to think about how the person singing this song feels about rain (clearly sad / mad), then we trudge angrily around the room on the beat while we sing it. It's a perfect contrast to the Japanese song that can lead to a quick conversation asking students whether or not they like the rain and why.

These two quick movement activities lend themselves naturally to experiencing compound vs simple meter. I don't actually label them that way with the young PK-1st grade students I use this lesson with, but I do point out how the Japanese song "sounds skippy" and the English song "sounds stompy"- I demonstrate trying to skip with the English song and it doesn't fit the same way. It's a great introduction to the concept without having to get into the mechanics of the time signatures or introduce complex vocabulary.

That's my favorite way to use the song, but I've also used it with slightly older students (2nd-4th grade) to practice pentatonic solfege and improvisation while incorporating compound meter again in a natural, accessible way. This works especially well if the students learned the song already when they were younger, so most of them will recognize it, but I would use a video like this one with anime-style graphics to introduce it to this age group. 

If students are familiar with pentatonic solfege, this is a great melody to use to identify the solfege visually or aurally because it goes up and down the scale several times. You could stop there if that's what students are working on, or you can add some pentatonic improvisation by removing the bars they don't need on the xylophone and having a few students take turns improvising a set number of beats each using the notes from the pentatonic scale to create a B section for the song. Boom, they just created music in compound meter! I find most of them start off improvising on the macrobeats, and when I model playing the "skippy rhythms" from the song (quarter-eighth) and encourage them to incorporate some skippy sounds into their melodies, they get it. It's a great way to lay the groundwork for identifying and labeling compound meter when they're older by experiencing it without worrying about the mechanics.

I hope this sparks some ideas for you to use the song in your own classroom! If you want ready-made visuals and materials to use in your classroom, I've shared my resources for the song, including a recording of the song and the spoken lyrics, visuals of the notated melody, lyrics in the original script, the translation, Orff instrumentation to add, solfege manipulatives, and more in this resource:

The theme of rain is perfect for spring, but really it's relatable for students any time of year, and I have found a lot more songs about rain from other countries that I'll be sharing in future posts so stay tuned- I'm so excited about these! For more springtime thematic lessons with songs in different languages, check out the frog unit I created last year with songs from Sweden, Puerto Rico, and Japan, as well as a book that I love to use in my elementary music lessons.

Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Thriving Between Spring Break and Summer

Sometimes it can feel like the best we can do is try to survive in that time between spring break and summer vacation. Everyone has gotten a taste of freedom, the sunshine outside is beckoning, and everyone's mind is on the fun and relaxation they're looking forward to. But honestly? I love teaching at this time of year. I've thought a lot about what it is that helps me thrive at this time of year, and today I want to share some of what I think makes the difference.

1. No countdowns.

So many of us do it but I think we all know, wishing the present time away does not help us enjoy the here and now. Instead of saying- or even thinking- "5 more Mondays!" or "13 school days until summer!", I intentionally focus on the fun lessons and activities I'm looking forward to doing in this season- read more of my thoughts on this in this blog post.

2. Plan exciting lessons with low mental load

I've found there's a sweet spot for lesson content this time of year. Straight-up review gets boring fast and students catch on quickly when we're just filling time, but trying to push them to learn a bunch of new skills and concepts is more work than they're willing to do when they'd rather be playing outside. New and exciting material that applies the skills and concepts they've learned in fresh ways keeps lessons engaging without being overwhelming. I've written about how I do this in more detail, including specific examples, in this post:

3. Spread positivity with students

It can be hard to stay positive at the end of the school year when students are so distracted and hyper, but I've found when I force myself to find ways to dole out positive reinforcement, the results are quite dramatic and it's way less work than I thought. Plus it puts me in a better mood! Here are some specific ways I keep the positivity going with my students at the end of the year:

4. Spread positivity with adults

Just as much as spreading positivity with students can have a big impact on my own experience, so can spreading positivity with the other adults in my building! And it can have a big impact on the climate of the entire building, which will spill into students' moods coming into my classroom. It makes my job that much easier when the vibes are right in the rest of the school! I put a lot more energy into low-effort, low-cost ways to meaningfully build staff morale, and I really do think they have made a difference. I've compiled all my ideas in this post:

5. Self care

As much as I try to help spread positivity to others, it's equally important to intentionally care for my own well-being! The two biggest things I do to this end are 1) taking concrete steps to maintain a positive outlook for myself and 2) managing my own work load and stress levels by cutting myself some slack in all areas of my life. I've written about the specific, concrete steps I take to do each of these in these posts:

I'm not trying to sugarcoat how exhausting it can be to teach at the end of the year, or suggest that we should never vent or express frustration when we're frustrated. I'm just suggesting that, instead of only complaining and going into survival mode, we can take conscious, concrete steps to actually enjoy ourselves in this season (at least more often than before). What do you do to keep yourself going at the end of the school year? I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Lesson Plans that Work Between Spring Break and Summer

Finding lessons that will keep students engaged after spring break is difficult. Younger students are antsy, older students are checked out. On the one hand you don't want to try to teach new concepts because they're probably not going to remember it by next fall anyway, but there's no way you can "tread water" and just review for 2 months without losing them either! I've found there's a certain sweet spot that keeps students engaged without going beyond what they can handle that works really well for me and my students between spring break and summer that I highly recommend implementing to make the end of the school year actually fun and not something to just hope to survive!

I've realized there are some common threads in all the lessons that I've found effective this time of year, no matter the age group: they take skills and concepts that are comfortable and put them in fresh new contexts. The lesson activities feel new and interesting but not intimidating. Basically I imagine the "zone of proximal development" shrinks after spring break- that space that is past the "I already know this and it's boring" but not at the "this is too hard so I'm checking out" still exists and is still what I'm aiming for, but it's a much smaller circle than it is the rest of the school year. 

1. Application instead of review

I definitely plan lesson activities that are "just" review at the end of the year as well, but I certainly can't do that for a full 6 weeks without students checking out! I've realized that what really works is essentially taking the skills and concepts I want to review and teaching students to apply them in different ways. This is where the units I do each spring on a specific culture's music work really well (see those plans in this previous post), as well as units I've done this time of year with older students on composition. These lessons definitely aren't just reviewing things they've already done, but they are taking those fundamental skills and concepts they've been working on all year and applying them to a new context and/or combining them in new ways. It feels new and exciting- kids go home saying "guess what I learned today"- but it doesn't require much mental stretch, it doesn't feel overwhelming.

2. New material instead of new skills

I learned early in my career that as soon as I give up on teaching and just try to fill time, even if it's fun activities, I start to see a lot more problematic and disruptive behaviors in my classroom. But that doesn't mean their brains are ready to handle, let alone retain, new learning! The key is to keep the "how" new, not the "what". So I'm taking concepts and skills they're familiar with already and applying them to new contexts, whether that's new genres like the music from a new culture, or new ways of contextualizing like composition projects that give students a chance to combine and implement concepts and skills in new ways instead of practicing them in isolation. 

Maybe this is a strange analogy but I think of this phase of the school year kindof like retirement: you want to still be productive and have meaning and purpose in life, but you don't want to work too hard- you want to celebrate the work you already did and enjoy the fruits of your labor and the relationships you've built along the way. 

I really believe there are a lot of different factors that can contribute to a positive experience between spring break and summer, and I know one thing that can hold teachers back from planning lessons like I've described here is the sheer burnout we feel from just being exhausted ourselves. One thing that can help is making our own mental and emotional wellbeing a priority- I've written about what I do to maintain a positive mindset for myself at the end of the school year in this post. And hey, the links above to my posts on music from different cultures and composition projects will take care of the lesson planning work for you! Here's to thriving in the final stretch between spring break and summer!

Tuesday, April 9, 2024

Keeping Positive: post-spring break teaching

I'm not quite there yet but I know in many places, teachers are coming back from spring break and saying to themselves, "oh boy, hang on tight because here we go". Teaching between spring break and the end of the school year can be wild ride, and it can make you dread going to work. Here are some things I do to take control of my mood and keep myself in a positive mindset.

1. Monitor your mood

The first step I have started taking more and more consciously during stressful times of year is keeping a close eye on my own mood/ stress levels. I can't do anything well if I'm overtired, stressed, or anxious, least of all handle end of year teaching. I have a regular year-round habit of sitting with a cup of coffee in silence each morning, and this is always my time to process and gauge where my mood is as well. It's important to find ways to stay in touch with your own mental and emotional wellness regularly- if you aren't a morning person like me with the luxury of slow mornings, printing out a poster that asks, "how are you?" and putting it somewhere you'll see it every morning (in the bathroom/ on a bedside table/ in your closet), designating something you wear every day to be a mental cue to check in with yourself (I have an elastic bracelet I wear for this purpose when I know I'm stressed), or asking a trusted friend to check in with you can be good ways to keep reminding yourself to check in.

2. Identify the source

If I realize I'm feeling stressed or anxious or dreading the day in general, I try to go through the list of things I'm thinking about/ preparing to do that day to identify more specifically what it is that's causing my stress/ dread. Sometimes it's one specific class that has been difficult to manage, a lesson I've planned that I'm not sure will go over well, a particularly hectic work schedule, or something totally unrelated to teaching entirely. Identifying the source of the stress more specifically makes it more concrete, gives me more clarity on how I can address and manage it, and often makes it less overwhelming when I realize it's not my entire life I'm dreading!

3. Make a plan

It wouldn't be an "organized chaos" strategy without putting a plan in place! Once I've identified what it is that's got me in a funk, I try to think concretely about how to address it. If it's a difficult class, I come up with a strategy to help the class go better. If it's a hectic schedule, I look through my day and come up with ways to make my life easier, whether that's ordering takeout for dinner or making some of my lesson plans less complicated. 

Writing it all out like this makes it seem like this is a long and involved process- it usually isn't. Because I make sure I'm monitoring myself regularly, I usually catch things before it gets too overwhelming, and it's not that hard to identify what's bothering me and come up with a solution. Oftentimes the whole thought process takes all of 2 minutes. Sometimes when things get really stressful I do have to take more time to work through the whole thought process- I might be processing what's going on and thinking through solutions the whole time I'm getting ready for work, getting the kids to school, and driving to my school. But it really does make a big difference in my effectiveness, especially this time of year!

If you're feeling like you're in the thick of it, I hope this helps you break out of the depressing "just survive until summer" mindset and find ways to get yourself in the right frame of mind to actually enjoy this time of year! I'd love to hear other things you do to make the end of the school year more enjoyable- leave a comment down below. 

Tuesday, April 2, 2024

Designing a Unit on a Culture's Music

Every spring I look forward to the unit I include in every elementary grade level I teach, doing a deep dive into one culture's music. I've shared lesson plans for many of the units I've taught over the years from cultures all over the world, and over time I've developed a formula for what elements I include in each of these units. Here is that formula, which you can apply to any culture you may want to study in your general music classroom, to help students get as much breadth and depth as possible in the limited class time that we're given.

1. Travel videos

Whether it's an official video from the tourism bureau of that country, a vlog from a tourist, or anything in between, I find it really helps students get a glimpse of what the area is like when I can show them footage from different parts of that region. Nowadays I can find high definition, high quality footage pretty easily on youtube that is current, and I always try to find a mix of videos that show industry and agriculture, urban and rural, traditional and modern, and representative glimpses of all the different types of terrain they have. I like to throw in 1-2 minute clips into the lessons each day so students can picture what it looks like in the modern day.

2. Language introduction

This is something I started doing in more recent years and I don't know why I didn't do it sooner! When I am first introducing the culture to the students, if it is not primarily an English-speaking culture, I teach them a few basic words and phrases in the primary language(s). If I know it well enough I will teach them myself, otherwise there are, again, so many great youtube videos where you can listen to native speakers teaching you basic greetings and phrases in quick, engaging formats, including videos specifically for kids/ youth. I've found starting with some basic language introduction again makes them feel more immersed in the culture in general and also makes them more comfortable with the language when we start learning songs in that language.

3. Traditional instruments

I find instruments are such a great entry point for learning about a culture's music, and obviously the more distinct instruments will be the traditional ones from that culture (rather than the ones often being spread around the world in modern music). I use these resources to introduce what the instruments look and sound like, explore how they're used in context, how they work, and compare and contrast them with other instruments students already know.

4. Current music

Another great entry point for learning about a culture's music is the music that is popular today. I like to sprinkle in some different examples of music videos of songs that are popular now from a broad range of genres throughout the unit, and I always try to find some examples of fusion music, where traditional musical elements are incorporated into modern music, whether that's a traditional instrument, vocal style, or other musical element. It really helps students start to see how different cultures preserve and respect their traditions in different ways.

5. Children's song(s)

I always try to find a song or two that children in that culture around the age of the students I'm teaching would learn in school and/or play on the playground themselves. I especially look for songs that have games with them, whether it's a passing game, a circle game, or some type of movement to go with the song.

6. Traditional dance and/or instrumental piece

In most cultures around the world, dance is an integral part of their musical traditions. In many cultures, there are specific instrumental ensembles that are archetypal features of that culture's music. I often include dance in the younger grades and instrumental ensembles in the older grades, but sometimes I'll switch that up- it mostly depends on what the primary features are of that culture's musical traditions, and what is going to be accessible for the students. 

If you want to learn more about how I find resources for each of these categories, and how I check to make sure they are "authentic" to that culture, here is a previous blog post I wrote on that. If you want to see all of the units I've shared (11 so far!), this blog post has links to all of them. 

Of course this list is certainly not exhaustive! I'd love to hear your questions, and what other elements you include in your units, in the comments.