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Tuesday, March 20, 2018

My Favorite Lesson for Teaching Sol / Mi

One of the most fundamental concepts in general music teaching is melody/ pitch. When I'm creating my scope and sequence for all of the grade levels I teach, I always start by mapping out the rhythm and pitch elements I'll be introducing in each grade level. Although there are variation within different methodologies for the exact sequence in which specific pitches are introduced, I wanted to share some of my favorite lessons for introducing each pitch set in the order that I teach them. Today I'm starting with the first two notes I introduce in first grade: mi and sol.

Of course before I introduce the specific notes mi and sol, I spend a lot of time in kindergarten teaching high and low, along with other fundamental musical concepts. If you want to see the lessons I use to teach high and low, here is my post on that:

Once we get to first grade, it's time to start identifying specific pitches. I like starting with sol and mi because when we talk about notation it's easy to see the higher and lower notes and practice writing them on lines or spaces, and because so many playground chants are sung/spoken on mi and sol. I start by teaching students the song, "Rain, Rain, Go Away":

I like using this song, even though it has other pitches besides mi and sol, for 2 reasons: 
  1. It uses quarter and eighth notes, so I can review those rhythms with the same song, and
  2. I can have them repeat the song several times and keep it fun by changing out the name in the second line ("little ___ wants to play") for different students' names.
After using the song to practice steady beat and review rhythms, I have students sing the first measure and have the class identify which notes are the "high note" and which are the "low note", then have them sing the measure with the words "high" and "low" for the corresponding notes. While they are singing it that way, I use the Curwen hand signs for sol and mi to show "high" and "low". Then I have them practice identifying the difference between the high and low notes by having students echo me as I sing 3-note patterns on the two notes. I ask them to show the high and low notes with their hands while we do it. After the first few patterns, I hum the notes and have students sing it back on "high" and "low" to see if they can hear the difference.

Once I'm confident that the majority of the students can differentiate the two pitches aurally, I introduce the names of the notes: mi and sol. Then we go back and repeat the process: identify which notes are which in the first measure and sing the notes on "mi" and "sol" with hand signs, then echo 3-note patterns on mi/sol. 

Once students can identify mi and sol and sing them with the correct names and hand signs, I show them how to write the notes. I use a floor staff (masking tape lines on the floor) and have students place bean bags on the higher or lower lines to match the notes I sing, then have them stand on the matching lines, then repeat the process putting mi and sol in the spaces. I tell students that mi and sol are partners- they always follow each other to be either space notes or line notes- but sol is always one spot higher than mi. Once they get some practice writing the notes in different ways, it's fun to turn it into a race! I'll sing a 3-note pattern and have the the students race to place bean bags on the correct lines/spaces. 

There are of course plenty more great songs to use to practice mi and sol- you can find more ideas for teaching those and other pitches, along with tips for teaching melodic concepts in general, in the MusicEd Blogs melody ebook (download it for free right here)! I'll be sharing more favorite lessons for other pitch sets in future posts, so be sure to stay tuned ;) And if you want to see the full lesson plans for how I teach mi and sol throughout the year in first grade, along with all the materials I use, you'll find them in my 1st grade curriculum set here.

Want to stay up-to-date on the latest from Organized Chaos, and get access to free curriculum overviews for general music? 

Monday, March 19, 2018

Planner Quick Tip: advance planning for the new year

For those of us on a traditional U.S. school calendar, this is often the time of year when we start looking ahead to dates for next school year. And with all of the concerts, festivals, and springtime chaos to already keep track of for the current school year, it can get pretty confusing trying to keep track of all of those dates and plans! Today I have another "quick tip" for streamlining your planner: how to keep track of important dates and information for the new school year!

Sure, you could go ahead and get all of your weekly and/or monthly calendars printed out for the next year and start writing in your plans there, but I found when I did that I got completely overwhelmed by #allthecalendars and could not keep track of things very easily. Whenever a new event or question would come up about the following school year, I found that I either didn't have those calendars with me because I didn't want to carry 2 year's worth of planners around, or it took me forever to find the information I needed because there were just. so. many. pages.

My solution: print off a one-page overview for the new school year and stick it in the front of my current planner. I started doing this last year and have found it much easier to keep track of everything without getting overwhelmed.

I already had these pages with monthly boxes to use for long-range curriculum planning, so I added the heading for the next school year at the top, printed it out, and stuck it in my current planner. Then I use sticky notes to add in important dates in the months that they fall, like extended breaks, school events, and potential concert dates.

I highly recommend keeping some small sticky notes handy for things like this- it's pretty simple to make your own dashboard to keep some sticky notes right inside your planner. Here's a tutorial on how I made mine:

You can easily set up a page like this yourself to add to whatever planner you use, or you can find these in my printable planner sets with all different date ranges to accommodate different school year calendars. I usually keep this page right next to a printed copy of the new school year's district calendar so I can reference that if I need to.

Want to see more of my teacher/ life planner? Here's a "tour" of last year's planner:

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Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Teaching Recorder: top tips

Teaching recorders can be tons of fun, but it can also be a never-ending headache! Whether you're losing your mind over classes full of squeaks and squawks and snail's pace progress, dreading the idea of putting recorders in every child's hands (and mouths) for the first time ever, or just looking for some new ideas to freshen up your recorder teaching, this post has got you covered!

You'll find my best ideas, strategies, and resources on a wide range of recorder-related topics below- just click on the picture to read each post in more detail. Don't see what you're looking for? Leave your questions and thoughts in the comments below, and I'll add it here!

This post covers all the basics you need to consider as you get your recorder program started: which instrument to purchase, the logistics of using classroom shared instruments vs having students purchase their own, what age to teach recorder, which curriculum resources to use, and more:

My step-by-step lesson plan to get students started on the right foot:

How I teach those first few weeks, after the first introductory lesson, to make sure all students have a strong foundation of appropriate fundamental skills:

Specific strategies to address the most common difficulties beginning recorder players experience, including over-blowing, improper tonguing, and finger placement:

4 different ways to structure recorder instruction in a classroom setting, including ways to manage leveled, self-paced programs such as Recorder Karate without sending the class into chaos:

Simple, effective, and cheap instrument storage solution:

Another quick organization tip for storing "belts" when you're using a leveled curriculum:

Organizing sheet music in a self-paced program to allow students to manage their sheet music independently:

Want to see all of my detailed lesson plans and materials for teaching recorder? You'll find them in my 3rd grade curriculum resource here. Want to stay in the loop and up to date with timely ideas sent straight to your inbox?

Monday, March 12, 2018

Planner Quick Tip: snow days

I love having all of my home life plans, school plans, and even my lessons all written in one planner because it is so much easier to keep track of everything and make sure I'm balancing and juggling everything the way I want. But keeping everything in one place definitely forces me to keep my planner super-streamlined! After using the same basic planner setup for about 4 years now, I've picked up a few little tricks that make my planner work smarter. Over the next few weeks I'll be sharing some of my favorite little tips that I've discovered this year. I hope they make your planning more productive, simple, and fun!

This post contains affiliate links

Today's tip is for snow days. Whenever there's a snow day, I like to mark it in my planner so that I can remember which lessons I missed and need to move to another day, and I can go back and see which classes I missed when we're making up those days at the end of the year. 

I've tried different ways of marking snow days in my planner over the years: I've tried drawing a line through the day's lessons in pen, covering the day with some washi tape, or writing SNOW DAY at the top of that day's lesson plans. There wasn't anything terrible about any of those methods, but I found the line and the tape made the page look extra messy and cluttered, and writing it in at the top of the day made it harder to find when I was going back to find those days later on.

This year I started using a simple trick: marking the day with a small snowflake sticker. 

Not only does it keep the page from looking cluttered and make it stand out enough to see when I'm flipping through the pages, but it's also much easier for me to mark when it comes up- I just grab a sticker and add it to the day. Done! If it's a delayed opening, I just draw a line from the sticker down through the lessons that were affected.

I'm hoping I won't be needing this tip any more this school year (although we did have two snow days just last week- yikes!), but I'm excited to have an easy way to mark those days when the weather turns cold again next winter! I have been using some stickers that I already had from this MAMBI seasonal sticker book, but you can find tons of weather stickers or snowflake stickers at any craft store or even make your own by drawing or stamping a snowflake onto plain labels (click here to see how I make my own planner stickers). You can also get these weather stickers or these snowflake stickers on Amazon.

Want more planner decorating ideas to keep things functional, streamlined, and easy to use? Check out this post on Functional Decorating for Teacher Planners:

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Tuesday, March 6, 2018

5 Things to Stop Saying to Music Teachers

In the spirit of Music In Our Schools Month, today I'm sharing some of the things I've heard people say to me that bother me as a music teacher. And I know from talking with colleagues that I'm not alone! I hope these thoughts help at least one person see how their words may be unintentionally hurting and belittling music teachers, and learn how to more effectively and respectfully work together!

"I loved that concert- the kids were so cute!"

Sure, this is definitely a well-meaning comment. But for music teachers, cuteness is not the goal with musical performances. Saying the performers were "cute" is actually quite demeaning- we have put a lot of effort into their level of skill as performers, so we would hope that those skills would be noticed more than the little smiles or fancy outfits they had while performing them.

Instead of telling us that the students were cute, we would love to hear a compliment about the performance itself. Something like, "The students were singing so clearly", or "I was so impressed with how well they performed such difficult music", or even "The students were so focused on stage" are all wonderful ways to acknowledge the preparation of the teacher and the students.

"Music should be a fun break!"

Actually this comment is most often directed to students by other school staff but it's worth including here because of how it is taken by music teachers. And there are times when I've had coworkers and administrators say this to me in the context of saying that I shouldn't be experiencing behavior difficulties in music class because it is a "fun break" akin to recess. When other staff say that music is a fun break from their "academics", it puts music in a separate category from their other, more serious school subjects. There's definitely nothing wrong with acknowledging that music class is a change of pace from math class. And yes, we agree that music is and should be fun. But don't you think other subjects should be fun too? There's an implication that because music class is fun, it is less rigorous. We think all learning should be both fun AND rigorous, and every subject should be its own unique learning experience, because of the nature of each subject, that appeals to different personalities and styles of learning. With our subject being so marginalized and degraded, we as a profession have had to work hard to focus on both fun and rigor in our classrooms. If you'd ever like to have a discussion about how we use games and songs to develop skills and teach concepts, we'd love to share!

"Could you teach them this song about ___ today? We are learning about it in ___ class this week and I found this cute song on YouTube."

*deep breaths* First of all, making last-minute suggestions to another teacher about what to teach in their lesson implies that you either think we are magicians who can take any song material and use it to teach whatever concept students need to learn that day on the spot, or you think we don't have a lesson plan (at least not one that is worthwhile). Now, most of us music teachers love to integrate music with other subjects (and we hope you love to integrate your subjects with others, including music, as well). And we fully support the idea of deepening student understanding of important skills and concepts through cross-curricular teaching. But if that's what we're going for, two things need to happen: 1) we need to sit down and have a conversation well in advance so we can both make adjustments to our curriculum sequencing to line up the timing of particular lesson content, and 2) this needs to be a two-way street: I'd love to talk about how to reinforce the concept of meter through your poetry unit, or how to help distinguish beat and rhythm through your lessons on syllables.

The second problem is that you're assuming you have enough of an understanding of music pedagogy to suggest appropriate material for my lessons. By suggesting that we use this "cute song" you stumbled upon that happens to incorporate a concept you're working on, you're implying that all musical material is of equal value as a teaching tool. It's not. We music teachers are very intentional with the songs we teach our students- we can't use just any song to teach the skills we need. And the reality is that most likely that song you stumbled upon that talks about recycling or George Washington or multiplication facts was written with the lyrics as the starting point and the musical material- the melody, rhythm, form, etc- was secondary. Most of the songs that get suggested to me this way are actually just different words set to "I'm a Little Teapot", "Twinkle, Twinkle", or "Mary Had a Little Lamb" (and often clumsily). If we do sit down in advance to arrange a cross-curricular connection in our lessons, you can expect us to probably use more musically meaningful material.

"Oh by the way, we need the students to sing these 5 songs at this public event next week."

This one is similar to the last comment- see above for the problems with last-minute suggestions and suggestions from non-music teachers of musical material to use in music lessons- but this one has the added element of assuming that musical performances can be thrown together without much preparation time. We don't expect you to understand what all is involved in preparing students for a musical performance if you haven't done it yourself but trust us, it's a lot of work and requires a lot of advance planning. Ideally, you need to let the music teacher know months in advance (minimum) if there is anything you want the music teacher to prepare students for, but we also understand that last-minute requests do come in sometimes. If that happens, please just come and ask for our input into whether we can do it and how. Something like, "Hey I know this is last minute, but I just got an email from _____ asking if we could have our students perform at _____ next week. Is there anything the students could do that would be appropriate for this and would work into what you're doing?" would be a great way to approach the music teacher respectfully.

"We're changing your class schedule because the classroom teachers need their prep time."

There are two things in this sentence that set off huge alarm bells in music teachers' brains: the phrase "classroom teachers" and the overarching concept of "prep time" and who gets it when and how. First let's talk about how we categorize teachers/staff with our vocabulary. I have never understood the term "classroom teachers" being used to refer to non-specialist teachers. I teach in a classroom... Please stop using that term. It makes it sound like you don't think my class is a "real" class. If you really must refer to the teachers in elementary schools who teach in just one grade level rather than teaching one subject to a wider range of ages, then the best term I've come up with is "homeroom teachers". The distinguishing factor in most schools is that they have one "homeroom" group of students for whom they are primarily responsible rather than splitting their time between classes, so it makes some sense.

OK, now let's talk about the issue of prep/ planning time. I don't have a problem with being flexible and making adjustments to things to accommodate special events etc and ultimately benefit the students. But if the primary reason for changing a schedule, or making any other decision, is to benefit a particular teacher or group of teachers (particularly when it is to the detriment of another teacher or group of teachers), that's not what I'd call best practice.

Now I also understand that there are things called contracts and unions and all of that and certain guidelines have to be followed. And I understand that because of those realities sometimes situations like this come up. I also believe that it's important to protect the rights of teachers and consider teachers' needs in making decisions. But too often when these things happen, it is presented to music (and other specialist) teachers in a way that communicates a hierarchy of teachers, and that the homeroom teachers need planning/prep time more than others do. It's important to understand that we are on high alert for these things because we have so often been treated as less important. It's also helpful to understand that it is pretty standard in music teaching to end up "giving up prep time" to do things like set up the stage for a production, run auditions for soloists, or prepare students for a special performance. Of course teachers of all kinds do "extra" work and go above and beyond the call of duty for their students, but the difference is that ours has historically gone unrecognized.

The basic point is this: treat all teachers as part of the same team, and as equally important members of that team. It's much easier for us to do what's best for the school as a whole, and our students in particular, when everyone treats each other as equals.

Now it's your turn: what are the things that people say to you as a music teacher that you wish they'd stop saying?

Monday, March 5, 2018

Top 5 Easy School Snack Ideas

There's a lot of chatter about school lunches. I've even written about lunchbox ideas quite a few times myself (click here to see those posts). But you know what threw me for a loop this year as my daughters started Kindergarten? Snacks. Nobody warned me that in addition to packing lunches every day I was going to need to pack snacks as well! After getting over my initial bewilderment I've come up with some standard go-to's that work for me- here are my favorite snack ideas to send to school.

There are a few reasons why snacks took me by surprise at the beginning of the school year: 1) I quickly learned that snacks have to be eaten quickly and independently- no time for fussy wrappers or foods that take a long time to eat, 2) after working out a nicely-balanced healthy lunch, adding in the snack factor just throws everything off, 3) of course the snacks still have to be peanut-free for my daughters' school (and, it seems, most other schools in the US), and 4) kids get HUNGRY at school- I'm amazed at how filling the snacks need to be for my kids to not come home ravenous!

Of course I don't have time to pack a second lunch every morning for every child. It needs to be quick and easy for me to throw together. So with all of those factors in mind, here are some of my go-to snacks to pack for my Kindergartners.

1. Fruit

Apple slices, tangerines (pre-peeled), bananas, and raisins are easy to pack, quick to eat, and give my daughters the energy they need to make it through the afternoon.

2. Bagels

I'm always surprised at how much my daughters like this one: half a slice of bagel with some cream cheese sandwiched in the middle is a quick and filling snack they both love!

3. Crackers/ Chips/ Salty Snacks

I often save those salty carbs- chips, goldfish crackers, popcorn, pretzels- for their snack. They're easy to throw in a bag and my daughters are always excited to eat those.

4. Juice

I will often throw in a small juice box, especially if their other snack is one of the salty snacks mentioned above. They get in a lot more fluids during the day this way, and there are quite a few healthier juice options out there these days!

5. Nuts/ Seeds

I am lucky enough to have the option of sending nuts to school- my daughters' school doesn't allow peanuts but does allow other nuts. Besides walnuts, pecans, and almonds, coconut flakes are another great option (which would also work for nut-free schools), and pumpkin and sunflower seeds (pre-shelled) have been great options as well!

Those are some of my favorite snack ideas. What are yours? I'd love to get some more ideas from all of you veteran moms out there, because it has been surprisingly difficult for me to come up with snack ideas to send to school! Leave a comment below if you have some favorites :)

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

February Favorites 2018

Another month has flown by! Before I get too caught up in all of my exciting plans for Music In Our Schools Month, it's nice to take some time to look back on the highlights from February- in truth it's easy to think back and only remember the negative, but there were a lot of great things that happened as well that I don't want to lose sight of! I hope you find some inspiration in this post as well- you definitely don't want to miss the many amazing posts from other bloggers on teaching melodic concepts that I'm sharing at the end!

1. Recorders

I love teaching recorders- it's one of my favorite units to teach every year! This month I've been sharing my teaching tips for recorder on the blog, and the response has been amazing. If you haven't already, be sure to catch up on all the latest recorder posts here (and stay tuned- there are more on the way!). 

2. Musical Restaurants

Totally random but equally awesome: I took my daughters to IHOP for a Valentine's Day dinner and was pleasantly surprised at their musical kid's menu! Check out this music puzzle, complete with an accurate description of treble clef letter names! I don't know why but it's always shocking to me when I see musical notation described accurately outside music class 😁 

3. #ArmMeWith

I hesitate to include this as a "highlight", but it is definitely worth reflecting on and important to keep at the forefront of our thoughts and actions. If you haven't heard about the #ArmMeWith movement on Instagram, click here to see all of the thousands of posts shared by teachers advocating for positive change in our schools, particularly in the United States, in the wake of the latest school shooting in Florida. It's a difficult topic but an important one nonetheless, and I hope we can all continue to keep our voices strong without letting issues like these get lost in the shuffle!

4. Melody Teaching Posts

Did you hear about the latest collaboration over on MusicEd Blogs? All month long bloggers from all over the web have been sharing amazing posts on teaching melodic concepts on our Facebook page! Here are a few highlights I shared this month, but be sure to go check out all of the posts over on MusicEd Blogs, and stay tuned to the website for another free ebook with all of these posts compiled (plus more exclusive content) coming soon!

That's it for me this month- I hope you are all looking forward to a wonderful month ahead (and hopefully some spring weather!) as much as I am! What were some of your highlights from February? Let's hear them in the comments :)

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Music In Our Schools Month: 2 (more!) easy and engaging ideas

Music In Our Schools Month starts in just two days- can you believe it?!? I have always loved celebrating with special activities and advocacy projects that keep all the wonderful aspects of music education at the forefront of everyone's minds. I've shared lots of ideas for everything from in-class activities to bulletin boards and everything in between in the past- look for those posts at the end of this one- but today I've got a couple more ideas that I'll be using this year that you can easily implement this year too! Happy Music In Our Schools Month!

1. Guess the Musician bulletin board

This is not a new idea- Tracy from Mrs. King's Music Class has shared something similar here, as have several others- but this is my first year trying it out myself! The idea is to promote the idea that music is an important part of our upbringing and education, and that music becomes a part of our lives as adults in many different ways even when we aren't in a music-related career. I created a simple survey and printed out copies to give to every adult who works with our students- everyone from the superintendent to the custodians- and asked them to fill it out and return it to me. I then compiled their answers to create a bulletin board where students can guess which grownup is being described. I'll be adding a new clue each day in March, and the principal will be reading the clue on the morning announcements. At the end of the day, I'll add the answer to the bottom of the sheet! I was thrilled with the response I got- I think keeping the survey short and easy was key- and I can't wait to share these with the school.

If you want to see the super-simple templates I used for the survey and bulletin board, here they are- once my bulletin board is completely put together I'll be sure to share a photo as well!


2. Music suggestion box

I threw this in at the last minute last year and ended up loving it, so I'll be making it an official part of our celebration this year 😉 I got a cardboard box, covered the top in construction paper, cut a slit in the side, and set out some slips of paper and a pencil for people to write down suggestions for songs that they wanted to hear on the morning announcements. Each day in March we played one of the suggestions over the speakers in the morning, and I was amazed at how excited the entire school community- students, teachers, and parents- got over the chance to share their favorite songs from all different genres! It was a great way to make sure we were starting each day with music as well.

Last year's box was thrown together in 15 minutes on a spur of the moment idea, so hopefully this year's suggestion box will look a bit more polished, but here's how I set it up last year:

I'll still be including my in-class activities, like the Rhythm Battle and Disco Duel, as part of our celebrations. Those are really the best part of Music In Our Schools Month for me and for my students! If you haven't already, be sure to check out my previous posts on MIOSM for even more ideas:

No matter how you choose to celebrate, I hope you and your students can take the time to celebrate the wonderful world of music together- it's so important to remind ourselves of the pure joy of music making, especially at this time of year when patience starts to dwindle! What other ways do you recognize Music In Our Schools Month? Let's hear your ideas in the comments below!

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Monday, February 26, 2018

5 Ways to a More Musical Home

With Music In Our Schools Month fast approaching, I've been thinking more consciously about how integral music is in all of our lives and how important music is for children in particular. As an elementary music teacher, incorporating music into my everyday home life comes naturally, but I've talked to so many parents of young children who wish their home lives were more musical. I think most all of us love to enjoy music in one way or another ourselves, but many adults are less musical as parents than they are as individuals because they feel "their music" is inappropriate for their kids (but they don't like "kid songs"), they are self-conscious about their singing or instrument playing abilities, or they just get caught up in the stress and chaos of parenting and toss music by the wayside. Today I want to remind all of us of 5 simple ways to make home life, especially with young children, more musical. No matter how good or bad of a musician you may think you are, I hope these tips will help all of us feel more comfortable infusing our lives with music!

This post contains affiliate links. This does not affect the purchase price or experience in any way.

1. Sing!

First let's address those parents who think they "can't sing"- science (and my own real life experience) tells us that for most of you, that's not actually true. You just haven't learned how yet. Try taking deeper breaths, use more air, and sing a higher pitch- you may be surprised at what comes out! Or let loose, be totally silly, and belt out some opera singer notes. Yeah, that's how much air it takes to sing! Of course, I can't help everyone learn to sing through the computer, but I've been surprised at how many adults "discover" their singing voice with these simple ideas!

No matter how great you think your singing voice may be, it's good to remember that when you're singing with young children,

  • singing slightly higher than you may naturally sing is usually easier for them to hear and sing along with (and encourages you and your child to use your singing voice instead of your speaking voice)
  • anything goes: it doesn't have to be a "real song"- you can narrate your day with song and get all the benefits of singing we always hear about! Have you ever watched a toddler play by themselves? How many times do they start making up random songs about nonsense? 
  • kids do not mind hearing the same song over and over- in fact they LOVE repetition. Having certain songs that you always sing for specific events can be a great way to build music into your lives- that classic "clean up, clean up, everybody everywhere" song is a perfect example!

2. Dance!

Despite taking dance classes for years as a child I am admittedly, well, not the coolest dancer. But there is something magical about dance! It is such a holistic experience and can totally change our moods in an instant. The next time you're bored, or feel the tension building as you rush around getting homework done and dinner on the table, turn on a song and start moving. I am always amazed at how quickly my daughters join in with the fun no matter how cranky they are, and how much it improves all of our moods when we do!

3. Play an Instrument

Instruments are fun and often overlooked at home! Of course it's wonderful for children to be able to take private lessons and study a more challenging instrument more in-depth, but my advice: wait until they really do know they want to learn the instrument for themselves and have the self-discipline to practice on their own. No matter how great the benefits of instrumental study are, the stress and tears of trying to get a kid to practice when they don't want to will far outweigh the benefits.

I love having a small collection of instruments that my daughters and I can tinker with whenever the mood strikes. When the girls were toddlers, I had a box of small percussion instruments- a glockenspiel, a hand drum, some rhythm sticks and egg shakers. Those still get a good amount of use even now, and you can pick them up pretty cheaply at stores like Walmart/Target, or Costco/Sam's Club. Sets like this one are great for really young kids if you don't have anything already.

Now that my daughters are in elementary school, we love playing on slightly more sophisticated instruments too. We have a piano, a ukulele, a cajon, and a melodica that they love playing around with. All of these instruments are sturdy enough for kids to explore, and they are fairly cost effective as well (unless you're talking about a nice piano- keyboards are cheap though)!

4. Listen to Music

Obviously listening to recorded music is a great way to bring more music into our lives! I find that I often am so busy trying to do all of the tasks on my to-do list that I don't think to turn on any music. But when we do remember, it is such a great way to set a positive mood in the house! It can also be a great way to get everyone to relax and wind down at the end of the day.

Don't forget to try out lots of different genres and find new artists to enjoy! It's easy to get stuck in a rut, and there's nothing wrong with enjoying your favorite music over and over again, but this is the time to expand your children's musical palate, which will in turn translate to an expanded world view if they can hear, understand, and appreciate music from a wide range of cultures and lifestyles. Plus it's always great to learn something new together as a family!

5. Use Songs as Timers

My last point is related to #4 but it's awesome enough to be worth mentioning separately. Instead of nagging the kids to get dressed, brush their teeth, or do their chores, try putting on a song and challenging them to get it done by the end of the song! This is also great for "time out"s- choose a calming, quiet song and tell them to stay in their spot until the end of the song instead of setting a timer. In both cases, not only does it function as a way to mark time but it also is easier for kids to keep track of how far they are through the set amount of time, and it simultaneously changes the mood! Win-win-win for everyone!

I mentioned this tip, along with a few others, in my previous post on using music as a parenting tool. If you missed it, I highly recommend checking it out- you'll find lots more practical ways to use music to improve your parenting life!

How do you infuse music into your life at home? Even if you already do all of these, I'm sure I'm not the only one who could use a reminder of how many wonderful ways we can enjoy music at home in the midst of all the flurry of activities! I'd love to hear your favorite stories of experiencing music with your children in the comments below- Happy Music In Our Schools Month!

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Teaching Recorder: 4 ways to structure instruction

Teaching recorder, or any instrument for that matter, to a full classroom of students working at different paces and with different levels of motivation can be tricky. Throw in popular curricular resources like Recorder Karate and other methods that encourage differentiation/ leveling in a large group setting, and things can get even more confusing! Today I want to give an overview of some different options for how to structure lessons in a full class setting using leveled resources, and offer my suggestions on when you might want to use each one.

1. Whole Class Instruction

Just because you're using a resource that encourages students to learn at their own pace does NOT mean you have to spend all of your class time having students independently practicing on their own. Particularly in the beginning when you are introducing fundamental playing techniques, whole class instruction allows you to make sure everyone is practicing good habits and staying on task.

I always start off my recorder unit working as a full class, and I will often have the whole class work together on their "belts" as well, especially if I have a group that struggles to work independently. I give students specific targets to work on when we are working above or below their individual playing level- I give students dynamics/ articulation etc to add if we are working on a song they've already "passed", and I point out specific attainable passages in a song for students to work on if we're working ahead of their capability. I regularly point out to the class that it's valuable to review and push ahead sometimes, and most students appreciate the change of pace too.

2. Stations/ Small Groups

Small group work can be a great way to strike a balance between encouraging students to work at their own pace and giving students the accountability of working with others. There are 2 ways to approach small group work with recorders:
  1. Have all students working on recorder music but split up into groups by their level
  2. Have students working on related skills at different stations and rotate through
I often will split the class up into groups by level when we first start getting into having students earn "belts" for their leveled songs. In this case, everyone is working in the same way- going through the practice steps that I've taught them to learn whatever song they are practicing together with others working on the same song- so everyone is still playing and working in the same way simultaneously but working on different songs. This is a great way to ease into independent practice and also gives students a chance to help each other rather than relying solely on my help.

The second way to structure small groups is especially great if you and/or the students need a break from the cacophony. In this case each group is working on recorders but in different ways: one station could be identifying letter names of notes, another could be silent practice with fingerings (have them remove the mouthpiece or just tell them they're not allowed to blow into their instrument), and another station could be a playing and/or testing station. If you or students are having trouble focusing with so many different songs being practiced simultaneously in one small space, or if everyone is getting burned out from just playing all the time, this is a great way to break down practice time into some specific steps and give everyone a chance to focus more easily. I've used this occasionally when I have a class that has trouble focusing/ staying on task. I'll still group students working on the same song together in most cases, but if I have a small group that is ahead and a small group that is behind the rest of the class, I'll put them together so the advanced students can help the slower learners and I can give some specific attention to both groups.

3. Extension Time

I know this isn't an option in every situation, but it's worth mentioning: another way to structure leveled/ self-paced learning is to set up time outside of class for students to work on "belts" and independent practice. There are several ways to set this up depending on your teaching situation:
  1. Set up a recess/ before or after school time that is designated as "open studio" time when any student can come in to test, get help from you, or practice with their friends.
  2. Set up a recess/ before or after school time that is designated as a testing time. In this case I have students sign up in advance so that I make sure I have time to listen to those that come prepared to test.
  3. Provide students with a way of sending in recordings of themselves to "earn belts" and/or show their independent learning. They could send in audio or visual recordings via email, upload to a school portal/ shared drive, or set up a call with you to play live.
I use this as a primary method of structuring leveled curriculum when I either need to move on with other topics in class or want to work primarily in whole-group instruction in class but also give students at either end of the spectrum a chance to continue working at their own pace as well.

4. Self-Paced, Simultaneous Practice

Of course you can also have all of the students work individually at their own level at the same time in the same room. The drawbacks are obvious- the noise level and general chaos of having so much happening at once- but when used sparingly it can be a useful way to give students the opportunity to work on independent practice skills when you can monitor and guide as needed. A few tips for making this work:

  1. Even if they aren't necessarily working together, having students who are working on the same song or skill practice in the same area will make it a little less confusing for you and for the students. I designate certain areas of the room for each "belt"/ level and go around to each group to offer my help to the entire group at once while the others are practicing independently.
  2. If you want to give students the chance to practice independently but the noise level is prohibitive, try having half the groups practice without mouthpieces and then swap every few minutes. Not only will this dramatically decrease the noise level, but it will also give students a chance to focus on fingerings, which is generally the most difficult aspect for students anyway.
  3. Have resources available, and systems in place for students to use them independently, so that they do not need your help to answer their questions. Fingering charts, note identification reminders, copies of all the music, practice technique reminders, and extra instruments/ alternatives for students who forgot their recorder should all be accessible for students to get on their own as needed. I keep fingering charts and copies of each song students are working on on a wall display- click here to see my post on how I set that up.
I rarely spend an entire class period on simultaneous individual practice, but I do like to incorporate time for this for part of the lesson most days, especially when we first start self-paced practice for their "karate belts"- I find it gives me a chance to see who is able to practice independently and offer guidance to those who don't.

There is no right or wrong way to structure recorder lessons- I try to keep a close eye on student motivation, individual progress, and engagement levels to figure out the most effective way to structure my lessons from day to day, and that changes throughout the unit, from year to year, and from class to class! Different groups will respond differently to each way of learning and that will change over time as well, so having all of these options available and ready is the best way to go.

If you haven't already, be sure to click here and read all of my other posts on recorders. You can also find all of my lesson plans and materials in my 3rd grade curriculum resource here. And you can get timely resources and ideas sent straight to your inbox, including overviews of my K-6 lesson plans each month, by getting on the Organized Chaos mailing list:

Monday, February 19, 2018

Stress Reducing Strategies

With winter dragging on and on, holidays past, germs spreading everywhere, and daylight still in short supply, this time of year can get stressful. Today I'm sharing some of my favorite ways to manage my stress levels at home and at school and make sure I'm taking care of myself. Most of these are quick and easy things I can do in the middle of the work day, in the middle of making dinner and supervising homework, or any other time I feel stress levels creeping up!

1. Give yourself a break

This time of year I often find myself pushing hard to do #allthethings before spring kicks in and my schedule gets crazy. Planning ahead and pushing myself to do my best are great, but if and when I find myself getting stressed and overwhelmed, it's helpful to take a step back and give myself a break. This can mean a lot of different things, but I try to give myself permission to take the "easy way out" and give myself a chance to relax a little:
  • Eat out or order takeout on a weeknight. 
  • Stop trying to cram so much into my lesson plans- allow my students to take more time getting settled at the beginning and transitioning at the end of the lesson, and if we have extra time, have a quick dance party.
  • Throw on a movie or watch a TV episode instead of trying to push through that to-do list all the time.
The most important (and most difficult for me) part of this is to release any sense of guilt. I'm no good to anyone at home or at work if I'm overwhelmed and stressed. 

2. Drink a tall glass of water

I've seen this advice so many times and I vaguely agreed with it in the past, but I have become a huge believer in the last few months. Any time I feel tired now, the first thing I do is pour myself a big cup of water. I've found I can slurp it down a lot faster when I drink through a straw, so I keep a tumbler handy on my desk at school and on my kitchen counter at home. It really does make a huge difference! 

3. Phone a friend

I know this comes more naturally to some than others. I have a dear friend from college who still seems to know just the right time to text or call or message me, remembers every holiday/ birthday/ event, and follows up on anything I share with her. My youngest sister is a busy law school student but still finds the time to squeeze in "just because" phone calls with friends and family all the time, and even makes visits to her friends and family across the country a priority. When I get busy, communicating with people is one of the first things to go- my response generally is to hunker down and plow through my to-do list rather than take the time to talk about it. 

There's definitely a healthy balance of doing and talking, but for me, I need that reminder to make the time to talk to people. I never realize just how many thoughts I have swirling around in my head until I sit down with someone who wants to hear about me and my life. Just getting it "out there" makes such a big difference in my stress levels.

4. Exercise/ stretch

I'm not someone who exercises for the purpose of exercise. The older I get the more I realize I probably should, but realistically it just isn't something I am motivated to do. Obviously if you can, going for a run, hitting the gym, or going to an exercise class are all great ways to reduce stress. But there are some quick, easy ways to get in some exercise (of sorts) that help me in particularly stressful moments as well:
  • Turn on some upbeat music. Sing and dance to it like I'm on Broadway.
  • Do the stretch I shared in this previous post a few times.
5. Listen to music

I've developed a list of go-to songs that I can turn on when I feel the tension rising. Sometimes I need a calming song, sometimes it helps to listen to something upbeat and fun, and sometimes I find it helpful to turn on one of those deeply touching songs to get inspired and refocused on my priorities. Here's a previous post with some of the songs that have gotten me through some of my most difficult moments- check out this list if you're looking for some new songs to add to your own stress-busting song list!

These ideas aren't rocket science, but I think we can all use the reminder this time of year to make sure we are taking care of ourselves. What are your favorite stress-busters? Leave your ideas in the comments!

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