Summer Goals

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It hasn’t quite hit me yet – that the usual, daily grind has been postponed for a couple of months. Part of it has to do with my current misery – I’ve been coughing and sick for a couple of days now, coming to a head last night when I came down with a low fever and spent most of my evening huddled beneath blankets and binge-watching HBO. Tonight, I’m at least upright, and this time it’s binge-watching Hulu, but still – I’m not poolside, or even gardenside, by any means.

When I have unbooked time, I habitually create goals. Sometimes it’s just vacuuming and laundry, others it’s plant a whole garden. With two and a half months ahead of me, let’s see what I can do with the time and willpower I have.

1. Grow food!

With the homestead shopping spree still remaining that – shopping, not purchasing – we have piles of seedlings in our window sill with no destination. If we plant now, we’ll move without our seedlings (I joke that’s the only way to find “the” house – by planting the garden, we’ll jinx ourselves into finding the “one” the next day). We had hoped to have a plan by now, but to be honest, there isn’t one. I’m thinking we’ll go ahead and resort to what we did four years ago at our last house – a patio garden! It’s hardly sustainable, and goes against almost all of our hopes and dreams for improving soil, but growing in pots does provide homes for our seedlings and food for our table.

2. Finish my certificate.

For the last two summers, I’ve been working on levels I and II towards my Kodaly methodology certification – each level is offered for 5 hours graduate credit at Wichita State with a two week, ultra-intense course in the beginning of June. Since getting my level I, I have found a wonderful and satisfying new path with my teaching – a child-centered approach that uses folk songs from our student’s cultural traditions, all while enhancing their music literacy abilities to the fullest. This year will be my last of three levels to complete – which will bring me not only my status up to “Kodaly-certified teacher” but also my master’s degree status to “15 hours completed” – and this fall I’ll start in on the rest of my coursework to finish a master’s.

3. Buy a @#$^ house already!

Can you tell I’m feeling frustrated? I heard an NPR report that said in this past quarter of housing sales, houses have sold faster than they ever had in a decade. I can’t tell you how many houses we’ve looked at or gotten ready to look at only to arrive and find out an offer (or 3) was already on the house. It’s exhausting. It’s tiring. We’re at the point where we are happy to get a house with a big backyard just so we can build equity with something, but even that has been hard to find! It’s really stressing me out, so that means I probably ought to…

4. Take a yoga class or learn to meditate.

This school year, especially the last few months, have been stressful. I’m ashamed to admit how often I’ve broken down in tears or how often my husband has gotten some kind of exhausted or facepalm emoji through text the last couple of months. I. Need. A. Break. I’ve barely had time for myself, none for my friends or family, much less patience for any of the aforementioned. I’m going to start with some organizing to help me feel in order and then just some plain old sleep. It’s wonderful how therapeutic being in the garden can be, so as soon as I feel up for some exposure to allergens I’ll head out to the garden to weed and explore with the kitties.

Longterm, it would not be a bad plan for my mental health to establish a yoga or meditation routine. Even YouTube has some fabulous guides and gurus, and quite honestly I just need to step up and recognize how much I need this and do it already!

5. Get some thorough work done on my long-term planning.

In order to know what to teach, you need to have an end goal for your students – what do you want them to know when they leave your classroom at the end of your school year together? From there, when do you want to teach those goals, and how? With what resources or focuses? I want to take time to develop my concept plans and long-term planning, now that I’m entering my fourth year of teaching. My first several years were about experimenting, surviving, trying new things, and seeing what fits – how long it takes to teach a concept, that sort of thing. Now that I feel like I have the handle of it, it’s time to think broader, more deeply, and with more effectiveness.

 

Most of all, I want to spend time with myself, my friends, my family, and to relax. After all, it is summer.

Graduation

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It’s that time of year – wrapping up lesson plans and packing away supplies for the summer, endless graduation parties, saying goodbye to our students. For me, it’s a particularly-tough end of the year, saying goodbye to a hundred little faces that I’ve loved for the last two years. Part of the heart-wrenching part of working for a school district is just that – we work for a district, not a school, and our contract isn’t tied to a building. With numbers and circumstances changing, one of my school assignments is changing, so today I gave hugs and love to my little ones as I said goodbye on their last day of music.

While for so many, the end of the school year marks the end of an era – the end of 5th grade, the end of college, and, for some teachers, then end of a career. As I sit here on the couch, nursing a late-spring fever and miserable cough, I’m reminded that it’s never really the end, but merely the restart of another lap around the track. We’ll toast to the end of another year, schedule vacations, put our feet up, but we start the preparation for next fall as soon as our students walk out the door. Come this fall, we’ll be greeted with a similar batch of excited, beaming faces intermixed with tired, unsure ones and still need to inspire them to the same results through our teaching. We’ll face the same, miserable stacks of paperwork, exciting workshops with new ideas, complain about the same types of issues, celebrate the victories, and face that student that just makes you want to cry after trying everything. (Today, I had that student laugh at me and try to hurt me by saying that I must be getting fired if I’m moving schools, to my dismay and to the shock of all his classmates. Unfortunately, no explanation would persuade him from thinking it was the truth – and I left today hoping dearly I had made some kind of difference in this poor child’s education, with all the struggles we’ve had. It was not a good morning.)

But alas, the years don’t always get to end with a perfect, wonderful goodbye – sometimes they are messy and imperfect. All we can do is learn from each day and let it (hopefully) influence the next experience for the better. For a teacher, our years are a cycle, of hard months to exciting months, of challenging students to sweet notes on Valentine’s Day, of evening concerts to a much-needed summer vacation. While our students may close their books and move to the next school or graduate from their last classroom ever, we continue in the cycle – to rinse, refresh, be inspired, and begin again.

Happy summer, my friends.

Hurdles

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The past couple of days I’ve just been reminding myself to breathe. We’re taking small steps at a time towards our homestead – we’re at the point of getting insurance lined up, but until I have the keys in my hand I’m not willing to call it ours! We walked around the property and thought it felt too good to be true – close to town, 2 1/2 acres, mature trees but ample growing space, a wood stove, and a dock on the lake. We’re jumping hurdles at the moment, one piece of paperwork or check from my checkbook at a time. The finish line still feels laps away, so until we’ve crossed it we won’t call it a victory just yet.

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We’re at the point in the year where students are under stress from assessments and we teachers are trying desperately to keep them motivated, interested, and engaged while also not checking out ourselves. I have a few more lessons planned with my students, mostly to wrap up some work stations with recent concepts: we presented la in 1st grade, eight & two-sixteenths in 4th grade, and we’re diving deeply into instrument families in 2nd grade. My 5th graders are working on guitar, 3rd grade trying out recorder, and my kinders wrapping up their program. We’re about to tie up a nice and neat knot on our year, and what better way than to get out some of that extra energy with some folk dancing? We’ll spend the last three or four lessons just dancing, from traditional folk dance to maybe even the Macarena or the Cha Cha Slide (I mean c’mon, I can’t have these 5th graders not ready for their middle school dances!). I’m looking forward to wearing my comfortable dancing clothes for the last couple of weeks and having little to worry about in terms of lesson planning – all it takes is gathering a list of dances for each of my grades and prepping the music to go along. Heck, we might even go outside with my Bluetooth speaker!

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After crossing the hurdles with school, it starts to come down to cleaning and prepping our rental for the move. We have our inspection on Friday for the house, and if all goes well I’ll start making moving plans this weekend. I have garlic in the ground from last fall and onions from this spring, so the time will come to decide to take them with me and try transplanting or to let them be a gift to the future tenants. They’ll love to have 93 onions, right? It will be bittersweet to leave our rental – we’ve lived here for three years and have made so many memories here, from helping install a beautiful patio with our landlord to toiling over the garden every season to try to improve the hard, clay soil. I know it’s silly, but this home is where we had our second “baby” – Olivia, our little girl cat, has only ever known this house with us, and she and her “brother” love basking outside on the patio and chasing squirrels around our yard. There’s an emotional hurdle to cross when we leave, for sure. This home has been just that – our home. I will miss it when we move, though I know we have some wonderful times to look forward to wherever we end up.

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My last hurdle is my prep for my level 3 Kodaly course – the past two summers, I’ve enrolled in level 1 and level 2 certification courses through Wichita State University as part of my master’s degree. (Am I now regretting the financial impact of enrolling in 5 hours credit for the beginning of June after settling closing costs mid-May? You betcha.) Learning a new methodology for my teaching has changed my career – it gave me direction, inspiration, creativity, and a path to lead my students to true music literacy. It’s been an exhausting and thrilling three summers, and this year is the last I need to get my certification! I’ll spend two weeks in intensive courses and there is a bunch of homework I have to complete before I head down to Wichita – close to 50 songs to analyze for classroom use and multiple others to find myself for analysis, research, and presentation. Whew!

A month from now we will be days away from the last day of school and maybe even signing our contract on our house, and that sounds unbelievable even as I type it! Deep breath. Gotta keep my eye on the finish line.

Eco-Friendly Classroom Ideas

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We’ve done so much in our home to be eco-friendly – we installed a bidet, use washcloths in our kitchen rather than paper towels, cut down on our mini fridges (sorry, hubby, the one in the basement for band practice had to go!), bought more natural products and invested in ones that have less packaging, bought more items in bulk, use handkerchiefs more than tissues (not as gross as you would think) – the list goes on. But I suddenly realized that my paper product – and plastic product – consumption at school was nothing like what I was attempting to do at home. My room was filled with plastic storage, hundreds of copies were made – and thrown away – each week, I had filing cabinets stuffed with papers I don’t use… the guilt set in. Every other part of my life was filled with trying to do the sustainable, green, and healthy thing, yet why couldn’t I do it at work?

A lot of it comes down to standards – it’s standard and okay to make copies every day, to use color ink on your bulletin boards, to have filing cabinets bursting with lesson plans, ideas, projects, student files, and more. But I want to challenge that standard.

Just because it’s always been done that way doesn’t make it right, or what YOU have to do.

This being said, we all have to approach our journey towards earth-happy practices in our own time and at our own pace and scope. If you don’t do these things in your room, that doesn’t make you a bad or evil person. If the progress you make today is to just be more aware of it when you walk into your classroom on Monday, then that’s progress that shouldn’t be ignored or belittled. If you are inspired to dump your filing cabinets in the recycling bins this summer and switch to Google Forms for tests and lesson plans, then all the power to you!

Here are some of my goals and accomplishments, so far, at achieving a more earth-thoughtful classroom:

1. Make fewer copies.

I have 420-some students, and that makes for a LOT of copies. And if we do a semi-school wide activity, like program evaluations or end of the year summaries, that means so much paper and ink consumption. And let’s be honest, where do those copies end up after they get used? While I’d love to think these worksheets get cherished, we all know they end up trashed at home.

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I recently purchased these sheet protectors from Amazon – we used them for a write-the-room activity before break where my 2nd-5th graders had to find flashcards that a little leprechaun friend hid around the room. Each grade level practiced their own rhythm sets – but for my 300 students using this activity, I only had 25 copies made.

 

2. Reuse as much as possible.

When I make manipulatives, I try to make them sturdy and long-lasting to get as much out of them as possible. I believe firmly in the power of the laminator and the use of cardstock – the heavier paper and lamination helps turn my projects into long-lasting and strong work. Beat charts and card games that I printed and laminated my first month of teaching are still going strong three years in. Write-the-room cards, scavenger hunt pages, exit tickets, you name it – make one set, laminate, and reuse!

3. Plan smarter and slimmer.

There are some times in your career when scripting lessons is important – first year of teaching, observations, new lessons. But do you need to write your script out for every lesson every day? If you’re like me, you go through 7 lessons a day, 1-2 times a week. If I printed each lesson on it’s own piece of paper, that’s close to 420 pages per year. Let’s round that to 500, allowing for extra paper for your program prep. With 500 sheets of paper in a ream, that 6% of a tree. Multiply that over 5 years, and you’ve used 30% of a tree. Over a 25-year career? One and a half trees of paper. No, thank you!

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I threw together a simpler lesson plan for myself with smaller boxes to abbreviate my lessons and had them printed so that 4 grade levels would be on one sheet – 2 on the front, 2 on the back. What used to take 7 pages of print now takes 1.5 – cutting my paper consumption down by nearly 80%. Teachers Pay Teachers has piles of lesson plan templates – go explore!

Alternatively, you could go all digital – I investigated the idea of an online lesson planning software or even just using Google Docs to type my lessons and transfer them to my iPad’s Google Drive. Explore, and see what’s best for you – I’m still a tactile person that wants to write my lessons by hand, so the smaller lesson plan is working best for me right now.

4. Go digital as often as possible.

In addition to the idea of digital lessons, what about switching your tests and quizzes to a digital version? If you’re not feeling super tech-savvy with using Google Forms to take musical tests with adding pictures of melodic or rhythmic patterns, you can at least start with a performance evaluation that is digital. I made this for my 1st graders, and I was shocked at how easy it was for them to sit down at one of my iPads and take it while we watched our video performance after the program. I set up my 5 classroom iPads at my desk and had five students at a time come over and take the test – they were done within 1-2 minutes and only had to type in their name. This eliminated 450-some performance evaluation copies each year – and each year I read through them and then trash them, so why continue to throw away resources when I can have all the responses digitized, interpreted, and stored on Google?

Visit Google forms to build and experiment, or click here to visit my 1st grade performance assessment.

5. Re-examine student portfolios.

When I first started teaching I wanted to keep track of everything my students did on paper in their very own folders. I had visions of beautiful, crips folders containing their work throughout the year that would awe and wow parents when it was sent home…ha. This dream instead resulted in bulging and overflowing crates of folders that we would forget to keep updated. I didn’t use worksheets as often as I thought I would, so our portfolios weren’t very impressive. So why do I still have them? There’s nothing wrong with sending any of their work immediately home or hanging it in the hallway to show off to their classmates, and it will make the few paper copies they will use that much more special knowing they will be featured.

6. Switch to all natural cleaners and get rid of hand sanitizer.

Not only does the antibacterial sanitizer not truly kill all the germs (why do doctors wash their hands rather than just use sanitizer spray?), they are very bad for the beneficial bacteria in your body. Your body needs certain kinds of bacteria to fight off the bad bacteria (illness, autoimmune diseases, cancer), and antibacterial products don’t discriminate. Encourage your students to wash their hands rather than just rub down with sanitizer.

7. PURGE the unnecessary.

I’ve done so much work to clean and purge every single year I’ve been teaching. Early on, I was making the mistake of printing everything I thought looked fun or interesting…only to have it stack up in my file cabinets. I spent some time during conferences going through and sorting my cabinets, pulling them apart and recycling everything I hadn’t touched in at least two years. While the damage has already been done by having printed the copies, I can start to eliminate the practice to print automatically and second-guess where and how I’m going to store the random worksheet or newest poster I found.

By taking time to purge your classroom of unnecessary supplies, broken instruments, old and outdated curriculum, resources that are falling apart, missing game pieces, broken CDs, and more, you can also start to take away the need to buy more plastic storage containers or sorting bins. Use only what you need – it declutters your classroom and your mind, keeps your dollars in your pocket, and reduces the amount of petroleum products that are living and breathing in your room. There’s nothing that says your desk can’t still be untidy time to time, but you’d be surprised at how calm you’ll feel knowing what’s truly inside your deepest cabinets and hiding under your shelves and knowing that those items are there for a reason and that they have a purpose.

It’s Time for a Sale!

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As some of you may know, I have a small-but-growing Teachers Pay Teachers store for which I’ve spent quite a bit of time building products. I’ve been recently updating some of my older files and adding a bunch of composition worksheets, since composing and improvising is something I’m really striving to include more of in my own classroom. To say thank you for my supporters, I’ve decided to throw a 15% off sale, Thursday 3/23 through Sunday 3/26! 

Here is a preview of some of my new and updated items, including some sugary-sweet peeps for Easter!

 

“May I Have This Dance?”

Happy Monday…or shall I say, happy that Monday is over? Our day at school had its ups and downs – we had the full moon at our backs, we’re wrapping up a 3-day weekend, and this is the week before spring break. Tonight, however, I’m choosing to focus on the joy we experienced today – my 4th graders rocked at the grand left and right in one of our folk songs and some of my students started using my break corner with great success. Plus, my students really enjoyed our shamrock improvisation activities! I’m realizing how important it is to put me as the human, not as the teacher, first and to focus on the positives. 

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Every day, I face students who thrive and students who need that extra boost, as well as students who make every direction and activity difficult, and I find that these kiddos cloud my thoughts in the midst of the joy I am trying to find. For a variety of reasons, students who are oppositional or defiant can turn our lessons upside down and wrench our control away in a heartbeat, and its so frustrating to not know how to help them (or not hand them the exact ammunition to pull you to pieces) and lose face with my students in an attempt to reckon with them. Today, I received an email from our school social worker with this intervention document attached, and I wanted to share it with you, because I spent the next half an hour memorizing it!

“May I Have this Dance? Effective Interventions for Oppositional and Defiant Students”  presented by Sharon Blanchard MS, LPS and Dr. Jeanie Johnson

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I’ve already used several of these tactics with some of my most difficult students, and I have found them to be incredibly effective. This document not only talks about why students are (and got to be) defiant, but it provides ways to navigate issues with students for when they say, “This is stupid,” “You can’t make me,” or try to push all of your buttons. What I also love is that it discusses how you can make things unintentionally worse and how to develop conversation tools to deepen your relationship with the child. This is a treasure trove – I hope it will help you like I think it will help me unlock some of my toughest students. 

Improvising Shamrocks

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I can’t go to Dollar Tree anymore.

I end up walking out with piles of craft foam shapes, treat baggies, stress balls, decorations, storage bins and a thinner wallet anytime I go there. I purchased some shamrock shapes at least two years ago and hadn’t come up with an idea for them yet, so I put them to use with some improvising practice this past week.

My 4th graders just learned eighth-two sixteenths – “ta-dimi” we call it – and we are in the process of introducing some improvising methods to my second graders, so I was able to kill two birds with one stone with this activity.

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I took four shamrocks at a time and created beat charts – I chose to laminate them because the sparkles on some of the shamrocks got everywhere, though is did make the charts a little warped in some cases. We paired these with dice I made on foam blocks – I made one set with quarter note, two eighth, four sixteenth, and eighth-two sixteenth and another set that just had quarter note, two eighth, and quarter rests for my 2nd graders.

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In groups, the activity started as a way to practice clapping rhythms. One student would roll the dice, arrange them in the pattern of their choosing on the board, and clap the pattern before passing it on to the next student. But after a while, I’d take one dice away, and then the assignment changed – it was time to improvise! The last beat, now blank, would be filled in with a rhythm of that student’s choosing. After a few minutes of getting comfortable improvising one beat, then we could take two dice away and improvise two beats. Continuing this process, we can wade in to the deep, scary side of improvising slowly and get used to the water rather than just demand the students to make music on the spot in front of their classmates.

We’ll continue using these beat charts this week and adding some Irish folk dancing and games to wrap up before spring break, and a couple of grades will do a “write the room” activity where they have to hunt around the room for flashcards I’ve hidden and copy them on a worksheet. Hopefully the spring weather will warm up and help the trees be as green as our classroom before St. Patty’s day!

Pushing the Reset Button

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Sometimes I’m jealous of my husband’s video games.

Last night we played Resident Evil 4 together, and by together, I mean that I kept dying at the hands of those stalker zombies and I needed some professional intervention. Watching him take the wheel – er, joystick – and navigate expertly without worry made me jealous, because these games always spook me and make my heart pound. What if I messed up just around the corner and set myself up for failure? I’ll probably die and have to do it again, and that’s no fun.

Video games, though, let us do what we can’t always cleanly do in life. If I messed up in the video game and started over, the companion girl I’m trying to lead to the next save point doesn’t carry a grudge about how I messed up or and she can’t decide to skip out because it’s not so fun on the 9th try. I can always push the reset button and get a clean slate.

I wish I could always do that with teaching.

I have more failed lessons than I’d like to admit. What’s frustrating is that it’s not for lack of trying or lack of love. We teachers pour our hearts and souls into our lessons and do everything we can to have a successful day, researching new ideas and trying new experiences to help out that tough class or that challenging kid. We give and give, and yet there are some days when all of those best laid plans not only get shoved aside but are doused with lighter fluid and thrown into a flaming dumpster. And rather than be able to get a clean slate next time, those students will remember that flaming dumpster and your lame attempts to put it out. Last week, I had a flaming dumpster day, and I was searching for the closest thing to a clean reset I could find so we could put our class back on track and back on the path of joy.

Without going into details, the group that helped me send a lesson into a fireball of chaos is a group that has students who suffer from emotional/behavior disorders and alongside typically-developing students who struggle with respect, listening, and anger issues. Tempers can make things volatile and we’ve worked really hard to find a happy balance and make our classroom a musical place of joy as much as we can. But Monday had it out for us.

I left school that day feeling like the worst teacher ever. I wasn’t providing my students with the right steps or plans to set them up for success and they didn’t enjoy the lesson, much less the interactions with one another.

I set out to make their next music class one of joy, success, and where I, not the distractors, was back in control of learning – and it worked.

I made a couple of key decisions for our next class period that helped us find that reset – and it left me dancing a happy jig as my smiling students left the classroom. Now, the next trick is to keep this momentum rolling, of course, but we’re back at the “Start Game” screen, and that’s the first step.

1. We didn’t talk about the last class period.

The first decision I made was to not talk about the last class period. I saw the couple of uneasy glances and sighs as they walked in the door, all leftover from the unhappy memory of the last class period explosion. I answered them with smiles and happy greetings – today was going to be a new day, and it was going to start with my attitude and me believing in my students. There was no point in rehashing what had happened last time – I didn’t want to sour the milk of today’s lesson and have my students reminisce about how they got in trouble or how music class wasn’t a fun place to be.

2. We reviewed the rules.

We started off with our class opener and then, with a smile on my face, I asked for students to help me review what our class rules are. It was important to me to remind everyone what the expectations were when no one was in trouble so that this was a reminder and goal activity, not a pointing-fingers activity that inadvertently shamed the student who just caused the infraction. We took some time to talk to our neighbors about different music scenarios and how to work through them and make a positive choice.

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3. I implemented a break corner.

Self-regulation is a vital skill to learn – those of us who navigate our adult lives successfully don’t understand how wonderfully we really have it. We know what will trigger us to be sad or angry, we know how we will typically react, and we have already worked through and understand the processes of how to suppress the need to lash out or cause harm and to channel our feelings in a more productive way. We also know how to keep those issues from damaging relationships. It’s second nature. But for some of our students, they don’t have that filter or it comes with much more difficulty. In them, we see shutting down, shouting, knocking over chairs, lashing out at friends or us, defiance, and vengeance-seeking.

This issue with self-regulation was one of the downfalls of our failed class beforehand, so I asked my students, “How many of you have ever had a bad day?” All hands went up. “Now, when you’re in a terrible, awful mood and you feel angry or you want to cry, do you usually feel more comfortable with a bunch of people or when you have breathing room and quiet?” They all agreed that they wanted space and quiet. My portable classroom at this building is small, but I do have a back hallway where the restrooms are located and that morning I set up a basic little “resting spot.” This spot was just inside the hallway but visible to me from 90% of the classroom, yet secluded enough that a student taking a break doesn’t feel like they’re still in the middle of the room, or even within arm’s reach.

I purchased a timer and some fidgets (stress balls and a fidget maze – you can push a marble through this little felt maze that helps you focus on something external and tangible) and told my students they could take up to one break per class and for up to 5 minutes. They would be expected to start the timer, use a fidget if they wanted, and put things away and come back when the timer was up. My students seemed very interested in it, and I had a couple of students remove themselves to try out the spot. Now, did all of those students really need a break? Maybe not, but I only allow them one break and after a while it will not be as novel or fun for students and will see less use. However, having it available at all times means it will be there for when a student flies off the handle and needs a moment to cool off so they can rejoin positively.

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4. I gave the students new seating arrangements.

We’d previously been using a circle on the floor to sit, but I decided each student needed clearer boundaries and a new format. I pulled out our chairs and set them up in a C shape and rethought where I had placed some of my students and by whom – I tried new pairings of classmates and made sure to put some of my students who thrived on classmate attention in corners or in the back so it would be harder to gain attention from friends.

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5. I put the students in charge of supporting one another.

We were using our SmartBoard that day, and they love the interactive features in our QuaverMusic curriculum, so I would choose students who were calm and quiet to use the interactive features and “run” class. Everyone wanted the chance to go up and touch the SmartBoard, so I put it to work for me!

At some point, there’s only so much listening students will do with adults. They value what I say and what I do and why, but there is also an element of peer pressure and peer acceptance that influences their actions in ways that I cannot, so I found time in my lesson to step back and let them hold each other accountable.

I would pick a student who was modeling good behavior and ask them to come up to the front of the room to navigate on our interactive resource, for example, but then rather than me choosing another helper I asked the student to choose someone who was listening quietly and following directions to take their place. I love using this, because even my craziest Kindergarten class will sit bolt upright, perfect their criss-cross applesauce posture, and smile silently and expectantly at the helper at the front of the room.

After setting up the exchange of helpers, I took a step back and stood behind the class to observe and turn over the reins to them. The students started searching for people who were following directions, and the interest and drive to be chosen by a classmate, to be labeled as someone who was doing the right thing, transformed how they were working. They were holding each other responsible, motivated by wanting to participate in a fun activity, and I wasn’t involved and having to play the “bad guy”!

Now, we still had a few issues with excess talking, but setting up these five aspects of my lesson helped provide natural supports and set up my students for a successful class that was night and day compared to the previous class period. I left school that day smiling and thrilled that we were back on track – and so relieved that we had found the closest thing we could find to a reset button in teaching.

 

 

My Top 10 Favorite iPad Apps for the Elementary Music Classroom

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Let’s talk iPads! From one to 1-to-1, no matter how many iPads you have can be an excellent way to extend your students’ learning and engage them in one of their favorite (for better or for worse) items – technology.

First off, don’t be scared of technology. The most wonderful thing about it is that your students will probably not only figure out any issues you might encounter but might help discover new features or ideas within the apps you use. You should, of course, preview anything you show (check for inappropriate ads or prompts to purchase upgrades). Sometimes when we get a new app or find a new website, I’ll have the students help me play around and explore. We’ll experiment a little bit and then reconvene – what did you find? What didn’t you understand?

I’ve compiled a list of my favorite 10 apps – most are free, some can be used at stations and some can be led by the teacher during whole group. Feel free to explore them, try them out, and let me know what others you have fallen in love with!

1. GarageBand ($)

This is a STAPLE. GarageBand has so many opportunities and options for you! It is wonderful for our students because the Smart Instruments and the loops provide no-fail ways for your students to compose their own projects. The tempos default to the same speed as you record new tracks and the loops tend to overlap in key correctly (not all, but they tend to work more often than not).

When we need to practice singing a song but need to shake up the repetitions, I’ll ask individual students to select and piece together a Smart Drum track to accompany us. Talk about instant interest!

New on the iOS update is this new “Live Loops” feature – suddenly your students can be their own DJ and mix together dubstep loops, Chinese modern loops, funk loops – you name it!

2. Rhythm Cat Lite (free)

This is a great app for your upper kiddos – Rhythm Cat Lite (or the paid version) will help reinforce rhythms with your students. I’d start this app with 2nd grade after they’ve learned half notes – the first couple of levels start right off with quarter notes and half notes and then extend to whole notes and dotted half notes. It’s not quite in line with typical Kodaly sequences (it’s probably better for piano students) but it’s a great way to practice rhythms kinesthetically (by pressing and holding the button for the durations).

Also, kitties!

3. Falling Stars (free)

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This is a fabulous app to explore timbre and creative sound. My Kindergarteners beg to play this game! Simply put, you choose a leaf pattern at the bottom, draw with your finger, and then let the stars fall on the drawings and listen to the result. Each leaf pattern makes a different sound when the star falls on it – we use it as a way to start discussing timbres and how sounds are differentiated from each other.

4. DoReMi Zoo (free)

What a great way to practice solfege! My students use this at stations with flashcards – they play the keyboard on the screen and hear the patterns as played by the iPad. You could also use this as a way for students to hear their compositions – while I want to trust that I have perfectly built up their aural skills, I know they aren’t perfect, so this let’s them hear accurate patterns and helps to reinforce the correct skills and not best-guesses.

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5. Playpad (free) img_0091

This takes a slightly different direction than DoReMi Zoo (app #4). This one makes sound wherever you touch on the staff – this helps students translate notation on the staff to sound or reinforce patterns.

6. Incredibox ($) img_0090

MY. STUDENTS. LOVE. THIS. APP. And what better way to teach ostinato? Incredibox is also a free website (incredibox.com) – students choose a clothing item to put on the character and it creates an ostinato pattern. Some are melodic in nature, some rhythmic, some beatboxing – layered on top of each other, they create a fascinating and fun set of songs! The combinations are endless, and my students could play this for days.

7. Monkey Drum (free)

My K-2 students use this one for rhythm practice and composition. Monkey Drum has an echo portion where you tap the drum and the monkey answers – your students can play this with flashcards or compose their own patterns for the monkey to play. There is also a song builder that uses pentatonic scales to set up simple repetitive patterns that the students control.

8. Camera & Video App (free)

It’s easy to forget about this included app, but the camera provides lots of ways to accentuate and help your teaching. I particularly love using the video app for recorder – I’ll go through and record how-to videos for different songs or different concepts (all done in the comfort of my own home!) and the students can go back and review the videos as needed.

I also use the video app for my students when they’re ready to test for Recorder Karate belts – I can only listen to so many at a time when I’m working one-on-one during a class, plus my more introverted students love being able to work on their own time with just an iPad watching them.

Need to increase your contact with your parents? Start a newsletter, and take pictures of your class doing different activities in class, and send out a few action shots! It’s free advocacy for you (How many parents really know what you do? How many administrators really know what you do?) and scores you credibility and visibility into your classroom. (Plus, your students love to pose for the camera!)

9. Noteworks (free)

There is a free and paid version of this app. This particular app does a helpful job of reinforcing naming notes on the staff. This is great for 3rd grade and up. Do be mindful that the first level is middle C to G on the second line of the treble clef, so this app does very well if you work on notes below the staff as well as just the lines and spaces. It’s a competitive, interactive game that challenges you to perform at varying speeds – you have to either name the letter or play the note on the piano before it gets incinerated at the end of the assembly line. My piano students loved this when I taught private piano lessons – plus, you can change the speed of the notes to challenge your students as they get more comfortable.

10. Sand Timer (free)img_0085

This last app might come as a disappointment to you – but don’t write this app off so quickly. Having some kind of visual timer for your students can clean up so many loose behaviors when it comes to collaborative or individual activities. I will put up this timer on our projector screen when we are doing worksheets, group work, playing an iPad game, taking turns using Kagan strategies, practicing recorder independently, working in stations – anything for when my students are engaged on their own and might be able to drag their feet or miss a transition. Having a visual timer let’s them check on how much time they have left to complete, gauge whether they have time for an extension activity (if I’ve provided one), pace themselves on their worksheet, or just keep a mental awareness that a transition is happening soon and they need to be prepared (I have so many students who require prep before a transition to a new activity). Also, if there’s a sound with your timer, it helps save your voice from trying to shout over the students or hope they pay attention to your quiet signal. With a timer, it’s an inanimate object giving the students the instruction to clean up and transition. You can’t argue with the timer or think the timer is being unfair – and thus, the timer becomes a teacher’s best friend.

What are your favorite iPad apps? I’d love to hear what works in your classroom!

6 Ways to Avoid Burning Out

bedtimeThis week was rough. I was tired, my students were emotional and upset, some of my lessons didn’t go the way I planned, I had a lot of physical prep to do for a music program (moving 12 xylophones, a stereo cart, a PA system, baskets of finger cymbals and mallets, and a guitar all from the portables to the main building by hand), and it was just that kind of week. Unfortunately, for teachers this can happen a lot, and not because we’re bad teachers, but because of the nature of our job – we take in our students and promise to work with them no matter where they are mentally that day. Ready to break all the pencils in the basket? Come on in. Didn’t eat dinner the night before or breakfast today? I might have a granola bar for you – let’s eat up and get started. Unable to process your anger and cool off because you’re in your 4th foster home? You can go out to recess to get a break even after you screamed at me for asking you to wait to use the bathroom. Exhausted because you didn’t sleep a wink after listening to your parents argue all night? I’ll let you close your eyes while we watch a music video but then it’s time to get up and sing.

I’m nearing the end of my third year teaching, and it has been both the longest three years and the shortest three years all at the same time. Before I started my teaching job, I heard from so many people that teaching is the greatest thing you can do – you’ll feel so happy and fulfilled and want for nothing as long as you have those smiling faces to greet you every day. I was alarmed, though, when it was October of my first year and I was exhausted and ready for a break – I was tired before I even got out of bed and had so much anxiety about doing well at school. When I started a new rotation of lessons I would have butterflies every morning – what if these lessons failed? What if the kids saw right through it and refused to do anything? What if I was a bad teacher? It was nothing like this perfect dream that others described – and my clientele was so challenging! I teach at lower income schools, one of which is a Title I school, and I had students who would cry and scream in class.

I thought it was all my fault.

I was so worried about what would walk through my door that day and not know what to do. Sure, I could call the office for help, but what had I done wrong that meant one of my students shoved everything off my desk, crawled under a table, and yelled curse words at the class? I was hopelessly unprepared for this level of student need.

I learned after some time that, of course, wasn’t being triggered by me – in most situations, the simple direction or activity had merely been the straw that broke the camel’s back. The students were unstable because of situations at home, instability in their own lives, emotional or intellectual gaps that kept them from functioning on the level of most of their classmates.

But how do you continue to come to work every day? Because let’s be realistic, your students aren’t the only thing you deal with – you have lesson plans, assessments & grading, lesson prep, program prep & paperwork, meetings and professional development, extension activities and remedial work, student support plans, parent communication, newsletters, extracurricular activities, behavior tracking…and that’s only the half of it. Teacher burnout is a real and terrible thing, and it’s something we have to fight every day when we open our eyes and decide to walk in through that door again and greet that kid that you secretly pray would be sick just a few more days out of the year to give you and his classmates some peace.

I don’t pretend to be a psychologist or to have all the answers, but the following things have preserved my sanity in times of need, and I seriously hope that these can help you survive your first few years – or, even remind seasoned teachers who are feeling the burn – and not become one of the statistics about teachers who burn out.

1. Bite off only what you can chew.

Don’t be afraid to say ‘no.’ As hard as it is, you have to say it, even to your administrator or colleagues. You do no one any favors by saying yes to everything and overworking yourself, or worse; forgetting or accidentally neglecting your duties that you signed up for. (Then, your reputation is damaged and people won’t want your help when you do have the time.) If you are open and honest with the person who asked you to help with the school carnival planning or the site council members who asked you to head an after school club, then they should totally understand why and support you. If they aren’t supportive and act annoyed, then you probably shouldn’t surround yourself with people like that and, therefore, you shouldn’t care how put off they are at the idea of taking care of yourself. Come up with your phrase ahead of time:

“Thanks for thinking of me! Let me think on it and I’ll let you know if I’m interested.”

“I really appreciate you thinking of me, but I think I’ll have to pass. Please ask me next time, though!”

“Thanks for asking – I think I’m going to have to decline, I’m trying to not overload myself this year. Please let me know if I can help in a small way!”

It’s important to thank the person for the offer – they didn’t have to come to you or take the time to ask, so be sure to validate their request and show that you are grateful that they thought you would be helpful.

2. Take mental health days.

You get so many extra days per year as per your contract – USE THEM WHEN YOU NEED THEM. Whether you are stockpiling for maternity/paternity leave or not, when you are just at the end of your rope and feel like you desperately need a break, TAKE A BREAK. I see so many colleagues say that they just have to be here or that maybe they can fake their way through the day, but are you really helping your kids if you have Reading Rainbow on for half the day and do barely anything for the rest? Sub plans are no fun, but if it means that you can sleep in and binge watch Netflix so you mind can unwind for a day, then DO IT! You have to make the call on which days you actually have to be there and which days you can hand off lessons to a sub, but I guarantee that you will be grateful for that occasional mental health day to reset. You WON’T be grateful when you’re sick from stress and crying over your pile of grading papers after school.

3. Listen to your body.

This is easier for some than others – for me, I eat pretty well so I can tell the difference between the days I put good things into my body versus days I didn’t and try to respond accordingly. What you need to do is take a few moments every day and stop – how does your body feel in this moment? What hurts? What feels heavy or slow? Why? We all have evenings when we deserve that extra glass of wine or a cheat meal at the fast food restaurant, but your body can start to take a hit if that becomes every night. When your body is busy trying to fix itself because of what you put into it, it can’t take the time it needs to keep you from catching the flu from that overly-friendly 1st grader who insisted on crawling in your lap. If your body is telling you something is wrong, then try to fix it – don’t keep saying, “I’ll eat better next week”, or “I’ll take a nap tomorrow” – fix things now, even if that means grabbing a banana from the teacher’s lounge rather than your sixth cup of coffee. Close your eyes for 20 minutes after school or while you’re waiting for the printer to finish printing your lessons at home. Make time for your body – no one else can do that for you.

4. Do something non-school related in your downtime.

Especially for music teachers – who spend so much time teaching ta & ta-di every day – you need to have a hobby that is adult and all your own. Sing in your church choir, write a blog about gardening, actually garden (yes, a flower box counts!), go bike riding, walk your dog around your local botanic gardens, volunteer at the Humane Society, knit…it goes on. As much time as you feel you won’t have when you’re learning how to write lessons and deal with parents, you must make time for yourself. You are not your job – your only successes and happiness should not exist solely at school. Your principal did not hire a robot to function and smile only at your desk – you are a human with likes and dislikes; now get out there and USE THEM!

5. Have someone – or something – you can rant to.

You are going to rant. There are going to be angry days. Do not turn to Facebook to rant –  this can damage your credibility with your colleagues or even any parents you happen to be friends with on Facebook (I don’t recommend this anyways) – or any parents or administrators your friends happen to be friends with. Don’t put that negativity out there that you’re forced to relive with every TimeHop post. Find someone that doesn’t mind you sharing the tenth story of Bobby rolling his eyes, and open up to them. This might come in the form of a TGIF group of teacher friends – or maybe it’s your cat (kind of wonderful, actually, because they can’t talk back, and they’ll generally snuggle up to you despite your mood). Or, start two diaries – one of happy experiences, one of negative. Document what happened and move on. Heck, even write down a terrible experience and burn it. We all know that fire fixes things…

Anyway, the point is to not carry around the negative experiences – get them off your chest in a productive and simple way, and not in a way that can land you in trouble.

6. Remember that you are still learning, too.

Are you dead? Then you’re still learning. It’s not always in the big, obvious ways that your students learn – but you’re still learning, whether if it’s that you should change the order of your musical concepts for 4th grade or ask John if needs to use the bathroom at the beginning of the period rather than dealing with his constant requests throughout class. You’re also learning new skills to keep your students’ attention, more efficient ways of responding to parent contact, how much prep you actually need for a particular lesson, which type of activities resonate with certain groups of students, and so on. That horrific lesson when all of your transitions between activities failed and you had to stop and re-teach expectations six times? Learn from itand learn to laugh at your own mistakes. There are times when I look at my kids, sigh, and smile, saying, “Well, this didn’t go as things planned. Let’s take a break and play a game and I’ll think of a new way to present this Friday.” It’s okay!

Even 20 year-plus veterans say that every year has its own set of challenges and difficulties and there will always be days or weeks that don’t go well. Like we tell our students to think positively and approach new concepts with the concept of growth mindset, you have to do the same for yourself. Rather than, “This lesson sucked, I must be a terrible teacher”, reflect on what really stuck out as something you need to work on. What aspect are you not really comfortable with yet? Speak with your mentor or trusted colleague, ask your principal for ideas, or even for him or her to come observe your teaching for ideas (their job is to help you be successful, and they’ll be happy that you’re reaching out for assistance when you know you need it!), or see if there are workshops or classes happening in the area to help generate new approaches and methods. Grow your toolbox.

And lastly, remember that you are loved. If you truly care for your students and try your best for them, it will show, and they will appreciate it. You are making a difference, even on your worst days – those crumpled notes of you as a smiling stick figure, the Valentine that says they love you, the complimentary parent email, the extra hug before they leave for the day all prove that and weigh so much more than Monday’s disorganized lesson presentation and that time you forgot about the fire drill. You are loved, you can do this, and it will be summer break before you know it.