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Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Problem- Solving Circles in Elementary Music: Giving Students Ownership

I'm returning to the topic of circles today to explain how I plan to implement "problem-solving circles" in my elementary music classes to help students take more ownership in dealing with larger group issues that negatively impact our classroom climate and/or the smooth running of our lessons. If you missed it, be sure to go back and read last week's post where I introduced the concept of circles in general and talked about how I will be using "community-building" circles more regularly this year as well- I'll leave a link to that post at the bottom of this one. Today though, we're focusing on circles that target problems that are sure to arise at one point or another in music class.


First let's talk about when I plan to use problem-solving circles.

I do NOT intend to use these circles to address specific incidents with specific individuals in the class that are bothering a few specific people. I tried it last year, and upon reflection, I don't think it's very effective in the music room- these are best saved for homeroom classes in my opinion (for a number of reasons). I also don't want anyone to think that is something they can do without proper training- it took quite a bit of intensive practice and study for me to learn how to mediate that type of discussion effectively. So we'll set those issues aside.

What I DO plan to address are patterns of behavior within the class as a whole that are negatively impacting our class time. Some examples of this type of problem that I've seen in my classes in the past:

1. the class as a whole has a negative opinion of music class in general, or certain types of activities (like dancing, writing, or listening)
2. the class as a whole consistently takes too long to start or end class and/or activities within the class period
3. the majority of the class has trouble choosing their own group members / partner to work with

These are all patterns of behavior that the majority of the class, if not all, contributes to. 

Now that we know what we're talking about, let's talk about how I will run these circles. Again, it's important to note that to really gain a good understanding of how to run these circles in your own classroom, you should look into training in Restorative Practices- here's the link to find something in your area.

The first step is the same as in the community-building circles: everyone (myself included) sits in a circle. I pick an item (an unplugged microphone or puppet/ stuffed animal works well) and establish the ground rules: 
  • we will go around the circle in order until everyone has a turn
  • only the person with the item is allowed to speak- this means even you as the teacher are not allowed to comment or ask follow-up questions when someone speaks (unless you need to intervene to avoid hurt feelings/ misunderstandings/ arguments)
  • we will only go around the circle once- each person will get 1 turn only
  • anyone can choose to "pass"- if they change their mind before the end of the circle they can ask to reclaim their turn at the end
Once the ground rules are established, I present the problem to them by stating what I see happening and how it is negatively affecting them and their learning (so I might say something like, "I've noticed that we often lose a lot of class time because of our transition into the music room"). Then I'll ask them to share their thoughts in 1 of a few ways:
  • offer suggestions on why they think the problem is happening (without pointing out any specific individuals)
  • offer suggestions on how to improve or fix the problem (without placing the responsibility solely on others- they need to include themselves in the solution)
  • share how the problem has negatively impacted them personally (again, without pointing out any specific individuals)
Depending on the group, I might limit it to only the second option, so we are only focusing on solutions. But if I think it's appropriate and the students can handle it, it's nice to give students a chance to process and analyze the problem- sometimes giving them a chance to share how the problem is affecting them and why helps them find a solution!

Once we've gone around the circle and given everyone a turn, I'll sometimes ask specific students a follow-up question. Once we've discussed it, I will try to consolidate their suggestions into a workable solution to the problem. If we can (like in the case of poor transitions), we'll practice our solutions a few times to help us remember and see if it works. Then we'll try to come to a consensus on the best steps for improving.

One thing I also do is to make sure to alert any other teachers that might be involved so that I can get them to reinforce our solutions- often that's the homeroom teacher, but it might also be the principal, the other specialists, or someone else who might be involved. And I always make a note about our conversation on that class' seating chart so I remember for next time too!

This process will definitely be more time-consuming than simply telling students what to do, but I believe in the long run it will instill a greater sense of responsibility and ownership in students and make the positive behaviors more sustainable. 

If you want to read more about circles in general, and about the community-building circles I hope to use more regularly in my classes this year, here's last week's post:


What are your thoughts on problem-solving circles in elementary music class? I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments! Read more of my thoughts on behavior management here.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Parenting Preschoolers: opportunities for choice

Parenting preschoolers can definitely be a challenge! With 2 preschool girls to parent mostly alone, the biggest thing I've learned is the importance of choice. One of the best ways to give young children a sense of independence and empowerment is to give them choices. And I've found that with my girls, the more choices they have, the less tantrums they tend to have, and the more agreeable they are when I have to give a directive. But when you know they aren't exactly equipped to make good choices for themselves, it can be hard to think of ways to give them choices! Today I want to talk about some simple, practical ways I've found to give preschoolers more choices on a daily basis.

This post contains affiliate links.

A lot of my original thinking behind giving my daughters more choices came from the book Parenting with Love and Logic, which I highly recommend. One of the principles they discuss in the book is finding ways to offer choices where either choice is acceptable (not preferable, acceptable!). Although as parents we often know better than they which choices will make them happier, more comfortable, or bring better long-term benefits, the key is to focus on choices they can make that won't hurt them or anyone else around them by offering options that are all reasonable.

With that thought in mind, here are some of the ways I offer my daughters choices on a regular basis:

1. Clothes


Yes, these are *actual* outfits my daughters wore to school this past year. No, they are not exactly coordinated (although current style trends seem to be more friendly to this sort of mixing and matching these days!), and yes, they are wearing knee-high socks over their pants. But they picked them out themselves, they were happy with their choices, and they were dressed appropriately for the weather and occasion. The key is to make sure they know how warmly and how formally to dress, and then give them free reign! I don't, for example, let them wear their floor-length dresses that their great-grandmother gave them to play on the playground, and I don't let them play in the snow in short sleeves (although they could wear a sweater over it or a long-sleeve shirt underneath!). But I do my best not to intervene when they pick out crazy outfits or wear pieces the "wrong" way- after all, when else can they be as creative with their clothing and get away with it? To be honest, I've gotten a lot more playful and bold with my own clothes because of them!

2. Hair

This is related to the first point, but it's worth mentioning for the girls: let them choose their own hairstyles and hair accessories! I honestly don't have time to do their hair much on school mornings, but when we do have time, especially on the weekends, the girls decide if and how they want to style their hair and pick out their hair ties, clips, or anything else they need. Having everything organized so they can get what they need without spilling tiny little rubber bands all over the bathroom floor is key here- read my post on how I organize everything below:


3. Meals

My daughters have been planning and making dinner once a week since they were about 4 years old, and we all love it. How much you can trust your preschoolers in the kitchen will vary with each child, of course, but any preschool can pick out foods and, at the very least, help with the preparation! Once again, the key to making sure it's a reasonably well-balanced meal is to give parameters- I tell them that to make a "good" dinner, they need to have a vegetable, a fruit, and some kind of "main food". Other than that they're on their own, which sometimes leads to some interesting choices but a lot of fun food adventures!

You'd be surprised at just how much kids this age can actually do in the kitchen. To read more detail about what my daughters do and how, check out this post:


4. Dishes

Even when the girls aren't picking out the food, they usually pick out their plates / cups / utensils. These plastic rainbow-colored dishes from IKEA are the BEST THING EVER, and I also have my "grownup dishes" in different colors from Fiesta. Plus they're much more willing to set the table when they get to pick out the colors of the dishes! ;) To see how I store and organize the dishes to make it easy for the kids to take care of them by themselves, check out this post:


5. A "last thing"

This one was a HUGE revelation for me. When it's almost time to leave the park (or other similar place where the kids are playing), I give them a few minutes' warning. Then when it's almost time to leave, I tell them to pick their "last thing". That means they each pick one more thing to do before they leave. It cuts down SO MUCH on the tantrums over not wanting to leave when it's time to go!

Parenting preschoolers is no easy task- I hope these ideas will make your life a little bit easier! How do you give your littles opportunities to make choices for themselves? I'd love to hear your ideas in the comments below :)

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Making Every Voice Heard in Elementary Music: the benefits of circles

In any classroom with more than, say, 12 kids, it's a challenge to make sure every child feels heard- feels that they are an important contributor to the class and that their opinion is important. This challenge is only magnified when you factor in the short and infrequent classes that elementary specialist teachers tend to have, not to mention the hundreds of students in dozens of different back-to-back classes that the teachers are trying to keep track of! But the longer I teach, the more I realize just how important it is to "behavior management" to make sure every voice is truly heard in my classroom.


If you've been around these parts for a while, you may remember me mentioning the training / professional development that I've been attending the last few years on improving school climate and, most recently, Restorative Practices (here's the official website for this approach to "discipline"). One of the key components to this approach that I've been learning about is the use of circles.

"Circle time" is nothing new to elementary school teaching- I'm sure all of us remember sitting in a circle at some point to have show-and-tell time, or talk about the calendar or today's weather. In music class, I've been a huge believer in the benefits of drum circles (read about my favorite drum circle lessons, and my tips for drum circle logistics). There is something uniquely powerful about gathering in a circle as a community- everyone can see and hear each other, and nobody is positioned "above" anyone else. 

What I've learned through my recent training, however, is the benefit of making "circles" a more regular practice in the elementary music room. There are 3 types of circles I am planning to implement more consciously and regularly in my classes this year: community-building circles, problem-solving circles, and applied learning circles. Today I want to talk about the first one (since it is the one I'll be using most at the beginning of the year), and over the next few weeks I'll talk more about each of the others as well.

Sidenote: if you're interested in learning more about Restorative Practices (which I highly recommend you do!), please see if you can find a training session near you. Here's a good starting place to find opportunities in your area. What I'll be sharing here are my own thoughts on how I am, or plan to, apply the general strategies and frameworks to my own teaching situation. 

Community-Building Circles

I'm not using the "official" terminology here- I don't want to replace actual training- but basically the idea behind what I'm calling "community-building circles" is to build community by providing structured opportunities for every child to share something about themselves in a fun, non-threatening way. 

Here's how it goes: everyone (myself included) sits in a circle. I pick an item (an unplugged microphone or puppet/ stuffed animal works well) and establish the ground rules: 
  • we will go around the circle in order until everyone has a turn
  • only the person with the item is allowed to speak- this means even you as the teacher are not allowed to comment or ask follow-up questions when someone speaks (unless you need to intervene to avoid hurt feelings/ misunderstandings/ arguments)
  • we will only go around the circle once- each person will get 1 turn only
  • anyone can choose to "pass"- if they change their mind before the end of the circle they can ask to reclaim their turn at the end
Once the rules are established, I ask an easy, get-to-know-you type question. Here are some examples:
  • What is your favorite color/animal/sport/season/food?
  • What is your favorite instrument/musical genre/performing artist?
  • Tell me about one of your heros.
  • Tell me one thing you love/appreciate about the person to your right.
  • Tell me one thing you love about yourself.
You get the idea. The point is to pick a topic that is non-threatening and doesn't require too much thought, but gives everyone some insight into each person.

Hopefully the benefits of doing this type of circle activity regularly are obvious, but let's talk about them briefly anyway :)
  • This is the perfect way to get to know students, which can be difficult when we have so many for such short periods of time! And once the students get used to the procedures, the circles generally don't take more than a few minutes. 
  • Often by learning about your students, you can tie those interests into your lesson planning- maybe you find out that tons of kids in one class are really into Mario, so you include a reference to the Mario theme in one of your lessons on articulation. Or maybe it gives you some insight into "That Kid" that you're struggling to connect with- if you can get them to tell you something about themselves, it opens the door for more conversations to start fostering that relationship.
  • This can be a perfect segue or introduction to any lesson- if you're doing a song about winter, you can start by asking everyone what their favorite thing about winter is, or if you're going to be talking about major vs minor, you can have everyone tell you their favorite song and then go back later and discuss which one each of the mentioned songs are.
  • Having these types of exercises built into your classroom routine regularly just gives children a sense of belonging, of feeling heard, of being valued. It's impossible for us as music teachers to keep track of who answers questions most often, who has gotten a turn on all the games, and on and on. This is one way to guarantee that each child has had an opportunity to be the center of attention and share something about themselves.
I am hoping to start doing these types of circles about once a month, since I see most of my classes twice a week. I'll definitely do them more often at the beginning of the year, and then as the school year gets into full-swing and the classroom communities become more established I'll start spacing them out more (and start getting into the other types of circles I'll be discussing more in future posts!).

What are your thoughts on doing these types of circles in elementary music class? Have you ever consciously made them a part of your regular routine? I'd love to hear your thoughts- share them in the comments below! If you want to read more about my "behavior management" strategies, click on the image below to visit my post that has most of my ideas compiled in one place:


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Monday, August 14, 2017

Craft Supplies for Home Decor: paper cutouts

I hope you've been enjoying my little series on using craft supplies to make easy, cheap, home decor! Today I have a few simple projects using paper cutouts. I've used paper flowers for all of these, but if you go to your local craft store you'll find paper cutouts / die cuts in all different shapes and colors (or of course you could make your own). These are all great ways to spice up boring things and add a personal touch to your space :)


First of all, if you're not sure what I'm talking about when I say paper cutouts or die cuts, here's what I'm talking about:


I often find them on clearance in craft stores, and there are always different seasonal sets, like fall leaves, or even different animals (which would be so cute for a kid's bedroom or playroom!).

The first project is one I've shared before: adding some flowers to the top of push pins. For these, I took 2-3 flowers in different sizes and layered them on top of each other, putting a tiny blob of craft glue in the middle of each one to attach them. I love these! They add so much color to my bedroom wall. Click the picture to read more about that project:


The next two projects are new (and I'm more than a little excited)! I recently updated my daughters' bedroom in their requested fairy garden theme, so I pulled out the paper flowers again for a few projects :)

The first was simple: add a longer pull to the ceiling light switch! I tied some string I had on hand around the short metal pull that came on the ceiling light so that it hung down low enough for the girls to reach. At the bottom of the string, I attached 2 layered (as in the previous project) flowers, sandwiching the string, with a little gemstone in the middle of each flower. Isn't it adorable? And so much easier for little hands. The girls can't stop turning the light on and off ;)


You may have noticed the second project in the photo above: DIY flower bed canopies :) I got these plain bed canopies from IKEA and, as before, made a whole bunch of layered flowers with the tiny gemstones in the middle. Then I used the same craft glue to sandwich the net between two sets of flowers (so that they look nice from the inside or outside).


Aren't these fun? And so easy :) I hope these ideas give you some inspiration for your own projects. Have you used die cuts / paper cutouts for any of your own home projects? I'd love to hear your ideas in the comments! And if you haven't already, be sure to check out my previous posts from this series on using washi tape and scrapbook paper for DIY home decor ideas :)

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

3 Books for Back to School Music Class

I love using children's literature in the music room. It brings ideas to life and sparks kids' imaginations! This summer I discovered a few new books at our local library that I can't wait to use to kick off the school year with my elementary music classes.

This post contains affiliate links.

Each of these books is perfect for motivating students to do their best in music class, each in a slightly different way. Click on the picture to find the book on Amazon :)

1. Mole Music by David McPhail




This book tells the story of a mole who, inspired by a violin player he sees on TV, practices the violin every day for years and years and learns to make beautiful music. At the end of the book, Mole imagines how his beautiful music might change the world, and it does (without his knowledge). This is a great book to both talk about the power and importance of music but also the value of persistence and hard work. Mole definitely didn't start out sounding good! This will be a great way to talk about the many times we will have to work hard and keep practicing to get it right in music class this year.

2. Song of Middle C by Alison McGhee



This book is about a girl preparing for, and performing in, her first piano recital. In talking about her practice beforehand, she talks about how she imagines the characters in the song to perform it "with artistry" (great way to introduce the importance of expression!). Although she is very well-prepared, when she gets on the stage her nerves get the best of her and she forgets her piece. But she ends up improvising a song by playing just middle C in lots of different ways- like thunder, like wind, like a question- and receives a standing ovation. I am always talking to my older students, especially, about performance skills. So many of my students get extremely nervous performing in class, and I always tell them to just pretend like it was fabulous and continue on no matter what mistakes they may make. And I think I will steal the expressive ideas for when we're learning new notes and practicing them on the recorder! 

3. The Really Awful Musicians by John Manders


This book is set in Renaissance period and includes lots of extension opportunities. There are Renaissance instruments, characters named after (and embodying) music vocabulary (like "Fortissimo", the sackbut player), and even a reference to the invention of musical notation. But the reason I think it's perfect for back to school is because of the overall message that musicians have to listen to each other and play as an ensemble to make beautiful music- if everyone just does their own thing and ignores the other players, they'll sound awful (and in the case of this book, get eaten by alligators)! What a great message to send at the beginning of the year! One of the unique features of music, unlike other school subjects, is the emphasis on team work. This book will get kids thinking about the importance of ensemble playing right from the beginning in a humorous way that kids are sure to remember.

What do you think of my new finds? I can't wait to share these with my classes at the beginning of the year. What are some of your favorite books to use in music class? If you want to see some other books I use to teach more specific musical concepts, go check out this post:


Looking for more ideas for the beginning of the school year? Download my September lesson plans for 5th grade for free right here.

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Monday, August 7, 2017

Craft Supplies for Home Decor: Paper

Scrapbook paper has got to be one of my favorite things! And it is wonderfully easy to use in so many different projects, even home decorating. If you missed it, last week I shared my favorite ways to use washi tape for home decor. Today we're talking about my favorite home decor projects using paper! These are all easy and budget-friendly, so I hope you'll give some of these a try!


I've shared quite a few home decor projects using scrapbook paper over the last few years! Most of them are what I call "functional art", meaning they serve as organizational tools, but because of the pretty paper, they're also decorative! ;) Here are some of my favorites (click on the picture to visit the post and see how I did them):

1. Dry erase organizers


2. Magnet boards



3. Corkboards / wall art


The other project I want to share with you is not mine- it has been on my list of "future projects" for a while now but I'm waiting until I can finish a few other projects first: drawer lining! For kitchens and bathrooms I plan to put clear contact paper over the top of the scrapbook paper, but for other places you can just use the paper as-is. So fun! There are tons of tutorials on this project, but this one from "In My Own Style" is my favorite:


That's about it for home decor projects using paper! I hope you found some new, simple ways to personalize your home. Have you done any home decorating with scrapbook paper? I'd love to hear your ideas in the comments! :)


Tuesday, August 1, 2017

My Favorite Warm-ups for Children's Choir

With limited rehearsal time, finding warm-ups that 1) can be learned quickly, 2) are actually effective in warming up the voice, 3) teach important skills or concepts, 4) are easy enough for very beginning young singers, and 5) aren't boring for the students can be a real challenge! Over the years I've settled on a few favorites that I love for beginning choirs (3rd grade - 5th grade or so) that I wanted to share with you today.


1. The Counting Game

I'm always surprised at how difficult this warm-up is! This one is great for getting brains focused, expanding range and, if you get to the extension warm-up, working on part work.


I'm sure you get the idea. For beginning choirs, I start with just "Part I", working in different keys to expand range, for at least a few months. Eventually we work on Part II, which is of course much harder since they're counting backwards. I extend this with my more experienced groups by having half of the group sing each part simultaneously. Of course you can also do this with solfege instead of numbers!

2. Many Mumbling Mice

I'm not even kidding, I start playing the accompaniment for this and half of my choir (no matter the age) starts squealing! They love this one, and it's a great way to work on phrasing and other expressive elements, as well as diction (for obvious reasons).


Obviously you repeat the pattern going up (or down) a half step each time. Once they get the hang of the words, I have them speed up gradually each time. Once we get to a reasonable speed, I have them work on singing the whole thing legato, particularly connecting "mice" and "are" in the first measure. Depending on the pieces we're working on, this is a great one to have them experiment with different moods, dynamics, and vocal timbres because of the smaller range.

If you're curious, the accompaniment I play on piano is a simple 1-5 bass line on beats 1 and 3, and the root position minor triad on beats 2 and 4. Nothing fancy because I have to be able to play pretty fast once we speed up!

3. Yes / No Game

This is a great way to get brains going while practicing or introducing particular melodic or rhythmic phrases. The conductor sings (or chants, if you want to just focus on rhythm) a short phrase, and the choir echoes it back. BUT the choir has to use the opposite of the words the conductor uses, so if the conductor sings "yes, yes, no, no, yes", then the choir sings back "no, no, yes, yes, no". I always start this by sticking with just one word or the other, but it can get pretty crazy once you start mixing them up (as in the example above)! When the pattern I was aiming for comes up in rehearsal, I'll have them echo it with yes/no again to remind them and then practice the phrase in the music- they'll quickly recognize the connection!

4. Excerpts

This is similar to my last warm-up example, but taking a short excerpt from a piece to introduce or practice a specific element is another great warm-up. Unless the lyrics in that phrase happen to be really interesting (or I'm specifically working on the diction etc), I'll often change the words to something silly, and then repeat it going chromatically up each time. Then when the targeted excerpt comes up in rehearsal, if they are struggling, I'll point out what we did in the warm-up and the light bulbs go off!

That's it for my favorite warm-ups for beginning children's choirs. What are your favorites? I'd love to hear them in the comments below!

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Monday, July 31, 2017

Craft Supplies for Home Decor: Washi Tape

Raise your hand if you've ever used craft supplies as home decor! I've found that many craft supplies are also perfect home decor items- they're generally cheaper than buying pre-decorated items, there are infinite color and pattern possibilities, and in most cases they're easy to change out if you're renting (or just flaky). Plus if you're like me and already have a craft supply obsession, this just gives you another excuse to buy more pretty things! ;) Today I'm kicking off a series on using craft supplies in the home with my favorite item: washi tape!


I've actually shared quite a few ideas for using washi tape in the home already, so I'll share those posts below for you to see more detailed ideas. But the applications are probably pretty obvious: washi tape is a great cheap and temporary way to add colors and patterns to almost any surface. And of course you can use it to attach things to other things, like hanging (light-weight) pictures on the wall. Click on the images below to see some of my favorite projects:

Disclaimer: some of these posts are OLD! No judging my beginner photo skills from years ago! ;)





Washi Tape Gallery Wall:

Mail Sorters:

I hope you found inspiration for some new home projects! How else have you used washi tape in your home? I'd love to hear your ideas in the comments below! 

Sunday, July 30, 2017

July Favorites 2017

I hope you have all been enjoying this month- I know I have! I took my daughters on vacation, worked on plenty of projects for school and home, and spent plenty of time outside playing with my girls. This really was a month full of amazing things I loved, but here are some highlights from this past month.


1. Updated girls' bedroom


Believe it or not, my 5-year-old daughters have been sleeping in their same (converted) cribs until this summer! This month I finally got them new beds, and updated their room decor while I was at it. We went with a "fairy garden" theme, and I made most of the decorations myself- I'm so happy with the way everything turned out (and they love it too)! These flowers were one of my favorite parts. I'll share more details on this blog later this summer, but stay tuned next week for a new series on using craft supplies to decorate your home ;)

2. New triangle holders


This is, quite literally, a small thing, but I couldn't be more excited about my new triangle holders! I got these from Groth Music and I can't wait for the kids to see them when school starts. SO much easier to hold without the triangle spinning around every time they hit it, and much easier to get them out and put away without the holder falling off! 

3. Summer planner spreads


As much as I love my "regular" weekly lesson planning spreads during the school year, it's so much fun to have the space and time to play around with different decorating techniques and supplies. Space is always at a premium in my lesson planning spreads, so having room to use some bigger stickers, post-its, and other supplies feels like a luxury :) (If you're wondering where these weekly calendar templates came from, they're in the business planning section of my #PlanMyWholeLife planners- you can get that section separately here as well). 

4. Blog posts

Oh my goodness, there were so many awesome blog posts I read this month I don't even know how to narrow it down! If you aren't already, you NEED to go follow the MusicEd Blogs Community page on Facebook. Tons of bloggers share awesome, timely content every day- I am always so inspired reading the posts from all over the internet! Here are some highlights from this month:






I hope you found some new inspiration to help you get motivated for the new school year! If you want to see more of my "favorites", head on over to my Instagram page- I share my favorites from home, school, and more all the time there! What have you most enjoyed this month? What are you looking forward to for August? I'd love to hear from you in the comments! :)

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