Looking back at my own musical upbringing, I was never the poster child of someone even remotely comfortable with improvisation and composition. At the time, I was very rigid with how I viewed music. I read the music on the page, and sang it. That was that. Whenever I was asked to come “off of the page,” I would really start to stress out.
As I began to think of my own classroom, and the curriculum I employ, I knew I had to be aware of my own tendencies to avoid composition and improvisation in order to make sure that my students were given the best I could give them.
My first step towards having students create compositions is having them notate the rhythm of a song they already know using popsicle sticks. While this is not composition by any means, I believe it is a low-stakes way to get students involved in the process of writing music down. Once we’ve practiced this activity for a couple of different songs (I usually do a mix of partner and solo), I move on into having students create their own choices to begin the path towards composition.
Once students are able to feel comfortable and successful in being able to write down a song they already know, I then work on having them take the next step into making their own choices. One of my favorite things I’ve used for this step is having students create a rhythmic burger composition. Not only does this help reinforce form, it is also an easy next step into students creating their own compositions. AND it can easily be adjusted for different ages and abilities by changing the form of the piece (I currently have ABA, ABABA, and ABACA).
I like using this activity for a couple of reasons: Firstly, it is low-stakes and only involves rhythm. Students are able to be successful with relatively low effort on their part. I’ve found that by having more frequent activities like this allow students to build on their compositional abilities with little to no “freak outs” on the part of my students.
When it comes to my older kids, one of my favorite projects is an ostinato composition project that allows students to experiment with four types of ostinato in a fairly easy way! I’ve written out an outline of the structure I usually use for this process at the link below, but the general process starts with students learning the cup song to a known song and then extending that to perform their own parodies with ostinato embellishments!
I’ve been very impressed with the performances of my students each time I have done this project, and I am such a big fan about how students tend to create their own points of extension, which is AWESOME for differentiation!
I love giving students the opportunity to create their own music, and to take ownership in the music classroom. However, I know that I have many students, like me, that are uncomfortable with the notion of starting with nothing and making something new. By guiding students to take smaller steps, I believe we are able to increase student confidence and performance on these types of activities, which is win-win for sure!
I talked more in-depth about these composition resources and lessons in Midweek Check-In #2! If you are interested in learning more about these, you can find the resources, as well as a recording of the live event by checking out the show notes at the link above!
For better or for worse, being a traveling teacher is a reality for a large percentage of music teachers, especially those at the elementary level. While I can vouch that there are definitely advantages and disadvantages of sharing your time between multiple schools, I can also vouch that you need to set some specific procedures for yourself so that you don’t go crazy.
I got my first taste of being a traveling teacher when I was doing my student teaching placement. In this situation, I spent 4 days of the week at one elementary school and the remaining day at another. This situation really made me aware of the differences between the schools, and I had to make sure I was being aware of these differences when I did my planning. I quickly found out that one lesson would not fit both schools.
When I took my current job, I really wanted to make sure that I made an effort to balance both schools. I knew that since I didn’t have any planning periods or lunch at the middle school, it would be easy for me to allow this school to be the other. While I still have work to go to make sure I am balancing both schools, I think I am better off because I recognized how easy it would be to focus on one more than the other.
When it comes to keeping your sanity as a traveling music teacher, my first piece of advice would be to make sure you are always one step ahead of everything. It can be easy to mess up the rotations between multiple buildings, or to leave an instrument or manipulative at a different building on a day you need it. To keep these things from happening too often, I have a few things to share that keep me organized:
1. Stay Ahead on Plans: Especially if you are juggling additional preps between multiple buildings, it can be easy to fall behind on planning. I’ve found myself a couple of times without a finished plan due to a change in schedule or a mistake in the rotation. To make sure that I am prepared in case something like this happens, I try to stay one or two lessons ahead of where the kids are. This also lets me understand my macro-sequence a little better as well!
2. Digitize EVERYTHING: I’m going to start this one with a disclaimer: ALWAYS HAVE A BACKUP IN CASE TECHNOLOGY BREAKS.
But I carry very little paper copies of anything between buildings. My class rosters and grade books are on my iPad, my lesson plans are on Google Drive, and any interactive resources or presentations I use are stored in the cloud. This works for me because I do all of my planning, assessing, and resource organization digitally. I keep my Google Drive organized and indexed so I can find anything I need in a moment.
But again: ALWAYS HAVE A BACKUP.
3. If It Can’t Be Digitized, Make TWO: Obviously there are some things that can’t be digitized. Certain manipulatives, flash cards, sub folders, and song props need to be a non-digital resource. For these, I make two of everything. If I truly believe I will use this resource for multiple years, I think it is well worth the time to make multiple so I don’t have to worry about transporting things between buildings.
Obviously there are certain things, like instruments and more expensive things, that you can’t practically have more than one. But by making multiples of things you can, it cuts down on the crazy amount of stuff that needs to be moved from one building to the next.
4. Spread Some Roots: Being a traveler can be hard. As music teachers it is very easy to feel isolated, and that is made even more possible when you don’t have a home base all of the time. My advice to anyone that feels this way would be to spread roots.
When possible, get out of the music room. Eat lunch in the teacher’s lounge, go to staff outings, get to know the people around you. Don’t let being the other be an option! You are just as important of a part of each school you teach in as those who are there all of the time. You make just as much as an impact on the students you teach. Don’t forget that.
As a traveling teacher, we often find ourselves in the middle of a juggling act: multiple schedules, multiple administrators, and multiple classroom spaces. Sometimes it can feel lonely, and others it’s nice to be able to have that change every once in a while. There are definitely ups and downs to being a traveling teacher, but I know that I still make a difference. I just happen to make a difference at two schools rather than one.
I remember the weeks leading up to my final student teaching experiences: sitting at home over winter break feeling excited and nervous; anxious and apprehensive. After all, this was it. All of my college career was literally leading up to this point. I was finally going to be teaching! I was so excited. This was all that I had ever wanted, and it was just a few weeks away.
But something strange happened as the weeks turned into days. I started freaking out. How could I be ready? How was I supposed to know what to do? What to say? I turned to the faithful internet, and I was pretty disappointed in the lack of music-related posts I found about student teaching. While yes, some of the tips I found on non-music posts could be related to my situation, but it left a lot to be desired as I tried to mentally prepare myself to teach hundreds of students I had never met.
So here is where this lists comes in: these are the five things that I wish I would’ve been able to have known before I started my music student teaching.
1. You Won’t Know Every Students’ Name: One thing that is really hard about student teaching in music is that we have so many freaking students! And depending on how the schedule at your school works, you might only see each group of students a couple of times each week (if you’re lucky).
With that being said, its totally ok for you not to have every students’ name memorized, even by the end of your placement! This is something I still struggle with now, if I’m being completely honest!
My advice to you would be to just try your hardest. Try to remember as many names as you can, and if you make a mistake, just correct yourself and move on! I would also suggest having a seating chart with student names and photos! These can prove INCREDIBLY helpful for memorizing names, or to reference when working with a class!
2. Some People Won’t Understand Why You Are So Tired: One of the crappy things about being a student teacher is being in a weird “in-between” stage. You are on a professional schedule, but you aren’t 100% a professional. If your school is anything like mine was, you might still be forced to live on campus, which adds another facet of “awkward” to it!
I love my friends, but a lot of them (those that weren’t also student teaching) just didn’t understand why I was going to bed early, or why I wasn’t hanging out with them on the weekends like I used to. I truly don’t think they understood the magnitude of what student teaching really is.
Just as an added bonus, I thought I would add a (cheesy) picture of me taken in the morning of my first day of student teaching, and one that a friend snapped of me that afternoon when I got home:
3. It’s Gonna Fly By: If you really look at it, student teaching is so freaking short! That semester that seemed to go on forever when you were in traditional classes will never seem shorter than the year you student teach! It doesn’t help that most student teaching placements are also split placements, so you are only there for half of the semester! I student taught at both the middle school and elementary school levels, so I only got about nine weeks at each placement, which is crazy if you really think about it!
If you are anything like me, you are ready to be DONE with college and just get on with the rest of your life, but I urge you to try to slow down a little bit. Try to enjoy what you are doing. Be a sponge, take everything you can into your brain, store it all for later, and see what happens.
4. They Will Become “Your” Kids: I don’t care if I was only student teaching, those students were mine. I’m not saying that they weren’t my cooperating teachers’, but they were mine too! To this day I have very fond memories of the time spent with the students from my student teaching, and they still hold a big place in my heart.
And do you know what stinks about that? Leaving.
I wish I would have known just how hard it was going to be to leave my placements. Even though I was only there for such a short period of time, I really grew fond of being able to create music with my students each day. And it was hard for me to leave. Its great to feel so fondly about a group of people, but just prepare yourself for it.
5. You Are Gonna Mess Up: Yup. You’re gonna make a mistake. You’re gonna do something wrong. And you’re probably going to say something 100% innocent that your students will take to a very inappropriate place (remember when I said I student taught middle school?). But hey, it is what it is!
I wish I would have known that everyone made mistakes during their student teaching, and it’s ok to laugh at yourself every once in a while. If you’re anything like me, sometimes you can fail in some pretty epic ways! Try not to take things too seriously, and you’ll be just fine. Breathe.
To this day, student teaching is one of the hardest things that I have ever done. But it is also one of the most rewarding periods in my life. Sometimes, being a music student teacher is awful, but I wouldn’t trade the experiences I had (and the knowledge that I gained) for anything.
If you are a music student teacher, or will be in the future, I promise you that everything is going to be ok. Take a deep breathe. Have fun, enjoy it, and before you know it, it’ll be graduation day.
I love using folk songs in my classroom, for SO many reasons! There are so many fantastic songs with great games that I use in my classroom, but I also like using these folk songs to improve music literacy.
Even if it is only projecting the melodic contour of the song on my interactive whiteboard, I have found that by allowing students to have a visual representation of what they are singing helps them connect what they have been singing to what they see in front of them.
One of my favorite ways to have students practice this is by having them be the leader of our class. I give them one of my pointers and have them point to each note while the class sings all together. Not only have I seen this improve students’ abilities to track the notes, I have also seen this make it easier for students when we move onto having them notate the melodies or rhythms of the piece on their own.
Some of my favorite resources in my classrooms are my folk song kits. I created these to give students the opportunity to have that visual representation of what they are singing, as I talked about previously. If you want to learn more about these, I have my folk song kit for Apple Tree available for free on my Teachers Pay Teachers store. You can claim your freebie by clicking the image below.
Taking The Next StepPreviously, I have shared how I like to have students do rhythmic notation in small groups using popsicle sticks and other small manipulatives, but I also frequently use a similar method for melodic notation.
As many of you can attest, the erasers from the Target Dollar Spot are perfect for melodic notation. I have personal staffs in my classroom that allow students to put the erasers (which are the PERFECT size to stand in as note heads) on the lines and spaces to show the melodic contour of the song we are working on.
I try to use erasers that have to do with the song we are singing. I’ve seen that students really buy in when using these, and I will never be going back to using standard manipulatives. Once students have notated the melody, they follow the melodic contour of the piece as we sing it as a class.
Some of my favorite folk songs in my classroom are Doggie Doggie, Mouse Mousie, Apple Tree, Wall Flowers, and sooooo many more! Not only do these songs all have easy elements to extract to reinforce musical concepts, but they have games to them that students love and ask for!
If you are interested in learning more about the Folk Song Kits that I use in my classroom, check out my Teachers Pay Teachers store.
If you search “classroom management” on Pinterest, I promise you will find hundreds upon hundreds of resources and blog posts on how to improve the management of your classroom culture. In fact, that might be how you came across this blog post. To me, this screams to the fact that this is something that many of us out there struggle with. And let’s face it: sometimes getting through a lesson without losing your composure because you have a first-grader in the corner licking a Boomwhacker (even when you aren’t even using any instruments) is all you can do to survive a particularly unruly class. But for me, classroom management all comes down to the culture of my classroom.
In college, I had a methods professor who would always talk about the fact that we as teachers set the culture of our classrooms. While I didn’t realize it at the time, I would come to embody those words. While I doubt any of the information I will be sharing today will be utterly mind-blowing, or cause you to completely rethink your classroom management structure, I think it can be important for us to take some time to look through the culture of our own classrooms through the lens of our students.
1. Set Clear Expectations: I know, I know- this is one of those things that you hear people say allllll the time! But that doesn’t change the fact that this is where you can start to get yourself in trouble. How can we expect our students to live up to our expectations if we don’t make sure that they know what we expect of them? This year, I took the first three or four lessons to make sure that I had my expectations solidly explained and understood by my students. Now this doesn’t mean that I only worked on expectations for the first month or so of school! What it does mean is that I was incredibly conscious and purposeful about the activities that I selected.
It is much easier to have students experience your expectations, rather than simply repeating these expectations over and over again until you are blue in the face. Especially at the elementary level, I choose games and activities that allow for students to engage in self-regulation from day one! I have found that this has allowed me to reinforce my expectations instead of just repeating them, or referring to posted rules on my wall.
So what are the expectations that I have for my students? It doesn’t matter if I am working with kindergartners or sixth graders, I expect all of my students to be safe, responsible, and respectful.
I once got into a debate in college with a general education major when working together to brainstorm classroom rules as part of a seminar activity. He argued that my rules were not specific enough, and allowed students to get away with too much. I, on the other hand, thought the exact opposite! I believe that my expectations allow anything that hasn’t been explicitly stated to be absorbed into one of my three expectations, and eliminates that possibility of students being able to argue that their actions and behavior had not broken a more specific ‘rule.’ To this day I believe that having expectations set up like I stated above requires students to think more critically about their own behavior, and make necessary adjustments!
2. Be Consistent: It doesn’t matter if you have the most inclusive, all-encompassing, amazing expectations for your students if you aren’t consistent in your upholding of these standards. My students know that I have high expectations of them in everything they do, and that I am not one to let these expectations go by the wayside when things get rough.
I want to be very clear, I am not advocating for a one-size-fits-all classroom management model. To the contrary, I believe that redirections and responses to student behavior should be as appropriate to each student as possible. But this doesn’t mean that you have to let your expectations slide. Even with students that need a little extra support or redirection, we need to be consistent in making our expectations known, and how these expectations may lead to both positive and negative consequences.
What I am striving for in my classroom is for students to know that there will be a certain level of accountability for their actions. I want all of my students to know that my high expectations come from a place of love rather than a place of “being in charge.” I am fairly explicit with notion, particularly when redirecting students or discussing needed changes in behavior.
3. Let Them Know You Care: This brings me to what I believe is the most important part of establishing a positive classroom culture: making sure students know that you care for them on a individual basis. The often-repeated saying of “they won’t care how much you know until they know how much you care” pops into my mind as I write this, and I can’t think of a more eloquent way to describe this. Students, especially those experiencing any variety of hardships, need to know that they matter to you.
Sometimes this is hard, especially when we as music teachers see hundreds of students each week for an increasingly limited amount of time. However, I firmly believe that not only is this in the best interest of your students, it will also pay out dividends for you as well. If students know you care, they are less-likely to want to disappoint you. They will work harder and longer and strive to make you proud, all saving you time spent on classroom management. Now I’m not saying to pretend to care so you have a smoother class. That would just be stupid. Let’s think of this as more of an added benefit rather than a reason to improve your student-teacher relationships.
Take a few seconds and think back to your favorite teachers from when you were in school. Why did you think of them? Why have they stayed with you all these years? Was it because they knew a lot about the subject they taught? Or was your admiration of them more centered on the relationships they fostered? I am willing to take a wager that the majority of the teachers you remember as your favorites had a good relationship with you, even though they still might have been incredibly knowledgable teachers.
Classroom culture is something that is incredibly important. What makes it difficult is that its something that we as educators need to be increasingly purposeful and aware of in how we plan, implement, and nurture the culture in our classrooms. It’s also hard to change, and can take time to create the kinds of lasting and meaningful changes to create an improved culture within our classrooms. But I promise you that it is worth it.
I urge you to answer these questions on your own, thinking about your current classroom culture: How do you foster community in your classroom? What strategies and methods have you used for classroom management? What has worked? What didn’t? What is something that you would like to try in your classrooms to foster positive relationships? Use the answers you have come up with to inform your next steps moving forward to foster a more inclusive, inviting, and positive classroom culture.
Like a lot of educators fresh out of college, especially those that graduate in the middle of the school year, my first job post-graduation was as a substitute. By the end of my first student teaching placement in March 2017, I was ready to have my own classroom. But life had other plans.
Due to health reasons, I had to split my student teaching placements over two school years. Because of this, I finished my final student teaching placement (thus completing my degree) in October. This is when I was informed that I would have to wait until my registrar deferred degrees in December to be able to serve as a substitute teacher. Needless to say, I was pretty upset. I was itching to get into the classroom (and to make some money doing it), and it seemed like I kept hitting one obstacle after the other.
After some discussions with the teachers at the elementary school I student taught at, I decided to apply to be a substitute educational assistant for the district. I’ll be perfectly honest: on paper it looked like a huge waste of my time. The pay was low, there was a much lower demand for these type of substitutes, so there were many days that I went without a job. But once I started working these jobs, I began to change my tune.
To my surprise, I instantly fell in love with the work I was doing. The majority of my jobs were in Multiple-Handicapped or Autism units. When I first accepted jobs in these units I was anxious about what I was getting myself into. However, once I got into the units I instantly fell in love with the kids and the role I was playing in their education. I began to see levels of patience and compassion from me that I had never seen before. To say that I surprised myself is an understatement. I began taking longer term assignments in these units, and added skills and techniques to work with these students into my ‘toolbox.’
Once I (finally) had my degree officially issued, I began working as a substitute teacher and branching out into a few neighboring districts. Being a music teacher I really didn’t have any experience teaching in a general classroom and to be perfectly honest: I didn’t really know how they worked. After working as a substitute teacher in the general classroom for a couple of weeks, I really began to get the hang of it. Once again, I fell in love with it. I loved working with the same group of kids all day, and I adored working with small groups during rotations.
At first, I was worried with how much I loved working outside of the music classroom. I began to doubt if choosing music education was the right choice when I went into college. I looked into adding endorsements to my license, and how much it would take to become a general classroom teacher. As time went on, I realized I loved teaching. It didn’t matter what I was teaching, I fell in love with teaching students something new. I enjoyed being a part of the educational experience. It took me a while, but I believe I now see how these experiences I have gained can be translated into the music classroom.
My experiences as both a substitute teacher and educational assistant have changed the way I view myself as an educator. Furthermore, once I left the music classroom, I learned more about what my role as an elementary music teacher was. I had gained perspective. I no longer felt as if I was isolated in “Music Land,” but saw that I was a point of consistency as students change teachers, classes, and grades during their time in elementary school. Taking a step away from the music classroom had allowed me to see how it can be used as a support of the general classroom, while still being able to stand on its own in content, standards, and importance.
Like many music teachers out there, I have many students that walk through my door that have experienced more trauma than any child should ever have to experience. These Adverse Childhood Experiences alter the way our students are able to learn, both on physical and emotional levels.
As I have mentioned previously, I spent my first year out of college outside of the music classroom. I had the wonderful experience to be able to work with students on IEP’s and 504’s as a part of the intervention team at my school. This allowed me to become much more familiar with sensory and emotional differences in my students. When I transitioned into having my own music classroom, I wanted to make sure that I used my experiences to make sure that I set up my classroom to allow for all students to be successful.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of ways to make our classroom accessible to students who have experienced trauma in their lives. This is merely the tip of the iceberg, so-to-speak, of how to make sure that we are setting up all students up for success.
1. Meet Students Where They Are:
I really hope that this is not a novel idea for most of us, as I would argue this is one of the foundations of good teaching. However, this is so important that I had to include this at the top of my list.
Our students all have diverse needs. They all have unique life experiences that shape their proficiency in specific emotional and academic skills. As educators, we must meet our students at the level that they are at in order to allow them to show growth, regardless of the concept or skill. We must meet the needs of our students before we are going to be able to see academic growth.
2. Identify Student Needs:
Ok, we’ve acknowledged that our students have different needs. Now comes the important part: what are the specific needs our your students?
I’m going to be honest: this is not easy, especially as music teachers. We see so many students that it can be hard to identify the needs of each and every one of our students. It would be crazy to ask one person to figure out the diverse and specific needs of hundreds of students. Thankfully you don’t have to do this alone.
It can be incredibly helpful to work with the homeroom teachers and Intervention Specialists in order to help identify the needs in environments that are not the music classroom. This information can often be directly related to their needs in the music classroom. Once we have identified what our students needs are, we can start to apply interventions to (hopefully) meet the needs of that student.
3. Apply Interventions to Meet Student Needs
There are so many ways to apply interventions to help student meet their needs. The best thing is that there are so many supports that we can implement incredibly easily. When used purposefully and appropriately, these supports and interventions can allow students the help they need to be successful. Some supports that I use in my classroom include a variety of fidgets (with a variety of textures and tactile feedback), breaks for students, and rewards.
I use fidgets very carefully because there is often a fine line between when a fidget is helping a student and when it is causing further distractions. I set up clear expectations for students that use my fidgets (use them appropriately, they are there to help you focus, etc.) and hold students to those expectations.
I have some students that really struggle with staying 100% focused on music for the entire music class. Sometimes they physically cannot go all of the way through without being able to take a break. A break doesn’t need to be anything crazy, sometimes it could be as simple as allowing a student to go get a drink in the hallway and come right back. Some students may need a longer break. I have one student that physically needs a little bit longer of a break, so their homeroom teacher will come down and walk with him for a little bit before returning him to class.
4. Increase Attention to Self-Regulation
The last tip I wanted to share today was how I think about self-regulation in the music classroom. I have found that putting a focus on practicing self-regulation (especially at the beginning of the year) pays dividends when it comes to classroom management and student behavior. Additionally, I think that this increased focus allows all students to be able to increase their ability to make emotionally-sound decisions, which ideally helps students in all facets of life.
I firmly believe that the music classroom is for so much more than teaching musical concepts and skills. Music is something that allows students to express emotions that they otherwise may not know how to put into words. Don’t get me wrong, this is not something that is easy. It can take a lot of time to put these systems into place, but I would argue that this is necessary. We owe it to our students to put in the work to set them up for success in and out of the music classroom.
Bryson Tarbet is the music educator and blogger behind That Music Teacher.