Friday, September 25, 2015

Beginning to End: Ukuleles

I'm beginning a new series of blog posts called "Beginning to End."  The purpose the of the posts is to discuss the process of teaching elementary music.  So often I am asked how I teach a specific concept, skill, unit or grade level.  It's a challenging question to answer because there is so much that goes into one lesson.  Rather than try to answer a question all at once, I thought it might be fun to blog about some of the things I teach in my music classroom over the course of the year.  You'll be able to follow along with me and my students as we journey through learning together.

I spent the bulk of my summer creating 5-part ukulele resource.  It was a year in the planning and consumed my life for six weeks as I created it.   The fun part for me is that now I am in the stage of using the resource with my own students and we're having a blast!

The Background
Before my students ever had a ukulele in their hand, they...
  • had lots of folk tunes they could sing independently
  • had learned the different parts of the ukulele
  • had learned how to read lots of rhythm patterns (helpful when learning strumming patterns)
  • had observed how to play/care for a ukulele by the teacher (model, model, model)
  • had chosen what ukulele they were going to play (each child has one assigned to them and they play the same one each class)
Day One
The first day of ukulele is such an exciting day!  I don't have chairs in my room, so each student uses a stool to sit upon (MARIUS stool from IKEA $4.99 each).  Then I call ukuleles by color and the students come get them.  (My ukuleles are Mahalo Painted ukuleles and I have them in 5 colors).  I tune them before class but the goal will be to have students learn how to do it.  On day one we learn
  • how to hold it
  • strum hand vs. chord hand 
  • how to count frets
  • the names of strings
  • how to strum on open chords
  • then we PLAY!
That's a lot on day one.  My Sing & Strum  Bundle for Ukulele has lots of visuals to help students through that information.  Once we have all of that, we begin working on strumming patterns (on open strings).  To spice it up a bit, I created a variety of accompaniments on Garage Band in different styles and tempos for students to play along with.  Dr. Jill Reese (SUNY Fredonia) gave me this idea last year and I LOVE it!  In the video below, you'll hear my students on DAY ONE strumming along to one of our accompaniments.  You can download the accompaniment here.  

All of that on Day One!  And in case you are wondering, I see my kids once every three days for 40 minutes.  I don't waste a second of instructional time and yes, every kid has a ukulele!

Check back in the coming weeks to find out what we do next!  If you are looking for a great ukulele resource, please check out my Sing & Strum Bundle on TeachersPayTeachers!

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Let's Celebrate!

A few weeks ago I hit a milestone on TeachersPayTeachers - 500 followers!  My friend, Shelley from Pitch Publications, was nearing a milestone too - 1000 TpT followers.  We teamed up to bring you an amazing GIVEAWAY to thank our followers and CELEBRATE these milestones.

Here's what you do to enter:  Make sure you are following both Pitch Publications and SingToKids on TeachersPayTeachers.  Simply answer the questions on Rafflecopter and you are entered!

What can you win?  A Mahalo ukulele in a color of your choice, a Snark tuner, and both of our Ukulele resources - Sing & Strum and Rainbow Ukulele!  You'll have EVERYTHING you need to rock out ukulele in your classroom this coming year!  Easy, right?  

Enter here for your chance to win!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Music Props on a Budget

Hi!  My name is Jennifer and I love props.  I mean, I really, really love props.  I will try/use just about anything in my music classroom IF it will elicit a musical response.  I have about every puppet under the sun.  I have probably every kind of bean bag made for children: different shapes, different weights, different textures, cloths, fillings (rocks, rice, plastic pellets) - you name it, I have it.  In fact, if I'm being honest, there are times I walk through the dollar sections of certain stores just trying different products to see if they will make for a good prop.  I have a problem.  I know - but my problem is your gain!  So what are some inexpensive ways to get your hands on props?

First, make your list and dream big.  I'm a big proponent of writing my wishes down, no matter how outlandish they may seem.  When I came to my school nine years ago, I inherited a program in decline with very little in the room.  I made a list that included African drums, new Orff instruments, computers, among a million other things.  Within 3 years, I had it all.  So write it down.  All of it.  Then check out sites like  I've had several projects funded by total strangers.  Check out other grant opportunities too.  Meemic Insurance (Michigan/Wisconsin) offer grant cycles three times a year to teachers.  Talk to your PTA and share with them your wishlist.  They may not be able to do everyone thing at once, but they may be able to do a few things at a time!

If you're a Music Learning Theory practitioner, most of your props will be used to elicit resting tone responses.  The prop of choice is usually the bean bag.  If your school doesn't have them - make them!  I purchased a bunch of discounted scrap material and made my own.  You can also ask parents for donations too!  (The advantage to doing that is your "sewing parents" identify themselves!)  Purchase a bag or two of aquarium rocks for filler and you're good to go.  My first set I sewed by hand.  My second set I found a parent to sew them for me.  And if you do have a little money for bean bags, I highly recommend Bear Paw Creek bean bags.  You can get plain ones or textured ones (great for special education students).  You can purchase them directly from the company, or through West Music.

Love me some scarves!  They're great for movement and resting tone responses but super expensive.  If you can't afford them right off the bat, talk to your PE teacher.  They almost always have "juggling scarves" laying around that they use once a year.  The thing I love about the PE teacher's scarves is that they are small and hemmed.  They're a manageable size for little hands and they are hemmed to prevent fraying and tears.  I purchase mine from PE catalogs, which are always a bit cheaper than the music catalogs.  Search for juggling scarves.  

Other inexpensive props include a resting tone ball, streamers, and die-cut shapes made from foam.  The resting tone ball can be purchased at any toy section (Target) and sometimes if you are lucky - your local Dollar Store!  Make sure to wash YOUR hands after every use!  

As for streamers, there are so many great online tutorials on how to make your own streamers.  I lucked into these from years ago.  At the time, they sold them for $1 a piece.  I'm pretty sure I bought 4 dozen and they've held up wonderfully.  I love these particular ones because of the clothe handle!

As much as I love my bean bags, I sometimes feel the need for more seasonal props.  A great way to accommodate for the different seasons is to use your Ellison Die-Cut machine.  Instead of using colored paper, try the flat foam sheets you can buy in any craft section.  They don't tear easily and because they have a little weight, they move differently than paper.  As you can see, I have them for multiple seasons.  Very inexpensive way to get more props for your money.

Lastly, look around your speciality stores.  A friend of mine mentioned she saw a shooting star at a children's boutique.  It's made out of a silky material, so it flows beautifully and inside the star is a little bouncy ball.  It has enough weight to throw across the room, but is light enough not to hurt if it bumps a child.  

What are your favorite go-to props in your room?  What budget saving props have your created for your own students?  Share your ideas below!  I'd love to hear what you use!

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Happy New Year!

This year will be my 20th "First Day of School!"  Honestly, I can't believe where twenty years have gone?  You don't get to be this old (or young at heart) without learning a few things about the first days of school.

1.  Your room doesn't have to be Pinterest-perfect.
Seriously.  I love Pinterest as much as the next teacher, but can we all agree to STOP?  Your classroom does not need to color-coordinated with posters adorning every inch of available wall space.  Make your room comfortable.  Let it reflect your personality, but let everything else go.  It's ok if your room is in process.  You are becoming: becoming a teacher, becoming a colleague, becoming a professional.  Focus on that and prioritize what is most important.  Make sure your room is clean and organized.  Make sure you have well-written lesson plans.  Make sure you have befriended the right people (aka: the secretary and the custodian).  Everything else will come in time!

2.  What you allow in those first days sets the tone for the rest of the year.
I think the most challenging thing for new teachers is the idea that your students should like you.  They will but they will like you more if you set clear boundaries and expectations in those opening weeks.  And here's the toughest part - you have to FOLLOW THROUGH with the consequences of those boundaries.  If my rule is that "rhythm sticks don't touch any thing or anyone else" then I must follow through when they do.  It takes one student to cross that line for the rest of the students to know that I mean what I say, but they will all think hard before any of them do it again.  After all, music class is inherently fun and no one wants to miss out on having fun!  If you wait a month or two to follow through, you will have a tougher time getting a handle on classroom management.  

3.  Communicate with parents.
When I started teaching, I only ever communicated with parents when there was an issue with a student.  About five years into my career, I had a profound realization: I needed to communicate with parents about the good even more than the bad.  I had a little boy named "Tom" (name changed).  Tom was precocious and had endless energy - you know the type!  A new student recently joined Tom's class and clearly had some special needs.  No one wanted to be his partner or sit by him - except Tom.  I remember how tender and kind Tom was towards this little boy and I bit back tears of joy to see Tom's empathy in action.  I decided at lunch that I would call his mom and simply share this with her.  I dialed her number and when she picked up, I introduced myself as Tom's music teacher from school...  Silence.  Huge sigh.  "What has he done now?" his mom asked.  I was taken aback!  I explained to her that he hadn't done anything bad, rather something amazing.  She explained that she was so used to getting negative calls, she simply assumed the worst when I called.  By the end of the call, we were both in tears.  My heart broke for this mom who only expected negative feedback from her son's teachers/school.  From that moment on, I've tried to make it a point to call, write notes home or stop parents in school to say a kind word about their child.  Building a positive relationships with parents is so important!  And when you do have to call home for that "other reason," they know you and are much more likely to receive what you have to say in a positive light.

4.  Take the time to know names.
Many of you are teaching incredible amounts of students day in an day out!  I don't know how anyone keeps up with 700+ students, but I know we all do what we have to do.  On the first day of school, I establish a seating chart.  I know I may need to tweak it as the year progresses, but the reality is I need it!  I want to know my students' names!  One of the best ways to make a connection with a student is to simply know them by name.  I try to write little notes about them on my seating chart  - "likes Minecraft" or "ice skater."  Those little facts help me to connect names and faces.  If you have an iPad, I highly recommend the app iDoceo.  Not only can I create multiple seating charts in the app, but I can also take photos of each child that appear alongside their name.  (And you can print them - in color!)

5.  Breath.
Teaching isn't a sprint.  It's a marathon!  It takes patience, pacing, perseverance and practice. You are going to have moments of greatness only to be followed with moments of utter embarrassment!  You are going to work endlessly on lesson plans that fail in front students.  Don't despair!  Those are teachable moments for yourself, because you will reflect why it went wrong and fix it!  Your best days will be when you teach children instead of teach your plan.  Your happiest moments will be when you focus on those beautiful souls in front of you, instead of the endless meetings you have to attend.  You were gifted a talent not many are given - the gift to reach and teach young children through music.  So when life feels frazzled (and it will), take a moment to breath, be still in that moment that you are doing what you were meant to be doing!

Happy New Year Teachers!  Make it a great one!