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Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Assessment Data Tracking in General Music

Assessment data. How exciting! ;)

Much of a chore as it can be to even think about, assessment data (done right) is massively important to effective teaching- especially when you're teaching as many students as we are as infrequently as we do! No matter how well we think we know our students, it's humanly impossible for us to have an accurate sense of each student's musical development in every aspect of their musicianship without assessment data. The problem is, with all those students and so little class time, data tracking is hard to manage while doing it effectively. Today I want to share some tips to make assessment data tracking in the music room a little bit easier.

1. Know your grading scale

The first thing you need to determine for streamlined data tracking is your grading scale. Whatever you use, it needs to be the same for every. single. assessment. If you give grades on report cards, you should use the same grading scale for your own assessments- that way you don't have to "translate" your grades come report card time. If you don't, pick something that's easy for you to remember, whether it's the traditional A-F letter grades or a simple check system. When I first started teaching, I used a made-up scale: zero, minus, check, and plus. All of those symbols were easy to write and easy to remember. Whatever you use, use one system for everything.

2. Keep it accessible

Wherever you are going to be recording your assessment data, make it VERY easily accessible. Some people like to use their iPad, through apps like iDoceo, to track all of their seating charts, grades, lesson plans, and more. If you're using it regularly and can navigate around quickly without losing class time, that is a great option. For me, I find a pencil and paper is much faster and more reliable. I have a colleague who has her traditional grade book out on her music stand at all times. She uses it for attendance, grades, and more. If you have a place to keep it sitting out, that's another great option. 

I don't like having to rifle through so many papers and find a large gradebook is too clunky to keep on my stand, let alone carry around the room or building, so I keep all of my data on my seating charts, which are housed on a clipboard on my music stand. As you can see in the picture above, I have a set of small boxes next to each student's name where I can quickly mark down their grade. I write down the date and content of the assessment in a "key" at the top of the seating chart. It's quick and easy, and I never have to worry about running out of batteries or losing wifi!

I have streamlined my seating charts and music stand to be rather efficient workhorses in my classroom. You can read more about my music stand organization in this post, and see all the ways I use my seating charts, including tracking data, in this post

3. Clarify the assessment beforehand

Once you have the organizational systems for grading scale and where to record everything, the rest is easy. The most important thing to do before each individual assessment is to make sure you have a clear idea of what skill you are assessing, and what each "level" or "grade" in your scale will look like (what does a D look like vs an A?). Whether you write it out in a formal rubric or just make one in your head, you will make the process a lot easier and faster if you know in advance exactly what you're looking for. You don't want to be standing in front of a class hemming and hawing over what grade to give a student after they just sang a solo in front of the class!

I wrote in detail about the process of designing and giving performance assessments, including a detailed explanation of how to create your rubric for each assessment (written or mental), in this post

4. Be consistent

With efficient systems in place for getting and recording your assessment data, the last important piece to making your data useful and effective is to be consistent. Don't wait until the day before report card grades are due to suddenly try to get a grade entered for every student (not that I've ever found myself in that situation or anything.....)! Plan ahead for regular assessments on a variety of skills, using a variety of assessment strategies, so that students have the best opportunity to show you what they can actually do. You can read more about how to design assessments in the post I already mentioned on performance assessments.

How do you collect and record assessment data as a general music teacher? I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments below. 

If you want to try out my seating chart system to track data, here is a set with tons of configurations. Plan out your assessments to meet the National Core Arts standards with these planning sheets (or get the TEKS version here, and the Ontario curriculum version here). 

Want timely ideas and resources, monthly lesson plan overviews, and updates from Organized Chaos?

Monday, September 25, 2017

Family Fall Bucket List

It's officially fall! It still feels like summer most days where I live, but I am definitely in the fall mood. I've been putting together a family bucket list every December and for summer vacation for the last few years, but because it's right in the midst of beginning of the school year business and winter concert prep and holiday craziness, I haven't ever made a bucket list for fall. So today I'm changing that with my first fall bucket list of small things I want to do with my daughters to celebrate fall!

If you've seen my winter or summer bucket lists, you know that these are not your typical #lifegoals kind of bucket lists- think low-key, easy, fun little ways to be more present in the everyday and savor each season. Here's what I've got on my list for this fall:

  • Visit a pumpkin patch
  • Carve a pumpkin
  • Visit an apple orchard
  • Drink apple cider
  • Make some homemade chai tea
  • Make some pumpkin cookies
  • Go to a fall festival (that perhaps includes a pumpkin patch and/or apple orchard... hehe)
  • Watch the sunset together (now that it's earlier)
  • Make a pile of leaves
  • Jump in that pile of leaves

What's on your family fall bucket list? Have you ever thought ahead about some small things you want to do together as a family to savor the season and enjoy those little moments together? I'd love to hear about your plans in the comments below!

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Assessment in General Music: Performance Assessments

Assessment is one of those things few teachers want to talk about but every single one of us has to do, one way or another. In general music assessment can get pretty murky. With so many students to teach, so little time with each class, and so much material to cover, it can seem overwhelming to find the time to individually assess each student on everything we're supposed to track! I'm going to be covering a range of areas within assessment in the coming weeks, but today I want to focus on one type of assessment that I use often: performance assessments.

What are performance assessments?

When I say performance assessments, what I'm talking about are times when students perform a skill/ complete a task. This is not a test on vocabulary, facts, or other knowledge, but of a particular skill. Because of the nature of music as a subject, a lot of our standards (whichever ones we may use) fall under skills rather than knowledge, whether it's playing a recorder, singing in canon, showing steady beat through movement, or clapping sixteenth notes. So for many of the areas we want to assess, performance assessments are the most natural fit.

It may seem overwhelming to think about assessing every student on every skill, but here are some key things to keep in mind when you're planning and executing your performance assessments:

Less is more

You don't need to hear every student sing a solo aria to find out if they can sing independently in tune. Look at your standards (if you don't have something you're using already, here are the National Core Arts Standards being used in many states in the US) and determine what skills students need to have. Then narrow the assessment task down to the shortest possible way to demonstrate that skill.

That means if you are assessing their ability to read and perform quarter notes and barred eighth notes, you can put 8 different measures with quarter and eighth note rhythms on the board, and have each student clap one of them. You can have the entire class do that in under 3 minutes! If students are supposed to compose a melody using the pentatonic scale, give them 8 bottle caps and have them place them on a printed staff on the correct lines or spaces (read more tips for composition in this post for upper elementary/ middle school, and this post for lower elementary). Put them in partners and have them take turns- you'll have the whole class done in 5 minutes.

The key is to know exactly what skill you're assessing and, as much as possible, make the task all about that one skill.

Spread it out...

If you have a large class or a task that is a little more tedious for the rest of the class to sit through, break up the assessments over several class periods. You'll want to account for students having more or less time to practice- sometimes if I know a student who went on the first day can do it better on the last day, I'll have them do it again- but there's no reason you have to assess everyone in one period.

Last year we had particularly large classes of 1st graders and they were (and still are) an active, squirrely bunch. When it came time to assess their ability to sing sol and mi, even the short, 5-second singing patterns were too much to sit through for those classes! That was one time I spread out the assessments over 3 class periods to break up the monotony.

You can also break it up by having a few students perform at the beginning of the period and more at the end. When I am having my 2nd graders sing mi, sol, and la independently, I use a fun song with lots of movement. Doing that song over and over is exhausting! I always do a few at the beginning of the lesson, move on to something else, and come back to it at the end to give a few more students a turn.

...or Multitask

Depending on what you're assessing, there are some things you can have multiple students do together and assess whether each individual can do it or not- you don't have to have each student perform individually every time. If you're having students clap or play rhythms, there's no reason you can't have more than one student perform at a time- just make sure you watch closely to notice anyone who may be looking at or following other students instead of reading it for themselves. I definitely wouldn't do every assessment as a group, because you're likely to miss some students who rely on others if you do, but for some of them I think you can still get a good idea of their skills.

Always have a rubric

Don't get scared. I'm not saying you have to have a formal, written rubric that you fill out each time you assess a student on any skill. But it is important to have a clearly spelled-out idea of what constitutes an A, B, or C, or meeting the standard, exceeding the standard, or working towards (depending on your grading scale- if you give grades on the report cards, use the report card scale). It's good practice to sit down and write out for yourself what each level would look like, but at a bare minimum you need to think through each one in your head and make sure you have a clear idea of how you will score each performance. Otherwise when you see 5 kindergarten classes over the course of 2 weeks there is no way you will score your students the same way in the first class as you do the last!

In most cases, you can use this simple formula to spell out what each level will look like:

1. exceeding the standard/ A to A+ : uses the skills to do something amazing/ creative
2. meeting the standard/ B+ to A- : does whatever the standard says they'll do
3. working towards the standard/ C or B : makes some mistakes but gets some stuff right
4. not meeting the standard/ F or D : doesn't do anything that the standard says they'll do

Here's one example for an assessment on students performing quarter and eighth notes with a steady beat:

1. shows the steady beat by tapping his foot and speaks the rhythm syllables while clapping the rhythms accurately
2. accurately claps the rhythm with a steady beat
3. makes 1-2 errors in the rhythm, has to start over once, or claps correctly with an unsteady beat
4. claps the majority of the rhythms incorrectly or does not clap

Multiple birds, one stone

OK yes, you're right, I did tell you before to focus in on one skill for your assessment. But skills are so closely related that they can be assessed in one task. If you want to assess their ability to create a rhythm using sixteenth notes and dotted half notes, why not have them use both in one 8-beat rhythm? If they are supposed to create a rhythm and also perform a rhythm, you can first assess their written work and then have them perform their composition. Don't combine things if it makes it more complicated, but sometimes it's easy and natural to combine and it will save you a lot of time and effort!

Work smarter, not harder

All of the previous points boil down to this: don't make this more complicated than it needs to be! Performance assessments are something that we can usually work into lessons pretty seamlessly- we already have students singing all the time, but now we're going to make sure we check to see if each student can sing it by themselves. Find ways to work your assessment tasks into the lessons you're already teaching, and you'll not only make your job easier but you'll make the assessment more authentic and meaningful for the students as well!

Looking for lessons that sequentially address the standards? Here's my curriculum set.

Want to learn how to design your long-range plans and lessons more effectively? Learn more about my free Lesson Planning Made Awesome email course here.

Want to stay up to date on the latest from Organized Chaos, see what I'm teaching each month in my classes, and get access to timely resources?

Monday, September 18, 2017

Visual Calendar for Elementary Age Kids

With so much out of their control, and with schedules changing each day, having a visual calendar is really helpful for young children. Ever since I made my first one for my 2-year-old daughters 3 years ago, we have been using the calendar to track their daily schedule every week. A few months ago I shared how I had updated the other parts of the magnetic board I have for the girls, including a simple to-do list and a monthly calendar. Now that the girls have been in Kindergarten for a few weeks, I have a better idea of what kinds of things are most helpful to track on their calendar. Today I wanted to share what I'm including on their updated visual calendar, along with a free download so you can make your own for your elementary age kids!

Now that the girls are older, their schedule (and how they think about their day) has changed quite a bit. They don't take as many naps, but they need to keep track of field trips, specials, and other school events. They also have more play dates and extra-curricular activities.

For school, I made some magnets that show their "specials" classes: music, art, PE, and library. I also made some computer magnets for when they eventually start having computer lab time and standardized tests (sigh). I also added some magnets with school busses to show field trips,. My daughters' school is on a rotational schedule so I also made magnets with the letters A through E to indicate the rotational day. Since my daughters are in different classes, I wrote their initials on each of the specials and field trip magnets to indicate who has what. 

For home, I added some new magnets too: play dates, dentist, doctor, and haircut appointments, and parties (which I'll use for parties and celebrations at school or outside of school). I'm also still using the ones that show when their meals are, because it's easier for them to keep track of what happens when that way, and the ones with pictures of family members' faces- with going between 2 houses and visiting extended family, it's nice to have those printed so they can see who they'll be with.

Making the magnets is easy! I printed out the icons I wanted with a grid marked off on letter size paper, then stuck it on these adhesive magnet sheets and cut along the lines with regular scissors. Done! If you want to make some for yourself, download the PDF here (I've included a blank one so you can make your own in the same size if you want). I use an auto drip pan for my board, but if you're just making a weekly visual calendar you can use any regular cookie sheet instead!

I hope you can use these to make your own visual calendar for your elementary-age children! If you do, I'd love for you to send me a photo through email or by tagging me on social media :) 

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Top 3 Units for Middle School General Music

Lesson planning for middle school general music classes can be tricky. There are not nearly as many resources out there as there are for elementary general music or middle school ensemble classes, and usually the students aren't easily impressed! I run my middle school classes very differently from my elementary classes- I use a lot more project based learning with longer units on focused topics. Today I'm sharing my favorite units to use with this age group. I hope it gives you some fresh inspiration for your middle school general music classes!

1. World Music: focus on 1 culture

If you've been around my blog for long, you've most likely heard me talk about this before. Rather than teaching a cursory overview of music from a variety of cultures, I like to plan more in-depth units focused on 1 particular country or culture. This way, students are able to connect more with the culture and better understand their perspectives and histories. My middle school students have loved these units, and they are great places to incorporate specific practice of melodic, rhythmic, form, or other musical elements in a fresh way. 

I've written extensively about my lessons on music from different cultures on this blog. My favorites to use with middle school are Brazil, Mozambique, and Japan, but any of the countries listed below would work well. Click on the pictures to see my detailed plans for each culture's music.





2. Composition

One of the biggest needs for all humans, but teens and pre-teens in particular, is the need to be heard. What better way to express themselves and "find their voice" than through creating their own music? I love getting into the fundamentals of chords and chord functions with my middle school students and having them create their own original song complete with harmony, melody, and maybe even some added lyrics or accompaniment parts. I have them write a basic chord progression, write a melody using chord tones, and then record themselves performing the whole thing. At the end of the project they get a CD to take home with their recording on it. It is a lot of work but so rewarding. I've had students perform the chords on keyboards, xylophones (I teach them to hold 3 mallets, which they think is cool), boomwhackers, or even using the computer ( is easy to use), but after getting new ukuleles last year through DonorsChoose, I now incorporate the project into my unit on ukulele. Here are the materials I use for the composition project:

The chord progression composition project is the biggest one I do with my middle schoolers, but I like to incorporate small composition tasks regularly into other units as well. Here are some of my top tips for incorporating composition into middle school (and upper elementary) lessons, including some of my other favorite projects for this age: Music in Movies and Music in Video Games.

3. Careers in Music

This is always a fun project when it's done right. I first invite students to name some careers that are related to music. Usually they don't come up with that many. Then we go on this website and scroll through the list of professions. There are tons listed here! Once they realize how many there are, the students usually get really excited about exploring some of them. I have students choose (either individually or in a small group) 1 career they are interested in studying (making sure every individual/group chooses a different one) and give them time to research some specific questions, like what the average salary is, what skills and training are needed for the job, what the work hours are like, and other specific information about that job. Then students create a wanted ad for an imaginary job in that field. They can create a TV commercial (where they act out the scene for the class), a radio ad (which they read/recite for the class), or a poster (which they create on large paper). 

These are just a few of my favorites but I hope they give you some fresh ideas for your middle school general music classes! What are some of your other favorites? I'd love to hear about your middle school units in the comments below!

Looking for more lesson ideas for K-6 general music and the materials to teach them? Here's my full curriculum set, which includes all of the units mentioned above.

Want to stay in the loop, see timely resources and ideas, and take a look at what I'll be covering in my classes each month? 

Monday, September 11, 2017

5 Ways to Make Busy Times More Manageable

As I head into my 3rd week of the school year, and my daughters' 3rd week of kindergarten, I thought this would be a good time to share some ways that I treat myself and simplify life at home to make those especially crazy times of year a little more manageable. I tend to pull these out at the beginning and end of the school year and during concert season- whenever I start to feel like I'm about to drop all those balls I'm juggling! If you're feeling a little overwhelmed yourself this week, give some of these a try!

This post contains affiliate links.

1. Makeup Remover / Facial Cleanser Wipes

It seems like a small thing, but there is something so nice about just being able to pull out a wipe instead of going through the process of washing my face at night when I'm dead tired. I don't like to use them normally because, well, landfills, but when I'm this tired I tend to just go to bed with my makeup (and the rest of the day's nastiness) all over my face rather than wash, so it's worth it. I just buy whatever is cheapest at my local store- here's an example of what I'm talking about.

2. Use the Freezer and Slow Cooker

This is when I thank my past self for stocking my freezer over summer vacation so I can pull out a meal without having to do anything in advance. I'm not above pre-made freezer meals from the store either, though! And crockpots. Any kind of dump-and-go recipe is a win in my book- here's my Pinterest board with some of my favorite crockpot dinners.

3. Smoothie Breakfasts

I'm such a fan of smoothie breakfasts when I'm busy- it's super-quick to make, delicious and healthy, lots of ways to change of the flavor, and we can take it with us if we run out of time before we leave for school!

My formula for smoothies: plain or vanilla yogurt, a banana, and frozen fruit. That's it. I usually keep a few different kinds of frozen fruit in the freezer so we can play around with different combinations. It's a double-win for us because one of my daughters takes a powder medicine every morning, so I can easily mix that into her smoothie. One less thing to prep in the morning!

4. Fancy Coffees (or Teas)

I love fun drinks- hot or cold, coffee or tea, I'm there. So when life gets stressful, I make my morning coffee or tea a little more fun with some vanilla flavor, a little extra sweetener, some cardamom, or something else to mix things up. It's really easy and just makes it feel like I'm treating myself a little bit more ;) Here's a blog post I wrote on how to easily change up your coffee drinks at home!

5. Ask for Help

Nothing wrong with asking for a little extra help! The older I get, the less shame I have about broadcasting my desire for a little extra help around the house when things get hectic. Plus a lot of times a helping hand also means some fun company to boost my mood as well ;)

Back to School season can be exhausting. What do you do to keep your stress level down and simplify your life? Leave a comment- let's all help each other help ourselves! :)

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Deepening and Assessing Understanding: Applied Learning Circles

Today's post is the third installment in my series on making every voice heard in the music room, and it's the one I've been most excited to share. So far we've discussed community-building circles and problem-solving circles, and today we're talking about what I'm calling applied-learning circles. What's so exciting about this teaching strategy is how it encourages every student to think about and share their learning in a much deeper way!

To review, the basic idea behind these circles is to give every student the opportunity to speak and to help everyone practice their listening skills as well. Most of us as teachers probably think it's a pretty basic concept initially, but with all of the pulls we have on our time these days, how often do we actually have every student speak? For me, I realized it was not nearly as much as I initially thought.

The first 2 types of circles I discussed both focus on fostering a positive classroom community and developing interpersonal skills and relationships. As I mentioned in my previous posts, while these circles take time away from "content/curriculum" initially, they have the potential to actually give you more time for teaching and learning content in the long run because they reduce behavioral disruptions, particularly for students who don't experience a sense of value and belonging in the rest of their lives. Still, it can be difficult to justify taking too much time away from directly engaging your content/curriculum, especially if you have administrators and politicians constantly looking over your shoulder.

Applied learning circles bridge that gap.

In these circles, students are still each given the opportunity to share- the format is the same- but the discussion is centered around content. In order for this to actually work, the discussion will naturally focus on higher-order thinking questions, so this is the perfect format for deepening student understanding and assessing each student's level of understanding of a topic without the need for a written test. And these circles will continue to foster a sense of belonging and develop interpersonal relationships, just like the other circles. What more can you ask for???

Structuring an applied learning circle

The basic "ground rules" are the same for this as in all other circles, with a couple of exceptions:
  • we will go around the circle until everyone has a turn
  • only the person with the item (some small object you designate as the "talking piece", like an unplugged microphone or stuffed animal) is allowed to speak- this means even you as the teacher are not allowed to comment or ask follow-up questions when someone speaks 
  • each person will get 1 turn only on each question
  • anyone can choose to "pass" if they haven't thought of their answer yet on their turn, but if this is being used as an assessment, anyone who passes initially will need to give an answer after everyone has had a turn

The main differences between applied learning circles and other types are that students may be required to give an answer, there may be more than 1 question, and you may decide not to go in order around the circle when students are giving their answers. 

Examples of Applied Learning Circles

The possibilities are endless, but the basic application of this type of circle will be to take a musical concept and explain it in their own words, express an opinion or create something using the concept, or apply the concept to different situations. The questions can't be the traditional "test questions" like, "what does this term mean?", or "what is the term for this?". The prompts have to have multiple answers so that each student can share their own thinking. 

Here are some examples I have come up with to get us started:
  • Tell me one of your favorite songs, then (in a second round after everyone has answered) tell me what musical aspects do you like about the song (use musical vocabulary in your answer)?
  • If you were going to write a song in a minor key, what would it be titled? What instruments would you use?
  • You're writing a song called, "(fill in the blank)". What tempo would you use and why? Dynamics/ timbres/ style/ articulation/ tonality?
  • If you were deciding on the order of songs for our concert, what order would you put the songs in and why?
  • If you were choosing a music-related career, which field would you want to go into? 
  • (After listening to multiple versions of a famous song, like "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" a national anthem, etc:) Which version did you like best? Why?
  • Why do you think the composer chose that dynamic level/ tempo/ etc for that part of the song?
  • Here's the beginning of this new commercial/ jingle I'm writing for purple monkeys who can curl your hair perfectly in under 2 minutes: (sing 1 phrase). What should the next part be?
  • (After watching a video of someone dancing to music with the sound off:) Describe the music you think they were dancing to.
These circles are a great way to get students thinking about, applying, and sharing their learning, and if the students are used to the format of circles in general, it will be a comfortable and quick way to get everyone talking- not just the ones that always raise their hands- in a much less threatening way. 

I can't wait to get going with these circles this school year, and I'm sure there are TONS of other great examples of prompts you could use in applied learning circles! I'd love to hear your ideas for prompts in the comments- let's brainstorm together!

If you haven't already, be sure to go back and read my previous posts on community-building circles (and an introduction to circles in general) and problem-solving circles. These applied-learning circles will work best in the context of a classroom environment where these other low pressure circles are already a part of the routine.

Looking for lesson ideas for K-6 general music that encourage deeper thinking and encourage students to show their learning in a variety of ways while meeting the National Core Arts Standards for music? Here's my full curriculum set.

Want to stay in the loop, see timely resources and ideas, and take a look at what I'll be covering in my classes each month? 

Monday, September 4, 2017

5 Tips for Being More Productive (when it really counts)

Whether as teachers or parents (or any other hats we wear), the times we need to get the most done are usually the times when we feel the least able to actually be productive. I think the biggest inhibitors to productivity in these situations are stamina and overwhelm. Today I want to share my 5 tips to help you overcome those factors and be more productive when it really counts!

I'm sure there are hundreds, if not thousands, of blog posts out there on how to be more productive in life in general, mostly relating to the kinds of habits and routines we can set up for ourselves to make it easier to "get more done". In fact, I've written a few of those myself- here's my post about monthly tasks and routines, and here's my post on weekly routines. I've also written about daily morning routines for home and another for school, as well as yearly tasks for home and for school.

So yes, routines and habits are an important part of being more productive! ;)

What I want to focus on in this post, though, is the specific situation we sometimes find ourselves in when we have a to-do list a mile long, full of important tasks that need to get done. How can we avoid getting overwhelmed and finding ourselves at the end of a long day with nothing to show for ourselves but a bunch of new recipes pinned to our Pinterest board and some half-finished projects strewn across the living (or class) room?

1. Write Everything Down

Hopefully for my long-time readers this goes without saying, but it's important enough to say again anyway: write. it. down. One of the best ways to overcome the feeling of overwhelm is to write down every task you hope to accomplish, no matter how small. It may seem counter-intuitive to make your to-do list longer by adding every little thing, whether it's taking out the trash or a quick email/text you need to send, but this strategy will help in a few ways:

1) you'll be able to look back later and acknowledge everything you truly did and validate the time and effort you put into things that are important, even if they are small and/or routine,
2) you can start to create a more realistic plan for how you are going to get things done when you factor all of those more "minor" but necessary tasks into your thinking, and
3) you'll reduce your anxiety by simply freeing your brain from having to remember all those little items.

Once you've got your written list, you need to make some kind of plan to get the stuff done that needs to get done. How you make that plan, and what kind of plan you make, will depend on the types of tasks you're doing, how spread out your time is in which to get it done, your personality, etc. Here are some things to consider:

2. Use Your Productive Hours Wisely

Most people have certain times of day when they're most alert and they have the most energy. For me, that's in the morning. For others, it's at night. Maybe it's in the middle of the day. Whatever those most productive hours are for you, plan your tasks out so that you can do the least attractive tasks and the tasks that require the most brain power during that time, and plan to do the tasks that keep you physically active (like running errands) and tasks that are most attractive in your "off-peak" hours.

3. Give Yourself Incentives

Yes, it's true, you can use extrinsic motivators even when you're trying to motivate yourself! Promise yourself certain incentives for getting certain things done. Maybe you get to eat 5 M&M's for every hour you spend working on a writing project. Maybe you get to watch a YouTube video after each large task. Maybe you can go get ice cream on your way to the grocery store if you've finished these 5 things by noon. Especially if you have a lot of tasks that you are having a hard time motivating yourself to do (even during your productive hours), giving yourself small incentives can help give you more stamina to push through those tasks.

4. Vary and Chunk Tasks

So here are 2 totally opposite things that are both equally helpful: vary your tasks and chunk like tasks together. Varying tasks, like doing one cleaning task, then doing something on the computer, then cooking, can keep things from getting mundane. But chunking certain tasks together can also help you be more efficient, like doing all of your errands in one trip (or everything at one store even if it's slightly more expensive), answering all of your emails in one sitting, or doing all of the cleaning in one afternoon. It depends on your personality, which tasks you enjoy (and have more stamina for), and the logistics of the tasks themselves.

5. Prioritize and Let Go

Of course the danger of talking about productivity is playing into the pressure to #doallthethings and actually increasing anxiety, losing sight of relationships and self-care, or skewing your priorities. One of the keys to being more productive is keeping everything in perspective. Yes, being more productive is a good thing, but only if you can be clear on which tasks are most important, make sure those things get done, and look back at the end of a productive day and say, "I did the best I possibly could". Being productive should give you the freedom to shrug your shoulders at the things that didn't get done, knowing that you did your best, instead of being left with a sense of guilt thinking about all those hours you wasted on unimportant things. At the end of the day, give yourself permission to pat yourself on the back, and let go of any guilt over unfinished tasks. Nobody can expect you to do more than you can do!

This time of year can get pretty busy. I hope these tips help you improve your productivity and find better balance in your life. What are your top tips for being more productive? How do you stay focused on your priorities when life gets hectic? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Music Classroom Tour: 2017-2018

Woohoo, it's that time of year again! I honestly didn't make a ton of changes to my classroom this year, but I decided to personally take you around my classroom and give you some more explanations about things as I go along. Of course if you have any questions about anything you see or hear me mention, ask away in the comments!

Here's my video tour:

Here are the links I mentioned in the video if you're looking for more information about anything:

Behavior management (classroom jobs, MUSIC full-class management with piano keys, and more)
Rainbow pattern posters
Circles (my minion doll's purpose)
Ukulele teaching tips
Color-coded seating and supplies
DIY SmartBoard
Desk Tour
Teacher Music Stand
Percussion Instrument Storage/Organization on Open Shelving

I hope you all are having a good start to the school year! While I'll definitely miss my lazy mornings at home with my daughters, I'm excited to see all of my students and be back in the classroom.

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Monday, August 28, 2017

My Morning Playlist to Help the Kids Get Ready for School

Mornings can be tough when you're trying to get yourself plus several tiny humans out the door with all of the necessary belongings, fully bellies, preferably fully-clothed, and hopefully not smelling too bad. Inevitably I find myself turning into a nagging machine, because I have to remind my kids of every single thing they need to do, and my daughters often get distracted or take a long time to get each thing done (because, you know, they're 5). What I've found cuts down on that constant nagging while still keeping us on track in the morning (and allowing the kids to get themselves ready instead of having me do everything for them)? Music.

Basically I've chosen certain songs to serve as timers and reminders for different tasks the girls need to get done every day. Rather than using an annoying and intimidating timer, using a song actually helps boost all of our moods too! I have these songs saved in a playlist on my phone so I can easily access them in the morning.

Here are the songs I've picked out to use this year:

Getting dressed: Can't Stop the Feeling (Justin Timberlake)

Brushing hair: Better When I'm Dancing (Meghan Trainor)

Packing backpack and putting on shoes: Bulletproof (Citizen Way)

I love using music as a parenting tool- it makes mundane or difficult times so much more fun! Here's a post I wrote on more ways I use music as a parenting tool with young children:

Have you ever used music as a timer in the morning? What songs do you use? We'll be changing up our playlist soon enough to avoid getting annoyed (ha!), so I'd love to hear your suggestions :)

Sunday, August 27, 2017

August Favorites 2017

I know I say this a lot, but this month I really can't believe it's the end of the month. Seriously, this is ridiculous. How is it about to be September?!? Classes start tomorrow (Monday) for me, so this is officially the end of any semblance of summer vacation..... time to kick things into high gear! If you're looking for some inspiration to get you going this September, I've got some good ones below :)

1. Planner spreads

I was so happy with the way my monthly spread came out this month, and apparently a lot of you were too- that is the biggest response I have ever gotten to any photo on Instagram ever! To be honest I'm pretty obsessed with all of the weekly spreads I did this month as well- I just decided to go all-out and use my favorite colors and designs and the results make me so happy :) Here's the link to my instagram pictures if you want to see my weekly spreads. I'm back to my lesson planning weekly spreads now, so I won't have nearly this much creative freedom for a while :(

2. New classroom door poster

I'm super lucky to have a poster printer in my building that I can use, so I took full advantage and whipped up a poster to coordinate with the rainbow designs I used for my classroom posters. I love all of the, "in this classroom we are..." posters that I've seen for the last couple of years, but I decided I didn't want them to think they could only be those things in my class, so I made the title just "we are all....". I'm probably thinking too hard but hey, it's what I do ;)

3. Doll clothes designing

I am totally in love with my daughters' new hobby: creating clothes for their dolls out of craft supplies like paper and washi tape. I am just astonished at their creativity! You can see here the way they spiffied-up some shoes and added a zipper and purse. They've also made entire dresses, sunglasses, and other fun items- I wish I could have gotten pictures of those but I always forget! This has been such a great reminder of how creative kids can be when they're given the tools and the space to do so.

4. Blog posts

If you've been around these parts for long you know I love digging up some fantastic blog posts from different blogs each month to share on my Facebook page every Friday. These are really awesome resources- if you haven't read these yet be sure to check them out (and leave them a nice comment! bloggers love comments!).

I hope you found some inspiration to give your September the kick-start you need! If you haven't already, be sure to sign up for my newsletter below. Each month I send out an overview of what I'll be teaching in the upcoming month, along with timely resources and updates. If you missed this month's email (going out Sunday afternoon 8/27) and want to see what you missed, send me an email at and I'll forward it to you.

Let's get this party started- time for a fresh new school year and I can't wait to enjoy it with you! :) Happy September!

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 :)