Thursday, April 25, 2013

Choir Attendance Tracking- Keeping it Simple, Keeping it REAL!

 My after school choir is made up of volunteers.  The folks who have a good attendance record and who attend 80% of rehearsals get to go on our field trips. 

With that in mind, over the years I've spent a TON of time keeping track of choir attendance.  I've created spreadsheets, created weekly rosters, had students using rehearsal time hunting for their name and learning how to mark a check or highlight their name....and conferenced with students who are at risk of loosing their spot......  Tedious business that did not really help me keep track of much and made sure that I was working too hard! 

Good ideas happen in the strangest places! 
This year I had an epiphany at the dollar store. when I came across some cookie sheets.  I asked some student choir elves to help me out.   They labeled one cookie sheet with HERE and one cookie sheet with ABSENT.  Since I had a large group of students, both 4th and 5th grade had their own set.  5th grade blue, 4th grade green

I typed everyone's name like this:

John Doe
5-7 (my example is missing the number).

Then I laminated the green and blue sheets of paper that I printed onto.  I then had my choir elves cut out the tags and put magnets on the back. 

When "John" is absent, I put a hash mark on the tag.  "John" decided a few weeks ago that he didn't want to come to choir anymore.... I can tell just by looking because the hash marks make it super easy to count the absences.  It's past time for me and John to have a chat. 

Storage and Use:

1. I keep them in the choir folder buckets. (You can see the 5th grade choir bucket on the far right of this picture.  The attendance cookie sheets fit easily into the back.

2. I keep the HERE sheet nested in the ABSENT sheet so that the magnets don't get picked off by accident.  Storing them together makes sort of a name tag sandwich and keeps those tags on the sheet when they are not in use.

3. Everyone starts out absent...we haven't had class yet....

4.  As they arrive, they move their tag to the HERE sheet. 

5.  All I do is remind everyone to move their tag.  Then at the end of class, I put a mark on the magnets still remaining on the ABSENT sheet. 

6.  Numbering the tags makes it VERY fast to put them in order for next times use.  In fact, this set up is so easy that I have released the management entirely over to the students.  I have an attendance captain who marks absences for me and I can refer to this "living" document when I need to. 

This has worked so well that I'm seriously considering using a similar system in my classroom for daily attendance. I'm thinking that if I had class sets in baggies and then "day" sets in baggies, I could switch them out..... I'm not totally sold on using this in a large scale capacity, but for choir or other special ensembles its soooooo much easier than what I was doing I'm going to keep it up. 


This can double as a choir arrangement chart 



Monday, April 22, 2013

Caution: Elementary Music Centers Under Construction - Part 6

Here is a center dilemma that I didn't have a good answer to for a long time....mostly because the answer was so easy and obvious that I almost missed it. 

I would like my students to have access to instruments during centers, but I find that what starts out as gentle experimentation often turns to noisy banging if I am not available to hover over the instrument players. Having to hover over any one center takes away from my ability to keep moving and monitoring. 

So, as you have seen in previous posts, I do have one center that uses xylophones.  Honestly, in the beginning I'd always put my most well behaved small group there first and hope that the least well behaved group would simply run out of time.....Oh my!  Look at the time..... I guess we'll have to have our next turn next time.....   This worked to a point, but really everyone needs the hope of a turn eventually....So I had resigned myself to the fact that I would either need to hover over the xylophones OR only use the center with select groups. 

Until one of my students who had not listened to me at all grabbed the wrong mallets..... EUREKA!!! Problem solved. 

By choosing the "wrong" mallets, she had actually chosen the "right ones" for composition centers, because the foam mallets sucked up most of the sound which gave my students the freedom they needed to really experiment without being so loud that other equally as creative centers were drowned out by the sound level of the xylophones.  Using the foam mallets means that the xylophones are now no louder than the "flip flop pipes" and actually complement their tone quite nicely. 

If the focus of your centers is proper instrumental technique then these foam mallets may not be the best fit for you because they tend to inspire students to play with abandon as they try in vain to make a louder noise..... However, if you are wanting students to experiment, improvise and compose, while other centers are also in session AND you want your sanity and hearing in tact, then these MAY be the perfect fit.  They certainly made my centers work more smoothly!  Let me know if you have similar results.   

For more information about centers please, check out my other posts about centers here:

Caution! Elementary Music Centers Under Construction - Part 5

Caution! Elementary Music Centers Under Construction - Part 4

Caution! Elementary Music Centers Under Construction - Part 3

Caution! Elementary Music Centers Under Construction - Part 2

Caution! Elementary Music Centers Under Construction - Part 1

Reflections on Centers

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Confessions of a Tired Music Teacher! - Two Unrelated Truths I've Unexpectedly Uncovered.

This was a tough week.  In terms of school it is a tough time of year because the calendar is not our friend.  Both teachers and students are suffering from fatigue.  After all we have been in school for a very long time.  Yet, in Texas we have our heaviest round of standardized testing this coming week and for elementary music teachers at schools like mine that means that we are gearing up for our heaviest performance season all year..... the month of May.  When you take an already tough week and add the national tragedies we've experienced this week it means that at least for me, this has been one of my most challenging weeks ever.  I didn't have any "extra" work this week, but I admit that doing an ordinary days work took a whole lot of extra ordinary effort.  I would come home and watch the news, sleep fitfully and then start over. 

Imagine my surprise when I also had two totally unrelated truths that I've discovered about how I want to be as a teacher that I wanted to take the time to capture here.  

True Statement 1

Choice is a powerful motivator,  I just have to learn to stack the deck in my favor without revealing my hand. 

In other words you can sink or sail your ship by the way you turn a phrase. 

At this time of year even students who are ready and prepared for learning can become hesitant and reluctant.  At the same time, students who often need lots of extra support and discipline to stay involved are not responding any longer to the structures, encouragements and consequences that have kept them on track all year.   Consequently, I am the only one who can guide my students past their reluctance and in some cases tendency toward active sabotage toward an engaging lesson that is worth their time and effort. 

When "that" class came in.... you know the one.... the one that makes you work harder than all the others combined?.....  I was ready......My objective never changed, but my delivery did.  I introduced what was in my mind the "consequence" assignment as an ordinary assignment with equal weight and validity as the "better choice" assignment.  I spoke of both with equal sincerity and mild enthusiasm so that my students were convinced that both were true options for their choice.  I ended up with the entire class on board with the more active of the two lessons without any fuss.  This was much more effective than introducing my choice of an assignment followed by a curt impatient description of an alternate punitive assignment for those students who failed to agree with my choice.

I think it worked because I surprised my students.  I think it worked because it disarmed students who enjoy being the squeaky wheel. I think it worked because I was fully set up for both options.  The benefit was that we had a good class and no one sabotaged the work because in their minds they got to choose.

True Statement 2

By the time my students leave the 5th grade, I want them to feel successful on recorder whether it takes two years, a pair of headphones and a patient partner or whether it takes five minutes  in the hallway on the way to class after breakfast.

In other words spiraling the musical experiences I provide for my students provides an avenue for growth over time. 

One of my more sensitive students has a particular aversion to the sound a recorder makes.  When we began recorder in fourth grade he had a terrible time trying to stay in my room.  He was fine until recorders started and then he would escape the noise by visiting the art room.  Since he was otherwise engaged in music, I let him demonstrate mastery in other ways.  We continued with recorder throughout 4th grade and now here we are in the second half of April at the end of 5th grade and without any invitation from me, but because his buddy from class invited him to, he has earned his white belt on recorder!!!!!  Also today, I had a 5th grader arrive who had never even held a recorder before ( that's what happens when you move schools often.)  Five minutes in the hallway after breakfast and he already has his first belt.  I'm so glad that I decided to stretch our recorder experiences over time so that my students could catch more music with their "learning nets".  At schools like this one with high mobility rates, providing a solitary experiences or even isolated units of study will miss lots and lots of students.  It's better to provide spiraled experiences where you can revisit and deepen some things from weeks, months and years before.  As I've been planning for next year I've been reflecting the effectiveness of  how I use the recorder and after these two unrelated experiences I can say that I am happy with the outcomes and find the extra time worth the effort.  

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Terrific Tuesday! - Sound expert extrordinare

 Have you noticed that when you teach elementary music, you suddenly become a sound technician?  You might not know a coaxial cable from a quarter inch, but suddenly, you are the on call expert in all things related to sound.....

Everything I know about sound can fit into a thimble.  Everything I know about sound I picked up on the fly and one thing I know is that microphone cords are always the first thing to go wrong, especially when they are handled by people who don't know how to take care of them.  These are my new microphones and cords from  These are the "every day" microphones I got so that the "performance" microphones would last longer......

99.9% of the time I am the one setting up the sound and I'm the one who chooses the microphone for the occasion.  99.9% of the time I know well in advance what is needed and there is no problem at all..... And yet, there are still times when "sound emergencies" (like fire drills)  occur and I'm knee deep in teaching..... So with that in mind, here are a few tips. 

Sound Ideas! 

1. If you are in a large district, they will have sound techs....GET HELP!!!!  My favorite resource in my district is the sound equipment we can order.  They bring it, show me how to set it up, I guard it and then when the performance is over, they take it away.  It's AWESOME! 

2. Work toward the right equipment.  No one is a good audience when they can't hear the performance.  Your students deserve to be properly heard.  This may take some time and ingenuity. Sometimes PTA is a great resource, I was able to replace and acquire needed sound equipment from 

3.  Teach at least 3 other people how to turn on the system that you have and how to plug in a microphone.  I would teach the people who might be giving you a call in a "sound emergency"..... The principals, the librarian, and maybe a grade level teacher or instructional coach who might need it. 

4. Teach at least 3 other people, how to wrap a cord without damaging it.  The general wisdom that I've noticed is that you don't force the cable into a certain shape, you guide it.  There is a feel to it and I can't teach that here, but if you are forcing your cables to wind around something, the chances of them getting a short are really high.  Easy does it! 

4. Don't keep all of your eggs in one basket.  In my school the microphones in the cafeteria get used EVERY day.  Therefore, the sound closet is not kept locked.  Therefore, I don't keep the microphones in the sound closet.  That way, if someone walks out of the school with something, the sound ship isn't completely sunk. 

5. Keep a set of microphones and cords neatly stored within reach.   If you are at a music teacher meeting across town and the PTA president calls and says, "Hey we need a microphone.." You need to be able to say, They are in the bright pink container next to my desk. 

3. As funds permit, keep an everyday set and a protected performance set.  They don't even have to be that expensive, they just have to be protected.  Cheap and protected sound equipment is better than harshly used and damaged expensive equipment any day.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Caution! Elementary Music Centers Under Construction - Part 5

Sometimes you just stumble upon the right thing and inspiration occurs!

That is exactly what happened when I visited Hobby Lobby over spring break. 

I looked over and noticed this bag of soft geometric blocks...... The price was reasonable and it seemed to be something that I could easily replicate if I liked it. 

I sorted the blocks and found that I had enough cylinder blocks to make one game and enough rectangle blocks to make a different game. 

Today I'm going to tell you about my cylinder game because that is the one that has worked best.  Based on the number and size of the blocks I decided to create a center that started with whole notes and used half notes, and quarter notes.  I also created blocks that were half rests and quarter rests.  

Then I took some 8.5x11 sheets of craft foam and got out my marker.  I measured and discovered that my masking tape was just about the same width as the cylinders, so I cut it into the correct length and started tracing. 

I realized pretty quickly, that I would need a way for these rolly polly cylinders to stay in place, so I added Velcro.  I put four soft Velcro "beats" inside each outlined "measure".  Then I put the scratchy Velcro dots on each block.  I'll admit that I was pretty skeptical I really didn't think that the Velcro would last past the first class.  I thought for sure that my students who are pretty hard on materials would tear this center up the first time I got it out. 

I'm so pleased to tell you that it WORKS!  These Velcro pieces have been handled with all of the energy my students can dish out, kindergarten through 5th grade, gentle and rough handling and we still have a perfectly intact center with all of it's parts.  I think that maybe the foam blocks and the foam sheet have an easier time adhering to the Velcro than if I had created this center using laminated tag. 

In kindergarten this center is a "pre-skill".  I want them to understand that it takes 1 or 2 or 4 blocks to fill in the square.  Although I tell them what the notes are and although they have practice with quarter notes, I'm trying to "play" them into the relationship between the notes.  The placement of the Velcro helps reinforce this.... it makes it difficult to overload a measure.  When the students arrange their "songs" to their satisfaction then they bring them to me and I read them.  They love love love love love it! 

1st grade is similar, but with more independence and with the expectation that they will read what they know. 

By 2nd grade, I can go two different directions with this center  I ask the students to either dictate a rhythm pattern from a known song, or I ask them to create something original.  If they create something original, then they have to copy their work onto a piece of paper that they then turn in for a grade. 

In 3rd, 4th and 5th, it would be nice to have sixteenth notes, but it also is really great practice for them to revisit some rhythms they've known for a while.  Also, with the older students, I challenge them to see how many different patterns they can create.  Since they don't stay in centers very long, this keeps the motivation high even at this simple center that doesn't have the same "curb appeal" that some of the others have. 

Caution! Elementary Music Centers Under Construction - Part 4

Caution! Elementary Music Centers Under Construction - Part 3

Caution! Elementary Music Centers Under Construction - Part 2

Caution! Elementary Music Centers Under Construction - Part 1

Reflections on Centers

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Kickin' it "old school" - how "old school" is keeping things fresh in the music classroom.

I love how MP3 files and music editing software make the life of this music teacher easier. 

But I also love the simplicity of just singing and playing with students.

I love how my macbooks help me create environments for my students to learn in where classroom walls become transparent and students can access the world through the click of a button.

And yet, I love the simplicity of reaching for a globe when my students want to know where something is.    There is something special about "touching" China with your index finger and measuring the vast Pacific ocean with the palm of your hand.

I am grateful for my own ability to embrace and utilize technology in my own personal daily life. 

All the while I miss the smell of old paper and books from the library.

I think I'm feeling a little nostalgic about the way things used to be because our new afternoon music teacher Rosemary who is quite a bit older than I, ha
s brought with her  many of the "old fashioned" ways of doing things..... I'm glad she has, because I'd forgotten how important many of them are. 

The first thing she did when she came to my school was ask where the autoharp was..... I've been at my school for four years and I had NO IDEA!  Do we have an auto harp?????? 
Well she found one and I've never seen students more entranced than my students were when she showed them how to play the autoharp..... it was wonderful. 

Then she told me that she wanted to do a little performance called Peter Rabbit. I knew the story because I'd heard it as a child, but my students have never heard the story at all so suddenly what was old is brand new and exciting!  As it turns out another great music teacher friend of ours, Tobey Unrath purchased the music for this operetta for children while on a trip to London England in 1981 when I was in kindergarten....... Several years ago, Tobey and Rosemary did Peter Rabbit as a performance and it's been one of their favorites for years because I've had the pleasure of hearing them talk about if for a long time. 

So Rosemary wanted the 2nd grade to perform Peter Rabbit and all we needed was a date.  We got all the details worked out and we have started teaching the music to the children.  They LOVE LOVE LOVE it!  It is the sweetest thing I've ever heard and the melodies are just right.... they aren't overly simple and they are interesting without being too challenging.  I can't wait to start working on the staging.

I think my favorite part is that there is no recording.  Rosemary is going to play the entire thing while I conduct.  She was not at school today, so I got to play it while the students were in the room today and even the piano accompaniment is just right and fits well in your hand. 

Of course I couldn't leave the technology entirely behind.....I did talk her into creating a practice CD so that students can rehearse the songs at home.  I know they will be glad to have the chance to practice at home..... IF IF IF IF IF they can find a CD player to play that old fashioned CD on! 

Monday, April 8, 2013

Terrific Tuesday!

Sometimes music teachers have to collect money. This year I have collected money from students who purchased recorders, method books, show shirts and now this week I will collect lunch money for a Saturday field trip... My Terrific Tuesday Tip is this: Print Envelopes! Go ahead! Beg borrow or commandeer a printer and the ink it will take to create this tool before you collect a dime! These envelopes are easy to print and provide a useful backup paper trail that keeps me sane. When i am feeling creative i make them pretty..... today was no such day..... but i got them made! I do not collect money without an envelope!

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Marvelous Monday!

May performances here we come! 
Here is my list of May events which range from full blown costumed performances, to "informances", field trips and simple deeds of appreciation but all together they mean that May is going to be crazy, and April is FULL FULL FULL of preparation!

This list doesn't include rehearsals or anything like that

Last week of April - TESTING! 
April 30 - Choir concert
May 1 - District Choir Festival
May 4 - Running for the Arts - Choir field trip and performance at the Mall
May 16 - 4th grade day time "informance" - orff, recorder, singing and dancing
May 22 - Volunteer Lunch
May 23 - 2nd grade day time and evening performance of Peter Rabbit
It's about here when I quite trying to keep the dates..... all I can remember is that I've got Kindergarten graduation and 5th grade graduation both of which require the students to sing a song and for me to help with rehearsal and maybe even reading names.

I'm going to do my best to continue to blog for the next few weeks but man oh man is there work to be done!!!!!!  When I get to my summer vacation I will have earned it!  Whew!

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Music to my ears

Just like everyone else in the state of Texas, the last two days have been our first round of standardized testing.  We have another round the last week of April. 

As a music teacher, I get to be a part of the army that it takes to get this chore done properly.

Because of the reality of testing I like everyone else is a little out of my ordinary groove for this time of year, but it's been a while since I've posted so I wanted to leave you with an experience that I had yesterday. 

My choir is part of the afterschool program.  This is really great because then I don't have to worry about transportation.  However when there is testing, there is no afterschool program. 

Yesterday while I was monitoring a bus line during dismissal I overheard some of my 5th grade boys talking about choir and how much they liked it.  When they saw me, they made sure to tell me that they would rather stay for choir than go home.  They also wanted me to know that choir was their favorite thing and that they liked the songs we were singing and couldn't wait for our next practice. 

During these days of silent testing, this little conversation was music to my ears!

I went home happy!