Saturday, September 8, 2018

Classroom Mascots

I recently saw a post on Facebook that Target had a doll with a musical shirt with solfege. I had to run to Target to check it out. While I was there, I also saw a doll with paintbrushes on her shirt. The dolls were part of the Pillowfort collection and can be found in the children's bedroom section. They are named the Composer and the Artist on the Target website and retail for $16.99 each. Even though I had already spent a lot of my personal money on school supplies, I decided that these dolls needed to become part of my classrooms (I teach both music and art).

I first introduced the dolls as our classroom mascots. I told the students they would get to help choose their names. For a week, I had two baskets sitting by the dolls for students to submit name suggestions. I narrowed the suggestions down to about 5 or 6 that were inspired by music or art.

The most unique music name was a combination of "xylophone" and "Kylie". A kindergartener mashed the words together to form "Xylie". There were many more suggestions I did not choose, including several "Keke" submissions inspired by the recent viral video challenge. But my favorite suggestions were John Lennon and Ringo Starr.

I wanted students to vote on their favorite names secretly but also avoid me counting a thousand tiny slips of paper. So, I created a simple Google Form. Here is a link to a sample form if you would like to see how it looks from the students perspective. Feel free to vote and predict what my students chose if you haven't already scrolled to reveal the results.

When creating the form, I changed the settings so that students did not have to log in with a Google account. I also changed a setting allowing them to vote for more than one name if they wished.

I passed around an iPad during class and it allowed me to continue teaching the lesson. Google calculated the winner complete with a bar graph analyzing the responses. I announced the names of our mascots at our first school-wide assembly. The kids were very excited. Our music mascot is named DJ Melody. Our artist mascot is named Sapphire Rainbow.

At the start of each class, I select two students to take care of DJ and Sapphire. I tell them that if they are not treating them nicely, I will select someone new to take care of them. We have not had any issues so far and all grade levels are excited about our mascots. Almost everyone is eager to volunteer to hold them. Honestly, I was surprised at how many older boys raised their hands to hold the dolls. I try to pick one girl and one boy during each class to hold them.

The mascots are certainly making an impact on my class. One 4th grade student, in particular, surprised me when he raised his hand to volunteer. This student frequently causes disruptions and removes himself from the group refusing to participate. I explained to him that if he took care of DJ, he had to remain with the class, fully participate, and treat her nicely. He agreed and took his job very seriously. I was amazed to see a different side from him!

Here are some action shots of DJ and Sapphire on the mallets.

DJ and Sapphire are a wonderful addition to my classrooms. I'm glad I bought them. If these dolls are too expensive for your budget, you could turn any doll or stuffed animal into a classroom mascot. You could use some musical fabric to make a little scarf or vest. You could use puff paint or glue felt to add a music notes to some plain doll clothes. You could get really fancy if someone you know has an embroidery machine or a Cricut machine that cuts vinyl. If you create a classroom mascot, I'd love for you to share a picture on my Facebook page. A link is at the bottom of this post. 


 A student came up to me yesterday afternoon and said that she saw DJ's twin sister at Target. She convinced her mom to buy it for her. I asked her what she named her and she said "Rebecca" which is my name! My heart melted! 

Share a classroom mascot pic!

Saturday, September 1, 2018

Challenging Early Finishers

In every subject, in every class, there will always be students who finish very quickly and others who need extra time. But, how do you keep the early finishers engaged and allow enough time for the entire class to finish?

I recently did rhythm composition lessons with 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade. We always complete an example on the board together and then they are given their own paper to compose on their own. Many students will finish quickly, others may need help and take longer.

These staggered finishes are perfect to allow me to also hear them perform their compositions. As they finish, they have to come to my desk and vocalize their rhythm while clapping, patting, or drumming on the edge of my desk. I tell them that an author wouldn't use words they couldn't read, so composers should not write music they can't also perform themselves. This also allows time for me to grade their papers in class and not have to take anything home! They get 2 grades during this assignment--one for their composition and one for their performance.

After performing for me, I needed something to challenge those early finishers. In the past, I've allowed them to get instruments out of the cabinet to perform their rhythms. But, this becomes very loud and distracting for those who are still composing. My 5th grade classes currently have 35 students each, so instruments were not an option. I've also challenged them to create more rhythms on the back, but only a few students were interested in that.

My newest idea was a great success!! I told the students to have others perform their rhythms and if they did so successfully, they can autograph the back of the music. I challenged them to get as many signatures as possible. They all loved this idea and were asking everyone to perform their composition. It allowed plenty of time for all students to finish their compositions with minimal distractions.

The 4th grade paper is pictured above. It was a full sheet of paper with a blank back. They were able to sign their full names. The 3rd grade papers were half sheets with content on both sides; they did not have a blank space. I told them they could sign their initials in the margins around the rhythmic composition and they still enjoyed the activity.

I'm sure the novelty of this activity will grow old if I use it often. So, please share your ideas below. How do you challenge early finishers?

More details about the lessons discussed in this post can be found at the following links:

More about these composition activities can be found on these links:

Saturday, April 14, 2018

"When Words Fail, Music Speaks"

Yesterday, thousands of Kentucky teachers descended on our state capital to fight for school funding. Many programs are being cut from schools including textbooks, professional development, preschool, Family Resource Youth Service Centers, and more. Many universities are also losing funding. Eastern Kentucky University will forced to cut many programs including their marching band and pep band.

"When words fail, music speaks . . ."

I had the pleasure of performing with many music teachers across the state. We communicated through Facebook and met each other for the first time on capital grounds. We found a quiet place under some shade trees to have a quick rehearsal and then used music as our language to speak out for our students. Here are some pictures and videos of the day.


"Fund Our Schools"

"Don't Stop Believin'" that our legislators will do the right thing!

"We're Not Gonna Take It"

Our state song, "My Old Kentucky Home"

My sister also snapped this candid of me teaching a fellow teacher how to play ukulele. We will have no funds dedicated to professional development, but there was teacher growth still happening on the capitol grounds!

Music is a powerful tool and I hope our message yesterday was heard loud and clear. I will continue to be an advocate for music, for education, and for my students.

"When words fail, music speaks . . ."

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Instrument Family Races

Need an engaging activity to reinforce the instrument families? Need an emergency sub plan that can be used by a non-music sub? You should try this new resource--Instrument Family Races.
This resource includes 24 instrument cards, 2 game versions, and a video demo. You only need to provide 4 or 8 hula hoops.

I divide the class into 2 groups. Each team has 4 hula hoops to represent the 4 instrument families (string, woodwind, brass, percussion). The hoops will be on one side of the room. One student from each team will stand on the opposite side of the room from the hoops.

The teacher will have 2 stacks of instrument cards which are in identical orders. The teacher will draw the top card from each stack and reveal it to the players. Each player will grab their card and race to place it into the correct hula hoop family. The game will continue rotating new teammates each turn.

When all the cards have disappeared, you can play in reverse. The teacher will call out an instrument and the players will race to find the correct card and bring it back to the teacher. This will get the instrument cards back into two identical stacks ready for the next class to play the game.

This game is very engaging and can easily be managed by a non-music substitute teacher. I recently left this game with a sub along with this demo video and she had no trouble understanding the rules and procedures. Here is my demo video:

This game is available for download on my Teachers Pay Teachers Store. 
Just follow this link:

Friday, March 2, 2018

Washi Tape for your Whiteboard

I have to display my learning targets in student friendly terms. I used to write these on a laminated poster but it became difficult to erase and clean each time.

I have now divided my whiteboard into sections with Washi tape so I can erase my objectives more easily and cleanly. Below, you can see photos of my objectives in the music room and in the art room.

Here is a brief video tutorial showing how I divided the board into sections and kept the lines straight without using a level.

I used less than one roll of washi tape for each board. You can purchase a roll of washi tape for less than $3. It comes in many different colors and designs. For the music board, I used glitter washi tape.

The whiteboard wipes off so much easier than laminated posters. Comment below if you have any more questions or if you would like to share your favorite use for washi tape.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Start a Music Library

I love to use children's literature in the classroom. I have acquired many books over the years. I used to keep these books on the top shelf of my bookcase, but recently to move them to location more easily accessible to students. I am in love my new music library and my students are excited too!
I purchased the white cardboard magazine holders from IKEA. They came in packs of 5 for only $1.99. I created labels to organize my books alphabetically. I have created labels with 1 letter, 2 letters, 3 letters, and 4 letters per label to accommodate libraries of many sizes. I also have 2 separate holders for Non-fiction books--Biographies and Other.

I found the canvas music banner at the Target dollar spot during the holidays for only $3. I painted the letters spelling "library" by hand. I have recreated a printable banner available for download. You could customize your banner by printing on colored or decorative paper.
 I often use centers when I want to assess individual students. One station is the assessment and the other stations are music related games or activities. I have decided to use the library as a station in my center rotations.  I posted these rules as reference for the students. Simple directions for the library center have also been added to my Emergency Sub-Tub. Even subs without a musical background could manage this center.

I also created a book review template so students can recommend books to others. They can share things they like about the book, connections they made to the book, and can rate the book with star emojis.

I have bundled the alphabet labels, banner, rules poster, and book review sheet in a pdf file. It is available for download on my Teachers Pay Teachers Store. I have also included tips for selecting books and acquiring books on a budget. Download this Music Library Starter Kit and all you'll have to do is add books!

Friday, February 23, 2018

Intro To Melodic Improv

I am a member of the MusicEd Blogs Community on Facebook. We are collaborating for the month of February to share our best ideas for teaching melody! If you are not already following us on Facebook, you should click the link above. For today's post, I will give you some tips on how to teach melodic improvisation.

Improvisation! Does that word scare you? It used to scare me. I was not offered many opportunities to improvise as a student in school. Without experience and frame of reference, I had no idea how to approach teaching it. Thanks to my training in Orff Schulwerk, I have become very comfortable teaching melodic improvisation. I regularly provide opportunities for all my students to create and improvise both rhythmically and melodically. I hope some of the advice I explain below will help you feel more comfortable teaching improvisation.

1) Choose a Familiar Medium 

If you would like your students to improvise, they should have lots of experience playing or singing in unison on the chosen instrument. If you choose an instrument that is unfamiliar to the students, they may not feel comfortable or confident exploring their creativity. 

2) Start With Body Percussion

When presenting students with a new, challenging task, gradually ease them out of their comfort zone. Before I ask my students to improvise with pitch, they have lots of experience improvising rhythmically. Body percussion can provide a variety of sounds while still focused only on rhythm. Body percussion is also a great connection to something familiar. The 4 basic body percussion sounds are patsching (patting), clapping, stamping (stomping), and snapping. We first improvise on our "leg-a-phones" by patsching. Then, I allow them to have 2 sound choices--patsching and clapping. We gradually add stomping and then snapping. If I started with 4 sound options, they may be too overwhelmed. Remember to add only 1 element of change at a time. Start with a steady beat and then gradually add paired eighth notes or even rests. Improvising rhythmically with multiple body percussion sounds will make melodic improvisation with multiple pitches less intimidating.

3) Pentatonic Power

The pentatonic scale is a great place to begin with melodic improvisation. By removing fa and ti, there won't be any notes that "sound wrong". I use this "fake instrument" as a visual to show my students which bars to remove. When we are first improvising, we are mostly in the key of C so they know do (tonic) is the lowest pitch. But, I teach movable do and we often modulate to F and G. I also use la-based minor. If we improvise in minor, they know to end on la.

4) Limit the Freedom

Students will have greater chances of success if you limit their freedom of choice. Take baby steps. and gradually ease them out of their comfort zone. When I begin teaching melodic improvisation, I simplify the rhythm and begin with quarter notes only. I also limit the number of pitches the students can choose. We start improvising on one note do. Next, they can choose from 2 notes (do and re), but they must end on do. Then, they can choose from 3 notes- do, re, and mi. Eventually, they will have freedom to improvise with the entire pentatonic scale, but that would not happen in the first lesson. I also make sure they can feel the phrase length and successfully end on do before we add more complex rhythms like paired eighth notes. 

5) Provide a Framework

In addition to simplifying the rhythm and limiting the pitch choice, you should also provide a clear framework to structure the improvisation. I like to begin with short 4 beat phrases. In this example, I use the song, "Snowflakes". Each phrase begins with a skip from do to mi on the word "snowflakes". The full notation is below, but the lyrics are: Snowflakes gently falling, Snowflakes dance around, Snowflakes gently falling, Snowflakes touch the ground.

When we improvise to this song, I ask the students to repeat this phrase--"Snowflakes something else, Snowflakes end on G". During "Snowflakes" the students continue to play G and B as they did in the melody of the song. During "something else" and "end on", they improvise and choose any pitch in the pentatonic scale. Their final note must be G, which is tonic for this song. By alternating the improvisation with something familiar, the students are less intimidated. For a final performance, we would perform in ABA form. The "Snowflakes" song would be the A sections with the improvisations as a B section.

Another example can be found in a previous post with the book "Leap Back Home To Me". Students improvise on the phrase "Leap a-way" and then "Leap back home" This is the same rhythm with 3 quarter notes and a rest, but this time playing 2 measures at once. The phrases are still separated by a rest on beat 4 to provide a familiar structure. Eventually the phrases can get longer.

6) Rhythmic Building Blocks

When students can improvise successfully with quarter notes, you should add paired eighth notes. Orff utilizes speech to make rhythms seem more familiar to the students. We often pair 2-beat rhythm patterns with words and call them rhythmic building blocks or rhythmic building bricks. Here is an example of these rhythms with types of shoes--flip flop, tennis shoe, penny loafer, boot.

This activity was used with the poem "Cobbler, Cobbler". You can find more information about this lesson by clicking the link. Before improvising, we would compose 4-measure rhythmic patterns. Each student creates their own pattern to perform verbally and then notate. Before moving to the barred instruments, we choose one rhythm and notate it on the board. When we improvise, we are still in rhythmic unison performing the rhythmic phrase we notated on the board. After a few times experiencing this stage with different types of building blocks, I will give the students the opportunity to improvise with their own rhythm instead of a group rhythm. In order to end cleanly together, I always ask them to choose a quarter note and quarter rest as their last rhythm. This note will also be do. So, for the first 3 measures, it may feel like chaos, but on beat 4, we are in unison again. 

7) Gradually Shrink the Ensemble

Performing solo is very intimidating. Performing something you have created can make you feel even more vulnerable. So, here are some tips to gradually ease your students into improvising a solo.
First, they must be comfortable singing/playing in unison with the group, then in unison with small groups, in unison with partners, and finally performing a provided melody as a solo.

When approaching improvisation, continue the same pattern with large group, small group, partners, and soloists. On the barred instruments, I like to separate into 2 groups with woods vs. metals. For 4 groups, I separate like this: 1) glockenspiels; 2) soprano/alto xylophones; 3) soprano/alto metallophones; 4) bass xylophones/metallophones. You may separate differently based on your instrumentarium. You may choose to separate based on rows or numbers.

8) Differentiation

Differentiation seems to be an education buzz word in recent years. Improvisation is the best way to provide differentiation for your students. By letting the students improvise, they have the power to create a melody appropriate for their skill level. If they are struggling, they may stick to more simple rhythms and limit their choice of pitches. If they are more advanced, they may choose more complex rhythms and may explore more than one octave on the instrument. Remind the students that if they feel overwhelmed they can always simplify their rhythm or pitch options.

9) Self-Assessment

Exploration is usually unstructured and would consist of hitting random notes. Improvisation may begin as exploration but should move past that phase into purposeful musical choices. I provide a few questions for my students to assess their own performance.

Keeping a steady beat is important to feel the ends of the phrases. If your students cannot keep a steady beat while improvising, they need to simplify the rhythm or have fewer pitch choices. Ending on do is a must. In order to sound finished, we should end on the tonic. Lastly, they must ask themselves if their melody was sing-able. Could they try to sing and repeat what they just improvised? If they are leaping all across the keyboard, the likely answer is no. Encourage them to begin with stepwise movement, gradually adding skips or leaps. By giving them a rubric, you make them responsible to assess themselves and they will begin improving their performance each time.

10) Be a Model

My last tip for you is to BE A MODEL!!! If your students don't see you improvising, taking risks, and making mistakes, they won't be as confident to attempt their own improvisation. Create an environment that is safe and welcoming of all musical ideas. Show your students how to give praise to those who are succeeding and positive support to those who need extra guidance. If you are relaxed and comfortable, they will have fun and have no idea that melodic improvisation is supposed to be scary and difficult. Best of luck!!!


I hope you found something of value to help your confidence in teaching melodic improvisation! If you have any additional tips you would like to share, feel free to leave comments below. I would also love some feedback if you have done activities similar to these. If you would like more ideas about teaching melody, don't forget to follow our MusicEd Blogs collaboration for the entire month of February. You can find all past posts on the Facebook blog.