Sunday, December 11, 2016

In Their Words #1: Ownership

How often do we ask students for feedback?  Not often enough, I'd guess!  A few days ago, I asked students for feedback on my class and teaching.  It was pretty simple - the two questions I asked were:

1. What is something you really like about _____'s teaching?
2. What is one thing you think _____ could do to be a better teacher or help you more?

Every time I do something like this, I know it's good, but it also is scary.  It's a vulnerable place to be in, asking students for feedback on your practice!  And the kids are honest.  They tell you what they are thinking.  I did this anonymously, because I wanted to really get to their thoughts.  They had some amazing responses that sparked a lot of thinking about teaching and education in general.  This sparked the idea for a series of blog posts about what I learned from their responses!

"I really love how _____ lets us be our own teachers at times and is not always trying to control every aspect of our learning."

"I really like how _____ lets us pick out own seats, and trusts us on our own"

These two statements struck me as profound because they point out just how often students do not feel like they are in control of their own learning.  I know that I, as a teacher, am guilty of trying to make everything in the classroom go exactly as I planned it, without accounting for the 30 other people in the room who might have different needs.

Now, I'm not arguing for chaos or freedom without responsibility - boundaries need to be set and students need to be taught how to take ownership appropriately.  But what if we gave students a bigger stake in their learning?  What if we trusted them more?  What if we let them learn and discover instead of just "getting through" our lessons?

Students, especially as they get older, value independence.  They value feeling trusted by the adults in their lives.  They value the chance to have a say in their own learning.  So let's honor and acknowledge that in the work we do in the classroom!

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Party Time! (The Day After the Concert)

You've worked hard, you've put all of the details together, and you've given a great concert!  If you are anything like me, this leaves you wiped out the next day.  What to do in your classes?  Celebrate, of course!  This is my system for class parties that keeps it fun, somewhat educational, and not too crazy.

Before the party day, I have students sign up to bring food.  This is pretty simple - I tell them that if they bring food, we will have food at our party, and if not, we won't.  I provide napkins, plates, & cups.  They provide everything else.  I try to get relatively balanced sign-ups in four categories:
Savory snacks
Healthy snacks
Sometimes kids forget to bring their food.  Usually, only about 2/3 of the kids sign up to bring something.  That's fine, then we just have less food at our party.  It doesn't bother me too much, and it doesn't kill them to have one less tub of cookies to choose from.  I don't really contact parents or do any kind of a formal sign up for this - just an informal request to the students in class to bring something.

When they first come in, I have them all put their food in one area of the room.  Then, we watch the video of their portion of the concert and fill out a concert reflection.  I change up the questions I ask, but I always have them reflect on what went well and what could be improved with their musical performance and their behavior, and what they noticed/enjoyed as an audience member.  I always enjoy hearing their responses - it reminds me of when I first felt that power of performing music in a group and the thrill of playing for an audience!

This reflection is their ticket to get food.  As they are working on their concert reflections, I set up the food in a line (trying to group like items together and put the healthy food first to encourage them to eat it).  After they finish their reflections, we go over the rules - mainly, if they make a mess, they have to clean it up.  We have a drinking fountain and sink in our room, so I tell them that drinks can only be poured over the drinking fountain/sink!  I let students who brought food/drinks go through the line first.  Next is students who did not contribute food/drinks to the party.

While they are getting food (and for the rest of class), I take requests to play videos - videos of other groups' performance or fun YouTube videos.  Ground rules are that they have to be school-appropriate (I check them first) and they have to have something to do with our instruments.  Piano Guys, Lindsey Stirling, and TwoCellos are some of our favorites.  We usually have 20-30 minutes of these videos during class.  Oh yeah, and I keep the lights off while we are watching - it helps keep the mood calm.

I stop class about 5 minutes early and have students clean everything up, throw it all away, and pick up all of their food (if there is any left over).

What I love about this routine is that:
1) Students are reflecting on their performance.
2) We get to celebrate!  Students really feel like they have a fun day after all of their hard work!
3) It is not that much work for me (because, honestly, after the concert, I'm pretty fried and I need a day to recover).
4) Even the fun videos have some educational value snuck in there - they are great motivators for the students to see what they can do as they improve on their instrument!

After this, we get back to our usual routine, but it is important to take a day to look at how far we've come, celebrate, and enjoy spending time together!

Concert Day (as told by Bitmojis)

3:30am - What time is it? My alarm hasn't gone off yet. Oh well, I'm wide awake. So much to do! So much excitement! Why don't I read for awhile to try to stay calm, I've got to save some energy for tonight.

5:00am - Okay, it's really time to get going now. Get ready, dress nice, do my hair. Did I remember to pack everything? Let's check one more time. Eat a good breakfast, you will need fuel for the day.

6:45am - Arrive at school. Start packing everything to bring to the high school (concert venue). Where's my packing list? Extra strings, extra music, tape, paper, programs, glow sticks, markers, attendance sheets. The rest will be packed after we use it in class. Charge the video camera! My principal finds me and says, "15 hours!" Yep.

7:30am - Leadership team meeting. Great to get my mind off of the concert for a bit. Find someone who is willing to videotape the concert.

8:35am - 1st period. Our room setup is completely different today. Oh well, good practice for when things will feel different tonight. Tuning. Final reminders. Did I remember to cover everything? Play-through. Practice with the guest conductor one more time. Finding the delicate balance between tweaking things but not overloading students with too much to remember tonight - cramming never works well!

9:32am - 2nd period. Lots of tuning. Final reminders again: concert dress, where and when to show up, where to put cases, concert order, how to behave in the audience, what to do when you first walk on stage, check your stand height, make sure you have enough room to bow, we are guests in the building so don't mess with their stuff, don't forget your music! Dress rehearsal - what are the one or two things to focus on in every song?

10:27am - 3rd period. Combining my 6th grade classes = twice as many students as usual! And, just for good measure, a new student, with today being her first day. We'll get her set up on Monday, there's no way I can do that today. Tuning takes a long time, and then we have to find our seats. Another teacher comes in to have a conversation, but I really don't have time today. More reminders, more run-throughs of songs. Getting used to hearing a group with all of the parts. Try it a few times to practice playing all together. We are set! So much nervous energy and excitement!

11:30am - Head to my next school. No concert for them tonight, just regular class. Hard to focus on what they are doing with everything running through my brain, but we make it. It's snowing now!

1:15pm - Back to my first school with a little prep time. Eat lunch. Pack baton, scores, seating charts, newly charged video camera, three extra bows for students, and everything else. Respond to the deluge of emails with last-minute questions about the concert from parents. Make final copies of music. Write & print out my concert script, the things I need to remember to say. Play piano with another music teacher to de-stress a little. The fact that I woke up at 3:30 is starting to hit me - I'm hitting an afternoon wall of tiredness!

2:50pm - Last class of the day! They don't have a concert either, but I was able to get my assistant to teach today so I could save a little brainpower. I get to walk around and check in with individual students while she leads the main class. This is great! I don't do this often enough. I'm getting a lot of good information, and getting a personal touch with some kids.

3:38pm - School's out! Hope & pray that my students remember to pick up their instruments. Grab a case for a cello player. Another student says that his cello is missing. Run around the building trying to find it, and realize that a younger student had grabbed the wrong instrument and taken it back to her classroom. Finally find the cello there, but the case is now broken. I'll have to call home later. For now, let's MacGyver it so he can take it home and to the concert. Okay, one emergency solved. And no instruments are left in the orchestra room! Hallelujah!

4:30pm - Half an hour to relax, eat, and make any final preparations for the concert. Read my book, drink lots of water to preserve my voice, and try to relax.

5:00pm - Time to go to the concert venue! Can I carry everything in one trip? Yes! Find my way to an unlocked door and get in to put my stuff down. Fine a friend to open the auditorium and start setting up. Reserved signs on seats for students, video camera, programs & flyers out front, clean off the stage, attendance sheets out, podium and chairs and stands beginning to be set up. I'd better go change before the kids arrive.

6:00pm - One more rehearsal for my Chamber group. The stage isn't quite set yet, but good thing I have lots of helpers! We get chairs & stands out, and then tune. Lots of tuning. A former student asks if I want help, and the answer is of course! Rehearse, it sounds pretty good! Now I see the high school orchestra teacher (our host). She helps tune as well, then gets lights and sound set. "Ms. Yeh, can you put fingertapes on my cello?" Not now, it's too late - use your ear to listen to where your fingers go!

6:30pm - Here are the rest of the kids! Energy, excitement, nervousness, all stuffed into 115 bodies in one room. Tune, sign in, get a glow stick for your bow (6th grade). Remind them to not touch anything that does not belong to them. Warm-up and pep talk. 8th grade small group who is playing in the lobby, go ahead. There's my principal - she gives them a pep talk! My assistant principal comes, I show him how to work the camera. It's time! 7th & 8th graders, go out to the audience and take your seats. 6th graders, head onto the stage.

7:00pm - Showtime! I'm in a zone once we get here. The music flows, just like we've practiced so many times. We hit that note in tune! We stayed together during that section! Bits and pieces are off, but so many more things are going well! Go kids go! The music is easy. I hate talking to the audience - I'll stand in front of kids all day, but a group of adults is more intimidating. The best advice I've ever received runs through my brain: the parents just want to see you interact with their kids and their kids having fun with you. THAT'S what it's about. Talking has gotten easier as I've been teaching longer and I realize I don't have to be some crazy formal emcee, I can just be myself! Audience behavior is good. Transitions are going very well. Yes!

8:00pm - We're done! What a great show! High-five and congratulate as many kids as possible, say hi to their parents and families, and start cleaning up. Don't forget anything! Find my admin, and thank them for their support. Most people have cleared out by now. Finish cleaning - picked up an extra bow and lots of sheet music - oh well. Lights off, sound off, auditorium sweep completed, band room is clean, everything is packed up. Debrief the concert a bit with my friend, the high school orchestra teacher. Head out into the freezing cold and drive home.

9:00pm - Home. Exhausted but still running on adrenaline. Read, watch TV, try to calm down. Put in concert grades and upload the concert video - might as well be productive. Trying to force myself to go to bed, but I am so pumped up!

11:30pm - Finally feeling tired enough to CRASH!
20 hour day: CHECK!

Sunday, November 27, 2016

YouTube Friday

Have you ever struggled to make your content relevant to students?  How do you connect music written hundreds of years ago with the music students listen to in their free time every day?  While there's no perfect way to do this, one of our favorite classroom traditions is YouTube Friday.

YouTube Friday is all about exposing students to the greater world of music, a well as teaching some of those "life lessons" that are so important to work into our curriculum, no matter what the subject is.  The concept is fairly simple - find a YouTube video that relates to music (usually about 2-7 minutes long), come up with 3-4 questions that relate to the video, and have students watch & answer the questions!

So what kinds of videos do we watch?  

Here are some of my favorites:
Playing for Change - great for showing how music can connect us all over the world!
Longs Peak Summit Concert - if you could perform anywhere, where would you perform?
Star Wars Minus Williams - what role does music play in movies?
Happy Birthday Variations - developing vocabulary around different techniques and composition/arranging practices
Landfill Harmonic - a bit longer, but awesome for showing how important music is and how much people give to be able to play
Carrot Clarinet - a fun twist on how to make instruments
There are many more, including some that are more specific to the pieces we are learning or what we have been doing in class.  I know there are some awesome, fun videos (Piano Guys, TwoCellos, & Lindsey Stirling come to mind), but I try to steer toward more educational videos for this assignment.  The fun ones are saved for our class parties!

I am always amazed at the responses that I get, and I learn so much about my students through these assignments!  The videos allow them to hope, dream, imagine, and expand their idea of music beyond what we usually do in class.  I get to see their personalities beyond my specific subject and encourage them to dream big!  YouTube videos also connect my students to the wider world of music-making.  They see "cool" ways of making music, something that is relatable and a nice complement to the Telemann and Bach we study in class.

This is the first year I have had students complete this assignment on Chromebooks, and it has made a huge difference in both their responses and my workflow on the grading end.  In the past, I have printed out half-sheets of paper with the questions and had students handwrite the answers.  I was pleasantly surprised to find that students give much more in-depth answers when they are typing!  In previous years, every week meant more papers for shuffle around, to grade, to (hopefully not) lose, to pass back (or pile up), etc.  On Google Classroom, everything is already organized and easy to grade!  Students do need to be 1:1 for this to be very effective.  Since our Chromebook cart only has 30 Chromebooks, and I have 42 students in one class, I have worked it out with another grade level to borrow 12 Chromebooks from them every Friday.  We only use them for the first 15-20 minutes of class, and then move on to rehearsal!

I'm always looking for new, interesting, educational videos.  Do you have fun YouTubes to share?  How do you connect your students to modern music-making?

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Summit Reflections [#GAFESummit/#GSuiteSummit/#EdTechTeam]

Last weekend, I attended the Colorado EdTechTeam/GAFE/GSuite Summit (changing names = I'm not sure what to call it).  I was excited going into the weekend, but a bit cautious.  Honestly, I had never been to a professional conference that I had enjoyed.  There always seemed to be pressure to be posturing, showing that you had your act together, and going to all of the "right" sessions with the "right" people.  Now, I'm not saying that these conferences were poorly organized or run...that is just the way I felt walking out of them, which has as much to do with myself as anything that went on there!

Fast forward to the Google Summit.  It was an amazing time of growth, comradery, and learning with other educators from this state and beyond!  Despite my lack of sleep and need to catch up on grading, I am so glad I went.  Here are some of my key reflections and learnings:

Embrace Change!

It was so inspiring to be surrounded by people who were continually learning and seeking to grow in their craft.  There was an environment of continuous iteration and change, and optimism for that change!  So often, in education, the word "change" brings about eye rolls, sighs, and resistance.  Regardless of how we react, change is coming, and will continue to come.  While it is prudent to run ideas past a critical eye of what's best for students, it was refreshing to be around a community who is striving to embrace change, rather than run from it.

Connect, Share and Collaborate!

I was exposed to so many cool ideas and teaching "hacks", and was reminded of how powerful we can collectively be together!  And the best part?  Just as we talk about in our classrooms, there was no "sage on a stage" mentality.  Sharing resources, accepting feedback, and building knowledge collaboratively was the norm.  I wish that were the case everywhere!  Some of my personal favorites were BadgeU by Daniel Sharpe & all kinds of thoughts about blogging by Chris Moore.


I know I have written before about how I have really grown in confidence as a teacher and a teacher leader this past year, and this was yet another step down that path.  Often, I struggle to figure out where I fit in professionally.  I teach music, but my vision of a successful music class expands beyond the traditional performance model that is held by many of my colleagues.  I love dabbling in educational technology, but I wonder if people will really take a music teacher seriously - my classroom looks so different to begin with!  Over the weekend, I felt so validated in the way I am combining my subject area with technology, and several people encouraged me to present at a future event.  Right now, that sounds like the most nerve-wracking experience - I will stand up in front of kids all day, but speaking in front of adults is another story - but it's planted a seed in the back of my mind.  Maybe I do belong here.  Maybe there is a place for me in this edtech world.  Maybe I need to stop hiding behind my curtain of being "just" a music teacher or "just" dabbling in technology and confidently share my ideas!

The closing keynote, by Sandra Chow, was based on a song one of my favorite musicals, "Alone in the Universe" from Seussical the Musical [insert music teacher geeking out here].  As I listen to the words of this song, the need for friendship and fellow dreamers resonates so strongly with me!  But, in order to reach out and find each other, both Jojo and Horton had to take a risk and put themselves out there with some pretty big thinks.  I want to continue to think and dream about how to improve education for our students, AND to share those thoughts with my colleagues and PLN!

Sunday, November 6, 2016

#EdTechTeam #GAFESummit: Learning about Blogging with @cmoor4!

I'm sitting in a workshop at this #GAFESummit (which is now rebranded as #EdTechTeam) learning about blogging with @cmoor4.  These are some great resources and things I wish I would have had when I started blogging with my students this year!

Quick thought so far: we have talked a lot about being a good audience and how important it is to develop an authentic audience for the kids.  I'm so thankful for my #sunchatbloggers group and friends @MsVenturino, @AmyLynnRever, and @jkervs who have connected with my blog and my students' blogs to engage in this learning adventure together!

Time to click post so I can follow along with the next step!  I will post much more later, including a recap of my experience at this Summit!

Monday, October 31, 2016

Gamification Update

At the beginning of the year, I shared that I would be gamifiying my classes this year into Ms. Yeh's Jedi Strings Academy!  Unfortunately, things have gotten busy since then, and I have been lax about providing updates.  Before the calendar turns to November, let me share some of my reflections so far:

Building a game is a lot of work!  It requires me to constantly be thinking ahead and weaving things into the greater story that is tying the year together.  This being my first year, I am not quite in the mode of thinking about my game yet, and the result is that I am inconsistent with how much we focus on the game in class.  Sometimes, we go through spurts of doing a lot of activities (and adding a lot of excitement) about the game...and other times, I drop the ball and a couple of weeks will go by where I realize I didn't plan much to advance the game.  As the year goes on, though, I am finding myself more naturally in the mindset of building the game, which is helping it go more smoothly.  I wish that I could say that everything has been awesome, but I am committed to being honest on this blog, and my reality is that it is a work in progress.

In the same way, some of my students are REALLY into the game, while others don't really care much about it.  My 6th graders have been incredibly motivated, and it is fun to see them latch on!  I heard a lot from parents at conferences about how much students were enjoying this aspect of the class.  My 7th & 8th graders are more hit and miss.  Of course, I had a moment the other week where I was wishing that my older students were more engaged, and right then, an 8th girl found me during passing period asking me if I had seen her latest quest yet and if she would get a badge for it.  I have to remind myself that sometimes they just show it differently.  And, even if 100% of them don't buy in, the ones that do are still getting more out of it than if I was not gamifying - that's something positive I can hold onto!

The quality of work on the side quests is AWESOME!  Quick example (since it's Halloween): Instrument Costume Contest (thanks to everyone who voted).  The students are working really hard to put something great together, and their personalities really come out in their projects.  These quests have also allowed me to address misconceptions that I see in their thinking in a non-threatening way, since it is not linked to their grade.  I've determined that I need to run more quests, because that seems to be a huge way students are engaging (and they are begging me for more), so I hid four quests around the school and on my website today.  I'm not sure when students will find them, but I am hoping this really gets things rolling!

Many times, I hear from others in my #XPLAP Twitter chats & Voxer group, and I wish I could devote more time to developing an amazing game like theirs!  Yet, at the same time, I am working on giving myself grace - comparison is NOT a helpful thing, and I realize that much of my time and energy is being sucked away by grad school right now.  So, my October update in short: I have a start on my game, and I am loving where it is taking my class.  I'm hoping for more, knowing that it will come as I continue to learn and build.  And I'm taking a deep breath, realizing I can't do everything all at once, but celebrating the growth each step of the way!

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Changing MY Mindset

I am lucky enough to be hosting practicum students - future music educators - in my classroom right now!  Having people in my classroom always makes me think twice about what I am doing.

On Thursday, we were doing a very flexible activity in 6th grade.  For the majority of the class, students were given the freedom to work on what they needed to while I worked individually with a few students.  Some were marking their music, some were practicing scales, some were practicing their actual music, and some were focusing on flash cards (to work on note-reading).  Some students worked by themselves, and some worked with partners or in small groups.  The class was flexible, so students came in and out of different groups and focused on different things.  This type of free-flowing learning is not unusual in my classroom - it looks like (mostly organized) chaos, but I'm used to it.

Fast forward to debriefing with my practicum students.  They mentioned how they were impressed that the students were all focused the whole time, even in a fairly unstructured environment.  Immediately, I went to being apologetic, both in my mind and out loud.  "I'm sorry, you probably want to see more of a traditional rehearsal environment.  It's true, I run a very flexible classroom, this isn't very typical.  Soon, we will get on to more rehearsal, so you can see what music classrooms really are like."

It wasn't until I was reflecting later that I realized how the negativity and pushback that sometimes accompanies innovation had leaked into my own mindset.  Why was I apologizing for the way I run my classroom?  I fully believe in what I do - I always try to design my room in a way that is best for kids!  I don't wish it was different or have any plans to change.  So where did the need to apologize come from?

Pre-conceived expectations.  Comparison.  That is the answer.  I was comparing myself to the imaginary teacher that I thought these students wanted to see.  To what I thought they expected.  Not because they had said anything - but because I still have this picture of a traditional music classroom in my head that I was holding up as the ideal, and in the process, discounting the different forms of learning that occur in my room.

As I reflected, I came to realize that they had actually paid me a great compliment.  Students directing their own learning and being fully engaged for the whole class period?  That's what I want!  In many ways, that is BETTER than the traditional environment I picture where the teacher leads and students respond.  Sometimes I think I am moving more toward innovative, student-led teaching/learning methods, but then I have a moment like this to show me how much I still hold onto my old notions of what teaching is.

So I'm choosing to take that as a positive comment.  I'm choosing to reject the thinking that says it has to be done the way we've always done it.  I'm choosing to move forward and be proud of the environment I create in my classroom.  And I'm choosing to not compare myself or my class with others! 

*Note: There is definitely a place for traditional teaching methods, and I do not think they are all bad - I just do not want to limit myself or my students when designing instruction!

Saturday, October 15, 2016

#sunchatbloggers: Top 5 Non-Rehearsal Activities in an Instrumental Music Classroom

Earlier this year, as I was just starting to blog, I connected with an amazing group of educators in the #sunchatbloggers group.  As we have been inspired by each other's blogs, we decided to try a group topic of the "Top 5".  So, without further ado, here are my Top 5 Non-Rehearsal Activities in an Instrumental Music Classroom!

Check out this padlet to view other #sunchatbloggers Top 5 Posts!

1. Have students blog (or write) reflectively

How often do we ask students to reflect on their learning?  Blogging can be a great way to help them go deeper with class projects or practice logs.  Another favorite of mine is having students reflect on a performance or recording of themselves.  In writing about it, they are able to take a step back and look at the bigger picture of their learning.  This can also open up opportunities for class discussions to take place through the comment section online - which evens the playing field for some quieter students who would not speak up as often!

Relates to: literacy, critical thinking, technology, communication skills, student collaboration, assessments

2. Get out and share!

String Caroling
One of the best things you can do for your program is to share the joy of music with others!  My students participate in the Birthday Brigade to wish staff members a happy birthday.  We also do String Caroling around the holiday season, where students stop into different classroom to play holiday tunes (this also doubles as a chamber ensemble experience for them).  We also connect with younger students, playing mini-concerts to prepare for our evening concerts and putting on "instrument petting zoos" to give preschoolers and kindergartners some hands-on experience with the instruments.

Relates to: community, relevance, learning environment, students' strengths

3. Find & watch relevant YouTube videos!

YouTube, and various other video platforms, have changed the way people share media and provided a track to instant fame.  Many modern musicians have built their fan bases largely from viral YouTube videos!  Tap into that excitement, and show students videos that include their instrument in less traditional settings.  I also have a tradition called "YouTube Fridays", where we watch a relevant YouTube video and students complete a brief listening assignment about it.  This connects them to the world and lets them see the cool things they can do with their instruments,while also honing their listening skills!

Relates to: relevance, connectedness, differentiation, technology, critical thinking

4. Explore Online Music Tools

There are so many cloud-based programs that allow students to play around with different aspects of music.  I have shown students these tools in class, and had them go home and send me a video later that night of something they made using these websites.  There is also so much authentic learning that occurs as they try to recreate what they hear in their head on the screen!  Some of my favorites are:
Noteflight for composition
Pencil Code Jam for coding
Chrome Music Lab for musical fun and creation at all ages

Relates to: technology, connectedness, relevance, differentiation, students' strengths, critical thinking, student collaboration, coding

5. Make an instrument!

Orchestra Construction
As crazy as this sounds, allowing my students the chance to make an instrument has made a bit difference in how they take care of their instruments as well as their tone quality.  When they understand the underlying mechanics, they are able to integrate this knowledge into their playing to create a better sound.  We start by talking about the essential parts of their instrument (this TEDx Talk provides a great introduction), and then students design and build.  I have made instruments with all sorts of materials, and it is always fascinating to see the different ways students construct things to achieve the same result!

Relates to: technology, content, connectedness, student collaboration, critical thinking, makerspaces, community, students' strengths

What non-rehearsal strategies do you employ in your classroom to engage students and connect music to other disciplines?

Find the Force #3 (Genius Hour #3)

It's amazing what happens when you give students a stake in their own education.  That's what our Force Projects are all about (you can read more about our journey at Find the Force #1 & #2).

After lots of front-loading, brainstorming, and conversation about ideas, my students put together a proposal for what they wanted to learn about.  This included their topic, some resources they could use, how they could present their learning, and a basic outline of the steps they wanted to take from start to finish.  I reviewed these proposals and gave some constructive feedback, but for the most part, they were pretty solid!  Some of the projects include:
  • Learning to play a new instrument
  • Making an instrument out of various materials
  • Researching how music has influenced fashion over the years
  • Composing songs, or creating mash-ups of the students' favorite pop tunes
  • Teaching kindergartners about music and helping them create a piece

Finally, our first work day came.  I'll admit, I was a little nervous, especially because I had invited my assistant principal/evaluator to come in for an observation that day, and I had NO idea how it would go!  Before students began, I reviewed the guidelines and structures with them about how they should use their time...and then I set them free!

As I walked around the room, I was amazed.  Students were using Chromebooks, tablets, and phones to research their topics.  They were setting up Google Docs, sharing them with each other, and adding links so they could refer back to them later.  They were finding videos to teach them how to play new instruments and following along.  They were talking with each other - both within their groups and outside of their groups - about what they were learning, and asking for advice and feedback!  

Learning was happening.

Perhaps I'm too cynical, but I did expect to have to remind them, at some point, to stop texting friends or to get off that computer game or to refocus their conversations to what they were working on.  Out of the whole day, I only had to do this once.  Once.  With one student.  My assistant principal said that he walked around the entire period and did not see a single student who was not engaged in the work they were doing.  That's amazing!

You know something is working when students do not want to leave the classroom.  As the period was drawing to a close, I gave several reminders that they needed to get to a good stopping point and clean up.  They just wanted to keep going!  I had to (kindly) kick them out of my classroom so the next class could come in.

The following week, we all set up blogs to track our progress.  If you would like to follow our journey, check out a few of these blogs and please comment!  Password is "force".

And so the journey continues...

It's amazing how giving up control (as a teacher) resulted in more engagement and less management problems.  How do you give students a say in their learning?

Saturday, October 8, 2016

The Birthday Brigade

Everybody likes a bit of fun in their lives, especially on their birthday, right?  One of my favorite mini-activities I like to do with my students is the Birthday Brigade!

The way this works is very simple.  At the beginning of the year, one of the first songs that all of my students learn is "Happy Birthday".  We then play it for each other (with the birthday boy/girl conducting) when it is someone's birthday!

This year, I decided to take it up a notch.  Each week, staff birthdays are posted in a common area.  I take note of who has a birthday coming up and ask for small groups of students who would be willing to go on a "mini field trip" to their room and play "Happy Birthday" to them!  I usually have more than enough who are willing to go!  My students love sharing their music authentically and brightening someone's day, and it takes only a couple of minutes for them to go to the room, play "Happy Birthday", and come back.

Even though we've just started the Birthday Brigade, I've received lots of positive feedback so far!  It's fun, it's easy, and it's a great way for our orchestra to be more visible throughout the school while promoting positive school culture.

Music teachers - do you have a "Birthday Brigade" at your school?  How do you increase visibility and find authentic performing opportunities for your students?

Saturday, September 24, 2016

The Rest of the Time

Sometimes, I wonder if my blog paints an accurate picture of my classroom.  I don't intentionally try to be dishonest or only share the good parts of my day, but I usually blog when I feel like I have something interesting to write about!  The everyday occurrences don't always make it up here - but today, they're going to!  So, this is what goes on "the rest of the time" - what fills up the bulk of my teaching moments at school.

We learn scales.  We rehearse our music.  I remind the kids to play with low 1s and extended 4s and F-naturals, not F-sharps!  We play a bit, stop and fix a few things, and then play that section again.  We work on dynamics, on tempos, on techniques like shifting, pizzicato, or vibrato.  I remind my cellos to play quieter and ask my violins to play louder.  "USE MORE BOW!" probably comes out of my mouth at least three times per day.  I remind kids to sit up straight, play with good position, fix their bow holds, pluck with the right hand and finger with the left, and listen for a good sound.

I tune instruments.  I reset bridges, put new strings on, and tighten chinrests.  I re-tune instruments.  I put fingertapes on.  I tighten bows for kids that can't turn the screw anymore and loosen them when they don't yet have the strength.  I show kids when their shoulder rests are on backwards, how to tighten their bow to the right amount, and to take their endpins out a little more.  And then I tune an instrument with a peg that slipped.

I set up chairs.  I straighten stands.  I move my "mobile classroom" (giant bag) from room to room and school to school.  I use the aging computer/sound system, run into technical difficulties, problem solve, and sometimes get it to work.  I plug in Chromebooks that didn't get put back correctly.  I search for stolen lost violas and drop instruments off at the repair shop.  I collect money, collect forms, and track it all on my master spreadsheet.  I watch videos, grade and give feedback, and enter it all into the system.  I check my email and sort through all of the messages from all four of my schools to make sure I catch anything that might involve music.  I make copies.  I color-code and highlight for my students who need extra support, and then make more copies.  I write exercises and/or modified parts on Finale to fit my group.  I print them out, then find that the copier is jammed and pull a bunch of levers and turn a bunch of knobs to find the one tiny torn piece of paper that is activating the machine's sensors.

I talk with students.  I talk with counselors and other teachers about students, in order to serve them better.  I see kids in the halls, I remind them to WALK from class to class, I ask them how their day is going, I remind them to pick up their instruments to take them home to practice, and I ask them about that jersey they have on.  I answer their questions and hear their stories and give high fives all day long.

In short, I TEACH.  This is the minutia that makes up my days.  And, you know what?  I love it!  Most of these events are not "blog-worthy", but that does not mean that they are unimportant.  I will continue to blog about the new and exciting things happening in my classroom, but rest assured, those moments will be surrounded by all of these little things that make up "the rest of the time".

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Digital BreakoutEDU SUCCESS!

Do you ever have one of those days that goes so well that you wish you could just freeze and save it and play it back when things are rough?  That was my day today.  I launched my first Digital BreakoutEDU game with these classes, and had high expectations for how it would turn out!  Amazingly, it blew even my high expectations out of the water!

Students were engaged.  All of them.  The whole class period.  I kept expecting to have to go over to tell one or two to get off of their online games or stop texting friends, but they were all working on the Breakout!  A group even came in during their lunch to finish.

The energy in the room was amazing!  There was a buzz, and so much excitement!  All class period, I heard shouts of, "Look what I found!"  "I think this is a clue!"  "I got it!"  "Check this out!"  There was also lots of laughter, high-fiving, and cheering as they figured out each lock.

Collaboration, community-building, and teamwork happened across the board.  I saw kids who usually don't interact working together.  My first group to finish in one class was a group who is typically quiet, but works hard.  It was fun to see them become the "experts" and see others looking to them for help.  Students were walking across the room, sharing, and asking for advice.  I was impressed at how well they did at giving each other hints (such as, "Look at the pictures to find a clue,") but not giving away the answer.

Students are not used to having permission to explore.  When we first started, I had several questions along the lines of, "Are we allowed to click on this link?"  Another question I answered was, "I think I need to figure out this person's birthday - am I allowed to use Google to do that?"  It made me realize how much control we teachers tend to assert in the classroom and how kids are so used to being restricted.

Students used lots of different strategies to figure out the answers!  This was one of the coolest things for me to watch.  Students arrived at their answers in so many different ways!  Some were reading sheet music, some were looking things up on search engines, some were grabbing their instruments and sounding out songs to solve the puzzle.

Failure is hard.  By the end of the class, about 2/3 of the students had "broken out", but the remaining 1/3 were still working on it.  Even though this activity carried no weight in terms of grades (although it did earn them bonus points in our class game, the Jedi Academy) and they could continue working on it at home with no deadline, it really upset some students that they could not get it.  Interestingly enough, these were students who were reluctant to collaborate because they wanted to make sure they were doing their own work.  We haven't debriefed yet, but it's made me think about the difference between doing your own work and truly working together.  Surely there's some good conversation to be had there!

I'll end with a quote from the feedback form from one of my 7th graders:
"Oh my gosh, that was so challenging but SOOO FUN!!! I loved it!!! thanks so much for making this fun challenge Ms. Yeh! :)"

I'd call it a good day.

*Note: Thanks to everyone at BreakoutEDU & Digital BreakoutEDU for their inspiration!  If you want to play, this is the game I used: Going Baroque!

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Activating Students as Instructional Resources for Each Other

Sometime in the spring last year, I sat in an evaluation meeting with my principal, talking about formative assessment strategies.  One thing she mentioned was activating students as instructional resources for each other.  While the concept sounded great, it honestly felt like too much to re-imagine my classroom and figure out how to apply this at that point in the year.  I tucked it away in my brain, thinking, "Maybe next year..."

Well, next year is here, and all of a sudden, I am seeing opportunities for this everywhere!  It's funny, how sometimes we just need time to process and mull ideas over before really owning them and incorporating them into our teaching.

As a teacher, I get asked many questions a day by students.  "How do you do this?"  "What does this mean?"  "Can you help me?"  "Where is _____?"  Sometimes they truly need an answer from me.  But, so often, the person sitting next to them knows the answer!  I know many teachers have implemented an "Ask 3 people before you ask me" rule.  While I think this does encourage them to ask other students, I wonder what happens when students actually ask the teacher.  If they are anything like me, they give a quick answer, and then get back to whatever was going on in class.  Efficiency, right?

This year, I've tried something different.  If it really is a question that only I can help with, I will answer.  But 80-90% of the questions are ones that another student can help with, so I turn them back to another student.  "Great question!  I bet _____ can help you out with that!"  Or, "I saw _____ figuring that out, why don't you go ask him!"  The biggest change in my practice is giving them a specific person to ask (someone who I know will be able to help them), and letting them figure it out together.  And if I don't know who might be able to help?  It's easy enough to say, "Who has figured out how to _____ and could help someone else?" and get a whole crew of "helpers" volunteering!  It takes a lot of discipline for me to not just give them the answer, but encourage them to search it out!  Does it take more time?  Yes.  But, I suspect that as the year goes on, it will actually save time as students learn to check with each other rather than peppering me with questions all day long.  And, regardless of the time, it is developing great habits of learning in their lives - and that is definitely worth it!

In just four weeks, I have begun to see the benefits of this strategy in our class culture.  No one is above asking for help, and no one is off-limits as a person to ask for help.  In my 6th grade class, especially, students are starting to take the initiative to give and receive feedback without any prompting.  As a result, they are catching things that I am not even catching in my teaching and fixing them!  It's a joy to see them develop the confidence to be both teachers and learners in the class.  Encouraging students to be instructional resources for each other increases ownership and elevates them, to create a culture of learning together rather than just taking input from the teacher.

Along with our in-class interactions, Google Classroom has been a great platform for students to share ideas and learn from each other!  More on that in another post...

One caution - we all have students who catch onto certain concepts more easily than others.  It is important to not always point students to the one girl who is ahead of the class or the boy who always seems to do well on tests.  Thinking about activating students as resources for each other has actually made me pay more attention to which students are mastering specific skills, giving me an even better idea of where each student is at and what their next step is!

I feel like I am only seeing the tip of the iceberg for how this strategy can increase student engagement and learning, and I look forward to learning more!  How do you activate students as instructional resources for each other?  What struggles have you had?  What successes have you had?

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Find the Force #2 (Genius Hour #2)

Today marked Day #2 of my Find the Force Project for my 7th & 8th grade orchestra students (see Find the Force (Genius Hour part 1) for the beginning of the journey, and Find the Force #3 for what happened next), and I couldn't be more encouraged!

Even though Day #1 went pretty well, I really started getting nervous over the past couple of weeks.  What if this doesn't work?  What if I give my students this freedom and it ends up being a bust?  How much instructional time will I have wasted with them then?  What if they can't come up with any ideas?  What if they think this is stupid?  I really had to take a deep breath and let go of my fears...and the control I'm used to having in my classroom!

What we Did:

To begin with, I sent my students to several websites to explore ideas to push their thinking about what "music-related" could be.  That is the one parameter I am putting on their projects - they have to relate to music somehow.  One website was, with composition software.  The next was, which uses code to play music.  I directed my students to a video or one of my previous students playing an instrument that he had wired up (I don't know exactly how he did it, but it lit up and played notes on a touch sensor), gave them some questions to think about if they were stuck, and finally asked them to fill out a Google Form letting me know what they were thinking about the project.

In Their Words:

Excerpts from the Google Form (very representative of the rest of the responses that didn't make it onto the blog):

"For this project I am not really set on an idea yet. But I am very excited. This project will make me understand music more and go more deeply then just playing the violin. I feel a little worried just because it is going to be such a big project but i think we will have enough time to really make it a good project."

"I feel really good about this project. I am really excited to try something new and do something more independent."

"I'm getting very exited for this!!!!!"

"I do not have an idea for this project yet.  I am feeling really nervous about this project, because I have to have a solid idea before I can feel I do anything.  This project could help me accomplish my musical goals by giving me a chance to try out different things in a learning environment, which you can't normally do."

"I think the Force Project is exciting but it is little bit scary. It's scary because in school we've never been able to choose what we want but that makes it really exciting at the same time."

"This will be an exciting adventure! I am very excited to test my limits and learn a new instrument. And set high goals for my self."

"This project excites me because I really want to learn In a group with my friends because I feel more supported and confident."

"This project makes me excited, because I can really choose my own thing, and can learn other things that we might not learn in class every day. However, this makes me a little nervous, because I'm not totally sure what I want to do yet, and I'm not sure the end result can be as good as I want. I am mainly very excited for this project, and can't wait to do something new."

"This project is really scary to me because when I have mostly unlimited options I can´t choose what to do."

"I am feeling very excited because I now can do something that I came up with and not the teacher explaining."

My Reaction:

They are buying in!  Although there is some fear there, the vast majority of my students expressed their excitement for the chance to direct their own learning and try something new.  A lot of them have a pretty good idea of what they want to learn about as well.

In a performance-based class, deciding to take a day away from rehearsal every week felt like a huge risk.  I know that there will continue to be ups and downs in the journey, but for today, I am basking in the joy of seeing students open themselves up to new possibilities and view school as a place of learning, and not just grades.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Working Together: Team Teaching

In my teaching career, I have been blessed to work with many amazing colleagues who have become great friends!  This has never been more true than this year, as I am team-teaching 5th grade beginner classes with four different people (at three different schools).  I have never had help at more than one school before, so it still feels like a huge luxury to have another adult in the room (especially with 37-52 students per class)!  At the same time, it's been a challenge trying to find our rhythm of planning, sharing the load, and how we support each other in class.  Some random observations and thoughts so far:
  • Different is okay.  I have different relationships with each of these teachers, and each of them have different backgrounds and experiences to bring to the table.  One loves logistics.  One has never taught (or played) a string instrument before.  One is a retired music teacher with years of experience.  I have team-taught with one in the past.  All of these attributes factor into how we work with each other!
  • Communication is essential.  I mean, I knew this beforehand, and I'm re-learning it all over again.  We have zero plan time together, so everything is done via email, text, or the few minutes before/after class.  That's a lot of details to work out!  If anyone has a good system for this, I would love to hear about it - I have thought about a shared Google Doc or something, but I don't have a clear vision for what this might look like.  I'm also worried about it taking a lot of time to update.
  • Giving up control is hard.  Okay, okay, maybe that makes me sound like a control freak, but in all honesty, I've been at these schools for a number of years, and I am used to being the only teacher in the classroom.  Most of these kids feed to my middle school, so I want to train them in my system.  And, as many music teachers can attest to, recruitment & retention are directly linked to my job security.  If I lose kids, I lose classes, and I lose FTE.  That's just the way it goes (I wish it wasn't this way, but that's a conversation for another day).  As I am just getting to know these other teachers, I have to take a deep breath and let them inject their input into the class, too!  I've also tried to be very upfront, open, and honest that my natural inclination is going to be to run the show the way I have done it for several years, but I truly do want their feedback and want them to call me on it when I am overstepping my bounds!  I can already tell that this is going to be a great learning point for me this year.
While we've had our challenges, I felt so thankful and blessed on Thursday when I had about 50 instruments that needed to be finger-taped (a job that is slow, tedious, and time-consuming for all of you non-music teachers out there)!  Usually, this would take me 3-4 hours to complete, and it usually can only be done during the time I am "teaching", due to my travel schedule.  On this day, though, I had my student assistant help me with some of them.  Then, a local private teacher came in (unexpected) and offered to help tape some of them while I was teaching.  Later, one of my team teachers came early, and we taped some more.  One of the 5th grade teachers at this school, who does not play a string instrument, helped with getting the tapes cut and put onto the instruments during her planning period.  And, in the end, we got all but three done before the kids arrived!  It was such a relief to be able to TEACH, and not hope the kids don't kill each other give them busywork while I worked on preparing their instruments.  Many hands do indeed make light work.

Have any of you been in a team teaching situation before?  
What are your best tips for success?  I want to make the most of this year!

A finished, finger-taped cello - cut the tape out, slide it up through the strings,
pluck & listen to find the exact right place to put it, and then push it down so it will stay!

Monday, September 5, 2016

ALL Means ALL (Part 2) - Modified Music

I highly value including ALL students in my instrumental music classroom (for more information, see Part 1 of this series).  One of the most successful accommodations I have used is modifying the sheet music to make it easier to read.  This is my specific system, designed for strings, but I'm sure it could be extracted to other instruments as well (with some tweaks)!  It's been amazing for me to see how some students have used this system from 5th-8th grade, moving through the tiers from where I give them the color-coded music to a place where I give them regular sheet music, and they are able to write in what they need to themselves!

Tier 1

If a student needs just a little extra help, I write fingerings above the music - no colors.  This is not that different from what I do to remind myself of tricky passages!

Tier 2
If a student needs a little more support, I write in the fingerings (in pencil or pen) and use highlighters to denote which string the notes should be played on.  
Orange = C or E string
Blue = G String
Green = D String
Pink = A String
Yellow = dynamics, pizz/arco, or other relevant information

Tier 3
If students need less visual clutter (for whatever reason), I have made sheets that look like this one.  The rhythmic representation is a little tricky (I try to use spacing, but it is not precise), but usually these kids will figure out the rhythm by ear.

Tier 4
Finally, if students do not have the coordination to use their left hand fingers, I have open-string versions so they can play along with us.  I like to avoid this if possible, because then they aren't hearing the melody of the song coming out of their instrument, but I have had a couple of instances where this seems to be the best option.  This can be combined with a little bit of colored tape (think washi tape) on the edge of the fingerboard beneath each string to make it clear which one is which.

Over the past five years, I have used this system with about 40 students, with great results!  This doesn't always mean that they learn to play really well or that they necessarily continue playing, but I have gotten positive feedback from the students, their families, and the special education professionals at my school.  In the end, it helps the students be included, accepted, and able to play along with us without the barrier of reading.

I feel a constant tension of pushing students to be able to read music (and up the tiers) while still providing them with the tools to have a positive experience in orchestra.  I don't pretend that I get it right all of the time, but I do know that I have some students in 8th grade now who would never have found the joy in making music if they hadn't gotten a little help with reading music in the beginning!  To me, that is worth it.

As always, I am happy to share the materials I have made - feel free to send me a Tweet (@ms_a_yeh) or leave a comment if you are interested!

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Find the Force (Genius Hour #1)

Today marked the introduction of Genius Hour projects (called Force Projects in my class, to go with the Star Wars theme) to my 7th & 8th graders!  Well, in my mind that is today was about - they weren't quite sure where we were going with this when class started.  I thought long and hard about how I wanted to introduce this concept to them, and ended up settling on a more exploratory approach, rather than giving them the guidelines of exactly what we were doing right away.  It ended up working out just fine, and was one small step on the road to cultivating creative, innovative thinking!

My Goals for the Class:

  • Start thinking outside of the box for what school/learning is
  • Start exploring & brainstorming ideas for different Force Projects
  • Use the class comment feature on Google Classroom to stage a class discussion (this is the first time I have ever tried this)

What We Did:
I showed my students a quick Google Slides presentation, with a couple of videos embedded, to introduce the idea of learning about something we are passionate about, for the sake of learning, and not just for a grade.  I then asked students four questions to get their feedback (inspired by @brianrozinsky's "What If?" blog post), and asked them to respond with a class comment in Google Classroom.  Finally, I asked them to read and respond to each others' comments as well as explore some projects that @AmyLynnRever's class did last year to get ideas and expand their thinking.

On the Topic of Grading:
My students' reflections on grading were interesting - three main themes came out of this discussion:
1. The majority of students said that they would not be as motivated to work hard in class if they were not being graded.
2. Several students also said that, if there were no grades, they would not know if they were improving or not.  This led into a whole discussion of feedback - can we give/receive feedback in ways other than grading?  Can you give yourself feedback (self-assessment)?
3. Students also related that if there were no grades, they would be less stressed out and less fearful of doing poorly.
The common conclusion seemed to be: If there were no grades, class would be easier and more students would choose to take orchestra, but we would sound worse and not learn as much.

Using Google Classroom for Class Discussions:
The other really interesting thing for me was to see the dynamic of having a class discussion on Google Classroom.  135 comments certainly empowered some of my quieter students to speak up and contribute more, which was awesome!  It was easy for the conversation to spiral and get off-topic, however, especially when it began moving faster than I could keep up with it!  All in all, though, it seemed to be a medium that the students were very comfortable interacting on.  It also spilled over into face-to-face conversations that students were having with each other.  I was expecting to hear some "social" talk as I circled the room, but nearly all of the students were talking with each other about the questions I had posted and their classmates' replies.  Students talking about their learning = WIN!  I wouldn't use Classroom for discussions all of the time, but it was great to try a new way of communicating as a class, and I am glad to have it in my toolbox!

Genius Hour Reflections:
This was very challenging for my students.  Having an open-ended assignment, open-ended questions, and no clear parameters (yet!) made some of them uncomfortable.  It amazed me that when asked, "If you could learn about anything, what would it be?" a lot of them had no answer.  They called me over and said, "I don't know, what are we learning next in class?"  Once we acknowledged that, though, and I assured them that I knew this felt different, but I wanted them to try anyway, their dreaming and imagination started to kick in!  For most of them, anyway - it's a work in progress.  I have to remember that they have spent years in school learning how to learn a certain way, and "play the game" of school.  While this isn't all bad, unlearning this game and adjusting to a more exploratory, inquiry-based style of learning won't happen overnight!  It will take patient teaching and coaching from me, just like any other skill I am trying to teach.

My favorite moment of the day was when a group of girls started talking about making their own YouTube channel.  When I encouraged them, the response was, "Wait, you mean we can actually DO that?!?!?"

What Now?
As I told my students, I have no expectation that they will have a topic and project figured out right now.  I am trying to start slow, and front-load them with a lot of ideas and information, as well as give them plenty of time to formulate a topic that they really want to learn about, before we officially start.  I am excited to continue challenging my students to think outside the box, explore, and become better learners this year!

The Journey Continues...
Find the Force #2 (Genius Hour #2)
Find the Force #3 (Genius Hour #3)

Saturday, August 27, 2016

ALL Means ALL - Accessibility in the Instrumental Music Classroom

Music is for everyone.  The more I teach, the more I become convinced of that fact.  But I've also noticed that at conferences, in professional journals, and most other places, when we are talking about inclusion in the music classroom, we are focused on elementary general music.  What happens after that?

In my district, students are given the opportunity to learn an instrument starting in 5th grade, and continuing through high school.  We work very hard to create this opportunity for 100% of our students, regardless of their abilities or financial circumstances.  Over the past few years, it has become a passion of mine to help all students find a way to participate and be successful in learning an instrument!

How can we do this?  Here are some of the ways:

Helping students choose an instrument that is right for them - their body, their learning style, and their preferences
If a student struggles with fine motor skills, a woodwind instrument might be a challenge!  If they only have use of one hand, perhaps a trumpet might work well.  If they are very sensitive to squeaky sounds, then a cello might work well.  Learning about a student and being able to encourage them in the right direction will give them a better chance at being successful!

Modifying the way the instrument is physically played if necessary
People come in all shapes and sizes, and sometimes modifications are necessary!  In my orchestra classroom, I have had a handful of students learn to play an instrument "backwards" (right hand doing the fingering, left hand bowing), due to the structure of their hands and/or some hearing loss they have experienced.  I have also worked with the OT at my school to create some adaptive devices to make things like holding the bow easier for students with limited range of movement.

Engage peer buddies
One of my favorite things from last year was watching the relationship grow between a 5th grade student and her 8th grade peer mentor.  They loved working together!  This is a great way to provide options for simplifying the playing - if coordinating two hands is too much, or they only have use of one hand, then have a peer finger the notes while they concentrate on the bow or vice versa.  They are still an integral part of making and experiencing the music!

Think about seating & materials
As a violinist, I know exactly what it's like to sit in the back of the 2nd violin section with the piccolo pointed straight in my left ear - not pleasant (sorry, piccolo players)!  I can only imagine how our students with a sensitivity to sound feel in the middle of a chaotic music room!  Think about seating - where is the best place for this student?  Is it a little bit removed from everyone, to dampen the affects of the sound?  Is it right up front, where they are in close proximity with the teacher?  If a student has vision issues, where can they see the best from?
Let's be honest, playing an instrument requires you to keep track of a lot of materials - there are all of the parts to your instrument, any accessories or cleaning supplies that go along with it, your music, and a stand.  This can be a lot for kids with executive functioning challenges, or those who don't have a good awareness of themselves and the space around them (proprioception).  Providing separate folders for home and school, directly teaching about how to ensure students have enough space, and giving a structure for where to store all materials (both when playing and when packing up) can help these kids!

Make reading easier
This one is a big deal to me - whether it is copying music on different colored paper, englarging the music, or color-coding fingerings (check out Part 2 of this post, explaining the method I use to help with fingerings)!  I wholeheartedly agree in the value of learning to read music, and every student in my class works on that goal.  In the end, though, I just ask myself what's more important to me - that a student can read or that they can play with us?  If the reading is so frustrating that they can't access the music and play with us, then it's a barrier in the way!  Usually, with these students, I separate the two pieces - I have them work on reading music and correlating notes with fingerings, but for the repertoire we are playing in class, I modify it in some way to make it easier for them to just play.  I understand that this might be controversial in the music ed world - but it's something I've come to believe in very firmly!  I could tell story after story of kids (with autism, learning disabilities, processing delays, motor delays, etc) who have been successful in orchestra and stuck with their instrument because they felt like they could play with us.  That is worth it to me!

Make expectations clear
Some students need a little more help with knowing what is expected.  A visual checklist, self-monitoring system, and established routine can help lower anxiety for some and keep others on-track.  Sometimes this is challenging for me, because rehearsal can be a very free-flowing time, and I will hear different things that I want to respond to than what I had originally planned in my lesson.  In these instances, I try to be very explicit about what will be changing and why, so kids don't feel caught off-guard.

Create a community
This just wraps everything together - as one of my students wrote this week, "Teamwork is everything in orchestra."  Very few classes require the same amount of collaboration and teamwork as a music classroom, and what a beautiful thing that is for those who can often get left on the outskirts!  Don'e we all long for a sense of belonging to a group?  Especially in middle school, and especially for students who have some added things they are dealing with, having a positive group to identify with can do wonders.  My students proudly proclaim themselves #orchedorks.  Intentionally building community, valuing the contributions of every student in the room, and finding way to let them know they are ALL adding to the music brings out the social/emotional learning in a music class!

Does including take extra work?  Absolutely!  Every time we get a new piece of music, I spend at least an hour making sure everything is set for my kids who need a little extra support.  Setting up connections with peers or making assistive devices for playing takes time.  But is it worth it?  YES!

When we say that we are educating all students, that includes educating them in specials/electives as well.  Music is important for ALL of us - so let's make ALL mean ALL in an instrumental music classroom!   So much of this has come for me through experimentation and just trying to see what works with individual students.  Take the jump and try something to make music more accessible!

How do you purposefully include all students in your class?

Saturday, August 20, 2016

First Day? CHECK!

Week One of the 2016-2017 School Year: CHECK!  If you can even call it that - starting on Thursday (6th graders) and Friday (7th/8th graders) means that it was a very short week!  What I do want to give an update on, however, is how my first day introduction & Breakout game went!

8th graders working together to solve the clues!

As I was planning for the first day, I thought a lot about what I wanted to accomplish with my students.  Here is what I came up with:

  • Make it fun, exciting, and enjoyable, so they would leave looking forward to coming back the next day!
  • Pass out all necessary paperwork, so they could take it home and get it signed by parents.
  • Introduce the theme of my gamified classroom this year: Ms. Yeh's Jedi Strings Academy!
Based on those goals, I made an introduction video, which led the students to a Breakout game, which led to the papers that were locked in the box.

I dressed up as Princess Leia for the day, and welcomed students as they entered.  I very quickly launched into the Star Wars video for students to view.  It was so fun to watch their faces as they watched the video!  Comments I heard included:
  • "This is the best thing ever!"
  • "Wow, this is so cool!"
  • [Lots of laughter] "This is great!"
It was clear that the students enjoyed this unique presentation of some of the basic beginning-of-year information.  After that, I explained that there was a box that they needed to get open by the end of class.  I passed out the clues (randomly tossing them to students around the classroom), and repeated the final charge from the video: Have fun, work together, and may the Force be with you!

Welcoming students to my room
(and, yes, my head hurt by the end of the day with those buns!)
After this, it was fun to see what the students did with this information.  It took them a few seconds to realize that I was not going to stand at the front of the classroom and tell them what to do, but then they started forming small groups, working on the different clues.  Eventually, they realized that each clue had a partner (with matching pictures of a lock on the top), and they were able to put them together to figure out the clues.

As time went on, they started going through the locks, and I made a big deal of holding each one up that they had opened and announcing how many they had solved, and how many they had to go.  The kids loved it when "their" lock got announced, and were proud of the contribution they had made to the group!  With only ten minutes left, however, they were stuck on two locks.  I ended up providing more hints than I originally wanted to - because I really needed them to get into the box to get that paperwork!  This was a part of the game design that I would rethink in the future, so the opportunity for failure was there.

With about three minutes left in 1st period, the students cracked the final code and got into the box!  They were excited that they had figured all of the clues out!  Unfortunately, the time meant that we didn't get to debrief much - I will have to do more of this on Monday.  I passed out the paperwork with a few instructions, and sent them on their way!

My next challenge was to quickly reset the box for 2nd period.  I quickly put all of the locks back on while I ran to the next room (I change rooms in the middle of my schedule), and set the rest up while my 2nd period students were watching the intro video.  Learning from my 1st period class, I did a couple of things differently for 2nd period:
  • I showed them the locks ahead of time, and helped them understand how to work them (such as having to click twice to clear the directional lock).
  • I told them, right off the bat, that they would have to work together - that each clue had a partner clue, and they would have to find each other to solve it.  This was me trying to speed it up a bit so I didn't end up holding their hand at the end and giving as many hints, and it did help a bit!
They worked more quickly and did a great job getting through most of the clues!  They were stumped by the same final clue as my 1st period class, though - the directional lock.  I didn't realize that left and right would be so easily mixed up by my 7th & 8th grade students!  But, most importantly, they had fun and felt accomplished as well - and I got through all of my goals for the first day, too!

What I learned:
  • Think carefully before setting up a scenario where you really need the students to succeed.  Without the risk of failure, it changes the way you coach the game.
  • My classes of 32 & 43 students were a little bit too big for this to work well.  I tried to help the situation by splitting up several clues, and it worked well in the beginning - but after most of the locks were solved, there was no way for all of the kids to be really involved in solving the final lock.  This is when they were a little bit less engaged - still interested in what was going on, but having some social time, too.
  • I'm so glad I printed out different sets of clues for each class (and color-coded them)!  This allowed kids to write on them as they cracked the code, and made setup much easier, because I didn't have to re-collect clues and make sure I had all of them!
  • The kids really appreciated doing something different on the first day and not just sitting in seats listening to expectations!  It also caught them off-guard, especially first thing in the morning (my 1st period kiddos).  Hopefully they will be more ready for this in the future!  But it was worth it.  The smiles on their faces, the laughter, and the way they launched right in showed me that all of the planning was totally worth it, and my worries were unfounded!
  • In each class, I had one very introverted student who struggled to participate.  Because it is less structured, they struggled to find a way to "push in" to the conversation, and sat on the outskirts.  I tried to give them a special hint that no one else in the class got, to see if they could use that as a way to get in, but neither of them had any inclination to enter the fray.  I will have to think about how to make sure they are engaged from the very beginning next time!
While some things went how I expected them to, and others didn't, it was a very successful first day overall!  It felt great to get students moving, collaborating, and problem solving on Day One.  Here's to a great year in Ms. Yeh's Jedi Strings Academy!

Saturday, August 13, 2016

My BreakoutEDU Design Process

About 10 months ago, my brother introduced me to BreakoutEDU, and I was HOOKED!  Since then, my obsession has just grown, and I keep telling everyone in my buildings they need to try this thing out!  Meanwhile, I have been using both the physical and digital Breakouts in my classes pretty frequently (especially in summer school).  While most people like to start with a Breakout that is already designed, I have found that I enjoy it a lot more (and it targets my students a lot more) if I design the Breakout on my own!  It is definitely time-consuming, but totally worth it in the end!  I've had so many people ask how I go about designing my own, I thought I'd write a blog post on it.

My BreakoutEDU Design Process:

1. What are we working on in class?
I ask myself what skills we are focusing on, or what resources we have been/will be using in class.  This is the basis for any Breakout I design - how does it relate to our current learning objectives?
Examples: First Day Breakout over our classroom handbook, close reading Breakout designed entirely from one article, music history Digital Breakout focusing on a certain era of music

2. What are some key things I want my students to pull from this?
I look for key themes, words, or mental processes I want my students to really remember.  This gives me the basis for my clues & locks.  If it's a word I want students to remember, that may become my word lock.  If it's a skill I really wanted them to learn, such as finding a footnote in a text, then I will design a clue that can be solved by using that specific skill.  I generally use a table to organize this information (Headers: Lock Type, Answer, Clue, Anything else?).  If I don't fill in all of the clues & locks here, I don't worry about it!  I do want to have either a clue or a lock combo for all of the locks I'm planning on using, but if I'm missing the other piece, I can fill it in later.  Another question that fits in this step for me is: What digital tools do I want my students to be using to get the answer?
Examples: What is our room number?, How can we get from our room to the cafeteria?, Where would I go to learn about _______? (using the index or table of contents), What are the first few notes of ______ song (note-reading in music)?, hiding information on our class website for students to find

3. What is the overarching story/problem students are solving?
This is where the imaginative storytelling comes in!  I'll be honest, this is not one of my strengths, but I know it is more fun for students when there is a story behind it.  I try to think about the theme of the unit, the Breakout, or our classroom, and think of some problem that could come with it.  Sometimes I will write the whole story here, and sometimes I will just have an idea of the central problem they are trying to solve.  Eventually, I write a little story that dramatizes the incident and gives them a reason to break out!
Examples: Something is lost/locked in the box, time limit before it's too late, have to save your friends because _____ is happening, real-life consequence of having science lab materials locked in the box

4. Start making the clues!
Going back to step #2, I start working on the clues that I know I want to be in the Breakout.  As I start making the clues, this usually gets my mind rolling about other options for clues that could fit with the story or just provide variety in the experience.  Usually, I want a variety of clues to engage different students and different ways of thinking (although on my Close Reading Breakout, for example, all of the clues were hidden in the article).  I try to think about different modes of learning (visual, audio, kinesthetic), different types of problem-solving (words, numbers, symbols/visuals), and how complicated I want the clues to be (will they have to solve a clue to get a clue to get a clue to get the answer, or will it just be clue--->answer)?  I also wonder about connecting clues (one clue = one lock, or do you need two or more clues, or can one clue be used for two locks).  This is the time where I am really thinking about the flow of the game, and how students will move through it.  I don't have any amazing advice for how to fill in the missing holes from step #2 - when I get going on this part, the answers seem to flow pretty naturally as I dive into the mechanics of this specific Breakout!
Examples: I don't want to give too much away, but check out any games that are already posted on or for ideas.

5. Fill in any holes.
This is my final step in the actual creation of the game - filling in anything that hasn't been done yet (clues, locks, story, or anything else).  When I'm creating Digital Breakouts, this is where I actually make the lock form and design the badge for breaking out.  By this point, I am usually pretty impatient, because the fun imagining work is done, and it's just wrapping up all of the little details to make my game a reality!

6. Beta Test!
At the very least, you should try your Breakout from start to finish (in an incognito window for any digital elements) to make sure you have everything you need.  I am lucky to have an awesome brother and sister who test all of my Breakouts for me (and I test theirs...we've got a good system going)!  I've also posted to the Facebook group or Twitter to find some beta testers.  No matter how thorough I think I am, they always find something to help me tweak and refine my Breakout - whether it's a huge missing chunk of information, a lock that's set incorrectly, or just a way to reword a question to help it be more clear.  I always ask them these questions:
1. How long did it take you?
2. On a scale of 1-10, how hard do you think it was?
3. Was there anything that didn't make sense, seemed like a huge leap in logic, or didn't quite jive?
Their answers to these questions help me figure out how to improve the Breakout and if it is about at the right level for the group I am targeting.  I've made lots of improvements based on the feedback I've gotten from these testers!

7. Share!
This is the most fun part - actually running and sharing your Breakout!  Besides running the game with my class, I also like to share it via the Sandbox (physical & digital) so that others can enjoy the game, as well!  I have yet to submit a full-fledged physical breakout, but the form to do so is linked above.  As much as I like to share, there are some games I haven't posted, because they are just too specific to what we are doing in my class right then (and wouldn't be very applicable to everyone).  I try to share these with the other teachers in my building, who are doing similar things with their classes!

Overall, designing a new Breakout usually takes me about 2-3 hours, depending on how complicated the clues are and how much I've thought about it beforehand.  Usually, before I actually design the Breakout, I am thinking about it for a few days, so I have a rough idea of subject matter and maybe even a couple of clue/lock ideas in my brain.  I don't do too well if I sit down and say, "I have to design one right now...go!"  I need the lesson objective, or idea for learning, in my head already - otherwise it's not purposeful enough for me to wrap my mind around!

If you are a new Breakout designer, I hope this post gives you some ideas for getting started!  If you have designed a game (or more!) before, I am curious - does your design process look similar?  Do you go in a different order?  Where do you get your ideas for game themes/clues/locks?  We can always learn more from each other!