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!

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Goals for 2016-2017

It's that time of year again.  Where my head is spinning, my to-do list is a mile long, and I can't focus on one thing for more than a few moments at a time, and I have trouble sleeping because of all of my nervous excitement and anticipation.  Yep, it's the beginning of the year!

I actually love the beginning of a new school year.  New students, new ideas, a fresh start, and the chance to dream and re-envision your classroom.  I get so excited about all of the opportunities, it's hard to settle on just one or two!  But, to help guide my thinking (and increase accountability), I'm going to post my four main goals for the school year here.

1. Gamify My Class!  I have been working hard over the summer, with lots of great input and guidance from the #XPLAP crew, to design a year-long game for my middle level orchestra classes.  They will be entering Ms. Yeh's Jedi Strings Academy, fighting against the dark side of poor musicianship, and trying to become Grand Masters of the Jedi Order.  In order to do this, they will perform different musical tasks (playing tests, theory/culture/history research, teamwork in class, and some BreakoutEDU games I have developed) to grow in their skills, earn Galactic Credits (with which they can purchase things like "forgotten instrument passes"), and generally defeat the dark side!  I have a lot of structures worked out, and I am SUPER excited about how engaging this will be for the kids!  That being said, my goal is to actually implement it faithfully.  I've had a lot of great ideas over the years that have gotten lost in the wind, and the daily grind of rehearsals, fixing instruments, traveling from school to school, etc.  I want to actually follow through on this one!

2. Genius Hour, aka "Force Projects"!  In going with our Star Wars theme, our genius hour projects will be called "Force Projects".  This will be a chance for students to explore, create, and direct their own learning about any topic related to music!  I have a couple of friends who are taking this on with me, and am excited to learn and grow together.  I'm still wrapping my head around exactly how to present and facilitate this, but right now, I'm thinking that we will have "Force Day" every Wednesday (we have a late start & short classes on Wednesday, so it's a good time to do something different).  For the first month or so, I want to focus on getting the kids to dream, think outside the box, brainstorm about possible topics, and find places where they can learn more.  Then, I will probably set them free in using the time in whatever way they feel is best!  I love the idea of blogging their adventures, but I'm still working with my administrators to determine a safe platform for doing this.  I also love the idea of them reaching out to mentors to aid them in the process.  Some of the teaching about how to blog & how to find a mentor will be built into our first month of brainstorming and thinking creatively.  My biggest goal for our Force Projects is to encourage students to take charge of their own learning, and to step back and let them run with it.  If you have any experience with Genius Hour, I would love to hear your top piece of advice!

3. Learn How to be a Principal!  Okay, that sounds like a lofty goal, but I am working on my Principal's License right now, and it has been a grand adventure!  If I've learned anything so far, I've learned that it is a fast-paced, unpredictable job.  I have really enjoyed the time I have spent hanging out with the administration team at my school, and can't wait to learn more!  My confidence in being a leader at school has really grown, which is great, but it also means I am saying "yes" to more leadership opportunities.  This past week, I have been heavy on principal "stuff", so I haven't had as much time to focus on my classroom.  My goal is do figure out a good balance of working with the administration team at my school to gain experience through my internship, but still keep my main focus on my classroom and my kids.

4. Balance!  Last spring, I felt like I was in a really good place with home/school balance - I didn't bring much work home (although I do consistently lesson plan on the weekends), I kept up a great routine of going swimming before school 3x/week, and I felt like I had time to relax, hang out with friends, and serve in some cool ways at church.  This year, I'm adding a Master's program & principal internship to the mix.  Even though I know it will make me busier, my goal is to still make time for the important things of ME time, friend time, and exercise to maintain a good balance in my life!

Throughout the year, I will update on here about how my goals are going.  What are your goals for this school year?  How are you going to make it awesome for your students?

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Confidence - Try It!

As the summer winds down and the school year starts up, I am feeling so energized for teaching this year!  I feel like I am in a much different place than when the summer began, and that's a good thing!  But I was having trouble putting my finger on what feels so different.  Finally, I was reading Kids Deserve It!, and this quote hit me hard.

"When you are an educator, you have brilliant ideas.  And when you are not sharing your brilliant ideas, you are doing a disservice to others..."

Wow.  How convicting!  In the past, I have loved coming up with new ideas, but been too scared to share them.  I think, "If this was really a good idea, somebody would have tried it before," or "I like this, but will anybody else?" or "I'd better just play it safe, so I don't end up looking stupid."  You'd think that at some point I would get past my fears and worries...who wants to live in a box of "what other people think of you" all of the time?  But it took a little push.

Growing My PLN
After lurking around for a bit, I finally joined Twitter & Voxer, and wow, the idea sharing and encouragement is amazing!  I have learned so much, and more importantly, been encouraged to branch out and try new things.  In the past, I would have an idea, and maybe talk about it with a colleague, but then lose confidence and stop shy of actually implementing it in my classroom.  Being out there in the EDU world, surrounded (virtually) by people who are encouraging others to step out, push boundaries, take risks, and celebrate learning has been amazing!  It's allowed me to nervously contribute my ideas, and get positive feedback - which makes me realize that maybe I do have something to contribute, and continues the cycle of learning, growing, and improving.  It has truly transformed my professional life (and it's only been two months).

Principal's License
So, among all of my other pursuits, I am working on my principal's license right now.  It's been a really interesting process as I not only learn the knowledge about what it takes to be an administrator, but also change my view of myself.  Teachers, do you remember when you first started doing field experiences, or started student teaching?  It's a complete paradigm shift to think, "Whoa, I'm back in the classroom, but I'm the adult here, not a student!"  You have to reform your identity a bit to match your new role.

I have gone through that this summer in the transformation from a teacher to a principal.  In May, when people would ask me about it, I almost felt apologetic - "Yes, I am studying this, but I don't really know if I want to be a principal, I'm happy in the classroom right now, maybe someday a looooooooong way off."  I wasn't ready to view myself as a "future administrator" yet.  Between the projects I've been working on this summer and just having time to get used to the idea, I feel myself slipping more into a leadership role and being more comfortable there!  I still don't know what's in my future, as I love teaching orchestra and have no plans to leave anytime soon...but I also can see myself as a leader now.  That's more than I could say two months ago.

If I were to choose one word to describe my growth this summer, it would be confidence.  Sharing my thoughts online with people who are striving to do great things in education has given me confidence that these crazy ideas actually can be implemented and help kids learn!  Interning with my principal and taking part in some leadership decisions has given me confidence that I can be a leader in my building, whether it is as an administrator or an informal leader in my current position.  And working on so many creative pursuits (designing how I will gamify my classroom, designing digital BreakoutEDUs, and working on some website/media projects for my principal's license) has inspired me to keep learning, keep reaching, and keep pushing to teach in new ways.

Confidence.  It makes us better teachers and better learners.  If you are unsure about a new idea, try it!  Share it!  Find people who will encourage you to follow that train of thought!  Don't shy away because you are too scared to try.  If your experience is anything like mine, people will appreciate that you are trying something different, and the cycle of innovation-feedback-refining-growing will continue.  Sounds a lot like learning, doesn't it?

***To those of you who are a part of my PLN, thank you!  You have influenced my life and helped me grow!  I wish I could mention all of you here, but that would get too crazy - suffice it to say that you are all amazing educators and I appreciate you!***