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)