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?