The start of every school year is intensely busy for any teacher. We’ve all received the advice to take the time to set up routines in the first weeks, and we’ve probably seen the benefits of doing so. But it’s hard for specialists to take the necessary time when we don’t see our students every day. Teaching and repeatedly reviewing rules and procedures seems to take forever. Starting a new job in a new community this fall has made me hyper-aware of the importance of taking the time to set up routines. My kindergarten through fifth grade students come to music on a rotating schedule, so it’s important to create routines that can be learned quickly, but also teach content. Once in place, this framework of routines makes the music room more comfortable for my students, helps me to quickly teach content and assess student learning, and increases student engagement.
Month Rap: Learning Skills
Determining which skills will be highlighted throughout the year can help in developing routines that repeatedly reinforce content. One important concept in my kindergarten and first grade classes is steady beat, and my students practice this in every music class with the month rap. Each month, students learn a new rap about the month. After spending a class or two learning the words, I choose four students each day to play the steady beat on an instrument. They are allowed to choose any classroom instrument. Before we begin, they have a chance to show off their instrument, teaching their peers the proper technique. While the whole class recites the rap and pats a steady beat on their legs, the four instrumentalists accompany the group, also with a steady beat.
This is a convenient opportunity for a performance assessment. It’s easy to hear what each individual instrumentalist is playing when there are only four, yet the entire class is engaged and participating in the performance. The students get experience playing instruments, are thrilled to choose whatever they want to play, and demonstrate their knowledge through explaining and showing the playing technique. Meanwhile, the rest of the students are getting practice playing a steady beat with body percussion and speaking rhythmically.
Mystery Instrument: Dealing with Deficiencies
Whether taking over a classroom from another teacher or returning to the same classes after summer break, we always find certain gaps in our students’ knowledge. I found that my students could use more practice aurally identifying instruments, so we now start each class with a “Mystery Instrument.” I play an excerpt of an instrumental solo using Classical MPR’s Audio Backpack, and the students try to identify what they hear. Students offer guesses, and we narrow down the options by figuring out instrument family, pitch level, etc. I then choose a student to reveal the instrument on the Promethean board, which is always a big treat. After a quick mini-lesson on the instrument of the day, we are able to move on to the rest of the lesson. It’s impressive how quickly students develop focused listening skills. This is also a great opportunity for them to practice operating the new Promethean board!
Although we hear so much about the importance of setting up our routines right away at the beginning of the year, there’s nothing wrong with adding routines later or dropping routines that started in September. I probably won’t need to continue “Mystery Instrument” throughout the school year. And if I find another gap in knowledge, I’ll be looking for a another daily routine to add to my classes, even if it’s the middle of the school year.
Warm-Ups: Assessing Performance
Finding time for individual performance assessments can be a challenge in a 25 minute class period with 30 students. I often use solo singing assessments as a part of our warm-up routine. Once students have practiced as a group and understand how to be respectful and supportive of each other’s singing, I’ll do a roll call song in which I sing each student’s name and that student sings a response using the same melodic pattern that I sang. I start with a very simple so-so-mi pattern that is easy to remember and sing. Each student’s assessment takes about three seconds. We move very quickly from one to the next, which keeps us from lingering on any one student’s performance, reducing self-conscious feelings. There are hundreds of songs and games like this that could be used for different levels and different class situations.
Adding fast-paced solo checks to our regular warm-up routine can give me a better idea of my students’ progress than more complex, but infrequent assessments. Regular, informal, and fast-paced assessments also increases my young students’ comfort singing by themselves, and their familiarity with their own voices. As an added benefit, this really helps me in learning my students’ names!
“How’s Your Singing?”: Self-Assessing
At the start of the year, I introduced very basic rubrics to my students that they now use to self-assess their singing, playing, understanding, and behavior. If I say, “How’s your singing?” or “How’s your playing?”, they know to show me a rating from one to four on their fingers in front of their hearts. These rubrics show students what I’m looking and listening for, and teach them the important musicianship skill of assessing their own performance. It is also enlightening for me to see how students rate themselves. Most students are accurate in their assessments, but this routine is useful for noticing those who show scores that don’t match their performance, indicating that they might need more help understanding the expectations.
Comparing the month of September in my first year of teaching with this first September in my new school, I notice a huge difference between teaching in survival mode and teaching within a framework of good routines. Despite the time it takes to set up, I’m teaching important content, guiding my students in developing musicianship and social skills, helping my students to feel comfortable coming into a new teacher’s classroom, and enjoying spending time with engaged and (mostly) well-behaved students. Routines are worth the effort for my students’ learning and my enjoyment of teaching. And they can even be fun!