It finally happened. A student threw up in my classroom. After so many lucky years of teaching in elementary schools, I suppose it was time for me to go through this rite of passage. Thankfully, there was a wonderful para in the room who took care of the student, but with a half hour of class left, I had to deal with the clean-up, manage the rest of the students, and continue to teach. While I called the office, talked with the custodian, waited for noisy vacuuming, and continued the lesson, I realized the importance of teaching short, engaging, student-directed activities for unplanned interruptions. This situation was an unusual one (thankfully!), but teachers experience all kinds of interruptions daily–phone calls, visitors, computer problems, misplaced materials, etc.
Having a few standard activities that can be used as-is at any time or developing activity frameworks into which you can insert whatever content you have been teaching can be useful for interruptions that take you away from leading your class. Here are a few ideas I’ve used in my elementary music classes.
30 Seconds: Calling the Office, Tying Shoes, Getting a Band-Aid, Etc.
- Practice a Skill: Have students practice something they’ve been working on alone or with a partner. For my youngest students, it might be patting a partner’s hands to a steady beat. Older elementary students might practice silently fingering on an instrument.
- Look for Musical Symbols: If students are looking at printed music, I ask them to find certain musical symbols that they’ve learned about while I do what I need to do. They could look for dynamics, figure out how many beats are in each measure, count rests, determine the highest and lowest notes, etc.
- Read: If students are looking at printed music that includes lyrics, they can be directed to read during a short interruption. I usually provide them with a question or prompt to consider as they read, such as “Who is the speaker in these lyrics?” or “What descriptive words are used?”
3 Minutes: Restarting the Computer, Unexpected Visitors, Etc.
- Pick out a Song: If using textbooks, students can page through the book to find a song that they want to try out.
- Think-Pair-Share: This is an activity that can be used in any class. After giving students a problem or question, they think about it individually, then they compare and discuss their ideas with a partner. When the class comes back together, partners share their answers with the class.
- Mystery Tune: Pick one student to start the game by humming or whistling a tune. That student can call on other students to try to guess the song or piece, and whoever gets it right gets to hum or whistle the next tune.
- Conduct a Song: Choose a student to conduct a song that the class has been working on. This works particularly well during concert preparation season.
- Quick Composition: Have students draw a melody with any kind of notation. For younger students, this could be as simple as drawing a line that shows melodic contour. Have the students practice performing their piece and edit on their own before presenting them for the class to perform when everyone comes together again.
- Draw a Tune: Students draw a piece that they have been working on. This could be a line showing melodic contour, a listening map, or any other kind of notation. Students could all draw the same tune and compare their drawings, or they could draw different tunes and have their classmates guess what song they drew.
- Rhythm Quiet Game: “The Quiet Game” is a popular hallway game. Students stand in a line against one wall, and a student who is chosen to be “it” picks the quietest student to be “it” next. I’ve used a musical version of this game in which the student who is “it” claps a rhythm, then calls on the quietest student to try to clap the identical rhythm. If that student claps the rhythm correctly, he or she becomes the next one “it.”
5 Minutes: Repairing an Instrument, Finding Lost Materials, Etc.
- Student Performances: My students love to play for each other. Students can take turns performing while practicing good performer and audience etiquette.
- Instrument Charades: Primary students enjoy taking turns miming playing instruments, and calling on classmates to guess the instrument.
- Rhythm Charades: I have a container that contains slips of paper on which four-beat rhythm patterns are written and a Promethean board flipchart that shows all of rhythms in the container. Students take turns playing or clapping rhythms drawn from the container and the class tries to determine which rhythm was performed. This works on listening skills and performance accuracy, and can be a whole class or team game.
- Note Sparkle: A favorite game in my upper elementary classes is Note Sparkle, which is very similar to the spelling game called Sparkle. All students have a copy of a piece of music and begin the game standing. In order, each student names the next note in the piece. If a student gives an incorrect note name, they must sit down, and they are out of the game. If there is a rest, the student whose turn it is says “rest” and the next student in line sits down. Keep going until the end of the piece, or until only one student remains standing.
- Flashcards: Any kind of flashcards (note reading, music terms, etc.) can be used for an exciting competition. Divide the class into two teams and have them stand in two lines. A student helper holds up a flashcard and the first person in each team’s line competes to be the first to correctly identify whatever is on the flashcard. Then those two players go to the end of the line and the new line leaders compete.
- Drawing Music: Elementary students of any age enjoy drawing pictures to accompany music. All that is needed is paper, drawing utensils, and a recording of music.
As musicians, we strive to prepare for any situation that might arise during a performance. As music teachers, that kind of preparation is as important, if not more. When those unexpected disruptions occur, it’s important to have prepared students to engage in activities that they can do without the teacher that will keep them learning.
Despite the disruption that happened in my classroom, my students were able to study their music and keep learning. And the student who inspired this post is back in school and fully recovered!
What activities do you have in your bag of tricks? Please share your great ideas in the comments!