What are positive primers? A positive primer is anything that primes the brain to accelerate processing and the opposite is a negative primer or slowing the brain down. If I give you something to ready your brain for the response I’m looking for, I’ve primed your brain or accelerated its thought processes toward the memory I would like recalled. If I give you a positive primer and accelerate happiness, I can stimulate higher brain functioning. Today I would like to provide you with 3 positive primers for use in the elementary music classroom.
1. Greet Your Students at the Door
Your students need to see the exchange of power from classroom teacher to music teacher. In my classroom, I ask the teachers for attendance, mainly for student safety, but I like to know who is absent, in the nurse, at the counselor or what have you. It opens other conversations with classroom teachers such as “Johnny is in the counselor right now” becomes “Is Johnny alright, is there anything going on that I need to know about to help support Johnny while he’s in my classroom?”
While the children are entering the door, greet them with words or a safe, gentle touch. You may be the only grown up that gives that baby a hug that day, a handshake, a fist bump, whatever works for you, but greet your students as they walk in. Make it part of your routine, establish it very early on, and make sure the classroom teachers understand that this is part of your routine, and you are not going to make any changes to that, even if they are in a rush.
Transitions happen so often in the music room and what better time to build relationships with our students. You can make them musical, silent, or a time to have a quick chat with your kids. You can absolutely use transitions as a brain break if your students are a little squirrelly. When you choose your brain breaks, make sure you are reading the room. Go Noodle is great, but make sure you are choosing the correct activity to meet your students’ needs. There are brain breaks that are escalating and will build positive energy and emotions into your lesson. If your students aren’t feeling it that day, and they are a bit low energy, you can try clapping games, yoga pretzels, racing games, movement activities, just have a dance party! Maybe your students are hyped up and have been cooped up on a rainy day and you need to bring them down, you can try a de-escalating break like mirror movements, quiet music, breathing exercises, and other calm movements to build in calm emotions, contentment, serenity, safety and focus for your students.
3. Independent/Whole Group Time
During whole group lessons, encourage your students to be mindful of their accomplishments and successful moments. Have your students perform for one another and share about what went well during the performance or what could be changed to improve their performance. Give them a script to try to follow or a sentence stem, such as, I enjoyed _____ during your performance because you did _____ and _____ well. Or I think _____ went well however it could be better if you changed _______. This will encourage positive dialogue, priming the students to make musical decision when creating music, and to accept criticism in a positive light.
When a student performs independently, whether is a small solo singing or they’re brave to share their compositions, praise them! Prime the experience with positive affirmations and a growth mindset and you’ll discover students are suddenly excited to perform and play music!
However you get your students ready to learn, positive primers are a great way to increase student engagement, stimulate brain functioning and get your students loving music class!
I know this year is hard. I’ve been in education for 16 years and have seen and heard a lot of education policy come and go. This year is no different, except that it is. The difference here is that we are literally trying to survive a virus that is raging all around us while being asked to move mountains with children. I know at my campus we’ve been asked to implement a few new things and with every step I feel the same way, “how am I supposed to survive until the end of the year, both literally and figuratively?” I hope this post can shed some hope and maybe help you feel some sense of peace for our future. Here I offer five ways to increase student resiliency and in turn, help your own resilience.
Resilience is the ability to bounce back from stress, adversity, failure, challenges, and trauma. When students are resilient, they take healthy risks, do not fear falling short, are curious, brave, and trust their instincts. Resilient students know their limits, push themselves, set and reach long-term goals, and can solve problems independently. So how do we go about promoting student resiliency?
When you create a positive physical space for students, you promote calmness and positivity. When you give the students brain breaks, predictable greetings, transitions, and independent work time, they can rely on the routine to help face adversity. In your routines, allow for time to focus on character strengths to teach children how to identify, recognize, practice, and use those strengths. Foster a place where mistakes are not only welcomed but embraced as part of learning. When your classroom culture reflects diversity, encouragement is the norm, and student input is valued, students in your class will be more likely to take risks and accept failures.
The first step to resilience is acceptance. You need to accept and validate their emotions, allow them to feel and work through their emotions in a healthy way, and always let them know you are there to help. Do not tell a student to stop doing XYZ when they are expressing emotions. If a student is crying, for whatever reason, validate their emotions, acknowledge their feelings, and help them understand that crying and feeling what they feel is okay, and let them know you are ready to listen when they are ready to talk. I am not a person that allows students to cry at the same level for every issue they encounter. I try to incorporate a learning opportunity of the severity of the situation versus their reaction. We react this way when someone hurts me but when I do not get the color I want, crying is alright, but we do not need to explode and become angry or violent.
Product Over Process
Do not emphasize product over process, especially in the elementary music room. We want students to explore, create, and learn music within the confines of what is right, sure. However, when we “teach to the test” as they say, we ruin that process. When we stress over the final product, the performance, this takes away from the learning process from which the students are learning all their vital musical skills. You do need to of course measure right from wrong, teach correct technique, but also allow students to try again without negative consequences. Let the process be a place of creative thinking and trial and error, not a time to perfect and polish a performance. During the learning process when a student is frustrated, turn their I can’t statement into a resilient statement such as, I’m tired and need a break or I have solved this problem before and I can do it again. Teachable moments happen all the time during music class or ensemble rehearsals. We can use those moments to talk about resilience and how we can not only improve has musicians, but as humans. When we do this, we show that resilience is not the stamina it takes do hang in there and learn a difficult concept, rather a process we go through to affect the outcome.
Be an Example of Resiliency
Show students that you make mistakes and can find another path. When you tell students what and how you’re feeling and how you’re overcoming your stressors, it helps them decipher their feelings and manage their stressors. Students need to know that we understand them because we also go through hard times. Even now, during the pandemic, we can demonstrate resilience. We don’t have all the answers, and it is alright to be scared. When we acknowledge our fears about the future and demonstrate that knowledge is power it will help them remember that it is okay to be scared and uncertain, but we can make it through and move on!
Practice Self-Care: No, not spa days, pjs, and coffee
Teachers can suffer from caregiver fatigue very quickly. When you teach in a trauma informed environment, this lessens our potential for caregiver burnout. When you care for others with trauma you can suffer from insomnia, fatigue, aches, pains, lack of motivation, lack of concentration, isolation, anxiety, and feelings of hopelessness or anger. We can alleviate these symptoms by changing how we do things in the classroom to increase our own resiliency and our student’s. These are not permanent conditions, and you can overcome burnout. You can make simple changes like issuing trigger warnings before teaching a lesson. You can learn your students’ triggers (write them down if you need to) and do your best to avoid them or issue a trigger warning before proceeding. Allow students the chance to opt out of triggering activities without penalty. No, they can’t get out of work, but they can skip a song or lesson if it means they avoid being triggered and you avoid a trauma response. You can practice and teach a few grounding techniques by working with their classroom teachers or special education teachers to find out what helps the students calm down, reset, and move forward.
There are two camps about resiliency. Some feel resiliency is taught and practiced, much like learning an instrument. Others think resilience is something you are born with, like talent. As musicians we have a unique perspective on this as some of us are exceptional musicians because we worked at it, practiced, and became masters at our craft, others have raw, natural talent that helped along the way. We can see a struggling student and remember that resiliency is like learning music, either you have it easier with talent or you don’t, and hard work can move mountains.
Social emotional learning (SEL) is the process through which children and adults acquire and apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and mange emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships and make responsible decisions. Today’s kids are distracted, suffering from mental illness, and in the social media more than ever. It is becoming the job of the teacher to teach the whole child, the whole learner. We are teaching more than our content now, including their SEL needs. SEL programs effectively improve students’ SEL skills, behaviors, attitudes, and academic performance. SEL has positive effects on academic performance, physical health, improves citizenship, is demanded by employers, is essential for lifelong success, and reduces the risk of maladjustment, failed relationships, interpersonal violence, substance abuse, and unhappiness.
As music educators we already provide the perfect environment to implement SEL strategies into our classrooms and ensembles. After school activities (choir/Orff groups) are a great place for students to develop and apply new skills. Weaving SEL strategies into your existing curriculum and pedagogical methods sounds like a daunting task, but I assure you, you already do so many of these strategies, it will simply require putting an emphasis on a different part of the lesson. I began focusing on SEL strategies in my classroom about 2 years ago when I received a training on my campus about this “new way of working with student behaviors” At first, I was overwhelmed with something new but when I began to look at the strategies through a different filter, I was able to see how we already do so many of these strategies in our music rooms already. I will discuss several examples here to help you feel empowered to add these strategies to your classroom.
Lessons to Promote SEL
Let’s look at a lesson that focuses on self-awareness, the understanding one’s own emotions, personal goals, and values. Assessing one’s strengths and limitations, having positive mindsets, and possessing a well-grounded sense of self-efficacy and optimism. The way I incorporate self-awareness into my classroom is by using a rhythm activity in which students review a variety of posted rhythms and are asked to make a prediction about how successful they feel they will be. At the end of the activity, I ask students to discuss how they feel about being right/wrong in their choices and we discuss their feelings about getting more/less right than what they predicted.
Rainbow Rhythms is a great way to get students reading rhythms and to make a prediction about how they will perform.
An additional self-awareness lesson for younger students uses the book, Happy, by Miles Van Hout. Happy is a book about feelings using illustration to show the labeled emotion. The illustrations are vibrant and colorful, and the illustrator chose color palettes that fit identified emotion, beautifully. This lesson is easily spread across several days as there are 17 emotions identified. The process is simple, play the audio selection for the emotion (ie: Content, Clair de Lune by Debussy), discuss what it means to feel the emotion, and how the music fits the emotion, you can close by asking the students, “when do you feel ___?”
A great lesson for self-management, the ability to empathize, delay gratification, control impulses, and demonstrate perseverance, are any and all games played in your room. When you play games, the children learn so much about self-management and self-regulation. Again, just switch the emphasis here to have students acknowledge that they are learning to control their impulses, persevere, and delay gratification. You can ask students a series of structured questions such as, “why do we take turns”, “why do we keep trying even if we begin to lose”, or “how did it feel when the other team…” Get the students to label their emotions and feelings, validate them, and move on. Pro tip for when students do not get a turn, I use this chant: If I did not go today, it’s okay! This prepares their minds to bring the game to a close and remind them that they can wait their turn for another day.
Social awareness, the ability to understand, empathize, and feel compassion for those with different backgrounds or cultures is so easily reached within the walls of our classrooms. When we teach songs from different cultures, we should advocate for an artistic approach to world music instruction. We should study the musical elements of the diverse musical genres and aims at improving students’ musical knowledge and skills using a variety of music. During the lesson process the teacher should discuss more in depth the history and meaning of the song selection and have students put themselves in the perspective of someone from that culture. When we do this, we lend ourselves to have a beautiful discussion about why it is important to embrace songs from other cultures.
A brief note about songs from different cultures, we should acknowledge that music is cultural, and we should support the sociocultural approach, which studies world music in conjunction with their sociocultural and historical background. We should have an approach that centers on the understanding of how music is shaped within its context, on the meanings it has for its creators and listeners, and on the way that it reflects their ideas and lifestyles. We cannot ignore how music makes people feel, we cannot use songs in our curriculum because it meets our specific objective. We must have compassion for the history of the music and select pieces that are culturally responsible.
The development of relationship skills helps students establish and maintain healthy and rewarding relationships and to act in accordance with social norms. We provide students the opportunity to develop relationship skills through active listening, cooperation when performing music, through creative dance and movement and when composing or writing lyrics. A website that I have found success with writing lyrics and composing is https://www.flocabulary.com/unit/joining-in-and-including-others/, youclick on lyric lab to create lyrics using SEL vocabulary words. Another great lesson for relationship skills goes along with the book, What if Everybody Did That? By Ellen Javernick. In the story we follow a little boy throughout his day noting times that people would do precarious things such as littering and not taking a bath, that make him question “what if everybody did that?” . Once you’ve read the story, practice the rhythm of the B section, then practice the rhythms of the A section which are created from sentences written about common broken rules in the music classroom, then perform A, B, A’ etc…
Being a SEL Model
Make sure your SEL activities or lessons are sequence to foster skills that are active to help students master new skills, focused on personal and social skills, and target specific social and emotional skills. As educators it is our responsibility to model, practice, and apply SEL strategies and allow our students to witness the process. One way to do this is show your mistakes and failures to your students. I used to think my lessons needed to flow smoothly and be relatively mistake free so the students would get the best learning opportunity. Now that I am SEL focused when I make a mistake I model how to appropriately react to my mistakes, talk to the students about how I am going to learn from the mistake, and what it will look like for the students I see later on to benefit from what I’ve learned. Mistakes are an opportunity to learn and grow, rather than something we should shy away from. When students would make mistakes, I used to focus on what they did incorrectly and work quickly to fix whatever the mistake was (mallet technique, pitch accuracy, recorder tone etc) and move on. Now that I am SEL focused I do not move so quickly, especially if the student is a perfectionist. I acknowledge their high standards for themselves but focus on the learning process and the fun. I let them learn the power of the word “yet” and we reframe our mistakes and say things such as, “I made a mistake when____ and I haven’t mastered that skill, yet.” Promoting social and emotional development for all students in classrooms involves teaching and modeling social and emotional skills. We need to provide ourselves and our students the opportunity to practice and hone those skills and then a chance to apply them.
Impact on Discipline
Our students come from all different backgrounds and experiences. Often times their behavior is due to trauma and trauma often manifests itself in unwanted behaviors. We need to ensure our students that the school building is a place to safe, loved, and cared for. Children are allowed to feel their feels. Do not repressed a child’s feelings. Let them feel, express emotion, and how to go through the emotion. When students are able to label, identify, express and resolve their emotions, discipline improves.
Words of Caution
Misguided SEL curriculum is being highly researched right now to avoid the “quick fix” phenomena. SEL is not a quick fix, and we cannot fix all mental health troubles rather we can validate student’s emotions and make them feel safe. Incorporating SEL strategies can benefit student’s emotional health but doing so does not replace the help of a licensed mental health professionals. Watch and monitor your children and seek help if you notice behaviors or concerns that you believe should be addressed by a school counselor or other mental health professional. Everyone in the entire school building needs to participate for SEL to be the most effective. Communicate with your administrators on how you are incorporating SEL into your lessons and encourage your school community to do the same. I began adding SEL strategies to my lesson plans when I knew my lesson would provide an opportunity to do so. I communicated these with my administrator and also approached my school’s PBIS Team with the idea of incorporating SEL strategies school wide. As music educators we can begin these conversations and the hope is we can become a part of a larger whole.
This article was featured in the Southwestern Musician, a publication for the Texas Music Educators Association. You can find the link here, as it has a few more edits and thoughts.
Wow, we were all so excited to get back into our classrooms and see our students. I shed so many tears March 2020, through all last school year, and I would be lying if I said I had not shed a tear or two this year. Teaching is hard, the pandemic made it harder. The good news is you’re not alone. This is not only happening in your room, your campus, your district or even your county or state. This is happening all over the US, and I would imagine the world.
As much as we do not want to admit it, what happens in our classrooms is greatly impacted by what happens in the world around us. Our students are amazing, resilient humans that have been through so much. My district used the analogy of all of us being “in the same boat” and why that isn’t true. Some of our students weathered the storm in a canoe, some a sailboat, and some a yacht.
When I welcomed my students this year, I gave no thought to this analogy. Surely, my kids would be ready to jump into making music. Surely, they missed me as much as I missed them. Surely, they would be excited to join all the clubs, instrumental ensembles, all the things! No. No, they weren’t Their stamina isn’t what it used to be. They’re tired. Tired of just surviving.
So, I revisited the district’s analogy. I realized more than half of my campus weathered this ongoing storm in a canoe and they are traumatized, tired, and socially inept. None of these new traits are their fault but are a result of the mass trauma we are all going through right now.
What now, Analisa? I’m really struggling. I want to quit.
1. Meet your student where THEY ARE not where YOU WANT them to be.
My students are about a grade level and a half “behind”. I just did a third-grade lesson in fifth grade, and they loved it! They laughed, they played, but most importantly, they learned. Yes, they learned rhythms that I typically teach third graders, but they don’t know that, nor do they need to know that. Will they be ready for middle school music by the end of the year? I don’t know yet, but they’re happy and healthy, that’s what matters most right now.
2. Throw your IPG, YAG, BOY/EOY Assessments and whatever other acronyms you can think of, out the window.
I normally follow my IPG (Instructional Practice Guide) closely. I monitor where my students are, what they should be learning, where we are in the Orff process in relationship to my district/state expectations. This year I’ve had to readjust my YAG (Year at a Glance) and assess along the way to check for knowledge gaps. My kids are very strong at rhythms. Melody, elements of music and movement are lacking quite a bit. It makes sense that it is these objectives that are lacking as those are difficult to translate through a screen. We need to be okay with re-teaching concepts from a few years past. Our kindergarteners are the only ones that might be on track right now if they aren’t being held back by social skills and developmental delays due to lack of pre-school for some of them.
3. Focus on social emotional learning while you’re making music
I completely had a first-grade lesson go an opposite direction this last week, with my fine arts coordinator in the room. Now he was in the room just to hang out and see what we’re up to and just check up, no formal evaluation or anything like that, but the lesson went off the rails. I had taught this lesson three times already to my other first grade classes and had my pacing down pat. Then it happened. These little ones had a different idea in mind. They weren’t naughty or even off task, but they were very needy. I had to slow my pacing way down, give very explicit instructions in a part of the lesson I hadn’t planned on them struggling with, and model a ton. This took up time, time that I hadn’t expected to lose so I rushed the instructions on their composition pumpkins. Their little pumpkins that were supposed to have So/Mi teeth to play along to this week, basically have teeth with no melodic contour at all. It kind of became an art project rather than a composition. They don’t know that we messed up nor do they probably care. We had a blast, coloring, chatting about Halloween, and building those relationships that everyone keeps talking about. I explained to my fine arts director that I will most likely just adjust their lesson a little bit this coming week and I’ll give them pre-made jack-o-lanterns for them to play on Boomwhackers. I wasn’t going to sweat it. We had a moment, we grew closer together, we complimented each other’s color choices, we talked about being excited to trick-or-treat “like normal” again and they were happy. My job was done.
If you take anything away from this blog, take away this fact, you are not alone. You may be the only teacher on your campus that teaches music, but there are so many educators going through what you are going through. The kids are disrespectful, yes, I teach organic children, too. I believe if we adjust our content, our approach, and meet them where they are, the respect will return.