Saturday, October 31, 2015

The Bittersweet Year of Retirement

I have been remiss about keeping up my blog...mainly for one reason:  this will, without question, be my final year of teaching elementary music.  I have been doing this since 1985 and it's time to step away from the classroom, spread my wings, and enjoy my life a little before I reach the "too old to go jumping out of airplanes" phase.

A dear friend (now retired) told me, "Don't view events as 'the last' but rather as 'the ultimate.'"  While there was humor in this and I joked often about it, just this past week it has actually finally hit home.  This last week was the ULTIMATE time I would sing any of the Halloween songs my students had come to enjoy over the years.  Never again will I sing my "Scary Hello" song (simply "Hello There" sung in c minor using an electronic keyboard set on a pipe organ sound, finishing out with a fully diminished c chord resolving into a c minor).  Never again will I experience the various "dress-up days" associated with Red Ribbon Week.  I will not watch firemen shoot off the fire hose in front of the school as part of their demonstration for Fire Safety Week again.

All of these "ultimates" have stirred emotions within me...and they are polar opposites.  I am thrilled to death that I never have to deal with any of these again (I'm tired) but, simultaneously, there is this a heavy, melancholy feeling deep in my heart.  I know it is not up to me regarding what fate awaits the music program I have spent so many years building - but I worry.  Despite local, state, and national accolades for my program, current leadership has deemed it appropriate to diminish what I had worked so hard to build.  I will not go into the details (this is not a "griping" post and there really is no room for such negativity here), but my unhappiness with poor educational decisions by our "leaders" is one of the many factors solidifying my decision to leave.  With all this joy, melancholy, worry, and angst...I am certainly feeling more than a little emotional confusion.

In Texas, the Teacher Retirement System currently has (for us "grandfathered" folks) a retirement eligibility of 80 - your years of service plus your age.  Because I had four years here and there where I was not working directly in public schools (but often "education-adjacent" activities) I will have 27 years on the Texas books (10 of them purchased and transferred in from Pennsylvania).  Because I will be turning 53 on March 11, 2016, that WILL be my final day in the classroom.  It is also bittersweet.  While I will undoubtedly feel the sadness of saying good-bye to a major chunk of my life, it will be a Friday, it will be my birthday, and it will be the last day of classes prior to Spring Break!  Clearly celebration will be in order.

So, for those of you music educators nearing the same phase I say to you, "Enjoy it.  Let the small stuff go.  Appreciate every moment."  And for those who have a long way to go, I say the same.  It goes by in a flash.  There will be plenty of things "wrong with the system" but there is SO much good you can do.  Focus on the good!  Savor the moments...there will be a time when they won't be there any longer.

What's next?  I'm not sure.  I will, without question, be keeping my finger on the pulse of music education.  I will continue to write, present, and compose music for children and teachers.  That aspect of my professional life continues to bring me satisfaction beyond measure.  This blog?  I have no idea.  I'm going to leave it up (too many of you have sent me private emails expressing your gratitude) but the direction it will take is unknown at this point.

Teach on, my music friends, teach on!

Friday, April 3, 2015


With my lower grade students, I begin each lesson with our "greeting song of the month."  I have found over the years this has multiple benefits for the students.

1)  It provides consistency of format.  Students learn better when they know what to expect.  My lower grade (PK-2nd) students know that when they arrive in my classroom, I will quickly take attendance (using my iPad and the iDoceo app - discussed in an earlier post), then we will sing our greeting song of the month.  This will be followed by me stating the objective for the day.  A series of activities related to that objective will follow.  Then we will close the lesson by revisiting the objective and reviewing what we did to address it.

2)  It can provide great content for your objective.  For example, we sang "Gilly Good Morning" in February.  My first graders were working on their melody skills.  "Where in the song did you hear this pattern:  so-mi-do?"  Then we played a do-so ostinato to accompany the song.  I will be reviewing the concept of tempo this month with my kindergarten students.  We are singing "I Will Sing Hello" and I put the recorded accompaniment through Audacity and made one version with an extremely fast tempo and another with an extremely slow tempo.  When the students arrive, I will have them sing the greeting but use one of the altered recordings and ask, "Something didn't sound right.  What do you think it was?"

3)  Because I change the song on the first day of every month, it is a great way to make that connection to the regular classroom (especially for pre-K and kindergarten).  "Today it is no longer March.  What month follows March on the calendar?  Yes!  April!  So, you know what that's time to change our hello song...

Songs I use:

"Hello There"
"Hello There" (for October, I play it on an electronic keyboard using a pipe organ sound and change the key to C minor...the students love it)
"Howdy" (from Music K-8 Magazine Vol. 14 No. 1)
"Hello" (from Music K-8 Magazine Vol. 1 No. 5)
"Hello, How Do You Do?"
"Gilly Good Morning"
"Fanga Alafia" (from Music Express Vol. 7 No. 4)
"I Will Sing Hello"
"It's So Good to See You"

Since we begin school in August (usually for just a week) I use the same song for August/September.  If your school year continues into June, you may wish to do the same (May/June) or...if you go further into June, you can always use that time to use each of the previous songs as a review.  Of course, if you are in a year-round situation, you can always add more!

Until next time...

Monday, March 23, 2015

Accentuate the Positive

Greetings blog followers and others...I have been remiss about posting - primarily because I haven't had much to say, but also with the holidays upon us, family emergencies, etc. I've been a little preoccupied.  However, I was thinking of posting this a while back but my memory was recently jogged through a professional conversation.

In my school, teachers have "parent contact logs" and these are monitored regularly.  For classroom teachers, it's not as daunting of a task (they have a certain number of contacts required for each student in their class during each grading period).  For those of us teaching in "special areas" it's a little bit overwhelming due to the number of students we service.  It was decided a few years ago by a previous principal that we needed to have 50 parent contacts for every grading period.  In my school district, this means I must have 50 contacts every six weeks...or...300 contacts per year!  Currently the focus is on "positive contacts" versus calls about behavior, missing work, truancy, etc.  I have always preferred the positive to the negative when writing or talking to a parent.  Nothing makes a parent's day more than hearing, "You child did ____ in my class today and I thought it was great!"

Yes, there are times of year when the duty of contacting parents is easily fulfilled - like the beginning of the year when I send notes home about purchasing a recorder.  One goes to every fourth grade student - BAM!  130 contacts in one fell swoop!  Notes go home when performances are nearing, etc.   But what to do during the rest of the year?  With full color process printing becoming ever more affordable, I decided to get a handle on this whole parent contact thing once and for all.

I designed this "postcard" that I can quickly fill out and send home with a student.  My main mistake:  I had them done on full glossy print.  Newsflash:  almost NOTHING writes on this gloss (no, not even a Sharpie marker).  I did a little research and discovered the "Slick Writers" from American Crafts.  These wonderful little pens will write on ANYTHING!  So...there are times throughout the grading period when I focus on getting these sent out.  While we are singing, playing instruments, or just working on a concept, I keep my eyes peeled for those that are really doing well.  I whip out my Slick Writer and jot down the name and a brief description of what they did and the date on this...

My students are generally THRILLED to get one AND I just made a parent contact - and a positive contact to boot!  The ones I had printed actually have my signature printed on them so I don't even have to sign them...(I didn't want the evil doers of the internet signing my name to all sorts of documents so I redid the design for this post). 
I paid a very talented Canadian artist to create the caricature you see of me a few years back.  Included in her incredibly low price she was willing to provide me with several versions (including the one you see as my "picture" for this blog).   If you want one for yourself or a gift for another person, here is her website: or perhaps find a local artist in your area.  All I needed to do was email her pictures of my face (front and each side).  There was minimal "back and forth" until we reached the final product and she was able to be paid via PayPal.  Believe me - it was money well-spent!  I have used these caricatures for SO many things.  She even gives you full rights to use them at will.  Of course, you could always just use a photograph or any clip art, but as elementary people, we know what our kids like ("Mr. Sands!  You're in a cartoon!").  If you decide to contact Leigh Young, mention my will probably have absolutely no effect whatsoever, but feel free to mention it anyway.
The cost?  $30 for 250 of these (plus $7.99 shipping).  Yes, for about 15 cents I can make someone's day.  Worth it in my book!
Happy contacting!  Until next time...

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Dueling with the Dual

Approximately six years ago, my school district decided to become a "dual language district."  The initial plan was that all students would be instructed in both English and Spanish.  We did have parents who insisted their children only be instructed in English, so the dual language model in our school is not "pure" - we do have classes in each grade level that are taught solely in English.

However, as music teachers know, we teach ALL the students in the school - not just the English, not just the Spanish/English dual language classes (and all other languages that may arrive in our classes).  How does this affect our classrooms?  Many become even more concerned because we are music classes in the United States and our textbooks and other materials are generally in English.

First, if this becomes a reality where you teach, I will advise you - DO NOT PANIC!  This advice is especially for those native English speaking music specialists who do not speak Spanish.  I have lived along the Texas/Mexico border for nearly twenty years now.  I can assure you that this Pennsylvania native knew very little of the Spanish language prior to making the 2,000 mile journey to live here.  Through various programs, interactions with friends and colleagues, and sometimes just plain osmosis, I have picked up enough Spanish to hold a conversation, conference with parents, and generally speak with minimal "accent" and can do so without much effort.  I am a far cry from a "native speaker" but I can hold my own.  Using online resources that translate English to Spanish have also helped a great deal. 

If such a situation comes your way, find a language learning program you like and be diligent about learning the language.  Do not rush.  Learning Spanish, for me, has been a long and on-going process.  Being a musician gives me an advantage as my "ear" is much more analytical and can more readily reproduce sounds I hear.  Knowing a different second language was also helpful.  After all, I took four years of FRENCH in high school...if I had only known...

The dual language model in my school district is the 50/50 model - 50% of the time we speak Spanish, 50% of the time we speak English.  Certain subjects (math) are delivered solely in English.  We use a "language of the day" which means in the fall semester we speak Spanish on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays with English being the language on Tuesdays and Thursdays.  This reverses in the Spring semester.  A few years ago I began to question the exact nature of music's role in the dual language environment.  Basically, as long as the "social language" used is in the language of the day, you are satisfying the dual language environment basic requirements.

To satisfy this basic level of compliance with the dual language process, familiarize yourself with simple commands you use daily, "Please sit down, turn to page, raise your hand, choose another student, open/close your books, pass out the instruments, line up..."  Just knowing these few phrases will take you quite far in complying with the dual language program.

However, I wanted music class to be a bit more than just "meeting the basic requirement" so I got busy researching musical terms in Spanish.  This was a daunting task as there are times in music when there simply ISN'T a word in Spanish for what we are talking about.  I particularly had difficulty locating a word for "beat" ("ritmo" is what you will encounter) but after having a discussion with a colleague who was born in Mexico, I learned a fitting word that I have been using - compás.  I have always kept a word wall in my room - it is color coded by topic to assist students but I also use these when posting my objectives for each class.  In the dual language program, English words are to be written in blue, Spanish words in red.  Here is a glimpse at my word wall (I realize the photo doesn't allow you to read many of the words, but my word wall takes up a lot of space!):

These are laminated and have magnets attached so I can simply grab one and place it by the appropriate verbs for my objective for the day.  Here is the way I have these same statements in both languages (these were created before the red/blue instructions were given and I never changed them since they work just fine for my students):

Using this method, it is quite simple for me to have on my board, "Hoy voy a ser capaz de identificar, tocar, leer, y cantar ritmos con corcheas."  (Today I will be able to identify, play, read, and sing rhythms with eighth notes.) without writing a single thing.  Plus, the students frequently see where I pull the word from the word wall so they know where to find it if they need to reference it later in the year.

Last year and continuing into this year, I have started delivering my Spanish classes (on Spanish language days) almost entirely in Spanish.  If I come to a bump in the road and don't know a particular Spanish term, I simply ask the students.  No, I do NOT change my lesson plans to solely incorporate Spanish music.  If a song happens to be in Spanish, then fine, but I don't make two separate sets of materials.  After all, in music class we sing music in many different languages.  When teaching music in English and I use the song "Tanabata" I do not translate the song's words or title into English - the song is Japanese, so that's how it stays.  This means a second grade Spanish class may begin like this:

"Buenos días. Los siguientes estudiantes deben pasar los libros hoy ... cuando usted recibe su libro, por favor vaya a la página ... la canción se titula 'Lemonade'."  (Good morning.  The following students should pass out books today...when you receive your book, please turn to page...the song is called "Lemonade.")  So I don't need to keep repeating the page number, I have this section on my board as well:

The student books are sectioned in colors, so I write the page number in the color of the section next to these sentence strips that remain on my board - this helps the students get to the page more quickly - especially younger students who have difficulty finding pages like 366! 

Years ago we were trained in a discipline program that involved asking four questions.  I keep these posted in my classroom as well.  Again, these were made prior to the red/blue instruction so I have kept them in their original colors which were basically reversed (but the "red" is actually pink):

When reviewing classroom rules, I have adapted the Whole Brain Teaching concept of using hand motions that go with my five classroom rules.  These five rules are posted solely in English (a poster I had created long before the dual language program was introduced in my district); however, I go over these rules in Spanish on Spanish language days and the hand motions also help the English Language Learners grasp the meaning of the English classroom rules.  Next to the rules I have a large poster of our school Values Code which was given to me in both languages.

Adapting to the dual language environment has been a process.  I have had to do a bit of "front-end investment" work, but it has paid off.  I make use of online translation sites and Spanish/English dictionaries quite often.  A great tool for businesses (but not necessarily solely for businesses - educators can benefit too!) is Smartling.  They provide translation services and translate websites for business communication.  If you find yourself doing more translating than teaching, you may want to check out the services Smartling has to offer.

By adopting this new, more intense adoption of the dual language model in my music classes, my students whose first language is Spanish have a whole new respect for me and my class.  Prior to me going "whole hog" with the dual language integration, many of my students would ask, "Do you speak Spanish, sir?"  Since I have been conducting my classes in this manner, I don't think I've had a single student ask that question.

If a dual language situation comes to your school, relax, flow with it.  You CAN do it.  And you and your students will be all the richer for it!

Until next time...