Thursday, January 12, 2017

The Challenges of Reading Words and Music for Middle school Beginners

It's a New Year!

It is highly likely that we are all teaching new music.

Reading music is so natural for all of us who've completed college degrees and taken piano since we were children.  Like speaking a language fluently, reading music feels natural to us.


...And it is highly likely that most of us whose families were able to afford to have a private tutor at the piano or other instrument also had lots of help from involved and engaged parents who helped us learn to actually read letters and words a bit earlier than children who did not.

During the early part of my career as a choral music educator in urban public schools, I never really considered the challenges of reading words on the page while also trying to sing correct pitches and rhythms.  

Think about it...

The words on the choral music octavo look so odd.

"See the love-ly birch in the mea-dow.

See the leaves a-dancing when the wind blows.

Loo-li look when the wind blows."

Think like a 6th grader...

"Um.  What are those dashes?  Why do they matter to me?  And why do we skip all of those lines with notes on them?  Do they mean anything?    OHHHHHH.   That word is "meadow"!   Why is it separated by a dash?!   What do these weird words mean?  What is "a-dancing"?  Who says that?"

And we wonder why they can't sight sing the pitches and rhythms too AND do the diction correctly?!?

They can't even read the words in this odd new world of choral octavo!

We must remind ourselves that all language learning takes lots of time.  

If we move to France in January with no previous experience with the French language, do we become completely fluent at reading, writing and comprehending all forms of the French language by July?

Music is a language just like any other. 

The students sitting in front of us just want to sing and enjoy the process of learning and our job is to help find ways to make that happen.

So, this week, I challenge all of us to dig deep to find ways to meet our students where they are and to make real learning happen in the public school classroom with children who don't come to us with all of the best advantages.  

...And share those ideas with your peers freely. 

With 21st century technology, it's become so easy to share.

Have a great week next week!

Dale Duncan

Monday, January 2, 2017

The Difficult Parent Conference "Working with Parents in your Choral Music Classroom" Part 3

Working with parents in your Music Classroom-Part 3
The Parent/Teacher Conference

This is the final piece in a three-part series about working with parents in your choral music classroom. 

In part 1 of this series, I shared some ideas about how to get started with parent collaboration.  
In part 2, I wrote about some of the fun characters that I have encountered as I opened my classroom up to parent volunteers. 

In this, the final post in the series, I am going to share ideas about how to handle the often challenging parent/teacher conferences.

Before I delve into my ideas and experiences with parent conferences, there are three philosophies we should consider:

#1:  First and foremost, everything we do as educators must be for the students.  As their teacher, we want to demonstrate the 3 D’s for our students each and every day:  Desire, Discipline and Dedication.  We want them to learn many more life lessons in our room than simply how to read music and sing a song, and it is our responsibility to help prepare them for successful lives.

#2:  Secondly, we have to be willing to awaken our students when they need it.  Sometimes, that means that we also have to help awaken the parents…and that isn’t always easy to do.

#3:  And lastly…a very important piece of my philosophy as a public school choral music educator of 25 years...

People of all ages change when the pain of staying the same is greater than the pain of change.

Why have a parent conference?

Classroom management can be one of our biggest challenges as teachers. 

During my student teaching experience, I remember my cooperating teacher gave me some of the greatest advice of my career.

“Deal with behavior issues in your classroom whenever possible.”

She encouraged me to find solutions that started and ended with me rather than pushing the problems out to the administrators.

I have heeded that advice for my entire career.

Are there situations in which you must turn a situation over to an administrator?  Absolutely…but a parent conference can go a long way toward fixing the most chronic disruptive behaviors so many public school teachers encounter.

I have rarely used detentions that are supervised by administrators or other teachers because they almost never result in the desired behavior change.   

I have found that parent contact and parent conferences solve almost every situation I encounter in my room. 

When should you have a parent conference?

Here is what has worked for me.

When I encounter a child who demonstrates chronic undesirable behavior issues in my classroom, First, I work directly with the student by changing his seat, by having a conversation about how the exhibited behaviors are hurting the learning process.  I let the child know that if the behavior doesn’t change, I am going to contact his parent. 

When the behavior continues, I start with parent contact via email first.  When I email the parent, I always start with some positive information about the child.  Then, with as little judgment as possible, I list the behaviors I am seeing in bullet form.  I ask for support in changing those behaviors, and I make it clear that I am open to suggestions.

Then, I wait for the parent response.

Sometimes, there is no response, but the behavior changes.  This indicates that the parent has handled it and doesn’t want the bother of meeting with me or exchanging more emails. 

Sometimes, there is no response and no change in behavior.  We must remember to also view this as a “response”.  We must hear it so we can continue to move forward to correct the behavior.

Most of the time, I get a response saying, “You won’t have any more issues.”  This is also an awesome outcome. 

Responses like this one indicate that the parent is listening, and they are partnering with you to respond to the situation.

…But sometimes, the behaviors continue. 

When that is the case, here are the actions I take:

 Over a three-day period, I watch the child closely, and I very carefully and discreetly jot down specific information about the behaviors.

A note about scheduling conferences:  Always schedule parent conferences “as needed” rather than waiting until specific conference nights that are scheduled by your school or by your district.  

Individual, “as-needed” response is best, in my view. 

If we wait to long to meet with the parent, the behaviors become habits which are very hard to break.

What should you do before the parent conference?

1)  You should carefully prepare all documentation.

*Print out copies of the child’s grade and any notes you’ve written inside the gradebook about behaviors.
*List all of the behaviors you’ve observed.
*If you taught the child in a previous grade, as many choral directors do, you may want to obtain any other documents you have that support the behavior patterns you continue to witness in your time teaching the child in order to awaken the parent.

2)  Carefully prepare what you are going to say.

Soul search.  Dig deep.  Evaluate yourself.  Have you done everything you can do to elicit a positive response from the child?  Or are you cutting to the top person (the parent)?  Do you like it when parents bypass you and contact the principals? 

Plan to speak to the parent in the same way you’d like to be spoken to if you were the parent.

It’s so important to effectively and clearly communicate and stay very focused on the intended outcome. 

With that in mind…

…What is your objective?

Clearly define it for yourself  so you can communicate it well to the parent and to the child.

3)  After you define your primary objective (which is usually to improve behavior and work patterns), you need to determine a secondary objective in case the parent is absent, uncooperative, in denial about their child’s behavior or if you perceive that the child is simply no longer interested in being in choir. 

I have 340 un-auditioned children in my choirs who voluntarily sign up
for my class, and sometimes their interests change.   It’s ok.  I don’t take it personally and neither should you. 

At my school, there is some flexibility in moving children into and out of choir at the end of each quarter, so I always walk into every conference with a schedule change form ready in case we need to consider that as a solution.  Thankfully, I rarely have to use it.  However, I am thankful to have the option.

If there is currently no flexibility at your school on moving children into and out of your class during the school year, begin working toward that goal and be patient as you do.  Choir is not the only consideration for administrators who create the schedules in your buildings.

Who should be present at the parent conference?

*The student
*The parent
*Another teacher or administrator.

If you sense that it is going to be a particularly difficult conference based on your correspondences with the parent or if you believe the parent will escalate to the administrators regardless of how the conference goes, ask an administrator to come to the conference as well to save yourself more strife after the conference is complete.

What do you say at the parent conference?

Go without fear and focus on the fact that your goal is to help the child, the parent and the other children in your classroom who are impacted by this child’s poor behavior and/or work ethic.

Remember that this is probably not the first time the parent has heard what you will say, but make it your objective to help them to hear it and take action on it, for perhaps, the first time.   To help a parent really “hear” the information you are sharing, you must carefully plan the words you use and the flow of the conference so that you can obtain maximum impact that will result in behavior change. 

*Start with examples of positive behaviors.  If a child or a parent perceive that you don’t like the child, you will not gain their support.  If you start the conference negatively, you are likely to start a battle between parent/child and you that will be a waste of energy.   Remember:  Until now, the parent has only heard his/her child’s side of the story.  If you start by listing positive behaviors (and every child has them), you can help avoid this complication and disarm the parent and possibly even the child.

*Listen.  Ask questions about how the child is doing in their other classes.  Ask about the child’s outside interests/passions.  Often, you will hear things from the parents about the child’s work in other classes that support your arguments about the child’s sub-standard performance in your classroom that support your position.

*Then, it’s time to “go in.”

When you “go in”…

State the behaviors objectively and without judgment.
Be accurate.  If you state a detail inaccurately, the child may seize the moment and hurt your credibility in front of their parent causing the conference to go awry.

Remember…you are dealing with a difficult child.

In the conference, what do I do with unsupportive parents?

Most parents of difficult children are thrilled you are taking the time to help support them, but some parents are not. These unsupportive and, in my view, ineffective parents are the ones who have enabled the types of behaviors you are seeing in the first place.  In the face of mounds of evidence, these types of parents will not acknowledge or react to what you are alleging about their children, and they will make excuses for their child.

To help awaken those parents, I have a laundry list of effective things I say that are aimed at awakening the parent.  Here are two of my favorites:

“I have 83 other children in your child’s class period whose learning is impacted by the behaviors I’ve shared with you today.  It is my job to teach all of them.  Anything that stands in the way of that learning has to change.  Your child’s behavior is standing in their way.”

“I have presented lots of information about your child’s behavior in order to help you and your child.  I teach your child for one to three years.  You have him for life.”

“I initiated this conference, and I prepared for it in great detail because I care about your child and for all of the children who are impacted by his/her behavior.  I hope you will consider partnering with me in the best interest of your child so that we can get him/her on the right track.


During my 25 years teaching choral music in urban public schools in North Carolina, New Jersey and Georgia, most of my parent conferences have gone without a hitch and the desired outcome was achieved.

However, that is not always the case.  Once, a parent came out of his chair, and I thought he was going to assault me. 

Other times, parents have worked to manipulate the administrators which added another layer of stress to the situation.

Recently, I had a very difficult situation.  It involved a parent volunteer I’d worked with and known for many years.  I’d taught her two older daughters.  

Rewind:  Upon enrolling in 6th grade, her child chose band over chorus, so I was sad to lose a committed parent volunteer.  Half-way through her third child’s 6th grade year, she came to me to complain about the band teacher.  She asked if he could start chorus in January…half-way through this 6th grade year.   

I willingly took him.

After recognizing that her son was one of my new challenges and following the processes I’ve outlined above, I decided it was time to hold everyone accountable…including the parents.

Suddenly, after watching 4 years of excellent results in musicals and adjudicated performances and after I’d accepted her third child mid-year into my class, they didn’t like my approach.

Right before Thanksgiving break, they wrote emails slamming my approach and calling me a bully while copying myself and administrators.  In addition to the word “bully”, they used many other code words to make sure their case was pushed to the front of the line.

I followed every step I’ve outlined here, and I gathered every bit of documentation I could get my hands on.

We met.  We had an administrator present per their request.  I met on 3 hours notice on the Monday after Thanksgiving break because I was very clear about what type of parent I was dealing with. 

When the parent told me that my techniques to awaken children and parents didn’t work, I calming stated:

“You’ve seen my work with your first two children.  You’ve volunteered in my classroom to support my work.  I accepted your child into my classroom in the middle of the school year when you complained he was being bullied by his band teacher.  Now you call me a bully.   When you’ve taught public school for 25 years with 84 children in a classroom, and led a program of over 300 non-auditioned middle school children who volunteer to take my class, then you can tell me how to do my job.  Until that time arrives, I am telling you that your child needs to wake up.  I hope that you will work with me to help that happen.” 

I offered a schedule change form.  They refused.

I said…

“Today, you have questioned my integrity and called me a bully.  Why do you want your child to stay in my class?”

Response:  “We like what you are teaching.”

I didn’t respond. 

Her child has been doing great since that time.  She knows it and so do I.

Stay calm.  Trust your gut instincts.  Don’t be intimidated.  Know that you are doing the right thing.  Always know that there is a solution for you and all of the other children you teach in your public school classroom.

I always make sure my heart is in the right place and more importantly, that my documentation is 100% in order. 

Parents talk, and students talk about how we do or don’t hold them accountable. 

The ripple effect is worth the effort. 

Partnering with parents is really what education is all about…even when it’s difficult.

Check out my blog!

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Working with parents in your choral music classroom Part 2

Working with Parents in your Choral Music Classroom, Part 2:

Parent Volunteers are an invaluable resource in our music classrooms.  In part 1 of this series, I wrote about how to get started.

In part 2, I am going to write specifically about three characters I’ve encountered along the way and how I carefully dealt with the difficulties that arose so that I could utilize the incredible gifts they were willing to share with my students.

The key ingredient parent volunteers bring is passion, and they often have many things to teach us. 

We only have to be willing to learn…

…and we have to be assertive and set boundaries.

Mama Rose from Gypsy

The ultimate stage mom…

I’ve encountered several stage moms during my 25 years teaching choral music and musical theater.

Their children are the most talented of the group (in their view…and sometimes in mine.)

They usually come to us with lots of experience and many talents.

One of the parents wanted to pick our musicals around her child.  Another parent wanted to co-teach my musical theater class.

So, I let them.

…because I knew they brought lots to the table that would help my students.

I was also fully aware that I needed to be assertive enough to carefully set the boundaries when they were needed.

It isn’t always easy to do, but the outcome is worth it.

These involved parents have edited music, altered keys to songs, built sets, helped students prepare auditions, prepared videos, organized chorus shirt sales and so much more.   One of the parents actually coordinated other parents to sew 65 pink dresses and hats for a song from one of our shows. 

Does it come with difficulty? 


As educators, we have to learn to be politely assertive when the time requires it.  Just like we do with our students, we have to be respectful when we need to have the tough conversation, and we must respect the free time they are offering to help enhance the work we are doing.   

If you haven’t watched the episode listed in the link above, you should do it.  It’s hilarious. 

I suppose Cam is similar to “Mama Rose”. 

My “Cam” hid his talents from me during his son’s 6th grade year. 

However, I vaguely remember that he came to the first musical rehearsal of the year and sat in a prominent position in the room. 

He just watched. 

At that time, I didn’t know him at all, but I didn’t respond in any way to his presence other than to say hello and introduce myself.  I didn’t feel threatened by his being there. 


That was my way of setting a boundary. 

After that, I didn’t see him again for months.

Then, about one week before the show, when the stage director I had hired was struggling to come up with some costumes, Cam went home and whipped them up.  She gave him permission, and he seized on it!   When he brought the costumes in the next day, I was astounded.  They looked totally professional in every way. 

The next day was “tech” rehearsal.  The sound person was struggling with an issue with microphones, and Cam stepped right in and fixed the issue.

I pulled Cam aside and said, “What is your background and why have been holding back?”

He was nervous to cross boundaries…probably based on the way I carefully set them with my physical response on the first day of musical rehearsals. 

At that point, I decided to empower him.  He had awesome skill sets that I did not have, and the experience we can give the students through his expertise combined with mine is an amazing one.

Fast forward one year later…

I had a new stage director. 

She was young…and quite territorial. 

Since I’d empowered Cam the previous year, he was ready to share his talents.  I was grateful, but she was not. 

Tough and very tense situation…

I did a lot of listening and gentle guiding for both of them.

In the end, my stage director relented and let Cam do some costume work, and she loved the result.  When she was overwhelmed and uninspired with the staging of a couple of songs, she ended up handing the songs over to him, and he did a magnificent job bringing them to life. 

She was not happy to admit it, but she gave him “props” in the end.  I don’t think they will be life long friends, but that isn’t what is important. 

The essential piece of the puzzle is the experience the students were able to have on the night of the show.

Over the years, I’ve invited choral conductors into my classroom to teach my students.  Middle school students aren’t always open to new ideas, so this can be a tricky situation.

One of my parent volunteers in recent years is a choral conductor at a local church in our community.  I had heard wonderful things about her teaching, but because of past experience, I was nervous to ask her to come into my classroom to teach my students on a day when I was going to be absent even though she’d willingly volunteered.

I prepared the students the day before…

“There is more than one way to teach singing to children.  My way is one way.  There are many other ways that are great.  Whatever you are taught by the volunteer tomorrow, even if you think it’s opposite of what I’ve taught, do it and give it everything you’ve got.”

I’ve said that many times before to my students when I’d hired folks to come in, and it didn’t matter.

Fast forward to the day I return to my classroom…

I didn’t get a single complaint from a student when I allowed this parent volunteer to teach.

In fact, I think they might have thought I should go and take lessons from her!

…which is super.

I just had to be willing to let go and receive the help.

I was.  My students learned.  It was good for everyone.

As teachers, we can’t do everything.  We have certain gifts.  When we combine those gifts with the gifts of other people who are passionate about helping their children and who have enormous talent, the students gain experiences they will always remember.

And isn’t that what it is all about?  

Click here to read part 3!


Check out my blog!

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

End of the Year S-Cubed News!

S-Cubed End of the Year News!

I hope your holiday concerts are going well!

I have lots of news to share… New blog posts that may help you with your holiday concert if yours is yet to come, Level TWO Sight Singing Examples ONLY, giveaway winner, 20% off sale,  and news with Music Prodigy!

#1:  Giveaway winner and Two-Day Sale
Congratulations to Brandon G!  He is the winner of the giveaway of the S-Cubed Middle School Sight Singing Program!  I notified him this morning!  Thanks to those who entered!  Starting today and ending tomorrow, December 14th at midnight, my entire store will be 20% off.  Take advantage of the savings!

#2:  On my blog, I’ve shared this document that I give my students and parents regarding the attendance policy for the holiday concert.  Perhaps you can use it too!   I sent it to my students via  I also emailed it to my parents, and I handed a hard copy to my students and went over it orally in class.  I did my best to “dot” the i’s and “cross” the t’s to ensure the best attendance, and it worked!  I hope it works for you!

#3:  Also on my blog, I’ve begun a series about working with parent volunteers.  I’m sharing ideas about my own approach, and I will end the series by sharing some information about how to have a successful parent conference that results in behavior change in your students who need it.

#4:  In my TPT store, I’ve added Level TWO Sight Singing Examples ONLY!  This product is designed to help teachers who are using Level TWO and who do not have a projector or for those who wish to hand out the sight singing examples to their students.

#5:  As you know, I love using the homework assignments I created on Music Prodigy as a supplement to S-Cubed. I enjoy the practice time and the accountability if offers, and I love being able to listen to the children individually without having to force them to sing in front of others. If your students can figure out how to play video games on their iPads, and use Snapchat and Instagram, they can figure out Music Prodigy!  Until December 31, 2016, if you have purchased S-Cubed, you can add the Music Prodigy Supplement to your program for only $100.  Starting January 1, the cost of the renewable annual subscription will be $150, so if you’ve been thinking of trying it out, do it!   For more details about how Music Prodigy works, click here.  

Happy holidays!

Mr D
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