Sixth Graders in your Chorus Classroom

Here in Georgia, I lead classes for all three grades of the middle school years-sixth, seventh and eighth.  I love getting to experience their growth during the three years, but my teaching improved a lot when I really this important fact:

6th, 7th and 8th graders are vastly different.  

For sixth graders, the world of middle school is new and exciting, but it is also incredibly frightening for many.   Most middle schools in my state include well over 1400 children.  Most of the elementary schools contain fewer than 400 children. 

There are so many new things for 6th graders to deal with.

Lockers...Teachers with many varied expectations...Accountability in ways they've never encountered before...Children from other schools who are from different socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds.   The list is long.

It's a huge transition.

Each year, I see the stress in their faces.  In the first weeks of school, I always encounter tears.  I almost always teach children who struggle to survive in this new world of middle school, and they start racking up absences as their mental and/or physical well-being take a hit from all of the stress.

When they walk into my room each day, I look into their faces and say hello and try to assess how they are feeling and what they've faced before walking through my door.  

I want my chorus classroom to bring some light into their day.  

Does that mean that I am easy on them? 

Oh no.

Far from it...We work bell-to-bell, and my expectations are high.

But, I work to make them smile and laugh with my silly humor at least once per day whenever I can.

They can be an energy-sucking challenge when we don't recognize how their brains work, so I want to share three strategies that have helped me.

They thrive on structure, and they need answers!

Routines are so important for them.  From the beginning of the year, I make sure I've set up my room in a very clear, functional way to help set them up for success.  I talk about it in this video.

"What will a 6th grader want to know that I have not covered?"
8th graders don't raise their hands to ask 15 questions, but 6th graders do.  It's just where they are in their learning curve, but if you are careful and thoughtful and clear, you can avoid lots of these issues.  

When I am explaining the procedures for concert night, for example, I try to think like a sixth grader.  In order to keep them from raising their hands before I finish explaining something and interrupting and delaying the work we are doing, I have to make sure I've thought of every single detail.  

I don't allow my 6th graders to ask questions until I'm finished explaining everything about whatever I'm talking about.  If they raise their hand to interrupt, I politely say, "Put the hands down." Then, when I've finished, I allow for a brief question/answer session.  I don't let it go too long because they lose focus quickly and inappropriate behaviors will begin or they'll start to ask questions about lunch or something else totally unrelated.  I cut off the question/answer session and allow them to come up to me after class to ask the remaining questions one-on-one as they are exiting the room.

They need a change of routine every few minutes

It is a bad idea to spend 15 minutes trying to get them to sing the DO-MI-SOL perfectly in tune in measure 31.  It's not going to happen today, so let it go.  :-)

When it comes to learning singing in the group setting, Sixth Graders cannot bear to sit in the same location doing the same thing for very long.  They need you to change it up way more frequently than their older peers. Get them up out of the chairs.  Find physical ways to do teach your lesson when you can, but do it in a very clear and structured way. 

Then, find a silent way to teach the next concept.  

The roller coaster ride keeps them interested.

When they get bored, they start tattling.

...and isn't that why we decided NOT to teach elementary school in the first place?  

Teach them how to listen while they sing

They don't know how when they arrive in your classroom.  They've only had music once per week in their previous school.  It is nearly impossible to develop great listening skills in a 30 minute music lesson once per week.  The elementary teacher did the best they could with the time they had to do it.

Ear-training is up to you.  You have to teach them how to listen while they sing, and it takes time.  Doing it while they are so young will serve you beautifully over the next two years, so make it happen! 

I cover a lot of listening skills in S-Cubed Middle School Sight Singing Program for Beginners.  I designed the program not only to help my students sight sing, but to help them learn to hear themselves and correct themselves while they sing.

Some of the things I notice in my sixth graders regarding listening while they sing:
1)    They almost never sing DO in tune when they try to sing a scale.  They sing DO and 3/4.  We have to help them realize that. Don't ignore it.  It won't go away.  Give them DO when you want them to sing a scale and ask them to sing the DO back to you before they sing the scale.
2)  On the descending scale, TI is always a hot mess.  It sounds like chopsticks.  Teach them to hear it.  Sing it back to them the way you hear it...they'll laugh...
3)  And MI/FA?  Wow.  It's always going to be FA and 3/4 unless you fix it.

In their repertoire, if there is any passage that includes "MI/FA" or "TI/DO" or other chromatic, they are going to struggle with pitch, so teach it carefully!  I like to use a solfege preview before they actually try to sing the song that includes the tricky passages.  This helps to get them centered on the pitch before they get distracted by the words and symbols on the page of music.  

In S-Cubed, I have units on half steps and whole steps.  They also have to learn to sing a full ascending and descending chromatic scale during the tune...along with many other ear-training exercises that help them develop their ears!  Here is a video/audio of my 8th graders singing their 3-part Chromatic scale. Fast forward to the 47 second mark.   In S-Cubed, we build the foundations for the 3-part Chromatic scale in the Original S-Cubed series, and we put it into practice regularly in Level 2.

Ear development takes time!  We didn't develop ours overnight either!  :-)

I am having some very large discounts for the rest of November on many of my S-Cubed Sight Singing Materials!  I'm calling it "9's in November!"  Simply click for more details!  It includes the 
S-Cubed Complete Middle School Sight Singing Bundle, Two Bundles from the Level 2 series of S-Cubed and several individual lessons in both series.  I am so grateful for the kind words people are sending me about how the program is working for them.

Have a great Thanksgiving and holiday season!

 Check out my blog!

Choral Music Teachers and Classroom Management...It's November and you are "in the weeds". How do you thrive?

It's my 24th year teaching public school choral music in the middle school classroom, and it always seems like November serves up a slap in the face with a side of panic.

Holiday concerts are fast-approaching, mid-term grades are due, parent conference nights, planning for spring events...

...and the children have gotten really comfortable with your procedures.

That can be a good thing and a bad thing.  

It's a good thing if you have been diligent about planning from day ONE of the school year.  In that case, you are likely to be able to relax and enjoy the upcoming concert season as a chance to get to see your work come to fruition.

It's also a good thing if you've set up your classroom expectations well.  Here is a video of some ideas I use to get my procedures running smoothly.  Click here to watch "To DO's and NOT to do's in chorus"

November can also be a great time if you've been relentlessly rewarding and recognizing all of the positive behaviors that children are demonstrating collectively and individually...and doing it publicly and often.  It can something as simple as saying during your second period "Maria! You are using awesome singing posture.  Thank you for that.  At the end of class, come see me for a Starburst!" 

For me, the first five minutes of class needs to be as "zen-like" as possible.  I want them to walk in quietly and immediately begin their warm up/bell ringer activity.  So, I give stickers to the children who sit down and begin their written warm ups immediately.  I walk around silently while students continue to stream into my classroom and put more stickers onto the papers of children who sat down quickly and began the work silently.  Then, once everyone is in the room, I yell out, "Thanks to everyone who has silently begun working on your warm up!   I've given out about 10 stickers today.  I appreciate you.  Remember that when you get 3 stickers, you need to come see me for a Starburst at the end of class."  

If you implement strategies like these, you are likely to have solid procedures in place and your well-oiled machine is running like clockwork.  

But, even when we recognize positive behaviors, it seems that, at this time of year, certain things begin to occur at a higher rate because some students begin to get "lax".

1)  Students arrive late to class.
2)  They ask to go to the bathroom at inappropriate times.
3)  They miss deadlines.
4)  Students stop bringing their folders to class.
5)  They begin talking while you are teaching.
6)  They get bored with your daily procedures, and their motivation to work hard decreases.

Here are some ideas on how I address issues like those listed above.

Numbers 1, 2, 3 and 4 are all handled by holding children accountable swiftly.  It doesn't have to be mean or negative, but it does have to be swift, tangible and strong.   

Words mean little.  Actions mean everything.  

Did we not go over the procedures at the start of the school year? Of course we did. They know, but at this time of year, somehow, if we allow it to happen, they think they will give it a shot.  Maybe the rules CAN change...or so they think. 



In my classroom, I don't allow children to walk into my room, put their books down and then go to the bathroom or get water.   It gets too chaotic with 84 children at a time.  My students have five minutes between class to take care of those things.  But, alas, at this time of year, I begin to have the occasional question that goes like this:  "Mr. Duncan.  I know you don't let us put our books down and then go to the bathroom, but can I?  I really have to go."  

Me (with a smile):  "No.  If it wasn't an emergency 30 seconds ago, it isn't one now.  Sorry.  You know the rules!"

I require my children to bring folders to class in which they keep their bell-ringer activities, syllabi and other handouts.  It's a written artifact that I can use when I need to sit down with a parent and talk about their child's work.  I give very specific instructions on how to keep the folder.  This way, when the parent and I have to meet together with the under-performing child, I can present that artifact as evidence of the quality of the child's work in addition to the comments I will make about his/her daily participation, etc.   When we are speaking with a parent about a child's daily participation, a parent can easily say, "Oh.  My child says he always tries his best, is very focused and never talks"....but when the parent sees the unfinished work in the folder, they have a harder time defending the child.   In my experience, their folders almost always represent a very similar work ethic that I see in the child when we are working on sight singing and repertoire.

So, I make sure the children bring the folders daily by using a procedure I call the "random folder checks".  At the start of the year, I do random folder checks weekly or twice weekly.  I only check about 3 children's folders per class, but the "randomness" of it all keeps them on their toes.  I use a rubric they've all been given to keep in their folders.  We've gone over the rubric and the expectations for the folder have been made very clear.  I make a big deal out of the random folder check those first few weeks.  I even make the students give me a "drum roll" before I announce the people who've been chosen.  I grade the folders overnight via the rubric, and I give them back the next day.

This procedure works like magic, and I don't need to do it as often once I've helped them form the habit of bringing the folder. However, around October/November, I'll notice some children aren't bringing their folders.  So, VOILA!  The next day, I do a random folder check that isn't quite so random.  The names I call are the children whom I've seen without their folders over the past week.  

When they don't have it, I put a "0" in the grade book.  If they bring it over the next three days, the top score they can receive is 75.  If they don't bring it ever, the "0" sticks.

It's all about accountability.  People change when they pain of staying the same is greater than the pain of chance...and not a second before.  

Talking while teaching:

By now, our students have developed relationships with those who sit near them, so talking can become an issue.

Don't allow the talking to occur.  

Here are the techniques I use to stop the behavior:

*I stop teaching and look at the child.  Usually, other children end up "shushing" him or her.
*I keep teaching, and call the name of the child like this:  "And Kelly, we have to hold that note for two beats, right?"
*I use proximity.  I move toward the talking child.
*I recognize the children sitting near the misbehaving child by saying, "Thank you, Stan, for that awesome tall mouth you are using."  Then, I throw a Starburst at Stan.

If none of those procedures work, I call the child up to speak with me after class, and I let them know their grade is dropping because they have become talkative and less attentive.  I give them a choice:
1)  Use self-control and stop.
2)  Let me help you by moving your seat.
3)  If you don't do #1 and #2, I will need to send an email to your parent/guardian in the next three days and let them know about the behaviors I am seeing.

Then, I follow through exactly as I promised.

If you've noticed that your children are getting bored with your daily procedures and that results are diminishing, ask yourself this:
How can I differentiate my instruction today?

Here are some ideas I use:
1)  Allow a reliable child to lead a physical warm up to start class.
2)  Vary your sequence.  Put the sight singing at the end of class, for example.  Use a warm up by Rollo Dilworth!
3)  Let them pick leaders and work independently that day in sections to perfect the pitches and rhythms of a song they are working on.  All you need to do is to give them the pitches and walk around and watch them work and help as needed.

I did a form of #3 on Friday.  My 7th graders were struggling with pitches on their holiday music, and I felt they needed lots of repetition.  I took #3 a step further, though, and I decided to give an award for the best section.  I told them I'd order Pizza for the section that sang with the best pitch and rhythm after 20 minutes of rehearsal in their groups.  I just happened to have some PTSA money in an account, and is money well-spent!  

Those children worked their behinds off.  I wanted to give it to every section!  Instead, I gave endless compliments to them for their hard work, and I gave each child a Starburst (obviously, my reward of choice.)  It was a win/win for everyone...but especially for the children who earned the pizza!

...and all I did that entire class was to sit at the piano, observe and give occasional pitches or keep a steady beat for them when they needed it! 

It was awesome and productive.

So, those are a few helpful ideas as we navigate the next few weeks as the holidays approach!

Meanwhile, I am having some very large discounts for the rest of November on many of my S-Cubed Sight Singing Materials!  I'm calling it "9's in November!"  Simply click for more details!  It includes the Complete Bundle, Two Bundles from the Level 2 series of S-Cubed and several individual lessons in both series.  I am so grateful for the kind words people are sending me about how the program is working for them.

Have a great Thanksgiving and holiday season!

Check out my blog!

Unchanging Standards in every Middle School Classroom

In my grade book today, I posted the assignment description that is list below.  I did it because, in my district and in turn at my school, there is a movement toward not holding children accountable for missing deadlines for due dates.  

I disagree with that approach, and I wanted to make it clear.  

I am absolutely in agreement that every effort should be made to help the middle school student realize that if they make some effort at some point to meet a deadline, they will get some credit for that. However, dismissing the importance of meeting a deadline is not something that I support. 

So, I wrote this:

Students were required to turn in their chorus shirt sizes and $20 for the shirt or a request for sponsorship.  They had four days to meet the deadline to receive 100%.  If they were unable to afford the shirt, they were told repeatedly that we can sponsor them, but they still had to turn in their shirt sizes like everyone else along with a note requesting sponsorship so that we could order them the proper sized shirt.  Reminders were sent to parents and students via "Remind" and via my email list on which I have a majority of parents in my program.  All were invited to participate in "remind" and the email list via the syllabus.  Most signed up.  Some do not, but I know that every effort was made on my part to help the child succeed by requesting parents to read and sign the syllabus. Students who are using the shirt of an older sibling were told they must still turn in a note telling us that information in order to get a 100.  This was due by 9 AM Friday.  Parents were here daily to collect $, shirt sizes  and sponsorship notes starting Tuesday.  We collected two more days passed the due date as well.  Cash or money order were the acceptable forms of payment, and of course sponsorship notices were encouraged for those in need.  

Every effort was made.

As teachers, most reasonable people would agree that it is important to teach the standards of responsibility and accountability.  This is a standard that does not ebb and change with the educational fads of the moment, and is one that will serve children well for a lifetime.  When they realize that NOT meeting a deadline is important, they are more likely to start meeting deadlines, and as a result, they are more likely to succeed in their endeavors.   When one misses a deadline for a bill payment, one is held accountable.  We are most often given a second chance with a penalty.  And if we don't pay the bill, we ultimately lose access to the service.  

I follow a similar philosophy with my students, and it is one of the most important reasons my program is as successful as it is. 

My 333 students are always given a second and third chance about which I remind them often.  It is also up to the parents to help them seek it.   I am their teacher, but I am not their parent.  My approach to quizzes is the same.  When a child fails, I give them chances to raise their grades by coming to me for tutoring during homeroom time.  No special transportation is required because the children are already here at that time.  Most will seize the moment.  However, some will not.  It is the nature of human beings, but I always want to feel 100% that I've worked to reach them all, so that is what I do.   

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

This applies to children as well as adults.  

Thank you for your support in helping our children succeed by meeting the unchanging standard of responsibility and accountability.

March 16, 2016-  After posting this, I found a blog post that speaks well about this subject.  Give it a read...especially if you are a teacher in Georgia!  Click here!
Creator of S-Cubed Middle School Sight Singing Program for Beginners!
My YouTube Channel with teaching tips and teaching examples for the middle school chorus teacher.

Why I Participate in Spirit Week - Musical Interpretation

At the middle school where I teach, the week of September 28-October 2 was spirit week.

Some teachers hate it.  They feel it can be disruptive to the learning environment.

I feel just the opposite.  

I think it enhances the learning environment.

...and this is coming from a choir teacher whose in the final stages of preparing his 333 choral students for their fall concert is October 7th.  In the picture below, we are working on our flashlight choreography for Dweller of the Cave by Teresa Jennings.

I took that picture while wearing these.

They walked into the room on a very gloomy Monday, and that is how I looked on "Shades" day.  

They can't help but smile...

It literally brings their spirits to life...their little hearts awaken.

And on "Neon Day", I certainly didn't mind looking foolish.

I shouldn't be set loose inside "Party City" on the Sunday before Spirit Week.  :-)

It seemed appropriate to use Spirit week as a time to work on Interpretation in the songs they are singing for their concerts.

On Monday, we talked about the deeper meaning of the songs.  I let them tell me what mood they thought they should convey, and I let it get as silly or as deep as it needed to get...guiding them when necessary.  I told them I wanted them to sing from the heart and to try to let go on the technical imperfections.

On Tuesday and Wednesday, we worked on the technical aspects of Interpretation.  ...Perfecting the art of performing a crescendo without accidentally going sharp or causing the tone quality to suffer, for example.  Those are not easy things for middle school beginners.   We learned about how important it was to be technically strong in order to deliver a truly artistic performance that is sung from the heart.

...and on "Pink Day" while teaching the lesson, I was wearing this.

I asked them if it was difficult to take me seriously while I was teaching.  They laughed and nodded yes.

Laughter is such an awesome thing to hear in a middle school classroom.   Sharing laughter with them helps us bond.  It helps them want to work with you, and it makes your job fun!

...And let's face it...if they want to make our lives miserable, they can!   I think we've all been there.  

Participating in spirit week keeps my own spirit awake. 

It's so easy to get caught up in the teaching only the technical aspects of music.   As middle school choral music educators, we have to stay connected to the incredible power of a truly artistically moving performance given by our students, and we have to work to figure out every way we can do get it out of them.

...Because it's magical.

Check out my blog!
Creator of S-Cubed Middle School Sight Singing Program for Beginners.
My YouTube Channel with teaching tips and teaching examples.

So...You're replacing a legendary choir teacher....

If you are about to face a group of middle school or high school chorus students in the upcoming school year who have been taught by a teacher they absolutely adored, you may be feeling like you've just been hired to replace 

It is so scary.  

Can you imagine?!?

In my very first job, I was hired to replace a beloved teacher, and I remember a student saying out loud in class one day while I was teaching (bombing)... "You need to call Ms. Yokley up and ask her how to do this."

Ok...In that single moment, after having just completed 6 straight years of higher education, including obtaining a masters degree, I knew lots about theory, music history and art song, but I had no idea how to actually teach middle school children, and I've just replaced a legend. 


Whether it is your first year or your twenty-first year teaching, it is hard to replace a legend.  

In this post, I want to share what I learned during the two times I replaced legends in the choral classroom.

Here they are:

1)  If possible, form a relationship with the teacher you are replacing. 

Schedule a meeting with the teacher before you take over the program.  Ask questions about the program, the children, the administration, the counselors, the parents and any other question you can think of.

Ask the teacher if it is ok to be in touch during the school year to ask more questions via text, email or phone call.  You are likely to have many questions once the year gets going that you could not have anticipated, so having continued contact with the teacher you replaced is very helpful.

The children often find out that you and the former teacher have been in touch, and that can really help.  It means that you value what went on before you came, and that is very important in terms of helping them accept you in this new position.

2)  Either formally or informally, as early in the year as possible, sit down with key upperclassmen to ask questions about what they've enjoyed about their time in chorus under the previous leadership.

Listen.  Learn.  

It's about respecting what went on before you arrived and showing your respect by taking the time to learn about their experience.  

I've learned so much from the two legends that I replaced.  By following suggestions #1 and #2, I learned new ways to do things, new songs to teach, new classroom management ideas and so much more.  

3)  Repeat #2 with key parents.  

Parents are the backbone of my program.  I couldn't teach my 300+ children without their support and help.  Show that you value them by taking the time to meet and listen early in the year.

4)  Respect tradition.

Some of the traditions the community has may seem completely silly to you, but in your first year there, respect as many of those traditions as you can while being true to yourself and your own future vision for the program.  It can be quite a delicate balancing act.  Eventually, you will create your own traditions, but if you walk in and refuse to honor the most important ones, you will lose support.  

5)  Be humble and don't take anything personally.  

You are going to meet resistance because you are not 
Mr. or Ms. _________.  You can't change it, so just accept it during that first year.   

Your rehearsal techniques will not be the same.  They may rebel against your new ideas.  Don't take it personally.  Call the teacher you replaced and see if you can use one of her ideas instead of the one you tried today that bombed!  

6)  The students in the lowest grade level you teach are yours.  

They have no experience with the previous teacher.  While some of them may have had siblings who were taught by the previous teacher, essentially, they are yours.  Word of mouth is not the same as true experience.  The youngest students who never had the previous teacher are more pliable.  You can treat them as yours from day 1.  Enjoy your time with them because, at times, you will be very frustrated with the older children who question you, your techniques and your vision.

7)  Believe in yourself and in your long-term vision.

With each year that passes, the program becomes yours.  

When you are replacing a legend within a school community, it is going to be difficult, and there is no way around it. Parents, and even faculty and administration may also challenge your ideas. You may lose some students.  You may get phone calls.  

It is going to take time.  Be patient.  You will build your own legacy in time.

The second time I replaced a legend, I had been teaching for a long time, so it was quite difficult for me when I met resistance.  Each time, I took a deep breath, and I listened with respect.  I asked questions.  I made sure that I did not reveal what I was thinking...(i.e....."I know what I'm doing!!!  Just let me do it!").  

...And in doing so, I was able to slowly gain the support of the people with the biggest concerns.  

They don't care what you've done before.  It means very little to them in their daily experience with you as their current teacher. Mostly, they care about what you are about to do now.

Remember:  They just want the program to be great!  We should be thrilled they care enough to speak up!

Hope that helps some of you who are facing what feels daunting at the moment!  You'll be fine.  Hang in there!

Sight Singing stuff....In the next week, I will start releasing S-Cubed Level 2.  

Here are two videos of my 8th graders at their adjudication last spring.  They'd just completed Level 2 of the S-Cubed Middle School Sight Singing Program for Beginners.

From the very first day of school with my middle school choral students, I begin using S-Cubed Middle School Sight Singing Program for Beginners.   They love the game Forbidden Pattern, so it is a great way to get them hooked so they can't wait to come back to your class the next day!

When I created S-Cubed, I did it with the beginning teacher in mind, but I have been thrilled to learn that teachers of all levels and all backgrounds are finding the program helpful in their classrooms!  Some say that it's rejuvenated their daily routines, and others say it's helped them survive the transition from teaching band to teaching chorus.  Whatever the reason, I am very happy when I hear that it's helping folks!  It makes all of the work worthwhile!

Enjoy the rest of your summer!  I don't know about you, but I am going to squeeze out every last drop so I am ready when those eager middle school children walk through my door on the first day!

Puppies and Middle School Children...Some Classroom Management for Back to School!

During summer, I like to reflect on the previous school year and plan for the next one.  I reflect on what worked and what I'd like to do better.  I think about why I do things the way I do them, and how I can tweak and improve my work to make it more effective for my students.

...And somehow, I find ways to take life events and daily occurrences and pull out the lessons that might help me manage my middle school choral classroom better.

Sometimes, the comparisons are ridiculous. 


Puppies and Middle School Classroom Management.  

In February, I unexpectedly lost this incredibly beautiful and sweet doggie, Maxie.

I will never forget him.  He was 11 years old.  Our times together were so very memorable and fun.  Here are some of the things I treasure most about that little boy:  

He was hungry.  He kept our floors perfectly clean because he licked up every morsel of food.  He loved to chase squirrels.  He loved feeling the sun on his back.  He was a great supervisor of laundry duty.

Certainly, dogs go to heaven.  If they don't, I don't know who would.

So, I mourned.  Deeply.  His sudden loss shook me to my core.

I knew that, at my age (30, of course....not), I wasn't going to wait too long for puppy love, but I knew I couldn't get one immediately. It would be irresponsible because from March to May, my world at school with my students is insane as I'm sure most of you can relate.  During that time, we have adjudicated festivals with all 300 choir members and our annual full scale musical revue happens in early May.  

So, reluctantly, I waited.  

The weekend after my spring musical revue, I drove to Waleska, GA, and I met this little boy.  

This is Beaux.


I'm probably biased, but he's got to be the cutest puppy ever.

Then, it gets real...

The peeing.  The pooping.  The shoe-chewing.   The biting.  The out of control jumping.  The barking.  ...And on and on.

...And then you start thinking "What have I done?  Am I ready for this?"  

It's similar to the feeling we get at about the third or fourth week of school after the "honeymoon" period has ended with our middle school children.  

That's when the rubber meets the road.  That's when our words no longer matter and it becomes about what we DO.  

Before I go any further, I want to write two disclaimers:
#1:  I am not a dog trainer.  I am making it up as I go just like I did my first year of teaching!  Thank goodness for "google".
#2:  Middle School children are not puppies...obviously!  :-) is raising a puppy similar to running a middle school classroom?!

#1)  Both puppies and middle school students need lots of 
Praise, Reward and Positive Recognition.

Where I grew up, when a puppy had an accident in your house, you were supposed to yell at him and then rub his nose in it. 


In my early years of teaching, I remember people telling me "Don't Smile Before Christmas."  

Well, both of those things sound awful to me.   

Whose bright ideas are these and why are they training puppies or teaching middle school?  Would YOU feel good about learning from somehow who rubbed your nose in poop or someone who is frowning every time you enter the classroom?

Right now, with my new puppy, I'm taking him outside several times per day.  When he pee-pees or poops outside, we have a party!  I have a treat ready in my pocket to give to him immediately upon the finishing of the deed.  After a few weeks of pee-pee and poop parties, my little puppy has now gone three days in a row with no accidents inside the house!   In fact, two times, he barked at the door to let me know it was time to take him out!  He's getting it!!  

Puppies naturally want to please, and so do our middle school children...unless we are mean to them, disrespectful to them or don't listen to them. 

Are puppies and middle school children full of energy?  Yes.  Do they need play?  Yes.  Do they do bad things sometimes?  Yes.

The question is how we respond to it.

I learned through many failures during my early years of teaching that positive reinforcement matters.  When I started teaching, I looked 14 years old, so I thought I had to be mean.  They hated me, and they made my life miserable until I figured it out.

When I catch my middle school children doing the right thing, I praise publicly.  Sometimes, I reward them by giving them a sticker.  After receiving three stickers, they get a Starburst.    

It doesn't matter how you praise, but it's important to do it.

It is so important for us, as teachers, to brainstorm about all of the ways we can publicly recognize and reward positive behaviors in our children often.  

#2:  Puppies and Middle School Children need Structure

You come home after a long day of teaching.  You are very excited to greet your puppy.  What do you find?  ...Shredded pieces of toilet paper, piles of poop and pee pee to clean up and chewed up shoes.  

No fun.  

You are angry and  frustrated.  Why doesn't he know better?!

Well...because we haven't set him up for success with clear boundaries and structure.

And it isn't enough to state the rules and procedures.  You have to practice them daily.

Puppies and middle school children feel your anger and frustration when they haven't pleased you, and they respond to it.   Your relationship with them will be impacted.  That's why it is best to set them up for success by providing daily rituals and routines.  

Puppies and middle school children thrive on it.

When I leave the house or when I can't watch him closely, he goes into his crate.  I never give him free reign to roam through the house because if I do, he is going to do something bad.  I'll be upset, and he will feel it.   

When he is out of the kennel, he needs structure too.  We have done our best to set him up for success by always keeping him in our sight when he is out of his crate.  We've placed barriers at open doorways to keep him close enough that we can hear him and monitor his behavior.  By being able to monitor, we can reward the good behaviors and gently correct ones we don't like when they happen.    

Does it take time to teach structure?  Absolutely...but the long-term rewards are immense.   

How do you want your students to come into your room?  Do you want them to wait at the door until you open it?  Or do they get to come in when they want?   What is the first thing you expect them to do when they sit down?  What should they bring to class each day?  How will you dismiss your children at the end of class?  Will you dismiss by rows?  What will they do with their chorus folders?  (Click the link to see a previous blog post on dealing with folders.)

These are just a few things we have to teach in the first few days.  

Our children don't know what we want unless we show them.  Our children and our puppies are not mind-readers.  They need us to patiently guide them.  

I begin teaching structure on the very first day of school.  Two years ago, I created this lesson to help teachers prepare for the first day of school.
In the power point, I've shared ideas for a game to help teachers begin forming positive relationships with their students, a copy of my syllabus, and ideas for setting up your classroom on and before the first day of school.  

#3  Puppies and Middle School Children need FUN, brief effective learning sessions.

I've been teaching Beaux how to "sit" and "stay" as well as a few other tricks.  

I get out the treats, we head to the living room, and we start the training session.  He loves the treats, and he cannot WAIT to figure out how to earn one. 

After about 5 minutes, the little boy is done.  He exhibits all the signs of Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD).  He starts scratching or looking at the bird that just flew by the window.

The truth is that it doesn't matter whether a child has ADD or not.   Nobody wants to sit in a non-interactive, unchanging session of any kind for very long.  We get bored, and we mentally check out. 

Sometimes, my puppy just needs to run.  Sometimes, middle school children need to move.  They give us the signals!  My puppy starts growling and jumping at my feet!  My middle school children start looking at the clock.  It's up to us to learn to recognize the signals and change up the activity or the manner in which we are presenting it so we can create a more enjoyable learning experience for our students.

We have to avoid lecturing the life force out of our children.     

In a 50 minute class period, I have found that using several 10-15 minute learning sessions works well for me.  I like to think of these critical points as I prepare and present my lessons:

1)  I want to have a specific achievable arc of learning.
2)  I want to use effective and varied kinesthetic, aural and visual techniques for teaching the particular learning goals of the day. 
3)  I want at least one moment of laughter and fun!  More if possible!

Otherwise, they check out...just like my little Beaux.

In addition to the teaching ideas for the first day of school that I've shared in "Back to School! What do you MEAN I Can't Smile Before Christmas?!?", I use the game, Forbidden Pattern, with my students on the first day.  This video of the game was taken on the very first day of school with my sixth graders in 2013.

This particular game helps them learn solfege and have a good time doing it!  Forbidden Pattern is Lesson 1 in the S-Cubed series, and it reflects the philosophical and technical basis of the S-Cubed Middle School Sight Singing Program for Beginners.  It's fun, it's short and effective, and you get to use your special personality traits with your students while building your relationship with them...all while they learn!

Puppies are such a delight.  They are silly.  They are sponges for learning. They want to move.  They want some level of independence, but they aren't ready for too much of it.  

They want to please.  They are loyal.

Adopting a puppy isn't for everyone and neither is teaching middle school.  If we approach puppies and middle school children with anger and frustration, they can turn on us quickly.  When we invest the time and energy to learn and develop positive, proper, and effective teaching strategies and classroom management techniques, it brings out the very best in them.  

During my 23 years of teaching this age group in my public middle school choral classroom, I have found my students to be incredibly generous, loyal and well...silly...just like Beaux!

Look at the energy of this pup!  It beams in this picture.  He needs to run.  He wants to discover, and he wants to learn.  He wants us to notice him. 

This world is brand new to him.

He needs my guidance...My structure...My that I can teach him what I expect of him.  

He isn't born knowing.  

He is just a puppy.

Enjoy the rest of your summer, and wishing you a wonderful and rewarding new school year with your middle school children!

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