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!