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!

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  1. How often do you see your students, and how long are your classes? The folders-do you use them for choir, or general music? What are some of your written warmups and how much time do you spend on them? Thanks so much for sharing all of your experience to new teachers!

    1. I see my students daily for 50 minutes.
      I only teach choir, so I everything I do is for choir.
      The students use two types of folders: A music folder that I keep in the room, and their own folder that contains handouts and bell ringer activities.
      All of my written warm ups are contained in the S-Cubed Middle School Sight Singing Program for Beginners.
      The bell ringer activities are designed to take about 5 minutes.
      You are welcome!

  2. Wow! Three years after finding your S-Cubed program on Teachers-Pay-Teachers, I continue to be thankful for your blog posts and search through for new ideas and tips all the time. Today I used Starburst in a very similar way to what you described, and the transformation was amazing! Especially with their singing!

    Thank you for sharing!

    1. You made my day! Thank you for sharing this with me!