Ask the Experts: Beginning the School Year on the Right Foot

Kansas is blessed with great music teachers from around the state who have a great deal of wisdom and advice they can share with peers. With experience, with specialized training in various areas, with shear hard work, and with an uncommon desire to continue to learn, they have honed their skills and made a great impact on their students. Therefore, we will be asking teachers from around the state a new set of questions each month. It is our wish that this sharing of ideas will create a type of synergy among teachers throughout the state and elevate every program to new levels of learning.
Because it is the beginning of a new school year, this month’s topic is about what teachers do to start the year off on the right foot. Their answers to my questions are found below.

Eric Crawford is Director of Orchestras, Wichita High School East and String Curriculum Coach, Wichita Public Schools.

What is the most important thing teachers should do in order to have a great beginning to the school year?

I am quite sure that other teachers say this too, but there is no substitute for getting work done in advance. If your school allows summer building access, stop in from time to time to get some work done. If you do not have building access, try to get a bit of work done at home over the summer. Marking scores/parts, devising warm-ups or activities, and listening to literature on the internet are very laid-back activities that can be done from home. Even just a few hours over the course of the summer will take a lot of strain off the crunch time a week or so before school starts.

How do you develop a positive and productive classroom environment?

I try to stress to my students that many of the qualities and characteristics we develop in an orchestra rehearsal will carry over to future areas of their lives. Things such as collaboration, teamwork, individual accountability, thinking on your feet, problem-solving, decoding, processing information given very quickly, motivation, time management, reacting properly to critique and/or set-backs, and countless other things are skills that will benefit them long after they leave your class. Anyone of these things could be an item for discussion on a job interview or college essay.

Katie Topp is Sabetha Director of Bands in Prairie Hills USD 113 and was voted KBA Outstanding Young Band Director of 2016.

What do you do during those first few days of beginning instrumental class when kids do not yet have their instruments?

I do everything I can to avoid starting the year without instruments. Of course, sometimes it isn’t possible to get everyone ready to go before school starts, especially if you’re new to a school.
It is always beneficial to practice counting/clapping/sizzling rhythms, note recognition, and matching pitch, and you can start teaching them about breathing and breath support (Breathing Gym!). Another thing I really emphasize with my beginners is looking for patterns in music and the overall shape of the music. You don’t have to have an instrument to do any of those things. This also presents a good opportunity for you to establish at least some of your procedures, expectations, and rules in your classroom before everyone has their instruments to worry about.

Jennifer J. Antonetti is Assistant Director of Bands, Topeka High School and Director of Bands, at Robinson Middle School in Topeka and was voted KBA Outstanding Young Band Director of 2015.

What is the most important thing teachers should do in order to have a great beginning to the school year?

In my opinion, the most important thing teachers should do in order to have a great beginning to the school year is to be highly organized. Plan the first three weeks with great detail. Make copies of forms and worksheets. Make rosters for each ensemble. Make forms to collect payments. Get a receipt book and use it when students make payments. Make forms for t-shirts including ordering and payments. Choose and order new music. Get lockers ready for checkout. Make sure that all rental instruments you might have are in good working order with all accessories included so that they are ready to be checked out. Update the inventory if you received any new equipment over the summer. Learn the names of all the kids – not just the bad ones or the really good ones – and learn how to say their names correctly.
Regarding music selection at the beginning of the year, choose music for the first two concerts, but choose much more than you actually need. With each of my middle school ensembles, I try to choose music that is really too easy for the group at the very beginning of the year. For example, I try to choose a grade 1/2 piece for the 6th grade band first and a grade 1, 1.5, or an easy 2 for the 7th & 8th grade band. This easier music is great to reassure the students that they have not forgotten everything over the summer, and consequently, they will begin to build confidence for the more challenging music that you will hand out later in the year. I like to choose more than enough music because as I learn who the strong players are in my ensembles, I can select music that is more suited to the strengths of my ensemble and rewrite parts if necessary.
A healthy bit of planning at the very beginning of the year can save you many headaches later. At the very least, try to stay at least one day worth of plans ahead of the students. “Prior Planning Prevents Poor Performance”

How do you establish classroom behavior within those first few days of school?

I am a major stickler for procedures in the first few days of school. In my middle school, we don’t event get instruments out in the first week of school, and that is intentional. Instead, I have a handbook that we go through as a class. I have the students underline, highlight, and circle important information as we go through it together. I explain how I want the students to set up and put away chairs and stands. I explain procedures for getting passes to the restroom, sharpening pencils, and getting a tissue. We practice the setup procedure with a timer set for 5 minutes, and I project the timer on the board at the front of the classroom. Our district uses a district-wide quiet signal and some other district-wide management techniques, which I utilize. I have only a few rules in my band classrooms, but I do explain and maintain that I have several high expectations for behavior. I then do a classroom scavenger hunt and a “Handbook Bingo” game with students, and finally, I have the students and their parents sign an “Acknowledgement Form” that they have read and understand the handbook.
As far as building the mentality of the students, we spend lots of time discussing how band is a family and we are all here to support each other. We discuss words like balance, respect, flexibility, integrity, and kindness. We build a growth mindset through setting and achieving goals and taking ownership of seeing those goals to fruition. We do some team-building and class-building activities with ways for students to get to know one another and build relationships, and I always participate in these activities as well. Building the mentality of a “good band kid” is a process that takes all year, but a little bit each day strengthens the confidence within each individual, which makes the band better as a whole.

What do you do during those first few days of beginning instrumental class when kids do not yet have their instruments?

The beginning of the year is a fantastic time to review basic music theory while you are waiting for students to secure instruments through purchase or rental. I use a lot of outside materials and worksheets at this time of the year for reading treble and bass clef, reviewing time signatures and meter, establishing a rhythm counting method, and reviewing some basic vocabulary. I have students work with partners to complete these review worksheets so that the students can meet new people and build relationships. I might use this later in the year for partnering if I say something like, “Find the person who was your treble clef partner,” and they will have to know who that person was that completed the worksheet with them. This makes finding partners quick in the future. If there is a person who is left without a partner, I always let them choose what group they would like to join.
With elementary/beginning band, I use the time at the beginning of the year to teach basic rhythms through my classroom “rules.” Then, when we see those same rhythms in their method books, I can say, “see, you already know this rhythm,” and I can build on the rule with numerical counts and syllables. Additionally, I spend time with beginners on how to assemble and handle each instrument properly with great care. We discuss how instruments are not toys, but instead, they are more like machines, i.e. piston valves are like the engine in a car, keys must be greased and oiled like a car, polishing and shining like cleaning and waxing a car. The students seem to get it and tend to respond will to this analogy. They are exceptionally interested to learn about the histories of each instrument, and I have had students watch some of the “How It’s Made” videos from the Discovery Channel about instruments


Matt Webber is the choir director at Wichita Collegiate School and the South Central KMEA Teacher of the Year, 2013

How do you establish classroom behavior within those first few days of school?

Structure, structure structure. We want our students to walk into a classroom that is very structured. Every singer must have a folder, sheet music, an assigned seat, clear expectations and shared goals to start working towards. All classroom activities need to engage 100% of the singers and they need to have good pacing and smooth transitions. This means that the director needs to plan every minute of every class period. The director must be able to quickly evaluate the level that each singer and at and then instruction must be differentiated to meet the needs of each learner.

Frances Oare is the orchestra director at Coleman Middle School in Wichita, the 2013 Wichita Middle School Teacher of the Year and was awarded the 2016 KASTA Certificate of Merit.

How do you establish classroom behavior within those first few days of school?

Each day I teach a single expectation or procedure rather than throwing every one of them at the students all at once. My first day is just how we walk into the class and get to our seat. I had an “aha” moment about 10 years ago when a presenter at an in-service said “what do you do when students do not understand something academically? – You reteach it…..” From there, I began to focus on clearly establishing my expectations, but continually and deliberately re-teaching throughout the year.

What are the most important things you want to teach in that first month of school?

Procedures and routines, procedures and routines, and did I mention procedures and routines? Then, a strong technical and musical foundation. Developing a growth mindset and a positive attitude about excellence.

What do you do during those first few days of beginning instrumental class when kids do not yet have their instruments?

I have as a goal to do something musical every day of instruction. These are some of the activities I do without instruments including team building, musical ideas, and knowledge and literacy skills:

• Learning handbook: Jigsaw – Instead of reading the handbook to the class, I have the students work in groups of three to find information. Each group is responsible for one section of the handbook. Then the student switch groups and teach the students in the other group the content of their section of the handbook.
• Classroom expectations and CHAMPS: teach and practice routines and expectations – how to walk in room, where to put supplies, how to sharpen a pencil or use passes, etc.
• Beginning Bow Hold Activities: bunny rabbit shape, on a pencil, on a straw, with dowel rod and pvc pipe tubes (working on arm motion), using old cut frogs from bows that were broken.
• Movement sequence: works on beat/pulse awareness, meter recognition, patterns and rhythm, coordination, crossing midline work, and memory. I sit facing the students, put on music and do a series of movements while the students watch and imitate in time with the music.
• Vocalization: singing, solfege – learn first songs before having to play them, inner hearing and audiation work.
• Getting to know you games:

o people bingo; the students have a sheet of paper with descriptions in each square and they have to find another student who fits the description.
o beach ball with questions; questions are written on the ball, students throw it around the room and have to answer the question nearest their left thumb
o spider web; students stand in a circle and the first person has a ball of yarn. The student says “I like pizza” and someone across the circle says “I like pizza too”. Student #1 throws the ball of yarn (holding onto the end) to student #2. Student #2 then says “I play baseball….etc.” each student throws the ball of yarn holding onto their end. Eventually, you create a spider web as students find common interests.

• Language/literacy: vocabulary flashcards in concentric circles – quiz, quiz trade. Using laminated flashcards with pictures of musical symbols on one side and definitions on the other. Students stand in two concentric circles with the inside circle facing the outside circle. Each student has a card and quizzes the student across from them, then trades cards and moves one person to the right. Good way to review last year’s vocabulary.
• Instrument care and safety: Students must pass quiz before taking instrument home.
• Rhythm Learning Sequences: I teach rhythm using a method described in David Newell’s Book. I will review rhythms using flashcards and start introducing rhythm to my beginners this way to develop their rhythmic “vocabulary” before they begin playing.
• Beginning/Intro to Staff and reading Basics: powerpoint/student Cornell Notes, interactive notebook work.
• Dictation Games : Written dictation on lapboards or using a smartboard page set up for this. Chair dictation (I set up four chairs to represent beats and play rhythm patterns and the students become the notes and place themselves on the chairs to represent the rhythm they heard……or students create a rhythm on the chairs and the other students have to count it out.)
• Cup Rhythm/Beat Games: look on youtube. Students sit on floor in a circle. Each student has a cup, turned upside down. Playing or singing, the students grab their cup with their right hand and pass it on the beat to their left, then reach and grab the cup to their right, continuing to move a cup on each beat
• Composition Games: groups of 4 compose and notate a rhythmic composition with 4 parts and perform using supplies in class. (chairs, stands, small percussion, pencils, body percussion).

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