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Don't Panic! Here's How to Organize Your Curriculum and Teach with Power (Part 1)

Deep breaths! Here we are, it's the beginning of the school year, and if you are a newbie like I once was you may find yourself hiding in a closet just for a moment of quiet to calm some racing thoughts.

Do you feel overwhelmed? If you do, good news: it's because you are a teacher with potential, passion, and energy. What you are feeling is what I call the chaos of creation. This is your adrenaline pumping because you CARE.

You are committed to doing a good job on work that you know makes a HUGE impact on kids. You have a world of infinite possibilities. And you have Pinterest, amirite?!

But hold on - with a world of infinite possibilities, how do you choose? How do you deliver those gems you've collected? How on earth do you fit them into a 45-minute (if we're generous) class period?

We're Big Picture People

It can be so easy to spend an afternoon diving down the rabbit hole, finding more and more resources on Pinterest, Google, whatever. It even feels productive while you're doing it. But even if you find the world's greatest and most perfect treasure trove of musical activities, they have to be curated and delivered in order to be useful.

Here's the thing about being teachers: we're big picture people. We crave structure. We want a grand vision, long-term objectives, overarching plans. We want the confidence and enthusiasm that can only come from having visual aids packed neatly into color-coordinated pouches and alphabetically organized cubby systems!

I am going to show you exactly how I, as a full-time curriculum developer, turn the big picture into activities and plans and units and kits that can be organized into color-coordinated pouches, etc. We're going to open up an excel sheet or a Word document together and we're going to start mapping things out.

But hold your horses! First, we're going to analyze our primary resource, a class period. Whatever your budget, themes, time constraints, you have a class period. Take it out in your mind, hold it, and ask yourself, what am I primarily doing during that time?

You Are a Performer

There are so many ways to teach but I've noticed something about my favorite teachers: for them, teaching is a performance art. The primary activity of teaching is performing.

My favorite teacher was Dr. Damen, my Latin professor at Utah State University. He is a thespian, an actor, and he delivered every line with movement, voice, character, and style! He energized that dusty old Wheelock text.

Teaching is performing. This is a huge advantage we music teachers have over teachers from other disciplines. In order to become music teachers, we had to perform on the regular. Regardless of what chair you sat or what repertoire you sang in college, you have definitely stood up in front of people and done a thing. You have performed.

Tomorrow, or Monday, or next period, whenever you next teach, you're going to do it again: you are going to be a performer. You are putting on a little audience-participation play. And knowing that is power.

The Audience-Participation Play Will Change Your Teaching

First, you are going to greet your class as they come in the door, in character. Do you have a character, a teaching persona? I submit that you absolutely do. It is the mixture of all the performers, speakers, and teachers you have ever witnessed. You have a repertoire of models hiding away in your brain and it is growing all the time.

As you stand at the door, you are going to channel your ideal teacher self. If you need to, think of a favorite professor, teacher, actor, aunt, or neighbor - maybe a mix of all these. Your posture, your voice, your mannerisms, and your greetings are ALL going to communicate a character to your incoming audience.

What about "being yourself?" Yourself is what you will find over time as you gain experience. You will try things you have seen, and over time you will find the you that is true. But at the beginning, I suggest that you spend time trying on possibilities.

If it gives you confidence to be Dr. Damen for a few minutes, that confidence is going to scaffold your transition into confident teaching as yourself.

You are going to aim for a feeling. This isn't about manipulating your students; this is about authentically feeling and communicating those feelings. Even if you are scaffolding your confidence by channeling the mannerisms or phrases from someone else, you are still a method actor. Being a method actor means you aspire to complete emotional identification with your part (thank you, Wikipedia).

As your students enter, participate, and depart your classroom, how do you want them to feel? Do you want them to feel safe, included, enthusiastic? As a method actor, you need to feel those feelings. You are going to think thoughts and say phrases and wear clothes that remind you of those feelings. And it's going to feel good, which will help you to enjoy your job.

That's why I have bright shoes and a zany sock collection, my friends: because I want to feel bright, happy, creative, and free so that my students can feel the same.

You are going to mind your pacing and audience participation cues. I actually learned a lot about this working my way through college as a customer service representative (which is totally another performance art, by the way): you want a minimum of dead air. Nobody wants to wait while you pull something up on your computer. (Isn't that the worst?!) We can do well to take some cues from our friends in the theater/customer service department:

  • Pacing is everything. Think about the class. What age are they? The rule of thumb that is presented everywhere is that your students have about as many minutes of attention span as they are years old. I submit that the number may go down a couple of minutes when you get a gaggle of students in the same room at the same time. (Bless you, kindergarten teachers everywhere.) One way to look at this is, if you have a 45-minute class period and you have 25 eight-year-olds wiggling in front of you, you are looking at a maximum of 6-8 minutes per activity, so you're going to want about 6-8 activities lined up and ready to go, plus an extra one for emergencies. I like to split these into 2-3 "acts," just as in a play. Each act will have a few scenes (activities or particular songs), followed by a stage re-set (I like to have students stand and change areas of the classroom, or switch seats, or put something away and come back so they are fresh), then the next act, and so on.

  • Plan and teach audience participation cues. In classic pantomimes, audiences know when to call something back to the performers. Audiences and classes can find joy in the act of participation when they are sure what to do. Whether it's a hand gesture, a key phrase, a visual cue, or a dramatic silence, you can direct the attention of your class and keep them engaged. There are great resources out there such as Whole Brain Teaching (look it up on YouTube!) or Tools for Teaching by Fred Jones that can get you started.

  • Manage the classroom with your body language. When I ask a question or need attention, I "freeze" and my whole body exhibits the rest while I wait for the class to come back online. If I want kids to raise their hands to answer a question, I raise my hand, sometimes accompanied with a little gasp. Like a magician, I point my eyes and hands and frame towards whatsoever person or thing I want the class to pay attention to.

  • Vary the energy level. If an entire performance is the finale, none of it feels like the finale, right? For a satisfying performance, we need to vary our presentation. Try purposefully speaking quieter and louder, having more movement and less movement, varying activities between concentration and relaxation, even moving between areas of the classroom, etc. You'll feel when the kids need a change. They are great at giving you that kind of data!

And Now, We Map

...or rather, next time we will map. Sharpen your pencils and sign up for my email notifications at the bottom of the page. In my next blog post, we're getting to the nitty gritty!


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