Monday, January 13, 2014

Troubleshooting Transition Time

Transition Road SignEarly in my career I established a very predictable routine for the beginning of every class. I think somewhere in my methods class, someone must have discussed the need to address times of transition. And though it is true that children thrive on routine and attention to transition periods, I truly think that I developed these routines more for my own benefit than for that of my students. As it turns out, I also thrive on routine! My first year of teaching was pretty overwhelming as I was placed in three different buildings, saw over 1100 children per week, and was well over my contractual minute-count. In order to keep my sanity throughout the day, I quickly realized that I had to do something to give me a bit of breathing room as the children cycled in and out of my classroom.

For the beginning of each class period, I developed warm-ups that addressed the most basic elements of music education—rhythm and melody. All of my students always had assigned seats, and on the first day, I would model my expectations for how students should enter the classroom and go to their seats. As soon as the last child processed in, I would go to the front of my room and launch into the echoing of rhythm patterns (clap and say). I would model this exercise with the younger students, but by the end of the second music class, they always had it down. As the year progressed, we would always begin each class by echoing rhythm patterns, but I would throw in silly voices, or no voices, or different levels (such as stomping, patting, head turns, shoulder shrugs, etc.) to keep things fresh and fun. I would also use more challenging patterns as the rhythmic figures were learned to keep the students engaged. For advanced classes, I might even choose a student leader to conduct the rhythm warm-ups.

After rhythm warm-ups, I would move immediately (and without discussion) into vocal warm-ups, beginning with descending “sirens.” Occasionally, I would perform the vocal exercises for the students to echo, but more often than not, I would use a slide whistle for them to echo. I picked this technique up from John Feierabend. After a few descending sirens, I would include ascending sirens, and some sillier sounds (like someone sneezing). The students never tired of this activity, so I did it with every class, every grade, every day, every year. My slide whistle still travels with me and has a special hiding place in my home to keep my own children from running off with it.

Following these basic vocal stretches, I would proceed right into echoing melodic patterns, using age-appropriate pitches and intervals. Next up for the lower elementary students would be a greeting song during which the students would pat the steady beat. I would change the greeting song periodically to keep interest, but we would always have a greeting song. Following this would be our song of the month (a new song each month, chosen from the list of 100 songs every child should know). My expectations for the song of the month would be different for different grade levels and would change each week. The first class of each moth usually introduced the refrain. Then we might learn a verse each week thereafter; incorporate harmony; discuss the form; listen to another variation, etc. Upper elementary classes would move right into the song of the month. Typically, these warm-ups would be followed with a non-verbal cue (more on those on another day), directing the students to the area in the classroom where our focused lesson would get started.

While this seems like a lot, it was never much more than five minutes of any class, and those five minutes of settling time were invaluable for me. This time allowed me to mentally prepare for the lesson. If needed, I would grab my plan book for a quick refresher or reset the room as the students were echoing me. I might make mental notes of how I should adapt the lesson to a specific student or class or review notes from the week before if the lesson was multi-session. These warm-ups also allowed me to review names and faces as I would take attendance based on the seating chart. We would also repeat the greeting song in lower elementary, and I would choose new students to select beat placements/body percussion with each repetition. This assisted me in learning names quickly.
For the students, I believe this predictable routine helped them transition to my specific expectations and methods from whatever they were doing before they entered my room. It also provided them with the fundamental melodic and rhythmic language from which they could draw for improvisation and composition down the road. This routine also ensured that they were singing in every music class.
Since having children of my own, I’ve read over and over again in countless parenting books about the benefits of routines. I truly believe that much of my success in the classroom came from the tone that was established with these warm-ups. If you use a routine in your classroom, please feel free to share it in the comments below. Remember, new routines can be established any day, so try a new one and let us know what you think!


Jeanette Morgan
Jeanette attended Ithaca College, majoring in Music Education with voice as her primary instrument. While at Ithaca, she performed with the Women's Chorale under the direction of Janet Galván and was a founding member of the college's first women's a cappella group. She completed her Master of Education degree from Wayne State University while teaching elementary music in L'Anse Creuse Public Schools. In her more than eight years of teaching elementary music education, Jeanette was the writer and recipient of several educational grants, director of after school music clubs, and one of the directors in a district-wide choir. She has also taught Elementary Music Education: Methods and Assessments as an adjunct professor at Rochester Community College in Rochester Hills, Michigan. In 2008, Jeanette became editor of Activate!, a magazine for music educators, and in 2009, she accepted the position of Classroom Resources Editor for Heritage Music Press.

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