A Refreshing Start to Year Nine

3 Nov

A close-up view of Europe on the folk dance map

Year Nine?!??!? Yes, I am solidly into my ninth year of teaching elementary music. I can hardly believe that it was well over a decade ago that I decided to become a music educator. Last year was a difficult one for me. I had a hard time getting as excited as I used to about starting the school year. It took me forever to get my year plans in order and my performances on the calendar. My students probably didn’t notice a major difference, but I just felt “blah” about teaching last year. I was in a major rut, and I knew I had to get out of my funk right away to get this school year off to a better start. All it took was two small decisions about my teaching practice have already gotten things off to a much better, more energetic start this year.

First, I decided we needed to dance. A lot. I love teaching folk dancing, and last year I spent very little time dancing with my students. One of my best memories from elementary school was the yearly square dance unit we did in our general music class. Second, music history instruction has always been a struggle for me, so last year my big push was the Composer of the Month series I started. The kids loved learning about the composers, and I enjoyed it too, but the folk dance piece shouldn’t have been pushed completely aside.

Because my students like learning about composers so much, I knew that was a keeper. So I had to find a way to get both composers and folk dancing in during the short time I have with my students. We started the year with a dance during the very first music class for grades three, four, and five. It was a hit, of course. The fifth graders will even be performing some of their dances at a district event in the beginning of November. I have a pull down world map that I have barely touched since getting the SMART Board that I put Post-it flags on to indicate the countries from which we have learned dances. My plan is to keep adding to the map all year. Having a visual keeps me honest (Composer of the Month bulletin board, word wall, dance map, etc.). I primarily use dances from Phyllis Weikart’s Teaching Movement and Dance and the accompanying Rhythmically Moving recordings.


As far as Composers of the Month go, sometimes I don’t get started on a new composer until part way through a month, or a certain grade level will be very focused on other content, and we’ll gloss over the composer, but I really try to expose each class to music and information about the composer. For October and early November, we’re learning about Danny Elfman, culminating in each class watching either Corpse Bride or The Nightmare Before Christmas.

I’ve been really pleased with how just a couple of curriculum refreshers have made a huge difference for me and, I hope, for my students too. And of course, both folk dancing and learning about composers are directly tied to many of the National Standards for Music Education. What are your ideas and tips for energizing a stagnant curriculum?

4 Responses to “A Refreshing Start to Year Nine”

  1. Chrissy Riddle November 4, 2011 at 10:47 pm #

    I just wish I could get to the point of feeling like I have a stagnant curriculum. I am in my 6 th year of teaching choir but only the second of general music and it still feels overwhelming!

    • Kelly Schenbeck Riley November 4, 2011 at 11:00 pm #

      I’ve been teaching general music 1-5 in the same building for five years now, so I’m to the point where almost all of my students have only ever had ME as their music teacher. I found myself just doing the same kinds of lessons and activities every year simply because they work and build upon the foundation I had provided the kids. Although the students rarely seem bored, I was definitely hitting that point. It took me a few years of general music to nail down that routine. You’ll probably get there soon. :-) I assume choir is different because you’re constantly changing the repertoire. While you might be teaching the same skills and technique, you get to do it within the context of the song material.

  2. Amanda Laing November 5, 2011 at 11:35 am #

    I was getting bored, too, so I decided to do a history of rock and roll unit with my 6th graders. They’re loving it!

    I tried to teach my 5th graders how to do a Jewish dance this week, and they get too excited. Any ideas on how to teach dancing without it turning into chaos?

    • Kelly Schenbeck Riley November 5, 2011 at 4:37 pm #

      History of rock would be a great unit for 6th grade!

      As far as dancing not devolving into chaos, sometimes I start a dance lesson not telling the kids anything about what we’re about to do. I just get them up in a circle and say, “do what I do.” I make them echo my movements and whatever counts/words I say. By the time they realize what’s going on, we’ve learned a whole dance! Now my kids love dancing so much, they’re begging to put it with the music before they know the whole thing. If you have the cash, you should definitely invest in the book and CDs I listed above. Almost all of the dances I teach are from that book, and the music selections are good for a variety of activities. I’m not a trained dancer, but I can understand all of the instructions in the book. There are some really fun ones that my kids literally BEG me to do. We had an optional folk dance performance this morning, and out of just over 50 kids in the 5th grade, I had 19 show up! To dance! In front of an audience!!