Reply To: Really frustrating 5th grade

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First let me state that I don’t have 1.5 classes in general music and I can only imagine how difficult that could be. I do teach chorus of 70 kids and I have a few thoughts.

1. For your winter program…in the past I’ve had kids create winter/holiday related chants. Last year the kids came up with:

Santa likes tomato soup
While dancing with a hula hoop.
He doesn’t give ugly sweaters
‘Cause kids like Coca Cola better.

From here we brainstormed winter or holiday related words. We combined the words to create several ostinatos.

Cozy Fire Hot Chocolate
Rudolph had a snowball fight
Skiing Polar Bears
Blue and White Snowball Fight

The kids performed it with chanting (or rapping as they call it) and then we played it on instruments. This could be extended with movement (scarves), etc.I gave the kids a lot of choice and this was highly entertaining for an audience. Yet, easy to teach and you don’t have to worry about getting the kids to sing. As an aside…my 5th graders sing really well in chorus, but in general music I always struggle. I’ve decided, I’m OK with them singing in chorus and then focusing on other things in general music.

2. Group work, as someone else mentioned, is extremely effective. Create a step-by-step formula for group composition (drumming project, etc). Step 1: choose on of the 4 rhythm patterns from the board. Say it as a group and tap it on your knees. Step 2: Choose another rhythm pattern from the board to say and play on your knees. Step 3: Play those two rhythm patterns at the same time. Step 4: Perform for your teacher. Step 5: Repeat steps 1-3 with ONE drum. Make sure you take turns playing the drum. Step 6: Perform for your teachers……etc….

3. Power of routines. I would teach routines and rules like crazy. Have the kids line up before they come in and say “I’m going to model how to come in the room.” Do it and ask kids to tell you what they notice. Make sure you model what you want them to do. Ask several volunteers and then the whole class. Choose you’re most troubling areas of class (entering the room, getting out instruments, etc) and practice them the next two weeks. Do nothing else! (sounds extreme but it’s really effective to create that baseline for the kids). If there is an issue with a routine I might say “Ok we need to redo this routine. It’s fine, we all need reminders. However, I’ll give you one opportunity to demonstrate you understand the expectations. If not, we’ll practice at recess.” This is not punishment…it’s a logical consequence…you take up class time, you’ll loose some (not all) of your free time. Depending on the amount of kids involved, you can have the class stay or individuals. If you choose to do group work, do this same modeling on finding a partner.

4. Message and silent signal. I learned this from Responsive Classroom. I write a message: “Dear Friendly 5th Graders…” where I outline the plan for the day. I also give them a “do now.” “Talk with a neighbor about….” You could make this curricular or thematic (this week we did Halloween). This gets the social talking out of the way and they are more likely to listen. I’ve found demanding their attention from the moment they walk in has never worked for me. Also, I learned from responsive classroom a silent signal. I’ve seen teachers use this before and I tried it with little success. This year, however, with modeling and review of expectations I’ve found it to be really effective. I’ll say “5th graders, you’re going to talk with your neighbor to review what we learned last week. When you see my signal…what do you do” I take a few raised hands and I let them go. When I put up the signal, I acknowledge those following the expectation. You have to be patient, it may take a good 30 seconds before the entire class is ready. I used to yell and use a loud voice to get attention…although effective to get their attention instantly…it didn’t last…they’d start interupting, etc. With a signal…if I’m patient and wait until they’re ready, then I they are more focused when I’m trying to teach.

5. I really want to suggest that you rethink the ticket thing. It’s plain not effective…especially with this age group. Rules, expectations, reinforcement, choice and autonomy are most effective with this age group. Choice might be “Today we’re going to review some rhythm concepts. You may choose to write rhythms on the white board. Improvise rhythms on the drums. Or, create a dance showing a rhythm pattern some place on your body.” This way students can own their learning and you’re still making sure you’re objective is being met. For example, I have a group of 3 girls that I can’t get to do anything. We began a drumming project where I want layered ostinatos using nursery rhymes (I can send you this stuff if you like). This group of girls came to me and said they wanted to sing the nursery rhyme to the tune of “Barbie Girl.” I said “Sure! But…you need to create the drumming ostinato and at some point in your composition, play the rhythm of the words on the drum.” This was highly motivating to them, in addition to allowing them to create a dance as an introduction.

6. I read an article that explained child development. 5th graders are in a pre-adolescent stage and are learning to develop independence. Although they may be rude and disrespectful, often their behavior is their attempt to understand their world and have power over their circumstances. When I read this, my entire approach to 5th grade changed…and I’m so glad about it. I was at my wits end with 5th grade in the past…actually looked for K-4 jobs 😉

Good luck, I hope these ideas are helpful. And please know…I know you’re pain…5th grade has been a painful struggle for me in the past!