You Survived the First 8 Weeks of School – Now What?

You Survived the First 8 Weeks of School – Now What?

Oh, October. A month of seasonal shifts, and the inevitable tidal wave of colds and other viruses. It is also a wonderful time as so many fantastic ingredients have already formed the foundation of your music class. You have outlined and implemented routines, established expectations and reinforced them, and have distributed all the instruments. What’s more, students are beginning to understand what they have gotten themselves into. We can all take a deep breath and rejoice in overcoming the initial hurdle of chaos that was once known as September.

So, now what?!

There are so many directions to go after the first two months of school. Overall, we all share the same goal: for our class time to be a successful, goal-achieving experience for our studentsfrom the very first meeting, to our final note played together.

Here are my guiding principals as I approach October with my orchestras. Hopefully, you can use some of these ideas as you create your map for your ensemble.

1. Think Long-term, Work Backward from There

It is so vital to know where your ensemble is headed for the year. This is something I learned after not really doing it! As a first-year teacher, I was trying to grasp what my overarching goals were for the year while also getting my bearings on so many other things. Now that I know what students are capable of and what I can expect from them, I know the steps we need to take to get there.

Once my class rosters are set, I begin to imagine those students at their final concert of the year. They are sitting on stage in rest position, then playing with good posture and creating a solid tone. I set goals of certain pieces and specific techniques I want them to learn, and then I make a month-to-month outline of how they will get there.

To help me along the way, I establish goal markers at significant points in the school yearright before breaks, halfway through the year, etcto ensure that we are well on our way to becoming the orchestra I know we can be. Now that it’s October, play the long game. Know your broad goals for the year, then design lessons that accomplish them.

2. Imagine Your Dream Lessons, Then Live Them

There are so many things I love about being a teacher. One universal truth we all know: there is never a dull moment! Teachers think on their feet all the time (quite literally), and every moment with kids demands creativity, flexibility, and vision. I have a teaching job where I travel to seven schools each week and teach orchestra to beginners for 45 minutes. I see each class three times every week, so I have a fair amount of time to interact with each class, and a significant amount of time to interact with my lesson plans. The beauty of my position is, if the lesson doesn’t go well the first, second, or third time, I still have four more times to do it!

Of course, I know that most teachers do not have that opportunity, and I definitely strive to get the lesson perfectly groomed and ready for that first class. That motivates me to over-prepare and think through every transition and moment in my lessons.

Beyond just being prepared, though, we all strive for an excellent lesson that balances review with new, peer learning with direct instruction from the teacher, and a significant amount of time playing our instruments and receiving feedback. As you dive into the rest of the school year that will be full of many lesson plans, think about what your consistent lesson goals are.

I design each lesson so that it contains each of these aspects:

  • A warm-up that engages students’ minds and muscles,
  • An exercise or activity for note-reading (which often involves my SmartMusic TEACH platform),
  • Opportunities for performing and assessing, and
  • Key moments set aside to discuss, work on, and fix technique.

Think about what your broader goals are for each lesson, and then plan each lesson so that it implements those themesand have fun with it!

3. Know Your Students, and Show Them You Care

There seem to be two major seasons when students want to quit their ensemble (especially in their first year of playing): the late fall, and those last couple months of the school year. Maybe this is unique to my experience, but when a student told me she wanted to quit orchestra just weeks before our final concert, it made me think how the teacher can influence that decision, one way or the other, every time they see a student.

This is not to say that teachers have the sole responsibility to keep students 100% motivated and dedicated every moment, but a lot of that does rest on us. Besides preparing students well with clear objectives in mind and teaching effective lessons, bonding with students is so important and can go to a deeper level after those first couple months of school.

By October, students have gotten a sense of your teaching style and personality, but you still only know each other on a surface level. Creating brief moments in every lesson to get to know a student better can make a world of a difference, whether it is through a “Tell me about you!” questionnaire you give them to fill out, a fist bump as students leave the classroom, a small group activity that gets students talking and allows the teacher to interact with each student, or a simple, “How are you all really doing today?”

Students become invested not only in the music they are making, but also in the ensemble and their crucial part in it. Who wouldn’t want to be in a class where they know the teacher notices them and sincerely cares about them, and encourages their classmates to treat one another the same?

4. Remain Focused on Routines and Expectations

It is easy to get caught up in the expectations of putting on fantastic concerts and allow the classes leading up to them to concentrate solely on that destination. As winter concerts roll in, though, it is important to remember that our students are still very much learning how to function as a unit. Stay dedicated to those simple class routines that can make a significant difference, and hold on strongly to class expectations.

Find opportunities to refresh the class on how tuning works during class, what is expected of students when you are giving direct instruction, or how they function when they split into section work. Allow misbehaviors to be “teachable moments,” and set the bar high in requiring students (and yourself) to create the classroom environment you want.

Take the time to maintain those healthy patterns in your classroom, even with the deadlines looming.

5. Ask What Students Want, and Take It to Heart

This is my favorite charge because it thoroughly summarizes each suggestion before it. The truth is, most students want the same things we do: substantial goals to work toward, fantastic lessons that encourage them to stay fully engaged in the learning, a meaningful relationship with their teacher and peers, and structure in the classroom. We can do so much of this as their teachers, but our students also hold so much knowledge and creativity they can access if we just allow them.

Not only do students feel more invested in the ensemble when a teacher asks them for input, they also teach us more. I am always amazed by how much my students observe, absorb, and communicate back to me. When they are asked to analyze what could be better about our latest performance, they can pinpoint it. When the class is struggling to grasp a technical aspect I am teaching them, I receive clear answers back from students about how I could explain or demonstrate it in a way that makes more sense to them. They often come up with things I would never have thought of!

Kids hold their own goals, dreams, expectations, and desires when they walk into your classroom. Create opportunities for them to share these thoughts, and you will unlock many wonderful ideas from their brilliant minds.

The beautiful thing about being a teacher is that we are humans, working with other humans, eager to connect with one another and our world while expressing ourselves in a remarkable way. Remind yourself of that every time you walk into your class. Remember that you are capable of furthering the legacy you established at the beginning of the year in your classes. Even more importantly, remember that your students are often capable of more than you could have imagined back in September.

Ruth Schwartz is an itinerant sixth-grade beginning orchestra teacher with the Anchorage School district. She grew up in “The Lower 48” and graduated from DePaul University with a Bachelor of Cello Performance before making the great move to Alaska to earn a Master of Arts in Teaching Music, K-12 degree in Juneau.

Ruth enjoys performing in the cello section of the Anchorage Symphony Orchestra when she's not playing at church or hiking with her husband and their bloodhound Rooney. She's a strong believer in the power of music, which she has witnessed as a teacher in Chicago, Peru, and Alaska.

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