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Classroom management, first year middle school choir director

I'm in my first year of teaching a middle school chorus and my alto section will not stop talking and can't stay on task. I have tried taking cell phones at the door, and sepearting talkative individuals. What are some ideas to help with this classroom management issue?
Replies (16): Threaded | Chronological
on March 14, 2013 5:57am
Hi Jen -
You've probably heard a lot of these, but this is what works for me -
  • Have a very routine start up procedure - For me, a student leads stretches and an 'in the air' solfege warmup, then I warm them up vocally, followed by a student taking attendance (students number off - 50+ kids goes quickly), announcements by me, and our sightreading activity.  It is understood that there are no bathroom/water breaks during this time, and students walk into the room knowing what to expect.  This also incorporates classroom leaders and group ownership.
  • Layout procedures for disruptions - bathroom/water, getting folders, pencils, etc.  They feel better knowing what to do, and you'll have less to deal with.  (A 'token pass' for bathroom/water solves the one-at-a-time breaks, and one of my favorites - an 'I Need' slip for students to leave you notes when they need music/help/information, etc.)
  • Post your rehearsal plan on the board - this avoids (some of) the 5 minute 'where are we starting' fiascos. 
  • Pace your rehearsal quickly - give them time to sit/breathe/relax a little but move everything along.
  • During sectional time, either give the other sections something to accomplish or have them all learn all the parts.
  • Use all the classroom management tricks you have in your bag, and get others from other teachers - proximity to the chatter, 'the look', using names to get attention, etc.
  • Don't be afraid to have high expectations for performance and behavior - contrary to what they think, middle school students like knowing where the lines are, and like being held to these expectations. 
  • But above all of this, connect with the kids, especially the ones who are giving you trouble - give them jobs, have fun with them, talk to them, get to know them, and create a relationship with them.  'People won't care what you know until they know that you care' holds very true with middle school kids. 
Middle school is fun - enjoy it!
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on March 14, 2013 5:15pm
Jean has said everything I would say.  I will add another idea:  Call parents.  I had a group like this, and I called every single parent, told them what was going on in class, and asked for their support and help.  That, in combination with the things Jean mentioned, turned that class around almost immediately.  I called home a lot the first few weeks, but lo! and behold, we finally got to the point where I rarely called at all.
I will add one more thing:  You might consider creating a choir covenant.  Have the kids break into groups of 5-6, have them choose someone who will write down ideas and another one who will present to the clas (be sure to split up your altos--don't do it by sections).  The task:  Create a list of student behaviors that would make a choir rehearsal productive and successful (and hopefully more fun) for everyone.  Have a student write down the ideas as the presenters tell what their group came up with, and  put check marks next to ideas that you've heard already.  Have the group narrow the list down to 4 behaviors that they will all agree to, have everyone sign it, and then post it up front where they can see it.  Any time you  have to deal with an issue with a student, you should be able to reference the covenant and what they agreed to do.  Once they own their own class rules, they will be more likely to follow them.
Good luck!
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on March 15, 2013 6:28am
Everyone is right on.
I had to explain to my class that there were three different things that would happen in choir: Singing, Feedback, and Transition.  Singing time: no talking.  Talkers will have consequences.  Feedback: no talking.  "How can I tell you what you did well, if you start to talk the minute we stop singing?  Give me a chance to help you make things stronger. Finish singing and then be ready to listen to me." Transition times: you can talk. Transition time: hand out or collect music, put away folders, sharpen pencils, etc.  Transition times are the only times to ask to go to the bathroom or get a drink of water, too.  It takes a few days for them to get the idea, but the 6th graders are finally getting it. 
I've also in years past run "Silent Rehearsals." They get a warning the class period before, there are notes all over the doors and room when they come in: "Today is silent rehearsal day. There will be no talking unless you have raised your hand to answer a question from the teacher.  Anyone who talks out or whispers to a neighbor will get a writing assignment. There will be no warnings."  My writing assignment says something like: "I understand that my mouth is a part of my body and therefore under my control. I also understand that in choir it is important to use my voice for singing, and my ears for listening.  I recognize that talking prevents me and other students from learning. I will make a better effort at keeping my mouth under my control." After they write it once, they return to their seat and resume rehearsal.
Good luck!
Hang in there!
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on April 19, 2013 7:42am
I would be very interested in seeing a video of your rehearsals. I feel mine are mediocre and would like to observe that, in addition to it being useful. We so rarely get to see others in action in a normal setting.
on April 20, 2013 4:09am
Interesting that the comments thus far have been from women; here's a guy's perspective.  How is it:  young women at this age can see each other seven hours a day, and still have SOOOOOOO much to chat about?  Okay, I can see the thunder clouds rising quickly over the horizon!  Hang on, give me a moment.  First of all, let's acknowledge a fact:  90% of the sounds little girls make are words, little boys make words only 67% of the time.  That hasn't changed significantly by middle school.  Let us also acknowledge:  at this age, young women are going through tremendous physical, emotional, and psychological changes.  The part of the brain which provides words is also almost immediately next to that part which deals with emotions.  Therefore, a lot of the "emotion" that young women experience at this age is translated into.....words!  It's easy for them, and is one of the major psycho-physical differences with boys at this age.  Ask a guy what he "feels" - and he has to go searching in his brain for what he's feeling - which science has showed us is in a completely different part of his brain than it is in her brain, figures it out, and then comes back to find the word - which is why, ladies, when you ask a guy that type of question, it seems to take FOREVER to get an answer, and even then, it isn't really satisfactory, is it?  Remember also that girls control a far more extensive vocabulary than boys do, and it gets exercised on a frequent basis.  Politically incorrect on my part?  Perhaps; but the science does support a good deal of this, if indeed it doesn't support it all; and this is in part what you're dealing with.  I suspect that were you to stand back, ignore the altos for a minute, you MIGHT be surprised at how much chatting is going on in the sopranos as well.  Please note:  women talk, men act out.  Do you notice that guys are "restless", that they need to seem to have to move more?  While it is less true of music classrooms, let's also be honest enough to admit that most classrooms are designed for women, and the way women think and deal with words:  "sit down; take out a piece of paper and pencil; start writing on the subject...." - frankly, you lost the guys after "sit down"!  Listen to how men talk to boys - short, simple, single declarative (imperative!) ideas - please, no multi-tasking here - it just don't work (for the most part).  This is not to discourage, nor to so simplify the reality of each individual that there cannot be variations on the theme (!) - but to LOOK more clearly at what is happening.  All of the activities and actions suggested are very good - but we have to start with the creature in front of us, not with categories - to include those which I have posited in this posting.  But, by the same token, we CANNOT ignore the realities of what our teaching circumstances are, and how they are treated and viewed in different ways by the boys and girls sitting in front of us.  There is another posting in this same edition of ChoralNet on learning styles and how we structure our classrooms and our teaching styles to take in the range of ways our students learn - aurally, visually, kinesthetically - and adjust accordingly.  This is another aspect of the same reality - only it's posited here in terms of "wordiness" and "chattiness" on the part of a specific group.  The idea of "silent rehearsals" is an excellent one on two counts:  it directly addresses that element of young women's actions at this age, and requires a self-disciplining that, in my opinion, is sadly lacking in general in the society.  We do more than teach notes; we teach life.
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on April 20, 2013 1:03pm
Dear Jen: 
A few things --
(1) No doubt you've already tried these... Have a little heart-to-heart chat with the main talker/s, and check with their other teachers -- you'll likely find that these behavior choices are not limited to your class. 
(2) Try contacting the parents. Tell them one or two nice things about the child, then discuss the problem: They seem to have with 'bouts of talking during class', and give details. Trust me, your call is NOT the first time this parent has heard this!! If the child is acting this way for you in middle school chorus, this has been going on in many classes over many years. 
(3) One little trick that seems to help keep the chatter down -- especially between pieces -- is to play the piano accompaniment, or the choral parts of the piece, until everyone is ready to productively continue the rehearsal. This minimizes the chatter while allowing the slower folks to stow away the old piece and get out the new piece. It "fills" the "dead air" space (the vacuum that needs to be filled?) while getting the singers to start musically thinking about the next piece. (One way I know it works is because one year, a student came up to me and said, "You play between pieces to keep me from talking, right?") 
Ron Isaacson 
Germantown MD 
on April 21, 2013 4:21pm
The comments you've already received are certain to help you right now.  Thanks for reaching out.  ChoralNet is a wonderful resource for all of us teachers!    
Knowing that you have an opportunity to start all over again with classroom management next fall, I urge you to read Jason Sickel's article, "First Things First in Early Choir Rehearsals--Classroom Procedures that Get Results," in ChorTeach  Vol 3 #2, Winter 2011.   Jason suggests that very little can be accomplished musically until students understand exactly how "things" work in a rehearsal, e.g., procedures for entering, leaving, getting music, no talking/whispering, reading the smartboard screen or chalk board for order of activities, asking questions, etc.    You must teach students starting on day 1 of the fall, from the first minute, how life works in your world--your rehearsal room.    Check out that article at     
P.S. I failed miserably my first year of teaching because no one ever told me (in any classes back in the dark ages) that I had to run a tight ship, have clear rules, and teach procedures rather than music as a first priority.  But I recovered from the shock.  You will too! 
on November 25, 2013 3:13am
All of these suggestions are perfect.  Just to add - when you start your routine at the beginning of class, expect it to be silent and keep it there when they enter.  My kids aren't always 100% at this, but the quieter I keep them while I'm doing roll and their doing their planners/bell ringers, the better their behavior for the rest of class.  If they come in loud, they just get louder and more off task.  If they still don't quiet down, I make them line back up in the hall and start over.   Works wonders!  Not forever, mind you.  You'll have to repeat the process on occasion.
on November 25, 2013 8:49am
I struggled like crazy in the beginning with my middle school choir students.  It was horrible.  I felt like a total failure.  
After a few years, I decided that I either needed to figure it out or stop.  So, I started doing everything I could to change the results in my classroom.
Now, I have 300-plus children in my chorus program.  I have a class of 84 students in 4th period.  I could never have done that when I started.  I have figured out a few things that I decided to share with other music teachers.  So, starting in August, I began a blog and a VLOG to specifically to help other middle school teachers.  Below, you will find a few links to a few entries that might help you will some of your issues.  There are tons more that you can access once you check these out.  Also, you'll see links for how to reach me if you need support.
Young teachers don't get the support they need!  I am happy to have figured some things out in hopes of helping some really talented teachers survive the early years!  Be patient with yourself and don't beat yourself up when it doesn't go as you think it should as quickly as you think it should.  :)
Best regards,
Dale Duncan
Music in the Middle with Mr D
on November 26, 2013 10:17am
on November 26, 2013 11:47pm
Firm hand shakes.  Eye contact.  Try 'not' smiling.  Never speak over them.  Some time spent at piano, but some also spent directly in front of them.  Don't start sentences with "OK you guys" or "Alright everybody".  Wait until the room is quiet, and make the first thing you say a clear instruction.  Sometimes these kids just need to see our business side.
on March 31, 2014 3:55pm
I completely understand where you are coming from. I am in my 2nd year of teaching and I received a group of 30+ 9th grade girls and it has been a huge challenge all year. I have done stuff with ClassDojo which is a behavior manangement app and they get points deduced if they are talking or misbehaving and so many of those points lower their grade. It works for me. Wouldn't hurt to check it out
on March 31, 2014 11:16pm
Hi Jen!
I feel your pain.  I'd come from underneath, cater to some of their interests, speak their language, share some humor, let them call some of the shots.. it's really not as much about control as it is about them trusting you.  If they know you've got their interests at heart too, they're much more likely to cooperate.  I think in cases where defiance is already happening, taking privileges away only feeds the fire.  We have to ask ourselves, "even though these kids are acting up in my class, are they capable of being good human beings who respect others?"  There are a lot of things one could try to shift the culture of a classroom, and usually the methods that evoke the most positivity between teacher and student are the ones that work the best.
Hope that helps!
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on April 1, 2014 8:33am
Establishing the fact that a choir requires input from each individual in order to be successful is a lesson for all to learn. Just as the baseball team or the football team is a "team effort," so is the choir a "team effort." The group can only be as successful as the participants choose to make it.  Establishing a routine that moves quickly from one activity to the next, not allowing "down time," is one method.  Listing on the blackboard the order of the pieces to be rehearsed, with the expectation that each student will prepare his/her music in the proper order immediately after taking the folder from the shelf (or slot).  While these suggestions do work, trying to start such a routine in the middle of the semester will probably be met with much negativity and will not be very successful.  However, If one begins on Day One with this sort of regimen, it will work! Best wishes as you share your love of making music with your students.
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on April 2, 2014 6:37am
Hi Jen,
Lots of people here have said many of the things I would say. Here's a few other suggestions I have:
My cooperating teacher this semester taught me something that works great at all levels. The students know what is expected of them, right? If they're not meeting this expectations, a simple "I will wait" goes a long way. You can't just say it casually, though, nor can you scream it. It has to be firm and honestly a little intimidating. Then, you wait until they do what is expected. Chances are everyone will stop and the room will be silent. If these chatty ladies continue their chatter, then is the point where you tell them you will speak with them after class. From there, it moves on to phone calls home, write ups, etc. Use it all as a teachable moment!
Additionally, establishing a relationship with your students goes a long way. I've just recently heard of the "two by ten" rule, but it's been something I've used for a while. The idea behind it is that you talk to students individually two minutes a day for ten days. This REALLY helps with students who are causing issues, as it helps them garner respect for you. Talk with these girls, get to know them, let them get to know you. If you can get students to trust and respect you, you can get them to do almost anything! I did this with a few of my high school students last term that were giving me issues. We found we shared a love of old records, punk rock, and Doctor Who. Even if you don't have that many things in common with your students, chances are just taking time to chat with them about things not related to class will change their whole view of you.
Lastly, a silly little classroom management thing I like to use is the "focus fox." I make a fox face with my hands by putting my thumb, middle, and ring finger together and sticking my pointer finger and pinky up. When the students see this, they know they are supposed to do the same with silence. It makes it a little more fun than saying "quiet down!" or something to that extent. Plus, students at every level are amused by it (though some will argue that it is a llama face, not a fox face). If you can weave humor into many of your classroom management at the middle school, it will keep things light and keep students coming back.
Hope this helps. Good luck to you!
on April 2, 2014 10:08am
There are awesome suggestions here!
Here are a couple of more ideas:
Overall most important factor:  Mutual respect that starts with you.  You are the adult.  If they sense you don't respect them or that you simply expect respect because you are an adult, you will lose them.  We have to be the leaders in the mututal respect circle.  It is KEY to our success as classroom managers.  If we don't model respect for the students, then none of the solutions I've written below will help.
1)  When they are talking, simply stand in front of them and wait.  Watch the talkers.  ...Careful not to use the evil eye...Just watch and wait.  Don't complain.  Don't call their names.  Don't humiliate or embarrass....simply watch.  Usually, other students will "shush" them as you wait.  The positive peer pressure is helpful.
2)  As you watch them, you should be documenting in your head exactly what is occurring.  Who is talking?  Where are the real issues?  When class is over, write down exactly what you saw.  "Jenny was turned around in her seat talking to Elizabeth while I was teaching.  When I stopped to wait for her to stop talking, it took 30 seconds"...for example.  Unemotional documenting...Just the facts.  Avoid things like "She is disrespectful and rude."  Be specific.
3)  Once you've gathered two or three specific non-emotional descriptions, pull Jenny aside.  When you pull her aside, do not make it a big deal about the fact that you are going to talk to Jenny by saying in front of the whole class "Jenny, I need to see you after class".  This will not set you up for success.  Instead, it will pit you against Jenny AND the class as a whole.  You should discreetly ask her to stay after.  Then, read the unemotional, clear descriptions to her.  "Jenny, these are some behaviors I've observed from you...."  Tell her it's not ok and that we need to find a solution together.  Tell her that her class participation grade has been lowered, and tell her that you are hopeful to be able to solve the issue with her so that you don't have to contact her parents, so it is important that we find the right solution.  "Would you like me to move your seat?", for example?  Get her invested in the solution.  Then, take the action you've decided upon.
4)  If the behavior continues, follow through by contacting the parents.  Again, be unemotionally specific when you speak to the parents. 
Parents are key.  So many teachers skip this step and jump to administrators.  This is a bad idea.  We must establish relationships first with the student and then with the parent.
Overall, what I've described above is a negative approach, but it is sometimes necessary.  More often, I use positive, public recognition in my classroom. For example, when I see a child sitting up straight, listening to every word, I throw a Starburst at the child and thank him publicly for his great posture or his attention.  Everyone around him jumps to attention.  
Establishing good, positive relationships with your students makes your classroom a much better place for learning.
These are just a few ideas.  Over the last year, I have written many more ideas on my blog and recorded classroom management videos on my YouTube Channel.  In them, I've tried to relay my philosophies to help other teachers who struggle with classroom management.
Also, my YouTube Channel with Sight Singing tips and Classroom Management ideas:
It takes a while to find our own personal classroom management style, but you can absolutely do it!   Be patient and don't beat yourself up when you don't get it right!  Just grow from it and move forward!
Dale Duncan
Find my step by step Sight Singing lessons for choirs with direct links to actual teaching examples and teaching tips:
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