Organizational Tips for Traveling Teachers

Here are some ideas and encouragement for traveling teachers.

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If you are a traveling teacher, you understand stress and pressure like no one else. Teaching is one of the most stressful jobs out there, and teaching in more than one location just heightens the difficulty of the job. It may not be an ideal situation, but there are tricks and tools you can use to make it a little easier.


Tip 1: Pick a “Home Base”

Humans naturally need a place that feels their own. When you are a traveling teacher, you must choose somewhere to keep your things and treat as your home base. This place should be somewhere you don’t have to share, even if it’s only a shelf in a closet. Even better if you get a whole desk or classroom all to yourself. Your home base is where you will keep your main teaching materials, make and receive phone calls, keep that extra sweater or pair of shoes, and attend staff meetings. It’s important that you feel included as a staff member in one of your buildings. Include yourself by assuming that staff messages, meetings, and initiatives at your home base all apply to you. Ask for your own phone. Or, ask the other teacher in the room if you can have that extension for receiving voice mails and placing calls. You need to have one phone number where people can leave a message and know you will receive it.


Tip 2: Know Your Rights

I am extremely grateful to live in a district with a strong teacher’s union. They promise traveling teachers a minimum of 30 minutes travel time. There have been occasions where a teacher was only given 25 minutes of travel time, and the local union reps worked with that teacher and the administrators to fix the problem. I also get reimbursed for the mileage I am required to drive between buildings. It is important that we know and defend our rights, because over-working and over-stressing yourself on an already¬†stressful job helps no one.

Tip 3: Have a Travel Bag

When I asked other teachers for their advice for this article, the most frequent suggestion I heard was to have a dedicated travel bag. This bag carries all the things you have to have with you at all times, such as your laptop, charging cables, seating charts, mileage reimbursement forms, etc.

pouch with cables

Cable carrier

Pamela B. from Minnesota suggested using a sturdy backpack with padded straps to ease the pressure on your back and shoulders. She also showed me a great idea: wrap all those little cables and cords in twist ties, cable wraps, or ponytail elastics, and store them all in one little pouch (photo above). Your charging cables, earbuds, and adapters stay organized and you always know where they are. Extra benefit: you always have an extra ponytail elastic in case of a bad hair day. ūüôā

Thirty One Bag

Top: “Fold-n-File” by Thirty-One. Bottom: “Zip-Top Organizing Utility Tote” by Thirty-One (with Fold-n-File inside)

Kelly K. from Wisconsin said she can’t live without her organizational bag from Thirty-One. She uses the “Fold-n-File” insert to hold all of her hanging files and file folders. It has sturdy walls and handles. It even has pockets on the outside for her markers and calculator. That fits inside her “Zip-Top Organizing Utility Tote” which can zip closed to protect files from rain and snow, has shoulder straps, and has extra pockets around the outside for pencil pouches, tuning forks, and spare recorder.

You will read below that I use digital seating charts. However, that doesn’t help when you have a substitute. I print off a full set of seating charts for all of my classes, from both schools, and have a copy at both schools. (Yes, I print seating charts for one school and keep them at the other school.) This way, there will always be an extra set available whether a substitute brings or doesn’t bring them when traveling between schools.

My final piece of advice for your travel bag is to update your mileage reimbursement form EVERY time you travel. I put it in the front of my travel folder, even in front of my seating charts, so I am guaranteed to see it. I make sure to fill it out before I go home for the day. It never fails: every time I try to remember mileage I didn’t write down, I remember it wrong. WRITE IT DOWN.

Tip 5: Digitize

Being¬†“transportable” is SO EASY with digital lessons. I unplug my laptop at one school, slide it in my bag, and open it up at the next school. My lesson plans, seating charts, behavior management, recordings, and lesson files are all there on the screen.

EXTENDED DISPLAY (1)I use what’s called “extended display” (a setting on my computer), so what the students see is different than what I see. I can have my lesson plan on the computer screen and¬†the visuals or behavior management system projected for the class (see photo above). The only things I carry with me, then, are the items that one school owns¬†and the other doesn’t.¬†So far this year, I’ve only had to carry a train whistle and some beanie babies. THAT’S IT.

Here’s my setup:
Computer: Apple MacBook Pro
Interactive White Board: SMART Board
Speakers: Ceiling-mounted
Recordings: iTunes
Lesson plans:
Seating charts: SMART Notebook file
Behavior management: “Scoreboard” SMART Notebook file
Visuals/Manipulatives: self-created SMART Notebook or Powerpoint files
Sheet music/notation:

I hope these tips have given you some ideas for ways to become more organized or just given you encouragement that you are on the right track. What is your best organizational strategy? Comment below!

Concert Themes

Thinking of themes for concerts is so tough! Here are some ideas to help jump-start your concert planning.

ConcertThemesWhy a theme?

The words “concert theme” strike fear into the hearts of many classically-trained music educators. They think, “If I have a theme, then I am not selecting educational¬†music for my students!” Or, “Themes breed fluff and novelty, not quality!” Having come from that school of thought in my undergraduate and graduate training, I would like to offer a different opinion: Themes can provide guidance, cohesiveness, and flow during concert planning and performances.

I am not theme-heavy in my concert programming. I prefer to think that quality music is quality music, whether there is a theme. However, I’ve found over the years that having a general theme guides my concert planning. It helps me find songs when I’m stuck, helps narrow down a long list of songs, informs my song order for the program, and can result in your concert being a powerful message. Think of this as… Theme Lite.

Here are some ideas for concert themes and some repertoire ideas to go along with each. Feel free to use any or all of them. I’d love to hear what you do with it! Do you have any repertoire suggestions to add? Leave a comment below with your ideas and favorite songs!

1. American Patchwork


Patchwork quilts are an important part of American history. Stitched together by the women who were the backbone of the family, quilts warmed toes on cold frontier nights, offered¬†soft comfort for broken hearts, told stories of happiness and struggle, and became treasured family heirlooms. Some quilts even contained coded messages during the days of the Underground Railroad. Drawing upon the concept of a patchwork quilt, this concert theme stitches together songs from America’s past and present, creating a tapestry of music.

Repertoire suggestions:
Corn Grinding Song – Traditional Native American

Silver the River РStephen Paulus. This lyrical song is one of those melodies that just flows out of your mouth. Paired with a soaring countermelody, your students will be thrilled with how mature they sound.

Hot Chocolate (from “Polar Express”) – arr. Roger Emerson. This fun song contains engaging rhythms and enough repetition to make it accessible. It lends itself well to riser choreography and can easily be choreographed by students.

The Cat Came Back – traditional. I created a simple ostinato accompaniment for Orff xylophones using la, so, fa, and mi on a descending pattern. The kids loved singing the song, and the accompaniment was low-pressure and easy to learn.

2. All Jazzed Up


Jazz is a distinctly American art form that has relationships to many other music genres. It’s an important style for kids to learn, and learning how to scat and improvise can build strong vocal skills in all areas of singing. Plus, it’s fun!

Repertoire suggestions:
Dancin’ on the Rooftop – Teresa Jennings (Score and choreography available in “Share the Music” Grade 6). It’s a great song to teach kids about form because it is a rondo. The C section has a scat echo, helping kids learn scat vocabulary in a non-threatening environment.

Sing (from “Sesame Street”) – Joe Raposo, arr. Steve Zegree. This unexpected arrangement takes the childhood classic “Sing” and sets it with some jazz rhythms and scat interludes. Students who are new to scat will need to go over the scat phrases slowly and with many repetitions, but they will be really happy with the results!

Mosquito Blues – Martha E. Burgess. Okay, so blues isn’t jazz, but they are related. This tongue-in-cheek ditty has your students lamenting the presence of those small birds we call mosquitoes. The song ends with a satisfying SWAT!

3. Through the Seasons


This concert represents the four seasons. I did three songs from each season, and 12 songs ended up being a really long concert. I would reduce it to 8-10 songs if I were to do it again.

Repertoire suggestions:
Spring: Singin’ in the Rain – Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown (Available in “Share the Music” Grade 4)

Summer: Red Dragonfly (“Akatombo”) – traditional Japanese. The harmony part was collected by Julie Schramke at Concordia Language Villages Mori No Ike.

Fall: Skin and Bones – Traditional (Available in “Share the Music” Grade 1). It’s fun to see the audience jump when the singers shout, “Boo!”

Winter: Yuki – Japanese school song (Available in “Share the Music” Grade 3)

4. A Winter Spectacular


I have students who don’t celebrate Christmas, and I don’t want them to feel alienated in any way in my classroom or my concerts. It’s been a challenge coming up with winter concerts that will satisfy the Christmas parents while still respecting those who don’t celebrate Christmas. This concert theme¬†touches everyone by representing all winter holidays.

Repertoire suggestions:
Winter Fantasy – Jill Gallina. This arrangement of¬†“Jingle Bells” adds a super fun, energetic countermelody!

Kitty for a Present – Teresa Jennings, from Music K-8, Vol. 23, No. 2. This hilarious song is appropriate for people of all backgrounds because virtually every winter holiday includes gift-giving of some sort: Eid, Kwanzaa, Chinese New Year, Hmong New Year, etc.

S’vivon – Valerie Shields. This song is about the dreidl game. The text is repetitive enough for students to learn the Hebrew. It’s especially fun when sung with an accelerando!

5. O Colored Earth


For this concert, I wanted to bring together songs from around the world. I especially wanted to represent the students in my choir. I sent home a note asking students to interview their families about their heritages. I also included a section for parents to tell me about songs they know from their heritage. One girl’s mother is from China and was able to recall the text of a beautiful Chinese poem that turned out to be “Moh Lee Hwah.”

Repertoire suggestions:
O Colored Earth РSteve Heitzeg. This inspiring text is set to a mixed-meter melody that is surprisingly easy to learn and just makes your kids want to sing it. It is mostly unison with a few moments of 2-part harmony to help young singers on their journey to part singing. I emailed the composer to thank him for his understanding of the human voice and how to write music that is singable. The students were over the moon when he wrote back!

Ala Dalouna – Traditional Arabic. I created a simple accompaniment that students performed on drums, woodblocks, and finger cymbals, in imitation of traditional Arabic instruments. A small group sang the B section soli. The students helped me come up with simple choreography using scarves so the result was a stunning performance of a quite simple song.

Moh Lee Hwah – arr. Wayne Bisbee. This melody and counter-melody will take a little extra time to learn, but it is totally worth it. If you can get the boys hooked on this lyrical melody, they and your female singers will be thrilled with how they sound.

6. Peace on Earth


This is another solution to the Christmas concert dilemma. I included songs about peace, many of which have a holiday feel. I stuck in one Christmas song at the end with a peace countermelody.

Repertoire suggestions:
Peace Round – traditional (Available in “Share the Music” Grade 5). I had two students start singing¬†soli¬†alone on stage¬†and had the rest walk in in small groups and join singing in unison. When all were finally on the risers, we split into the round. It was a really powerful demonstration of how peace has to start with each individual before it can spread to the whole world.

Dona Nobis Pacem – traditional. This round was pretty difficult for my 4th and 5th graders to learn, so I’d definitely encourage lots of repetition and unison singing before attempting the round.

Peace, Peace – Rick and Sylvia Powell. This beautiful countermelody to Silent Night is only available in SATB. I just dropped the tenor and bass lines. I taught the whole choir how to sing “Stille Nacht” in German and we added a verse of that in the middle. At the end, I had them split into three groups, with one group singing Silent Night in English, one group singing the soprano countermelody, and one group singing the alto countermelody.

7. Words of Wisdom


All of the songs in this concert contain advice. Setting good advice to music is a great way for your students to remember it.

Repertoire Suggestions:
Mama Says (from “Footloose”) – Dean Pitchford. This hilarious song parodies the advice of a mama who’s “got marbles missin’.” It’s difficult to learn and the piano/vocal score is different than the original Broadway cast recording, but it is do-able. Best start learning this one early. “Mama says don’t use a toaster while standing in the shower. Now who can argue with that?…”

Won’t You Sing Along – Daniel Kallman. This song speaks to the child’s heart without being childish. It’s a sweet reminder of how important music is. And it contains my favorite: an audience sing-along! This is the song that teachers email me about, complaining that students are singing during class. Hee hee *devilish grin*

Good Fight – Unspoken. This is one of those cool songs that makes boys love being in choir. It’s a male group and has a really catchy beat. I couldn’t find a karaoke version, so I just played the iTunes version¬†with vocals and had the kids sing along. It was a hit for singers and audience alike.

This Little Light of Mine РTraditional. My accompanist and I composed-slash-improvised a driving gospel arrangement of this song. It definitely was not the Kindergarten version you learned in Sunday School. We ended with an acapella verse with hand claps and it was amazing.

8. Here Comes the Sun


These songs are all about sun, daytime, or daylight. It’s a good reminder to stay positive because no matter what happens, a new day will dawn in the morning.

Repertoire Suggestions:
Here Comes the Sun – The Beatles. There is a karaoke track for kids on iTunes that is pitched slightly higher than the original, making it much better for children’s voices. I’d suggest having your singers practice with the original and the karaoke track because some of the entrance cues are misleading.

Day-O – Traditional (Available in “Share the Music” Grade 3)

Miss Mary Ann – Traditional (Available in “Share the Music” Grade 5)

Yonder Come Day – Georgia Sea Islands, arr. Judith Cook Tucker

9. My Planet, Your Planet


This is actually a revue from Plank Road Publishing. I came up with a storyline about aliens who came to Planet Earth because their planet is filled with garbage and they can’t live there anymore. The aliens teach the Earthlings how to “go green” before it is too late¬†and our planet fills up with garbage, as well. I added in a rap I wrote called “Recycle Rap.” The students created instruments out of household trash and accompanied themselves on a simple rap about how to recycle.

Repertoire Suggestions:
My Planet, Your Planet – Teresa Jennings

It’s Easy Bein’ Green – Teresa Jennings, arr. Paul Jennings

Agents of Change – Teresa Jennings

10. Lighten Up!


This is another revue from Plank Road Publishing. The nice thing about Plank Road is they give you permission to modify their revues as necessary. You can pick and choose which songs you want to use and supplement with your own. I used about half of the songs from the revue and added the following.

Repertoire Suggestions:
Zoo Illogical – Clare Grundman. These short Ogden Nash-style poems are lighthearted and witty. Great for older elementary singers because they are melodically challenging and will help you emphasize the importance of good diction. After all, if the audience can’t understand the words, they won’t get the joke!

I’ve Lost My Homework – Marta Keen. This hilarious song lists just about every excuse anyone could think of for not doing their homework. Great opportunities for choreography and props (think ripped up paper thrown into the air on the word “confetti”, followed by two students comically crossing the stage with push brooms).

The Thing – Charles R. Grean (Available in “Share the Music” Grade 5). The singer in this song finds a box¬†containing¬†a–well, you never find out what it is–and he just can’t get rid of it. The final verse is a little risque: “Get out of here with that¬†(knock knock knock) and take it down below!” The 5th graders were scandalized and thrilled that they got to sing about THAT.

11. Positive


Yes, another Plank Road revue. This concert reminds students to think positively. In a world full of dangers and evil, it’s easy for kids to get caught up in everything that’s wrong. They need a fun reminder that even when things are difficult, your attitude makes all the difference.

Repertoire suggestions:
What I Am – Will.I.Am. From “Sesame Street,” available on YouTube. For the concert, I just played the audio from the YouTube video and had the kids sing along with it. It’s a great song, fun to sing, with a great message.

Mumble, Grumble – Minnie O’Leary (Available in “Share the Music” Grade 2). Kids get to complain in this song! Though it’s not necessarily a happy happy joy joy song, it’s a good reminder that even when things are not fun, “you don’t have to like it, but it’s gotta be done.”

Think Good Thoughts РTeresa Jennings. Professional choreography available on My small group of dancers looked really talented performing the dance moves they taught themselves by watching the choreography video.

12. Americana


A patriotic theme is appropriate all year long! There’s always some national holiday coming around the corner and you can easily adapt this theme to fit your circumstances.

Repertoire Suggestions:
America (My Country, ’tis of Thee) – Words by Samuel Francis Smith, music attributed to Henry Carey

America the Beautiful – Words by Katharine Lee Bates, music by Samuel Ward

This Land is Your Land – Woody Guthrie

The Star-Spangled Banner – words by Francis Scott Key, music by John Stafford Smith

One Nation – Teresa Jennings

Johnny Has Gone for a Soldier – Traditional. This lilting lament will probably not leave a dry eye in the house. Especially appropriate for Memorial Day or Veteran’s Day.

Thanks for reading! What themes or pieces have been your favorites? Leave your answer in the comments below!

Concert Themes

Back-to-School 2015

Here are three great new ideas for Back-to-School 2015!

1. Personality Bingo

Personality Bingo ImageI print off 4×4 bingo sheets¬†with different descriptors in each box. The descriptors includes statements such as, “Someone who is colorblind.” “Someone who has never broken a bone.” “Someone with braces.” Everyone in the room gets the same sheet. You walk around the room and ask people about themselves. When you find someone with a characteristic that matches one ofthe boxes, you hand them your paper and have them sign their name in the box. You continue until most people’s sheets are full. This activity is great because it involves both the extroverted and introverted students. The extroverted students love the chance to walk around and talk to everyone in an unstructured environment. The introverted students appreciate that they only have to talk to one person at a time and that the conversation topics are already provided. You can easily make your own or you can take a look at this one I’ve already made for you.

2. Beethoven Grab Bag

BGBCoverWrite different fun facts about Beethoven (include both true and false!) on small cards or pieces of paper. Fold them and put them in a paper lunch bag decorated with music notes. Hold the bag out to a student, have him or her draw a card, read it out loud, and guess if the statement is true or false. The more unique the facts you include, the more fun the kids will have! I would include about 16 cards for a class of 25. You can put the cards back in the bag and allow them to be read more than once so that everyone gets a turn, or you can just let 16 kids have a turn and do it again the next class period as a review, letting the remaining kids have a turn. If you don’t have the time to make it yourself, check out this one I made for you. There are 18 true/false cards, 18 question/answer cards (with the same facts as the T/F cards), blank cards for you to make your own, clip art for decorating your bag, and ideas for other fun games. Try “Beethoven in a Nutshell”: Put the facts in a helmet (the “nutshell”) and have kids compete for points in a team game!

3. Beethoven Poke Sheet

PSBCover.001This amazingly fun activity allows, no, REQUIRES kids to POKE HOLES in their paper! My room is carpeted and kids have been doing this for years. I’ve only just now realized I can make it into a fun, productive activity! The worksheet is filled with true and false statements about Beethoven (the same ones I’ve included in my Beethoven Grab Bag) next to black dots. The students select the correct answer by poking their pencil through the paper on the black dot. On the back of the page, correct answers (holes) reveal the code to a secret message. If they do the assignment correctly, they will get the message! It was time-consuming to create but I know it’s going to be a hit.