Monday, July 2, 2018

Classroom Transitions Made Easy: The Power of the Clean-Up Song

Transitions. They can be a real pain, right? Whether you want to transition from one activity to another, bring everyone back to their seats for a reflection session, or just clean up from an incredibly messy activity, we need a clear way to show students that it's time to move on.

But the worst way to transition is to nag at students. "Get this cleaned up!" or "Be sure to look for paper scraps under your chairs!" or "I want this room spotless!"--ugh, I've heard so many rude and disrespectful things that teachers say again and again and again to try to manage the clean-up process.

The clean-up song, a trick that I learned from Responsive Classrooms, is a way to get kids actively involved in the transition without having to nag. In fact, once the process has been taught, I find myself saying nothing at all. Adults in the classroom are frequently amazed by how smoothly the students orchestrate the transition. I just smile and wave a hand and deflect the praise to how wonderful my students are.

Make a playlist of clean-up songs

I have a playlist with songs of 2 minutes, 3 minutes, 4 minutes, and 5 minutes. I deploy each one depending on how much we've made! After building our Mars rovers, believe me that I needed a 5 minute song. If kids are just scattered around the room, reading, though, we often only need 2 minutes to get back together.

It's important to choose a song that will comfortably allow enough time for clean up. The purpose is not to make students feel anxious or rushed. Instead, it's to provide a musical timer for the transition.

Some teachers say, "I'm going to let my students choose the songs!" Well, okay, but I need to choose songs for myself that I can handle listening to again and again and again. The transition period is often the most stressful part of the class, as students will drop things and spill things and ask a million questions, and if there's a song playing that grates on my nerves, it just makes things worse.

Teach the routine

I start with the clean-up song from the very first day of school. It goes along perfectly with introducing some awesome classroom supplies--like math templates and colored pencils--and, when it's time to clean up, introducing the song and explaining what it means.

"By the end of this song, we'll have everything cleaned up! What can we do to make this happen?"

I always emphasize that no one is done until everyone is done. That is, if you have cleaned up your area, help someone else!

After our first experience with the routine, we debrief and discuss the results. Did we accomplish the clean up in the amount of time? What could we do to improve? I write down our comments and display them again before the next transition.

I always start with just one song, and then slowly introduce the others. Being familiar with the clean-up song is important, because it causes students to pay attention to it and know when it is just about over.

Hold students accountable

I don't mean this in a disrespectful, "You're in trouble!" way. Instead, we're all accountable for keeping our classroom a pleasant place to be. Depending on how students respond, you can use these accountability measures:
-Reflection after the clean-up: With some groups, it's enough to say, "We didn't meet our goal. Why not?" and discuss it. Just the disappointment of not following through is enough.
-Preferred Activity Time: If you use this management tool from Fred Jones, the addition or subtraction of time from the bank is a super-easy way to add accountability.
-Time to sit before recess/another activity: I use this incredibly sparingly, not even once per school year, but it's effective and helps everyone understand the importance of working together. Whatever time we spend cleaning up after the song is over is taken from recess. Now, before you hate me for taking away recess, know that I never let the time progress past one minute for this, and I am always prompt with recess dismissal, never going past time for "one more thing." (In fact, I take kids out early at least once per week, just because we get everything finished and are ready to go!) We usually we clock in at 22 seconds or so late to recess, which is enough time to help kids understand that I am serious. Paired with my usual habit of taking kids out a minute or so early, this is very effective.

Don't intervene

Once the initial teaching period is done, I withdraw from the transition time. I'll answer the questions that inevitable come up, but I don't offer advice or nag. It's the students' job to get this done, and I need to show that I have confidence in them! (Sometimes the students specifically ask me to help with something and this is such awesome initiative that of course I do.)

Post clear directions for the end

I'm not sure why so many teachers are resistant to doing this. Want your classroom to go more smoothly? Put directions on the board. I have to teach kids to look at the board and read what is there.

Usually I write simple directions, like "Get out your science notebook and write three questions you have about hurricanes." Sometimes the directions tell students to move into the next part of class, like "Pull out your independent reading book" or "Be ready for Quizlet Live".

So that's it! A simple routine, a little of teaching at the start, and you too can amaze your colleagues and administrators by having kids clean up without saying anything at all.

So here are my favorite songs:

These first three songs are the ones that I've used for at least 10 years. That's right, ten+ years of transitions! I used to have these burned to a CD that I played from my bulky desktop. 

If I Had a Million Dollars: Bare Naked Ladies
At 4:26, this song is perfect for longer transitions. Plus, the lyrics are interesting and keep students listening. ("Mrs. Kissner, why is a green dress cruel?") I can tell you that after 15 years of using this as a clean-up song, I still don't mind it.

Stand: REM
This classic is just about 3 minutes, and kids tolerate it pretty well. It has a nice key change toward the end that signals to students that the song is almost over, and it's pretty awesome to watch as everyone's movements become a little faster at this point.

Istanbul: They Might Be Giants
This one is just 2:33 and starts off super quietly, but your kids will be dancing by the end. And hey, it teaches geography! And history! Kind of...

Some other favorites

These are songs that I've added recently or by student request.

Dirty Paws: Of Monsters and Men
I have this song on a different playlist of quiet songs, and a student asked for me to use it as a clean-up song. At 4:38, it's a great addition to the list.

Loch Lomond: Dan Zanes and Natalie Merchant
For some reason I ended up using this song a lot during math class at the end of the day. I just need something peaceful and quiet, and this is a beautiful adaptation of the classic song.

I've Got a Dream: Tangled Soundtrack
It's funny, it's surprising, it has a great sing along video, and I like it.

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