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Classroom Groups with Craft Sticks

A day in the life of an elementary music teacher can involve 6-10 different classes of students varying in age from 5 to 12 years old.  It can involve hundreds of decisions, dozens of songs, a hand full of negotiations and more strategies for classroom management than you can shake a maraca at.  I find that streamlining some of the transitions gives me more precious time with my students and eliminates just enough whining and chaos to make my days more enjoyable.

Today I’m going to share with you one of my favorite tools for assigning groups, singing parts, partners or picking someone to give me an answer – CRAFT STICKS!

Many moons ago when I was but a fresh faced teaching newbie I struggled with transitions from whole group time to small group time or partner work.  Just saying “pick a partner” seemed like the quickest, easiest thing to do.  Yeah.  I know.  You are already shaking your head at my naivety, aren’t you? 

What happens when you say something like that?  The two most popular kids are swarmed by every single kid in the class and the three quiet or eccentric kids kind of float away from the group and try to hide behind the piano or in a corner far away from Pick a Partner Land.  At this point, no matter what I say the classroom just gets louder and louder.  Drama Queen starts to cry.  Angry Albert punches someone who doesn’t want to be his partner.  Sticky Steve has touched every single person in the class with his syrupy hands that haven’t been washed since breakfast.  And honestly, this would be the exact moment that my principal would pop in for a walk-through evaluation.

So first I developed a classroom signal to get everyone’s attention and make the chaos just stop.  I clap ta ta titi ta and they echo it back.  No, it is not original, but it works.  Next I pondered and prayed and  thought about strategies that I could use to eliminate that chaos and wasted time.  When you only have 50 minutes a week, losing 5 minutes to transition into groups is just unacceptable. 

I must admit that I tried several things that I really hated.  I tried having them turn to the row in front of behind them to find their new partner.  I sorted them by boys and girls, by the color of shirt they were wearing by the order they appeared in my room.  I tried just counting them off and creating groups that way.  I assigned everyone a number and a group and tried to keep track of that all year.  Hated all of that.

Don’t get me wrong.  Some of it worked some of the time.  A few of the things I tried worked every time, but I struggled with those days when I needed them to transition from a whole group to partners and then to small groups and then to 2 groups.  That seems like a lot, right?  I really enjoy using a variety of activities and some weeks it just worked out like that.

Hello popsicle sticks.

Err…craft sticks.  Whatever.

Sitting on my couch one evening I realized that I could create ONE tool that would help me quickly divide students into groups of varying size without having to take the time to count or pre-plan.  I took craft sticks (the larger flatter kind work best) and set about putting symbols, colors, rhythm patterns, instrument names and MORE on these little wooden pieces of gold.

First of all, I numbered the sticks.  This helped me if I wanted to take out the extra sticks for smaller classes.  I made 34 sticks.  My largest class was 27.  I had a few back-ups just in case someone sneezed on one or stuffed it in their ear or mouth or something unacceptable.  The number allowed me to divide the group into odd or even.  Awesome.

Hmmm.  The kids caught on to my other tricks quickly so I didn’t want them to anticipate that would be the only way I would pick partners.  I needed more.  I added another way to divide the group in two:  treble clef and bass clef.

To divide the group into 3 I drew a quarter note, quarter rest of barred eighth notes at the tip of a craft stick.  I did these in order.  #1 was a quarter note, #2 was a quarter rest, #3 was barred eighth notes, and so on.  This helped me keep things even.

To divide into 4 groups I wrote the instrument families on the sticks:  brass, woodwind, percussion and strings.

Suddenly it hit me!  I could use these group sorters for learning activities too!  What if I said “If you have a stick with the family name that the trumpet belongs to, line up.”

To divide into 5 groups I added colored dot alternating 5 different colors.

Next I added rhythm patterns.  I created the rhythms simple enough so that I could use them with 1st through 6th grades.  Each rhythm pattern could be found on two sticks.  If I had a few extra minutes in class I could say “Find the person that has the same 4 beat rhythm pattern as you.  Clap the pattern and stand beside each other.”  A few more minutes and I might say “Find 3 other people that have different rhythms than you and make a pattern of 4 measures.”

At this point, I still had just a little bit of space left on these wooden warriors of the classroom.  I decided that adding instrument names would be my last addition.  I added the names of instruments of all 4 instrument families.  For my third graders who reviewed instrument families all second semester, this gave me lots of options for grouping, identifying instruments, sorting by family, spelling instrument names and more.

I tried them out the next day.  Magic!  I never really used them with every class, every day, but they came in handy several times a week.  Eventually students started asking for them.  They liked the spontaneity and randomness they brought to class.

The pictures that I have are of one of my older sets.  You can see that there is just a little bit of bleeding due to the markers that I used.  In my newest set (that I do not have pictures of-sorry!) I used Sharpies which bled much less.  Applying a clear coat or a light coat of a light color of paint would probably prevent this completely.


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  1. I love this idea!

    My first teaching job was as a long term music sub in a middle school where they used jars with sticks with the student's names. Whlie it was great for calling on students, when I transitioned to elementary, there was no way I was going to keep 20 cans of sticks around! Next year I am going to try a name selector app for calling on students, but these sticks will be just the thing for making groups. Great idea!

  2. This is epic! I'm totally making those before I go back.

  3. Tracy,
    I LOVE this idea! One question: what do your students do with the sticks during their activities? I appreciate all of your awesome advice and your wonderful ideas. I use soooooo many of them!

    1. Usually just carry it around with them or if they are in groups they will put them in the middle of the circle. I made extras because I expected that I might have some kids chew on them or put them in their ears or something (ew!), but I didn't ever really catch anyone doing that. I usually have kiddos line up by the number that they have on their stick so that I can make sure I have all of them.

  4. I did something like that except with cards. I used different music concepts to make grouping of various sizes!

  5. Do students grab these on their way into class?

    1. Usually. It if is a day that I know we won't use them until later then I will pass them out during class. It saves time if they get one on the way in even if they don't use it until later.

  6. I love this!! I bought a bunch of colored rubber bracelets to divide into groups, but I found that the kids either didn't want to wear them, or they'd try to keep them, or worse: fling them across the room. Ugh!!!! There's so much learning happening with yours!! One question... So is the only way they get a partner with matching the rhythms? I understand how you do all of the groups. But I was laughing about your description of kids getting partners... So true!!

    1. Well, I tried to be sneaky when using them. Sometimes I would say "Numbers 1, 2 ,3 and 4 you are a group." Once they were in a group I would say "even numbers are partners". LOL. The kids always audibly sighed when I mixed it up like that!

  7. Quick clarifying question. The instrument names you wrote, did they correspond with the family on the other side of the stick? (i.e. one said says strings and the other says violin) Thanks!

  8. They did not. Sometimes I grouped by instrument family name and others by size of instrument, number of letters in the instrument name, or just called out the instrument name to line up.

  9. Thank you thank you thank you! Last year was the first year I ever taught elementary in the past I taught on a high school or middle school setting where I saw the same kids all the time. Seeing 15 different classes a week, after this last year, I knew I needed to do something with popsicle sticks. I was going to just do their numbers for the class list (many of the teachers assign the students things that way already) but this is soooo much better! Now to go buy my popsicle sticks :)