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I Got Plenty of Nuttin'

Teaching music with no resources? How do you teach without text books, instruments, equipment or technology of any kind? This blog post explores ways to get what your students need to be successful by Martha Stanley.

Today's blog post is written by the extraordinary Martha Stanley, MME, NBCT EMC-MUSIC, 2002, 2012 (recently retired and currently rested).

   Twice in my 43 year career I have walking into teaching situations where there was very nearly nothing to work with, first in Florida and later in Arkansas. Both times I built a program and acquired materials and left those positions in far better shape than I found them.  I did have a decent budget, but it wasn’t sufficient, so I had to hustle to get what my students needed.  Since financing is always an issue, resourceful teachers find work-arounds.  
This article is intended to give you some ideas of things you might do to get things you need for your program.

My main reasons for success were based on five main activities.

1.  I kept my eyes open for what I wanted. Literally - I looked around. When I saw something that would be helpful, I took some appropriate action to secure it. It didn’t always work, but it sometimes I got great stuff like a LED projector on a cart and a class set of iPads.
2.  I asked around for what I wanted and for advice on how to get it. Many people knew things I wished I knew and when I asked them, I got great answers. Don’t be shy.
3.  I was active in my teaching peer-groups which put me in contact with people and situations that could be beneficial. This was possibly the most important aspect of my success. So, in answer to the question, “Should I join my professional groups?  They are soooo expensive,”  I wholeheartedly say, “YES.”
These groups included my local and state NAfME, Orff and union/professional groups. It also included being active in online music education groups.  I started the first online music ed bulletin board in Florida back in the 80’s.  There I met Artie Almeida and Laurie Zentz - good company, yes?  By going to conferences, I met well-known experts and authorities and quizzed them for ideas. I did one a favor and it has been returned ten-fold.  By being active online at Music K8 and much later Facebook, I met and have been enriched by Tracy King and many others.   By belonging to groups, I became aware of opportunities that turned into benefits for my students.    I did presentations locally, at state and national conferences and connected to a lot of people I knew only online. When I volunteered to re-do the Florida Elementary Music Education Association’s website, it connected me to the movers and shakers of the state level officers.  I suspect that was the beginning of why I was selected to be the Florida Music Educator Of the Year in 2009.  By putting myself in these places and situations, I was able to make nationwide (and one international) connections that paid off in free materials and more.
4.  I was willing to spend other people’s money for training in many things that are not necessarily music oriented.  But I saw how to transfer the learning into my teaching and as a result, I got knowledge and skills in topics that one wouldn’t normally expect a music teacher to have. Frequently, materials were offered as part of the training.  When federal funds were paying classroom teachers to participate in how to develop effective classroom groups, I insisted and badgered the administrators until they let me, a mere music teacher, join. I eventually turned that into my major paper for my master’s degree. I made sure I was in every technology opportunity offered to classroom teachers, even when it was initially offered only to classroom teachers. When national board teachers were invited to participate in a train-the-trainers course in Systematic Vocabulary Instruction, I rushed at the chance. Music teachers have vocabulary to teach, right?  I taught SVI at two schools and developed material for their classroom use that I was able to use in my music classrooms.  When I participated in union and staff development councils, I was sent to conferences on their dimes.   When an internship after completing Orff Level III was offered to me, I took it. All of these trainings impacted my students in positive ways, but I had to be open to the advancement and be willing to take it when it came along. These activities also connected me to people and programs that offered materials, grants and future contacts. And honestly, it showed that music teachers are more than “just music teachers.”
5.  I was willing to write grants. Yes, it’s a chore, but it sure honed both my ability to state succinctly what my students needed and also my ability to justify it to the grant readers, principals and other funders. I learned how to advocate for my program’s wants and needs and this helped convince others to give support.  My programs have been significantly improved by 12-15 grants - I’m not sure. I’ve lost track.   
           I stayed at the front of any new movements coming along, musical, classroom and technology, usually through being active in groups, and found that classroom teachers often failed to write grants which left me the opening to do so.  There are a lot of opportunities to get funding when you tap into classroom projects. For example, I got small percussion instruments which I used as wonderful adjuncts to a poetry writing unit.  When PowerPoint was the new thing, I figured out how to use it at school in new ways and got a big screen TV before projectors and flat screens were common. When Orff first came into my life, I figured out how I could get instruments (my first grant). Basically, I figured out what I wanted in my room and then dovetailed it into a grant somehow. You can do that too. Think creatively.

For what it’s worth, here are my biggest tips for writing a grant.  

  • Point out what your students CANNOT presently do because they don’t have the “thing” the grant is for. Figure out how to state what your students COULD do if you got the money for the grant. NEVER write it for how it will make YOUR life better even if that’s your main reason for writing the grant.  Make it about students, not you.
  • Don’t whine to me about how hard it is to do the paperwork and follow-up that may be required. Write it so that it’s realistic for you to do.  Don’t whine about how fake the project may be….”I’ll only do this for one year.”  YES!   One year to make your grant-funders happy and forever after, you do it YOUR way.
  • Figure out how it fits into something larger than your curriculum.  Twist your brain around until you can come up with how the students will benefit.
  • I used “assessment” as a hook more than once, for example. What education grantor can be against better assessment?? I included it as part of my professional growth plan as well to add more appeal to any grant I might want to write and because I was truly interested in doing better assessment. Without the grant object I wanted (a portable dry erase magnet board once and clickers/individual responders another time), my students would not be able to have effective individual assessment. Without the grant object (which just coincidentally was a wonderful thing for me - wink wink), they could not get high quality, tailored feedback that would inform my targeted instruction. Do you see how I used educational wording? So the hook was great for for the kids and I got things I drooled for.  Authentically and legitimately.  The grant readers, rarely music educators, could identify with the “assessment” and “targeted instruction” pitch a lot better than one that targeted getting kids to read staff notation better. (Yawn.) And in MY brain, how it played out in the classroom was going to look exactly the same either way plus it looked quite professional since it responded to my professional growth plan.
This is sometimes crazy-making, but it’s good for you and it’s really good for your students.

So with those five points in mind, I’d like to share what my no-cost materials acquisition process looked like in the real world, my last teaching assignment.  It was five years at two teeny, impoverished, rural north central Arkansas Title 1 schools where I had a total of 400 students and I taught K-12, instrumental and choral classes. I found a single box of crappy, pre-k type instruments to use for both schools. There was a collection of the previous 5 years of Music K8, Activate and Music Express, 5 keyboards, 2 bad boomboxes for sound. A nice piano at both schools was a pleasant surprise. I also discovered 52 VHS tapes that were clearly heavily used. One school supplied me with a new laptop. That, ladies and gentlemen, was the sum total of what the schools offered me to work with.

Materials acquisition became a high priority. Did I say that in an understated way or what?  As you read through the following, notice which “reason for success” or combination from above is being used.

Here is what I did to get free stuff.

  • I begged.  I got free buckets from a grocery store bakery, enough for both schools to do drumming.  The shop teachers furnished and cut up a bathroom wall board and I got 32 mini-white boards which I used extensively.
  • I whined.  One principal gave me the computer sound system right off his work computer. It was nice!  A community member who wished to be anonymous bought 30 ukuleles.
  • I went through the district technology dump rooms. More than once.  I found some truly uninspiring computer speakers that worked and voila, I had a classroom sound system. I also found a huge cork bulletin board and a smaller bulletin board which I had installed.
  • I searched every vacant room and closet for whatever I could find.  I found a projector on a roll-around cart and claimed it. I asked about the Smart Board that I’d seen just sitting around. It was being used as a room divider!  I asked every teacher in the building and no one wanted it, so I claimed it. I had to set it up, contact the company for software and do everything because it was the only IWB in either school and no one else knew anything about interactive whiteboards.  And it became MINE. All mine! (Insert evil laugh here.) It completely transformed my ability to deliver instruction.
  • I schmoozed the custodial and maintenance staff for anything I didn’t have.  They helped me get a dry erase marker board for one school, batteries for the clocks which I had to provide, and a whole lot of information about what was stashed where that came in helpful along the way. They came up with tables, shelving units, storage cabinets and file cabinets. Bless them.
  • I asked all the teachers for their ideas of what was available.  They knew things I didn’t about how to get supplies. I got a set of multi-fix cubes for composition and rhythm dictation from the math teacher. One teacher knew where a set of risers, unusable unfortunately, was in the tech dump room. One knew where there was a magnet dry-erase board and I got permission to get it, but we got a new principal who nixed that idea.
  • I used personal equipment.  No surprise there.
  • I wrote DonorsChoose grants. I got a Bose computer speaker that was great. I got a set of temple blocks for the high school drumline.
Teaching music with no resources? How do you teach without text books, instruments, equipment or technology of any kind? This blog post explores ways to get what your students need to be successful by Martha Stanley.

  • I checked with the other music teachers in the district and was able to get a conga drum for each school which I used a lot for movement and creative activities.
  • I was offered a complete set of usable risers from a teacher in a neighboring district and was not able to accept them because neither school would provide a storage space.  Sigh…...
  • I made friends with the tech people and tried to be interested, cooperative and supportive. I got quick fixes on tech issues and expert advice when I needed it. They helped me find equipment, carts, projectors, cords, plugs, and such so I could use the tech skills and knowledge that I’d built up over the years.  Once, in the tech office, I saw a pile of unopened iPads in boxes which sat there for quite awhile.  I asked about them.  There was, unbelievably, no plan for them.  I already knew how to use them better than anyone else in the school, so out of the goodness of my heart and my desire to use school resources to the max, I volunteered to use them in my classes and suddenly I had 10 iPads, a workable class set, at my disposal. I could have asked for more, but my conscience wouldn't let me.
  • I queried the school secretaries about everything to do with purchasing and schedules. They’re the ones who knew who the piano tuner was and what programs I was expected to set up and the workarounds I needed for all kinds of situations. They found me office supplies when others went without.
  • Before I moved, I was allowed to take some of the material I’d gotten through Florida grants with me including a generous set of Boomwhackers, which turned out to save my hide with high schoolers.
Teaching music with no resources? How do you teach without text books, instruments, equipment or technology of any kind? This blog post explores ways to get what your students need to be successful by Martha Stanley.

  • I had also volunteered to be on the Florida state textbook selection committee one year and got to keep the Share The Music teacher editions and support material that I reviewed, including the CDs. They were my only curriculum CDs in my new schools. Volunteering is a good thing.  Lots of useful payoffs come your way when you do.
  • I “cashed in” with amazing people I’d never met face to face who offered help.  As a result of being active online and in my state music education community (NAfME and Orff mostly), I knew a lot of people in my old state, my new state and over the nation.  These contacts were tremendously helpful in many ways as I worked to improve my new situation.  It was wonderful to have people I knew well online in my new state who could coach me about the differences in the two school cultures.  Laws, staff development issues, requirements that were totally new to me gave me fits but I had music people to help me out.  In my district, nobody knew much about how to feed and nourish a outsider music teacher.
  • I continued to whine online on Music K-8 (what a Godsend that site is), my go-to my online support community since 2003.  People generously started sending me things unsolicited! I was so humbled and grateful.
  • A well-known international music educator from Canada offered me a slew of materials left over from a conference.  We had created a good working relationship over the years and she pretty much saved me.  
  • A teacher from New York sent MIOSM stickers annually and a classroom set of recorders.
  • Another Arkansas teacher convinced her assistant principal who was visiting my area to bring me a complete set of old but really good Share The Music books.  Another sent a second set so I had a set per school.
  • A former Florida colleague sent me a pile of choral material.
  • TeachersPayTeachers was just getting started well and teachers asked me for feedback on their products pre-publication in exchange for keeping the materials.  I got some incredible resources that way. (Yes, Tracy King, I’m talking about you.)
  • While I was at a ArkMEA conference, I saw some flyers, just lying abandoned on a table in a hallway, for intriguing looking materials from a new Australian music materials publishing company. I remembered them when I saw their Facebook entries.  When they asked for volunteers, my hand was first to be raised. I got to try out and give feedback on several modules which turned out to be fabulous. And I got to keep the materials.
  • I researched online for free materials. I was especially strapped for high school instrumental material.
    I found keyboard material but I ended up needing to tweak it so much for my unique groups of students that it wasn’t very useful.  However, I discovered that bucket drumming was great for my middle and high school students. It didn’t take too long into the first semester before I was scrambling for age-appropriate material.  It had to be free and specialized for my students.  I found freedrumlinemusic.com! We ended up using it, with heavy adaptations, for a successful semester course which I taught three times.  
  • I also read Music K8 and Facebook music forums where people would mention free apps and I used apps to find free iPad apps.   I collected many freebies which I installed on the iPads.
  • Later, one school bought a pass at iTunes for iPad apps which could be downloaded to school iPads with a special password.  Few teachers took advantage of it so I asked if I could use the allowance.  I ended up spending quite a bit of money on big-time apps and got some fabulous music apps for the music iPads. With my unique curricular needs in middle and high school, some of the apps were wonderful for small group work in composition and research.  

All these little things accumulated until there was quite a bit of material added to the music program with no cost.  It did take willingness to put out some effort, to be an active part of professional associations, to read online material, to shake a few trees and do some work, but there was no cost for these things.  The program was being built.

My program was also supplemented by the budget provided, but don’t despair if you don’t have a lot of cash to spend.  Perhaps you can now see ways that you can augment your program after seeing what someone else did it with no cash.

Remember:  keep your eyes open, ask around, stay active and involved in professional activities, take advantage of training that may not be music-related,  and write those grants!
Good luck!
Martha is a happily retired music teacher, pursuing new activities and interests like gardening, playing old time/bluegrass music and studying herbalism. But she still has school dreams many nights.
She has been certified K-12 in music and gifted/talented in both Florida and Arkansas. Along with her MME and Orff Level III+ certification, she is National Board Certified, EMC-Music 2002 and 2012.
She was named Florida Music Educator of the Year in 2009.  

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  1. Amazing!! Thank you is not enough for what you always give, Martha! Your insight, passion, care, and simply sharing your gift of music is a true blessings!

  2. Hi ,You have great and quality music stuff on your blog , keep up the good work.

  3. I can't find Martha's blog! You have referenced her stuff (that you put in your music pack) and I cannot find it! Any solutions? Thanks!

    1. I am getting an error when I try to go there. There must be a problem with it. I'll post a link when it is back up.