3-5, Elementary Music, Lessons

What do I do with Fifth Graders? Lessons and Tips

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If you are a brand-new elementary music teacher, you might be thinking—what do I do with fifth graders? Well, even if you are not brand new, you may be thinking– what do i do with fifth graders?

If you haven’t started teaching yet, you may be confused. Let me explain.
We all know that the first year at a school is usually the hardest. On top of that, the oldest students in the school are usually the hardest. For most of us, that is fifth graders.

Why are they so difficult?

Well, the biggest thing is that they may not know you yet. They just met you. They only see you about once a week, and they do not trust you yet. I know that that stinks, but it is the truth. It takes a long time for the kids to get used to you and trust you. And this is even harder for the older students.

There is a saying, “Kids don’t care what you know until they know that you care.”
You may be thinking, Well that’s great, but what do I do NOW? Because I still have to teach them!

That’s what I’m here for.

This post is all about what to do with fifth graders when it comes to lessons. What do you actually teach them? Next week I will be posting again about how to deal with fifth grade behaviors.

Before we get started…..

We have to figure a few things out. The first thing is to figure out what the students already know. You may not be able to do this until the first few weeks of school, but it is so important. You need to know if what students know and what they are used to—singing, instruments, watching movies, doing worksheets… You would be amazed by how varied the student’s musical education can be before you get there.

How do you do that?

First, you want to look at your room. Obviously, if there is not a single instrument, they probably were not playing instruments. Or if the instruments have a one inch thick layer of dust on them, they were probably not playing instruments. If the instruments look well loved, then they may be more used to them.

Second, ASK. Ask the other teachers what they have heard the students doing in the music room. Ask the kids—yes, you can do that! You can give them a super short survey. Ask them what they liked and didn’t like last year, what they like to do, and what they want to do. You can get a FREE music interest survey from my free resource library here. There are a few templates for different grades and thoughts so that you can use whatever you would like to do.

If you have already gotten the password, then you can click the picture below to get there.

FREE Music Interest Survey as part of the new free resource library on Becca's Music Room. There are two versions-- an older student and younger student version. Find out whether your students love instruments or singing or dancing-- and what their favorite things are! Becca's Music Room

Third, try things. Once school has started (I’m writing this in October, so school started a while ago), you can just try some different things. You will find out very very quickly whether or not students are used to doing something.

For example, if you ask students to use scarves to show you high and low (like I talk about in this blog post) while listening to a song and they look at you like you are completely crazy and don’t even know what to do with the scarf, they are probably not used to using scarves or movement.

That doesn’t mean they won’t do it or they won’t love it, it just means it is new.

When you try new things you can also see what the students seem to be liking/not liking when you try something new. They may not love everything, but they may surprise you with what they do like.

Now, let’s get down to the nitty gritty: What do you teach?

Also read: Boomwhackers and Science

What do I do with fifth graders? Part 1: Lessons and Tips. Trying to teach music to fifth graders? Don't know what to do? Read this article to find out what tips and tricks to help keep those students engaged! A few ideas and a FREE RESOURCE to help your elementary music class. Becca's Music Room

Use Lots of Instruments

In any music class, the number one thing to keep students engaged is playing instruments. It’s hands on, it’s learning, and students are more likely to behave if they can play them. Seriously, if I tell students we are going to play the instruments today, they will try SO MUCH HARDER.

Your fifth graders may or may not want to sing or read music or listen to classical music, but they want to play instruments.

If you don’t have instruments, see if you can get some. Even if you just get drum sticks, they will go crazy. Seriously, put a drum stick project on Donor’s Choose. You can drum on the floor or on the chairs if you don’t have drums.

Recorders are also a good choice, since they are small and relatively cheap. A lot of schools are able to have students purchase their own recorder. If you go that route, do not let them bring the sparkly pink princess recorders that are $1. They do not sound good. I have these Yamaha ones, and a lot of other blogs I have read also seem to have them.

If you have some instruments, you can do African drumming or Orff or whatever you want really!

If you are new to the general music instrument world, I would suggest using a book or curriculum. Artie Almeida’s Kidstix program is really great, and all you need is drumsticks and coffee cans and tambourines (which are also relatively cheap). Recorder Karate is really popular for recorder, although I have not used it. (We are starting recorders for the first time next week!)

Play Some Games

All children love games, especially fifth graders. There are tons of musical games– the Kodaly curriculum is basically built off of singing games. Here are a few of my favorite singing and non singing games:

  • Extra Beat Take a Seat: This one is sooo much fun! We play it with rhythm sticks, but you can play it with just your hands too. It’s all about counting rhythms, and I like to bring in some rhythm reading as well.
  • Chicken on a Fencepost: I played this for the first time with my fourth graders yesterday, and they had a blast. It was so much fun. I plan to teach it to my fifth graders as well, although I am a little bit concerned about them freaking out about holding heads. Ideas? Let me know in the comments.
  • King of the Mountain: I have not tried this one yet, but it looks like fun. It has to do with rhythm reading, and that’s always good, right?
  • Button You Must Wonder: My students love this song. One person stands in the middle. Everyone else is in a circle, and they have to pass a button (or button like object) around the circle without the person in the middle noticing. At the end, the person in the middle tries to guess who has the button. You can play it with younger students but I think it is better with fifth grade because they have figured out how to be sneaky with it.
  • Freeze Dance: Always a winner. If stopping music mid-phrase kills you, you could try using a signal like a maraca to tell kids when to freeze and when to move.
  • Rhythm Hula Hoops: Break the class up into teams. Have four hula hoops (or three or whatever meter you’d like) out. Say a rhythm and have students figure out how many people to put in the hula hoop (one for a quarter note, two for eight notes, etc). Each student represents a sound. First team with the correct rhythm wins! Note: I like to make the first hula hoop a different color, because I have had issues with students creating the rhythm backwards.
  • Poison Rhythm: This is my go-to. You do a rhythm and students echo it back. One rhythm is poisoned. You can tell them what it is or just have it written on the board. If you do the poisoned rhythm and the students repeat it, then they are out. Last one standing is out!

What do I do with fifth graders? Part 1: Lessons and Tips. Trying to teach music to fifth graders? Don't know what to do? Read this article to find out what tips and tricks to help keep those students engaged! A few ideas and a FREE RESOURCE to help your elementary music class. Becca's Music Room

Get them Moving!

We all know kids need to move. Getting them moving to music is a really great idea. I love to use movement to teach form, but you can use it for high and low, to talk about instruments, etc. Here are some of my favorite movement activities:

  • Parachute: Parachutes are actually decently cheap, and the students love them. I believe mine is 12 feet and it fits really well in my classroom. We did this parachute routine to Star Wars last year and the kids loved it!
  • Scarves: If you have been reading my blog, you probably already knew that one was coming. I loooooove scarves! I have a Bizet scarf routine you can read here, a routine to Sempre Libera here (yes, you can get fifth graders to listen to opera if you put a scarf in their hands), and a post about creative movements with scarves here. I would also highly recommend the book Parachutes and Ribbons and Scarves, Oh My! by Artie Almeida. It is fabulous. There are two routines for the Nutcracker and I use them both pretty much every year.
  • Folk Dances: If your kids are not used to folk dancing, they might be weirded out at first, but I promise they will love it! You can use recorder music or have students sing the songs. My kids think that this one is super cool, because it looks like stepping (sidenote– the teacher in here was totally my music education professor. And no I did not learn this from hime, I just looked up the video). I have not tried Alabama Gal (yet!), but I plan to incorporate it this year.

Make it Easier– Do Some Units

If fifth graders are stressing you out, calm down. Make it easy on yourself. A great way to do that is through units. A unit is basically a bunch of lessons all tied together by something. It can make it easier to find resources because you are looking for something specific. Students will also find this really helpful because they know what to expect, and they will learn everything really well.

You could do units based off of instruments. You could do African drumming for a few months and teach the students African songs and work on rhythms. you could do a recorder or piano unit if you still have those old keyboards in your room (I do, and I totally use them!). You could even do a unit on Orff instruments where you play Orff instruments and you sing and read treble clef notes.

You could also go off of a theme. You could do seasons– teach the students songs about fall and dance to songs about fall and everything. You could do a unit about a certain country. I do this a lot and my students always think it is so cool. We will learn about a certain country and sing their songs and play their instruments.

You could pretty much do a unit about everything.

They May Surprise You

You will be amazed at what can happen when you try things. Just because you think the kids won’t like to to sing or use scarves or whatever, they might. My fifth graders really don’t mind singing– even the boys. If I hadn’t tried to get them to sing, I wouldn’t know that.

If you want to do something and you are not sure whether it will go well or not, just try it. Keep a back up plan in mind, but still just try. They may surprise you. My principal says students rise to the level of expectation you set for them.


So there are a few tips! Sorry for the super long post (my word counter currently says I’m at 1857), but I hope it was helpful! If you want to get that FREE MUSIC INTEREST SURVEY we were discussing, sign up for my free resource library! This is exclusive content for my email subscribers. Don’t worry– I will only send you two emails per month, usually talking about the new resource that is available. Sign up here!

What are your favorite activities for fifth graders? Let us know in the comments!

Happy teaching!

What do I do with fifth graders? Part 1: Lessons and Tips. Trying to teach music to fifth graders? Don't know what to do? Read this article to find out what tips and tricks to help keep those students engaged! A few ideas and a FREE RESOURCE to help your elementary music class. Becca's Music Room

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3 thoughts on “What do I do with Fifth Graders? Lessons and Tips”

  1. I have really enjoyed your posts! I am a brand new choir teacher for fifth and sixth grade, and I feel like I do not know what I am doing even though I have a masters in music! LOL. Thank you for all of these ideas and resources.

    1. Having a masters in music and actually needing to explain it to little people are different skill sets! We all feel like that!

  2. Hi Becca. Using strips of material for the children to hold at each end helps to get around the problem of touching each others hands. it does make the circle very big so you will need plenty of space. I put the used strips into a bag and wash them that evening.

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