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Teacher to teacher
Music in class can enhance learning
by Peggy Tsue | November 24, 2011 New York Teacher issue
Let’s face it: There are so many reasons to sing the blues this school year. Budget cuts, oversize classrooms and support staff layoffs all signal hard times ahead. Yet, when times have gotten tough, people have always created the kind of powerful music that gives us hope. So take heart, and let music into your elementary school classroom! I find that bringing music into my daily routine can create a sense of community, ease transitions and simply lighten the mood or bring energy back into a long day.
In my kindergarten classroom, each morning begins with the bustle of children trying to unpack their things. Homework folders fly and children power walk back and forth; there is a sense of controlled chaos. It sounds like an orchestra tuning up before the start of a performance. Then I start tuning my guitar.
Suddenly the mood changes. Dawdling students finish their assignments, some quietly put books away and all rush to the meeting area. I start singing the lyrics of a song we just learned, and at first a few children sing along. Then, as more join in, the feel of the room shifts from “me” to “us” when the chorus begins: “We all live in a yellow submarine!” Within a few measures, we are truly together as a community ready to start the day.
Music is social. This gesture of togetherness sets the tone (pun intended) of the joyful and communal learning environment I strive to create in my classroom. Think of the last time you sang your heart out at a concert and felt the collective tingle of the crowd. Create that rush for your students and watch as your shyest children let loose.
Music is useful. The predictable length of a song is an incredible aid during transitions. Instead of rushing the children along, teach them to be ready for the next lesson by the end of the song. Singing during transitions also cuts down on chatter and unwanted behaviors.
Music is literary. Write up lyrics on chart paper and share them with your students to model directionality of print, discuss a range of vocabulary and draw attention to familiar sight words. Find the words that rhyme. Talk about the emotions that certain words can evoke. Compare the rhythm of lyrics to the cadence of poems. Study how African slaves used song lyrics (“Follow the Drinking Gourd”) as secret code to navigate the Underground Railroad.
Music is powerful, but why is it missing in so many of our elementary school classrooms? One reason may be that, as education policy focuses more on test scores and performance, there is no time in the day to fit in music. (I’d disagree.) Another reason may be that teachers are shy about letting their voices soar. (Though, a teacher with stage fright seems like an oxymoron to me.) I’d like to think that the major reason for the lack of music throughout the day is that teachers don’t realize how easy it is to infuse music into their classrooms.
Here are some easy steps:
- Play music from a CD player or your computer during transitions.
- Use songs with designated choreography (such as the “Hokey Pokey” or the “Electric Slide”) to give your students a needed movement break.
- For the more adventurous, pick up a guitar. Learn just two chords (D major and A minor) and you will be instantly transformed into a rock star in the eyes of your young students. Many children’s songs and traditional folk songs have very predictable musical structures and can be played with two chords. Some of these songs are “Happy Birthday,” “Skip to my Lou,” “I’m a Little Teapot” and “Wheels on the Bus.”
- For the really stout of heart, also learn E minor and G major and you will be able to play the Beatles, Cat Stevens and more. I am no musician, but these four chords have turned my students into the Von Trapps year after year!
- Enjoy yourself. It’s so important for the children to see how much music means to you. You never know if you’ll inspire a future musician.
In short, sometimes we do sing the blues, but we also sing folk songs and pop songs or just hum a ditty because it’s fun. And who couldn’t use a little more fun in school?
The author is a self-taught amateur guitarist and teacher at PS 116 in Manhattan.