you're reading...
Learning at its Best

Don’t Hate, Collaborate! (Or, having fun while doing “serious” learning)

Hey, all! I’m Sabrina, a teacher-turned-activist in the Denver Metro Area. I teach upper elementary school children in struggling schools, and am taking this year off from the classroom to help counter some of the destructive strands in the current school reform movement.

At the end of last year, after the tests were over and the grown-ups in the office were off of our backs, my fifth grade students and I made a music video. Most of us had been together for two years (I looped with my fourth graders), and they were going off to middle school, so we wanted to create something that would symbolize what we’d learned over the course of our time together.

Our class motto last year was, “Don’t hate, collaborate!” I first uttered it in a moment of friendly exasperation, when a few students working together (or rather, fighting together) during math class couldn’t seem to understand that when working in a group, the point is to help each other understand, not be better than your groupmates. They liked the rhyme and started spreading it to their classmates, and once I took the time to explain what it means to collaborate, it went fully viral throughout Room 120. So, when we decided to write a song and make a video, the saying was an obvious choice.

The kids wrote all of the lyrics in small groups (I can’t tell you how happy I was when one of my biggest poetry-haters said, “Why don’t we split up into groups, and each group can be in charge of one stanza?” Below grade level, my you-know-what!), and a few stayed in for several recesses to choreograph the two dances (one of which formed the basis of the song’s percussion). The class unanimously voted that I be in charge of VP, hence the lackluster beat-box underneath their brilliant song. We premiered it at the fifth grade continuation ceremony, where it was a huge hit!

Now, there are people out there who would say, “Yeah, that’s nice and all, but it’s just a bunch of kids singing and dancing. How is that going to help them read and compute at grade level?” I struggled against this kind of philistine attitude constantly, which was one reason we had to wait so long to launch this project (instead of doing the 1.5-2 month songwriting unit I’d planned several months prior). But, for all the haters out there (or really, for the non-haters, who might be interested in doing something like this, and need some ammo to respond to skeptical main office types!), here’s a tip-of-the-iceberg sketch of how it does help kids develop their academic skills.

Songwriting and Literacy:

  • Poetry/Writing: Most schools and districts teach at least one poetry unit, so this part is the easiest fit. Songs are just poetry set to music; after students have read and learned about different kinds of poetry, they can get to work creating their own. In our experience, most students actually started off by writing stories and thoughts as regular prose, then worked together to read each other’s ideas, merge their narratives, economize their language, and turn it into rhyming poetry. The kids make it look easy, but it’s complicated stuff…
  • Vocabulary: Kids often have an easier time coming up with a poem or piece of writing if they have a few parameters that help make the task more manageable. This is a great place for a teacher to suggest a few words or concepts he or she would like to teach, define them, and then let the students play with the words as they write. This is a powerful way to internalize word meanings– I’d bet my life that, short of major brain trauma, none of my students will ever forget what the word “collaborate” means!

Work from an un-related song.

Songwriting and Math:

  • Logic/Estimation: In order to use GarageBand most effectively, you need to know how many beats per minute your song will be. That way, it can set up the measures in the program, which makes for easier editing and mixing later. Once we’d settled on a rhythm, I had the students help me figure that out. They came up with several different ways to find the answer (count how many consistent taps or snaps we can fit into 10 seconds, then multiply the answer by 6, time how long it takes us to do a verse, then work backwards to find how many snaps are in each minute, etc.)
  • Fractions: Rhythmic notation in music is all about fractions, whether you’re writing it out on manuscript paper or working it out in GarageBand. Having the kids work out how their lyrics fit into each measure is a sneaky way of getting them to do some really advanced work with fractions. (It’s also a powerful way to show naysayers how great your little mathematicians are, regardless of what the tests say…can you tell my stance on those tests yet?)

Songwriting and 21st-/Any-Century Skills:

  • Technology: Recording, mixing, and editing songs and video are interesting, useful skills that develop students’ competence with using technology for generative (instead of passive) purposes. Unfortunately, because we lacked of consistent access to the right technology and had huge time constraints, I ended up doing the mixing and editing of this song and video. As a teaching apprentice in a private school, though, I helped kids younger than mine successfully create a PSA using iMovie and GarageBand. Totally doable, if the environment supports it. They can then use those skills for other projects, to show what they’ve learned.
  • Problem-solving: At each step of the process, some ‘kink’ arises that needs to be worked out. In the course of their work, students naturally identify those problems, come up with potential solutions, and try them out. It’s beautiful!!!
  • Collaboration: Kids have to be cooperative at every stage in order for a project like this to work. We brainstormed a list of examples of what it looks like to “Don’t hate, collaborate,” then students discussed the relative merits of each example and voted on which ones they’d use for each verse. They had to negotiate how to make their ideas fit together when writing the lyrics and staging different parts of the video, they leaned on each other when solving problems in making the song “work” (mathematically as well as stylistically), and so on.

Sure, on the outside, this kind of project doesn’t resemble what many people consider “school” learning. But underneath the busy, happy appearance, there is a lot of powerful learning going on. I’d argue that the skills students honed during this project– creativity, collaboration, problem-solving, etc– will last much longer than the short-term stuff I taught in the run-up to CSAP. It’s these kinds of projects where kids gain the kinds of academic, social, and cognitive skills they’ll need to be successful in life. What can we do to make this more common and accepted for all kids, not just those in “high-performing” schools?

About Sabrina

At any given moment, I am some combination of the following: A teacher, thinker, advocate, writer, and student. A wife, sister, daughter, friend, and party-goer. A cook, knitter, reader, musician, and traveler. I have a sarcastic sense of humor, but I'm totally willing to give you the shirt off my back if it looks like you need it. (Kinda like lemon meringue...always seeking that balance between tart and sweet.)


12 thoughts on “Don’t Hate, Collaborate! (Or, having fun while doing “serious” learning)

  1. Wow! this is the kind of post I was hoping for and more! It is a tad sad that you have to hide this kind of powerful teaching…. Project Learning is one of the best ways to learn. If you have not read Ron Berger’s An Ethic for Excellence….you really should…. Next time you are told a project is not a proper way to teach…. you just have to show them that video…..or the now hundreds of books, studies and web sites that are promoting the transformation that PBL can offer.

    Also will you add a few lines at the top about yourself….just as a introduction….

    And Welcome to the CO-OP! So glad to have you!


    Posted by dloitz | October 22, 2010, 10:13 pm
  2. Sabrina, welcome and thank you! You demonstrate the creativity, interdisciplinary thinking, and ability to nurture social/emotional learning being called for in today’s schools. There certainly is no one better than you to be out working for meaningful reform.

    I’m curious having taught 4-5 myself, where fractions covered previous to this project; such that this became a praxis of mathematical knowledge? Did you have any requirements that you assess or grade students work on this project?

    I appreciate that you have the patience to connect the dots for people who may not see them for themselves. In my experience, this has been an area where I get frustrated, and have had to learn to do it with compassion. It is particularly difficult for me, when I have to do it in response to an “attack.” It’s another issue completely when done in the spirit of inquiry and growth.

    Thanks again for joining the Co-op and adding your powerful voice. I look forward to reading over your blog and having future conversations here.

    All the best,

    Posted by Adam Burk | October 23, 2010, 8:34 am
    • Thanks so much for your kind words! Yes, the kids had studied fractions before. For most of them, this was an opportunity to use them meaningfully, and deepen their understanding.

      Posted by Sabrina | October 23, 2010, 12:39 pm
    • Just realized I missed part of your question– there was no requirement at this point that I assess or grade students during the project. However, the intermediate steps offer quite a few opportunities to do so. The students generate drafts of their work, which can be used to give feedback or as evidence that they’ve mastered a certain standard or another.

      In other situations when I’ve done projects with kids, I’ve had them maintain project folders that stay in the classroom (or wherever we’re working 🙂 )so that I can access & give feedback on their work as they go along, in addition to giving a grade at the end.

      Posted by Sabrina | November 6, 2010, 7:10 pm
  3. Found this and thought of you.

    the power of song to teach…. this is great. A friend Shannon is working on a bi lingual ABC song book.

    I have done film with students for age 4 to High school and wanted for a time to write a whole book on using Film as a whole curriculum….almost whole foods are foods that give you every you need….. whole curriculum would be a project or study or method that give you the interdisciplinary study that we all need as learners

    You should check out the Expeditionary Learning School website, they are collecting great student project in a museum of Excellence…. a way to showcase all the great work that happens when you give students the chance to do meaningful/engaging work.


    Posted by dloitz | October 23, 2010, 12:39 pm
  4. This is an awesome project. I hope you don’t mind, but I’ve added your video to our Education Stories project collection. Actually your video is the first in the collection.

    Nice work!

    Posted by dwees | October 24, 2010, 6:23 pm
  5. Sabrina, This is GREAT! I’m sharing it with a bunch of other folks. Thank you especially for describing with such care and detail what creating the song “did” for your kids. I wish we had thousands of examples like this. So will you keep on posting and writing?

    Thank you,


    Posted by Kirsten Olson | November 5, 2010, 10:41 pm
  6. Thanks for the kind words, all! I do look forward to contributing more in the future. Things are crazy over here because of some political battles over the future of a few local schools, but once that winds down, I hope to have more time to devote to this really rich dialogue 🙂

    Posted by Sabrina | November 6, 2010, 7:12 pm


  1. Pingback: links for 2010-10-22 | MYAM's Blog - October 22, 2010

  2. Pingback: Our other school system :: Sabrina Stevens Shupe - November 28, 2011

  3. Pingback: Democracy in, democracy out. :: Reclaiming Reform | Education policy of, by & for We the People. - February 20, 2012

Join the Conversation

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 4,103 other followers

Comments are subject to moderation.

%d bloggers like this: