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!
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?