Monday, November 23, 2015

Music Teaching in Times of Crisis

Hi all - Christopher here.

As we know, last week there was a terrible tragedy in Paris, in which people from ISIS set off a series of coordinated attacks on civilians, resulting in the deaths of over 100 people.  This is horrible.  This is something that is hard to fathom. This is something that should never happen again.

But tragedy strikes, and when it does, it affects all of us.  I believe that for music educators, such experiences provide opportunities for us to offer support towards the healing process, by consciously engaging in musical experiences in our classes that can directly or indirectly allow children to process the issues that may have emerged for them.

In people’s lives, music serves a variety of important functions.  One of them is that it allows us to express emotions that may be difficult to express.  In music education (particularly at the elementary level), we are wary of opening too many cans of worms when it comes to emotional topics.  But I believe that we can do our children and our school communities a great service by providing them with ways to address difficult life situations.  Different teaching contexts will call for different responses, and knowing your population is important.  However, that should not be taken as an excuse to avoid difficult situations – we can all grow from them.

As a music teacher, I can respond to this – and as a Kodály-inspired teacher, I feel that I have some unique knowledge, particularly when it comes to repertoire.  Kodály emphasized the use of quality folk music, and so much folk music has evolved to reflect important topics of the day.  Many of the songs are old, but many of the issues that are raised in them carry over to modern-day events.

In this post, I’ll describe three different experiences with the specific musical choices that I have made after a tragedy:  (1) The 2010 mining disaster in Chile; (2) Hurricane Katrina; and (3) the current attacks in France.  

Copiapó Mine Accident of 2010

Mining disasters have been common over the years, and numerous songs have sprung up to help people express the emotions that occur when it happens.  My favorite one is “Ballad of Springhill,” written by Ewan McColl and Peggy Seeger after a mine collapsed in Nova Scotia, in the 1950s. 

2.     In the town of Springhill, Nova Scotia,
Late in the year of fifty-eight;
Day still comes and the sun still shines,
But it’s dark as the grave in the Cumberland mine,
Dark as the grave in the Cumberland mine.

3.     Down at the coal face, miners working
Battle of the belt and the cutter’s blade,
Rumble of the rock and the walls close round,
The living and the dead men two miles down,
Living and the dead men two miles down.

4.     Listen for the shouts of the bareface miners,
Listen through the rubble for a rescue team,
Six hundred feet of coal and slag,
Hope imprisoned in a three-foot seam
Hope imprisoned in a three-foot seam.

5.     Eight days passed and some were rescued,
Leaving the dead to lie alone,
Through all their lives they’d dug a grave,
Two miles of earth for a marking stone,
Two miles of earth for a marking stone.

6.     Twelve men lay two miles from the pit-shaft,
Twelve men lay in the dark and sang;
Long hot days in a miner’s tomb,
It was three feet high and a hundred long,
It was three feet high and a hundred long.

7.     Three days passed and the lamps gave out,
Caleb Rushton, he up and said:
“There’s no more water, nor light, nor bread,
So we’ll live on songs and hope instead,
So we’ll live on songs and hope instead.”

8.     In the town of Springhill, you don’t sleep easy,
Often the earth will tremble and toll,
When the earth is restless, miners die,
Bone and blood is the price of coal,
Bone and blood is the price of coal.

What I love about it: 
 -  Most importantly, the melody is gorgeous and haunting; it gets in your head and won’t leave – in the best way.
 - Great song text.  There are a number of reasons the text works well:
o   Factually, there are some things for students to learn: What’s a three-foot seam?  A cutter’s blade?
o   The facts are suggested, but not totally clear, so the students can discuss various meanings of the text.  In particular: What do you think happened to the miners in this story?  The students usually decide that most of the people lived, even if some died. 
o   The text celebrates music.  When it gets tough underground, one of the miners sings, “There’s no more light nor water nor bread; so we’ll live on songs and hope instead.” 
I want my students to understand the power of music, even if they’re only in fifth grade.  Both the text and the melody really do this.

Typically, I’ll teach the song towards the end of fifth grade – but that can vary, based on life experience.  For example, in 2010, a mine disaster in Chile got a great deal of attention.  Over the summer, a shaft collapsed, trapping 33 miners underground, but by late August, all the miners had been rescued.  In that year, I taught the song as soon as the students started school in September.  (Note, by the way, that there’s a new movie coming out about this mine collapse, called “33.”)

Potential breakdown point: In the Chilean story, all the miners lived.  There have been other years when mining disasters have occurred, and if there has been a great loss of life, I have decided that it would be too much visceral experience for fifth graders to handle.  While most kids would be fine with it, the logical discussion – “What happened to the miners? – could lead to a discussion that might leave some students feeling distressed.  I want them to understand how people the world over use music to express emotional experiences, but I don’t want them to get overly upset.  This choice has varied year-by-year, and has depended on my student population.

Hurricane Katrina in 2005

My in-class musical reaction to Katrina was not planned.  One of the play parties that I introduce in third grade is “Great Big House in New Orleans.”  In 2005, Katrina had just occurred, and without thinking about it too much, I began teaching the song in the middle of September.  As I was singing it to the students the first time, I began to think about the text of the first verse:

            Great big house in New Orleans
            Forty stories high
            Every room that I’ve been in
            Filled with pumpkin pie.

The idea that every room in a house could be filled with pumpkin pie is pretty funny to third graders.  But I had never thought that the first part of the verse had fantastical connections – in Seattle, we have buildings that are 100 stories high, so 40 floors is no big deal.

But when Katrina hit, it made me think that it was likely that when this text first entered into the song, a 40-story building was a crazy idea!  In a low-lying area like Louisiana, one that has been battered by hurricanes over the years, it was probably an idea that sounded as wonderful as a whole house filled with pie. 

So for that year, and for each year afterwards, this is a point of brief conversation.  We discuss hurricanes broadly, Katrina specifically, and then talk about the ways that house building has changed over the years.  My third graders today don’t know about Katrina because they’re too young, but this song allows me to introduce an important piece of our recent history to them.

Source: Locke, E. (1981).  Sail Away: 155 American Folk Songs to Sing, Read, and Play.  New York: Boosey & Hawkes.  p. 17

Verse 2: Went down to the old millstream, to fetch a pail of water
                  Put one arm around my wife, the other round my daughter.
Verse 3: Fare thee well my darlin’ girl, fare thee well my daughter;
                  Fare thee well my darlin’ girl, with the golden slippers on her.

Play party:
Verse 1: Standing circle.  Circle left.
Verse 2: Make a basket as follows:
Phrase 1: Girls take four steps to the center of the circle and join hands to make a circle.
Phrase 2: Boys take four steps toward the girls, reach over the girls' joined hands and down toward the floor, as if picking up a pail of water.  Boys join hands.
Phrase 3: Boys raise their joined hands over the girls' heads and down to make a circle behind the girls.
Phrase 4: Girls raise their joined hands over the boys' heads to form a circle behind the boys.  (Relax shoulders and elbows).
Verse 3:
Phrase 1 and 2: drop hands, move back to larger circle.
Phrase 3/4: Boys swing partner (the girl on his right) one and a half times around, switching places.
Game begins again, with new partners.

France and Syrian Refugee Crisis

Across our country, the current crisis has elicited many strong emotions, and the political reactions from politicians have varied widely.  This particular issue currently appears so polarizing, and engaging with it in any way is a tricky issue for music educators to consider.  I considered a variety of options.

Ultimately, I found a song by connecting with Joan Litman, a wonderful music educator from New York City who has spent a great deal of time in the Middle East over the years.  She was able to share a singing game, one that was originally from French, but had been altered by some girls in Syria.  The game that accompanies the song is a beat-passing game (like “Aquaqua” or “Down by the Banks” or “Vamos a Jugar”), games that they know well and play on the playground themselves.  (See below for the game directions and musical notation.)

Perfect!  This is exactly the kind of message that I want my students to get – that people from different cultures can meet, connect, and share elements of their culture with each other.  And that kids in France and Syria play games that are like the ones that they play here in the United States.

Source: Taught to Joan Litman by children of The Choir of Joy; Danascus, Syria, 2011.

Dans ma maison sous terre:            In my underground house
Omawe, omawe:                             Unknown (vocables?)
Tao, tao, ouistiti (wee-stee-tee):      Unknown
Un, deux, tricolate:                          One, two, threeeeeee (in French)
Wahid, ‘tnane,* tilate:                      One, two three (in Arabic)

*Note: In the last measure, the children are likely saying counting to three, but the number two (‘tnane) was difficult to hear on the recording.

Game: Beat-passing game.  Standing circle, left palms up, right palms down; lightly touching both neighbors’ hands.  The beat is passed from right hand to the neighbor’s right hand, until the end of the singing.  On the last syllable (“-te!”), the person whose hand is about to be (gently!) patted tries to move it before being touched.  If they move their hand in time, the player trying to tag him/her (“-la”) is out; if not, player “-te” is out.  The game then begins again.  On the penultimate note (“-la”), the player can go out of tempo and hold the note before trying to tap the “-te!”

French versions of the game often end in English.

(Note: If you are a member of the Facebook group "Kodaly Educators," Joan Litman graciously posted a video of Syrian children playing the game, and you can hear their pronunciation.  As of now, there are some issues with access, but check it out - hopefully those will be worked out.)

Here’s how I presented it to my fifth graders this week
-       I put the notation on the board, then sung the song.  I asked them: “Why do you think I’m singing this?”
o   They figured out that it was mostly in French, either because they recognized some words or noticed the language at the top of the page.
o   Enough of the students knew about the events of last week, and were able to briefly fill the other students in.
-       I sung it again, asking: “Why else do you think I’m singing this?”
o   Fewer students knew that “Arabic” was a language from the Middle East, although in each of my three classes, at least one student made the connection.
-       From here, I was wary of wading into deep waters where I expressed my own personal opinion, so I summed up what was going on:
o   I told them hat there had been an attack in France, and that people from the Middle East were responsible  ("ISIS," said at least one student in each class);
o   And like bad people in every country, some people in that country support them, and some people don’t;
o   The students defined refugees, and we had a brief discussion about refugees in our country.
o   I noted that some people feel that these refugees are not checked closely enough, and that our country shouldn’t allow any Syrian refugees into the United States; others feel that they are perfectly well-vetted, and that it is our duty as a country to allow then into the United States;
o   At this point, I told them that we weren’t going to talk about that anymore, but that they should go talk to their parents about it.
To me, this is appropriate.  I didn’t give them my own personal political interpretation of an event, but I did provide them with some information that allowed them to go discuss it with their families.  I believe that fifth graders need to begin to learn about national issues, and this can be a springboard for discussion at home.

From there, we dealt with musical and game aspects of the song.  Some issues that emerged: 
  • How do we pronounce the words?
  • How is the fermata going to work in the context of a 25-person class?
But after two classes, they have picked it up well, and are having fun with it.  And I feel that they are going away from music class as more thoughtful citizens of our country, and of the world. 


Thursday, November 5, 2015

Picture Books for Upper Elementary

Hi everyone! This is Aileen from Mrs. Miracle's Music Room. I've blogged quite a bit about picture books for the music room (see those posts here), but today I thought I'd focus on picture books that can be used with upper elementary, since they can be harder to come by!

Here are some of my favorites...I'm planning on posting about some more soon! Click on each picture to view it on Amazon or Alibis.

"If you find a Rock"
by Lember and Christian

I found this picture book a few years ago, and immediately thought that it would work really well with "Obwisana," which you can find here. It is such a beautiful book, with poetic language and higher level prose.

"Before John as a Jazz Giant"
 by Weatherford and Qualls
I'm a big jazz fan, so was super excited to find this book! What a great way to incorporate jazz into your lessons and teach a little history! I plan on using this soon, and am thinking of playing John Coltrane as I read the book.

"The Drums of Noto Hanto" 
by James and Tsukushi
Based on a true story in ancient Japan, this book is a wonderful way to introduce taiko drumming to your students. I've read this book to my 4th graders (and even created a program based off the book and had them act it out) and they were actively engaged and excited! You could read it before a taiko or bucket drumming unit, or before a taiko drumming listening lesson.

"Marching to the Civil War: Drummer Boy" 
by Turner and Hess

I really love this book as a way to delve into the song "Fire in the mountain," which you can see below:

To play the game, one student stands in the middle, playing the drum to the beat. Half of the students stand, and half of the students sit. As the drummer plays, the standing students walk around the circle. Whenever the drummer stops (halfway through the song, at the end of the song, halfway through the second time...whenever!) all the standing students have to find someone to stand behind. The drummer also has to find someone, so one person is left without someone to stand behind (much like musical chairs.) Then, that person becomes the drummer, and the sitting students stand, the standing students sit, and the game continues.

The song is actually about the Revolutionary War, but the book is a great connection about what drummer boys had to do. I will warn is a sad book with very real sentiments, as the drummer boy laments about the sounds of war, and about his friends who have died. I have had to be careful to not get choked up as a I read it to students. That being said, I think it is a great book for students to read, as it gives them perspective about how much life has changed over the years, and gives them some historical context behind a song they love.

Looking for more picture book ideas? Here is one of my Pinterest boards, focused on picture books:

What are your favorite picture books for upper elementary? Feel free to comment below!

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Change up your sequence

Hi all, Christopher here.

One of the raps on Kodály-inspired teaching is that it can be rigid.  People think that there is some prescribed method that dictates exactly what you have to teach and when you have to teach it. 

Not true.

The reality is that while Kodály-inspired teaching is methodological and sequential, it doesn’t come in a one-size-fits-all package.  Every teacher has to take the overall principles and apply them to their own setting. 

For me, what that means is that each year, I re-visit my teaching sequence in the fall, when I am doing my long-term planning (see this link for a description of one way to do yearly planning).  Lately, my basic sequence of teaching rhythmic elements has been something like the following:


Why might this sequence change?  Typically, there are two possible reasons: 

(1) It seems that the kids aren't ready for the type of thinking or skill involved in the element.  For example, usually I teach in second grade.  Sometimes, it will happen later in the year or (occasionally) early in grade 3, because the students aren't able to clap the rhythm accurately.  In my context, this can vary from year to year, because some groups of students end up being more (or less) skilled than same-aged students in other years.


(2) The repertoire just might not work for a given group of students.  This mostly occurs in upper elementary.  The period when the too-cool-for-school attitude develops varies widely -- most often, it occurs in the early spring of fifth grade for me, but sometimes it is as early as late fourth grade, and at other times, it never hits at all.

It's this second reason - repertoire - that led me to alter my rhythmic sequence this year.  

Previously, the students have typically learned tam-ti (that's what my students call the dotted quarter-eighth note pattern) in fourth grade.  The repertoire that I use to teach it is fine, but I don’t really sense that the kids in that grade love it.  They can understand the concept cognitively, and can make all the connections they need to be able to do during the preparation steps to become adept pretty quickly – but the repertoire just doesn’t really excite them.  Usually, I don't have a lot of attitude from the kids at that age, but it has become clear to me that they don't particularly like the songs.  
in late fourth grade.

And when it comes down to it, the attitude of the students really matters.  I feel that it is important to choose repertoire that is going to be enjoyable to my students.  I also understand – and express to my students – that an important part of my job is to broaden their sonic sound bases, and that a steady diet of pop music in class isn’t going to stretch them the way I want them to be stretched.  However, with the case of the tam-ti rep, it led to somewhat lackluster teaching-and-learning, where the kids were doing what I wanted them to do, but really just waiting until the next singing game started.

So this year, I’m trying something I’ve never done before, and I’m moving the element to Grade 3.  This year, my third graders will learn ti-ticka in early November, and then the next element that they’ll do is tam-ti.  

The reason that it seems appropriate for third grade is not so that I can "cross this piece of learning off my list," but that I think that the rep that goes with the element will really excite them.  Singing in rounds and canons is a HUGE hit with this particular set of kids, and a lot of my rep for tam-ti can be sung in canon.  (Think Chairs to Mend, All Things Shall Perish, The Birch Tree, and The Bell Doth Toll).  Big Fat Biscuit is a game that all students will love -- plus it’s good for low la, an element that the third graders learn will later in the year.  Changing up my sequence also allows me to select some other repertoire that I haven’t done for a while – John Kanaka and Liza Jane are both classic American songs, but I just haven’t used them for a while.  

As with any change, though, there are......

Potential problems with this change:

(1) Some of the repertoire is in triple meter, which the students haven’t learned yet.  I’m not quite sure how I’ll handle this, because I feel like my curriculum is packed enough without adding another concept.  I am thinking that I’m just going to see if I can put six beats in a row, and that they won’t ask any questions.  We’ll see. 

(2) This rhythmic pattern has two aspects that are brand new: both the dotted quarter note and the single eighth note.  In the past, I’ve taught syn-co-pa (i.e. eighth-quarter-eighth) before tam-ti, and as a part of that process, the students learn that a ti-ti can be broken into two single tis.  So they will need to learn that.  Plus, they will need to learn that if musicians add a dot at the end of a quarter note, it adds half of the preceding value to the note.  Which is confusing enough even to write here.  When I usually teach the element, in late 4th or early 5th grade, most students can figure it out, because they’re working with fractions in their regular class.  But third grade seems a little young to be able to do that sort of thinking, except for the super-high kids.

Might this fail?

    Yes, definitely!    
But that’s part of the fun of teaching – from one day to the next, you never know what’s going to happen!