Britney Spears and Paw Paw Patch

Hi folks, Christopher here.  Out in Seattle, we are heading towards the end of the school year, with three more weeks to go.  If you're already out, don’t gloat.  The end of the year is all about short attention spans.  For the kids -- and for the teachers, too.  So this is going to be short.

When I heard that Britney Spears and Iggy Azalea were going to release a single together, I was super-duper-excited.  I love Britney.  For real.  When it comes to music that goes well with a workout, there’s no one better.  She’s got that little girl voice and the vocal fry that is probably indicative of some greater psychological issues, but whatever ---- by golly is she fun to listen to.  “Work, Work” (or better yet, the version that incorporates a mildly offensive word) has got to be the best workout song to come out in the last 10 years. 

Someday I’ll make it to Vegas to see her in concert.  Yeah, I know.  Even if my family rolls their eyes.

So, when Britney and Iggy’s song dropped a couple of weeks ago, I downloaded it pronto.  And then I listened.  Here are the lyrics:
All around the world, pretty girls
Wipe the floor with all the boys
Pour the drinks, bring the noise
We're just so pretty!

All around the world, pretty girls
Jump the line, to the front,
Do what we like, get what we want
We're just so pretty!



Britney!  I’m talking to you!!!!  You’ve got to be over 30 by now, and middle age is around the corner.  I realize this is pop music, but you have got to be old enough to recognize that the focus on surface-level beauty is something that we should really start to move beyond. 

(OK, so I’m being unrealistic, but you can still hope.)

So: What does this have to do with Kodály-inspired education?

Kodály emphasized folk music of the mother tongue, maintaining that folk music that has stood the test of time has often done so because there is something inherently “good” in it.  If it wasn’t “good,” people would have stopped performing it.  Now, in the United States, “folk music of the mother tongue” is a topic worth considering, but that’s an issue for another time.  For me, some of the repertoire that I incorporate in my classroom comes from folk music of the European-American tradition.  And there are times where those same problems – the focus, in particular, on the importance of women being attractive – will crop up.

To wit: My second graders recently learned the play party Paw Paw Patch:

Play party: Two lines, one of girls and one of boys.  The girls stand to the right of the boys.
Verse 1: The top girl ("Susie" - or some other name) skips down the set, past the girls' line, then up around the boys' line, back to her spot.
Verse 2: The girl skips around again, this time followed by the entire line of boys.
Verse 3: Cast off: The head girl leads all the girls down to the bottom of the set, while the head boy does the same thing with the boys.  The head boy and head girl meet at the bottom of the set, join hands to create an arch, and all the rest of the players go under the arch, moving up to the top of the set.  Play then begins again, with a new head couple.
Note: If the lines of boys and girls are fairly long (or if the players are inexperienced), the third verse can be repeated to give enough time to finish the movement.

I love this activity for three main reasons.  (1) It’s the first time in my class that the students learn the “casting off” move; (2) It’s a great song for working on the rhythmic element of ticka-ticka (four sixteenth notes); and (3) Most importantly, the song just works.  The rhythm of “Come on, boys, let’s go find her” propels the song along, making it very fun for all children to sing.  By the end of second grade, I hope that almost all of my students are able to sing while engaging in a play party like this, so I use it for an assessment as well. 

But you see the problem, right?  The biggest issue from a second grade standpoint is the text “pretty little Susie” – more focus on the physical appearance of girls.  For years, I sung it this way, and just let the text slide. 

Recently, though, I’ve hit it head on, making connections to the historical context.  The basic outline of the conversation goes like this:
-       Does this sound like an older song or a newer song?
-       Do you know what kinds of jobs were available to women in the past?
-       Do you think that they had more opportunity or less opportunity than men?
-       How does that compare to today?
-       I then tell them: Since there weren’t as many jobs available to women, many people thought that what they looked like was particularly important.
-       What do you think?  Should it be important what women and girls look like?  What about men and boys?
-       What do you think we should do about the text?  Since it is an older song, we could keep the same words, because that’s the way life was 100 years ago.  Or we could change it.
After some discussion, they vote.

Interestingly, the students do not always vote to change the words.  But most of the time they do.  Recent changes have been “awesome little Susie” and “smart little Susie.” 

Soapbox alert: It is my fervent belief that sexism and looks-ism should be called out when they occur – and that means our elementary school music classrooms, too.  Help our girls and our boys recognize that girls should not be objectified for their looks.  The earlier we start these conversations – in ways that they occur authentically in music education contexts – the more likely it is that we will change the world for the better.


  1. I LOVE this post Christopher!!! And no shame in being a Brittany fan, heck, I'll join you in Vegas!!! :)

  2. I love this post, Christopher! I have taught "Paw Paw Patch" for years, and something tugged at me about the word "pretty," but I wasn't sure how to address it. Thank you for giving great suggestions! It truly is our job to educate students about all the matters we can--not just musical concepts--especially if it helps them in their own lives. Thank you!

  3. Nail. Head. I love that we have the opportunity to change the world as teachers! Thank you for your thoughts.


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