How to Write Songs with Your Students (for the non-musical classroom teacher!)

Preparing for some teacher training I would be conducting in Bayside Queens recently, I put some notes together on leveraging the power of music in the classroom for the “non-musical” educator.  We all know the power of the arts in engaging the whole child in their learning, but providing powerful arts-integrated lessons isn’t something that’s very easy to accomplish for most overworked classroom teachers.

Now that the training has come and gone, I thought these ideas might be useful for others as well.  “Musical” classroom teachers are certainly welcome here too.

Freelance musicians interested in doing this work – see the article on songwriting in schools here.

Arts Integration in the Classroom

Specifically, one of my sessions in Queens was to focus on songwriting with students, and how to take ANY curriculum topic and turn it into an arts-infused ELA project that students will remember (and sing!) for a long long time.

How to Write Songs with your Students (for the non-musical classroom teacher)As a visiting artist in K-12 schools, I’ve been writing songs with kids for the past twenty years on a wide variety of topics (state and local history, Amazonian frogs, colonial trades….you name it), so these techniques are applicable to any unit you’re teaching that might benefit from a little help in the “engagement and excitement” department.

And you, the “non-musical” classroom teacher, can do this.

Really.

Fractions? Ancient Egypt? The Dearth (and Death) of Recess? No problem; any topic goes. Put it in song and transform your classroom, all while reinforcing an important unit AND providing a stealth creative writing exercise.

Image for Arts integration post on how to write songs with students

Here are some simple ideas that I use, and you can use them too:

#1. THE 12-BAR BLUES – Follows this basic pattern:

I went down to the classroom, where my students sat rapt
I went down to the classroom, where my students sat rapt
The sub had them enthralled, so I went back to the lounge and napped

At least 751,649 songs have been written using this exact formula, and more come along every single day. You’ll notice that the first line repeats and serves as the second line as well, and the last word on the third line rhymes with the end of the second (and first) line. You can create a “chorus” or refrain containing the main idea of the song – this is the part you will come back to after singing each verse. Then, write as many verses as you care to, using the exact same pattern. For a melody, just go to YouTube and listen to “Thrill is Gone” by B.B. King, or “Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat” by Bob Dylan, or just search “blues” for a range of possibilities. Musically, this can be sad, happy, up-tempo, slow, rockin’, country, rap style; whatever fits best with the message of your song. (A note about actually singing this with the students in a minute.)

#2. THE PARODY – So many of our great American songs (cowboy songs, canal songs, railroad songs, blues, etc) are really just a set of new lyrics composed to an existing melody. Even the Star Spangled Banner was created that way!

Here’s a super simple formula for success:

1) decide on a topic for your new song (life cycles of plants? simple machines? natural disasters?)

2) brainstorm with your class to come up with a short list of common songs that everyone knows (nursery rhymes, Bruno Mars, you name it…). The songs will need to be familiar to you as well, since you’ll be guiding the writing.

3) jot down four or five of those song titles on the board, and then take a vote. Students get one vote each (with heads down); the song with the most votes wins.

4) write the first verse of the song on the board and analyze the rhyming scheme (where do they occur?) and the approximate number of syllables in each line.

5) use that as a template to start creating new lyrics around your topic.

Here’s an example of a parody song that was created by some great 4th graders I worked with in Williamsville NY recently. This animated video was put together afterwards by artist Ian Bell – – it’s quite fun! (Lyrics and info can be found here.)

#3. FROM SCRATCH – with a “musical” class, this can easily be done. Start by creating some lyrics on the topic of your choice, and then ask simply “how should this go?” Take the first idea for a melody and watch it grow as it gets bounced around the room. Talk about pride in ownership! While I always to try to maximize student “voice” in the songs (and minimize my urges to suggest a “better” rhyme), they will be over-the-top proud of themselves for this one, and rightly so. Their lyrics, their melody, boom!

A Note on Singing With Your Students

Nobody, and I mean nobody, will judge you for your singing. Trust me on this. Students will be way too busy having fun and creating. I’ve been in hundreds of classrooms where the teacher initially says “I’m not singing, no way, not me,” only to get caught up in the moment once the song starts taking shape and, the next thing I know, they’re belting it out like Stevie Nicks in her heyday.

And do you know what?

No K-6 student has ever noticed, or cared, about the sound coming out of their teacher’s mouth. Ever. If anything, they’re glad to be having the shared experience. You know better than anyone how these kids are – – they won’t give it a second thought.

That said, if you really don’t want to/can’t do it, you’ll surely have a few students in your class who would love to come up front and lead everybody else in the singing.

So, I hope you’ll let me know in the comments section if/when you try one of these techniques, and how it goes! And if you share a newly-created song with me, well, that will make my day.

 

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