Making Curriculum Pop

Mr. Kist’s New Literacies presentation had a lasting impact on me, most especially with his Multi-genre Autobiography activity. With this, he has his students create a slide show containing pictures they associated with their childhood. As an example, he created one from his own childhood. Some of the pictures presented received some pretty great responses – a lot of energized “ohs” and wistful sighs were heard practically after every slide. I admit I heaved a few sighs myself. Looking at those pictures evoked some pretty great memories and when Sesame Street and The Electric Company popped up on that projector screen, I began to reflect back to my own learning experiences through what I saw on TV as a child. The first thing that popped into my mind was Schoolhouse Rock. I loved Schoolhouse Rock. My older brother and I would plant ourselves in front of the TV every Saturday morning to catch it on ABC. For those of you who don’t know this stroke of genius, it was a series of 2 to 3 minute episodes that covered many subjects we learn in elementary and middle school and set them to music and animation – multiplication, grammar, and American history were the most popular. This was the show that basically taught me how to multiply by 8 – “Figure 8” was a favorite of mine. I also loved the episode on Adjectives. I even think my brother can still recite The Preamble because he remembers the episode on the Constitution! As we sang along with these bits, we did not realize we were learning basic math, grammar and American history. All we knew was we loved the music and the cartoons that came along with them. So much so it would peak our curiosity to find out more: what else happened in 1776 or what about pronouns. As an adult, I had the opportunity to be Musical Director of the stage version of Schoolhouse Rock and it was exciting to get a chance to introduce it to a whole new young audience. Although television gets a bad rap nowadays, we tend to forget sometimes it can be a positive tool that can help kids learn and perhaps motivate them to explore and discover new things.

From Schoolhouse Rock, I got to think of other ways music can be used as I am currently venturing into Music Education. The influence of music is undeniable. In terms of cinema, it has a tremendous effect on our movie viewing experience by creating or amplifying a mood to fit what is occurring on screen. From the piano accompaniments of the silent film to the orchestral scores of Jaws and Star Wars, they reach out to us and leave a lasting impression. Nowadays, the score is sometimes replaced by familiar songs from the radio. An example of this is the 1983 movie The Big Chill. It had an enormously successful soundtrack with its use of popular songs from the 1960s. The songs hit a nerve with the generation it depicted on screen, and even now, the soundtrack is regarded as one of the best. There is even some discussion on how this soundtrack influenced the advertising world to use Rock-n-Roll songs to advance their sales. This trend of using popular songs is becoming more and more common in cinema, sometimes replacing the traditional film score altogether. Quentin Tarantino did this with his movie Pulp Fiction (1994) and his soundtrack (or his film score depending how you look at it) mirrors the hip, aggressive mood the film itself exuded. Ironically, some singers and songwriters are beginning to abandon their song careers to venture into the film scoring world full time. Danny Elfman from the group Oingo Boingo is now a very successful composer of films and even RZA from the Wu Tang Clan wrote a few things for Tarantino’s Kill Bill (2003).

With this knowledge of music and its effect on the public, I began to think of the many different ways it can be used in the high school classroom. From what I can see, almost every high school student owns an IPod or some kind of MP3 player. IPods have given individuals access to an infinite amount of music, all at the touch of a button. This sure beats those days of carrying around a Walkman, practically gargantuan in size compared to an IPod Nano. Then I began to think about their playlists. The playlists they create are usually very personal and can say a great deal about who they are as individuals. Also, their enthusiasm for their favorite music is apparent when they talk about it. I would love to tap into that excitement.

So, what would happen if say, Odysseus had to create a playlist for his journey in Homer’s The Odyssey? Or Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice? What kind of music defines them and their story? This could be an exercise for students to play around with, choosing songs they believe define these literary characters and asking them to explain their choices. '

Students can also play around with scoring certain scenes in novels – what sets the mood of this particular chapter? What would be playing as you visualize the devastating affects the Dust Bowl has had on the Joad family in The Grapes of Wrath?

All of this lead back to Mr. Kist’s question from his presentation: What can you say in music, visual art or video that you cannot say in print? These exercises promote creativity, help us find new ways to communicate and, when students share their ideas with other students, build community. It seems when it comes to music the possibilities are endless, and I am eager to explore other ways to incorporate this in schools.

The lesson ideas I gave here are just miniscule compared to others. There are so many articles on using music in the classroom. Here a few I found interesting:

Scholastic’s guide to Music in the Classroom

A New Jersey Teacher that uses Wii Music as a teaching tool

Chris Brewer, Music and Learning

And lastly, I’m a proud member of MENC: National Association of Music Education. Please check out their website!

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Hi Jennifer,
Great post! I was definitely one of the people ooing and ahhing during William Kist's slideshow. It made me think what my kindergarten students would put in their slide show in ten years and what music they would include.I love your comment about ipods being a personal and can say a lot about a person. Scary enough, most of my kindergartners have an ipod or use their parents. The class i currently student teach in does not use music. Next year i would love music to help narrate story books or for transition time. I was hoping to use music they are familiar with, maybe even some for current kid TV shows. I was thinking how i could translate high schools scoring a novel to kindergarten. What if my students used music to help them understand the mood and tone of stories? We just went over that last week. Thanks for the great ideas!
Hi Blair! Glad you liked the post! I've always been an advocate for including music in the everyday classroom, I just wish I was briming with brilliant ideas like some of my other music ed. colleagues! It's funny how Kindergartners are now using IPods. It reminds me of that commercial for PCs with that adorable little girl, "I'm a PC and I'm four and a half!" Very cute, but also a bit scary. Kids are becoming exposed to this stuff earlier and earlier. But rather than fight it, I guess we need to take a deep breath and jump into the pool along with them. I'm curious as to what your Kindergarteners are listening to on their IPods? That could be a great place to start - that could go anywhere really. They can create stories from their IPod selections possibly. I have also seen classes where the teacher plays music and then the students move to the music in whatever mood hits them and then the teacher asks them to describe the moods and the feelings the music conveyed. I remember something John Dewey wrote - something to the effect of freedom of movement (a very good thing) should be accompanied with moments of reflection to think and organize what can and has been gained in the periods of activity. I really like that. Nothing gets the brain going like a little shaka-shaka.
I really enjoyed reading your post and am so glad my presentation had value to you. The Multigenre Autobiography always resonates with people, because we have all been surrounded by these different kinds of texts all our lives, and this assignment just brings it to the forefront, both for teacher and students! I really like your question about "What can you say in music, visual art, or video that you cannot say in print?" These are exactly the kinds of conversations we need to be having with our students as they try to sort out this new media landscape.
One more thing: I'm sure Ryan probably already told you about this, but if you're interested in using more music in your classroom check out the awesome resources available at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame site, right in my backyard! Well, not literally.

Hi, Bill,

Your presentation sounds very interesting! Do you have a website or resources I can check out?

Interesting post! I especially enjoyed reading about how you could make ties between music and literature. I think that is a great activity for students in which gets them to think beyond the written text. When raising the question "What can you say in music, visual art or video that you cannot say in print?" it really opens up a whole new dialogue in the different teaching practices you can use to engage students. Like Kist says in the previous reply it is an important question that needs to be talked about and revisited when planning your lesson. We as teachers need to think beyond what is standard and what is familiar and really reach as Jen said "the endless possibilities. " Also by using different medias in the classroom you get students to think in multiple ways. You are constantly challenging them to think beyond what they know and to take on different viewpoints.

Great idea about creating a playlist or soundtrack for a character or a scene! I think that would be very useful across the board with any literature or even an issue like marginalization, which we deal with in English III. Thanks for the post; I'm sorry I'm in Chicago and missed the presentation!
I agree that Mr. Kist's slideshow brought back a lot of fun memories. School House Rock is one of my all time favorite shows. I have the DVD with all songs and some new ones. It is a great tool to use in the classroom. I have used it with my kids to talk about the solar system. (Inter-planet Janet). I liked the adjective song as well but the "Lolly Lolly Lolly Get Your Adverbs Here" song was my absolute favorite! (Here it is just in case you don't remember it!)

I love your idea of having students think about what literary characters would put on their playlist. This is a great activity not only to push students thinking but also a way to introduce them to other music. I am not quite sure how I would incorporate this into the primary grades but I would love to figure out a way. Thanks for the great ideas. Fantastic post!!
Hi Jennifer,

Wow, I have Conjunction Junction stuck in my head and I have a feeling it is there to stay for a bit.

I really loved this Wii music in the classroom article, what a wonderful way to combine different technologies WITH music in the classroom!
Thanks for the memories! Music has such power- to make us think, to make us feel and to change who we are and what we know. As I heard the first few notes of this tune I had to break into song. This makes me think of many applications for music in my own literacy coaching life. I have used music a lot (with the teachers in my study group) to help build community and understand each other better, but I may need to help teacher see a more direct application for its use in the classroom. I am not hearning them make a joyful noise each day. At least not beyond kindergarten. Maybe they think of music as something that only happens for 40 minutes, one day a week, when kids go to music for special area instruction. Music is such a part of who I am that I can't imagine teaching without it being an integral part of my day.
I will add to the chorus of fans of Schoolhouse Rock. I have downloaded all of the episodes from iTunes for use in class. My favorites are Conjunction Junction, the Preamble and the one about how a bill becomes a law. The visuals (the little bill sitting on the steps of Capital Hill) and the song are forever emblazoned in my brain. Years of history/gov't and legal training never taught me anything so thoroughly! I also love the idea of having students score a poem/book/historical documentary. It would really get them to bore down on the music of an era and how music evokes feeling and mood. Also of interest to me is how music reflects a political moment. Analysis of lyrics and music video both along the lines of primary documents and as literature are useful exercises for students. In the history classroom I might have them also look at music in political campaigns. Like your reference to The Big Chill, choice of a campaign song can target a very specific audience--think of the Clinton/Gore choice of Fleetwood Mac's "Don't Stop Thinking About Tomorrow."
Bouncing off of Ann's reply (thanks Ann!) in regards to music and their corresponding eras - the soundtrack to the movie Forrest Gump could be used to cover a large part of recent American history. It goes from the 50s to the 80s in one seamless swoop. For example, it seems rather cliche to use the Byrds "Turn Turn Turn" as it shows up TV commercials every 10 minutes but there's a lot to be analyzed there (did you know the lyrics are from the Bible?). Great music and great discussions to be had!

Also, a friend of mine has used Billy Joel's "We Didn't Start the Fire" in her class. Here's an interesting website about its uses.
Oh, "We Didn't Start The Fire" would be great for an in class discussion!



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