Wednesday, April 23, 2014

5 Ways to Infuse Music and Learning

There are many ways to use music in your classroom. Even for a guy like me, who sings horribly and has never learned how to play a musical instrument properly, music can be a significant part of the classroom experience. I do love music and believe that there is power in song. So, whether in church, in my car, doing the dishes, or teaching a classroom full of students, I will often find myself singing. If the Virginia No Tones existed at UVA when I was a student there, I might have seriously considered auditioning. In any case, here are some practical ways to use music in your classroom:

1. Listen to Music
Sounds easy enough (no pun intended)! But, how many teachers actually take advantage of an opportunity to play music in their classroom. Or even consider that those opportunities exist? I have a Grooveshark account with various playlists that I use throughout the year. I have playlists for the Women Suffrage Movement (which includes this Helen Reddy classic), American Indians, an European-themed list for an Explorers' Cafe menu activity, an African-American spirituals playlist of songs written and sung in cotton fields, and yes, even a Party Mix for those special occasions. In addition to these playlists, I listen to R. Kelly's "I Believe I Can Fly" and Sara Evans' "Born to Fly" as students enter my classroom on the day I teach procedures. My students hear the song "Rule Britannia" when I teach about the British Empire. While many students actually hate the song, it gets "stuck" in their heads, and many remember it months later. And, I play this musically-centered YouTube clip to introduce European Exploration:

I play Europe's "The Final Countdown" as students enter the classroom on the day before our end-of-year assessment.  It's crunch time. It's a big deal. It's the last day to review information as a group. It's the Final Countdown.

Music can be played while students are entering the classroom, when individuals or groups are working on a task, when students are completing a picture or gallery walk, or as the focus piece of a lesson to be studied and analyzed.

2. Play Entertaining Music Videos
There is a vast array of music videos on YouTube that are very useful for teaching students. If your school district prohibits access to YouTube, then they are causing students to miss out on some pretty cool stuff. I use a variety of music videos that I've found on YouTube including old School House Rock videos, Horrible Histories videos, and much more. There is a plethora of material out there for every content--the questions to ask when selecting a video are, "Is this appropriate for my students?", "Will students enjoy this?", and "Will they learn something from it?"

3. Star in Music Videos
I have already confessed that I cannot sing. But, sometimes, I just feel the need to do it anyways. Here's a song I sang as "Bob, the Archaeologist." If you are so bold as to listen, brace yourselves, some of it is quite painful to the ears.

At times, I talk to the kids about the importance of stepping out of their comfort zones, and this is one way in which I model that for them. Speaking of being out of comfort zones, I've even convinced my wife to record a rap under the name "Lady P." When the kids said that she didn't "know how to rap", they opened the door for a challenge. I told them that if they thought they could do better they should try it. I gave them a few days to memorize the rap and practice. This was victory for me and they didn't even know it! They memorized the very content that would soon be on their test!

My co-workers and I created another music video called the "Fresh Delegate of Philadelphia" to the tune of Will Smith's "Fresh Prince" theme song. Kids are shocked when they see the videos on YouTube and always want to know how many views it has and how they can find it.

4. Teach Students to Sing Songs
I've written songs about various topics. One song that I teach all of my students to sing is a song I wrote about the southern states that seceded. Before they learn it, I show them a video. In this version of the song, you will notice that I obviously played around with my voice.

Before I show this video to students, I call out and "thank" one female and one male student for staying after school with me the day before to record the video. I tell the students that the female student sings the first part and the male the second. While confused at first, they grow to appreciate my humor, particularly when they hear the deep voice of the second part. Then, I teach all the students the lyrics to the song and have them sing it. We eventually add in some solo parts and a few choreographed moves, and then we go perform for the secretary!

I also wrote a song about Westward Expansion entitled, "Write Me Maybe". Here it is, performed by some of my former students (with parental and student permission, this can be found on YouTube):

Several other students have shown interest in creating music videos for other songs that I have written, including "I'm on the Border" to the tune of the Black Eyed Peas song "I Got A Feeling" and "Did the English Settle" to the tune of "Do Your Ears Hang Low".

Another thing that I've done is provide every group the same set of lyrics. Then, in groups, students must pick a genre of music and perform a version of the song that fits the genre. Some possible genres: Hip-Hop, Country, Gospel, Rock, Rap, Folk, the Blues, Pop, Broadway Musical, Children's Song, etc.

5. Have Students Write Songs (and Perform Them!)
There are many ways that teachers can provide assignments geared toward songwriting. One way that I have assigned this is with my RAFT homeworks. I'll never forget one student's recorded performance of "We Belong Together" a love song between the Bill of Rights and the Constitution. He not only wrote the song, but he sang and played the trumpet as well!

Another way to have students write and perform songs is with a Who's Got Talent or American Idol-style competition. In this scenario, I allow students to compete as an individual, pair, or group--and they get to select who they work with. I provide students with particular criteria that they should include in their song and let them go at it. They can get pretty creative when we give them the time and space!

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Teaching the California Gold Rush (And Maybe A Few Life Lessons...)

A lot of history is storytelling. Kids love to hear the details and stories of individuals and events in history. The history of the Gold Rush is hard to tell without revealing the story of Sam Brannan. He was a printer, Mormon, and store owner, who made the most of any profitable opportunity he could. One such opportunity came when gold was found in California in 1848.  Sam Brannan, an entrepreneur, became the first millionaire west of the Mississippi River, but died without fame or enough money left to pay for his own funeral. This short clip reveals a bit more about his role in the California Gold Rush and will help you to understand my lesson activity: 

I start the class asking students if they have any scissors. For any student that does, I offer them a couple of pawbucks (our school currency) for their scissors. Many of them make the transaction and are excited about the additional money they can spend. The next thing I do is grab a freeze pop that I had hidden from them. I then take a pair of scissors (one of the bunch that I have monopolized) and cut the top and begin to enjoy the treat. 

Freeze Pops are great because they are affordable--100 ct. for $3.77 at WalMart!
Students immediately get excited about the prospects of finding more freeze pops around the room. But, I tell them that they must first have the means to make the freeze pop "worth it", that is, that they must first purchase a pair of scissors before they can seek the "fortune" they desire. Rather than charge the 2-3 pawbucks that I paid for each of their scissors, I now, having the monopoly, charge 15 pawbucks for each pair. Once they pay the price, they can have the scissors and find one freeze pop to enjoy. At the end of the simulation, it's easy for the kids to see and understand what I have done: I have sought to make a profit, somewhat ruthlessly perhaps. I also don't hide the fact that I have gotten "rich" as I wave the pawbucks around enthusiastically or fan a wad of them.

Once I've given everyone a freeze pop and returned their pawbucks and scissors, I show them the video above of Sam Brannan. We talk about profits, entrepreneurs, and the California Gold Rush, and even the San Francisco 49ers (briefly). I share with them the sad path that Sam Brannan's life took after acquiring such wealth--his expulsion from the Mormon church, his messy divorce that cost him half of his holdings, the squandering of his fortunes, his poor life choices that caused health issues, and his lonesome death that went practically unnoticed in southern California.  We talk about success. Was Sam Brannan a success? Even at his wealthiest? What makes one successful? We talk about decision making. Could Sam Brannan have made other decisions in his life that would have led to a more fulfilling life?

Kids enjoy hearing the tragic story of Sam Brannan. I love it too. Sure, it's an opportunity for me to talk about entrepreneurship, determination, and the Gold Rush, but it's also a chance for students to discuss the negative effects of greed, dishonesty, and self-absorption and to consider the positive impact of generosity, honesty, humility, and other-centeredness. 

Friday, April 4, 2014

Spring Break

Why I love Spring Break...

Summer's not too far away.
Pressure is off!
Rest and relaxation.
If I want to work, I can. If I don't, I won't.
Nice weather.

Baseball season has begun.
Rejuvenate for the testing season that approaches.
Exercise opportunities increase.
Able to travel!
Kind of nice to have a week off :)