Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Last week I spent three exciting days teaching some 5th grade students in rural North Carolina how to write songs about books. This is a summary of the experience.  Thank you to all the amazing students and teachers! 

...Songwriting, 5th Grade Style!


Analyzing a poem, extracting key information  (faces deliberately obscured)



Long before entering this school, I was in contact with one of the teachers, working out the details.  She had told me the whole grade level would be tackling Locomotion, by Jacqueline Woodson, in a read-aloud/think aloud format.  I offered to tailor the workshop to this moving story (written in many different poetic forms) of eleven-year-old Lonnie, an orphan who uses writing as a way to work through life's ups and downs.

I designed the workshop with the intent of teaching these 80-some students how to write songs based on their interpretations of the book.

Day One:

After introducing myself, I used one of the book's poems to share my thought process in analyzing Ms. Woodson's words, looking at the world from Lonnie's point of view and creating an original verse from his perspective.  The students then helped identify the steps in the process, which we used for their template.  I shared how I put the words to music and we sang it together, along with a chorus I had prepared in advance (in a typical five day workshop format, students create the entire song). 

Modeling the songwriting creative process

Day Two:

Writing day!  Students, working in small groups, were assigned different poems from the book and, using the template they helped create on day one, began writing their verses.  The greatest challenge was revising lyrics to fit the rhythm of the song without losing meaning.  Students took this task so seriously and diligently that the process took longer than expected and many groups didn't quite finish their verses.  The creative buzz in each of the four classrooms was inspiring.

Day Three:

Performance day!   Before stepping in front of the microphone, several groups needed to finish their verses.  Then came rehearsal, a couple more revisions, and then it was show time!  Many students stepped way beyond their comfort zone to perform for their peers, and even the extremely introverted ones participated and many seemed to come out of their shells for "the moment."  Peer audiences were respectful, appreciative, and supportive.  It was a joy to see it all come together. 

Post-Workshop Thoughts:

Each time I conduct one of these workshops, I come away inspired.  I see the power of the arts in the learning environment.  I see how music can elevate the level of engagement and participation across diverse classrooms.  I see how music strengthens the ability to think and to sustain focus.  I see students become stronger through collaboration, problem solving, and perserverance. 

Above all, I see how music and songwriting help to improve literacy skills and heighten enthusiasm for learning.  I can't wait to do this again.  Maybe your students can be next?

Until next time...may your next book be music to your ears.



Monday, March 19, 2012

From a Story to a Song

I must be out of my mind!  A few months ago I resigned from my job as a reading teacher.  I'd been working in the same district for 12 years, trying my best to give struggling readers the literacy foundation essential for school and for life.

Why, in this economy, would I make such a monumental decision? 

The short answer is that I am following my heart and following my dream. 

I quit my teaching job in order to become a travelling artist in residence, teaching students to write songs about books!  That, in a nutshell, is what From a Story is all about. 

Am I really out of my mind?  Of course not.  This is all about passion!  As teachers and others involved in education, I know you can relate to that!

This blog will primarily focus on my journey from school based teacher to travelling educator.  I hope you will follow me and vicariously join me on this adventure.  Wait!  Not just vicariously!  Maybe you and I will have a chance to somehow work together, teaching YOUR students to write songs about books.  If you teach in the Triangle area of North Carolina, I would love to come to your school.  If you teach anywhere in the world, I would love to visit your classroom.  After all, the Skype's the limit!  (Ouch)

Brief Background

I've been incorporating music into teaching my whole teaching career.  From the very first time I walked into a classroom with a guitar, I noticed some immediate changes.  Students were focused,  curious, engaged, motivated, and very eager to participate.   I'm a pretty good teacher without the guitar, but there was something inspiring about that atmosphere that I knew I wanted to further develop.

I started writing and sharing songs about a variety of topics, from character education to Valentine's Day to math.  It was fun for me and fun for my students.  But fun doesn't always equate to learning, does it?

I started writing and sharing songs about the books we were reading (processing) together.  I quickly learned that the songs could be used for fluency practice, for comprehension, and much more.  The songs, for the most part, were effective teaching tools, but something was still missing.

Remember the Alamo Davy Crockett

That's when I started teaching students to write their own songs about books.  It started with four fifth grade boys and David Adler's A Picture Book of Davy Crockett.  They read it, discussed it, acted it out, and listened to the old TV show theme song.  Then they wrote their own tune they called "The Davy Crockett Remix."  These four struggling readers were transformed into confident rock stars!   

That was just the beginning.  Since then, I've had the pleasure of listening to many other literature based songs, written by students. 

And now, here I am taking this idea to the next level. 

In fact, this week I'll be starting a three day "From a Story" workshop with the entire fifth grade at a school right down the road.  These students are going to write songs based on Locomotion, by Jacqueline Woodson.  I've already planned it out with the teachers and I am ready!

I'll keep you posted!

Thanks again for joining me on this journey.  Please tell your friends, and consider having me visit your classroom.  My contact information is in the "About" section of this blog.

There is so much that can come "From a Story."