This year, our school-wide instructional focus at the Lilla G. Frederick Pilot Middle School is about increasing students’ reading levels. Our Instructional Leadership Team collaborated on the writing of this statement, an important promise to our students – reading at and above grade level.
Educators in all content areas will use benchmark and formative data to plan and implement instruction that deeply engages students in reading, writing, speaking, listening, and creating, moving toward all students reading at and above grade level.
Yesterday, our Summer Literacy Team met after a summer spent reading – we landed on Moat’s Speech to Print and Roe, Burns, and Wade’s Teaching Reading in Today’s Elementary Schools (9th edition).
These photos capture the sharp thinking of our team of Boston Public Schools’ Educators. I am excited to use writingisthinking.org as a platform to document our work throughout the year.
It’s eight in the morning, and every student is singing.
Across the classroom and in the hallways, groups of students are dancing, arguing, laughing. Over the last twenty-four hours, they have practiced at school, at each other’s houses, even over video chat. Soon, they will perform original songs for the class.
What topic inspired such fervor? An unlikely suspect: the Ganges River.
I often bring music into my fifth and sixth grade social studies classes, and I’ve even written a few songs for students. But I rarely asked students to write songs themselves. It’s too unpredictable, I’d thought. Too unstructured and challenging for most kids. But here we were on a Friday morning, just a few hours away from the students’ performances about a river in India.
How did it go? You can see for yourself:
Something about writing songs resonated with the students in a way that essays and study guides can’t match. For this reason, I believe songwriting in the classroom is worth exploring, particularly for honoring the strengths and needs of English language learners and students with disabilities.
Writing SAM Songs
The method I have developed and used for teaching songwriting is called “SAM Songs.” The graphic organizer for students is below:
The project will take at least three class periods: two for writing and one for performances.
To introduce the project, ask your students to share their favorite songs. After hearing from your students, tell them, believe it or not, they have the chance to sing these songs in class. Explain that you are trying something new: students will be writing songs to learn, and they will perform these songs for one another. Help students envision the project with an example. For instance, you might show students the “No Taxation Without Representation” clip from the above video (3:44 to 6:03) or “Dump It Off” below:
Introduce the guiding question for the project. This is what students will answer with their songs. The question, like an essay prompt, should require research and critical thinking. For example:
What were the causes and effects of the Boston Tea Party?
When should a person use estimation?
What are the major sources of renewable energy, and how do they work?
How does daily exercise affect the body?
In what ways can an author establish mood in a text?
Tell your students to include relevant vocabulary (“Say”), take perspectives (“Act”), and use motions to reinforce vocabulary (“Move”) in their songs. If you plan to grade the songs, introduce the rubric.
Allow students to form groups of three to four and begin researching. From my experience, letting students choose their groups keeps students invested in the project and happy with their teammates.
During the songwriting process, students will be loud. They will move around. Some groups will follow the process faithfully, while others will excitedly start picking a song to parody. My advice: embrace the energy, and have faith in your students. The creative process will look different for everyone, and I’m always impressed by what my students accomplish. Students will sometimes ask for help when they are searching for just the right words or trying to explain a concept clearly. With some exceptions, I tell them, “That sounds challenging. I know you can figure it out.” Sure enough, most students do.
Students continue writing and rehearsing. During this time, look over students’ lyrics, ask students to show you motions for particular words, and challenge students to incorporate relevant vocabulary into their songs. If students finish, they can practice and give other groups feedback. Before class ends, encourage groups to make plans for practicing outside of school.
Class Three – The Performances:
While students rehearse for five minutes, make a stage area and prepare any music tracks on your computer or phone. Assign one student to start music tracks and another to film performances. After each performance, take a few audience shout-outs before moving on to the next performance. Later, you can show videos of the performances. Students love watching these, and it’s a great way to wrap up the project.
Benefits for ELLs and SWDs
From my experience, songwriting has three clear benefits for English language learners and students with disabilities:
Combines speaking, listening, reading, writing, and moving
When songwriting, students speak, listen, read, write and move, and in a way that comes naturally to the activity. If I’m writing a song about the Himalayas, I’m writing the word Himalayas, saying it, reading it, hearing students around me say it, and doing a motion that relates to the word. I also repeat the word many times because I am practicing for my performance. For an ELL or SWD, what could be more immersive than this?
Makes misconceptions visible
When students use motions in their songs, you can see students’ understanding, or lack thereof. For instance, for the Ganges River project, one group was singing about Indians praying in the river. As they sang, the students made a cross with their fingers, despite having learned that most Indians are Hindu, not Christian. It signaled to me that something was misunderstood: Hinduism, praying, or the meaning of the cross symbol. This misconception was unlikely to appear in ordinary writing.
Perhaps the most important benefit of songwriting for ELLs and SWDs is how engaging it can be for these students. Students who have trouble sitting still are out of their seats, singing and dancing. English language learners are explaining ideas and using vocabulary without fixating on grammar and syntax. And songwriting is challenging for all students. When ELLs and SWDs see that they aren’t alone in the struggle, they feel up to the challenge.
I was at the copy machine one afternoon, the day before students performed their songs. One of my students, a former ELL, ran up to me in the hallway.
“Yes?” I asked, surprised.
The student, out of breath, replied, “What’s the place where Hindus pray?”
Earlier that afternoon, I asked my students how songwriting made them feel. One student who has a disability gave this answer:
“Like I woke up. Like I’m covered with lava!”
(I checked with the student later, who assured me that this is a good thing.)
These are the kinds of moments we all hope for as teachers. Through songwriting, we have the potential to engage all of our students – ELLs, SWDs, and their general education peers. Imagine what is possible when all our students “wake up.”
Ben Leddy teaches fifth and sixth grade Social Studies in Boston. Ben presented at 2015 Boston EdTalks, where he introduced the SAM songwriting method for using songs in the classroom. For more information or inquiries, visit www.benleddy.com, or email Ben at firstname.lastname@example.org.