My curriculum unit will be on using music to help learn about poetry and poetry writing. I am a music teacher at Beecher Elementary School where we are focusing as much attention as possible on developing early literacy skills. By using selections from student poetry we will be engaged in modeling good oral/written examples, as well as developing constructive criticism abilities.
I view the pairing of music and poetry as being collaborative between fellow arts, but that has not always been the case. Poetry, in medieval thinking, is oriented toward grammar and rhetoric but music has a mathematics and science origin. There are conceptual as well as historical differences. Poetry and verse are made from words that are representative of reality, whereas the language of music is abstract. But aside from these constructive differences music and verse share many similar ideas- ideas like repetition, rhythm, accent, pulse, meter, sequence and dramatic climax to name some terms common to both arts. I intend to use some of these similar and also contrasting ideas to help students further their ability to write poetry and consequently their writing skills. I hope to use this with my third grade students, but the approach could easily be adopted up and down the entire grade spectrum. The unit will take six to eight weeks of meeting twice a week for a half hour and will culminate in a performance of student work.
Beecher serves a population of about five hundred students. The student body is about 95% African American, the remainder being Hispanic, a few students of Middle Eastern origin and some White children. Each class has a few children with problems; some classes have many kids with issues. For some of our students school may be the most stable environment in which they participate. Many of them have difficult home lives. Some of them are being raised by single parents, relatives and stepparents. Our students display a wide range of academic abilities. This year, our school received a grant to implement a reading program at the kindergarten and first grade levels and this has had positive results. It is in the spirit of intervention that I am developing this unit to utilize musical skills to help students write and perform poetry. I am hopeful that the students will be inspired by learning more about their own poems with a variety of music composition techniques, and that this will reinforce and reward their efforts.
First the students will be encouraged to write poems. Appropriate examples will be read from the existing body of children's literature; nursery rhymes will be used as examples, and themes to write on will be provided if needed. The students will work on their pieces at home and in collaboration with their classroom teachers. Once a core of work emerges I will start using some music ideas to underlie and broaden the students' understanding of their poems.
One commonly used technique will be to have the group learn someone's poem by reciting it from memory. Then the teacher will clap the syllables of the poem while the class recites it. Next you could have part of the class recite the poem and the other part accompany them by clapping the rhythm of the syllables. Then you could recite the poem and clap the syllables in a "round" type fashion, having multiple entries. This kind of tool helps underscore the phonological process of how the syllables are arranged, the prosody that the words make and the recognizable framework that the syllable clapping represents. Now we have a piece of writing that has an accompaniment to it. We could elaborate the music by using hand held drums or shakers. We could stagger entrances of different body part percussion (hand claps, finger snaps, knee slaps) and then we would have a complex multi-level piece, all based on the initial poem.
Another ensemble idea would be to accompany and improvise to a poem. The students could use instruments like a hand held drum, triangle, wood blocks, xylophone and tambourine. The instrumentalists could be instructed to play or 'stand out' when certain characters are developed (as in "Peter and the Wolf", where the horns represent the Wolf and the strings represent Peter). Or the students could underscore the natural pauses, low points and climaxes. All of this would develop sensitivity to the storyline and characters as well as evolve critical listening skills. Some of this should positively influence the student's own writing ability.
Another compositional idea would be drawn from musique concrete. We could accompany the readings with sounds that imitate the written words. For example if the word "wind" or "windy" was used some students could make a whoosh sound to elicit wind. Rain on a roof could be a type of shaker and thunder could be some deep drumming. The students would use their listening skills in looking for opportunities to exploit sounds that imitate actions in the writing. Another way to think of this kind of background is to recall the old radio techniques; a horse trotting might be clip clop sounds from wooden blocks. This collage-like approach may seem modernistic but there is something esthetically pleasing about imitating the sounds that are spoken, and it somehow enhances the student's perception of the written word.
Altogether these three concepts focus on how I will use music techniques to help my students with their poetry and writing skills. After having collected enough poems the class will do some editing and reworking of their pieces. Then we will practice the accompaniment of our work for a few sessions. Finally, we will have a performance at our school where the students and parents can see how we advanced our poetic abilities.
I am part of a team and my unit will be focused on third grade. Jean Sutherland, a third grade teacher, and Gerri Martin, a first grade teacher, are the other team members from Beecher. Jean Sutherland is concurrently developing a third grade unit drawing from the poetry of Shel Silverstein to inspire students to write their own pieces. I intend to use the student's work as they develop it but will use nursery rhymes and work of my own devising to model for the students what the poems can evolve into.
I believe that by using techniques from music my students will acquire a better understanding of writing and reading. I also think that the influence of music on poetry and vice versa will make the learning process more fun, therefore more satisfying. We will not just be making up poems; we will be coming up with a concert to go with them. And as we are making up the music for the concert we will be going over critical ideas like rhythm and pulse and accent. I hope that these opportunities to highlight common ideas about poetry and music will help the students in all their literacy efforts.
1) To develop writing skills
2) To develop analytic skills
3) To discover the connection between rhythm, repetition and prosody in poetry
4) To encourage creativity
5) To use music compositional techniques to support and expand the meaning of poems
6) To inspire in the students a new faith in the power of words