Writing Ideas in Music, Part 3: Crossing the Acrostic for Compositions

Sometimes, the best inspiration for lesson plans for music (if you expand your horizons) can come from a school hallway. A few years ago, I walked past the third grade classrooms in my building and noticed some neat acrostic poems the kids had written based on the word "Missouri". I was looking for some unique ways to enhance and reinforce recorder playing for my third graders, and I was inspired. I asked the teachers to have the kids keep their poems at school a little while longer after they were taken down and I copied each one so the kids could write more on them.
First, the kids divided their words into syllables then notated the rhythm. I made sure they used natural speech rhythm, known as "prosody", to the best of their abilities for the rhythms with which they were familiar at the time. They wrote those rhythms above their words.
Next, the students got to select whether they wanted to use their recorders or barred Orff instruments to create their melodies. If the students chose recorder, they were limited to high C, A, or high D, the pitches I teach at that age. (More on that rationale in another blog.) If they wanted to include more pitched, they could use the barred Orff instruments. I encouraged them to build on a pentatonic scale to make it easier to create an improvisational accompaniment, but if they wanted to include fa and ti, then I told them they had to end on C. Some students chose to experiment with their instruments to come up with just the right melody; some chose to create a "mystery tune" and be surprised.
Finally,we had a practice session day. The next music day, students were given worksheets, and I called up one student at a time to play for me while I recorded their composition on Audacity. If they wanted me to (and their parents had signed the technology permission form), their clips were then included on my music class website.I also created a copy of their creation in Finale, so they could have a "real" printed copy of their composition.
In subsequent years, I took an extra day to have the kids write their poems in music class. Because of the Common Core changes, the writing focus in the regular classroom went away from poetry writing to more prose, opinion, and descriptive writing. I like the idea of being able to keep the creative writing, the poetic writing,in the music classroom.The students get practice with their penmanship and spelling, get a feel for rhythm and phrasing, and have a springboard for composition.
The last year before my sabbatical, my third graders' program theme was "School Daze". The students wrote acrostic poems about SCHOOL, and selected ones were used as introductions to each song that was performed. So, for instance, if a student had included a reference to physical education somehow in their poem, one of those poems would be read to introduce the song Exercise Tango from Plank Road Publishing. This idea, I believe, really helped make the program more "of the children's" and not so teacher oriented and run.
Sometimes, incorporating Common Core standards does not have to mean verbatim (unless you have strict directions to the contrary, which I find very unfortunate. Writing and other cross-curricular implementations should fit naturally with music, and vice versa, not forced. Kids know the difference). Don't be afraid to have them write a poem. Don't be afraid to post their poetry on the wall! We are about form. We are about structure and phrasing. We are about rhythm. And so is poetry.

Assessments and Worksheets and Handouts, Oh, My! The Organization Game

As music teachers collect more and more professional material (including Common Core standards for integration, handouts, schedules, IEPs, forms, resources.....) our rooms can look like a pack rat's idea of heaven. I'd like to share a few ideas, hard copy and cyber, to feel a little less stressed.

  • Glean and clean. Before starting, start trashing old papers in the recycle bin.Haven't used that worksheet in years? Part with it. Have a resource book you haven't looked at in a while and "someday" never comes? Pass it on to a new teacher. Rule of thumb: if it hasn't been used in three years,it probably never will. 
  • Take advantage of Target Dollar bins Dollar tree containers. When I was substituting while on my sabbatical to work on my PhD, I saw wonderful organization ideas. Those three drawer carts with wheels are awesome for instruments, class recorders, and other items. I found dollar plastic containers in the Target bin I play to use for my teacher resources (labeling them "Orff resources", "recorder music", "movement", "folk songs"....you get the idea). This means, that when you are looking for a resource, it is much easier to find in the cabinet.
  • A little expensive, but so nice looking....I'm in love with Thirty-One. I swear I'm not a consultant, but if it's an option, the company has wonderful folding file boxes, tote bags, and other items. Every once in a while, Thirty-One has a clearance sale with some great stuff. It wasn't cheap, but I recently purchased this item from them that I plan to use for accidental bars and mallets:

  • Three ring binders are wonderful. I've also asked parents to donate sheet protectors. I've used the binders for Music K-8 word sheets, worksheet handouts, and lesson plans that I've printed.
  • With children's literature, use the basket idea from Dollar Tree and use the little circle stickers for garage sale pricing and color code your books by topic (such as "rhyming", "song stories", "good for instrumentation", "vocal exploration", etc.)
  • For classroom management, another great idea I've seen: I blogged about a hanging chart that looks like a guitar  where I used clothespins for the kids to clip indicating their behavior level. Recently, I saw a few classroom teachers who would come to specials with a similar tool, only this was a cookie sheet with circle magnets with the students' names on them. Colored tape indicated the behavior level the kids were at. I've also seen this traveling "behavior scale" with a yardstick covered in colored tape with clothespins, but these clothespins would often get knocked off. The cookie sheet idea, however, worked very well! This could be a simple behavior chart if you can find inexpensive, small cookie sheets, one for each class, that you can keep in a larger plastic bin or "milk" crate.
What about cyber-storage?
  • Dropbox is a lifesaver. I love it. One year (when I was beginning my PhD program), I mistakenly left my flash drive by my school computer. I saw it before one class; after the class, it was gone. I looked all OVER for it, to no avail. It was my first semester or so, but I still had class notes on it from the webcam classes and the beginnings of my first paper for my comprehensive exams. Luckily, my adviser still had the copy of the paper I had emailed to her, and I was able to get notes from classmates. I cringe to think of what would have happened had I been working on my dissertation! That very day, I signed up for Dropbox and I don't regret it. I keep my school files, PhD files, handouts from my various presentations, Teachers Pay Teachers files,and many other items. The beauty of it is...you can download the software to any computer you work on, so I had it installed on my school computer and my laptop. On each computer, you can select which files you want to have downloaded to your hard drive, or you can access your files directly through the web browser.You can also share files.
ONE WARNING ABOUT FILE SHARING: If you share your link and share your files, ask those who downloaded your files to either change the file name or copy their files to another place. If they delete the file while it is in their DropBox folder, it will delete from everyone else's until you turn off the sharing feature in Dropbox for them.

I'm still learning about organization, but when I make myself stick to these ideas, my life is a lot easier!

Stay tuned for Facebook Frenzy! 

It is a great way to get some free products from various music teachers who are part of Teachers Pay Teachers. You can use my Facebook page as a launching point. If you like my page, you can download this free product:
Then, click on the link that takes you to the next music teacher Facebook page, like that page for another freebie, and so on. There are about 26 teachers participating!

Next time, I will discuss the writing and composition ideas I had mentioned in my last blog.

"I'm linking up with Lindsay Jervis from Pursuit of Joyfulness".

Part Two of Writin', Writing....Jazz Band Talk Show (or Classical Composer or Contemporary Musician....)

Under the Common Core standards for fifth grade includes writing narratives, conducting short research projects, and using the Internet for research. You could go the route of the regular research paper, but this is music. Music should involve a little creativity and performance!

One of the most entertaining units I've ever done with sixth grade is a jazz band talk show. With the writing requirements in Common Core, this can also be done for fifth grade.  Here is how I handled this:

  • I compiled a Power Point of basic information on Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Scott Joplin, and Ella Fitzgerald. This Power Point was merely to give them an idea of the backgrounds of these musicians so they could choose on which one they wanted to focus. (The Power Point is linked here.) I was very selective on the information, which you will see in the next steps. There are some hard knock issues on these musicians I wanted my students to know, such as drug abuse, but others, such as Billie Holiday's means of making a living, I deemed inappropriate for this age. You, of course, need to use your best judgement.
  • I used my Group Selector in Smartnotebook to select groups. I then went over the jobs each student in each group would have. The group members needed to decide on a musician, who was going to play the musician, the talk show host, and other jobs, such as sound, props, a director, cue card person, etc. It was their decision how to divide the jobs and how everyone needed to stay on task, and to report to me if there was someone who was not cooperating (backed by my observations).
  • The first step was to research their musician. I have various books for students that are about jazz musicians, plus age-appropriate websites (listed at the end of this blog). They were to compile 10 questions AFTER their research and couldn't limit themselves to "When did you die? "When were you born?", etc. I explained to the students that talk show hosts (or at least, good ones) and reporters do a little background work and formulate their questions based on what they already know about their subjects, so the interview would be more interesting. 
  • As the students compiled their questions, they wrote a script and began to formulate their performance. I didn't mind if they used cue cards, but they would be graded on if it appeared that they were actually reading the cue cards instead of glancing at them.
  • If the students were on task and had time, they were allowed to create a short commercial for fun, but the commercial would not be allowed if focus was taken away from the talk show.
  • Performance day was always so much fun! Sometimes, unfortunately, the students were reading from the cue cards and had not made good use of their time. Some of the performances were wonderful! The students learned a new respect for jazz, as well as teamwork.
Here are books that I have used, directed to their Amazon page:

Ella Fitzgerald: 

Louis Armstrong:

Benny Goodman
Miles Davis

Charlie Parker

Duke Ellington

Scott Joplin

The Chuck Vanderchuck website now houses the information PBS Kids used to have on jazz music. Please be careful and limit your students to only websites you have added to the school favorites. Make sure you cover yourself by sending a letter home about the project with links, letting parents know that, if students decide to do their own research, you have provided the links. Or, if you have Moodle (or something like Blackboard), include the links there.

You can, of course, also do a similar project with classical composers, other American composers, contemporary composers.....or those in various musical careers. You are staying musically relevant, you will provide performance opportunities, and you will be including Common Core-focused writing standards. 

Next up in incorporating writing: writing poetry and composing....

Writin', Writin', Writin'...Keep Those Kiddos Writin'......

Well, maybe not THAT much. But I know quite a few of you are being asked to incorporate writing, specific types of writing, into your classes. Writing that includes opinion pieces, informational pieces, narratives....where's the music in that? 

It seems frustrating at times to many to include such things and being concerned that this is one aspect for which you are responsible for assessing. Chances are, you are only responsible for reinforcing what the classroom teacher is teaching. But still, with limited time, how can you incorporate writing and make it musically meaningful? I'm going to be starting a series of ideas of incorporating a variety of writing styles in your music class AND make it meaningful, creative, and fun for your kids.

First of all, establish just how much writing you are expected to incorporate. You might be pleasantly surprised that you are only requested to include writing once a semester or once a year (at least, these specific types of writing). Considering that one of the music careers you could introduce to your older children is that of a music critic, there is a ready-made writing prompt right there.

Activity One: Music Critic of the Students' Own Music Program

Grades 3-6
Common Core Standard: Writing Standard One


  • Video of the classes' last performance or previous performance. (Or, find a YouTube of adult performances. I would not use performances of other children).
  • Paper, pencils, classroom dictionaries
  • Various clippings from music critics. (You can check online for various newspapers. Be careful! Some critics are pretty harsh, and that's not the purpose here).
  • Classroom rubric on writing from the classroom teacher

  1. If you are using your own class's video, I would show it once before this writing assignment. The kids will want to laugh at themselves and their antics and observe it more like a show. They will need to get this out of their systems first. Do this on a different day and do NOT discuss the logistics about the performance! Save it :-)
  2. On the day you begin the writing assignment, discuss the job of a music critic with the students. Discuss the meaning of "critique" and make sure the students understand that "critique" does not mean "negatively criticize". Discuss ways to phrase words to give constructive criticism without being demeaning.
  3. Give the students the following scenario: They are a music critic watching this performance from an audience. They MUST forget they were a participant in this show. They need to provide two descriptive sentences, using adjectives, adverbs, and any other means of writing required in their classroom. Display the writing rubric they use in class.
  4. Post the following writing prompts: a. Describe how well the performers projected their sound. b. What was the best part of the performance? c. Where could the performers improve? d. Tell us why you would or would not recommend this performance to your friends.
  5. If you have a computer lab or extra computer time handy (or if the kids can do this in their classroom with approval from the teacher), ask them to type their critiques, using a newsprint-type font. Display the best, most creative papers for your hallway. You can also copy the originals if a child would like to type this at home, and give them the copy so the original survives.
  6. If you have time, allow the students to illustrate their writings, or include photos their parents might have taken from the program. (The digital world can be wonderful, and it can give it that added "newspaper" feel).
  7. Keep a writing portfolio handy for these assignments. The classroom teacher might want to use these as samples or for support with the parents. 
  8. If several of the students type these, you could also make this into a book and keep the handwritten originals for samples. Many ideas!
Right here, you have met a few objectives: You have met a writing objective. You have given the students the opportunity to assess performances. You have helped the student develop their use of adjectives and adverbs. You have given a few of them bragging rights about having work displayed from music class. You have given them keyboarding practice. You have provided an opportunity for higher level thinking as they take prior knowledge and apply it critically. AND, it kept musical integrity, since performance critique and assessment is often a standard in state curricula. 

If you do written critique assignments with your own classes, please feel free to share these in the comments section! Next blog update on writing: finding a way to incorporate narrative and research without writing a whole musical ;-)
Think spring! I heard a robin sing today....

animations from http://www.netanimations.net/books.htm and http://www.pinkbirddesign.com/animation1.html