I work for an arts-based after school program called Wingspan in New York City where students attend a different ninety-minute class every day. Last year I began teaching songwriting, a subject that was completely new to me. Though songwriting is unfamiliar, I do have experience teaching writing and poetry, and have knowledge of basic music theory. I used these skills to write a syllabus that culminated in a final performance at the end of the semester though, as it always happens, some of these plans changed upon meeting my students.
This group was composed of first and second graders, and these particular students had a difficult time with focus and interest in the subject. My original line-up included a journey through music theory and poetry to eventually write an original song together, and although this did not end up happening, we were able to discover what worked for the students and interested them the most. I ended up flipping around my syllabus, beginning with writing to familiar tunes, and using these skills to explore the concepts at hand. It was much easier to grab their attention with material they already knew and guide them from there.
This group was really excited by popular songs and watching accompanying music videos, so I began by introducing them to different genres. At first, we played Bingo and musical chairs with different songs, but this was also not clicking for them. Instead, I focused on pop, so we could at least become acquainted with one genre. After I introduced them to kid-friendly songs such as “Old Town Road” by Lil Nas X and “All Star” by Smashmouth, I broke them into groups to write parody versions based on topics they chose themselves. This was not a success either. Breaking the song into parts was a difficult concept for them, so I ended up bringing them together as a class, and then things started to click. Working as a collective helped them stay focused and learn how to collaborate together in the writing process. We spent the remainder of the semester working through the song “Cool” by The Jonas Brothers. It was a simple song that they all knew, and it had a kid-friendly music video that energized them whenever we needed a boost of interest.
The students all voted to write our class song parody about pizza, and we proceeded to break down the song into sections, focusing on a new one each week. Working through this process gave our class the time to fully understand all of the elements that went into a song, and using familiar material was very successful as their brains already had a grasp on the basics. We looked at the song as pieces of a larger poem, breaking down the rhyme schemes and creating brainstorm webs for words that fit the rhythm we were writing.
While lesson planning, our supervisors always emphasize the use of activities from all artistic disciplines in conveying information. Kinesthetic learning worked well for these students: rather than teaching the concepts directly, we spent our time on activities and writing that taught skills through doing. We used improv games to learn about rhythm and dynamic, we learned new songs to help students understand rhyming patterns, and students wrote their own songs to teach them about process and collaboration. These methods were much more enjoyable to them than learning facts and concepts from a presentation or worksheet.
At the end of the semester we rehearsed the song together, adding motions to help them remember the words. On share day, I played the ukulele with them so that I could follow their pace and we performed the song for their guardians. The students were so excited to sing the words they wrote, including lines such as “Every time I sit alone, I think about Post Malone/ Sittin’ there eating like I’m winning a game show,” and “Now I’m feeling like goo, you can put on pepperoni too.” They encouraged each other to keep going upon stumbles and we all worked together to make it the best performance we could!
Taylor Hunsberger is an essayist, poet, and educator currently residing in Brooklyn. She has written for Manor Vellum, Screen Queens, and The Broadway Beat. During the day she works for Wingspan, an arts-focused after school program, where she is a Site Assistant and teaches music classes to elementary students. In addition, Taylor is an Outreach Artist for Urban Stages where she tours her and her collaborator's original children's musical "Juno's Alien Adventure" to libraries around the city. In the words of her favorite poet Olivia Gatwood, she is a "good girl, bad girl, dream girl, sad girl." More of her work can be found at www.taylorhunsberger.com or @tayparade on social media.