Thursday, February 28, 2008


In my district we have, as many others these days, a big push toward literacy. No Child Left Behind (NCLB to those in the know) has made math, science, and especially reading of heightened importance. It's not like we shouldn't improve those skills in our kids, don't get me wrong. But there is no way to achieve perfection in this world and that makes NCLB unrealistic and destined to fail.

But that's not why I'm writing today. I'll get on that soapbox at another point in time. I'd love to say that isn't true, but I just can't help myself. I'll beat that dead horse until it's an unrecognizable pancake in the dust. No, today I'm writing about one of the ways I love to "integrate literacy into the music curriculum."

First and foremost, I'm tired of being considered a "special" subject, as if it's something so totally unusual. If they are going to call me a "special" then let me have my students as often as the special education teachers get theirs instead of once every 8-10 calendar days. Then maybe I can accomplish something and they will be able to see how very valuable music education is to all the other core areas.

Second, I think it's high time that "integration across the curriculum" stopped meaning the arts have to alter their plans to include science, math, and reading (which we always have, anyway, as they are inherent in our subjects) and make it truly cross-curricular. In other words, classroom teachers need to learn how to effectively implement the arts into their daily routines for the sake of their students' development and learning.

So rather than look for books I can read to my classes that might somehow tie into whatever I'm talking about (i.e., read a turkey book just because I'm teaching Thanksgiving songs...which takes away from the time I need to spend teaching the music concepts and textual meaning in those songs), I'm looking for books that can teach my concepts and reinforce my curriculum. And where do we find the best connection? Books about musicians? sure. Books about music instruments? sure. But the most influential, music-related, literacy-connected materials are poems.

Poetry, like music, gives flight to the soul and expresses what prose cannot. Poetry, like music, speaks in meter and flows like water over our spirits, expressing our deepest thoughts and feelings. One literacy teacher said that we need to teach children to read and write poetry in order to teach them to be human. Poetry, like music, expresses what it is to be human.

But I also have to teach the mechanics of music (you know it as "theory," a term that strikes fear into all but the geekiest musical souls) and that includes how to work in different parts at the same time. Poetry teaches partwork? Yes, yes it does. Paul Fleischman has written three collections of poems for children - I Am Phoenix: Poems for Two Voices; Big Talk: Poems for Four Voices; and Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices. These nifty little gems are designed to be spoken/read by multiple readers at the same time. Written in columnar format, the words are staggered between the columns so the parts take turns or read at the same time, either in unison or different words at the same time. A challenge, yes, but fun for the kids AND a great lead-in to singing in two parts.

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