Making Musical Links with Literacy

I love making music with kids aged 3-6, especially pairing music with early literacy learning, which is a natural fit.

I once taught at a preschool where the director told me: “Just have fun singing with the kids,” implying that they’d pick up the literacy learning elsewhere in their day. I understand what she meant, but she missed the point. Childhood music and early literacy are so intertwined that it’s hard to make music with young children without touching upon key literacy skills.

Consider the topic of rhythm. Rhythm is a part of language, just as it’s part of music. Many music teachers incorporate syllable segmentation into their lessons by having students clap their names or tap words on a drum. Musical rhythm becomes interchangeable with language rhythm. Just as they segment musical phrases, children hear and understand multi-syllable words in chunks that can be sounded out and broken into smaller elements.

Or consider another activity we often do with young children: saying a familiar rhyme and letting the child fill in a rhyming end word. For example: Patty cake, patty cake, baker’s man. Bake me a cake as fast as you ___ (the child fills in can). Songs and nursery rhymes are a natural vehicle for children to hear, express and initiate rhyming words, thus distinguishing vowel sounds and building phonological awareness.

On any given day, my music lesson includes songs that perfectly complement the other literacy activities during the child’s day at school. Here are some of those elements:

A finger play song such as “Tommy Thumb is Up” incorporates sequencing and characters, building children’s insight into the elements of stories. I use a glove puppet and give each character distinct personality traits, including the contrary “Ruby Ring.”

Finger plays also build manual dexterity as children work toward handwriting skills. Here’s a link to a recording of this song, although you should note that I have different names for some of the fingers in this song: Tommy Thumb, Penny Pointer, Toby Tall, Ruby Ring and Pinky Finger.

My version of “The Muffin Man” engages children with starting letter sounds in verses about “Muffin Man,” the “Lemonade Lady,” the “Cookie Cat” and the “Donut Dog,” to name a few. I add visuals by using a sign with key words and a picture for each verse.


“Icky Sticky and Ooey Gooey” gives students a chance to hear and guess rhymes by connecting a word to a rhyming body part (sand-hand, tree-knee, hoe-toe, track-back).   I use spoon puppets to engage children visually and create a sense of fun.

Movement activities, always part of my music lessons, have many literacy links. When children imitate caterpillars and butterflies on my song “If I Were a Butterfly,” they build their understanding of a sequenced nonfiction narrative.

If they act out my musical version of “The Tortoise and the Hare” to learn about tempo, they’re getting a taste of the fable genre and building understanding that all stories have a beginning, middle and end. They might develop a similar understanding by acting out my “Three Little Pigs” song, described in another post on this blog.

I love language, stories and poems, so to me, the literacy element has special appeal in music lesson planning. Musical concepts on their own, even for young children, can be somewhat abstract. Literacy content grounds the music lesson in the familiar world. At a workshop with Andy Davis of New England Dancing Masters, he talked about telling stories to introduce new songs to young children. He understands the connection that children naturally make with a good storyteller or a book, which often can lead into a song.

The reverse is also true. A song can get children’s attention on a literacy topic. A teacher can begin a lesson on rhyming words having the children join in singing a rhyming song. My songs on word families, sound segmentation and syllable clapping are a natural lead-in to spoken lessons on those topics, especially once the kids know the songs and can sing along and even help compose their own verses. You can find most of the literacy songs I’ve mentioned on my download album, Songs for Rhyming and Reading. I just added two new rhyming songs to this album, so be sure to check it out!

My first love in teaching is music, but I firmly believe in all the connections that music can make to everything else in a child’s world. The connection with emergent reading is a total natural!

Seek & Find the Joy in Music!

CMN has made a big difference in the work I do in Boston's public schools.

There’s nothing like getting up & singing and dancing!

Seek the joy! It’s one of the guiding principles of the elementary school I helped to found in the summer of 2015. It’s the core principle of my music classroom. Recently, at a pre-holiday gathering, our school staff all wrote shout-outs to each other. I saw “joy” repeatedly in the comments for me, so I know I’m doing the right thing!

Sometimes when I get muddled up in thinking about curriculum and benchmarks and those academic-sounding terms that govern our lives in education, I shake it off by returning to singing, dancing, and storytelling. I summon the joy.

Joy can mean a lot of things. Here are some images of joy in my world:

Joy is when I get out as many instruments as possible and let as many people as possible play them.

Joy is watching the mouths of our students fall open when I bring my friend who plays double-bass to the school and they think it’s a giant violin.

Joy is dancing just to the edge of losing control (and sometimes a little beyond it).

Joy is joining the kindergarteners in trying out the simple circle dance that I just taught them. Then they push me out of the circle saying, “Ms. Buchanan, let us do it ourselves.”

Joy is kids throwing colorful scarves in the air and catching them on various body parts (or not).

Joy is singing, yet again, the song that I think everyone’s sick of, but then someone yells, “That’s my favorite” or “I love this one!”

Joy is when a child is so excited to tell me, “I listened to your CD on the radio!”

Joy is when I bring my fellow children’s singers to the school – one African American and one Latino – and so many children (and teachers) are thrilled to see musicians who look and talk like them.

"Culture Queen" Jessica Smith visited my school in early 2016, bringing joy and cultural understanding.

“Culture Queen” Jessica Smith visited my school in the spring of 2016, bringing joy and cultural understanding.

Joy is telling simple stories and having the kids play instruments for all the characters.

Joy is seeing the kids take over the glockenspiels during play time and use the simple notes that I created to play the songs over and over again.

Joy is the excitement of getting a new xylophone! Purchased on a whim on cyber Monday, it still  wasn’t cheap, but it looks and sounds so beautiful.

Joy is when I hear a first-grade boy sing solo on “This Land is Your Land.” His skin is brown, and it IS his land. His teacher has tears in her eyes.

Whatever else you resolve to do in the New Year, resolve to seek the joy. And find it!

Thoughts on This Surreal Election

Mural from Memphis, near the hotel where Martin Luther King was assassinated.

Mural from Memphis, near the hotel where Martin Luther King was assassinated.

What follows is a brief departure from my usual postings. This year’s election affects everyone of every age, and for the moment, it’s overshadowing my passion for making joyful music with children.

First, I just need to know if there’s a parallel universe where Hillary got elected. If so, how can we go there?

Assuming this isn’t an option, please read on.

Like most of people here in my liberal/progressive bubble, I have a strong personal revulsion toward the President-elect. His looks and voice make my skin crawl. I’m outraged, incensed, and deeply saddened not only that this man repeatedly expressed such bigoted, sexist, hateful attitudes, but that millions of Americans were willing to cast their votes for him. How could they have watched the ad with the images of children watching Trump’s hateful behavior and still think this guy was a remotely acceptable choice? No matter how many explanations I hear about Trump voters’ mindset, I can’t get my head around it.

But I’m not going to stop following the news or get off social media. I wouldn’t even think about leaving the United States. It’s my civic duty as an American to educate myself and advocate for what I believe in, not run away. It’s especially my responsibility as a privileged white person to be an ally to every single one of my friends, colleagues, students and all the people I don’t know who are not white, not straight, not American citizens, and not economically advantaged. They are the most vulnerable to the likely effects of the coming Republican regime.

So as Donald Trump begins his march toward the White House, here are a few ways I hope his feet get held to the fire.

Will the public & the media continue to pressure him to release his tax returns? He said he would release them when the IRS audit is over. It can’t go on forever. It would be useful to examine in detail all the ways Trump admittedly used the system to legally escape paying taxes. Maybe there were illegal ways, too. Let’s hold his feet to the fire.

Trump declared he knows so much about the tax code from his own experiences that he’ll be the most qualified to change it. Does this mean he will propose massive tax reforms that will eliminate loopholes that benefit super-rich people like himself? He excoriated Hillary for failing to do so during her many years of public service.  Now he has his chance. Let’s hold his feet to the fire.

Trump is on record saying that he supports many of the services that Planned Parenthood provides for women’s health.  Since abortions only account for 3 percent of the services provided by Planned Parenthood (not 94% as Republicans in Congress have contended) will Trump resist Congress when they vote to de-fund Planned Parenthood?  Let’s hold his feet to the fire.

According to a Sept. 4 report on Trump’s visit to a black church in Detroit (one of his few events with black voters), Trump said the nation needs “a civil rights agenda of our time,” with better education and good jobs. In typical fashion, he said his economic plans will be “so good for Detroit.”

As a teacher in a school that serves at-risk children, I have a very personal stake in seeing if and how Trump will make good on this promise. It’s so easy to stand at a church or rally and promise everything will be “so good” and everybody will have great jobs and great schools. Actually doing something is one of the most difficult challenges of our time. Let’s hold his feet to the fire.

The current level of economic inequality is mind-blowing, and its effect on our poorest citizens is profound. Trump repeatedly asked African American voters what they had to lose by voting for him. The cynic in me says it was all just demagoguery, and in fact African Americans and all people of color have a tremendous amount to lose. Trump could prove the cynics wrong. Let’s hold his feet to the fire.

I’m impressed by the civility that Democratic officials, including President Obama, Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, and the Clintons themselves, have shown toward Trump since the election. Given what Trump said very loudly before the election about the rigged system and perhaps not conceding if he lost, I doubt he would have been so civil.

In a speech to union members, Warren expressed understanding and empathy for the millions of people who voted for Trump not out of bigotry but “out of frustration and anger – and also out of hope that he would bring change.” She went on to say: “When his goal is to increase the economic security of middle class families, then count me in. I will put aside our differences and I will work with him to accomplish that goal. I offer to work as hard as I can and to pull as many people as I can into this effort.”

Contrast Senator Warren’s sentiments with those of Republicans, most notably Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, who swore in 2009 that his number one goal was not to work with the newly-elected President Obama to counter the effects of the worst economic downturn since the great Depression, but to do all he could to secure Obama’s defeat four years later.

McConnell and his fellow Republicans repeatedly and brazenly repudiated Obama’s initiatives, not just to address economic misery, but to enact policies that had previously enjoyed significant Republican support such as immigration reform. The basic tenets of the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) – a system that provides universal healthcare mostly through private companies – originally had strong support from Republicans. Mitt Romney ran away from it in 2012, but it was his signature achievement as Governor of Massachusetts.

Fortunately, like the 1980 election that brought Ronald Reagan to power, Trump’s election will have a galvanizing effect for progressive causes. My December contributions this year will go to organizations that fight bigotry, defend women’s reproductive rights, demand action on climate change, and aim to overturn Citizens United, redraw congressional district lines and end the charade of “voter fraud” measures that disenfranchise people of color.

And while I’m sympathetic to Sen. Warren’s desire to work with President Trump to accomplish his goals, I am a loyal Democrat and will do everything in my power to help elect Democrats in the midterm elections and end Trump’s presidency in 2020, if he doesn’t get driven out of office before that. I’m excited about the Democrats who did win their elections this year, especially the new women in the Senate, and I’m confident that many new, fresh faces of Democratic leadership will arise. The present is heartbreaking, but the future looks far more progressive in many, many ways.

Why We Need Music in School – A Response

16685614_SSMusic education is good because it helps raise students’ test scores. I recently read an article by teacher and blogger Peter Greene that adamantly contends we should not use this argument to justify music education.

Hmmm. Why not? If test scores go up when music is part of the school curriculum, doesn’t this tell us something important about the power of music?

It seems to me we have a “both-and” situation here. I agree with Greene that we should value music in schools because of music itself. Music is universal, it’s beautiful, it helps us get in touch with our deepest feelings. It’s transcendent, builds community and helps everyone participating feel like a winner. And for many students, it’s one of the highlights of school.

But wait, there’s more! Music also has this incredible effect on the brain. Let’s celebrate that the field of neuroscience has been very busy documenting the beneficial impacts. Bestsellers such as the late neurologist Oliver Sacks’ Musicophilia and neuroscientist Daniel Levitin’s This is Your Brain on Music have brought scientific research on the human experience with music into the popular culture.

Levitin’s book contains elaborate brain diagrams showing that nearly all parts of the brain are utilized in processing musical experiences, not just those related directly to listening and language, but also the memory center in the hippocampus, the timing circuits in the cerebellum, the planning centers in the frontal lobe, and the motor, sensory and visual cortexes.

Sacks noted that these many different parts of the brain often work together when one is making music.  “For the vast majority of students,” Sacks wrote, “music can be every bit as important educationally as reading or writing.”

Shouldn’t the fact that music is good for your brain be one of the main reasons for teaching music in school? Why not make a connection between musical aptitude and many other abilities?

As Harvard’s Howard Gardner explained in his landmark work on multiple intelligences, musical intelligence “should be viewed differently from our other intelligences, because it carries more emotional, spiritual and cultural weight than the other intelligences. While also helping people organize the way they think and work, it helps them develop in other areas, such as math, language, and spatial reasoning.”

I’ve been particularly drawn to the connections between music and learning to read. Music is a natural fit with learning about sound, about rhymes, about language. I often say that music is actually the best way to learn many early literacy skills. But you don’t have to believe me, just consider some of the many studies out there that confirm this conclusion.

Studies going back nearly fifty years show a correlation between instruction in the Kodály music system, a folk song-based method which originated in Hungary, and improvement in students’ reading ability. This relationship was tested first in the Hungarian student population (Kokas, 1969), and again in American children during their first year of school (Hurwitz et al., 1975).  The Hurwitz study found significant differences in academic achievement, including reading, between children who had received the Kodály music instruction and those who had not.

Additional studies specifically focused on early literacy showed that:

  • Children who could tap a regular rhythm achieved greater success at early phonological awareness activities. (1)
  • Children who had regular music instruction scored better on pre-reading assessments. (2)
  • Children who were taught pre-reading skills using music had higher assessment scores than those in classes that didn’t use music. (3)
  1. David, D., Wade-Wodley, L., Kirby, J., and Smithrim, K. (2007). Rhythm and reading development in school-age children: a longitudinal study. Journal of Research in Reading, 30 (2), 169-83.
  2. Gromko, J. (2005). The effect of music instruction on phonemic awareness in beginning readers. Journal of Research in Music Education, 53(3), 199-209.
  3. Fisher, D. (2001). Early language learning with and without music. Reading Horizons, 42(1), 39-49.

Sure, let’s absolutely enjoy music for its own sake, but let’s also connect music to literacy, math, science and social studies. Why limit the benefits of music to the music classroom?

Perhaps, as Greene suggests, it’s unfortunate that we need to use improving test scores to justify anything we do in schools. But I’m coming to accept that education is increasingly data driven, and in many ways that’s not a bad thing, as long as it’s kept in the proper perspective. (And yes, I know that it often isn’t.)

The bottom line is I’m not surprised at all about the correlation between studying music and achieving higher test scores. And if that’s what it takes to keep music programs in schools, by all means keep using that argument!

I Learned About Orff This Summer!

Pitched percussion instruments are an important part of the Orff approach to teaching music.

Pitched percussion instruments are an important part of the Orff approach to teaching music.

During the summer of 2016, I had lots of adventures. While traveling through the American south, I stopped at the University of Memphis for two weeks to take a course about an approach to music education called Orff.

Orff isn’t an acronym, it’s the name of the founder, Carl Orff, a 20th Century German Composer. Composer Gunilde Keetman was an indispensable partner to Orff in the development of the teaching approach, called Orff Schulwerk. Perhaps because of her gender, she didn’t get credited in the name!

The American Orff Schulwerk Association (AOSA) describes the approach as follows:

“In Orff Schulwerk classrooms, children begin with what they do instinctively: play! Imitation, experimentation, and personal expression occur naturally as students become confident, life-long musicians and creative problem solvers. The Orff approach to teaching is a model for optimal learning in 21st Century classrooms.”

Here are a few important things I learned about Orff during my two weeks. Orff uses pitched percussion instruments such as glockenspiels and xylophones to help students create their own music that really sounds good! For beginning students, instruments are often put in a pentatonic scale (by actually removing the non-pentatonic keys), so that whatever the student plays will blend with other notes being played.

For those non-music majors who don’t know, a pentatonic scale is a scale with five pitches instead of the usual seven in the typical octave. The notes “fa” and “ti,” are omitted. The result is a sound that is often heard in ethnic folk music such as Irish music, as well as in the blues. As mentioned above, a pentatonic scale permits a blend with whatever other note is being played, often creating a lush sound. Orff also uses non-pitched percussion instruments of all kinds to add various effects to the music being played.

A second important thing I learned about Orff is that body percussion plays an important role in teaching. Students often echo a teacher’s body percussion movements to begin learning a rhythm pattern or song. Body percussion might be on several levels, including a stomp, clap, tap on the chest or thigh, or snapping the fingers. Body percussion for younger students is kept simple, either with a simple combination such as tapping thighs and clapping hands, or keeping to one level, such as stomping feet, marching or clapping hands.

One of the Dancing Masters' many publications.

Folk dances and movement activities from the New England Dancing Masters are often part of Orff class activities.

Indeed, feeling the music in the body through movement is also an essential part of Orff, as is the case in the other musical pedagogy I’ve studied, Dalcroze. We spent 75 minutes of each day during our 2-week Orff course on movement activities, including moving freely to various types of music, choreographed movements and folk dances.

There’s much more to tell! I hope to post more on this blog about how I’m using Orff in my music classroom this year.

New CD Features Friendly Dragon

CD cover art by Molly Knobloch, with graphic design by Mel Green.

CD cover art by Molly Knobloch, with graphic design by Mel Green.

My new CD is here! It’s called “Amazing!” It has a happy, musical dragon on the cover, drawn by my talented artist daughter, Molly Knobloch. The dragon is featured in the song “No Fire, Dragon!” which I wrote 10 years ago while working in a preschool classroom of children aged 3 and 4, in Lexington, MA.

For a limited time, you can hear this song for free on my SoundCloud site. The recording features the excellent sax playing of Billy Novick, who’s brought his multiple musical talents to several of my CDs.

But back to the song’s origins. I was just starting to write songs based on the reflections of children in the classrooms where I taught. I brought in a dragon puppet and asked the children what kind of song I should write about my dragon. A little girl held up her hand and shouted, “No fire, dragon!”

With those words, a song was born. I worked from the comments of the children, who wanted a friendly dragon they could play with. In practical terms, they wanted to be sure that the dragon wouldn’t breathe fire, or eat them or their pets. They also liked the idea that the dragon could fly them around the sky, rather than playing its more traditional role of getting into duels with knights.

While I never recorded the dragon song up until now, it has served me well over the years. For ten summers, I produced original plays at the summer camp at the Arlington Center for the Arts, where I now serve on the board. These plays were freewheeling affairs where I would present a story, then let the cast decide their roles. We’d make up some songs and improvise scenes that would get written into the final script. We’d also sing some songs that I came up with in advance, both my original songs and a few from other sources.

One play that we produced twice was the story of The Reluctant Dragon by Kenneth Grahame, written in 1898. Grahame’s dragon seems to fit right in with the “No Fire” message; it prefers to hang out in its cave and write poetry rather than getting into duels.

Unfortunately, the nearby townspeople are locked into their preconceptions about dragons and hire St. George, the knight, to slay it. But good St. George gets to know the dragon, thanks to a sensible boy who’s become the dragon’s companion. They secretively work out a mock duel to satisfy the fearful town. In the end, the truth becomes apparent, and the townspeople accept the dragon for what he is!

The song “No Fire!” was a great addition to that play, as well as a play we did based on the myth of the Golden Fleece. The dragon in that story is not so friendly, making the message of “no fire” even more appropriate!

The dragon on the cover of my new CD represents the soul of the album, in a way. The songs are about the world of imagination – with its ties to magic – and wonder that’s part of childhood. Another song, also written with reflections from several classrooms, explores what it would be like if we could fly. The tag line of the song is “With magic, I think I can!”

It makes me smile, to know that children, the people I work with every day, are a subset of our population that believes magic is real. That’s the kind of wonder, optimism and excitement I want to channel into my own work and spirit.

A Musical Comedy for All Ages Celebrates … Music!

Music Island art by Karen Roehr.

Music Island art by Karen Roehr.

“Music Island” is back! My full-length musical comedy for all ages will be staged by the Youth Choir of the First Parish of Bedford, MA on June 10 and 11, 2016, directed by Janet Welby.

I invite everyone to sample the delight of Music Island. The show opens on an island governed by an ignorant buffoon, where music and other forms of artistic expression have been entirely banned. Life is dull drudgery until the island’s children experience a magical moment on the beach and begin singing.

The show features a diverse cast of birds, cats, silly grown-ups, delightful kids, musical muses, and a few would-be pirates. It’s a perfect show for young actors, with a variety of significant roles and songs appropriate to young singers’ voices. Not to mention the timeless message about the power of music and the arts!

To give you a taste of the music, listen to what the birds of the island have to say about a ban on singing here!  Later in the show, when the kids of the island and their musical muse companions get thrown into jail for singing, they drown their sorrows with an uplifting gospel number.

At the last staging of Music Island, here’s what some people had to say:

I saw Music Island last night – WOW!! I really enjoyed it!! Congratulations on the premiere – it was fun, engaging, musically sophisticated, and charming!! – Adria Arch, artist and former education director at Arlington Center for the Arts

 Music Island is just a delight. The kids loved it. They just can’t stop singing the songs! The feedback on the show has been so positive. We feel so fortunate to have been part of the “premiere.” The show is a gem, wonderful for children’s theater to perform and enjoyable for all ages. Love that music! – Nancy Gilday and Roberta Zimmer, producers of the Arlington Children’s Theatre show in 2007

Thank you for writing this awesome play! – Maisie, former cast member

If you’re associated with a school or children’s theater, I hope you’ll consider Music Island for a future production!

Musical Play with Stories

Students at the Gardner Pilot Academy act out my musical version of The Three Little Pigs (which was written at the Gardner several years ago).

Students at the Gardner Pilot Academy act out my musical version of The Three Little Pigs (which was written at the Gardner several years ago).


This is the second in a series of posts about learning through play.

I had the opportunity to attend the Massachusetts Music Educators’ Annual conference for the first time this past weekend. This is my first year “officially” to be a music teacher for elementary school students, and I gained some new perspective about the job.

I got a short sales pitch on recorders (and a free recorder), talked to a music department head whose principal wants to cut the music programs to make room for more instruction in “core academics,” (I gave her my card if she needs an ally) and wandered through displays of K-8 music curricula, lollipops to sell for band fundraisers, and shiny brass instruments and violins.

Then I found something familiar: a four-part workshop led by Andy Davis of the New England Dancing Masters. Andy is a quintessential Vermonter – his remarks are peppered with references to contradances and squaredances, grange halls and old-fashioned storytelling. The Dancing Masters have created many books of traditional movement songs and dances with appeal to all ages.

One of the Dancing Masters' many publications.

One of the Dancing Masters’ many publications.

Andy’s workshops had a following. He had participants up and dancing and making music the old fashioned way. His instruments were body percussion, an accordion and occasionally a piano. The heart of the workshop was dancing with friends and acting out stories to music. No computers, no data, no rubrics. Just getting back to the real basics: people of all ages having fun and exploring the human condition and elemental themes such as love, evil and death.

I like to think that’s what kids have a chance to do when they act out my musical stories such as “The Royal Children” (a gender-neutral version of the Dancing Masters’ “Thorn Rosa”), the Three Little Pigs and the Three Billy Goats Gruff. It’s what kids have experienced at my summer drama camps, in which we’ve built stories – mostly classic myths and folktales – into musical plays from the ground up. Kids understand more about evil when they’ve actually played the big bad wolf or the menacing troll. They love acting out ways to show that bad guys will get what’s coming to them: good-bye bad wolf! You’re no match for our brick house!

Andy’s workshop featured the story-song of Old Roger, a tale of death. It’s a simple movement activity in which Roger (having passed on) is buried with an apple tree to mark his grave. A woman comes to gather some apples from the ground, and Roger springs out of his grave and scares her! She goes hippity-hop! Roger can even get up and pursue her around the tree. It’s not in the song, but I think the story should end with the woman gently encouraging Roger to go back to his grave. This ending is consistent with other folktales of this nature.

The song has its roots in English/Scottish folk culture (although I found one reference on the web to the song’s popularity in Cameroon). Death is a topic we often tiptoe around in schools, but one which children are endlessly curious about. Andy made the point that in earlier times, death was much more present in children’s lives. Multiple generations often lived in the same household, and many people died at a younger age, including children who never made it to adulthood. Animals constantly were killed (dinner!).

The story’s also about the spirit world; the dead are often still a presence in our lives, waking us up and even chasing us around the apple tree.

When children act out the story, each part is played by someone in the group, including the apple tree and even the apples if you like. Multiple groups can act it out at the same time. Here are the lyrics, which can be set to varying tunes. The tune Andy used sounded similar to “Pop Goes the Weasel.”

  1. Ol’ Roger is dead and laid in his grave,
    Laid in his grave, laid in his grave;
    Ol’ Roger is dead and laid in his grave,
    Oh, oh, laid in his grave, (or Hee-Hah, laid in his grave)
    Oh, oh, laid in his grave.2. They planted an apple tree over his head,
    Over his head, over his head;
    They planted an apple tree over his head,
    Oh, oh over his head,
    Oh, oh over his head.

    3. The apples got ripe and all fell down,
    All fell down, all fell down;
    The apples got ripe and all fell down,
    Oh, oh, all fell down,
    Oh, oh, all fell down.

    4. There came an old woman picking them up,
    Picking them up, picking them up;
    There came an old woman picking them up,
    Oh, oh, picking them up,
    Oh, oh, picking them up.

    5. Ol’ Roger got up and gave her a kick, (or gave her a scare)
    Gave her a kick, gave her a kick;
    Ol’ Roger got up and gave her a kick,
    Oh, oh, gave her a kick,
    Oh, oh, gave her a kick.

    6. It made the old woman go hippity-hop,
    Hippity-hop, hippity-hop;
    It made the old woman go hippity-hop,
    Oh, oh, hippity-hop,
    Oh, oh, hippity-hop.

My suggested ending:

The woman told Roger, Go rest in peace,

Rest in peace, rest in peace;

The woman told Roger, go rest in peace,

Oh, oh, rest in peace.


At the end, Roger lies back down in his grave, so that the living, too, can go in peace.

Can We Please Let the Kids Play?

IMG_0017Educator Bev Bos, who recently passed on, famously said, “If it hasn’t been in the hand, the body and the heart, it can’t be in the brain.” The Roseville Community Preschool, which she founded in Northern California, is dedicated to experiential learning. Children are constantly moving, exploring the world through all their senses, following where their curiosity leads them.

Meanwhile, for so many young children, school has become a place where free-play experiences are few and far between. We have great intentions for training our young kids to be ready for college and the economy of tomorrow, and I applaud those intentions. But in our zeal to give all children the education they need and deserve, many of us have forgotten to incorporate the very activities that could help children most, activities that stir imagination and creativity, as well as exploring conflicts and concerns they experience in the world around them.

It’s a mistake to consider children’s play to be the opposite of learning or academic rigor. Let’s stop and ask: what does academic rigor look like for a child aged four, five or six? To me, there should be a “both-and” approach. For some aspects of learning, we can sit young children down, remind them about good listening habits, and have them chant letter sounds, numbers, words and phrases.

And other times, we simply need to set children free. Give them totally open-ended opportunities to create fantasy worlds with their classmates, design block structures, write and act out stories, and move their bodies to learn things (not just to take a wiggle break).

I didn’t originate this idea, of course. I’m a creature of my educational experience at Lesley University, where I received my M.Ed. in 2009. My master’s degree is in Creative Arts in Learning. My Lesley professors only rarely gave a Power Point. They were more likely to arrive in the classroom pretending to be educational theorist Paulo Freire so we could learn about critical pedagogy, or having us wave scarves and create a movement activity for an exploration of diversity.

One of Lesley’s foremost spokespeople for learning through play is Professor Emeritus Nancy Carlsson Page. I was moved by her TEDx talk, in which she tells a personal story involving her son Matt (actor Matt Damon), as an illustration of how young children think and therefore, how educators should respond.

I also recently re-read the LA Times article about schools in Finland, frequently shared on the Internet, and well worth a look. In Finland, children do not begin formal academic learning until age seven, yet their overall academic achievements are among the highest in the world.

I hope to write several blog pieces about the role I see for play in our classrooms. For now, here are a few ideas I’ve gathered from my own teaching experience and workshops I’ve attended.

– Learn vocabulary through your body. It can be something as simple as a finger play. Tommy Thumb is my character and he is illustrating today’s vocabulary words. Tommy is bold! Now he’s timid. Now he’s inconsiderate. Now he’s kind.

– Deepen learning about a story through movement and musical storybook theater. I’ve written songs to provide a musical structure in which kids can act out classic folktales such as the Three Little Pigs, the Three Billy Goats Gruff and Sleeping Beauty.

– Create an ongoing play structure to invent a world in the classroom. Students run a flower shop, farm stand, library or bookstore. Or they organize an event such as a festival or family event. One class I know organized a wedding. Another class actually organized a funeral and engaged in fantasy play about life after death. It sounds morbid, but the kids seemed interested to explore themes of death and loss, which had recently touched some students’ families.

This whole blog is really about playful learning activities. If you like what you read here, I hope you’ll look through the archives and find many more activities and songs that help children learn and play!

Lift the Cap on Charter Schools in MA

Massachusetts state officials are currently considering whether to lift the “cap” on the number of public charter schools in the Commonwealth. Governor Charles Baker has proposed lifting the cap to allow creation of more public charters, and a 2016 ballot measure could put the question to voters.


KIPP Students participate in a school assembly.

I’m in favor of lifting the cap, and here’s why.

I’m part of a teaching team that founded a KIPP public charter elementary school this fall in Lynn, Massachusetts. In the brief time our school has been open, I’ve seen students plunging into books and learning letter sounds, counting to 100, doing science experiments, creating colorful art, and joyfully singing in school assemblies.

I’ve seen the smiling faces and tears of joy in family members who feel they’ve found a truly excellent educational home for their kids. These families, and many others like them, have been a driving force for more public charter schools in Massachusetts.

Sometimes district schools in lower-income communities do a great job. As a teaching artist in urban public schools for almost a decade, I’ve observed many excellent teachers and programs. One elementary school in Lynn achieved a National Blue Ribbon award this year. More power to them! We should all be learning from each other.

Unfortunately, educational quality is uneven and many at-risk students fall behind. Our education system still hasn’t figured out how to close the achievement gap. Finding solutions is a matter of great urgency, because the children can’t wait.


KIPP students on a fall apple-picking field trip.

When families in wealthier communities are dissatisfied with their local schools, they have the means to send their children to private schools or to home-school. Low-income families do not have the same resources, and therefore are likely not to have those choices. Too often, their children are stuck in failing schools.

More than 37,000 children are on waiting lists in Massachusetts to attend public charter schools for this very reason. Charter opponents challenge the validity of this figure, saying it includes duplicates. In fact, the state implemented new rules in 2014 eliminating all duplicates and names that had been on the lists for more than a year. The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education now audits these lists annually.

The bottom line is every child deserves the kind of education that our KIPP school offers. It’s no surprise that more than 200 families vied for our 120 kindergarten slots, because:

–KIPP students have a longer school day, 7:30-4:15 for four days a week. A typical day in most public schools is almost three hours shorter. On Fridays, our students’ school day is 7:30-1:15.

–Our teaching staff is consistently excellent. Our teachers place strong emphasis on academic rigor and challenging students to think critically. Expectations are high for both staff and students. The teachers are constantly evaluating and re-evaluating their practice, meeting every day to discuss strategies and spending an additional three hours every Friday on professional development. Our teachers have also worked hard to bring parents into their students’ education, offering evening workshops for parents so they have new tools to help their kids at home with reading and math.

–Our students receive daily instruction in science, engineering and the arts.

–Our school provides strong programs for English Language Learners and is well

positioned to serve students with learning delays and other special needs. Ninety-seven percent of our students qualify for free and reduced-price lunch and over 80 percent of our students identify as people of color, with many coming from immigrant families. A second language is often spoken at home.

While opponents contend that charter public schools under-serve English Language Learners and students with special needs, this is not the case in our school or in many other charters. In Boston, the number of ELL students in charters has risen dramatically since 2010. Statewide, many charter schools now serve similar percentages to district public schools in enrollment of ELL students and those with special needs.

The heart of the matter is that our society urgently needs to do a better job educating students at risk. Why would we want to discourage schools that are actively discovering new ways to close the achievement gap? Those techniques need to be celebrated and shared, not condemned. And with so many thousands seeking the charter public school option, why shouldn’t the cap be raised to allow every family a broader variety of educational choices?

I can’t speak for every charter public school in Massachusetts, but my own school is definitely fulfilling the goals the Commonwealth envisioned for charters in the Education Reform Law of 1993. KIPP’s letters stand for the Knowledge is Powerful Program. Our school’s mission encompasses academic rigor, kindness and a challenge to change the world. I’m proud to be part of building a school with those goals. Every child in Massachusetts, no matter their income level, deserves a similar opportunity.