I rarely teach thematic units that are being taught across all my grade levels, but in February I make an exception to discuss the numerous musical contributions and historical significances of African Americans in our country. Part of being committed to fostering a love of and understanding of music in my students means finding connections and deeper meanings in the music that I teach. Studying the history behind the African and African American influence in our country is so crucial to understanding the music of our culture today. I have always had a love of jazz and hip hop and have loved being able to share that personal interest of mine with my students.
While I would love to discuss the full history of African and African American history in our country with all my students every year, there is just not enough time! Instead, I have split the various time periods up and spread them across the grade levels I teach.
In my classes with my younger students, we sing spirituals, play African American singing games, listen and move to jazz music, and talk a bit about famous African Americans and why it is important to study Black History Month. We’ve had many great conversations about how the conditions of slaves led to the kinds of things they sung about. My favorite songs to sing with my little ones include “I’m On My Way” (a great echo song), “This Train” (a great call and response song), “The Telephone” (good for solo singing), “This Little Light of Mine” (great for comparing same and different phrases), “He’s Got the Whole World In His Hands” (great for improvising new phrases), “All Night, All Day”, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” (also great for comparing same and different phrases), and “Follow the Drinking Gourd”. Last fall I bought the story book version of “Follow the Drinking Gourd” by Jeanette Winter and used it for the first time when teaching this song to my 2nd graders this year. They loved it! I really like how the story and song are woven together in the book. In kindergarten and first grade I also present the book “The Jazz Fly” by Matthew Gollub which is also always a hit. This year, I’ll also be bringing in my sax to present to the kids. I’ve already talked that up to them and they’re pretty excited!
Some of my most favorite singing games I keep for February when we study Black History Month like “Little Johnny Brown” (always a hit!), “Oh, Green Fields, Roxie”, “Head and Shoulders”, and “Draw Me a Bucket of Water”. I actually learned these during my Kodály levels when we studied Bessie Jones’ Step it Down. After I teach the games to the kids, I like to play them the corresponding recording on Bessie’s CD recording “Put Your Hand On Your Hip and Let Your Backbone Slip” so we can hear a different way of singing and compare it to how we sing it. They usually comment on how she sings much lower than we typically do and the little “scoops” and “slides” she utilizes when she sings.
In my older classes, we talk a lot more about the history behind why we celebrate Black History Month. We began lessons at the beginning of the month by compiling a list of famous African Americans, important events, and important “things.” It was very interesting to have this discussion with my various 4th-6th grade classes, because no two discussions were the same. In some groups, students had a lot of background knowledge and we had a lot to talk about. In some other groups, students had some background knowledge and I presented a lot of material to them. This being my first year at my school, I wasn’t quite sure what background knowledge kids would have so the various discussions were very eye opening to me as to what the classroom teachers teach and in what grades.
In my older classes, we sing spirituals and discuss their importance along with studying the blues lyric form, 12-bar blues, and jazz. In fourth grade, we began our blues lessons by singing and identifying the aab lyric form of the song “Good Morning, Blues” and then writing some new verses as a group. It was a lot of fun to hear what they came up with! Last week due to snow and the cold, I didn’t see any of my fourth graders, but in this coming week they’ll be working to write their own blues lyrics in small groups using the aab form and then performing their songs for the class.
My fifth grade classes have also been studying the blues by identifying the aab lyric form and writing new verses as a class, but I didn’t have them work in small groups, because I wanted to go on to study the 12 bar blues. I only saw one group of my fifth graders last week since we only had one day of school, so we discussed how Roman Numerals identify the chords (rather than using solfa) and then they identified which chords they heard while I played the 12 bar blues on piano. Following that, we took it to the barred instruments and they played the form there.
In sixth grade, we’re doing an overview of Music in America from the 1800s to present day. They started with spirituals, then we discussed ragtime, then the blues, and over the next few weeks we’ll do some lessons on the 12 bar blues, and playing some jazzy pieces on recorder including a lesson on mixed meter with Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five.”
This is definitely my favorite unit of the year to teach! I could go on and on! Do you do anything special to celebrate African American music during the year with your students?
(Credits: Thanks to Graphics from the Pond for the border graphic!)