Embracing the Power of Music in Your Classroom


by John Burland

Even if you don’t think you’re a “musical person,” you can still integrate music into your lessons for fun and deeper learning.


Music has a unique ability to break down barriers while cutting across cultural divides. This makes music a powerful tool in the arsenal of teachers.

Whether or not you consider yourself “musical,” the use of music in your classroom is within your reach! This article explores the value of using music in the classroom and provides ready-to-use classroom ideas. Although my background is predominantly in the area of religious music, as a teacher in Catholic schools for over 20 years I am well aware of the richness music offers the broader curriculum.

The Power of Music

Music provides an authentic learning experience from a very early age. At home, young children are exposed to a variety of television shows and computer programs that teach about numbers, letters, healthy eating, colors, and so on. I observed this firsthand as my two daughters actively engaged in song, dance, and making music in their early years of learning.

For many years, Barney, Sesame Street, and other well-known children’s TV programs have incorporated music as one of the key foundational strategies for learning. Recently a paper published in the U.S. by Melissa Kearney (University of Maryland) and Phillip Levine (Wellesley College) found that Sesame Street had delivered lasting educational benefits to millions of American children (Early childhood education by MOOC: Lessons from Sesame Street, June 2015).

In early childhood classrooms, music is woven into most teaching and learning activities, with children singing, dancing, and making their own music as they learn. Why, then, does music have such an impact on learning? Let us explore how music makes a difference in classrooms for any age and look at some ready-to-use activities that will work for you and your students.

Seven Reasons to Use Music in Your Classroom

1. Promotes active listening
There is a wealth of research in relation to auditory discrimination that identifies the positive impact of music on listening, especially in relation to children. Simple activities incorporating music can be integrated into your daily classroom routine or teaching to promote listening, such as the use of a special song to call children back together after group work, to gather for morning prayer, or when moving or rotating activities.

2. Supports recall
We have all had the experience of hearing a piece of music and instantly recalling a particular time, person, or set of events. Connecting learning to music or a particular song has the same result. As a young teacher in the 1980s, one of my biggest challenges was teaching math, in particular multiplication tables and number facts in my grade three class. At that time, there was a collection of songs by Australian children’s artist Don Spencer that put tables and number facts to a variety of different musical styles. I started using this resource regularly in my classroom and instantly noticed the impact it had on learning. The children became very enthusiastic about math lessons and loved singing along with the songs as they learned. Within about eight weeks, every child in that class knew his or her multiplication tables and number facts.

3. Increases participation
The use of music increases participation, as children want to be involved in activities that make learning fun. They tend to be drawn to activities they can all join in that are not restricted by ability, language,
and maturity.

4. Caters to a variety of learning modes
Music, due to its unique appeal and power with children, also engages a variety of learning modes. Music’s invitational approach encourages all learners to join in! We know the brain is malleable and open to new ways of learning. Music taps into neural pathways that enable students to connect with ideas, concepts, and information through a joyous and positive experience.

5. Fosters relaxation
Our lives are busy! So, too, are the lives of our children at home and at school. The use of music offers a break from the busyness of the world. When quiet music is combined with appropriate meditations for children, we offer children a time to be still and calm and participate in relaxation. It also establishes a calming and peaceful atmosphere within the classroom.

6. Supports classroom management
Incorporating music into classroom and school routines assists with classroom management. You can use different songs to indicate to children that it is time to stop and listen, move to the front quietly, line up at the door, and gather for prayer. Using music in this way is an easy and effective way to assist with seamless transitions and manage your classroom.

7. Connects to movement
The use of simple moves or gestures helps children to learn a song very quickly. When a song is specifically relevant to learning content, the addition of moves or gestures creates a greater impact on learning. This was evident in my own classroom on many occasions when I put specific content to a simple tune and added moves and gestures. The addition of movement helped the children learn the song quickly and make a connection to the content, and allowed them to recall the content without the singing of the song.

What Can I Do if I’m Not “Musical”?

Don’t panic! We are all “musical.” Whether or not we have had any formal training in music, or are proficient on a particular instrument, or are a confident singer, we can use music to enhance learning in the classroom. Here are some suggestions for those who don’t consider themselves musical prodigies:

1. Be confident
Try not to be afraid to sing or sing along with your class. Model what you want your students to experience. No matter what you think of your voice, your students will earmark you as the next Taylor Swift or member of One Direction!

2. Seek out appropriate resources
Speak to colleagues who already use music effectively and ask them to recommend relevant resources for your grade level. Search online where there are thousands of specific resources available. Find a children’s artist whose music best fits with your style, class, or content area.

3. Develop your own resources
Write your own music or modify lyrics to existing songs (where copyright permits) to use in your classroom.

4. Use music technology
The use of music technology to write, record, and publish music is within the reach of every person. Explore the music apps that are available—and the more sophisticated programs like GarageBand—and you will be amazed at what you can do with little or absolutely no musical expertise!

5. Get the children involved
Many of the children in our classes already are learning an instrument or are capable singers and future composers. Provide opportunities for children to share these skills in your class.

6. Learn an instrument
The use of online tutorials has made the learning of an instrument accessible, enjoyable, and an easy fit with your schedule. Why not give it a go?

Ready-to-Use Classroom Ideas for Incorporating the Use of Music

Now, let’s examine some ready-to-use ideas for incorporating music into your classroom. These ideas are drawn predominantly from my work in children’s catechesis and encompass many of my own resources, CDs, DVDs, and songs written specifically to integrate music and gesture into learning. Of course, there are a variety of other children’s musical resources available that may also be suitable for each of these activities. Find ones that work for you and your children! Although some of these ideas relate specifically to religious education, the underlying principles could be applied to most areas of the curriculum and still be highly effective. Here are two sample activities that examine teaching Scripture and Catholic prayer. (See below.)

Conclusion

The use of music enhances authentic learning experiences and empowers learners to connect with learning through a positive and engaging experience. Classroom teachers can build upon this genuine, almost innate love of music in their day-to-day teaching strategies. If you are not convinced, revisit the seven reasons to use music in the classroom. If you are nervous about your talents, regularly check in on the six ideas to build your confidence. Finally, if you are ready to embark on a journey with music, embrace the suggested classroom ideas and feel free to modify and adapt these to your subject areas, experiences, and level of expertise. Above all, try not to let the idea of being perfect get in the way of being better. Take the first step! You and your students will grow from the experience and come to know the power of music in your classroom.

Lesson: Teaching Scripture

Area: Religious education, Scripture                                           Age range: 8-10 years
Topic: Compassion, The Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37)        Duration: 1-2 lessons
Resources: Alive in Christ, Songs of Scripture CD (Grades 3-6), track 4
Alive in Christ, Songs of Scripture DVD*
Desired learning outcomes:
That the children can:    A. Verbally and through song recall the story of the Good Samaritan.
B. Identify the themes of compassion/love/mercy.

How to:

• With quiet music playing, gather the children in an appropriate classroom space free of distractions.

• Ask the children to sit and be still as they listen to the quiet music.

• Observe the children, and move any children who are finding it difficult to settle or are near others who are distracting them.

• Speak quietly and ask the children to close their eyes, breathe in softly, and then breathe out softly. Repeat this for one or two minutes with quiet music playing until all children are settled.

• Explain that in this lesson “we are going to use one of the many gifts that God has given to us (our ears) to listen very carefully to God’s word.”

• Speak quietly and ask the children to again breathe in softly and breathe out softly. Repeat this as required.

• Explain that we are now going to open our hearts and ears to listen to God’s word. “As we hear God’s word today, use your imagination to see as well as hear the story of the Good Samaritan.”

• With quiet music playing, read the Scripture slowly. When finished, pause and explain that you are now going to read God’s word again and want the children to listen again very carefully.

• Read the Scripture a second time with quiet music playing.

• After reading the Scripture a second time, while the children are still relaxed and have their eyes closed, ask them to think about these two questions without talking or giving the answer to anyone.
• Who was the person who acted like God would want him to?
• What did he do?

• Ask children to open their eyes and for any responses to the above questions.
Quick break activity: Rhythmic clapping follow-the-leader. Standing up, the teacher claps a pattern and the children follow. Repeat as desired.

• Sit down and listen to the song “The Good Samaritan.”

• Teach the chorus of the song.

Chorus
“Who is your neighbor?” Jesus asked,
“The priest, the Levite, the ones who passed?”
No, it was the man who helped and paid,
The one who didn’t turn away.
© John Burland and Dr. JoAnn Paradise 2013

• Invite the children to stand up and sing along with the DVD of “The Good Samaritan” song (which has karaoke words and actions) while doing the actions.

Follow-up activities:
• Start the day with reading the Good Samaritan Scripture and singing the song for the following week.

• Ask the children to present the story of the Good Samaritan using song and their own simple movements.

• Place the Good Samaritan Scripture on the classroom Sacred Space. Ask a student to read it while quiet music plays.

Lesson: Teaching Catholic Prayer

Area: Religious education, traditional Catholic prayer      Age range: 6-8 years
Topic: The Hail Mary                                                         Duration: 1-2 lessons
Resources: God Loves Me CD, track 18; Our Family Prayer Collection CD; God Loves Me DVD
Desired learning outcomes:
That the children:    A. Learn the Hail Mary.
B. Recite the words to the Hail Mary with a group and individually.

How to:

Lesson 1
• With quiet music playing, gather the children in an appropriate classroom space free of distractions.

• Explain to the children that today “we are going to learn a very special prayer to Mary, the Hail Mary.”

• Play the echo song “Hail Mary” and ask children to listen carefully.

• Play the song again and ask the children to sing along, singing the echo with the children on the CD.

• Repeat the song two or three times, encouraging the children to sing more enthusiastically each time.
Quick break activity: Rhythmic clapping follow-the-leader. Standing up the teacher claps a pattern and the children follow. Repeat as desired.

• Ask the children to stand up and sing the song again, but this time while watching the accompanying DVD and adding the prayerful gestures shown on the DVD. Repeat two or three times.

• Come back to the song and DVD when possible during the day and use as afternoon prayer.
Lesson 2
• With quiet music playing, gather the children in an appropriate classroom space free of distractions.

• Recap on previous lesson. Sing through the song with both the CD and DVD, watching and adding gestures.

• Explain that in this lesson “we are going to learn to recite together the Hail Mary.”

• Listen to the spoken version of the Hail Mary from the Our Family Prayer CD.

• Join in with the spoken version of the Hail Mary and repeat this several times in small groups and then finally as one group.

• Stand up and sing through the song while watching the DVD and adding gestures.

• Join in with the spoken version of the Hail Mary as a closing prayer.

Follow-up activities:
• Sing along with the “Hail Mary” echo song, adding gestures from the DVD, several times during the day/week.

• Pray the Hail Mary with the whole class during class prayer times.

 


Source: Today’s Catholic Teacher, November/December 2015