I wanted to thank Eric Litwin again for sharing his views on using music as part of literacy instruction. In my view Eric is an educator who also happens to be a very talented singer, songwriter and author. His books are entertaining. More importantly his books are educational. This is because they are being written by an educator who is consciously trying to build literacy instruction into his work. He is to be commended for his body of work. The numerous awards he has won over the years stand as evidence that I am not alone in that opinion. That said, let’s look further into the topic of singing and writing our way into literacy.
In a very real sense, songs are poetry set to music. Music adds many things to literacy instruction, including that element of joy that so many of us seem to be looking for lately. Today I want to investigate more of my favorite books from the genre “books that are songs”.
This week let’s start with one of the all-time classics from this genre. Baby Beluga by Rafi. How could a teacher use Baby Beluga in his/her classroom? Baby Beluga could fit in as a “read aloud” at the start or end of the day. It could also fit into any number of science lessons. It could be used to help learn the “oo” sound. Kids love to sing along. You could even let them do that more than once (e.g. listen first, sing if you want, then for sure sing on the second time). Music for it can be downloaded on any one of the music services. As with all the books mentioned, since audios are available you need not worry about your singing voice. The song is also readily available on u-tube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CDx9zqDpSik
This would be a good place to bring up a point that Rasinski made during his St. Louis presentation. It pays to have the lyrics of the song in front of the children when they are singing. In the case of Baby Beluga children could sit with copies of the book in groups of two or three. The teacher can monitor whether page turning occurs at the right time. 5-8 copies of the book should be enough for this purpose. Having those copies makes the book available for future individual or pair reads at a station or during independent reading time. What about pointing while reading?
There is a stage in the reading process where word by word pointing (making it match!) can be very useful at least for some students. Based on my reading workshop training et. al. I would encourage this practice early in the reading process. Students reading at Levels 1-8, especially those that tend to “invent” i.e. make up their own text instead of reading the text from the author, could benefit from instruction on “making it match”. I have a little poem I wrote to bring home that point to the children:
“Make it match, don’t make it up, that is what to do. Make it match don’t make it up, you’ll read your story true” (copyright 2018, Sam Bommarito)
By “matching” I mean to point to each word as the reader reads. It is up to the teacher on whether to use matching with all children at this stage or just those who tend to be inventors. Somewhere between level 9 and level 16 you want to scaffold them into dropping this practice. Another teaching tip is to use the prompt “show me which word is which…” e.g. show me which word is baby, or show me deep, or show me sea. For children who are not paying enough attention to visual clues (the letters!) you can also say “How did you know that was baby (or deep or sea)”? They would respond with “because it starts with b OR because of the picture OR because of the way the story is going”. This method could be employed after reading the text together. In addition to its use with reading along with lyrics, these teaching tricks can also help children who memorize whole books when reading those very short beginning texts. Once they realize you want them to know which word is which, they tend to drop the strategy of “learn the whole book at once”. They start using the strategies of “knowing which word is which and learning how to figure out my own words using all the clues”.
Also- I want to make a plea to music teachers out there to let the children look at the words when they sing. I respect that oftentimes choral directors want their singers to know the songs by heart (that’s 50 plus years in church choirs talking!). But if there were points during the learning of the songs that students could be looking at the words that would be very useful for developing prosody. You can save trees by using white board projections instead of paper copies. Classroom teachers using songs should always take advantage of developing prosody by letting students look at the words they are singing.
Now let’s talk about three additional books that are songs and that could be used with older children. Don’t Laugh at Me by Allen Shamblin and Steve Seskin, There are No Mirrors in my Nana’s House (Synthia St. James & Sweet Honey in the Rock) and Be A Friend by Leotha Stanley. What each of these books has in common is that they deal with substantive social and cultural issues. Teachers can easily envision places they could fit into units dealing with social justice and learning about the heritage of various cultures. They would also fit into the literacy program itself. The “make it match” strategy is not recommended for use with these books since they are all well above Level 8 in decodability. However, they would all lend themselves to reading in groups of two to three. The Be a Friend book really lends itself to meaningful performances taken from the book.
Don’t Laugh at Me by Allen Shamblin and Steve Seskin
COMMENTS: Peter Yarrows has turned this book into a national movement, here is a blog entry that talks about Peter and his work https://www.huffingtonpost.com/jim-luce/peter-yarrow-operation-re_b_8177720.html. There is a strong message for tolerance in this song. The possibilities for meaningful classroom discussions around the book are endless.
Availability and links. The book is widely available on sites selling books. The music can be downloaded from commercial music sites. Here is a YouTube link to the song:
No Mirrors in My Nana’s house (Synthia St. James & Sweet Honey in the Rock)
COMMENTS: I was in training for reading/writing workshop when this book first came out. My trainers were from teachers College in New York and were very excited about the book. It comes with a cd. The book is powerful and evokes strong images of the black experience in Harlem where the members of Sweet Honey Rock grew up. They sing acapella but it sounds like a full orchestra. It has a positive message. Again, the possibilities for meaningful classroom discussions are endless. Here are some YouTube links to different renditions of the book as a song and the book as a book.
Singing version (THIS ONE IS A MUST SEE!): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yRNfJxDNbEE
Read first then sung: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mAG1j_Z850E
Be A Friend by Leotha Stanley
COMMENTS: Unfortunately, this book is no longer in print. Used copies are available on Amazon. The original book came with a cassette, so when shopping check to see if that is included. Fortunately, the music from all the songs in the books can be downloaded from Amazon. The book chronicles the history of black music and musicians. Each chapter explains a genre and its impact on Black History. For instance, the chapter on Jazz talks both about the genre and famous people from the genre like Louis Armstrong. What makes the book especially unique is that Leo wrote an original song for each chapter. The “School Blues” is hilarious. The song “Brain Power” would really lend itself to a performance at a grade level graduation. See what I mean by reviewing these songs in the YouTube video of the book contained in first URL listed below. The possibilities of writing songs like Leo did are also endless. This book is a potential book club book with lots of opportunity to sing.
Brain Power video performed by a third-grade group with Leo accompanying them (THIS ONE IS ALSO A MUST SEE!): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e10Au3BvycM
School Blues audio only, Leo & the Be a Friend singers:
So…, those are some of my favorite books from this genre. They can be used to build prosody. They can be used to promote literacy in its many forms. They can help your students explore important social issues. They can help to bring Joy into your literacy instruction. Hope you enjoy them all as much as I have. Next week Bill Kerns will be making another guest appearance. Until then:
Happy Reading and Writing
Dr. Sam Bommarito (a.k.a. singer of literacy songs).