Candles, Salsa, and Song: Sharing Music in Kenosha

A series of surprising turns reconnected me with Rhonda Lopez, the principal of Wilson Elementary School in Kenosha, Wisconsin. She asked me to sing with kindergarten through third graders and bring the community-building songs she’d seen me use years ago. For decades, Rhonda has worked with Linking Up, a 350-page book and CD of 46 songs, half bilingual in Spanish and English. I created this resource for Educators for Social Responsibility, a nonprofit organization that is now known as Engaging Schools. These songs emphasize talking things out, caring, and cooperating.

I discovered that the children and I could connect heart to heart through singing and songwriting, despite using Zoom and despite entering into their lives at a time of great upheaval.

I’d like to share new songs I created that made it possible for children to add their thoughts, as well as offer other songs that help build interconnection. I hope these will be useful in your own work.

Summer 2020 in Kenosha

Before COVID, the needs were already great at Wilson School. Nearby Racine is described as the worst place in the United States to raise a black child. (Comen 2019) The city of Kenosha moved into national news when Jacob Blake was shot in the back by a policeman on August 23, 2020. Daily peaceful protests focused attention on racism and support for Black Lives Matter.

Then busloads of armed militia vigilantes began to arrive from out of town. Five days later, a thousand National Guard members were sent by the state. Rhonda clarifies:

The protesting started out as peaceful. Once out-of-town vigilantes and other unknown groups began to arrive, riots were incited, and then these people, the out-of-town people—not our local protestors—began to vandalize, break windows, and firebomb. Their goal was to make it look like [the damage was caused by] the protestors. The National Guard did not shoot anyone, although they did use tear gas. The National Guard was sent in to control the out-of-town vigilantes and those there to incite. It was very complicated.

The neighborhood around the school was firebombed, and the losses included the local clinic and the Family Dollar store that people counted on. All in all, a hundred buildings in Kenosha were impacted by an estimated $50 million in damages. As school got ready to start, tensions across the city were high. Every window in the high school had been broken. On a day when Rhonda prepared for school to re-open, she was seeking support.

How the Invitation Happened

Across Kenosha, people were looking for ways to heal, and Rhonda’s daughter, Maya, was busy painting one of the plywood coverings over a burned-out building near the school. A passer-by said to Maya, “Thanks for making our city beautiful again.” As Maya painted faces on the mural, she had in mind a line from one of my songs, “We are made of the colors of earth.” Suddenly Maya was inspired to tell her mother, “Call Sarah. I bet she can help.”

Photo: Painting Faces
Maya paints faces on a boarded-up building.

Rhonda says:

Maya’s inspiration for this mural was actually your song because I sang [it] to her all the time as a baby and as she grew up. Maya’s skin color is so much darker than mine, and I was concerned she might wonder why our skin colors were so different. “The Colors of Earth” taught her from a very young age, before all the ugliness of the world’s bigoted ideas had any chance to be rooted into her pure little heart, that all colors are unique and beautiful, and come from nature, so they are good. She told me that her mural is what she always imagined the song meant, what she saw in her head when we sang it. Our different colors are as beautiful as the rainbow is to the sky. It is the first thing she thought of when she decided to use her gift of art to help heal our community. She just said she wished they could all hear the song that made such an impact on her.

Rhonda Lopez and I hadn’t talked for over twenty years, since the time that I stayed at her house in New Mexico for a week while leading music and bilingual education. She told me that, ever since she learned them from me, she had used these methods for teaching students to talk things out through song.

We called you that day because I wanted to make sure it was all right with you if we used your song on a mural, and I wanted to make sure you knew how important your work had been in my daughter’s life, a beautiful woman of color who is now a first-year teacher in a town being torn apart by racial injustice. I wanted you to know how much your work mattered to me and my family, and all the kids who I had the privilege to share it with over the last twenty-five years. I was desperate to go back to that place that I had been when we were first singing together and feel that peaceful feeling again. I wanted that for my students in Kenosha.

That day, we talked for three hours. “We are in a caring and determined community,” Rhonda said.

At the end of the call, I told her, “I’m in. I want to work together. I want to give you more family.” I was ready to begin a music residency. At first, I thought I would fly to Kenosha, and then we realized it had to be online. This October, the first phase began—five days of classes for kindergarten through third-grade students.

Leading Music Meetings for “Kenosha Kindness”

“People in Kenosha must feel unstrung,” a CMN friend said to me as I began planning for the sessions. “What will be possible for you to bring?” I told her that I knew I wanted to send the message to each student, “You are a worthwhile person; always believe that.”

The first two weeks of October were an optional enrichment period for Kenosha students, which made that time ideal for this music program. During five sessions, I worked on Zoom with seventeen kindergarten and first-grade students for thirty minutes, and eighteen second- and third-grade students for forty minutes. The students were seated at desks in their classroom and used one large classroom screen and built-in camera.

My goals were:

  1. Connect – Reach out to them as specific individuals.
  2. Calm – Use songs that calm their nervous system and build safety.
  3. Move – Provide movement songs.
  4. Center – Transition by playing a wooden flute.
  5. Write together – Provide song patterns where they add words to affirm their feelings and thoughts.
  6. Clear closing – Share affirming words as out goes the candle.


I lit a candle at the start of every class. As I held it up, I told them, “Being with you is very special for me, so I want to light a special candle.” Each class time, I used one of these two starting songs to provide a way for us to see each other very concretely, although we were using Zoom. I like to use songs that describe movements and then transition back from moving to stillness, like placing their hands on their hearts. Students can choose to move from their chairs or stand up by their desks. Listen to the “Kenosha Kindness Songs” recording at the end of the article to hear these tunes.

I light a candle to say hello.
I light a candle to say hello.
Wave and wave and back again.
I light a candle for you, my friend.
I light a candle for you, my friend.

To individualize, I asked three children at a time to come close to the camera. They said their names and I introduced myself. Sincerely, I built a feeling that I really cared about meeting them.

I sang the song and changed the third line to give them a chance to move. Meanwhile, all the other students were also moving by their desks.

Here are other movement invitations:

Wave and wave and turn around again.
Stretch as high as you can and come down again.
Make ocean waves high and low again.

Another starting song is this one that I wrote for kindergarten and first grade:

Even Though We Are Far Away
words and music by Sarah Pirtle
© 2020 Sarah Pirtle

I wave to you, and you wave to me. Even though we’re far away.
(hands go apart and then return placing them on heart)
I wave to you and you wave to me. Even though we’re far away.
(hands apart then on heart)

And we can shine, shine, shine. Yes, we can shine, shine, shine.
(big dancing movements)
Oh, we can shine, shine, shine, and come together. Come together.
(hands return to heart)

Additional verses:

I see you and you see me.
I reach to you and you reach to me.
I shake my hands and you shake your hands.
I circle you and you circle me. (draw circles in the air)
We hold our hands. (squeeze one hand and then the other)
I rub my hands. (very gentle soothing touch)
I shine my hands. (flicking)
I give a hug and you give a hug. (hug yourself)


Teachers had named the series Kenosha Kindness. Early in every class, we used a song I wrote called “One Kind Word,” which travels through the seasons. The hand movements begin with rubbing hands and singing, “One kind word can warm the coldest winter.” Follow the link for a description of the whole sequence of movements for “One Kind Word.”


On the first day, I taught them my song, “My Roots Go Down,” and encouraged them to make up new verses. They answer the question “What animal would you like to be, and what would you be doing?” Jahnalla said, “I am a cheetah under a tree.” Blake said, “I am a bear sleeping in a cave.” Desmond said, “I’m a lazy cat, happy and warm.” We repeated their words and sang them as a separate verse.

When singing this as a group, children can stand by their desks and simultaneously everyone becomes the animal their classmate has chosen. The second stage is to travel away and dance in a shared space after making a promise, “careful of each other as you move around.” As a call-back signal, I sing, “Come on back where you started from,” to the same tune. The Linking Up book has more details about how to work with unexpected situations using this song.

Both “My Roots Go Down” and their favorite movement game—being a bird hatching from an egg—are described on the recording of “Kenosha Kindness Songs.” The bird game adds an Arapaho song, “Wearing my Long Wing Feathers.” If you use that song, it’s important to add more information about Native heritage and culture. Kenosha is on the homeland of the Potawatomi, and I am writing in Western Massachusetts from the homeland of the Pocumtuck nation.


What are they ready to explore? Here are three different directions:


I say, “Come up to the camera and tell me some news.” For example, a boy told me that he slipped at home and hurt his knee. Use any tune that is familiar to you. I often use “Even When We’re Far Away” but substitute the phrase “We care about you.” Here’s how I worked with his words:

Bretson fell down at home and his knee got hurt.
We care about you.
Bretson fell down at home and his knee got hurt.
Sorry that it happened to you.
(Invent a response to correspond to the news.)

The teacher selects three children to take a turn. More than that during a half hour challenges their ability to focus. But singing their news can be part of each day, and they can anticipate having a turn in the future.

Make Up a Song About Something in the Life of the Classroom

The class of second and third graders decided to write about the school sign they were painting. I asked them to take turns describing what the words meant: “All are welcome here.” The line in the italics below got zipped in for the different verses from what they said. (Hear it on “Kenosha Kindness Songs.”)

Photo: Welcome Sign
Kenosha students with the school welcome sign

Everybody Is Welcome Here (Hear it on “Kenosha Kindess Songs”)
by Wilson School second and third grade

Everybody is welcome here. (clap, clap) 
Everybody is welcome here. (clap, clap)
When a new person comes, we help them to feel welcome.
We are welcome.

Everybody is welcome here. (clap, clap) 
Everybody is welcome here. (clap, clap)
We want you to feel safe and comfortable.
We are welcome.

Everybody is welcome here. (clap, clap) 
Everybody is welcome here. (clap, clap)
When we play we include you.
We are welcome.
We are welcome.

Give Them a Choice of Sentence Starters That Express Concerns

I wanted the students to have an opportunity to express feelings and gave them a choice.

  1. To introduce songwriting, I sang them a song written by children their age. (Hear it on “Kenosha Kindness Songs.”)

Will you be my friend? Will you be my friend?
Please say yes, please say yes.
I hope you’ll be my friend.

I asked, “What do you think the person answered?” After they guessed, I sang the next verse.

Yes, I’ll be your friend. Yes, I’ll be your friend.
Yes, I want to be with you.
Yes, I’ll be your friend.

  1. Then I offered them the chance to write a song. They voted on whether they wanted to work with sentences that began “Sometimes I worry” or “It can be hard sometimes” and chose the latter. They used the question “What can be hard?”
  2. The classroom teacher was asked to go up to those students who wanted to add words and write them to me in the chat. The teacher who collects the words needs to be welcoming of each person’s expression and give an equal response, affirming all rather than praising some.
  3. I also added a positive direction as a sentence starter: “What can make things better?”
  4. I took their phrases and on the spot assembled related thoughts to make verses. They clapped for each verse in appreciation of the contributions.
  5. I added a refrain they could learn to sing and repeat: “I will help.”
  6. As a follow-up, at a later time the classroom teacher can read the words back to them and remind them that all the words came from them, while the children draw. They can draw what someone else said or what they said. They can show their drawings to each other.

I Will Help You (Hear it on “Kenosha Kindness Songs”)
by Wilson School kindergarten and first grade

It can be hard sometimes to hang up a jacket.
It can be hard sometimes to zip it up.
But if someone helps, that makes it better.
I will help, I will help, I will help you, too. (2x)

It can be hard to throw a ball in a hoop.
It can be hard to run really fast
And then try to stop without falling down.
I will help, I will help, I will help you, too. (2x)

It can be hard to not get hurt.
I don’t want my feelings hurt, and I don’t want my body hurt.
I will help.

It can be hard sometimes to tell people that you love them
because you want them to know they really matter.
You want them to know they make a difference.
I will help, I will help, I will help you, too. (2x)

Closing Candle

Before I blow it out, I say “You have a light inside you. Who you are really matters. I’m really glad to be singing with you and getting to know you.” The key thing is to find the words in the moment from how I really feel, and how much I really care. At the end, we count to three, and they watch the candle being blown out. We say with our hands on our hearts, “I carry the flame.”

Classes Share in a Zoom Assembly

This was important for closure. On the fifth meeting at the end of four days of classes, we came together to share what we had been doing in a twenty-minute assembly of two classes. I lit a candle at the start and blew it out at the end.

  1. We all sang, “One Kind Word.”
  2. K/1st grade presented their song, “I Can Help.”
  3. 2nd/3rd grades presented their song, “Everybody Is Welcome Here.”
  4. We sang the Salsa Song about their school garden.

Technical Note: What to Do If Their Sound Goes Off

If you teach online classes, one of the problems you should prepare for is not being able to hear what students are saying. Sometimes they can hear and see you and you can see them, but you don’t know what they are saying because they can’t turn their sound on.

Here’s what I did. I asked a teacher to write their names really big on separate pieces of paper so they could hold their names in front of themselves. They took turns coming to the camera and showing their name. Then I made up a song sequence for them to dance to individually (to the tune of “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes”):

Karmelo’s dancing with a 1, 2, 3.

I also found that we could still do songwriting. Even when I couldn’t hear them speaking, they could vote on a song prompt, and the teachers could still collect their words and write them in the chat. That’s how that frustrating situation can be handled.

The Value of Songwriting

It matters that we encourage singing and songwriting expression. When our voice is stopped, it has big ramifications for whether we feel we have a place in the world. What would it be like in our classrooms if we encouraged children to keep developing their innate songwriting ability, just as we encourage other forms of writing? We would help them access an overlooked mode of exploring the world, processing information, and placing themselves in community.

In the 1980s, I created a book and cassette called Songwriting Together: Cooperative Songwriting to Build Closeness with the Earth and Each Other. I offered twenty-three song patterns to use in a cooperative learning format where all students add contributions in small groups to create verses. In this resource, I also gave general advice about teaching songwriting. For instance, I addressed helping all people be part of singing. I wrote:

Teachers are encouraged to never apologize for their voices as this implies that it is valid to label “good” and “bad voices.” Instead we can sing open-throated and open-hearted without the constriction of feeling judged. If we think of singing in a cooperative vein rather than competitive or hierarchical, then we can enjoy the natural voice each person has and make sure all are valued for their own way of singing.

I have been teaching songwriting at CMN events since 1989, when I led the first CMN songwriting workshop. At that workshop, Michael Ekster commented, “Whoever asked us to write a song when we were kids?” That workshop was attended by a dozen adult songwriters, and as we took turns reflecting, we realized every person in the room had experienced some kind of wounding directed toward their musical intelligence. Each had received painful criticism of their songs and their singing. Many felt they had been pressured to perform in ways that felt hurtful or disrespectful.

Sally Rogers asked me how much the song leader should take an active role in forming the song. I said, “Make room for the young people to do as much of it as they can.” In the graduate school music classes I taught at Lesley University for twenty years, I wanted the teachers to think of teaching songwriting as an essential vehicle for communication.

When it came to the Kenosha residency, I hoped open-ended songwriting could give students an opportunity to express what was upsetting and concerning them. I also knew that people of all ages need to take time to build trust before they want to share what is hard. The Zoom format curtailed the kind of interaction that helps songs bubble up in a group, but I hit upon the idea of giving choices for sentence starters and having them vote. Kindergarten and first grade chose the question “What is hard right now?” You’ll notice in the lyrics cited above that the first respondents mentioned things very close at hand, like difficulty with a jacket. But later members of the class ventured to refer to larger problems, like wanting to be sure they were safe. The second- and third-grade class was offered that same choice but steered toward a positive declaration: “Everybody is welcome here.”

In terms of how songwriting can contribute, I also keep my eye out for meaningful events in the school. I like to pull these forward and affirm them by writing a song.

The Salsa Song

The school garden went unpicked during COVID. Returning in the fall, children found little tomatoes growing from the compost pile. A student named Amber shouted, “Jackpot!” when they were able to pick a hundred. The tomatoes became the basis for salsa. The garden is a crucial part of Wilson School as well as the focus that Rhonda Lopez puts on nutritional equity. With a city-wide grant, fruits and vegetables are delivered to the school. I wrote this song and all classes learned it. 

The Salsa Song
words and music by Sarah Pirtle
© 2020 Sarah Pirtle

Where did you get that salsa? Where did you get that salsa?
It’s made from the tomatoes in the garden of Wilson School.
La la la la la la. La la la la la la.
It’s made from the tomatoes in the garden of Wilson School.

Where did you get those tomatoes? Where did you get those tomatoes?
They grew from the compost pile in the garden of Wilson School.
La la la la la la. La la la la la la.
They grew from the compost pile in the garden of Wilson School.

Where did you get that compost? Where did you get that compost?
It piled up from the food scraps from the children of Wilson School.
La la la la la la. La la la la la la.
It piled up from the food scraps from the children of Wilson School.

One hundred tomatoes on that twisty vine
Make two full bowls piled in a line.
We cried out “Jackpot! What a find,”
from the garden of Wilson School.

Where did you get that salsa? Where did you get that salsa?
Mrs. Lopez made it from the tomatoes in the garden of Wilson School.
La la la la la la. La la la la la la.
Mrs. Lopez made it from the tomatoes
in the garden of Wilson School.

Support for a School Medical Cot

I wanted to help the school in other ways. They had a dire medical need. Children not only had no nurse and no nurse’s room, but when they were sick, there was no place to lie down. They had to sit in a plastic chair. Fourteen-year-old Sanza Parzybok from Northampton, Massachusetts, announced she wanted to help. Sanza is part of a weekly racial justice gathering online for young women in Western Massachusetts that I’ve led weekly since early July. In non-pandemic times, Sanza and her friends would have been meeting in the summer for the teen session of a feminist social justice camp called Moonseed that I’ve been leading for twenty-seven years as part of Journey Camp. During COVID, we started meeting by Zoom as “A Long Line of Women Leaders for Racial Justice.”

When the national news was filled with stories of Kenosha, I shared with Long Line the first preparations for starting music classes there. Sanza said that her family had been hand-painting Black Lives Matter signs and giving them away. They decided to make more and sell them to raise money for Wilson School. Sanza’s family raised $400. Her mother, Brooksley Williams, said, “This has been such a satisfying project, and we have gotten wonderful feedback from friends and neighbors.”

Rhonda summarizes:

It has been a light in the darkness, and it has fueled my hope that people are good, and that things will get better eventually, even in a town as damaged and hurting as Kenosha. Today I put my first sick little child up on the cot you sent us. He slept there for two hours, rolled up in a soft blanket sent by another of my dear friends offering to contribute, while he waited for someone to pick him up. I was so comforted seeing him have a soft, comfortable place to sleep instead of the hard plastic chair that was there before. That cot made a difference in his life today and will make a difference over and over again for years to come. Please let those who contributed know how much their gift means to us at Wilson.

On a final note, Rhonda adds that for the first time in a long time she is hearing children singing as they walk down the halls of the school.

“Kenosha Kindness Songs” by Sarah Pirtle

These songs are sung one after another in this order:

  1. “Light a Candle to Say Hello”
  2. “Even Though We’re Far Away”
  3. “One Kind Word”
  4. “Everybody is Welcome Here” (songwriting structure)
  5. “I Will Help You” (songwriting structure)
  6. “How Can We Be Friends Again?” (songwriting structure)
  7. “Will You Be My Friend?”
  8. The Bird in the Nest Game
    This includes the Arapaho song “Wearing My Long Wing Feathers”
  9. “My Roots Go Down”