In the spring of 2020, two seminal events deeply affected the independent school in New York City where I teach music. COVID-19 caused our physical school to close, and we began teaching remotely online. Then, in May, we learned of the murder of George Floyd.
My school is a K–12 institution, and I am one of two music teachers in the K–3 division. After hearing of Floyd’s murder, high school administrators held a meeting for their students to give them a voice to express feelings, connect as a community, and receive support. At the meeting, which extended beyond the initial hour allotted, the school listened while many children of color said that they had experienced hurtful inequities and microaggressions. They expressed their discomfort with some of the high school curriculum and literature choices and described a lack of responsiveness and sensitivity they perceive from some faculty and peers.
Teachers were taken aback by the examples provided, and it became clear that we, as a progressive institution, had work to do. We added a week of curriculum development time to plan online curricula for the following year and to work actively on an antiracist curriculum. Although we had already been doing Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) work as an institution for a number of years, this week we would go deeper and plan how to address the new information we had just learned from the students.
In my division, we met on Zoom for a week in June with Jessica Catoggio, Course Facilitator from the World Leadership School. The World Leadership School is a Certified B Corporation (for-profit) that works, in her words, “with K–12 independent schools in North America to help them reimagine learning and create next-generation leaders . . . [and] bring greater purpose to learning.”
After describing her organization and presenting excellent examples of projects that had been done successfully with schools across the United States, Jessica gave us our first assignment: “begin thinking about a unit that you would like to work on” under their nomenclature Project Based Learning (PBL). We were organized into grade level and specialist teams. My music colleague Janet Chinelli and I were in our own group of two.
Janet and I did some brainstorming and came up with several possibilities. We chose the one that seemed best to address the two foremost issues: inequality and the limitations on teaching music during Zoom classes. The starting point of PBL is the “driving question,” and we asked, “How can students write a song that addresses injustice?” and, “How can music forge a movement forward?”
We decided that, as part of our music curriculum, developing an understanding of advocacy through music would be an extended unit for all five of our third-grade classes, culminating in each class writing an original song on a subject of their choosing that would advocate for change.
In order to prevent Zoom exhaustion from overtaking the students, our music time (as all specials time) was cut back to half an hour, once a week. We began our unit by teaching what a song advocating for something actually is. We started with Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” which every child knew and had sung many times, but only the first three verses. We quoted Bonnie Christensen from her beautiful book, Woody Guthrie: Poet of the People:
Woody wrote this song in 1940 with seven verses. Near the end of his life he became concerned that the verses that addressed hardship and unfairness in America were often not sung. Before he died, he taught his young son Arlo all of the verses. And today the song as he intended it lives on.
We then sang all seven verses and discussed them afterward with our students. Singing a song usually thought of as patriotic and then rediscovering it as a song strongly advocating for change was eye-opening for the children.
We followed “This Land Is Your Land” with the empowering civil rights song “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ’Round.”
Ain’t gonna let nobody
Turn me ’round,
Turn me ’round,
Turn me ’round
Ain’t gonna let nobody
Turn me ’round
I’m gonna keep on walkin’
Keep on talkin’
Marchin’ into freedom land
During the Civil Rights Movement, verses to this song were often improvised, including substituting “no jailhouse” or “no policeman” for the word “nobody.” We played our students a recording of the song by CMN Magic Penny award winners Kim and Reggie Harris. Their rendition uses the words “indifference,” “racism,” “sexism,” and “homophobia” as substitutes—topics, which, at our school, had already been discussed throughout the K–3 grades. As you can probably predict, we then asked our students to come up with word substitutes of their own, and thus began their first foray into writing lyrics advocating for change.
Our school has been intentional in diversifying the student body over the last twenty years. Its success marks it as one of the most diverse independent schools in New York City. The school continues to work at hiring more faculty and staff of color and to bring in diverse guests in all disciplines; as music teachers, we have introduced music and musicians in keeping with this mission.
For this reason, we asked Groovy Nate (Elnathan Starnes) to be a guest artist when we decided to introduce our third graders to a more recently composed advocacy song, namely, his original “Put Your Seatbelt On.” I had seen, heard, and enjoyed it in last year’s Pass It On!, and we chose it because it uses the accessible form of call and response, combines music forms (rap, call and response, verse, chorus, and bridge), is catchy and delightful to hear and sing, covers an issue that all children can understand and agree on, and clearly advocates for something. We invited Groovy Nate to join two Zoom sessions with each of the classes.
During the first class, our students had the opportunity to meet a real recording artist, learn about his songwriting process, and ask him prepared questions. During the second class, Nate helped our students begin the journey of songwriting.
The first order of business was to choose a topic. The different class discussions yielded five different topics: Fairness, Anti-Violence, Trees, Animals, Equal Rights. Nate suggested that we begin our work in a grid with the columns labeled:
Children expressed many thoughts while addressing their topic of choice. We typed them into the grid, and then we all decided in which category their ideas could belong. When we had a good draft of possible lyrics for a chorus, we asked the children to mute themselves and try to sing their own composed melodies to the words. Nate generously provided us with an original special beat in three different tempi: slow, medium, fast. This gave the students a groundwork to start from. When they were ready, they sang their melodic ideas to us one at a time while we recorded them. After class, we notated the tunes and presented them the following week.
The children chose which melodies worked best for them, sometimes combining different suggestions, and we moved on to verses. Using Nate’s grid, we encouraged the children to create lyrics for Verse 1 describing aspects of their issue that needed change. The lyrics of Verse 2 would provide suggested actions to bring about that change. One class was able to write a Chant/Bridge; for the others, it proved to be too much of a challenge in our limited amount of meeting time. By the beginning of December, the five classes had decided on all the lyrics and melodies of their songs. Over winter break, I made recorded arrangements using Garage Band and Nate’s beat to accompany their songs.
After winter break, we were still limited to remote learning, which made it a challenge for the children to record themselves at home and add their singing voices to the recording. We used the teaching computer program Seesaw to bring this about. Each chorus of all the five songs proved to be catchy, straightforward, and not difficult to sing along with. Through Seesaw, I sent home a recording of just the chorus (a different one for each class) to every student with the Garage Band accompaniment and Nate’s beat, along with my voice singing the melody.
Recording their own voices was technically challenging, as they needed to listen to the recording with headphones on and record themselves singing the chorus on a second device. This was an optional activity, and many students were excited to take part. When I received their vocal recordings, I pasted them into my Garage Band arrangements. After the successful first round reassured us that our students could make their own recordings, I created new Seesaw assignments, this time for each of the verses. Every time we received new recordings, I pasted them into the Garage Band accompaniments and then played the result for the children during their music classes. This encouraged and spurred other students to join the recording project.
All five songs and recordings were completed in the middle of March. Each class was eager to send a recording of their song to Groovy Nate and write him a thank-you email with the MP3 attached. Since we were still Zooming, we created the letter by asking each student to write a sentence in the chat and wait to press “send” at the same time. They then composed their letter, combining and editing their suggested ideas. This is an example of one of the letters:
March 15, 2021
Dear Groovy Nate,
Thank you for coming to our Zoom and inspiring us to make our song. You gave us a good beat and ideas to put in our song, including tips for things we could add. We think the song turned out really well, thanks to you and our teachers. We are proud of the final product and how it turned out.
Thank you for taking part of your day to help some 3rd graders you have never met before to make a song, and now we are good friends.
We really liked your visit and hope to see you again. We hope you always remember us. We know we will always remember you. When we are grandparents, we will play this song for our grandchildren and say, “this is my first song I made with Groovy Nate.”
We hope you enjoy the song.
Till we meet again . . .
After our spring break, school policies changed, and in April, Janet and I were able to return to teach in person. In May, looking ahead to third-grade graduation (moving up to our middle school) we knew it would be limited to a Zoom live stream event. We thought a video of each class performing their song would be a terrific contribution to the ceremony. More importantly, this would give the students who hadn’t recorded themselves previously in Seesaw a chance to be a part of the presentation of the songs. Each class worked out dance arrangements and practiced singing along with the MP3, and in June (one week before graduation), a videographer recorded them performing their original advocacy song.
The following week, during our final music class of the year, we asked our students if they had any thoughts they would like to share about their journey of writing and performing an original song advocating for change. The responses were heartwarming and affirming. Here are just a few of the comments:
“It was easier for me to express my thoughts in a song.”
“It was much better writing a song together than each of us doing our own.”
“It was fun.”
“I did not contribute any ideas or sing on the recording, but I listened intently in every class, and it inspired me to begin writing my own songs at home.”
“It feels good to write an important song about helping the world.”
“It was hard when there were disagreements while we were writing the song, but once we could all come to an agreement, it made it fun.”
“Meeting Groovy Nate was an inspiration: if he could write a great song, then we could, too!”
And lastly, an anecdote from a classroom teacher after we videotaped her class:
My kids came down from recess and were arguing about something that had happened in the gym. I guess there had been some fighting, and they were getting very heated. As they were all arguing, one kid just started singing the song that they had written:
Violence really isn’t nice.
Say it once, say it twice.
As soon as that happened, the whole class joined in and it really did ease everyone’s tensions and allow us to move on to the next activity!
The Advocacy Songwriting unit proved to be a great success. The children were pleased with their collective work and proud of the songs they created. Their songs will surely be remembered by them, their teachers, and by Janet and me. It took planning, time, and much work, but the results were rewarding and perhaps put the children on a path to change the world.
music and lyrics by Third Graders
Violence really isn’t nice
Say it once, say it twice.
Violence really isn’t nice
Say it once, say it twice.
We need to stop violence, violence is bad.
People will get mad and not just a tad.
We learn that violence is not the best.
Not the best because it gives us stress.
Don’t use heat, just use a beat.
Let’s stop rioting, let’s start quieting.
Sight a fight and take a stand.
Can we stop it? Yes, we can!