By Shawn Forster, songwriter for the We Say What’s Okay series and writer/creator of Weird! The Musical
Have you ever been “earwormed” by a catchy song? You hear a song, and think you are done with it, but the tune keeps playing inside your brain. Somehow the song is just stuck in there on repeat, and you can’t get free . . . that’s the power of music!
Music has played a powerful role in my life, and especially in my education. I was a student who learned through visuals and music. If music was part of the lesson, it was easier for me to absorb and retain. Now as an educator, I use music to help enhance my lessons and enjoy witnessing it help my students in the same ways it helped me. Here are five tips to help you unleash the power of music in your classroom.
1. Resets and Transitions
The period after lunch is often the most difficult class of the day. Students return energized from the excitement of the cafeteria, the social time with friends, and the food they just digested. Getting everyone back to a state of calm so they are ready to learn can be a challenge. “Music has charms to soothe a savage beast,” is a famous line from William Congreve’s 1697 play, The Mourning Bride, and it speaks to the power of music to reset the mood and help us find our calm. If music can calm a savage beast, then it can do the same for students.
Play music that sets the tone you are looking to create. Use a song as background when greeting students in the morning and throughout the day for entries, exits, and breaks. It can be helpful to create playlists in advance, so that music is ready to go when needed. You might create several playlists: one that calms, one that energizes, and one just for fun! Music can create the mood for your students and make the day more enjoyable.
2. Classroom Timer
Looking for a way to reinforce classroom management? Need students to move quickly from one task to another? Have timed segments in your activity or lesson? Many educators like to use an egg timer or a countdown clock, but what about using music as a classroom timer? This can be another powerful way to add music to the school day.
Whether your timer is thirty seconds or thirty minutes, adding music will help students focus on the task and find success. There are many wonderful musical timers available on YouTube that include popular songs from students’ favorite movies and shows.
3. Lesson Reinforcement
Music is proven to boost mental alertness and memory. Songs stay with us for a long time and can help attach us to a past moment in time. Have you ever been cruising in the car when a song that you haven’t heard in a long time comes on the radio? Even though it’s been years, you still know every word and are transported back to a memory.
As a student, I was never strong when it came to geography and struggled to remember all the states until my fifth-grade teacher taught us “The US States Song.” To this day, over thirty years later, I can sing this song to list all fifty states in alphabetical order. Without the tune, I would probably struggle.
When writing songs for the We Say What’s Okay series, I’m always seeking to write a catchy chorus hook. My hope is that if readers don’t remember every detail of each story, their sticky brain will retain the important consent lesson and the tune will become an earworm for them. Once the tune is a part of their brain, when they need the information, it is there and easily accessible.
If you’re teaching a history lesson, you might add some excitement by introducing your students to music from that time period. Invigorate your math lesson by analyzing rhythm patterns; your students will love learning this way. Every lesson can be stronger and every topic can be easily memorized when put to music.
4. Create Empathy
Music hits our emotions in a way nothing else can. Research has proven that music impacts our mood and facilitates opportunities for emotional expression. Think about the Steven Spielberg movie Jaws. The great white shark attacks become more intense and suspenseful with the addition of a simple alternating pattern of two notes (da-dah, da-dah, da-dah). A romantic scene is more heartfelt with soft music underneath to set the mood. My favorites are the “happily ever afters,” when the music crescendos and leaves the audience satisfied and filled with hope.
I loved adapting the stories from the Weird! series for a musical because the books already have so much heart. When audiences hear the characters’ emotions sung through song, they feel when to cheer for them, when to cry with them, and when to support them. When you add music to these stories and give the characters moments to express themselves in song, real connections are made. Music helps audiences feel for the characters and gives them the opportunity to walk in their shoes. It helps us connect, and when we feel connected, we can recognize and consider the feelings of others. Connect students to literature by finding a song that has the heart of the book or expresses how the main character may be feeling.
5. Building Community and Classroom Culture
Let the sounds of music create a positive classroom culture and uplift students’ mood, which will increase team building and community. Music is a powerful tool that can unite us and is often used to motivate. Think of the many events you’ve attended where they use the song “We Will Rock You” by Queen to get the crowd pumped up, on its feet, and ready for the main event. Can you hear it now? (Stomp, stomp, clap! Stomp, stomp, clap!) The song energizes our mood, and the movement brings us all together. The whole crowd is one strong, excited community.
One of my favorite things to do with a class is create a theme song. You don’t have to be a professional songwriter or have any music theory skills to make this happen. First, talk about theme songs and why they are important. A good theme song gets you to associate it with a show or product. One of my favorites, and I may be dating myself, is the theme song to The Golden Girls—“Thank You for Being a Friend.” The title of the show is never sung, but we know the theme of the show: friendship. Brainstorm with your students to find words that express what the classroom feels like when it is at its best and everyone is getting along.
Next, find upbeat, popular songs that express the feelings your class listed. If students shared that the classroom feels like a happy place, you could use the song “Happy” by Pharrell Williams. If someone said that the classroom is an awesome place to be, you could use the song “Everything Is Awesome” from The Lego Movie. One of my top picks was “We’re All in This Together” from High School Musical to show that, in our class, we value everyone and we are all on the same team, working toward the same goals.
When you have your list of songs, play each of them for your students. Then vote and select the song that your classroom community would like to use as its theme song. You can continue to build the excitement through the year by adding movement, or you could rewrite the lyrics to make the song even more personal to your students and school. The possibilities are endless, and you will see your students bond over their theme song and form a strong, happy, and positive community.
Shawn Forster is Vice President of Peaceful Schools and Artistic Director of Peaceful Schools Productions, combining his passion for musical theatre and social emotional learning. He has a broad expertise in SEL curriculum development and instruction, mediation, and one on one skill building. Shawn has trained educators around the country in conflict resolution, mediation, and de-escalation. Since 2003, Shawn has enthusiastically led the creative process for Peaceful Schools with his artistic and theatrical skills, experience as a performer on national and regional theatre tours, and as an award-winning director. As Artistic Director of Peaceful Schools Productions he directed, performed, and served as dramaturg for the first official touring production of Have You Filled A Bucket Today? The Play. He is also co-creator and original cast member of Rise Up!, a touring character education talk show for kids. Shawn has been writing songs since he was very young and scored a top 1o hit on the iTunes Children’s Chart with The Bucket Filling Song. Shawn and the Peaceful Schools team recently adapted Free Spirit Publishing’s The Weird Series by Erin Frankel and Paula Heaphy into a stage musical. This past year, Weird! The Musical was nominated for numerous Broadway World Awards winning Best Original Script of the Decade. Shawn is excited to continue collaborating with Free Spirit as songwriter for the We Say What’s Okay series, further continuing his mission of connecting social-emotional skills through arts-based experiences.
Shawn is the songwriter for the We Say What’s Okay series.
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