Saturday, October 8, 2011

Active Listening in Content Areas Part 1

“The first prerequisite for listening to music is so obvious that it almost
seems ludicrous to mention, yet it is often the single element that is
absent: to pay attention and to give the music your concentrated effort
as an active listener.”

-William Schuman

Are you one of those people who can’t get enough of music, and when you think of elementary school, you have fond memories of music integrated within your classroom?  No?? Oh good, neither am I.  However, that makes me sad when I think about it.  While growing up I never had a strong musical influence within my school community.  I was terrified of my elementary music teacher, Sr. Ruth (she wasn’t even a nun (-: ).  Music class was my most dreaded class, which did nothing to foster a love for music.  My only memory of music being incorporated into the classroom was in fifth grade.  Our math teacher would bring in his guitar in and we would sing Elvis songs, but only if everyone earned a 100% on their math tests (that happened maybe twice).  As you can tell, music was not something that was integrated into teaching, when I was in elementary school.  Therefore, I have never attempted to integrate it into my teaching because I was never sure how. 
   During this past summer, I saw several people tweeting about RSCON3.  My interest was piqued, so I started to browse the schedule.  There was a presentation titled Intergrating Music with Literacy to Help Struggling Readers by Elizabeth Peterson (@eliza_peterson).  Don’t laugh, but I seriously thought this presentation was going to be about playing background music while students were reading or passive listening.  Thank goodness, I was VERY wrong with that assumption.  Within the presentation, Elizabeth did a phenomenal job explaining how reading and music are a parallel process.  After participating in this presentation, I started to explore Elizabeth’s website, , where she explains in greater depth the connection between music and literacy.  

            Since the beginning of September I have been slowly integrating music into my 5th grade student’s classroom.  The student’s and I discussed active listening, and what it means to be an active listener.  After brainstorming ideas about active listening, the class decided that being an active listener means listening to something in a way you never have before to learn something or connect to something new.  I thought this was a pretty good definition by fifth graders who have never really discussed active listening, in the context of music.  We then discussed how to be an active listener while reading, even if you are reading to yourself.  Once  students were given a background on what it means to be an active listener, I played a song for them to practice active listening.  Like when reading, listening to a song multiple times will only help the students pick up on new information they may have missed the first time.  Because of schedule constraints; I play the same song two times per week for two weeks.  This gives the students time to reflect and make connections with the song that I am playing.    Since I am teaching at a school that is guided by IBPYP principles, I try to select a song that goes fits within the unit of inquiry that is currently being taught.

            When selecting my first song, I randomly happened across Ghost on theCanvas by Glen Campbell.  After doing a little research I discovered that Mr. Campbell chose to sing this song because of his recent diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease.  I thought this fit in nicely with the Who We Are Unit’s central idea of a healthy lifestyle requires a balance of many factors and decisions. Using active listening, the students would be able to use the lyrics, that they orally decoded, to decide how Alzheimer’s disease relates to wellness.  I provided students with the background information about Glen Campbell and his diagnosis, before they listened to the song.  Here is a reflection from one of the students, after his second time listening to the song: 

“A place between life and death.  He’s alive literly, but figritivly he’s dead.  Ghost on a Canvas.  the ghost is he’s Alzheimers, but it’s there.  Ashes to ashes we all fall down.  I’ve got alziemhers and that will make me fall.”

I loved how this particular student was able to interpret the deeply figurative language used in this song.  This is something that he probably would not have been able to do if the lyrics were provided to him out of context of the song.  When the students study figurative language, I plan to use the lyrics from this song, as well as many others that we have listened to, in order to have the students make an authentic connection to figurative language in the world around them.  

       The next song I choose was because of the recent ten year anniversary of September 11, 2001.  The students had spent some time discussing the events and the impact it had on people’s emotional health.  For the active listening song connected to this idea, the students listened to NewYork Times by Everclear.  The following student’s reflection was written after listening to the song one time.  He was the only person to make the connection between the song and September 11, 2001, after listening just one time.  

“you like new york times befor the twin towers claps because new york changed because osama bin laden or before when the twin towers stood”

This student struggles with reading comprehension, but was able to actively listen to a song and make a deep inference about the lyrics, that the rest of his classmates were unable to do until at least the third time listening to it.  Before students listened to New York Times, the final time, I told them to use their schema about September 11, 2001, when listening to the song.  That little bit of information gave many students the “A-ha!” moment and they were able to connect their previous thoughts about the song, to their schema associated with September 11, 2001.   

         The third song, which I used with students, was one that I heavily debated about using.  The current unit of inquiry is How We Organize Ourselves with a central idea of governmental systems can promote or deny equal opportunities and social justice.  The students are going to be focusing on three governmental systems; dictatorship, democracy and monarchy.  My goal was to find a song that would describe the inner workings or effects of a dictatorship.  As you can imagine songs about dictators aren’t the most upbeat.  I decided to use the song Symphony of Destruction by Megadeth, which even though it is considered a heavy metal song the lyrics accurately and appropriately describe a dictatorship.  I displayed pictures of four, unnamed, dictators and told the students to think about the connection between the song, the pictures, and the current unit of inquiry.  Dictators have not yet been studied, and I was using this song to introduce the topic.  When the students first heard the song, their eyes got big and they all just looked at me like I was crazy.  However, they quickly started to use active listening with a song unfamiliar to most. I have been most impressed with the connections to this song, considering the student lack of instruction over dictators and the genre of song.  Here are a couple examples of reflections, after hearing the song only once:  

“Syphony of destruction Day 1-3 I think this song is about people who caused much destruction, lives and the world.  What they did or tried to do.  What happened, what it felt like.  All of the people in the pictures caused much distruction.  Heads a roll-the dead people  Top left – Hitler Bottom Right – Osama Bin-Laden”  

“All people that destroyed our world a few times like Hitler is up there O.sama bin laden maybe even Jim Jones.  They took control of our world for a while and messed up our government.  It’s weird that they’re all men.  Dance like a marinet The earth starts to rumble”

        Overall I feel that the students not only enjoy integrating music into the curriculum, but they are quickly learning how to use active listening and apply it to the content in their units of inquiry.  It is my hope that as we continued to use music, associated with the units of inquiry, that students who may be more musically inclined will be able to make a deeper connection with a central idea because they have a song that they can listen to or fall back on to help with comprehension.  Students who may struggle with reading, like the one who reflected about New York Times, will now have a venue to practice active listening without having to worry about text getting in their way.   

       A side note for teachers that may be concerned with their lack of knowledge in musical terms, you do not have to have a background in music to be able to use music within the classroom.  I know nothing about tone, rhythm, beat or whatever other musical term there may be.  That doesn’t mean I can’t integrate music into literacy.  However, Elizabeth Peterson's book Inspired by Listening has helped me become for cognizant of musical terms. 

Please don’t forget the “art” in language arts.  Music always has been and always will be an art that we can learn from. 

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