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Musical Cues

Susan Notes: This is so great it gives me goosebumps. I can picture a few of my own students in this story. This technique makes me wish I were back with 7th graders. I'd love to try it out. I know it would work. . . and bring joy.

by Andy Hilbert

I warn you. This advice is not standards-based, rigorous, research-based, or data driven. This will bring joy to your classroom, students will sing, dance, smile, laugh, and learn. By making the classroom musical, you will see students write more, misbehave less, and (my latest discovery) follow directions.

I first came to appreciate the use of music in the classroom when I had my students bring a favorite song and play it to the class. As the music played, everyone wrote short song reviews. By the end of a 53-minute class period all my students had written eight to ten paragraphs. To this day, that assignment yields the most writing in the least amount of time.

Later, I had to break a school rule to further my appreciation of music in the classroom. In the middle of a first semester a colleague begged me for two weeks to take a misbehaving eighth-grader from her. She said she would take any two students from me in exchange. Well, I took the student into my sixth period class without taking her up on her trade offer.

Twenty students would not have been a fair exchange. This student could not last twenty seconds without disrupting someone else and could not last a minute without disrupting the whole class. I once got a paragraph out of him by sitting on his desk the entire period. I was proud of our achievement, but I had thirty other students to attend to, and could not make sitting on his desk a daily routine. So we all suffered until I broke a school rule. (Don't tell!)

He asked me if he could listen to music on his headphones. At first I said no, knowing that an assistant principal could walk in anytime, confiscate his CD player, and give me a condescending glare. You see we have a strict rule against any sound making electronic devices at Carnegie.

However, I thought about it further. For three months all this student did was write one lousy paragraph and disrupt the class hundreds of times. What was there to lose? I let him put on the headphones. Transformation! To my surprise, he quietly did his work all period every day for ten school days with the headphones on and the music turned up. Then a Dean, who surely was not aware of the simple musical alternative, suspended him for the remaining five days of the school year.

I am left to wonder what brilliant work he could have produced had I discovered music therapy only three months prior. What a lost opportunity! Next time.

This year I made yet another musical discovery. Giving instructions is an essential part of the teaching craft. Giving clear and understandable instructions isnít enough in middle school. I have recommended adding process steps (even silly ones) to make sure everyone is listening. For example, I have my students do "word charts" according to the Kay Kinsella method of vocabulary instruction. Each chart consists of three rows with three columns. The first column is for the words and definitions, the second for synonyms and sentences, and the third is for images that remind students of the wordsí meanings. Pretty complicated! I start by having them fold their papers over twice one way and twice the other way. If they do it correctly, they should have a 3" x 4" folded piece of paper. At that point I instruct the class to "shake it, shake it, shake it like a Polaroid picture." For some reason all the students who werenít with me start scrambling to fold their papers so they can shake it too. After the folded papers are well shaken, they are unfolded and like magic they have blank word charts.

This is a routine throughout the year. Soon students know exactly what to do and the "shake it, shake it, shake it" continues to be an effective and entertaining until we approach the end of the second semester when no amount of cajoling can seem to get all students on task quickly. They are tired of school and will fight any attempt at instruction especially instruction as comprehensive as the word charts. This is an annual year-end battle with eighth-graders that I am now winning with musical cues.

On my first attempt I opened the class with a question, "What is a musical cue?" Usually there was little response.

So, I continued. "What if I could play a sound or a tone or a piece of music and everyone in the class would instantly know what to do? Well that would be a musical cue."

The class seemed perplexed yet curious.

"I think musical cues work. Iíll play a note or sound or song and everyone will know what to do and start doing it. It works. Youíll see. Letís try it."

I walked slowly to the CD player and pushed play on track nine for the song "Hey ya" from which I had lifted the "shake it, shake it, like a Polaroid picture" lyrics. Once my students heard the song, they burst into exclamations of recognition, started singing, smiling, and taking out 81/2 by 11 pieces of paper and folding them into word charts. I illuminated the definitions on the screen and everyone started copying the definitions as the song continued to play. When the song finished, the class was in a trance. They could not be bothered. They wanted to complete the word charts quietly by themselves without my instruction. I didnít have to issue a single instruction, let alone repeat one twenty times. It even took me a little while to bring them back from absolute silence, but I slowly managed to engage the class in discussion about the words.

Now I just have to think of appropriate tunes to cue transitions into group work, silent reading, and clean up time. Hey maybe I can turn my students on to Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Ben Harper, and Victoria Williams. I better not push it; this is supposed to be a job.

— Andy Hilbert
HorseSense and Nonsense


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