Folk songs are also great because they make it so easy to teach history and culture. I always take just a few minutes to explain little elements of the song and backstory to my students. Often folk songs use archaic or unusual vocabulary that students might not know right away. Kids marvel when they learn how old a song is and find out how people have danced and played and sung these songs through the years. When we sing folk songs it connects us with other people from around the world who have come before us. We follow in their footsteps and gather together because of our love for singing and dancing. What a beautiful legacy and what a wonderful culture to be a part of! What an exciting way to expand vocabulary! What an excellent way to teach history and culture! What an awesome musical experience to encourage singing and movement!
More than a Melody
That all changed a year or so ago. I started to really get into the history and context behind folk songs and made sure to do some research whenever I taught a new song so that I could add little tidbits of information or fun facts. I was able to tell my students the reasons for those funny word combinations and archaic vocabulary. With a little research I could explain what it meant when the song talked about a specific place or situation.
Conversations with kids about folk songs are important. Often in reflection about my own teaching I think that I don’t do enough to help students “understand the relationships between Music, the other Arts, and disciplines outside the Arts,” or to help them understand “music in relation to history and culture” (two of the "old" National Standards for Music Education). Folk songs give us an easy medium to make those connections in a quick and tangible way. When I started talking with my kiddos about folk song history and context I was able in just a few minutes to give them a backstory that was interesting and shed light on why we sang what we did. They understood who this person was and it made the song more real and the game more interesting. Since then I’ve started to have similar conversations with all of my students any time we teach a new folk song. I try and give a little context and shed some light on the people, places, and things behind the new folk song. Let me tell you, my students are way more engaged in the learning and they remember the song so much better.
Weird Words - What is a Paw Paw?
A great example of this was the song "Paw Paw Patch." The first few times I taught this song I did so with echo singing, basically teaching the song by wrote. As soon as we had the lyrics down I would go right into teaching an instrumental/accompaniment part or perhaps teach them the accompanying "play party" dance. The song went well and the kids LOVED the game, but a few days later one brave little girl asked me (while waiting for her bus) what a "paw paw" was. Clearly I had missed an opportunity.
So I went online, did some research, downloaded some photos, and came back to the class with this little 2 minute presentation. I talked about where the song came from and when it was first written down. We talked about the Appalachian Mountains because at this time I taught in Kansas and the kids there knew very little about the Appalachians. Finally I showed them this slide about Paw paws and told them a little about the fruits. They were AMAZED! Soon "picken up paw paws" to put in your pocket made much more sense to students. The game was changed, the song seemed brand new, and my kids had learned so much more!
Our "Favorite Folk Songs"
In an attempt to make these connections more long lasting and tangible I started to create little poster sets to put out in the hallway to engage my students. I’m down to 25 minute music classes twice a week (and honestly without passing time between classes that means that with coming in and out and getting settled I’m really down to about 20 minute classes). Making time for connections is hard but something that I am insistent about. Since I have so little class time these bulletin board helpers have been a lifesaver! I spent some time finding fun graphics, researching each song, and making the information palatable for students. I wanted to make sure the information was interesting and engaging and gave them a good context for each song. As I created the sets I realized that I should also include musical information, lyrics, game or dance instructions, a couple vocabulary flash cards, and any other little helpers that might be useful to me the NEXT time I pulled out the set.
I keep those same bulletin board materials in a PowerPoint file so that I can use them in class and they look EXACTLY the same as what I put out in the hallway. Kids easily make the connections and love to reference back to what they've already seen in class. With all these "Favorite Folk Song" kids I include a PDF/JPG set and also a PowerPoint set so that both options are available to use.