Dr. Mark Turner

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Thinking Musically:
An Example of How One Fourth
Grade Class Transformed a
Picture Book into Music

by Dr. Mark Turner
Associate Professor of Music
Early Childhood and Elementary Specialist
SFA School of Music
[email protected]



In keeping with the SFA Charter School’s mission of child-centered, constructivist learning, the music for this project was created by 4th grade students. Each of their musical ideas and songs is based on literature used by their classroom professional. In this way, the children’s music education integrates music into their daily curriculum and focuses on developing their critical thinking skill in literature and music. In addition, each grade has had the opportunity to further develop their skills at working productively in small, child-directed music groups. The information presented within these pages is intended to disseminate pedagogically sound music practices as well as inspire others to think "out-of-the-box."

For years I spent weeks and weeks preparing for PTA/PTO presentations. As many individuals do at TMEA, I dutifully went to as many reading sessions as I could cram into two and a half days trying to find music and musicals that "fit" my particular situation. Then I would begin difficult task of reproducing a musical exactly as I remembered it at our state convention. As you well know, this takes an enormous amount of "time, blood, sweat, and lots and lots of tears."

It wasn't very long before I realized that while my students looked very good and sounded great and felt very good about themselves during and after the performance, I had invested an enormous amount of instructional time on something that I was essentially "spoon feeding" them. For all intents and purposes, they were not thinking musically. They were simply obeying my wishes and instructions. Remember, I had six weeks to prepare them for the performance. Considering all that TEA requires our children to demonstrate musically, the traditional type of PTO/PTA program was not cost-effective.

My view of what I was doing in the classroom and how I could meet my administrator's "monthly PTO" needs as well as my commitment to getting my students to think musically changed when I stumbled across Jackie Wiggins' new text Teaching for Musical Understanding. Wiggins' text opened my eyes to the possibilities of having children create their own music instead of relying on "canned" musicals I normally would purchase at the beginning of the school year.

What follows is a brief outline of how we developed classroom strategies, how the children created their lyrics and music, and how our original image of the final product was altered do to time constraints.

Genesis: One of my student interns mentioned that she wanted to share a book with the fourth grade class. The book, Giraffes Can't Dance by Giles Andreae (NY: Orchard Books, 2001, ISBN # 0-439-28719-7) tells a delightful story of an awkward giraffe's futile attempts at dancing and his discovery of his own "song" to which he easily dances. The children loved the book. I suggested that the class could use the book as the foundation for music to be presented at a holiday program.

The Grand Idea: Initially, in my mind's eye I could see children singing songs they composed, playing tuned and non-tuned percussion instruments as their accompaniment, wearing "Lion King-esc" costumes they made during art class, with several children assuming the role of various characters in the story, using movements and dances that reflect the emotions and songs they create.

Reality Sets In: Ultimately, we ran out of time and had to settle on having the children sing their songs and add non-tuned percussion instruments to an accompaniment I sequenced on a computer. The finished product was great, but a far cry from my initial vision.

What You Will Find on These Pages: First, you will find an outline (timeline) of what we did each week. We see the children once a week for forty-five minutes. This information is provided so that you can allow ample time to create your own music using another book.

Second, you will find the music that the children wrote. I hope you will study it as a way to see how children can create some fairly sophisticated music with minimal help from adults. You are welcome to use and sing the music with your children and, if you like, to perform the music on a program. My only request is that you give credit to the children who composed the music and their school. (The SFA Charter School 4th Grade 2001-2002).

Third, you will also find MP3 sound files that you can download to your computer and then "burn" them onto a CD. I created the accompaniments. You are welcome to use them and share them with other music specialists.


The Texas School Music Project is a source for ideas and information concerning pedagogical practices in the music classroom or rehearsal hall.
The TSMP is a service provided to all music specialists by the faculty of the School of Music at Stephen F. Austin State University.

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