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  • Writer's pictureJanis Aston

Milk it . . . for ALL it's worth!!

How to turn a simple song into a set of sequential, fantastic activities

I've been revising my units. As I come to songs, I just can't seem to stop myself from creating new activities. The latest is, "I Have a Car, It's Made of Tin." But more about that in a minute.

A few years ago, our district adopted a new set of textbooks and the textbook committee decided to change from MacMillan to Silver Burdett. My school was to be the first to receive all the materials. Usually, when new curriculum was adopted, they only provided the materials for K, 2nd, and 4th, assuming we could figure that out and they saved money. The Parent-Teacher Organization for my school provided the missing grade levels. But for some reason, that year, I got everything from the district—the same week school started. And I was expected to use it the first day. Sure thing!

I say all that to say, I had to learn new songs, new teaching procedures, etc. on the fly!! Yikes!

Fast-Forward to 2020

Teachers are having to make lots of decisions on the fly. And then they have to change. School open! Nah! Closed! Online? Synchronous? Asynchronous? In-Person? Remote Learning? Words six months ago we didn't dream would be part of our vocabulary. It is an unbelievably crazy year. Frazzled before you even start!

But we can do it. We always have. Here are a few tips for how to take any song, any activity, and extend, expand, revise into a wonderful set of learning experiences for whatever situation you're facing.

Listen and Analyze

When faced with brand new curriculum, I had no choice but to learn right along with the kids. I didn't have time to even read the Teacher's Manual ahead of time. I played a song and listened together with the students while deciding what things I could pull out to use as teaching points.

A tip right here that I learned early in my career is never just play a song and tell children to listen. Always give them something specific to listen for or something specific to do. If you have not heard it either, then have them keep a beat. You will know very quickly whether they can keep the beat by patting knees or walking, stepping, moving. I've been known to put a song on Pause after telling them to pat the beat and change my directions. I just would say, "I've just thought of a better idea! Why don't you find a place where you can move without touching anyone else (always a rule), and march (or skip, or tiptoe, etc.)"

A few things I listened for immediately are—

  • Strong beat— even or uneven?

  • How can students move to this music?

  • Will we play instruments?

  • Same-different phrases?

  • Pentatonic?

  • If a song, are the phrases going to be easy to echo-teach? Easy rhythms to clap?

  • Is there a repeated phrase I can pull out and teach and let students sing upon repetition.

  • Solfege?

  • Potential for Orff accompaniment?

  • Potential for rhythm accompaniments? Drums? Sticks?

  • Is there meaning in the lyrics that will stimulate discussion? Example: "I Don't Care If the Rain Comes Down, I'm Gonna Dance All Day" became fodder for a big discussion in my class. I would ask my 3rd-4th grade students, "What do you think this song is about? And it's not about the weather or rain." This then expanded to a great small-group activity project where they created their own words, accompaniments, and performances of a song about what to do when life hands you lemons!


  • When presenting new music/songs to students, watch for reactions.

  • Are they immediately engaged? Moving, singing?

  • Or are students not focusing and you know you will either eliminate the song/activity or work very hard to involve them?

Try It

Believe me, things will jump out at you if you practice this intentional listening habit. Once you have heard the music, analyzed it, determined whether they like it or not, and decided what you want the children to learn from it, make a plan. Try it out in the next lesson. Let the students determine whether you can continue with this song, if your ideas work, or if it's a total bust.

"I Have a Car"

Now, I said I would tell you about "I Have a Car." I used this song the first nine weeks with second graders. The fun movements for the refrain make it an immediate hit. The cute song track on the curriculum CD added to the students' engagement. But I wanted to use it to teach more.

How about melodic movement? Mi-Re-Do? Same-different phrases? So I used an old-school technique for teaching those things—I made Melody Maps. At least that's what I called them. Basically, you take a simple song, superimpose a staff over the melody and create stair steps to simulate the stepwise movement in the phrases. The rhythm is also there—large cars, smaller cars, and puffs of smoke!

Children can "SEE" the movement of the melody while it is being played or sung.

In preparing the document for addition to Unit 1 Lesson Plans, I saw a few things I missed before.

  • This is an old song and uses terminology that children will not be familiar with—Vocabulary!

  • Maybe I'll look up the old-timey car. I found out that the first car, the Model-T, was nicknamed the "Tin Lizzie." The more I read, the more I knew the kids would enjoy the story about how that happened. Social Studies!

  • Maybe I'll create a blank staff sheet and cut-out balls so students can "manipulate" the notes on the staff. Manipulatives and Ear Training.

  • Maybe I'll put it all in a Powerpoint that can be used online or in the classroom. So teachers won't have to do that this year.

So I did all of the above and created a fantastic activity that you can use online or in the classroom.

Just a simple song but so many possibilities!

And the students will sing it over and over as they continue to work on matching pitch, improving their singing skills, and most importantly developing the foundation for music reading skills.

You will LOVE this activity! Easy to adapt for whatever your situation in 2020!

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