Jane Frazee (a renowned music educator who also is my stepmother) has spent most of her life teaching and writing about music and music teachers (see her latest here). She constantly thinks about questions of music and children. And when I talk to her about Citizen Sociolinguistics, she keeps thinking about music and children. I’ll tell her about the “Accent Challenge” or “Language Pies” or high school students’ fascination for “slang,” and she says, “that’s a lot like what we are trying to do with music!”
What’s the connection?
One of the questions Jane has been thinking about has to do with music notation. Why do we teach children to read music notes when their natural sense of rhythm and melody is always initially much more sophisticated than anything they can read on paper? Children who are jump-roping, hand-clapping, rapping, singing, patty-caking, Miss Mary Mack Mack Macking during recess, are looking at quarter notes and eighth notes in the music classroom and saying, in unison, “Ta Ta Tee Tee Ta.” Most children love music! But Music Class can seem disconnected from other experiences kids have making music. And as kids get older, into their teens, they want to be playing their own instruments, in bands with friends, or socializing around music in other ways that don’t seem to connect to more formal music instruction.
So, why are we teaching “Music” when they already know it?
And, here’s the connection to Citizen Sociolinguistics: Why do we teach children—and young adults—“Language Arts” as if they don’t already know how to use language?
How can music and language teachers capture the knowledge and joy their students have for music and language without stifling it?
Many kids in music class –at least in the Ta Ta Tee Tee Ta style music class— have no idea they could make connections to what they may have been doing five minutes ago, singing with friends, before they walked into class. In part, this is because the sophisticated musical things that kids do together without any teacher around –the moves they easily make rhythmically and melodically as they syncopate hand claps, lyrics, or jump-rope steps–take a long long time to learn formally and to put on paper. Jane’s work explores how to give children the tools, gradually, to represent and build on those rhythmic and melodic inclinations in notes, on a score.
From a Citizen Sociolinguistics perspective we can do something similar. We’ve got the tools to explore what students know about language. But students need permission to “count” what they are already doing as important knowledge about how language works. When we talk about language from a Citizen Sociolinguistics perspective in English class, students reveal things that have never come up before: “My mom sounds so formal whenever she is on the phone!” “My mom uses a Chinese accent when ordering dim sum in English.” (Moms come up a lot.) “My teachers have no idea how emojis work!” “What would you call the store Five Below in Spanish? Cinco Abajo or still just Five Below?” “What are “salty looks”?” Like kids playing with music and rhythm on the playground, these kids continually play with language, exploring different accents, languages, meanings, phrases, and creating new words and ways of speaking daily.
But if kids already know and love music, know and love language, what are teachers supposed to do? Should we just give up and let them do their thing? Is there no point to teaching music and language arts? As music teachers and music lovers, as language teachers and language fanatics, music speakers and language singers, lifelong students and teachers, Jane and I would agree: No! We don’t stop teaching, but we don’t discount the richest foundation for what we teach: the music and language kids already make everyday.
We build connections: That music you love on the playground? That counts as music in class too! That language you’ve noticed in that rap song that sounds amazingly cool? That counts as “Language Arts”! Now let’s start thinking about how those daily discoveries you make about language relate to music notation, to English literature. In music, this is called “improvisation” “song-writing,” or “composition.” In English, “creative writing” or –hey- “composition.” These are the most sophisticated skills musicians and language users can get –and teachers can help them get there.
For me, Citizen Sociolinguistics provides a framework to gather everyday language knowledge and legitimize its role in the language arts classroom so that students’ language awareness and creativity grows. For Jane, her half-century of experience with music teaching and teachers has given her a massive repertoire of music projects that build on students’ knowledge of music and connect it to the techniques of improvisation and composition.
Sure, there are musicians out there who never took music class, who never learned to read notes. There are brilliant story-tellers who never wrote down a word of their stories. As Jane and I agreed yesterday, “More is more–Not either/or” (and hey! that makes a nice poem, or song!). So lets develop ways to make the connections that make the most of language and music in and out of class.
How do you make connections from language to language arts? From music to music lessons? From music to language and back? What do you think music notation and the written word have done to build language and music awareness? What are some of the ways we can concretely build these connections—in classrooms and out? Please comment below!