Relics: separating the useful from the pointless

09Jul09

Today I started orientation for my new month-long job working as a day camp choir teacher for 7-12 year-olds. It’s a new program, so there’s no prior curriculum for me to draw from, and this is my first experience teaching kids music. I’m pretty nervous about being a good teacher. So I’ve been poring over several elementary music ed books, and in today’s trip to the UT Fine Arts Library, I was struck by how irrelevant a lot of the traditional kids’ folk ditties seem. This sentiment was especially magnified by conversations I’ve had with two teachers: my mom, and the elementary music ed teacher I met today.

My mom is an elementary ESL teacher here in Texas, so I’ve grown up hearing a lot about the difficulties the TAKS test poses for her students. They almost always come to her right from Mexico, though some have a few years of experience in U.S. schools. The one story I always remember is when she had to give them a practice reading exam all about the main character’s experience in a canoe.

Why would you write a reading exam about canoes for kids who come from a place where there are no canoes? How are they going to make sense of that story?

The teacher I met today mentioned how she started out trying to teach kids Kodaly and solfege, but she found that a lot of her kids were uninterested in singing old folk songs. They couldn’t relate.

Kodaly talks (I’m not a Kodaly expert but bear with me) about making children stewards of their cultural heritage, but our culture is so vastly different from the culture represented in folk songs from a century ago.

When I opened up a few old folk song books at the UT Library today, I found one song about a bonnet.

Who, in 2009, gives a damn about bonnets?

Okay, so nobody told me I needed to sing about bonnets from a songbook published in 1960. I could use the songs about rabbits or who’s tapping at the window.

My point is not so much about the literal bonnet. I’ve just been reflecting a lot on what I loved about my own music education, and mostly I remember the cool solfege warmups, and sight singing. (Though, who knows whether or not most kids love solfege?) Later, I started to love getting solos… but also getting chills when the choir tuned just right — when everything was in sync just so.

What scarred me were the experiences I had singing and doing choreography to music I felt was stupid — lame lyrics/subject matter, or cheesy canned accompaniment, or something from the Lion King. I did it anyway, because I was a good choir dork. And I learned a good skill: to grin and bear it. But my musical experience could have been so much richer — so much more challenging. I really want to engage and challenge the kids I teach, and I hope I can.

So that brings me to my lesson planning dilemma. What kind of repertoire should I present to kids these days? I’m convinced that it can’t be about bonnets in any incarnation.

My best idea is to try and arrange a few good pop songs. However, what, if anything, can I draw from old folk songs that is relevant to kids today?

If we are to truly make children stewards of their cultural heritage, perhaps my best course of action is to remix.

Whatever I end up doing, I need to have something planned by tomorrow, which means I need to stop writing this and start drafting out a real live lesson plan. Here goes nothin’.

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