Could you do this? Making music tell a story

The Gist:

  • Students in my Storytelling class are now working with music.
  • What we’re doing isn’t explicitly stated in the state standards.
  • No part of me believes this project isn’t helping them to be better readers, writers and thinkers.

The Whole Story:

Looking at the syllabus for my Storytelling class, I noticed I’d planned for poetry to follow our short story unit. Taking the temperature of the students, I decided a course adjustment was in order.

Instead of poetry, we’re working with music-without words.

To start things out, I needed to stand their expectations on their ears.

Everything was to be cleared from their desks. I distributed blank paper.  Crayons, colored pencils and markers laid sprawled on a central table.

“I’m going to play 10 stories for you,” I said, “You need to draw or write the story as you see fit. You’ll have 30 seconds between each story to finish before we move on.”

Papers were folded, coloring utensils collected and chairs situated just so.

I pressed play.

“Kyrie” from Mozart’s Requiem wafted from the speakers.

“I’ll let you know when there’s one minute left of each story,” I said.

They started drawing and writing the stories they heard.

When all was done, we’d listened to:

“Kyrie” from Mozart’s Requiem

“Fanfare for the Common Man” by Aaron Copeland

The theme from the 60s BBC show The Avengers

Verdi’s “Grand March” from Aida

“Heart String” by Earl Klugh

“Ode to Joy” from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony

The tango from Scent of a Woman

Apotheosis’ take on Carl Orff’s “O Fortuna”

The theme from The Rock by Hanz Zimmer

The theme from Pirates of the Carribean, also by Hanz Zimmer

Thirty seconds after the last story, I told the class the story of riding in the back of my mom’s Nissan Pulsar when I was in first grade and we lived in Kentucky. When we’d drive back to Illinois in the middle of the night for holidays, each song that was in heavy rotation on whatever light rock station she was listening to was burned into my memory.

I played “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” by Tears for Fears and explained, for me, that song was about being 7 and riding from Kentucky to Illinois more than it could ever be about John Hughes’ 16 Candles.

Then came the assignment. They’re to re-tell the stories they wrote after the first day of class as a non-vocal musical track. They may compose something original or remix and mash up other tracks.

The only allowable vocals are unintelligible words like Orff’s Latin lyrics in “O Fortuna” or something along the lines of a doo-wop riff.

I’m excited to hear what they create. My hope is this assignment will stretch their thinking. I’ve tried it, it’s tricky.

Nowhere in the Pennsylvania English Curriculum does it direct students to be this kind of writers. Nowhere does it ask them to read texts as music. For that matter, the draft of the Common Core Standards doesn’t include anything like this.

I could massage a few of the standards into place, but either the assignment or the standard would end up inauthentic.

That said, I have no doubt what my students will be doing is a valid, challenging, authentic form of consumption and creation. They’re reading, writing and thinking in a way no test could measure or equal.

It’s going to be difficult, messy, frustrating and beautiful.

I can’t wait to hear what they create.

9 thoughts on “Could you do this? Making music tell a story

  1. That's a fascinating project. I can't wait to hear the results! I'm SURE the kids feed off of your energy and completely appreciate – at some point – your deliberate authenticity and commitment to true education.I'm sure what you're doing isn't in the state standards because…you know…Pennsylvania's standards are SO BEHIND the other states'. *wink* *grin*But I do have to take enormous exception to your characterization of Orff's Latin lyrics (which were not his – they were from 11th-13th century monastic manuscripts) as “unintelligible.” They were certainly “unintelligible” in the loose interpretation of the piece you played (and I do mean “loose”). But any top notch choir can and does completely articulate those lyrics when the traditional piece is performed! I can say that with authority, having performed it several times.

  2. I have two wishes.1) That I had a teacher that did something like this, it seems to be something I always dreamed of doing in school, especially around 10th and 11th grade.2) That I could somehow make a variation of this work for my 8th grade social studies class.

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  4. My favorite part of this is that your kids are going there with you. From many teachers that are could try this lesson as a one-off shot in the dark at authenticity, it absolutely would not work. The kids would cynically write a few words for each story and then piece together something that had little meaning for them. The fact they they feel comfortable enough to be themselves and tell their stories is much more what teaching this way all the time is about. You are hitting the “standards” much harder because you have allowed them to actually engage in the process of writing without having a voice inside telling them that it is only for a “class.” That is the process of real writing, and I thank you for teaching it to them.

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  8. Zac, I was sent your post by a colleague. We hosted a Digital Storytelling Playground together at ISTE this year, and I manned the music table and did a 30-minute music presentation. I can tell you that, while what you’re engaging students in during this unit might not be in the state ELA standards, the content ABSOLUTELY lives within the state arts standards. In fact, one of the arts big ideas in PA’s SAS curriculum framework is “The arts provide a medium to understand and exchange ideas.” Please don’t let a lack of connection to the ELA standards stop you from engaging your students in this rich, meaningful learning!

    • Thanks so much for the comment and the encouragement, Jamie. One of the pieces I forget so easily is the depth of standards in areas I don’t have as much experience as a teacher or as a student. The latter is perhaps the most prevalent block. I didn’t take any visual arts or instrumental classes as I was moving through school beyond fifth grade. As such, my knowledge of those content areas (in a formal respect) is lacking.

      Yours is a great reminder.

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