Bring learning to life with academic songs!

Cheryl Bombenger

Cheryl Bombenger is an educator and presenter who enjoys bringing excitement into the classroom. She has been in education for over 30 years, and is currently a teacher for Fargo Public Schools, in Fargo, North Dakota. ‘TA-DA’ (Teaching Activities Done Aesthetically) is the programme that she has designed to develop right brain activities, focusing primarily on incorporating songs into academic areas to engage learners and improve academic skills. She can be reached at musicmovesmyclassroom@yahoo.com.

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Image credit: PxHere. Image credit: PxHere.

If you stopped by our classroom, you would see a room filled with young children who are beginning their journey of learning about science. They would be learning about how science is addressed throughout the world, its future, its history, and the people who have changed this world we live in. You might hear a story that evokes interest and passion regarding the topic they would then chose to research. These stories are the impetus of the emotional journey through their personal learning adventure, and are told with a difference to usual classroom techniques.

As their teacher, I take on the role of a storyteller. The stories I tell my students often pull at their heartstrings, inspiring them to ask questions like: “Why did this happen?”; “How did they do it?”; and “What caused it?” The stories I tell are conveyed to my students through academic songs.

Many of these songs (sometimes ballads) use music and lyrics to draw out the emotion regarding the topic in question. These academic songs are filled with factual knowledge, accompanied by a tune that carries them along. I often use books (both fiction and nonfiction) to promote even greater interest in the topic. Through these immersive and creative techniques, students become hooked, and the collaborative research projects begin.

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I have used academic songs in my classroom for nearly 30 years to promote loftier retention and recall, as well as to create a positive emotional experience for my students. Mary Helen Immordino-Yang is a cognitive neuroscientist and educational psychologist who studies the brain bases of emotion and its implication for development and schools. She and her Mind, Brain and Education coauthor, Matthias Faeth, suggest that students need to feel a connection to the knowledge they learn in school. Without this connection, the academic content will seem emotionally meaningless.

When I first began using music in the classroom, I simply piggybacked the content I wanted students to learn with familiar tunes. My methods changed after a singing storyteller performed for our students at a literacy lyceum many years ago. When he sang a story about a 15 year old girl “Students need to feel a connection to the knowledge they learn in school.”who died saving the lives of her brothers during a 1920 blizzard, I saw how he captivated the students’ interest, and how the tune and the emotions pulled them into the story. That was the defining moment that motivated me to step up my teaching and begin an adventure of writing stories through the content of songs. This directed my teaching with the realisation that not only short songs could improve learning, but by telling stories with song I would arouse my students’ emotion and motivate them to want to grow their knowledge.

I have used research to support my use of songs to improve learning, and have observed the volume of this research grow over the years. Throughout my teaching career, I have not only used music to improve recall and retention, but to heighten the students’ emotions, thus connecting them to the content being taught.

Since research also supports the need for movement in the classroom, opportunities to incorporate academic songs with movement steps up the success rate for children to grow in their educational setting. Movement - accompanied by ballads, songs, chants and jingles - increases attention, activates recall, improves memory, and enhances student outlook on learning.

Academic songs can cover subjects from the continents, oceans, and planets, engineering feats such as the Chunnel, or the countries in Central and South America. My own collection encompasses hundreds of topics through all curriculum areas. They have been used with students from kindergarten through to high school. I’ve also used them to collaborate and combine learning with different age groups, such as first graders and seniors in high school. Jingles are implemented to teach short Literacy rules, as well as Maths concepts.

This is my vision, where all classrooms use academic songs. Through repetition, choice of songs, and earworms (a catchy song or tune that runs continually through a person’s mind), knowledge grows, allowing students to connect and apply this knowledge with the world around them.

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