Bringing the whole school to life with music

Matthew Stensrud

Matthew Stensrud is currently in his seventh year teaching kindergarten through fifth grade general music and in Fairfax County, Virginia. He received his Master of Music Education from George Mason University and Bachelor of Music Education from the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. He is an Orff Schulwerk approved teacher educator of movement and frequently writes about and presents workshops on the unique combination of Responsive Classroom and Orff Schulwerk in the elementary Music classroom, is on the national Orff Editorial Board, and was a key content contributor to the book Responsive Classroom for Music, Art, PE and Other Special Areas. As an advocate and activist, Matthew serves as Chair of Alexandria’s Commission for the Arts and is an influence leader for the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. He lives in the neighborhood of Del Ray, Alexandria with his husband, Michael.

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Image credit: Flickr // bcgovphotos Image credit: Flickr // bcgovphotos

Mrs. Clarke’s third grade students step to the drumbeat as they enter my classroom, joyfully singing the school song. They quickly notice various music notes separated by ‘+’ signs on the board; they know this game well. Hands shoot up. I tap a student, who jumps into action and writes the number ‘7’. “Let’s show our work,” I say. “A quarter note equals–“, “ONE!” the students exclaim. “A half note–“, “TWO!” We continue this call and response for the quarter rest and dotted half note (see image below). “And what do we get?!” “SEVEN!” Smiles abound.


As a public school Music teacher, I frequently infuse core academic content into my lessons. The rhythm activity above is one example of the role Math can play in the Music room. What about “What about writing a poem and creating a melody for a poem?”writing a poem and creating a melody for that poem? Or matching rhythms to different land forms? Or creating dances in small groups for each parts of the water cycle? Each possibility has been explored in my classroom, and each idea combines core content and Music curricula.


Too often, though, these exciting combinations never leave the Music room. Classroom teachers pick up their students at the end of the period and get back to business.


But what if the infusion of music and core content continued – into the regular classroom?


Need not worry, Mrs. Clarke. No musical training is necessary. Just the desire to enhance student engagement and achievement. Let’s explore three ways you can add musical ideas into your regular academic classroom.


#1 A Greeting


Positive classroom environments run like a well-oiled machine; procedures are clear and expectations are consistent. But how can these processes also enhance community? Through a song! A quick search through YouTube produces countless ‘Good Morning’ songs to start in your classroom. One of my favorites, Gilly Gilly Gilly Good Morning, is as fun as it is easy. Or, instead of a song, students could simply sit in a circle and pass a handshake down from one student to the next. While shaking, try a short call and response: “Hello” “Hello” “How are you?” “I am great!” “It is great you’re here” – and the whole class responds “Hooray!” Then, pass the handshake onto the next student!


#2 Brain Breaks


Sitting in desks all day can be exhausting for our students. Quick, movement-based brain breaks refreshes student engagement, wipes away the cobwebs in our minds, and energizes our bodies! One activity popular with my students is Baby Shark:

YouTube link


Here, students explore different sharks with their bodies before having a close call with a shark themselves! Music, movement, song, and fun. For another brain break, trying throwing a scarf in the air. While the scarf is floating, students laugh. When the scarf reaches the floor, students stop laughing and freeze. Instead of laughing, try crying, barking, mooing, and more!


#3 Student Choice


Too often, we provide strict parameters for student learning that hinders creativity and prevents the learning of skills necessary to thrive as a citizen of the world. One of the simplest “What if students could make a poster, write a comic strip, or create a song?”ways to bring music into your classroom is by letting the students do it on their own! Instead of the next poster project on an important person in History, give options. What if students could make a poster, write a comic strip, or create a song? The ideas are limitless! Here, creativity abounds and students become more fully invested in the project.


For each of these three ideas, always remember that the Music teacher in your school is there to help both you and your students succeed! I am humbled and honored each time a colleague asks for my input on a project, greeting, or energizing activity and is wanting to explore music in their classroom. Your students will be equally excited to sing, dance and play with you!

Do you bring music into your classroom? Share your stories below!

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