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3 Rules to Use When Writing Something Spooooooky

Oct 11, 2022 | Adding Literacy to the Music Classroom, Holiday, Tips and Tricks for Music Teachers

3 Rules to Use When Writing Something Spooooooky

By Kateri Swavely

Special thanks to Kateri Swavely for her latest contribution, as well as for this great lesson plan.

Since its Spooky Season, I’m sharing a lesson plan for the spooky season that I think you’ll love!

I always loved teaching the big kids. I am a middle school teacher at heart, so when I went down (well, in my case went up since it was on top of a hill) to the elementary school, I liked working with the fifth graders best. One of my favorite lessons that I taught happened in October and it was built around Bach’s Toccata and Fugue.

I started with a short lesson on J.S. Bach himself. I emphasized that even though, yes, he had been dead for a long time, he was so important to music composition, an entire period of music history ended the same year he died. We read a short biography of Bach and then the students completed a word search based on the biography. (I highly suspect, if asked today, the thing everyone would remember is that he married his second cousin. 🤷 Oh well) That sounds a bit tame for fifth graders, but the word search didn’t have a key and I wouldn’t give them any hints aside from how many words they had to find, so they LOVED it. 

Once the students completed the word search, we listened to Toccata and Fugue in D-Minor played on organ. I always enjoyed assuring the students they had heard the music before and letting them SWEAR they didn’t know any songs by Bach. Once they recognized it, they were thrilled (and I tried not to be smug). While they listened, they filled out a listening journal. The journal included a list of adjectives and mood words and they had to choose at least 5 they thought fit with the music. The journal was used repeatedly throughout the year so the list was extensive.

Here comes the best part. After they filled out their journals I dropped the bombshell. Now, they would write a story to go along with the music.

I allowed about 5 minutes in my lesson plan here for “what do you MEAN we’re WRITING in MUSIC CLASS?” “Are you even allowed to do that?” Much drama would ensue.

But here’s the thing – once they got over the idea that I, the music teacher, had the audacity to make them write – they loved it. Here’s why: they had almost no rules.

My rules:

  1. They had to use at least 5 of the words they chose from their listening journal – that’s how I would know the story connected to the music. 
  2. It had to be school appropriate. I had a strict “No Violence Against Humans” policy – crucial since the Walking Dead had just become popular, and every fifth grade boy wanted a crossbow and motorcycle. This once led to a lively debate about whether or not werewolves are humans, so we got to use critical thinking and polite debate skills, too. 
  3. They had to use grade-level grammar and punctuation. The fifth grade classroom teachers guided me with this, but basically I was looking for complete sentences and correct punctuation. 

Otherwise they could write about anything they wanted. 

The stories they wrote were brilliant. They described walking through haunted houses. They encountered ghosts, werewolves, zombies, and almost every other creature you could imagine. I read several Minecraft-themed stories. One student wrote a story from the point of view of her black cat. My all-time favorite was from a boy who wrote a story about two witches whose names wereToccata and Fugue. 

The entire unit usually took the entire month of October, since I gave them time to complete everything in class, including typing (after the first year, the font Chiller was banned from music class). While the students worked, I played other “spooky” music. I had a CD called Spooky Symphonies with music like Danse Macabre and In the Hall of the Mountain King. They sat with their friends, exchanged ideas, and helped edit each other’s stories (with my supervision).

The students thought they weren’t learning music because they weren’t singing or reading rhythms. But I could hear them talking about the music they recognized, and getting excited about it. They loved being creative and having the freedom to write whatever they wanted – how often does that happen, especially in fifth grade?

If you’re still reading, thanks for sticking with me, and let me get to my point: Doing lessons students enjoy with music they like listening to is FINE. It’s better than fine – it was awesome. They learned music without realizing it. They learned about Bach – because if I had to suffer through music theory and voice leading classes, everyone else on earth has to at least KNOW about Bach. They got to see that music applied to life and skills they learned in other classes applied to music. And you know who was really impressed? Their teachers. The principal. And their parents.

So don’t be afraid to do those unusual lessons – the ones that don’t quite fit. The ones they didn’t cover in your college classes. The ones that are just as fun for you as they are for the students. I taught many of the same students again in seventh and eighth grade. They were still talking about their spooky Bach stories. 

P.S. I found the Bach biography and word search on MakingMusicFun.net. The biography is still there! Click the website link to find it.

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