Monday, April 25, 2011


by Laura Krauss Melmed

In previous Pencil Tips entries, Mary Quattlebaum blogged about crafting lessons based on fairy tales and nursery rhymes.  Traditional folk songs are another fun medium that can be used for sculpting a workshop.  As a child I was fascinated by an aunt’s big book of American folksongs.  I would pore over the lyrics, especially the sad love ballads like “Barb’ry Allen,” although, since no one in my family played an musical instrument, I could not hear the tunes.

For the purposes of this workshop, however, the songs should be as light and silly as possible. lists many children’s songbooks of old American favorites, including The American Song Treasury, 100 favorites by Theodore Raph and I Hear America Singing: Folk Songs for American Families by Kathleen Krull, which comes with a 23-song CD.  In addition, individual songs are readily available for downloading from I Tunes and on YouTube.  For teachers who play guitar, this is a perfect opportunity to showcase your talent.

A lesson should start with listening to some tunes while encouraging a sing-along.  Then guide the children in figuring out what elements, such as rhyme, repetition, choice of silly words and absurd situations, have made these songs appealing to successive generations.  Have the students speculate, as I did when writing my picture book, The First Song Ever Sung, when and why people might have first come up with these songs:  to allay boredom or set a rhythm while working in the fields, to banish loneliness while herding cattle, to put a child to sleep, to provide entertainment while sitting around a campfire in the days before a click of the mouse or the remote could bring instant entertainment, etc.  

Then have the group sing “The Eensy Weensy Spider,” followed by reading The Eensy Weensy Spider adapted by Mary Ann Hoberman, illustrated by Nadine Bernard Westcott.  In this zany adaptation, Hoberman comes up with all sorts of continuing adventures for the spider, including hugging a baby bug, going swimming, and shoe-shopping (now, that’s my kind of spider!).  Tell the children that they are going to take part in a similar effort, as a group, using another song.  

For the writing exercise, pick a song having many variations on a single theme.  It should be one in which only the chorus has end-rhymes, since requiring every line to rhyme would narrow the children’s choice of words as they devise their own verses.  For example, for “She’ll Be Comin’ Around the Mountain,”  the students could select a protagonist of choice, such as a sports player, a super hero, or for the sake of this example, a dragon.  The chorus could still be “She’ll (or he’ll) be comin’ around the mountain.”

The verses might go,

“He’ll be breathing smoke and fire when he comes,
He’ll be breathing smoke and fire when he comes,
He’ll be breathing smoke and fire, he’ll be breathing smoke and fire, he’ll be breathing smoke and fire when he comes.

He’ll be roarin’ and a snortin’ when he comes, etc.

He’ll be stompin’ and a thumpin’ when he comes, etc.

For the “The Wheels on the Bus,” you could describe a venue other than the bus, such as your school itself or a vehicle like a firetruck or train.  For “We’re Going to the Zoo” by Tom Paxton, select a different destination, such as the forest or ocean.  For “I Had a Cat,” instead of barnyard animals, use jungle animals, woodland animals, animals found in your backyard.  These songs present many opportunities to make up sounds and devise creative descriptions of actions.  (Some research on your part or your own memory will no doubt reveal other songs that work well.)

Have the children create as many new verses for your chosen song as possible.  When your group’s new version is complete, join together in a rousing group rendition.  After this activity, older students may be given the assignment of choosing another traditional song and creating a variation all their own.

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