Sunday, November 1, 2009

Music to Learn By

It's been 35 years since my eighth grade English class, but I still remember the following little ditty we were required to memorize:

Am, is, are, was, were
Be, being, been
Have, has, had
Do, does, did
Shall, will
Should, would
May, might, must
Can, could.

Our teacher, the much loved, much feared, master of the eighth grade advanced English classroom, would bang out the beat with the flat of his hand on a metal filing cabinet while we all recited these "helping" or "auxiliary" verbs.  We memorized poetry in his class as well, but I only remember the first few stanzas of "The Highwayman" (which we recited with hand motions to signify where the French cocked-hat and bunch of lace were located) and "Paul Revere's Ride," while I've retained this list of words and likely will remember it until I die.

My mother became a substitute teacher at my junior high school when I went to college, and once when I was home visiting she decided it would be funny if I came over to the school and recited "Am Is Are Was Were" for my former teacher.  I humored her, and I was glad I did.  He truly seemed touched that one of his students had retained this tidbit of knowledge for what was then only about ten years after leaving his class. 

If only he were still alive today to witness the conversation on Facebook among many of my former classmates, all of whom,
amazingly, still remember this verse 35 years later.

Although this little poem wasn't set to music, the almost magical way in which we all managed to remember it got me to thinking about the value of lyrical repetition in the experience of learning.  It can't be accidental that one of the first songs we learn as English speakers in America is the ABC song.  My three year old can sing it, even though he can't identify all the letters in the alphabet yet.  When we read an ABC book together, I try to show him how he can propel himself from a letter he recognizes to the next one he doesn't by singing the song.  (An aside:  I'm still amused by the musical identity of ABC, Twinkle, Twinkle, and Baa Baa Black Sheep, which a childless, gay male friend of mine pointed out to me about ten years ago.  If I'd been a mom by then I would doubtless not have missed the connection, since Sesame Street has put all three of them together in the "Alpha Baa Baa Twinkle Song," a preschool favorite.)  As an adult, I took a beginning Hebrew class and my instructor taught us a Hebrew equivalent of the ABC song.  It appears that other alphabets have been set to music as well.  Here's a Russian alphabet song, a Chinese one, an Arabic one, a Thai one, a Japanese onea Hindi one, a Greek one and even a Yiddish one (sung by a guy in a Spiderman costume and a ushanka -- take that, Debbie Friedman!).

Though I can't say they're part of my repertoire, I found a number of songs on the Internet designed to help remember long lists, such as all the states in the United States, the US Presidents, and the books of the Christian Bible.   And though I'm thinking Tom Lehrer had humor rather than pedagogy in mind when he wrote The Elements, it's out there now on school sites and chemistry blogs for the hard core. 

The success of such songs has not been lost on the business of education.  I found a site for a business devoted to peddling geography lists set to music.  Their slogan:  "You never forget what you sing."  I have to agree -- though the tunes have to be catchy, the lyrics clever, and the main ideas distillable into memorable bites.  I'm not so sure the geography list songs do any of this, though to be fair I haven't listened to anything more than the short samples at the site. I also wonder how successful some of these other  "long list" songs really are at aiding memorization.  Though I only remember "The Highwayman" through "plaiting a dark red love-knot into her long black hair" I remember the whole of "Jabborwocky," another poem we learned in eighth grade English which was (1) much shorter than the others we had to memorize, and (2) the subject of a song in the Disney film, Alice in Wonderlandby means of which I'd already learned the first and last stanzas (which are identical) when I was about seven through repetitive listening to the soundtrack album.  It had a catchy, clever tune in addition to being short.

Catchy and clever songs with focused sound bites definitely stick with.  Potentially forever.  To this day, if I'm called upon to write the word "encyclopedia" I hear Jiminy Cricket singing "Ennn - Cyclopedia, E-N-C-Y-C-L-O-P-E-D-I-A" in my head; it's how I learned to spell the word in the first place.  I'll never forget the Twelve Tribes of Israel, thanks to the "Jacob and Sons" song from Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat or the Girl Scout Laws in effect when I was scouting, thanks to a song that I can only find a Girl Guides version of on the web (it was sung to the tune of something that is some college somewhere's school song; my mother knew which one, but I wasn't able to find out which as I'm sadly remiss when it comes to searching for tunes by googling).

Then there are the songs that are more conceptual, like the old School House Rock titles.  "Conjunction Junction," in case you don't remember or hadn't guessed, teaches the grammatical function of conjunctions, and "I'm Just a Bill" teaches how a bill becomes a federal law in the United States.  It's a testament to these songs that at least the choruses stuck with me, and so did the general idea of the chatty parts, even though I didn't have a recording of them and so couldn't listen to them repeatedly.

But the songs I'll remember forever and that I really learned from -- I mean, sitting-in-a-test-singing-to-myself-to-remember-how-to-answer learned from -- are in a class by themselves.  These are from the late 1950s/early 1960s recordings known as the Singing Science Records, which I just can't say enough good things about.

I inherited these records from the three girls who lived across the street (I had all the titles except Experiment Songs, the weakest of the bunch; though at one point one of the girls asked for Space Songs back so now, forty years later, I only have four on vinyl).  I was delighted to find that someone has preserved these long-out-of-print gems on the web.  It saved me the trouble of having to digitize these treasures among children's educational records myself, so my kids could listen to them in the car.  These records were in no small part responsible for one of my earliest ambitions (as an eight-to-12 year old) to be a meteorologist, and the knowledge I gained from repeatedly playing them until I feared I'd wear the grooves out served me well in every introductory science class I ever took.

I know that sounds like an exaggeration, but it's true.  I'll never know which was more instrumental in getting me As:  the basic knowledge from the songs, or the fact that having the basic knowledge from the songs already, I could focus my efforts on learning more advanced concepts.  These songs cover pretty sophisticated topics for their target elementary school audience.  Weather Songs, for example, is worth the price of admission just for the three songs, "The Water Cycle Song," "How Clouds are Formed" and "Stratus and Cumulus," which build upon each other nicely and together explain and help kids identify the basic cloud formations through catchy, very sticky, tunes, and lyrics that hone in on fundamental concepts and use rudimentary scientific terminology to convey them.

I could easily identify by name stratus, cumulus, cirrus, and nimbus clouds and their variants (e.g. strato-cumulus, cumulo-nimus, cirro-stratus) by the time I was around nine, largely because of these songs.  Years later, in college, I took an introductory physical geography course taught by a climatologist.  You guessed it:  we had to know the nomenclature of cloud formations, and I'd already known it and committed it to long term memory through the medium of music years before. 

Though as Jef's site indicates, these records are very "atomic age" in their orientation, the basic science hasn't changed a whole hell of a lot.  Sure, there have been advances in physics and other sciences since these songs were written.  But though I'm no expert, I'd guess the basic physics concepts in "Kinetic and Potential Energy" (which I sang to myself during a test in junior high science to help answer some of the questions), "Jets" and "What is Chemical Energy" are just as valid today as they were then.  Perhaps, were the Singing Science Records to be recorded today, we'd have songs about string theory, too.

Indeed, some of the material is surprisingly timely.  If you want to teach a kid about why global warming is happening, there's a song called "What Does the Glass of a Greenhouse Do" that will accomplish just that (though you'll need to fill in a few blanks after "warm up the earth on cold, cold days").  The messages of the Nature Songs and More Nature Songs albums are decidedly ecological.  I teared up the other day while listening to "The Conservation Song," and it's exhortation to "study conservation, and practice conservation, there's no doubt that it will keep our nation strong" -- it made me realize that this message has been around for my entire lifetime (and before) and we're still, as a nation, struggling with this fundamental truth.
Another song that never fails to make me tear up is "The Balance of Nature," and its message that the natural world hangs in a delicate balance that can all too easily be upset ("the balance of nature should be understood; if the balance of nature is ever unbalanced, whatever will happen will not be good").  This is an excellent jumping off point for discussion of rainforests, which were, interestingly, part of my older son's pre-K curriculum.  It also aids discussion of the ecological impact of natural disasters, and as well helping to discuss some of the things that puzzle and terrify young kids.  Like, "why are there bugs?"  And, "why do the bugs have to get eaten by birds?"  Or, "Why do lions eat zebras?"  For the next part, "I don't want the zebras to die," you'll need to improvise a bit.

Nature Songs' "What is an Insect?" teaches that insects all have six legs, antennae, and three parts to their bodies.  "What is a Mammal?" does the same for the mammalian world with a drumbeat that gets the warm-blooded among us ready to pound along :  "Why anyone can tell you what a mammal is, anyone who understands:  they're warm blooded, have hair on their bodies, and suckle their young from mammary glands."  Good for the multiple choice quizzes to come down the road, and entertaining to have your grade schooler sing to uptight dinner guests to see who snickers at the mammary glands line.  Though now that I'm a parent rather than an adult with a memory of being called upon to perform this song to an assembled dinner table crowd as a child, the snickering could simply be because of the undeniable cuteness factor that comes with small children using big words -- particularly those that they obviously understand.

Though my kids are a lot younger than I was when I first started listening to these records, I've already found opportunities to introduce them and make them relevant.  "What is an Animal" and "What are the Parts of a Tree" have already come in useful, as the newly-minted kindergartener is currently studying trees and plants in school.

When I think about the use of meter and rhyme with or without melody for educational purposes, the Singing Science Records will always be the gold standard.  You can still find copies occasionally, at or on ebay, so keep looking.  I commend them to you, with love, and with more than a little awe for the lasting role they played in my educational life.


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