Learning With Jazz
The rich rhythms and stories in jazz music ignite kids to read, write, sing, and soar!

By Lucille Renwick

Walk through the halls of Washington Rose Elementary School in Long Island, New York, and you find yourself enveloped by the sights and sounds of jazz. Pictures of famous jazz artists and time lines chronicling the evolution of jazz adorn the walls. The strains of jazz flow from Faye Nelson's second grade classroom, where it's played from the moment the students walk in the door until they leave at the end of the day. Teachers at Washington Rose, along with others in two Pemberville, Ohio, elementary schools, and in a Harrisburg, Pennsylvania-area elementary school, are proving that teaching jazz music and its history is no longer limited to the music curriculum. Standards-based lessons in language arts, social studies, and even science can spring from this unique American music form.

The use of jazz in each of the three schools began with a similar two-part goal: to enrich standard curricula and to raise students' understanding and appreciation of a music form widely recognized for its rich cultural heritage rooted in the African-American experience. Each found success in various ways: student confidence soared; student interest increased; and, in some cases, student achievement improved. Many of the teachers noted an added benefit — their students came to appreciate the influence of jazz on the music they listen to, such as pop, rock, and hip-hop.

In each school, teachers presented lessons focusing on different jazz artists and/or different types of jazz music — blues, be-bop, swing, Dixieland, New Orleans jazz. They matched a book about a jazz musician with that artist's music to give their students a multisensory experience with the artist and his work. The teachers usually followed these lessons with activities such as theatrical performances and art projects. "The children are challenged in so many different ways ... but they're not intimidated by the work because they're so excited," said Paulette Taylor, a first grade teacher at Washington Rose.

Geographical Jazz

Students at Washington Rose Elementary have been studying jazz and its origins for the past three years as part of a pilot program called "Jazz Sampler." The "Jazz Sampler" project is a joint venture between Washington Rose Elementary and a Long Island-based non-profit organization called "Friends of the Arts." The program was developed to provide teachers with art- and literacy-based activities that meet New York State standards, and which they could incorporate into their lessons as they saw fit. It was also an effort to expose the predominantly African-American student body to another part of Black History.

Each year of the project has focused on a different type of jazz; this year it is Latin jazz. The project stresses literacy, but has also focused on social studies, geography, and science. For example, during a recent social studies lesson, Nelson's second graders learned how, during slavery, African drums were brought from Africa to many Caribbean and Latin American countries. Slaves played the drums to send messages. The drums remained an important part of the culture after slavery ended and, over time, influenced the music of the region. Today, drums are widely used throughout much of Latin music, including Latin jazz music. (Just try to imagine Desi Arnaz without his famous conga drums!)

Nelson builds on what students have learned by using the story of the drums in a geography lesson. On a world map, she has students trace the trail of the drums from Africa to the various Caribbean and Latin American countries. Then, covering the names of the countries on the map, Nelson hands each student a photocopy of the outlines of the countries and asks them to name as many as they can. Students craft stories about the country they would go to if they were a drum, and draw pictures of what their drums might look like.

"These lessons have helped them explore history in a way that really excites them and hooks them in," says Nelson. "Sometimes they even do more than I ask them because they're so intrigued with what they're learning."

Jazzed-up Reading

Kathleen Hahn, a Title One reading teacher of first through fourth graders in Pemberville, Ohio, incorporated her own love of jazz into an annual reading week at two elementary schools.

"I thought it would be a lot of fun to listen to jazz, to read about jazz, and [to] learn about Mardi Gras," says Hahn. "I thought the children would love it."

To prepare for the week, Hahn scoured the jazz sections of bookstores, finding dozens of helpful children's and informational books. (See book list below.) She wrote a letter asking parents to sign a list of tasks children promised to complete, such as reading a certain book or finishing a research project.

Kids received a strand of Mardi Gras beads for completing assignments. For several mornings before the reading week, Hahn and her colleagues played 15 minutes of jazz over the school's loudspeaker so students could develop an ear for it. During the week, teachers read picture books about a particular artist and played his or her music. Then, teachers showed snippets from videos on the artist and followed with a writing or comprehension lesson.

A highlight of the week was a musical students performed on the history of jazz, dressing as such notable figures as Billie Holiday, Bessie Smith, Charlie Parker, and Duke Ellington. After the performance, each student wrote a story about the musician they portrayed.

At the end of the week, "a lot of kids had a real interest in jazz that they never had before," said Hahn. "I think they learned to appreciate a different kind of music, and that jazz really is American music. This was a perfect subject to get them enthused about reading and culture and music."

Picture-Book Jazz

Penn State University professors Rachel Grant and Dick Ammon, inspired by their love of jazz music and knowledge of the abundance of children's literature on jazz, developed a five-week-long program for sixth graders near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Their focus was on jazz history and how musical rhythms can be found in much of literature, especially in some of the picture books on jazz.

The professors primarily used picture books, which gave the students a quick biography of an artist. Like Hahn, they followed up with the artist's music. Then they discussed the music's structure and its characteristics, and worked with the students on how words and phrases often mimic the sounds of the music.

To introduce be-bop, for example, Grant read aloud Charlie Parker Played Be-Bop by Chris Raschka (Orchard Books, 1992), first slowly, showing them each illustration, and then a second time more quickly, reading the words with a beat. Ammon then played Dizzy Gillespie's "A Night in Tunisia" and pointed out how at the end of each measure one could say the words "Be bop," which is how this genre of jazz got its name.

The professors then introduced big band jazz by reading Duke Ellington by Andrea Davis Pinkney (Hyperion, 1998), while they played Ellington's "C Jam Blues" and "Take the A Train." Grant reread the book, this time asking students to write down any words they heard that had a rhythmic quality.

Said Grant: "The children were connected in so many different ways — by the art in the books, the writing style, [and] the music. I think we were able to open their eyes to something they hadn't thought of before...."

Creating Jazz Lessons

You don't have to be an expert in music or a musician to incorporate jazz music into your curriculum. It's as easy as reading a book, listening to related music, and creating a meaningful activity. Over time, your students will gain a deeper understanding of jazz music's role in the culture and history of our country. And they may even come to appreciate the music itself. Like poetry, jazz can weave its way into the heart and mind, influencing the rhythms of our speech and the cadences of our thoughts.

"I never realized how lessons on music could draw students into learning so much," said Nelson of Washington Rose Elementary. "This has helped so many [students] realize so much about different parts of the world, different peoples. They've really grown in so many ways — academically, socially, culturally. It's wonderful to see."

Jazz Activities

  1. Read Duke Ellington: The Piano Prince and His Orchestra
    By Andrea Davis Pinkney
  2. Listen to CD of Duke Ellington's greatest hits
  3. Then try these activities...
  • Duke Ellington was a composer. Discuss with your students the definition of a composition and what a composer does. Compare and contrast how Ellington might compose a piece of music to how students compose an essay.
  • Duke Ellington earned his childhood nickname "Duke" because he always acted like a gentleman. Other words used to describe him include: handsome, charming, refined, self-confident, graceful, polished, royal, sophisticated. Ask students to define these words and then list other words that describe a gentleman.
  • Read excerpts of Duke Ellington to find similes and metaphors. Some examples: "Curling his notes like a kite tail in the wind"; "Duke's 'Creole Love Cal' was spicier than a pot of jambalaya." Encourage students to write their own similes and metaphors based on Ellington's music.

Literature Resources

  • The Jazz of Our Street by Fatima Shaik (Dial Books for Young Readers, 1998)
  • If I Only Had a Horn: Young Louis Armstrong by Roxane Orgill (Houghton Mifflin, 1997)
  • Mysterious Thelonious by Chris Raschka (Orchard Books, 1997)
  • Hip Cat by Jonathan London (Chronicle Books, 1996)
  • What a Wonderful World by George David Weiss & Bob Thiele (Simon & Schuster, 1995)
  • Mama Don't Allow by Thacher Hurd (HarperCollins, 1985)
  • I'm Going to Sing: Black American Spirituals by Ashley Bryan (Macmillan, 1982)

Helpful Web Sites

Lucille Renwick is the Executive Editor of Instructor.

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