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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

I heard the music coming from the classroom before I opened the door -- Mozart's cello concertos. Over a year had passed since I'd finished coaching this new eighth grade English teacher in a tough school; I was driving through the neighborhood and decided to drop in and see how Ms. K was faring. What I found on this freezing January morning was something good, something working as I had resolved to find in our schools this year.

Ms. K was implementing a writing program based on a book called Rain, Steam, and Speed: Building Fluency in Adolescent Writers, by Gerald Fleming and Meredith Pike-Baky. We'd read the book together a couple years ago, but she'd been apprehensive about trying the strategies: there was so much curriculum to cover, she felt, she couldn't allocate the time to these practices.

Inside a Classroom

I was surprised that none of the students raised their heads to look at me or ask me who I was when I walked in; their hands moved furiously across rows of lined paper. Ms. K, perched on a stool and writing herself, smiled and indicated a chair in the back where I could sit.

Written on the white board was the prompt for the day:

Long Overdue Letter

You've been waiting for a long time and today's the day to write that letter. Write a letter to someone you've been meaning to write, but haven't had the chance to. To whom will you write? You decide. It might be a friend, a classmate, a relative who lives far away, someone in your own house, or someone who is no longer here. Write.

I remembered that the book offered dozens of writing prompts and also that the authors urged teachers to play instrumental music during writing time. They shared all kinds of compelling research about how it positively impacted a students' ability to write fluently.

Writing time was called to an end and papers were filed into manila folders.

"Who would like to share today?" Ms. K. asked.

One student had noticed me sitting in the back. "Who's she, Ms. K? What's she doing here?"

Ms. K explained who I was and added that my visit was a great opportunity to reflect on journal time and share their reflections with me. "But first, we always have two or three volunteers read their writing." At least half the class raised their hands.

LaKeisha read a letter she'd written to her best friend from elementary school who'd moved to Texas. Martel wrote to his grandmother who passed away last year. Javier's letter to his father, who is in prison, got many students wiping tears from their cheeks.

"Why do we do journal writing?" Ms. K asked her class. "Can we explain to Ms. Elena why we do this and how it helps us?"

Javier turned to me. "I just have so many feelings in me, this helps to get them out," he said. "I can concentrate so much better after."

A tiny girl in the front row stood to address me. "If we're going to be good writers, we have to be fluent writers. Fluency is about writing smoothly, fast, getting your ideas flowing like a river. We never have time to just write. Since we started this it's so much easier for me to write essays. I just have more words in me."

"Look," said a boy with long braids. He came over to me with two pieces of paper in his hand. "This is my writing from September when we started this stuff." Only half the page was covered in his large, sloppy scrawl. "And here's the one I wrote today," he said, handing me two pages, front and back, covered in print. He beamed.

All over the room, students rifled through their folders selecting evidence to show me. I circulated around. A remarkable one-hundred percent of students had made tremendous growth in their fluency, as evidenced by the quantity they were able to produce in 15 minutes.

"And we've heard a lot of music we never heard before," LaKeisha told me. "I never woulda heard Mozart, but now he's one of my favorite musicians." Many kids nodded in agreement.

"I get sick a lot," said Alexander, a tall, young man who commanded a lot of attention, "but never on journal days. Even if I'm sick as a dog, I get here on those days." He chuckled.

"How often do you do journals?" I asked.

Alexander answered: "Three times a week. I never miss those days. But Beethoven's my favorite. That Symphony 9 kills it!"

Around the room debate ensued -- Beethoven verses Mozart, blues harmonica against Zimbabwean marimba. Students referenced genres and musicians I'd never heard of. "It's a sneaky little side project of mine," Ms. K told me later. "I want to expose them to music they'd otherwise never hear and I love hearing music during the day. It makes us all calmer and happier."

I had so many questions for Ms. K and her students, but another 30 students were clamoring at the door, asking to come in and start journal time. Students in Ms. K's class were not only getting time to write (something that we don't see frequently in middle school) but they were loving it. They were sharing their writing. They were increasing their fluency. And they were listening to music as a regular part of their school day. I left feeling inspired and hopeful.

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Misty's picture
Misty
Preschool Teacher @ Head Start (Finger Lakes, NY)

Great article! I am one of those people who has to have music playing! I seem to focus so much better and it just gets me going! I teach preschool and my students are very 'busy' beings...Sometimes it is hard to settle them down or transition them. I think that I will try playing classical music during center time, just to see the effect.
I also love journaling! Since starting my Master's Program I have discovered the importance of reflecting. I chose to reflect daily in a jounral at the end of each day and it has helped me tremendously. I never seem to run out of things to say and I feel so much better afterwards! When I move up to higher grades, I will be sure to incorporate journal writing into my practices. :)(It is a great way to get to know your students!)
Thanks for the post :)

Frances Caole's picture

I am so glad that I found out about this blog. I have also ordered the book that was used by Mrs. K. The writing prompt that got the students to start writing was not bland, and it was also relevant. Thank you for the great ideas! We are learning about different genres in 5th grade. Today we read an autobiography. I had the students write about themselves without writing their names on their paper. Afterward I had a volunteer come up to read a paper, and the students guessed who it was. They loved it!

Becky Wagoner's picture
Becky Wagoner
5th Grade Teacher

I am thoroughly excited that I came across this blog. I have been implimenting a journal time at the beginning of my language arts block. I currently teach 5th grade in a low socio-economic area, and trying to get my students to write enough to pass the state writing test is a task in itself. These students have never been interested in writing, until I started journal time. I usually always put on a Pandora station for music and I try to include an interesting picture to get their minds moving. I have seen tremendous growth over the course of the year, and many of them ask to continue beyond the 10 minutes they get each day. We hit a low point with a few students, and to keep them interested I started having the students count the words they had written and graph them. If the students show growth over the course of the week they get a treasure box trip on Friday. This has helped significantly with some of my lower students.
I am happy to see that my class in on track to "writing the write way". I am also interested in the book that was mentioned. I will be checking on Amazon this afternoon.

karen smith's picture
karen smith
first grade teacher from Chattanooga, TN

I love the idea of music in the classroom and this has reminded me of this! I used to play music much more often, but the busyness of my day, I've gotten away from it. Thank you for the reminder that soft music can promote brain power!

Martha Whiting's picture
Martha Whiting
I am here to become a part of a Professional Learning Community

I've always found that music calms me in the times of concentration and studying and allows me to actually focus on what I'm doing at the present time. This was definitely an innovative way to get the kids involved, teach and help with fluency in their writing, and introduce them to something new (music). I think all teaching professionals should come up with ways that get their students to become more successful in their academics. This technique proved to be one that was very successful. The students were able to show how they have improved their writing skills since the beginning of the year.

Erin Klejeski's picture
Erin Klejeski
Third grade teacher in Washington state

Thank you, Elena, for sharing your story about Mrs. K. and her writing journals. I used to make more time for writing in journals and I used to play music. I frequently chose indigenous music from Central America just to expose my students to music from another culture.

However, with all of the high stakes testing and the push to cover material, I've let that part of writing slip away. I've also had a couple of years with students who were so A.D.H.D. and sensitive to noise, I've been reluctant to use music.

This year I will be bringing it back. Thanks again for the reminder.

Perla Romero's picture

Hi Stephanie,

Great post! This has been my first year incorporating music and movement into my reading fluency instructions. My students love the activities and they are improving in fluency and accuracy. I have not had the chance to bring the music into writing, but this will be my next goal. I would like to hear more about your reading fluency activities.
Thanks

Henry Goertzen's picture

I like the idea of using music when working on writing fluency. I've used music in the classroom before but never with this purpose; I'll have to try it.

Sarah's picture
Sarah
Special Education Teacher

I am constantly playing music in my classroom. My students are obsessed with the harp!

However, I am a special education teacher and my students have pretty severe disabilities. These prompts would be way to difficult for my students but I love to expose them to different genres of music and art alike. One idea that I have had recently is for students to write about what they think the art is about. I would play music that coincides with the art on the board (smart board or whatever) and have them write their thoughts. Too many of my students are not exposed to this and it targets three different areas; written expression, music, and art. :)

-Sarah

David Leonard's picture
David Leonard
Second & Third Grade Teacher in Cobb, CA

I'll have to look into this book about fluency. Time to write is so important. Setting aside the time is the key. Thanks for reminding me of that. Bela Fleck in Mali is just the way to start us off again.
Thanks!

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