Primary Sources for Musical Learning: Squirrel Hunting, Singing, and Thinking in Elementary School

This post is by Carolyn Bennett, the 2018-2019 Library of Congress Teacher in Residence.

When John A. Lomax traveled the South in the late 1930s to document folk music traditions, he met Celina Lewis. In his field notes, Lomax recorded, “She sang three spirituals, but she was finally coaxed along into singing some reels and game songs which are her forte…she merely thought them too insignificant to put on permanent record.”

In addition to being fun, by design children’s songs teach valuable critical thinking skills. “Old MacDonald” teaches farm animal classification and corresponding sounds; “Five Little Monkeys Jumping on the Bed” reinforces numeracy skills; “Apples and Bananas” practices phonemes. Across cultures, similar songs present early learning skills in palatable, engaging musical formats. This intentional design makes them relevant and useful in the classroom today – not insignificant at all!  Luckily, Ms. Lewis’s game songs, including “Peep, Squirrel,” were recorded and preserved.

A TPS regional grantee has provided supporting materials, including a melodic transcription and game directions.

Though students may be interested in hearing the recording, singing for your students honors the historical oral  tradition of the piece and will more effectively invite participation – especially while enjoying the rowdy game. How can students move beyond musical enjoyment, using this piece to build critical thinking skills?

Identifying Patterns

Comparison skills and pattern identification help strengthen students’ early logical reasoning skills.  Many children’s songs contain complex structural patterns to promote these skills.

Students will quickly be ready to sing the “yadadada” part of the song, with alternating ascending and descending melodies. How is the melodic shape of each phrase different? In addition to singing, students may communicate their understanding of melodic contour through use of pipe cleaners, movement, or drawing.

Students may also notice a pattern in the verses. Which phrases have similar melodies? Which are different? Students can communicate their findings through musical expression. Perhaps different groups sing different parts of the song; perhaps creative movements or contrasting rhythmic accompaniments delineate the phrases. The possibilities are endless!

Singing About Process

This song communicates a sequential process. Historically, squirrel hunting may have been relevant to children’s lives. Today, there are many other processes students experience. Could students create verses to describe how to get ready in the morning? What to do during a fire drill? How to make a sandwich?

Summarizing Plot

As students are beginning to think sequentially about routines in their own lives, educators also encourage them to think sequentially about literature. Asking what happened next? helps children identify main ideas and summarize plot. Students can collaborate to create an original set of verses to summarize a piece of literature. For example: Hello Jack; Jack has a bean; Plants that bean; Beanstalk grows…

Timeless Lessons

Upon introducing herself to the Lomaxes, Ms. Lewis quipped, “I’m fifty-five years old, and if I live to see the fourth Saturday in next June, I’ll be seventy.” Her music is similarly timeless.  Recognizing patterns, describing process, and telling stories are valuable skills for all children. Sharing folk songs with children engages their musical intelligence as they develop life skills, including engaging their musical intelligence through inquiry.

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A Recipe for Project-Based Learning

Recipes, like music scores, are especially interesting to me because they can still be used in the way the author originally intended. Though one cannot read historic newspapers to stay apprised of current events, or read historic letters to stay in touch with friends, “American orphan”; Amelia Simmons can speak through the centuries to help the reader get dinner to the table.