This article sketches out a set of songwriting lesson plans for KS2 pupils who are learning english as a second language (ESOL). Additionally, it offers an opportunity to exchange music and letters with a primary school in the island nation of Kiribati!
I made a deal with myself: Yes, by all means put your UK life on indefinite pause and sail across the pacific with a group of nomadic musicians. But as you go, try and develop some meaningful workshops that can be delivered to young people that you do not share a common language with. I had in mind some games and compositional processes that I had used with deaf young people, mixed with a plan to create samba batterias with local instruments, or by building instruments from whatever was at hand.
Four months into the journey, after plenty of excellent jams and fun musical interations with young people, but nothing that could be called a 'workshop', we arrived on Fanning Island (Tabueran), one of the Line islands in Kiribati (pronouned 'Kiribas'). A world away from London in all ways – this island atoll is home to two thousand people with no TV, no telephones, two cars, no doctor, one nurse and seven policemen. No alcohol on the island except for a homebrew made from coconut sap. Due to a storm that damaged a pier on Christmas Island, 600 miles away, there has been no delivery of flour, rice, sugar or petrol on the island for six months, but there is enough breadfruit, fish, taro and coconuts (and a seemingly unending supply of dry crackers) for people to be healthy and happy. People are either in direct government employment, including teachers, or lead what is basically a subsistance lifestyle, using the two cash crops – coconuts and seaweed – to buy tobacco, tinned meat, petrol and schoolbooks for their children.
I had never experienced, never even really conceived of, a community like this, and was happy that an arduous thirteen day voyage from the Marquesa Islands meant that we had lots of repairs to do on the boat, and would be staying a while. I have written about other aspects of life in my personal blog, but by far the most insightful time was spent at the largest primary school on the island, curiously called 'Norwegian Cruise Ship Primary School' (you can guess why). I was introduced to the headmistress, Atah, by a retired teacher I had been chatting with, and in the straight forward way that prevails here we agreed that I would run music workshops with each year group, beginning following day.
My speciality is in composition with both acoustic instruments and iPads, but this school did not have any cupboards, never mind instrument cupbooards, and it felt counter-productive to do exercises that could not be reproduced after I had left.
After the first session a desire from the teachers to emphasise english language learning became apparent, so I developed a set of workshops – two for each year group – that mixed songwriting with developing spoken english. The final product would be a song that could be sent to other schools around the world, evoking the Kiribati way of life and inviting other schools around the world to get in touch through song and letter. Instead of trying to bypass language, I realised that it is much more useful to engage with it and the complexities it brings. Apart from anything else, it puts the workshop leader on a level with the participants – trying to pronounce and remember foreign words in song and matching the natural rhythm of speech to new melodies.
More than that, Fanning island is two metres above sea level at it's highest point, and the prevailing view among climate scientists is that islands like Fanning will become uninhabitable within thirty to fifty years. If this is correct, many of the students at the school will be forced to emigrate to Fiji, Australia or beyond. Their command of English, therefore, develops an even greater importance.
Atah is very keen to develop links with other schools around the world, and a dialogue between your NCL students and their peers in the west could enhance everyone's understanding of the effects of climate change both environmentally and socially (though the staff and students at NCP are far from pessimistic about the future). To this end, we have prepared a short video.
The lesson plans are below. I hope they may be of particular use to teachers working with ESOL students, or working in other parts of the world. The students at NCL primary would overjoyed to hear from you or your students, through letter or song (we hope to raise funds for the school to buy a computer (run from solar), so email is on the horizon!). Do get in touch email@example.com for the address or to discuss possibilities for exchange.
− Value the native and second languages equally.
− Include all of Key Stage 2 in the writing process
Session 1 – Year 6
Aim: Create a verse and chorus for a song about 'place'.
Warm up: Beginning with rubbing hands together and with occasional big claps, indicate that participants should copy you. Experiment with different body percussion sounds and long sung vowels, using width of hands to regulate volume. Perhaps choose students to lead for a time.
Activity 1 – 'The Lion Sleeps tonight'. Play the song and invite students to join in on the 'awimbawe's. Teach the first verse, checking that students understand the meaning of the words. For the next verse, leave spaces:
In the village, the _____ village, the people _____ tonight.
In groups, students discuss how best to fill in the blanks, and the class agrees on their favourites two, which form the second verse.
Students build the third verse using the same formula, this time choosing both the location and what is happening there. This process gives you a chance to assess the language level of the pupils.
Sing the song with bassline and melody, focussing on clear pronunciation.
Activity 2 – Developing ideas for a song.
State your eagerness to learn about the nature, culture and daily lives of the place. Ask students simple questions e.g. 'what is your favourite thing to do when you get home from school?' and ask them to discuss in groups (in either language) for one minute. Ask for feedback from groups and write any outstanding ideas on the board, in both languages side by side.
When you have built up a handful of strong ideas, words or images, ask students to pick the ones that best represent them, and put them into sentences. These will form the first verse. Rhyming is not necessary, but a simple, repeating vocal melody is important.
Students can pull a melody out of the first line themselves, or you can give them several options. I used a I – IV – I – V progression across the verse.
If energy or concentration levels are running low at any point, change the pace by introducing some body percussion. This can be as simple or complex as you like, and can be integrated into the final composition (an example is in the video).
Practice and record a rough version of the verse, and take a photo of the ideas on the blackboard.
− Begin with the same warm up and 'The Lion Sleeps Tonight'
− Show the group year 6's ideas, either on the camera or by rewriting them on the board. Ask them if there is anything they want to add (you could go down the route of creating a second verse), or ask them to pick out the most important element from their ideas to develop a core message for the song (e.g. 'come and visit us', or 'this is the place to be'). This could form the pre-chorus or chorus. We used it for our prechorus, and then used the names of the island and country for the chorus. Follow any creative initiative from the students.
- Practice the year 6 verse with the new year 5 chorus, as well as the body percussion (if you have extra time, you can begin to think of actions or movements to go with the words).
Years 3 & 4
− Warm up – another 'follow the leader' game, this time practicing the english vowel sounds. Breathe in whilst spreading your hands, then out with each syllable in turn. Finish by bringing everyone into whatever position they are used to for 'be attentive'.
− Perform the song yourself. Write the words on the board and, line by line (chorus for year 3, verse for year 4), ask them to translate the words into their own language. Have fun attempting to sing the words yourself and modelling getting the pronunciation correct. Add actions if you have time.
You now have two verses and a chorus for a song, with a body percussion break.
Finally, Bring years 5 and 6 together (with the other years if appropriate, though I found that the older students responded to fine tuning – dynamics, phrasing, timbre – much more quickly) and introduce the second verse in their own language (I used a recording of year 4 to remember the phrasing of each line). Rehearse the song as you would any other, bringing in dynamics, split parts and any harmonies in as you and the students see fit.
When you are satisfied, ask the students if there was anything to be done to make the song better. I then invited the headmistress, who like all Kiribati teachers is a great singer herself, to listen to the song and offer feedback. We filmed the song both outside and in the classroom and listened back, discussing acoustics and performance technique, before doing a final recording.
Don't forget to perform/share the recording with parents, governers etc!