Fluency Friday

(Photo credit: iStockPhoto)

I submitted this article to Scholastic Magazine, but they never replied. I still think it’s great and may rewrite it for another magazine at some point.

Fluency Friday

“Shhh!”  “Stop talking!” “Put that away!” The messages twist through my 4th/5th grade classroom faster than tornado-siren anxiety. Heads come up, backs straighten, and silence prevails. As I pass the first lyric sheets into excited hands, whispers race ahead of me, “Firework! I know this song!” or “Michael Jackson! Thank you, Ms. DeWilde!” or “Big Yellow Taxi? This isn’t another song from the sixties, is it?” And Fluency Friday begins.

A few years ago, I attended a workshop with Tim Rasinski who suggested using songs to teach reading fluency. The words repeat, have rhythm and rhyme, students have to keep up, and singing doesn’t feel as repetitive as re-reading can. Looking for ways to engage reluctant readers, I took my iPod, a set of garage sale speakers, my twelve-note vocal range, and gave it a try.

Admittedly, I did start with songs from the sixties, specifically, the Limelighters. It also turns out that my Title I preteens aren’t so into America the Beautiful, This Land Is Your Land, or We’re All in this Together. But even a middle-aged lady’s taste in music cannot kill a brilliant idea. My class loved it so much, and we collected so many songs, that it became our favorite Friday reading lesson. Since then, Fluency Friday has developed rules and a rhythm all its own. And it has so many more benefits than simply teaching students to read.

The rules are pretty straightforward. It’s a reading lesson. Everyone has to keep their eyes on the words even if they have them memorized. We read the new song out loud together, analyzing the vocabulary and often having an impromptu history or language arts lesson. Then we sing. I walk around the room pointing to the words for anyone who looks lost. We sing the new song two or three times, then visit older songs in our notebooks.

As a reading teacher, I have discovered that some songs are especially worthwhile. We Are the World (the Haiti version) contains a lengthy, rapid rap, and learning it has become a point of pride. Students requested Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious for the same reason. Waka Waka, and other songs full of non-English words, require some nearly phonetic reading. Monster Mash has some difficult vocabulary, Fireflies can lead to an entire lesson on figurative language, and Dynamite gets stuck writers charged up during quickwrites. But my best moment was in student-led conferences when a child read a song to his mom like he had been reading those big words all of his life.

As a social studies and science teacher, I find myself tying Fluency Friday to our units. We Shall Overcome makes the civil rights marches feel more real. Respect leads to a discussion of gender equality. Both songs also support character education, as does Man in the Mirror. For ecology and conservation, we sang Bein’ Green and Big Yellow Taxi.  For explorers, Calypso, and for inventors, Edison. Our unit on conflict led us to Beat It, For What It’s Worth, and Marines’ Hymn.  Finding topical songs is as easy as Google, but my best ideas come from friends. Waka Waka was actually suggested via Skype from India where our sister class was using it as inspiration for Sports Day.

Some tunes I choose just because I can’t stand to hear them performed badly anymore. Anyone who has suffered through a mumbled Lollipop or worse, We Will Rock You/We Are the Champions can sympathize. I came to appreciate We Will Rock You because it gave me a safe place to ask how violent music can affects them and also how students can express strong feelings in their writing. Students find some lyrics are so meaningful that they choose them for independent reading.

These songs weave into other parts of our day. We originally sang Dynamite and Sing to celebrate the end of long units of study, but now we play them, and several other songs, at our class parties and early Friday mornings during homework help. We even sing them on the bus during field trips and in the waiting line for school pictures. We’re so busy singing that no one misbehaves.

Actually, behavior problems during these lessons are almost nonexistent. I start the iPod, and issues magically resolve. More important are the connections that I get to make with my students. Shy students smile as they sing a verse with me.  I sing Lean On Me to anyone who’s having a bad day and Firework or Mamma Mia to the uncertain or insecure. And as I sing with the child who has jumped out of his seat twenty times this week or dropped her chair on my foot, I feel all of my irritations fade away. I get to love my students again, every one of them, and that is a great way to end the week.

Fluency Friday has created a rich community in my classroom. It has become so much a part of who we are that, when we get a new student, volunteers jump to build a new song binder for them. Classroom movement rules relax, and everyone gets comfortable. For Monster Mash I point to the call and response sides. We Are the World inevitably has two lines of children swaying and singing across the classroom to each other. The guitar solo in Beat It will land at least three air guitarists on their knees. Somewhere Over the Rainbow sets all of the binders fluttering like bluebirds. And no one can get the yodel in Calypso right. We know this and still look forward to it.

We even use Fluency Friday to say goodbye. When our student teacher left, we sang Breakaway.  What I didn’t expect was that so many of us would cry. Children who move away take their songs with them. Near the end of the year, we select two songs to perform at the talent show.  And we spend the last two Fridays of the school year singing every song in our catalog from least to most favorite, so that on the last day of school we can say goodbye with the best of Fluency Friday running through our heads.

I remember my classes by their favorite song. Teaching here was a big adjustment for me, and my first class challenged my world with We Will Rock You. Last year’s class reached out to everyone with We Are the World. This year’s class gets a great big, enthusiastic Dynamite. I still slip in something from the sixties now and then; a few of my students even like them. But what I really look for in a song is the same thing I look for in a book – that ineffable quality that will catch them, hold them, and make children want to read and reread.

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