Rob Levit | March 2014

How to write a Summary Song

I have been working with 3rd graders this past week at three different elementary schools. We wrote twelve summary song in three days and my head is swimming with rhymes and images about folk tales, coral reefs and animals of the Southwest desert. Whew, it was exhausting but the experience fully reinforced why arts integration is so powerful in the classroom. Here are a few tips so you can write a summary song with your students:

Overcome your barrier to singing in front of your students – I find THE greatest barrier to teachers writing summary song is that they feel like they have no musical ability, are tone deaf or don’t know where to start. It’s OK, it’s natural to feel that way so don’t put the burden on yourself. Many students will volunteer to sing an improvised melody to a phrase or will join you at the front of the classroom in a duet.

Choose a simple topic with lots of “juicy” words and a solid main idea. This will give you plenty of material for your summary song. Here are some juicy words and main ideas from the stories we worked on this past week:

Create a circle map with the main idea/question in the center and then “crowdsource” by asking as many students for vocabulary, scenes and ideas from the text to place around the main idea/question. Try to encourage them to not look at the text. When they do look at the text, they tend to read it verbatim instead of putting ideas into their own words. The circle map becomes the “raw material” for the summary song.

How to write a Summary Song, IAS

Begin the songwriting process by making sure the students know they are working on a draft and not something that needs to be perfect. It doesn’t have to rhyme at first and maybe never! Do ask them for a simple sentence that capture the essence of the text. It is important to keep the phrases simple, direct, to the point because eventually you are going to sing them.

  • Sample opener from Nacho and Lolita: “Nacho was colorful, but really, really sad/Each night before bed he sang a lonely song”
  • Sample opener from Animals of the Southwest Desert: “All animals have a special way to survive/A scorpion stings its prey to stay alive”

Keep the song short and keep supporting the main idea/question – Take a look at the lyrics from this 3rd grade class and note the main idea stated first, supporting phrases and ending with a catchy phrase to top it off. The final phrase should be like a chorus and can be sung several times and get progressively louder.

Get the students out of their desks and consider adding some hand gestures, motion and movement – Yes, this will get messy and loud but that’s OK. We need to give the students an opportunity to move, sing and try something new!

One question I get a lot is, “What if I don’t play an instrument?” Great question!

  • My best answer is to learn to play ten chords on the guitar and you will be the most popular teacher at your school. The guitar is been an absolutely fantastic teaching tool for me that automatically differentiates my instructional approach.
  • It’s not necessary to have an accompanying instrument. Students can sing or rap their song to a simple clapped or tapped rhythm.
  • There are tons of backing track resources for free on the web. Here are a few to get you started:
  1. Guitar backing track
  2. Purple Planet tunes
  3. Songs for Teaching

Be courageous, write a song with your kids and watch how the creative process of brainstorming (the circle map), drafting (writing simple short phrases) and singing (putting it all together) brings learning to life in a way that engages all students!

About the Author

Rob Levit, an acclaimed musician and artist and 2013 Innovator of the Year from the Maryland Daily Record, has created award-winning innovative "Life-Skills Through The Arts" programs for adults with mental illness, the homeless, adults in drug and alcohol recovery, youth in domestic/sexual abuse counseling, foster children, hospital patients, veterans and many more. He is currently Executive Director of Creating Communities and was the first Artist-In-Residence at Hospice of the Chesapeake, where he created and infused healing activities for the well-being of staff, families and patients. Email Rob.