Deirdre Moore | October 2014

What’s in a Song?

Row, row, row your boat
Gently down the stream.  
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily
Life is but a dream.  

That’s a popular easy-to-sing tune many people know which makes it a great song to use in the classroom.  When I was teaching first grade I used it to line my students up to transition out of the classroom.

Getting into line
Ready for the hall.
Our eyes are up, our hands are back
And we are standing tall.

I’ve written on Education Closet before about how magical music can be and what a great tool those popular songs are for changing lyrics to establish classroom routines and reinforce concepts learned in other areas.  Just recently, however, I met someone who is helping me look at these songs in a whole new light.  Her name is Jessica Baron and if you don’t know her and you are interested in using music in your classroom, you should think about looking her up!  She is the founder of Guitars in the Classroom which, to quote the mission statement, “trains, equips and empowers teachers and staff to play guitar and ukulele, sing, write, teach and lead songs for learning with students across the academic curriculum.”

Previously when I looked at “Row Your Boat” I saw a catchy, easy-to-sing tune with a straight forward rhyme scheme.  Now when I look at “Row Your Boat” I notice the language – the verbs and adverbs. While it’s fine to use it as I did with my first graders there is so much more such a song has to offer.  Imagine having students choose a favorite activity, identifying the verb and selecting adverbs to create their own songs.

Read, read, read your book
Quietly on your bed
Patiently, patiently, patiently, patiently
Reading to the end!


Ride, ride, ride your bike
Quickly down the hill
Watchfully, watchfully, carefully, carefully
Safe riding takes great skill. 

I never thought to look at the actual content of the song before, or the structure for that matter, to find connections to curriculum.  It seems so obvious now, but it wasn’t until working with Jess that I even thought to consider it.  For example, she refers to “The Wheels on the Bus” as a parts to whole song.  Two teachers in my class created a song about the solar system being the whole and the planets and the sun being the parts to that whole.  I had used “Miss Mary Mack” in my classroom before but had not considered it as a song that tells a story.  What about “Home on the Range”?  Why not use that as a song about habitats?

Changing lyrics of a popular song to express new content is not necessarily Arts Integration (unless there is a specific music standard being addressed and assessed) but it is a very natural way to explore other curriculum content.  These songs are rich with form, language and other content possibilities that are begging to be explored.  It’s all how you look at them!

About the Author

Deirdre is a teaching artist and AI coach in the San Diego public schools dedicated to helping classroom teachers make arts an integral part of their teaching. Deirdre has an MEd in Arts Integration and over twenty years of classroom and performing arts teaching experience. Email Deirdre.