Tapping Music to Encourage Environmental Literacy

(Or Why We Do What We Do!)  by Peter Lenton (aka Peter Puffin)

from Connections: The Newsletter of the Global, Environmental and Outdoor Education Council of Alberta or GEOEC Vol.26 No.1 Winter 2002

peterMusic may be the universal language. The potential of music as a vehicle for learning is vastly overlooked. Youngsters naturally move their bodies to external rhythms. This may be the result of being tuned to two varying beats for many months in the womb… their mother’s slower heart thump-thumping and their own almost double speed pitter-patter. And you can bet the volume is substantial. Remember the increase in loudness upon putting your head under the water in the bath tub and singing?

I believe it is not coincidence that many of the most popular hit songs on radio and video actually have two distinctive rhythms in the musical mix. If you listen carefully to songs that move you, see if you can detect the “dueling heartbeats”.

Immensely popular artists like Sting, U2, Peter Gabriel, Keb¹ Mo¹, Tim McGraw, James Taylor, Paul Simon, Robbie Robertson, Blue Rodeo, the Dave Matthews Band (to name a few) often have at least two very different rhythms in their songs. Many of these successful artists also have a first name for a surname… That¹s another story, but it also supports the notion that we resonate with the familiar. Why not piggy-back the learning of any topic on a already successful hook? Kids naturally enjoy music

There are often cultural influences in these likeable compositions… the pounding of a ceremonial Stoney drum, the drumming of a Scottish bohdran, the rim shots and bass thumps of an African Jembe. Recognisable rhythms draw us in, and make us want to dance if we are loose enough – it’s only as we get older that some societies discourage self expression through singing and dancing.

Students, especially elementary age kids, love music. So, if you embed learning outcomes within an activity that youngsters are already physically and often emotionally invested in, they will be much more likely to remember the content of the lesson.

For example, on the recording Passengers, a CD of songs about environmental stewardship, we wrote the lyrics while keeping at least one eye on the Alberta elementary science program of studies. When the students sing along with these songs either “in concert” or in the classroom, they are rehearsing the general and specific learner expectations outlined in the curriculum. The kids are just having fun singing along. Teachers are checking off their program requirements. And students bask in the multiple benefits of a community singing experience, such as boosted self esteem, increased confidence, and social connection with others.

These are exciting times in education… Just as Leonardo Da Vinci was both a painter and an architect, artist and scientist, I believe the most well-adjusted humans in today’s ever-changing society will be those who have a renaissance skill set and open-minded approach to life long learning. Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences Theory offers teachers a limitless array of opportunities to make this happen, while reaching a larger percentage of their class even more effectively. In his recent book The Disciplined Mind, Gardner transcends jargon to offer an easy-to-read map of approaches that goes beyond facts and standardised tests to suggest a “K-12 education that every child deserves”. On page 72 he writes:

“Intelligence tests typically tap linguistic and logical-mathematical intelligence – the intelligences of greatest moment in contemporary schools – perhaps sampling spatial intelligence as well. But as a species we also possess musical intelligence, bodily-kinesthetic intelligence, naturalistic intelligence, intelligence about ourselves (intrapersonal intelligence), and intelligence about other persons (interpersonal intelligence).”

All of these intelligences can be used to compliment each other in fostering an environmental literacy. All of these different kinds of “smarts” can be used to bring out the best in each individual student, thereby increasing self confidence and the likelihood that kids will internalise the lifestyle approaches that will lessen their impact of the earth. There are many ways that music (and the arts generally) can be tapped to teach all subjects. I would like to offer the musical intelligence mode as a natural place to begin a more active use of Multiple Intelligences theory in classroom and outdoor education teaching and learning. Following are a few introductory ideas for sparking the musical intelligence in kids, towards the goal of encouraging active environmental and global stewardship.

Suggestions for Using Music to Engage Students

1) “Listen, Act & React” Activities

Songs can be played “live”, from a CD, tape or from a video. The lyrics can even be read out loud as a story. Students are asked to listen for a key word and then act. For example, in a song that explores marine mammal natural history, the kids must listen for the word “whale”, and then act out a whale spouting by shooting their arms up in the air with a whooshing spout sound.

Students tune in very quickly, and listen with intense concentration for their next cue. After the song, a whole variety of language arts exercises can be employed to reinforce the concepts that they have listened to. One of the aims here is to encourage an emotional and creative reaction to the song/story stimulus, further increasing the likelihood that they will remember the concepts in the song.

2) Musical/Theatrical Imitation

Another highly salient but simple method of encouraging the awareness raising/knowledge building/taking action process towards an environmentally literate lifestyle, is to teach the students “actions” to a song or story.

For example, most people agree that preserving the specific habitat that different species need is one of the best ways to assist in the survival of endangered plants and animals. Knowing the natural history about an animal tells us the food, water and shelter needs that must be satisfied for that species to survive and hopefully, thrive. These facts can be written into the lyrics or lines of a song/poem/story, with accompanying physical actions and sound effects from the students. Involving the physical investment of energy “tunes” the kids in. Musical melody can often hook their emotional (affective) energy as well, increasing the chances that they will care about saving the species. In general, teaching kids to care – about themselves, those around them, and other living things – is one of the biggest gifts educators can offer. Utilising our affinity for music facilitates such a synergistic benefit.

3) Background Music

The right kinds of music can serve as a watercolour wash in the learning environment, a sonic backdrop that will calm students down during those times when they are oscillating too highly for productive learning. Gentle classical music and even the more ambient, new age compositions that mix environmental sounds like waterfalls and dawn choruses of birds, have a remarkable effect on the relaxation level of students (and teachers!). Ian Tamblyn’s “Over My Head” is one of the best blends of acoustic instruments and nature sounds. John Sheard, who often plays piano in Stuart McLean’s Vinyl Cafe Orchestra bands, released an incredibly relaxing but also, somehow inspiring, collection of solos on his “Jerusalem” CD. Even the light jazz of Keith Jarrett’s piano solos on the Koln Concert recordings or the easy listening folk sounds found on James Taylor’s 1998 Grammy winning “Hourglass” recording have a wonderfully calming effect on an over-active community of learners!

4) Green Songs for Reducing Ecological Footprints

For the older grades especially there are many artists who have environmental lyrics in their compositions. These listenings can be utilised to encourage seeing both sides of environmental issues, so that students might gain the overview afforded to those who learn how to “walk a mile” in the shoes of others.

As well as the highly popularised fare of kid’s music singers like Raffi; Sharon, Lois and Bram; and Fred Penner, there are many artists who have done environmental music projects for kids of all ages. Even performers who usually aim their songs at an adult audience have written songs about conservation and taking better care of the earth.

Students can be educated by the lyrics of these songs and there are many art, science and language arts activities that can be based on these compositions. Have the students create an environmental rap, draw whatever comes to mind upon listening to these songs or write letters about the issues explored in this music.

Here are some beginning suggestions:puffin prod

a) Billy B. Brennan writes environmental music specifically for subjects that are covered in the school curricula, eg. “The Rock and Roll of Photosynthesis”, The “Dragonfly Rap” and “Romp in the Swamp”. As a performer, Bill must spend more than 50% of his shows off the ground! He now works full-time, doing school-wide and environmental conference shows.

b) Bob Schneider is a Canadian who has written infectious kids songs like “Listen to the Water” and “Computer Man”. His cassettes come with a book of lyrics, music and teaching suggestions.

c) Calgarian James Keelaghan has just released his third album “My Skies” that includes a song entitled “River Runs”, an eloquent eulogy to the controversial Old Man Dam power project in Southern Alberta. Many of his other songs would be rich studies in a Canadian history class.

d) Bruce Cockburn has also written many musical pleas for a better conservation awareness. For example, “If a Tree Falls” explores some of the issues surrounding the forestry industry. The media is only recently acknowledging the clearing of Canadian temperate rain forests as an environmental catastrophe on a similar scale to the tropical rain forest devastation.

e) Valdy, Connie Kaldor, Blue Rodeo, and Spirit of the West are just a few of the Canadian performers who have environmentally tuned songs in their repertoires.

5) Student Songwriters

Kids can be encouraged to write stories, poems, lyrics, raps and songs that explore current curriculum topics. Often, kids can be artistically inspired by experiencing a DVD, CD-ROM, video and/or a music CD that address the environmental science subjects at their grade level. Student spoken-word recordings with simple percussion are highly educational and they boost the self-esteem of the budding artist. Also, once the word/lyric portion of the composition is polished, there is bound to be a player or two somewhere in the student body or on staff who could collaborate to create, for example, a school environmental song for Earth Day.

6) Invite a Local Musician

Ask around to discover local players, even high school band students who could perform environmental compositions for your class. Perhaps elementary students could be “buddied-up” with middle school or high school or even local university music program kids to work together and create songs that celebrate species diversity, habitat conservation and what we can all do to help.

7) Outdoor School Campfire Singalongs

Even in today¹s volatile field trip liability climate, the benefits of taking your class to a residential outdoor school are well worth the effort. Though I’m admittedly biased, I believe that every young person should have the experiences that come from being immersed in nature (within an educational context). The outdoor school experience helps one translate the environmental awareness raising and knowledge building stages into active lifestyle decision making. And most of these programs have an evening campfire singalong programme that taps music and theatre to reinforce the science and community building concepts being practised during the day. A call to your school board office or any of the hard working board members of the GEOEC (numbers at the back of this publication) is all you need to do.

Another approach for promoting environmental stewardship and building community is to have a school-wide assembly concert. Remy Rodden, a gifted green singer/songwriter from Whitehorse, maintains a website of environmental educator/entertainers at the Songs for Environmental Education internet site.

I hope you find some of the ideas above useful. Admittedly, I am honoured to tour across Canada, delivering concert and teacher workshops on these very themes. I witness evidence for the power of music almost every day. Recently, following a concert on a reserve in Northern Alberta, I met a young First Nations boy in the hallway. As we were passing each other, the grade one student suddenly wheeled around and grabbed both my hands in his… and asked urgently “Where are your songs?” This caught me a little off guard, and I stammered: “Well, they’re in my head… and they’re in my heart…” The little guy didn’t miss a beat. He squeezed my hands even more tightly, looked deeply into my eyes, and said: “Well, now they’re in my heart too!” Then he let go, and went skipping down the hall, back-lit by the late day sun streaming in the door windows. As I pulled out onto the highway for the ten-hour drive home, I kept seeing his beaming face and I thought to myself, there’s one of the reasons we do what we do!

Peter Lenton welcomes feedback or queries about how do find the music cited, c/o peter@puffin.ca


Gardner, Howard. The Disciplined Mind: What All Students Should Understand. Simon & Schuster, 1999.


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