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Reflections on Teaching Kindergarten

At Christ the King School, I teach music to all students Grades K-8. Not to toot my own horn, but - I have two graduate degrees in music and am used to making music on a very high level. Suffice to say, teaching Kindergarten was not in my career plans when I was in college. In fact, the entire idea of it would have been terrifying. Sometimes I think God must really have a sense of humor to send me to a place where I teach about 30 Kindergartners in one room while I try to keep them from running around and pulling each other’s hair. And yet - recently, in Kindergarten we were doing a classic call-and-response activity in which I rolled a ball to a child and sang “Sing me your name,” to which they were expected to respond “My name is …” to the same pitches. All but a few were able to match pitch, and I have reason to believe that the few who didn’t will find it eventually. I did a similar activity with the 1st Graders, but the results were nearly opposite: only a few were able to accurately match pitch. So why would this be? First, I want to dispel what could be a knee-jerk reaction - that the Kindergartners are especially brilliant or musically gifted, while the 1st Graders are not. It’s not as if we audition 4-year olds when they enter the school, after all; these children are equally capable. It’s not that I’m an especially brilliant teacher. Believe me, I’m pretty clueless at that level, and besides, I also teach the 1st Graders. Although I cannot pin it down precisely, and it may in fact result from a mix of factors, I have a theory as to a primary factor.

Because of my lack of experience and my duties that are spread across grades and with work for the parish, I rely on already established music curricula with detailed lesson plans, rather than making up my own. Most of these published curricula are geared toward state and national standards. You know the ones: “by Grade …he/she will be able to…” and then the lesson plans are created with those expectations in mind. Now, I rather like the curriculum I am using with Grades 1-2 (and last year with K), and it’s not one of the most popular in the U.S. Unlike those, this one puts an emphasis on developing reading skills. Yet, the more I worked with it, the more I realized it was still inadequate for what we are trying to accomplish at Christ the King. Some classical Catholic schools use the Ward Method. I respect much of that methodology, but I’m not entirely sold on it for our purposes, for reasons I don’t need to go into here. And so the search continued.

While poking around for resources, I happened upon a textbook published by Oxford University Press. Oxford is a British publisher, so there is no concern for meeting any U.S. standards, although the authors are American. The book is Kodaly in the Kindergarten Classroom: Developing the Creative Brain in the 21st Century, by Micheál Houlahan and Philip Tacka. What especially excited me was that the description included an appendix with detailed lesson plans, a lifesaver for somebody like me. The school ordered me a copy, and I took a look at it and decided to adopt it. The Kodaly methodology is well known, and I’ve long respected it, but in order to properly teach it, one had to have specialized training that I lacked. This book lays it out very clearly, and makes teaching it accessible for a novice like me.

Zoltán Kodály (1882-1967) was a Hungarian composer, ethnomusicologist, pedagogue, linguist and philosopher - a 20th c. Renaissance man. In 1925 he overheard some children singing some songs they had learned at school and was appalled at the quality of their singing and the songs they were singing. Rather than simply complain about it, he took action, writing a series of controversial articles on the state of music education, and over time developing a method to train young children to sing. Its success gained attention worldwide, including the United States.

Features of the Kodaly method include the concept that very young children should master simple melodies before gradually moving on to more complex songs; en emphasis on listening and singing skills; the use of games and movement that reinforce the concepts being taught; the use of hand signs in the solfege system to identify pitches; and using simple folk songs, many based on the pentatonic scale, at least in the early stages. The concepts move at a much slower pace than I would ever have designed on my on - seriously, for months we’ve been singing songs consisting almost entirely of three pitches! They don’t care, because they are having fun singing, playing games, and moving to the music. If you would ask them what they’ve been learning in music class, I’m not sure they would be able to answer - but learn they do, whether they realize it or not. The songs and games are repeated so much that they have the opportunity to truly take hold in their brains. And then eventually it dawns on me as I’m with them - hey, how long have they been able to do that? I don’t remember that from a couple months ago.

Studies have shown that using the Kodaly method improves intonation, rhythm skills, music literacy, and the ability to sing multiple parts; as well as improving perceptual functioning, motor skills, and believe it or not, performance in math and reading skills as well. As a Catholic classical school that is ideally cross-disciplinary, that’s pretty much what we’re after! It’s also a great first step in developing a community of singing that will be fruitful in the Mass and in our communities.

I’m happy to say that there is an entire series of these books going through Fifth Grade, and as I become more comfortable teaching in this way, I’ll be using it more and more, not just with this Kindergarten class as they age, but with older students as well. Kodály believed that developing singing skills and musical literacy was just as important as learning how to read and talk. That concept is very much at home in a classical curriculum that places music study on the same level with arithmetic, geometry and science.

This is all very exciting, and although this will take years to truly take hold, we are laying the foundation for building a community of singers. The next time you see a Kindergartner, ask them to sing you their name; I’m sure they will be more than happy to.

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