How to use these songs

I’ve seen how a few different classes and schools are using these songs to teach the times tables, and I’ve picked up a few good tips:

  • Get the children up and dancing!  St Michaels year 3’s added a great bit of choreography to Roar where they all crouched and pounced like a lion during the chorus.  Great fun and it gets everyone laughing.  Plenty of research has shown that laughter releases dopamine into your brain, which turns on the learning centres and makes the brain more productive
  • Children need to practise zoning in on the relevant lines of the song.  At the moment it can take some of the lower attainers nearly a full minute to answer 9 x 7 – they sing the whole song, including the non-vocal riffs, and it takes a while to get to the higher numbers!  I’d like to get children answering a sum by only singing 2 or 3 lines of the song.  For example, for 9 x 7 they could sing “49… 8 times 7 is 56… 9 times 7 is 63”.  With practise they would zoom into a smaller and smaller segment of the song, and eventually fix the individual times table fact in their memory.  Maybe a pipe dream?
  • The songs don’t work on their own.  They’re great for getting children motivated, they’re great as a memory aid, but they’re best used as part of a repertoire of strategies.  I have watched classes where children are also shouting them back in a military drill style exercise, writing them on whiteboards, extending the 8’s to the 80’s and the 0.8’s, and so on.  I’d also like to get children examining the patterns of times tables on hundred grids, using Dienes cubes and various other strategies.  Relating the patterns to the number bonds of 10 could be an interesting investigation and powerful in linking together different strands of maths.

Hints and tips – How to run a music collaboration with a secondary school

The musical times tables project works brilliantly as a standalone project in a single school.  The children enjoy singing songs that they know, it is effective in helping them (and the teachers!) learn their times tables, and they love writing their own songs to be performed by the school.  But collaborating with a secondary school really steps it up a notch!

What the secondary school get from it:

  • Kudos and great PR
  • A motivating project for A-level music students…
  • …Which could contribute towards two separate modules (Performance and Music in the community)
  • Enjoyment for all involved (including the leadership of the school and the federation, who came to watch part of the event and loved it!)

What the secondary school need to provide:

  • Band
  • Venue and technical support for recording
  • Some time after recording for mastering/post-production (for our 6 songs this took one afternoon of an engineer’s time)
  • Time and support for the band to practise the songs (I spent 6 hours outside my usual job role attending their music lessons to provide instruction – this could have been done by a Secondary school teacher)

Here’s the process I followed (in addition to the weekly assemblies with the year 5/6 children):

  • Early Feb – emailed the Director of Music with the idea of the project.  It took very little to persuade him!
  • Throughout Feb – created the musical arrangements in Sibelius (music software), which exports pdf music and sound files for the full arrangement and for each individual part
  • Throughout Feb – Director of Music put together a band of year 12 students
  • Late Feb/early March – started meeting some of the students (the Director of Music brought them to our assembly)
  • Late Feb/early March – shared the Sibelius export files with the secondary teachers and students using dropbox
  • Throughout March – secondary students practise their music at home and start rehearsing together in their music lessons
  • Mid March – assemblies stepped up to twice weekly, to get extra time to rehearse the children and tidy up the songs
  • End March – attended 2 triple music lessons to advise and direct the band – this proved to be vital, although if I had taken less of a key role in the process they would have been able to manage it themselves with their teachers
  • 2 days in advance – double-length assembly with half of the band attending – to run through the final structures of the tunes and to prep the children on what to expect in a recording situation (e.g. lots of patience, re-runs, leads trailing over the floor, red light means silence for recording, OK to chat in the gaps but need to quieten down ultra-quickly at my whistle, etc)
  • Early April – Recorded the tunes in the secondary school theatre, with the band playing live throughout.  Behaviour was exempliary and the children picked themselves up to sing with energy even on the 5th take of each song.

Cross-curricular benefits from music

Let me caveat this blog post before I start.  I’m not an expert in pedagogy, music or otherwise.  I’m an enthusiastic beginner.  But from my experience and from what I have read, I do sense that music needs to fight its corner to be given importance in a school’s curriculum.

This project has demonstrated how valuable music can be as a memory aid across the curriculum, and in driving collaboration between schools.  Children have been more engaged in learning times tables, and they are beginning to stick in their memories more.  If my ideas come off, we will soon be putting on a concert, which will have benefits across Maths, English, Business Studies and Music at both primary and secondary level, and engaging and motivating pupils with an exciting, real-life project.

What other subject can have benefits so widely across the curriculum?  What other subject can so engage and inspire almost every child in a school?  What other subject can involve hundreds of people, of a wide range of ages, in such an active way?

As a management consultant working in large global organisations, I was constantly under pressure to prove the impact and benefit of my work outside my specific area and more widely across the firm and their clients.  From my limited experience, I sense something familiar within arts education.  The big hook which excited my secondary colleagues during our very first meeting was that music was having an impact outside the music department, more widely across the school.

Clearly there are massive cognitive and social benefits for children lucky enough to go to a school with a strong music department, but the department seems to be under unspoken pressure prove its value.  What better way than by writing songs to help children with anything that requires rote learning – times tables, grammar, Kings and Queens, chemical equations…

Hints and tips – How to write a good song

Before starting the times tables project, in Christmas 2013 I got involved in the school Nativity service at our local church.  The children rewrote lyrics to popular songs so that they were about the nativity.  We chose “I need a dollar” by Aloe Blacc, which became “I need some shelter”, and “Firework” by Katy Perry.  Over 30 children gave up two lunchtimes to work on this.

I gave them a worksheet containing the original song lyrics (and they could listen to the mp3), and some ideas to include.  The worksheets contain some of my original ideas – clearly the children didn’t like them because very quickly they were asking if they could rewrite the words, and rather annoyingly they did a better job!

Both attachments are below.

Xmas song ideas

Xmas tunes lyrics worksheets

I also gave them each a slip of A6 paper, which unfortunately I’ve now lost, which said something like this below

You know you’ve written a good song if

  • the syllables fit nicely in each line
  • the rhyming works well
  • it sounds good when you sing it to yourself and your friends
  • the words make sense
  • it’s about the correct topic
  • it makes you want to listen to it some more

These were very useful in getting the children to check through their own songs before giving them to me, and enabled me to give them very specific feedback.  Now I have spent some time in schools I realise these are called “success criteria”!

Hints and tips – How to take this project further

Here are some ideas of how you could extend the times tables project.  Some of these we are doing, some are planned and some are just random ideas we would love to do if we have time.

  • ICT – children animate their times tables and edit music videos, for uploading to youtube
  • Maths – analysis of data from the league table and from youtube once we upload the video
  • Collaboration/competition between other schools – either actual visits to local schools or virtually using Skype.  How amazing would it be to hear from a school in another country who have created their own song, from their own musical heritage.
  • Literacy – working with children to write their own songs/poems – exploring rhythm, rhyme/half-rhyme and poetic license
  • Art – design CD covers and labels
  • Collaboration with other schools, youth groups and other community organisations on recording/performing these songs
    • Planning and running a concert (including financial planning and writing the business plan) is a great cross-curricular project for primary and secondary, hitting maths, English and business studies curriculums
  • More musical events – concerts, busking etc

Please reply to this blog with any other ideas you have!