It all started with Jackson. He’s a music lover in the classroom, and remembers what he hears. Songs that are meaningful to him are not forgotten and often requested for us to sing. Yesterday was the culmination of a slow build-up, with hints and requests for certain songs. But, let me start at the beginning. Jackson loves it when I pull out the autoharp and sing. Typically he is all about our movement songs, like “Jump Down, Kick Around”, or “Five Little Monkeys”. Every once in a while he asks for “God Bless America”. We love that song in our classroom, but it has been a few years since the song was a favorite with the children. I introduce so many songs, and always support what the children like. That’s emergent curriculum.
As the year has progressed, we have sung “God Bless America” more often. What a simple, yet powerful song. I watch children sing this song, and time and time again it has the same effect. Children stand proud, but also appear humbled, as if they somehow know there is something bigger or more important to be singing about; a meaning or purpose behind the words. Thank you, Irving Berlin. In past years this song has manifested itself to the point of doing much more with the children than just singing the song; for example, the magnificent quilt that hangs at the Fisher House in Boston. Yes, the children in my classroom designed the quilt.
Although we have been singing “God Bless America”, last week we sang “This Land is Your Land”, and this is where things really changed. Children were humming and singing to themselves in the bathroom, at the writing table, and while doing puzzles. It was becoming infectious in a wonderful way. When the children started to sing, I chimed right in, and so did others. Now, the lead had shifted. I was no longer initiating the song, I was following along.
Jackson kept asking to sing the song. I promised we would sing it together after rest, and sure enough, the first words out of his mouth when he woke up were, “Jennie, remember what we’re going to do?” This time I used the book This Land is Your Land so that we could see the illustrations as we sang along. We sat together in the rocking chair and started to sing. Children doing other activities sang, too. Then, children started to come over and join us. By the third verse, the entire class was scrunched around the rocking chair. Boy, did we sing! We belted out every chorus, with rising volume and passion. It felt like we were singing to a sold-out crowd at Fenway Park.
Next, everyone wanted to go through the book, discovering so many different landmarks in America. We talked about Mount Rushmore, the Wanona tunnel tree in Yosemite, the Chicago water tower, Grand Coulee dam, an oil well, the Seattle Space needle, and the Washington Monument. It was a mini geography lesson.
Did you know that “The Star Spangled Banner” did not become our National Anthem until 1931? In the late 1930’s, Irving Berlin wrote “God Bless America”. He thought our National Anthem was too difficult to sing (I think he really didn’t care for the song), and he wanted to write a patriotic song about America. After “God Bless America” became popular, Woody Guthrie did not care for it at all, and decided to write “This Land is Your Land”. I find it fascinating that both writers had a similar motivation, and both songs are successful (and wonderful). Certainly in my classroom, the children love singing these songs.
Singing a patriotic song with young children is far different than singing any other song. How is it that children seem to understand? They instinctively know that a patriotic song is something special, much like how they understand the difference between a toy and something real. I introduce children to all types of music, and in my thirty years of teaching, the children ‘take over’ the patriotic songs. They become the leaders and somehow navigate or inspire the other children to join in and sing. I sit back and watch this evolution, time and time again. It’s like ‘Old Faithful’ in Yosemite; it happens all the time, I can’t explain it, and it is simply wonderful.