The Children Are Coming: An Interview with Leah Sunquist

by Leah Sunquist

August 2016

Leah Sunquist is interviewed here by Jake Harkins to share reflections on what she does and why she does it when the school year is starting.

Jake Harkins: Leah, you’ve been teaching for a while. As a veteran teacher, what emotions do you often feel at the beginning of each school year?

Leah Sunquist: Oh, I’m excited to see my students! I’ve missed them, and I’m excited to rekindle the relationships. I like to touch base with what’s going on, see the growth and find out what’s happened in their lives. I am also excited about all the new things I have to present to them, and the journeys I want to take them on throughout the year. At the same time, I feel frazzled because during the summer I have put together grandiose plans regarding my lessons, and when the year starts out, it never seems to happen as I expected. Before long, I fall back into comfortable habits and the initial excitement has fizzled. This is not intentional, however. Life sometimes gets in the way and stress can direct you in ways you didn’t anticipate.

Jake: Do you have favorite song games or “comfortable habits” of song games that you find yourself coming back to when the year starts?

Leah: Yes! There are some song games that are like a pair of your favorite jeans that make you feel great when you wear them. When I start the year with favorite songs that the students know and love, an atmosphere of joy is established. We laugh and have a good time. “Come and Follow Me,” “A Hunting We Will Go,” and “A Rig a Jig Jig” never get old with my younger students. These sturdy songs allow the students to re-establish their community while playing, having fun, and reconnecting.

When I start the year with favorite songs that the students know and love, an atmosphere of joy is established.

With my older kids, I love to do “Ziggy Ziggy Za.” This song game provides a structure for the students to not focus on all of the changes that have occurred to their “look” over the summer. So much growing and developing happens… The song game requires them to sit close to each other in a circle formation and before you know it, we’re right back into the swing of things and there isn’t time to feel awkward about their changing bodies or relationships. The momentum and silliness of the game seem to get rid of opinions like, “I can’t touch that person,” “Eeww they aren’t who they used to be,” etc. The song takes the focus, rather than the new emotions that come with those older kids. In order to be successful, their concentration must be on the sticks. The “tra-la-la-la-la, la, la, la, la, la, la” part is an excellent way to vocalize and discover if you have any voices that have started to change. This little song is a gem.

Jake: So it sounds like these song games are more than just games. You seem to be aware of and consciously building on more than just a song. Is this the case?

Leah: Yep—they are sturdy songs! They can quickly bring us together as a community that’s been away from each other for a while as well as bring us to a comfortable place where routines and procedures are re-established. With this quickly in place we are able to dive right into song studies.

Jake: I’m interested in more specifics about how this unfolds. You’re saying that a singing game is a foundation from which not only joy and camaraderie blossom, but also gives you opportunity to develop routines and expectations for behavior management, and to provide a valuable and rich experience for further study of music skills? How do you do this?

Leah: “Rig a jig jig” is a lively activity full of movement. We begin with a circle formation. Before I sing the new song, I’ll ask them to notice how the person in the song is moving and where they might be going. Before I sing, there is the expectation that they have a listening task. They are not listening to something, they are listening for something. After I have sung through the song I’ll ask, “What in the song gives you an idea that there might be some kind of partner work?” I’ll sing it again and when I get to the place where the walker invites the person to be their partner, I demonstrate with the person the action that is attached to the phrase, “a-rig-a-jig-jig” and “away we go.”

Rig-a-Jig-Jig Score

I am very intentional in my language with every step, especially at the beginning of the year. There is plenty of modeling, noticing, and rehearsing happening each step of the way—not in a drudging way, but in a playful way. Sometimes teachers are so focused on feeling pressed for time to teach things, we miss opportunities for incorporating intentional language for behavior management.

After all of the movement, I will say, “I’m thinking your brain may be ready to sing this song.” So we’ll sing it together and do the see-saw back and forth motion with the words “rig a jig jig.” We also take our fingers for a walk on our arms, and wave to each other when we sing “friend.” When I ask them, “How do you greet a friend when you see them?” they love giving their ideas and we try them out as we sing the song multiple times.

After two or three times, I’ll take one of their ideas for a greeting, and start walking around their circle. Using their idea I will greet whoever my feet are standing at when we sing “friend.” I hold that child’s hands, we rig a rig jig, and then we’re off on a gallop for “away we go!” We pay attention to when our feet will stop at the end of the song, and I take a moment to ask the students what they noticed. With these observations in mind, the song will begin again and we both start walking. We each find another person with whom to greet and gallop. It keeps building until pretty soon, we all have partners, and we no longer have a circle.

Jake: That’s important to remember: when the students are seeing their ideas accepted, they actually have a level of leadership in developing the nuances of the game. They become participants in, and responsible for their learning. What happens when you’re out of people to invite?

Leah: I’ll say, “Let’s look at our area, and think about where we are moving, and where we can and can’t move.” Students are more than willing to point out the right and wrong thing to do. After a few turns walking in the open space with the new tips they have come up with, I ask, “What’s another way we can move down the street?” Because it’s the beginning of the year, I’ll ask for ways we can move that will be 1) safe, and 2) in a manner that does not touch a neighbor until it’s time. I am establishing and modeling a positive way for them to think about how they move in the shared space on the first day. Tip-toeing, crawling, and playing their different ideas are all a part of the game experience.

I am establishing and modeling a positive way for them to think about how they move in the shared space on the first day.

Jake: It’s pretty clear that these song games are your gateway, or access point, to your students. And, it seems, it’s not just one way; it’s their access point to you and to each other. You had mentioned these songs are also an access point to “begin music study quickly.” So after the first few days, how does it come back, and what do you do with it?

Leah: We will use the song game in the next 2 or 3 class periods as a way to practice transitions. It’s the vehicle to re-establish what the guidelines are in the room, such as: Do we sing when we move? How do we move by each other? How do we listen so at the end of the song we stop? When your feet stop, will we have time to talk, or will we have to be listening for something? Either we have time to talk, or we wait and listen for the next step. And we try both, and talk about that. These behavior management reminders flow out of you in the context of the movement of a singing game, therefore becoming part of the game as well.

Jake: Those are valuable examples to consider how we can involve students in building the classroom community, and investing in the decisions. Tell me more about how they ‘study’ the song.

Leah: I want their mapping skills to come back right away. For the really younger ones, it will be watching me draw a map, and then making their own. My third graders have been mapping for a while, so we’ll get right to papers and markers. It is another place for us to practice the procedures and expectations. When we have mapping procedures solid, we practice how we share with another person: passing carefully and respectfully. Part of the music skill study includes further strategies for the children to interact.

The evolution of a blended score to Rig-a-Jig-Jig

We will revisit the song after a few weeks and have some fun dotting it. I present it as a secret song, using chinning. Sometimes, I’ll bring back the map we studied and it will have dots at the ends of the phrases and the cadence.

Jake: So your study of the song game seems to keep coming back throughout the year, among other activities, with a new layer to discover and explore. Is that correct?

Leah: It is! Eventually it would be brought back again as a solfa study. We study the cadence with solfa and bridge literacy skills without it feeling like a drill. The song from the beginning of the year established community, right? And when that song keeps coming back throughout the year, the memory, the joyfulness, bubbles up again and renews them, and me.

Jake: It seems that when a song lives with the students as joy and study from day one, sprinkled throughout the year, that’s an opportunity for students to connect the dots of their skills, growth, and learning journey from August to June. Why do you find that so valuable?

Leah: It’s valuable because it helps students understand why they came to school for the year! It’s valuable because it gives a sense of growth, and what it means. The song is not done after the first month, it becomes an opportunity for students to look back and reflect, and come to the understanding of how they are growing in their knowledge.

…it wasn’t just a tune and a game. It was a learning journey.

The song game is so much a part of the relationship building and not just in my classroom. It comes from interaction. I’ll pass a class in the hall and come up beside a student and whisper-sing, “as I was walking down the street, a friend of mine I happened to meet” and give them one of the silly greetings we did months ago in class. In that instant there is a connection. These song games can provide rich relationships with students. The song is the ball you pitch for the volley between you and the students as the year unfolds.

A song game that is followed throughout the year is a memorable experience that ties all the learning of other skills and activities together. In June we recognize that we have accomplished things—great things. The children begin to understand at this culmination that it wasn’t just a tune and a game. It was a learning journey.

This interview first appeared in the August 2016 Newsletter under the name “Leah Steffen.” It has been adapted for the “From the Archive” series.
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