Singing the Blues with Primary Students

Today I taught my first primary lesson. My background and experience is as a high school teacher and administrator. Now that I’m in my second year as an elementary principal I wanted to get into classes more, to become more familiar with curriculum in the various grades and subjects, and to explore different research-based teaching strategies.

In mid-September I invited classes to choose any subject for me to come in and teach one lesson. My stomach did flip flops at the thought of teaching grades and subjects that were new to me–and in front of my staff. But this was important to me. In exchange for the lesson I asked that the class and the teacher give me feedback on my teaching.

The first class to request a lesson was Grade 2/3. They wanted music.

The students know I am a singer (at our first assembly last year I sang Katy Perry’s “Firework” for them). I was thrilled to begin this journey with a subject I felt confident in so I could focus on teaching strategies.

To begin my work I reviewed our school board resources on assessment, including creating learning goals and success criteria. Then I reviewed the Music curriculum for Grade 2 and 3. The biggest challenge was to think about how to plan a stand-alone lesson with learning and assessment for a 50-minute period.

My learning focuses were creating a high level of student engagement, using learning goals and success criteria to design the lesson, and using a 3-part lesson.

After checking in with the teacher about what they’ve already learned in Music I decided to focus the lesson on singing the blues.

The Lesson

When I arrived I gave the teacher a copy of my lesson plan (as though it was my turn for a performance appraisal).

Learning Goal:

We are learning how to use music to bring people together and express emotion.

Success Criteria:

  • I can use my feelings to generate ideas for a blues song.
  • I can describe three characteristics of blues music.

I also wanted students to begin playing with composition and apply elements of music when singing but thought it would be best to share two with the students since it was only one period.

Curriculum Links:

  • Included links to three strands:
    • Creating and Performing
    • Reflecting, Responding, Analyzing
    • Exploring Forms and Cultural Contexts
  • Dynamics and expressive controls.
  • Form (phrase, simple verse, and chorus).
  • Sing in unison.
  • Apply elements of music when singing.
  •  Create simple compositions for a specific purpose and familiar audience.


Minds On:

  1. Scroll through five items on the Smartboard: Harmonica, guitar, fedora, sunglasses, blue
    1. What do these items have in common?
    2. What type of music do they represent?
    3. What do you know about the blues?

The students liked trying to solve this puzzle. I scrolled through the items slowly. Most students guessed “rock and roll.” After we discovered the lesson would be about the Blues, only one student said she had heard them before “playing in the square in town.”


  • What are the blues?
    1. Sing “Bring it on Home to Me” to the class as an example. Talk about the voice as an instrument. Sing the same lyrics in a couple different styles (opera, country, rock). Talk about how the blues use a belly voice or chest voice. Invite class to activate their belly voices by doing a simple warm-up, holding their stomach and saying “ho ho ho” like Santa Claus. Remind them that when they sing the blues they need to feel it in their tummies.
    2. Blues songs tell stories about life experiences, particularly about love and hard times.
    3. Blues songs use pianos, drums, guitars (rhythm and bass).
    4. Blues songs use repetition, improvisation, strong belly voice, and they express emotion.

Students sat straight up and their eyes popped out when I sang. It was fun to see them react this way. I used a big, deep voice. It wasn’t a classroom sing-song voice but a full blues belting voice. They enjoyed doing the warm-up and feeling their bellies move when they used their voices. One student said, “The blues sound like a lullaby.”

  • What’s hard about being a kid?
    1. Brainstorm together
    2. Aim for details
    3. These ideas will be used to improvise verses for our blues song
File 2015-10-15, 4 12 32 PM

My chart paper skills are definitely lacking. The students had so many ideas I couldn’t keep up with them. I think they could have gone all day sharing what’s hard about being a kid. (The stick figure in the center is supposed to be a kid).

  • The Colborne Blues
    1. The Colborne Blues: I wrote a little song using the background track in the YouTube video below. I taught this chorus to the students and then improvised verses based on the ideas the students had given me. Then the students took turns improvising lyrics. (Sing starts at about 17 seconds.)

The students picked the tune up really quickly. All students sang or hummed along.

After singing through this together a few times I taught them how to use their voices to create a blues background track. Students then split into partners with person A singing the background beat and person B singing the Blues, either the song we learned or one they made up. Then we invited the pairs to sing their song to the class.

Here is a sample (featuring a couple students):

We needed more time! This was a good introduction but a week would have really helped them develop their vocal and improvisation skills. Mostly I wanted to see how open they were to experimenting with voice–next steps with this lesson would be giving them feedback to improve vocal quality and to have them spend time writing the blues before singing.


  • We reviewed the learning goal and success criteria, discussing our learning so far. What impressed me most was how the students spoke about their learning–they are becoming more confident with this language.
  • Then students watched The “Time-Out Blues” and answered these two questions:
    1. What is this song about?
    2. What makes this a blues song?

At the end of the lesson I asked the students for feedback. They asked me to come back–and I will. Next time I plan to bring a musician with me so they can hear some blues instruments. The teacher reminded me I need to leave more “think time” before calling on students, building in ways for them to brainstorm and practice independently. She’s right–I just saw all the eager hands and jumped into responses.

I’m looking forward to my next lesson. I’m not sure what it will be. A number of classes are struggling to reach consensus. The students are debating over Music or Healthy Active Living. One class said I could choose the subject (but three other students chanted “Gym” in the background.) I’m surprised they’re not trying to make things harder on me by picking subjects that are challenging.

I’ve learned so much from this about primary teaching and learning. This experience reinforced the idea for me of assessment over time and the importance of time for going deeply into a topic. It also took a lot of time to utilize learning goals, success criteria, and the 3-part lesson but all three were essential in grounding the lesson in learning, in being intentional about our limited time together.


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