Daniel (a pseudonym) had benefitted greatly from
the idea that students can creatively represent their ideas
in a content area in ways other than traditional spoken
and written responses. He was a preservice teacher
enrolled in a teacher education program at a small
northeastern university. During one class, he shared the
following experience he had as a science student
In science class, I wrote [a song] to the tune of
“Jingle Bells.” I thought it was pretty cool because,
while writing it, I had to think about all of the
scientific concepts involved and then figure out
how to make them rhyme. I was always thinking
about this piece. I could really hear the rhyme in
my ears and picture the concepts in my mind. The
most important thing, however, is this: Because
I had to think about, work with, and write about
these concepts, I didn’t memorize them. I really
learned them. I still remember them today.
Daniel explained that his teacher often used popular
songs to teach important concepts in science class. In
this instance, his teacher invited students to write new versions of popular Christmas carols to demonstrate
their knowledge of science concepts covered in class.
Daniel composed a new version of “Jingle Bells” to
demonstrate his understanding of Newton’s laws of
physics. He composed this new carol to help him actively
learn, not passively memorize, these important laws.
The experience left a lasting impression on him. Today,
Daniel remembers his Christmas carol vividly and fondly,
can sing it without any prompting, and still uses it to
identify and explain Newton’s laws of physics.
We were impressed with Daniel’s story. Writing a
new version of a famous Christmas carol or any song
can be difficult for a student who, like Daniel, is not
an experienced or professional songwriter; and it may
be especially difficult if it is about a complex topic
such as Newton’s laws of physics. We were also inspired
by Daniel’s story. Like all teachers, we always look for
innovative ways to help students learn effectively and
efficiently across the curriculum. For Daniel, creating
a new version of a familiar Christmas carol like “Jingle
Bells”—with a distinct rhythm, rhyme, and cadence—was
an enjoyable, effective, and memorable way for him to
learn difficult science content. We wanted to see what
would happen if we used a similar strategy with our
students, all of whom are middle school teachers enrolled
in a graduate course entitled Reading and Writing across
the Content Areas.
This article shares a demonstration lesson from our
graduate course in which we showed teachers how to use chants and cadences to teach content area material
across the curriculum. We selected chants and cadences
for two reasons. First, in the past we had used a variety of
musical genres such as marching songs, rap music, jump
rope rhymes, hand claps, and patriotic songs across the
curriculum. We wanted to explore other musical genres,
such as chants and cadences, to teach content area
material. Second, we wanted participating teachers to
actually use chants and cadences in their own classrooms.
To achieve this, we felt it was important for the teachers
to actually experience the activities that we ultimately
wanted their students to experience (Harste, 2004).
Struggling readers: Locating
When students struggle with learning in the classroom,
all too often, teachers assume the problem lies primarily,
if not exclusively, with the learner. This “way of looking”
(Wheatley, 2001) at struggling learners has been
particularly prevalent in reading education. When
students struggle with reading, teachers tend to look at
the reader and not the reading materials. Some teachers,
however, know the value of looking elsewhere, or at
least looking in more than one place, to explain student
disengagement in reading. As one teacher explained:
I’m required to teach special standards in my
content area. That’s a good thing. My challenge
is not teaching standards. It is understanding why
students are bored in class and finding ways to
get them engaged. Many teachers think students
are just lazy. I don’t think that’s the problem.
My hunch is they are bored with the reading
materials I am using to teach the standards. I feel
like a chef. Each day I plan a meal of delicious
readings, but students don’t even nibble. I suspect
it’s the curriculum. I need to find ways to make
curriculum more appetizing. (Bintz, 2011, p. 34)
This teacher recognized that when things go wrong
in the classroom, of course teachers need to look at
the learner, but they need to look at the curriculum
too. She is right! Middle grades educators need to find
ways to create an “appetizing” reading curriculum that
is relevant, challenging, integrative, and exploratory,
as recommended by This We Believe: Keys to Educating
Young Adolescents (National Middle School Association,
2010; see also Anfara et al., 2003; Erb, 2005; Jackson &
Davis, 2000). Chants and cadences are excellent tools
for developing integrated curriculum across the content areas—they have the potential to make the curriculum
History of chants and cadences
Writing chants and cadences is an effective way to engage students in learning
content while enhancing their literacy skills. Photo by Tim Vacula
According to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary (1999),
a cadence is “a rhythmic sequence or flow of sounds
in language” (p. 159) and a chant is “a rhythmic
monotonous utterance or song” (p. 191). Chants
are similar to cadences, in that both possess easily
recognizable rhythms; however, chants are different, in
that they are most commonly used in sports settings by
coaches, fans, and cheerleaders.
Cadences have been used primarily in the military.
For example, during the American Revolutionary War,
cadences were used by soldiers to gauge the number of
steps a marcher or runner took and also to count the
sequence of loading and firing a musket. Over time,
many cadences have been written and performed by
soldiers in the Army, Navy, and Marines. Today, they are
used primarily as a way for soldiers to build unity and
establish and maintain rapport.
One of the reasons chants and cadences are so
popular is that they have recognizable patterns and
catchy rhythms and, therefore, are relatively easy to
learn. Many use a “call and response” rhythm in which a lead person, such as a drill sergeant, calls out one line
and other members respond back. Chants and cadences
that use this particular rhythm include “I Don’t Know,
But I’ve Been Told,” “Mama, Mama,” “Everywhere We
Go,” and “Sound-Off” (also known as the “Duckworth
Chant”). Here, we build on this history by using chants
and cadences to learn across the curriculum.
Chants and cadences in content
Little research has been conducted on using chants
and cadences in content area literacy. Recent advances
in brain research, however, provide some interesting
findings related to chants and cadences. For example,
much brain research indicates that, from birth until
death, the brain actively develops strategic thinking
behaviors to make sense of the world (Medina, 2008).
Specifically, throughout life, the brain focuses on
recognizing patterns and connecting these patterns
to larger and larger patterns over time. Humans learn
by copying, imitating, and mimicking other people’s
behaviors, speech, habits, and mannerisms. In this sense,
humans are “patterners” (Gardner, 1985, p. 152) who
recognize, utilize, and learn with, from, and through
patterns. According to Tankersley (2005),
The brain likes patterns and seeks to connect new
learning to prior knowledge and experiences, so
it makes sense to provide it with as many ways as
possible to connect new information to known
information as we are reading. The more ways that
knowledge is grounded and secured with links
within our mental storehouse, the more accessible
and usable the information becomes. (p. 114)
Chants and cadences support what the brain
naturally does continually throughout life. They are also
entertaining, enjoyable, and innovative ways to learn
content area material. According to Silberg and Schiller
(2002), “All it takes to unleash the power of rhymes,
songs, poems, finger-plays, chants, and tongue twisters is
to have fun. And while children are having fun, they will
also learn listening skills, vocabulary, and humor” (p. 12).
Chants and cadences are also effective alternatives to
memorizing and recalling information from traditional
textbooks. Schoenbach, Greenleaf, Cziko, and Hurwitz
(1999) captured the importance of alternatives to
traditional textbook learning through the voice of one
social studies student: “When I think about studying
history, the things that come to mind are boring fact and memorizing dates. I think of a boring teacher and
a big, huge textbook, and endless nights of studying,
outlining, and cramming” (p. 108). This student’s
experience is far too common. As Chapin (2011)
Too frequently, students think history is
boring because the class is the same from day
to day and does not capture their interest.
Although content and skills do need to be
revisited, if the repeated instruction is at
low levels with little or no development of
complexity, students gain little. (p. 176)
Chants and cadences are useful alternatives because
they draw on the power of rhymes, rhythms, and songs.
They can help students make content area material more
engaging, informative, and memorable and less boring
and dull. Because students become more engaged, they
may also learn at a much deeper level than through
When students create chants and cadences, they
apply critical-thinking skills: investigating possibilities,
using problem-solving skills, and demonstrating creative
thinking. The process of selecting a chant or cadence
that best fits a particular subject area involves a variety of
critical-thinking skills. Simply stated, “critical thinking
involves a complex set of dispositions and abilities
including seeking reasons, trying to be well informed,
taking into account the total situation, and looking for
alternatives” (NCSS, 1994). Creative thinkers use “basic
thought processes to develop constructive, novel, or
aesthetic ideas or products” (Sunal & Haas, 2011, p. 75).
Lastly, chants and cadences can support writing
growth and development. Using the pattern and
rhythm of original songs to create new versions helps
inexperienced writers stand on the shoulders of expert writers. Hoyt (1999) found this strategy particularly
beneficial for reluctant writers interested in writing
rap-style music: “I find that even the most reluctant
writers enjoy the format and gladly engage in lots of
revision to make their phrasing match the rhythm
they select” (p. 187).
A demonstration lesson on using
chants and cadences
Many students struggle to learn challenging content area
material across the curriculum (Ness, 2009), largely due
to lack of student interest, even apathy, in important
topics like experimental design in science, order of
operations in mathematics, cultural and social change
in social studies, and inferential thinking in language
arts. Many teachers struggle, too, to find innovative ways
to help students become interested in topics in which
they currently have little or no interest. One method is
the use of way-in books. Way-in books are high-quality
and often award-winning books that provide students
an interesting and engaging “way-in” to a world of topics
they might otherwise find uninteresting and even boring
(Keene & Zimmerman, 1997). Teachers can incorporate
way-in books at the beginning of an instructional unit
lesson to generate student interest and “promote student
exploration of topics across the curriculum” (Bintz, 2011,
p. 35). We decided to develop a demonstration lesson
that used way-in books to generate interest in using
chants and cadences across the curriculum. The aim of
this lesson was to help teachers in our graduate course
effectively teach content they themselves had difficulty
teaching or their students had difficulty learning.
We introduced the lesson with a text set on chants
and cadences (see Figure 1). A text set is a collection of
texts that are connected by a theme, topic, genre, or
some other feature (Short, Harste, & Burke, 1995).
Teachers may use text sets in a variety of ways in all
content areas (Bintz, 2011; Bintz & Batchelor, 2012;
Bintz, Moore, Wright, & Dempsey, 2011; Bintz, Moran,
Berndt, Ritz, & Skilton, 2012: Bintz, Moran, Berndt, Ritz,
& Skilton, 2012; Bintz, Wright, & Sheffer, 2011). Students
use text sets to read broadly and deeply about a theme
or topic and make intertextual connections across texts.
Here, we used a text set to introduce chants and cadences
to participating teachers.
We invited teachers to browse the text set and, while
browsing, read several chants and cadences to become familiar with different rhythms, rhymes, and sounds.
Next, we invited them to select a favorite chant or
cadence and write a new version that taught content area
material they had difficulty teaching or their students
had difficulty learning. Finally, teachers wrote and
illustrated the new version and performed it aloud to the
class. As a culminating event, teachers wrote reflections
on the experience. The following are samples from the
demonstration lesson organized by content area. The
samples were selected because they represent different
content areas; accurately reflect the original chant or
cadence; contain accurate and substantial content area
material; use rich and descriptive language; and read
smoothly and fluently, as if to create a musical reading
that rolls off the tongue (Tunnell, Jacobs, Young, &
Social studies: “My First Amendment Rights”
Figure 1 depicts a chant written by a middle grades
teacher about the First Amendment to the U.S.
Constitution. He wrote it for a very personal reason:
“First Amendment rights are important. In school I had
been taught many things about First Amendment rights
but didn’t remember any of it.” He hoped this chant
would help his students really learn this content and not
easily forget these important rights.
This chant identifies important aspects of the First
Amendment. It highlights that this amendment provides
U.S. citizens with certain freedoms and rights, such as
freedom of religion, speech, and the press; the right
to assemble peacefully; and the right to express and
resolve grievances. The author did not write this chant
to provide young adolescents with a deep and thorough
understanding of the First Amendment. Rather, he
wrote it to help build student background knowledge
and spark interest in this important amendment. He also wanted it to function as an invitation for students to start
conversations and ask new questions as they developed a
deeper understanding of and appreciation for this and
Mathematics: “Please Excuse My Dear
The chant in Figure 2 was written by a middle
grades language arts teacher who was interested in
integrating literacy and mathematics. In the past,
she had collaborated with math teachers and noticed
that students had difficulty understanding order
of operations, an important concept in the math
curriculum. She wrote this chant to share with math
colleagues in the hope that it would help students
learn this concept more effectively, enjoyably, and
meaningfully. The chant identifies and explains some
fundamental understandings of order of operations.
In mathematics, an operation can refer to adding, subtracting, multiplying, dividing, squaring, and so
forth. The order of operations refers to the sequence or
rules that need to be followed when doing calculations.
The catchy phrase “Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally”
is the basis for the mnemonic PEMDAS, which is
commonly used by mathematics teachers to help students
understand, remember, and correctly use the order of
operations. The letters stand for:
1. Items in Parentheses
3. Mmultiplication and Dvision (left to right)
4. Addition and Ssubtraction (left to right)
Language arts: “Verbs”
“Verbs” was written by a middle grades language arts
and special education teacher (see Figure 3). She wrote
it because each year she struggles to teach parts of
speech, primarily because her students find the topic dull
and boring. She hoped this chant would spark student
interest in this topic. Moreover, while this chant focuses
on verbs, she also hoped it would motivate students to
write their own version of the chant on a different part
The chant introduces students to verbs, particularly
action verbs, as an important part of speech. It provides
several examples of action verbs and italicizes each for emphasis. Non-action verbs are also included (e.g., am,
is, are). The teacher wanted to use this chant to highlight
differences between action (talk) and non-action verbs
(am) and to help students understand that non-action
verbs are forms of the verb “to be” and represent simple
tense verbs. She also wanted to use this chant to teach
writing—specifically, to show students that action verbs
are more descriptive and powerful than passive verbs.
Science: “Rainforests Have Four Layers”
A language arts teacher wrote a cadence related to
science titled “Rainforests Have Four Layers” (see Figure 4).
She wrote it primarily for her young daughter who, at
the time, was studying the rainforest in kindergarten
and, secondarily, for her middle grades students who
enjoyed earth and environmental science. She wanted to
help her daughter and her students better understand
the term “ecosystem,” the complexity of an ecosystem
(i.e., a rainforest), and the variety of species that live
in a rainforest ecosystem. The cadence teaches that a
rainforest has many layers, identifies and names the
different layers, and provides hints that each layer is
almost its own biome. The cadence separates each layer,
describes the primary occupants who inhabit those
layers, and includes animal names and interesting
information about them. Additionally, this cadence
orders the layers in terms of height (i.e., highest to
lowest) and concludes with a dramatic ending about
how the rainforest is being eradicated. Many species
are disappearing, along with indigenous groups who
have called the rainforest their home for centuries, due
to over-logging and the quest for new pharmaceutical
We learned several lessons from this experience. First,
we learned that the participating teachers were actively
engaged throughout the lesson. Specifically, they were
actively engaged in problem posing and problem solving.
They spent time posing and reflecting on questions about
content they have difficulty teaching or their students
have difficulty learning. They also spent time solving
problems, such as deciding which chant or cadence
would be best to use to write a variation that could teach
content area material and determining how the chant or
cadence could be written to teach content area material
while maintaining the catchy rhythm and rhyme of the original. Participating teachers also actively engaged in
personal reflection as they shared with others how this
experience helped them be better teachers and learners.
Second, we learned that participating teachers
became authors, not recipients, of integrated and
exploratory curriculum. That is, they personalized their own curriculum by creating and sharing new
interdisciplinary curricular resources. These resources
were meaningful to them and responsive to their
students’ needs. In this instance, they personally created
interdisciplinary curriculum by developing, performing,
and reflecting on writing chants and cadences to
integrate content areas.
Finally, teachers in our course were actively engaged
in critical thinking. In their written reflections, many
teachers discussed how this experience broadened and
strengthened their thinking. One teacher’s reflection was
I have a real sense of authorship and ownership
about my chant on the amendment. I have never
felt that before. While writing it, and especially
when revising it, I started thinking about the
amendment in a much deeper way than I ever
had before. In many ways, it was a balancing
act. Not only did I need to make sure I was
communicating historically correct and accurate
information about the amendment, I had to stay
true to the original chant. I had to analyze what
was most important for my students to know while
creating language and manipulating words to
fit the rhythm of the chant. I was surprised at
how deep my thinking became when I worked
on word manipulation. I had not envisioned this
being a major factor. However, throughout this
experience I was proud of the amount of thinking
and learning I did and am looking forward to
passing this experience on to my students.
All the participating teachers found this experience
enjoyable, personally rewarding, and professionally
informative. According to them, the keys to their
success and enjoyment were personal interest, active
engagement, and thoughtful writing and revision. We
hope this article will be a key to success for other teachers
interested in developing and implementing relevant,
challenging, integrative, and exploratory curriculum in
the middle grades and, more specifically, for teachers
interested in using chants and cadences to teach content
area material across the curriculum.
|This article reflects the following This We Believe characteristics: Meaningful Learning, Challenging Curriculum, Multiple Learning Approaches
Previously published in Middle School Journal, November 2012
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Lisa Ciecierski is a doctoral candidate at Kent State University in Ohio. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
William P. Bintz is a professor in the Department of Teaching, Leadership, and Curriculum Studies at Kent State University in Ohio. E-mail: email@example.com