To gain fluency in math, you need to be able to speak the language of numbers. But that can be difficult if you don’t have the right vocabulary available to you.
One catchy, creative way to learn curriculum is via song. At the Hebrew Day School of Ann Arbor in Michigan, four fifth graders decided that the best way to teach themselves and their peers tricky fraction terms was by writing original mathematical lyrics and setting them to music. Take a look.
“Some kids learn better when they listen, so we rolled up our sleeves and got to work,” said Ayelet, one of the fractions song songwriters.
Songs have a way of making terminology fun.
Fractions is an area of math laden with terminology that can be difficult to remember. Yet precision is crucial.
For instance, you need to know that the denominator tells you how many parts are in the whole and that the numerator indicates how many of those parts you’re looking at or considering. In addition, students need to know proper fractions, improper fractions, and mixed numbers, both how they present in numerical form as well as the language for word problems.
“If you don’t learn the current vocabulary and cannot ‘talk math,’ you can’t really build on those skills,” said Carol Gannon. She’s the students’ teacher, and she majored in elementary math during college. “You need to be comfortable with it all to understand that ¾ is 0.75, which is also 75 percent.”
Her students were ready to take on the challenge. And their ultimate goal was this: to do it all by themselves.
The makings of a song.
First they brainstormed different ways to craft the lyrics, fusing together rap and melody to produce a memorable tune. “Writing the song really helped us learn the definitions,” said Lily, age 10.
They also drew colorful posters as props to help explain and illustrate the concepts.
Next came the music. The group (now with the band name Four-Fifths) met with their instrumental music teacher, Ben Kessler, to work on the musical arrangement and to create an educational video.
A natural starting point was boomwhackers, which are hollow colored tubes of different lengths; they’re tuned percussion tubes that make music when you hit them against something.
A while back, the foursome had used them to play through some musical exercises. Improvising, Hannah and Lily had hit theirs together, like light sabers, and discovered an array of interesting sounds and rhythms. That messing around created the foundation of the song’s beat. “Then we randomly added our own beats to that original one,” said Ishai, age 11.
Time to take it to the next level.
The creative exploration continued with more rhythmic ideas and composition. The students worked together to come up with the song’s form and the chord structure on the choruses.
For the video, Four-Fifths recorded themselves playing boomwhackers, strings, piano, guitar, and percussion. They also recorded the vocals. “The only instruments I played were the bass and electric piano for the choruses,” added Kessler.
The video was completed just in time to apply it as a teaching tool for the first and second graders at Hebrew Day School, said Janice Lieberman, a general studies teacher who specializes in math. “I knew that showing ‘The Fraction Song’ would excite the students and help them connect the unit to what the ‘big kids’ were studying.”
Like the band members, Lieberman prepared visuals to illustrate the meanings of the terms numerator, denominator, proper fractions, improper fractions, and mixed numbers. She also showed them examples of the different kinds of fractions. Soon thereafter the seven- and eight-year-olds were humming the song.
“While I would not have normally exposed first and second graders to concepts such as improper fractions and mixed numbers, this time I did because of the video—and one of our first graders correctly figured out that eight-fourths equals two wholes,” Lieberman said. “That was exciting!”
Conquering the school talent show (and YouTube).
After the classroom performance, the band took their song to the school talent show. Now “The Fraction Song” lives on YouTube, affording their catchy, educational tune greater longevity, and allowing the learning to spread everywhere and help kids learn math.
“Our hope is that other students will follow our lead,” Hannah said. “I hope kids watching our video will get inspired to write their own songs and share them with others,” she added. “Music can be a great tool for learning all subjects.”
Come to think of it, the connection between music and math and fractions is quite elementary, an observation Jennifer Rosenberg, head of school, made. “A time signature, a quarter note, a half note, a whole note, what are these if not fractions?”
I’d give these kids 4/4. Or, in other words, 100 percent. Wouldn’t you?
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