Writing Songs in Class: Choosing a Topic

By Liz Buchanan

My ten week residency at the Condon School in Boston this past spring produced five songs, one written with each first grade classroom.  The assignment was to write a song about a person or character; it could be someone real, a character in a book or the media, or even an animal.  I asked each student to suggest a song topic and to offer some descriptive material about that topic.  Each student filled out a form that asked:

1)   Character’s name

2)   Character’s favorite color

3)   Two words that describe him/her

4)   Three action words for him/her

5)   Something that character might say, or we might say about him/her

6)   Draw a picture of the character

I got lots of different kinds of responses.  In one class, the teacher asked students to focus only on characters from their reading.  In another, anything was fair game, so the suggestions ranged from Spider Man to Hannah Montana.  Another class had lots of sports fans, so many offered up players for Boston’s football, basketball and hockey teams.  Another class particularly liked inventors and historical figures.

I read all the forms, and in each classroom, I chose three topics that I thought might make good songs, and which would resonate with many of the class members.  (I tried to stay away from characters that might tend to appeal just to girls or boys, such as Cinderella or the Hulk.)   The students were asked to close their eyes and vote.  After some discussion and sometimes re-voting, the classes came up with these song topics:

1)   Little Chick (character from the reading curriculum)

2)   Tom & Jerry

3)   Animals in our community

4)   Alexander Graham Bell

5)   Boston sports stars

Next week:  How we wrote the songs!

Liz Buchanan is President of The Children’s Music Network.


  1. Great ideas Liz. I’m going to try these with my first graders this year.

  2. What great work Liz. Songwriting is so empowering and freeing for people of all ages. I wish I had started when I was 6! I’ve written songs with preschoolers and there is so much creativity there. Thanks for teaching the kids!

  3. As a professional songwriter, I’ve been working as an artist-in-residence writing songs with ages K-highschoolers since 1994. In many ways, it’s my very best work, in that the process empowers people of any age or background to find their own words, learn about literacy, and work as a team.

    Here are a few tricks I use with the younger set (grades K-2). I do them every time we meet.
    1) I wake up my guitar using a variety of sounds
    2) Warm up. Give them a song or music-related activity so that they can learn about your own creativity (or someone else’s) and apply it to their own process.
    3) Keep ‘em jumping! I developed a “A Shake Break.” Every 10-15 minutes in a session- or whenever the process needs a shift, I get children to jump to their feet and shake. I do it in a way that it’s still rhythmic, rhymes and is “musical”– which keeps them on track.

    “I’m taking a shake break. Taking a shake break. Taking a shake break NOW
    I’m taking a shake break. Taking a shake break. Taking a shake break HOW?
    I’m taking a shake break. Taking a shake break. Turning my brain around. (or any other rhyme you come up with—the more bizarre and spontaneous, the better)
    I’m taking a shake break. Taking a shake break and…sitting back down on the ground. (You would rhyme this with the line above).
    ALL children love this and it’s remarkable what happens to their BRAINS after they have had this “break.”

    4) Adults are not invited to this party. Sometimes, teachers or a visiting parent REALLY want to be part of the process. I always remind them that this is their students’ work and instead, ask them how their students’ line sounds… does it make sense? Does it need more work?
    5) I encourage brainstorming—constantly. It helps every child find a voice, (and helps me help them craft a better song) and– the ideas are incredible.
    6) I never choose the same person’s input. If someone is not attending, I purposely call on them.

    Write on!

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