Children's Books

Making It Work: Children’s Literature

Making It Work: Creating Performance Ready Products Based on Children’s Literature

One of my favorite parts of Orff workshops and trainings is when clinicians share ways to use children’s literature in a lesson or as the basis for a performance. When I began attending workshops and conference sessions I was amazed at the creative, innovative and musical ways in which the presenters used literature in their lessons. I took lots of detailed notes and eagerly recreated the ideas with my students. I had no idea how they were able to see a story in text and end up with beautiful lessons and performance ready products. Over many years, as I taught more and more lessons using other people’s ideas I started having my own. Now I feel pretty confident choosing a book and working with my students to create an exciting final product. Here is how I “Make it Work.”

When choosing a book for a performance product, it is important that I choose a book I love. If I love it, the kids probably will too as my passion for the story will come through. Most of us see our students about once each week. That means we will be working with the story for at least a portion of each lesson for about eight weeks. If I do not care for the story when I begin, by the end of eight weeks I probably won’t like it any better. I find myself purchasing books that I find intriguing and keeping them on my shelf while I gather ideas or wait for the perfect time use it with my kids.

Next I look for inspiration. If I have a template in my collection of workshop and conference notes, I go there first. Even if I am working with students who are younger or older than the targeted grade in the example, I can glean ideas about where to add music, movement or unpitched percussion. While a song, instrumental selection, or arrangement may not be appropriate for my students – looking at someone else’s ideas sends me on a path to finding something that will work for us.

Once an intriguing book is on my shelf, I look for other ideas and lessons that may contribute to the theme. I keep a file on my laptop or tuck a copy of workshop notes and songs or ideas into the book. When I decided to use the text as inspiration, I have a pile of ideas to choose from. Last year I rediscovered a favorite book that has a tree as one of the main characters. My local Orff chapter hosted a clinician who presented an entire Saturday workshop with a tree theme, and then someone else shared a lesson on a music educator Facebook page that used the same book. It seemed like a good time to use the story with my students, so my theme for spring is trees!

Now I will read the book many times with my handy pack of post-it notes nearby. I read the story four or five times over the course of many days and brainstorm ideas, write them on post it notes and stick them on the page in the book. In the end I usually use about half of the ideas. I include the suggestions I may have borrowed from other sources, my own modifications and eureka moments. Then I edit and prioritize the ideas so I can structure my planning by beginning with the most important elements necessary to tell the story well.  I plan to add on the “color parts” that make the telling more interesting as time allows. I generally choose an opening song or dance (folk dance or student-generated creative movement) and a closing song to wrap up the story at the end.  When working with older students we have even composed our own “opening song” to set the tone of the book.

I have found the most success when I leave a lot of room for the children to choose and create large portions of the telling. They decide on the appropriate timbres for unpitched percussion and compose ostinatos to create “traveling” or “transition” music. We change the words or modify folk tunes to create complimentary songs to enhance the telling of the story. Sometimes we perform selections from the Music for Children volumes and the children arrange the pieces to suit our needs. The students work in groups to write the script, generate creative movement, and plan for costumes and scenery.

Often, the children have better ideas than I do. I share a story and a framework and let the students take the lead within a structure that I set for them. We have a few clear understandings before we begin working. We will all have an important part in the product were we will be successful. The role you perform may not be your first choice because we work together as a team to complete the story. Lastly, I have the final say in when we need to stop adding new ideas. With these understandings in place, the children take ownership of the project and are excited about their individual role and the final product. If you are uncomfortable with structuring so much choice all at once, start with one or two areas where the students make decisions. Choosing unpitched percussion is an easy place to start. When you are feeling more confident, add more student decisions in the next story.

When using folktales and culturally based stories, do some research before you commit to using the book. Make sure the story is culturally sensitive and appropriate for your school. Research regional dance, music and dress to accurately represent the culture as best as you can. Everyone understands the budget for most school music programs is slim to none, and we can make our best effort to be sure the costumes, scenery, dance and music is appropriate to the featured culture.

I have shared the process I use to transform a story or picture book into a performance-ready product with my students. Please share your ideas in the comments, as well as some of your favorite stories and books to use with your students in music class, so we can help each other to “Make it Work.”

Looking for lesson ideas inspired by children’s books? Check out these previous posts on Teaching With Orff:

LeslieAnne Bird

LeslieAnne Bird is a music and movement educator at University Schools in Shaker, Ohio. She teaches general music and choir to fifth through seventh grade young men and is an adjunct Professor at the University of Akron. She has previously taught in North Olmsted & Cleveland Ohio as well as in Prince George’s County, Maryland. LeslieAnne is a national presenter. She has served as vice president and membership chair for the Greater Cleveland Orff Chapter and is currently serving as the content curator for the Teaching With Orff community. In addition, she is the owner and CEO of Three Little Birds Music Education Services LLC where she offers teacher training, coaching and musical experiences for children and adults. She earned Orff Certification from Baldwin Wallace University in 2014, and has completed Music Learning Theory General Music Level One, Level One World Music Drumming training, Level One Google Certification and has earned the Ohio Master Teacher designation.

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  1. Jane cromley on March 23, 2017 at 12:21 pm

    Hope about a whole music using that same book (The Day the Crayons Quit) . It was wonderful, using lyrics to songs and simple melodic lines composed by 1st grade students. When the same first grade students were in 3rd, the second book was published (The Day the Crayons Came Home) The students eager to compose/perform the sequel as a holiday presentation, adding “for the holidays” to the title of the performance. Orff accompaniments were added as well movement. It was all based on the letters, used as monologues.

    • LeslieAnne Bird on March 25, 2017 at 7:39 am

      The “sequel” is a great idea!

    • Belle on March 8, 2020 at 6:11 pm

      What lyrics did you use? Would love to more to create a program. Thank you,

      • LeslieAnne Bird on March 10, 2020 at 5:48 pm

        I let the children decide taking inspiration from the book.

  2. Jolene Glass on March 23, 2017 at 1:15 pm

    I use “A is for America” by Devin Scillian for one of my 4th Grade Programs. It is a poem/book and lends itself to the use of American folk songs. I also use “50 Nifty United States” and this year added the “Tour the States” rap that I found online at Marbles the Brain Store.

    Twas the night before Christmas and the Nutcracker are also favorites.

    • LeslieAnne Bird on March 25, 2017 at 7:40 am

      What a great idea to tie folks songs together for a program!

  3. Katherine Iooss on March 23, 2017 at 4:16 pm

    I used the book “The Very Cranky Bear” by Nick Bland for one of my rhythm ostinato writing assignments in my Orff II levels course. I just taught two of the ostinato patterns to a 2nd grade class, and they loved the book. Now, to figure out how to add more to make this into a full performance! Please share your ideas

  4. Laura Sailer on March 25, 2017 at 3:14 pm

    Love You Forever is a favorite of mine…the author wrote in a song as well as sound effects, I believe the video can be found online. I put movements with it when I read it (crawling, peeking). Then I improv at the piano and let the kids make up movements for each stage of life the kid in the story goes through while I read the story again. It’s awesome but if you have kids get ready to tear up!

  5. Lynn Osborne on March 26, 2017 at 12:21 pm

    Just discovered a new book to add to my ORFF library: “The Rooster Who Would Not Be Quiet!” by Carmen Agra Deedy…So many opportunities to encourage children to find ways to sing and make music together while telling a very timely story…

  6. Jane on March 26, 2017 at 7:49 pm

    I like using Eric Carle books. My favorite is “Today is Monday.” There is musical notation in the back of the book. 🙂

    • Lynn Osborne on April 9, 2017 at 1:17 pm

      Ditto on “Today Is Monday”.

  7. Libby Rigney on March 27, 2017 at 9:41 am

    I use several books, but I particularly enjoy using Where The Wild Things Are as a group performance project. I divide the book up into 6 sections and assign a section to each group. Their job is to act out their section of the story using instruments and scarves. Right now I use it as a classroom performance, but it could be modified for a larger audience!

    • Gloria Sandoval on November 7, 2017 at 7:43 pm

      What grade levels do you use this with? It sounds really great. Will you share the lesson? My email is if you can share.

      Thank you!

  8. Hal Hobson on April 13, 2017 at 3:11 pm

    Thanks for this article! Great info and motivation. For those hesitant to jump into guided student creations, one thing to factor into the equation is that when the students create their own material, there is a MUCH shorter learning curve (less repetition) in your process. While working together to create is more work initially, they are much quicker to “own” the material when it is their own creation
    I have used “The Mitten”, “Bremen Town Musicians”, “Loon Lake”, “Mama Don’t Allow”, “Millions of Cats”, “Arrow to the Sun” and “Little Babaji” (an appropriate re-telling of “Little Black Sambo”) and all with great success.

  9. Linda Wood on June 29, 2017 at 1:30 pm

    I’ve done performances using “Leaf Man” by Ehlert, and “Listen to the Rain” by Martin and Archambault. Both provided many opportunities to incorporate original composition by 2nd and 3rd graders, as well as folk songs and dances. “Leaf Man” was a large puppet made of strung-together oversize leaves, which blew in the wind as the puppeteer crossed our stage. “Listen to the Rain” included aleatoric rain sounds using vocables and body percussion.

  10. Elsie Ziebro on August 27, 2017 at 2:05 pm

    I am interested in starting to work with children’s literature for performances. I am wondering if anyone has found a quality story for a Christmas/Holiday performance for second grade, something that I could experiment with. It would be my first one.
    Thanks in advance for your help!

    • Beth Sellers on October 8, 2017 at 7:06 am

      Snowmen at Christmas

  11. Drew Osborn on October 5, 2017 at 12:28 pm

    another idea is really inspiring people that are local to you. In northwest Arkansas we did Sam Walton: a study of musical perseverance- the students and i read his Bio-book then picked parts of he book and wrote dialogue and songs to go with his life and accomplishments. Another inspiration is George Washington Carver who lived just up the road on 1-49 in Missouri.

  12. Pat RC on October 5, 2017 at 9:32 pm

    I’ve always done this kind of approach in my creative music experiences for children classes (3-6 yo, vertical class). They love it! And they love it even more when they get to have a say in how the story and/or music goes 🙂

    It’s nice to see like-minded people in this thread. To more fun music experiences 🙂

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