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If You Could Draw Jazz, What Would It Look Like?

Over the past several weeks, our 5th-grade students explored American Jazz as researchers, artists and musicians. Librarian Ms. Pilar Okeson teamed up with art teacher Ms. Jonnie Friedman and music teacher Ms. Mary Gaylord to create a multisensory unit based on the music of Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald and Trombone Shorty. Inspired by the whimsical illustrations in biographies about these jazz greats, our 5th graders created artwork, wrote their own music and performed a jazzy scat for their kindergarten Helping Hands.

Bookish Inspiration

As Ms. Okeson collected resources for a genre study on biographies, three books in particular caught her attention for their storytelling style and striking illustrations:
  • Ella Fitzgerald: The Tale of a Vocal Virtuosa by Andrea Davis Pinkney, illust. David Pinkney
  • Duke Ellington: The Piano Prince and His Orchestra by Andrea Davis Pinkney, illust. David Pinkney
  • Trombone Shorty by Troy Andrews, illust. Bryan Collier
Inspired by the strong connection between history, music and art, she reached out to Ms. Friedman and Ms. Gaylord. They worked together to create a cross-curricular unit connecting the history of these legendary artists to our students’ lives today.

More Than a Genre Study

After discussing the characteristics of biographies as a genre, Ms. Okeson talked to her classes about illustrations that reinforce the meaning of a story or topic. Both the Ellington and Fitzgerald books are filled with swirling, saturated color that visually represents the freedom and complexity of jazz. As students read these vibrant histories, she played jazz standards in the background to make even more sensory connections.
Image of childrens book illustration by David Pinkney
Sample illustration from Duke Ellington: The Piano Prince and His Orchestra (image source)
“Why are we asking ‘What does jazz look like?’ I think this book answers that question through the story and the artwork. I want my students to see those ties. The whole book creates this visual imagery of jazz, the words paint a picture too. I love how Pinkney captures that so well. It’s a factual history, but it has so much energy. ” — Ms. Okeson

Color, Drawing and Movement

Moving their study from the library to the art studio, Ms. Friedman created lessons to help students use their own creativity to deepen their understanding of jazz. Using the color palette from the books, our 5th graders created color wheels to explore the visual push and pull of these hues. They studied shapes of traditional jazz instruments and practiced drawing guitars, horns and pianos. They listened to jazz while they worked and talked about how to connect the sounds they heard with designs on the page. And they put it all together in a final dynamic piece that mimics the free-flowing style of jazz through line and color.
Severn School teachers present at a conference holding artwork.
Artwork from the unit on display in the library.

Singing with Style

As our students worked in the library and art studio, Ms. Gaylord led the groups through lessons about jazz vocal styles — in particular, improvisation or scat singing. Working in small groups, they created a six-bar scat to combine with other groups forming one jazzy tune. To make the experience even more memorable, Ms. Gaylord reached out to kindergarten teachers Ms. Jackie Schubert and Ms. Emily Coogan to coordinate a performance for our 5th graders’ Helping Hands.
Severn School elementary school students perform a song in the library.
Scat singing requires a strong sense of rhythm so every singer begins and ends on the right beat.
Severn School elementary school students perform a song in the library.
After the 5th-grade performance, Ms. Gaylord led everyone in a scat-style song, emphasizing the melody with hand motions.
“In addition to our music lessons, we talked about how what we hear connects to what we see. For example, someone with perfect pitch might always see the color red when they hear a certain note. And performing for Helping Hands? Students will remember a real performance for so much longer than just a classroom lesson. It gives them something real to work toward and that makes a big difference.” — Ms. Mary Gaylord

Learning That Sticks

From the library to the art studio to the music room, this lesson is an example of how our teachers work together to create rich, memorable learning experiences for our students. And because our fifth graders had a real audience for their performance, they were invested in the process from start to finish. They learned important media literacy, collaboration and creative skills while exploring new content from multiple angles — this is the kind of learning that sticks.

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    • 5th graders performing a jazz tune for their kindergarten helping hands.

Lower School

Preschool-Grade 5
Chesapeake Campus
1185 Baltimore Annapolis Blvd
Arnold, MD 21012

Middle/Upper School

Grade 6-12
Teel Campus
Severna Park, MD 21146