K. Michelle Lewis, a recent Spotlight Award recipient, describes how the concerns second graders had about a real-world problem translated into action through a music project. She describes the children’s journey, from discovering the absence of accessible drinking water in Burkina Faso,  to researching the issue and addressing the problem through a creative and collaborative process.

How can we use music to create a better world?  In a world with so many resources, I really wanted to find a way to solve a real-world problem using music as the source of discovery and inspiration.  In my search, I came across a picture book called, The Water Princess by Susan Verde with illustrations by Peter H. Reynolds. The book was co-created with Georgie Badiel and describes Badiel’s childhood experience in Burkina Faso, where there was a severe lack of potable drinking water. Currently living in New York City, Badiel is a fashion model and runs the Georgie Badiel Foundation, which is focused on raising funds and awareness for potable drinking water in her West African country.

The Water Princess provided inspiration for a musical video project with a message

The story is about a little girl named Princess Gie Gie who wakes early each morning to walk with her mother for miles to retrieve water for her family.  Upon reading the story, my 2nd grade students were shocked to learn that children of the same age were working so hard to obtain one of life’s basic needs.  The students were also surprised that the quality of water Princess Gie Gie managed to retrieve was not as clean as the water in their own homes.  This new discovery prompted them to do something about the problem that thousands of children in Africa face on a daily basis.

The Driving Question

Our project began to take root and grow through the students’ interest and passion to solve a real-world problem.  By using a driving question, I was able to guide the students’ work and create a sense of challenge in finding a solution to the problem, while cultivating an environment that allowed them to explore music-making for a public service announcement. Through the eyes of Princess Gie Gie, my students were exposed to the water crisis in Africa and were presented with the driving question,

“How can you help children in Africa obtain clean water?”

Sustained Inquiry and Community Partnerships

The students were provided time in their 2nd grade classrooms to research solutions for the problems caused by the water crisis.  This process helped them learn more about organizations both in and outside of their community that build wells and create filtering systems for places in Africa. 

 In addition to these findings, I came across a local resource called WaterStep, an organization that raises funds by collecting donations of new and gently worn athletic shoes that are then sold to provide funding for clean water projects in Africa and all over the world.  We decided to use WaterStep because we knew the organization had a good reputation and trusted that the funds would be used appropriately for projects in Africa.


The Creative Process

After the students completed their research, they began the process of creating lyrics, melodies and background music for a music video that would become a public service announcement.

 The students were first encouraged to write poems to be used to create a song about the water crisis. Once the poems were written, the process of creating the melodies followed. The connection between writing poetry,  then creating melodies is one of many ways to encourage students to write original music.  Another way is to establish a culture in your classroom where exploring vocal improvisation through singing in the style of an arioso or recitative is a frequent and normal occurrence. In this way, melodies naturally flow from the text.

In addition to creating a melody, students explored sounds on the GarageBand application that would be used to express the feelings of what the water crisis might sound like.  The use of technology allowed students to layer in sounds and rhythm in a way that connected to the digital native.


National Core Arts Standards in Music

 It goes without saying that project-based learning in music classrooms naturally aligns with many of the national core arts standards.  During the planning process for my project, I did not focus on which standards I wanted to cover.  Instead, I focused on the parts of the music video for which I thought students would be able to create music, and what made sense for the overall message of the water crisis.

Once the project was completed, I discovered that I had covered more than enough standards in this one project than I would have ever been able to cover in a single lesson in the past.

The following are National Core Arts Standards for Creating Music that resulted in this project:

  • Improvise rhythmic and melodic patterns and musical ideas for a specific purpose.
  • Demonstrate and explain personal reasons for selecting patterns and ideas for music that represent expressive intent.
  • Demonstrate selected musical ideas for a simple improvisation or composition to express intent, and describe connection to a specific purpose.
  • Use iconic or standard notation and/or recording technology to combine, sequence, and document personal musical ideas.
  • Interpret and apply personal, peer, and teacher feedback to revise personal music.
  • Convey expressive intent for a specific purpose by presenting a final version of personal musical ideas to peers or informal audience.


Authentic Connections

In addition to the musical skills learned throughout the project, students were learning about social studies, science, reading, and writing.  Making deep connections across content areas is one of the most effective and meaningful ways for students to learn.  At the same time, students are also exposed to the relevance of what they are learning and are able to connect to the content on a personal level.

Using literature as an entry event helped increase the students’ literacy and language acquisition. “Reading takes you beyond the easy way to communicate,” says Dominic Massaro, psychology professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz. “It takes you to another world and challenges you.”  He continues,  “…parents can build their children’s vocabularies by talking to them, (but) reading to them is more effective.”   He concludes that reading aloud to children is one of the most effective ways to develop language and  better communication in young students.

Student Choice and Voice

I always like to include an element of student choice and voice in the projects we explore.  In this project, my students were allowed to express their feelings through music by choosing lyrics, melodies and background tracks for the final video.  This not only created student ownership of learning, it created student agency, which promotes a high level of student efficacy and engagement.  Projects like this also establish a classroom culture of risk-taking, exploration and creativity, designed to promote student work that is innovative.


During the week following the project, students shared their thoughts which were guided by a reflection form provided by the Buck Institute.  A large percentage of my students enjoyed working together to help people obtain clean water.  They said the most important thing they learned from the project was how to work with other people, and that there are people in the world who do not have clean water.  The students said the most enjoyable part of the project was helping others and creating the music video.

As I reflect on this project, I have realized  the importance of collaboration between community partners such as WaterStep and teachers in schools.  As a new teacher at my school, I felt at a disadvantage not knowing my students’ abilities, and what they were capable of producing.  However, I believe we all grew in new areas, which will give us more confidence the next time we are faced with a challenge.  I also believe the framework we built could be modified, improved and designed in a better way so that both the students and the teacher can be much more successful.

Critique and Revision

It is essential that peer and teacher critiques take place throughout the project design.  This step is often seen as a ‘time vampire.’  However, this is where the 21st century skills of teamwork, problem solving, research gathering, time management, information synthesizing, and utilizing high tech tools can come into play. When students become the producers of their learning, and are guided by a skilled teacher, they are achieving a deeper learning experience than peers of the same age who have a more teacher centered- experience.

Presentation of Learning

The presentation of learning represents the culmination of the project.  For effective presentations of learning, everyone participates –   the students presenting their learning, the audience, and the facilitator.

Upon completion of the project, I put together elements of student work from each of my 2nd grade classes that culminated in a public service announcement informing people about the water crisis in Africa.  This public service announcement was shared with the local water company, the WaterStep organization and parents.  We presented the video for our parents at an informance during their music class.  It took place in an intimate setting where students and parents could ask and answer questions in a non-threatening environment.

Since there were few questions, I believe we could improve our future presentations by including a set of questions for audience members to ask students.  This would create a better dialogue between students and audience members which would enhance the student’s ability to critically think, reason, and build strong communication skills, both for interpersonal and presentation needs.


Project Based Learning in Music takes time, careful planning, and collaboration to be executed in a successful way.  The process of learning is equally as important as the product and should not be scaled down because of time constraints.   However, the more important learning going on is about the people that are involved on both sides of the project.  If we believe our students can solve real-world problems through creative music projects, then they can.  It is our responsibility as music specialists to provide a learning environment for students that enhances creativity, collaboration, and communication.  Our classroom culture can promote values of deeper learning such as compassion, innovation, and communication through music projects that can be used to create a better world.


The Water Princess, by Susan Verde, illustrated by Peter H. Reynolds, Penguin Random House Publishing, 2016

Georgie Badiel Foundation:  http://georgiebadielfoundation.org/

WaterStep:  https://waterstep.org/

Buck Institute:  http://www.bie.org/about/why_pbl

We Day:  https://www.we.org/we-schools/program/campaigns/we-walk-for-water/

For PBL Workshops and Tools:      We Grow Teachers:  https://wegrowteachers.com/pblworkshop/

Susan Frey, “Study Says Reading Aloud to Children, More than Talking, Builds Literacy,” EdSource Highlighting Strategies of Student Success, July 8, 2015, based on a study by Dominic W. Massaro, “Two Different Communication Genres and Implications for Vocabulary Development and Learning to Read”

About Michelle Lewis:

Michelle Lewis is a former ACEMM Spotlight recipient, who teaches Performing Arts at Bloom Elementary School,  a Jefferson County Public School in Louisville Kentucky. She meets with  her students weekly for 50 minute classes, where they focus on music dance and theater. In addition to different music concentrations throughout the grades, the students learn about various genres of music while integrating social studies. While she wants them to develop personal and ensemble  skills, concepts and aesthetic appreciation, she also wants her students to leave the room feeling as if they have made a difference in the world.  To read more about Michelle, her work in the school and community, as well as her performing life, go to Spotlight Award on the ACEMM website: acemm.org.





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