September 17, 2005
It’s 9 a.m.
“What word does this spell?” asks Parkdale Elementary School music teacher Kathy Hannen-Smith.
Her group of fifth graders looks at the poster board she holds up, trying to fill in the blanks. What they see is “S_PT_M__R.” Above the word are notes drawn on a music staff that correspond to the missing letters.
One girl raises her hand and is called on.
“September!” she says, with an air of accomplishment.
After a few more rounds of filling in the blanks, Smith puts the poster board away and goes to the piano.
“Some of you have requested that we sing a certain song that we did two years ago,” she says, and eyes light up across the room.
The kids scramble to pull out their books, and flip through to find the words and music for “50 Nifty United States,” a song composed and written by Ray Charles that gives mention to each state in the union.
The class sings through the song once, making jokes during times when there is supposed to be silence. Smith reminds them that there should be no sound during rests, and then goes to get the paper flags – one representing each state. They’re going to do the song again, this time with props.
As Smith is picking up the flags to pass around to the students, class is interrupted by blaring sirens – a fire drill.
With only five minutes left in the class and a full evacuation of the school required, the kids put their books back under their chairs, disappointed, and leave the room in a single-file line. They know that once they get back into the school, their music class will be over.
“Lauren, you’re first,” Smith directs. “Follow the leader!” she says to rest of the class, and asks Robert, the boy at the end, to please close the door on his way out.
Once the entire school is assembled on the soccer field, Principal Pat Echanis waits for each teacher to hold up their green card – the sign that all students in their class are present.
Having received the all-clear from the teachers, Echanis radios the office, telling them to cut the alarm. He then tells the instructors that they can return to the building, and Smith returns to her room leading a new group of fifth graders.
This class starts the same as the other, with a review of the notes on the staff, using memorization tools such as “FACE” for the notes in the spaces and “Every Good Boy Does Fine” for the notes on the lines. They then go through the fill-in-the-blanks game, and Smith tells them that they, too, are going to sing “50 Nifty United States.”
“I don’t remember what page it’s on,” she says, laughing. But the kids don’t need her to tell them – they remember and quickly find it themselves.
After singing through it once to refresh the kids’ memories, Smith then passes out the paper flags, making very sure that they will have time to make it through the song.
Each student looks at their flag and goes over in their mind when their state will come up in the song. When the time comes, each kid holds his or her flag up for a brief second when their state is sung.
Two times through the song, and Smith asks two students to collect all the flags and put them away. She then tells the class that they are going to sing “Ezekiel Saw De Wheel,” an African-American spiritual.
After a short talk about the role of spirituals in history, the class sings through the song once. Then Smith decides to add a little spice.
She walks in front of the piano and picks up a small wooden xylophone. “Does anyone know what this is called?” she asks the class.
There is no answer.
“I’ll give you a hint: it begins with the letter X.”
One girl raises her hand. “A xaxophone?” she asks.
Smith smiles. “No. But it does sound sort of like xaxophone. It’s a xy … lo …”
“Xylophone!” someone says.
“That’s right,” Smith replies. “We’re going to add a xylophone part to the song. Who wants to play?”
Every hand around the room shoots up, and some kids look like they’re trying with all their might to keep from jumping up and down.
Smith selects four students, and then looks at the clock. There’s less than a minute left in class – hardly even enough time to sing the song.
“We’ll just have to hurry,” Smith says with a smile.
She shows the instrumentalists the pattern that they’re supposed to play, and reminds them of proper technique.
“We’re not going to play like kindergarteners,” she says with a smirk. “We’re going to use two hands to play.”
The class sings through the song one time with accompaniment, and by the time they’re done, it’s 9:53 – three minutes past time.
Smith dismisses them without asking them to put the instruments back so they can get to their class without being too late. As she puts the xylophones away herself, the school custodian comes in to install a stand for the stereo system. Aside from lunch, this is the only time during the day when Smith doesn’t have class, so it has to be done now.
With the installation complete, it’s now 10 a.m., and Smith starts preparing for her next class, which will be arriving in a few minutes.
Around the Clock is an hour-by-hour weekly feature. On Sept. 24: working on the railroad.