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A song for the planet

Ann FitzGerald discovers how the curriculum can address both music and sustainability

Many teachers will sympathise with Gillian Fitzpatrick, specialist music teacher at Beech Hill primary school, Wigan, whose first thought, when her school won a World Wide Fund for Nature's curriculum management award was:

"What have music and sustainability got in common, and how on earth do I fit education for sustainable development into my planning?" That was two years ago, and the answers she found have enriched the children's music-making and fed into many other areas of the curriculum. With only one 40-minute lesson a week for each class, it required close co-operation with other members of staff to follow up ideas, but the WWF award (pound;4,000 over two years to each of 24 participating schools) enabled staff to "buy" planning time and create an ethos of sustainability, which now runs throughout the school's teaching.

The health of the world's key ecosystems has declined by a third since the 1970s, according to The Living Planet report, published in October by the WWF and the United Nations Environment Programme. Britons and other Europeans are among the top 20 "over-consuming nations", so no wonder the concept of sustainable development has found its way on to the national curriculum.

Working together to effect change is a keynote in Gillian Fitzpatrick's music lessons. A simple warm-up exercise with Year 3 typifies her approach. Sitting in a circle, the children begin quietly tapping fingers on the floor - each child starting after the child on their left. This changes to lightly slapping the floor, then smacking harder, finally stomping feet very loudly, before gradually returning to slapping and tapping until the sound dies away altogether.

"We've made a piece of music," suggests the teacher, and questions such as:

"What does the music do?", "What does it make you think of?", elicit the responses "rain", "rainstorms", and "rain falling on the roof". It is a short step t introducing, "Beautiful World, Polluted World" - her theme for music-making with Year 3 this term.

Large, glossy pictures of a variety of landscapes stimulated discussion, and words such as "natural", "wonderful" and "beautiful" emerge to describe the feelings the pictures evoked. Gillian Fitzpatrick then invites the children to think about the sort of sounds that would evoke similar feelings. Various instruments were tried and their effect discussed. This becomes a rich source of descriptive vocabulary and musical concepts: tuned and untuned instruments; the effect of high and low notes; the difference between the effect of high and low notes; the difference between drone (rhythmic tapping on one note), ostinato (a simple two-note tune) and free-wheeling improvisation; plus the timbre of the different instruments. With everyone having an instrument to play, and a clearly defined purpose, a short piece of music, Beautiful World, is developed with impressive ease and assurance.

The next lesson starts with a picture of two brightly dressed people in a snowy, mountainous landscape and elicits ideas about what people would need to live in such an area: keeping warm leads to houses, food, clothes, shops, cars, roads. Linking with a previous science lesson, the "waste" from all this activity is recalled, and a number of voices soon say the word "pollution". Music for a polluted world includes harsh sounds from a large and raucous percussion section.

Multitracking enables the children to "hear" their polluted world taking over and destroying their beautiful world and, in preparation for next week, they are asked to think about: "How could we change things, both musically and in our daily lives?" Further ideas and schools' published case studies on teaching sustainability through a number of subjects, including music and drama, can be obtained from WWF Education Department, Panda House, Weyside Park, Godalming, Surrey GU7 1XR. Tel: 0800 365 121. Web: www.wwf.learning.co.uk

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