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Make your lessons sing by adding music!

By Diana Fingal
June 18, 2014
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In an era when enrichment subjects like music and art are considered a luxury that many districts can ill afford, Bill Selak has found a way to have his cake and eat it too.

Selak, a former district music teacher at Covina-Valley Unified School District in Covina, California, has always made music an integral part of teaching core curricula. As a music teacher, he taught a four-week lesson that married core academic topics with song.

The first week, he had the 14 groups of students decide on topics and types of songs. The second week, they wrote the melodies. Next, they used GarageBand to develop the instrumentation. And finally, they wrote and recorded the lyrics.

In the span of a month, the fourth and fifth grade students had written and recorded tunes such as "The Water Cycle," "U.S. Presidents," "Pangaea" and "Rock Song." His second grade students wrote songs like "Never Eat Soggy Waffles," "She Can't Count Her Money" and "Welcome to Class Dojo."

It was an ambitious project, but not ambitious enough for some of Selak's students. "More than one student said, 'So we are going to make a music video, right?'"

And they did. Selak, who teaches Digital Video in the Classroom as well as other courses at two nearby universities (Azusa Pacific University and University of La Verne), walked his students through the process of video creation.

The 14 songs, collected on an album titled STEAM-Powered Songs, won the California Student Media Festival in the Elementary Fine Arts category in 2013. The songs and videos are available for free download on Selak's music website,, and his classroom site.

Selak, who will begin a job as director of technology at Hillbrook School in Los Gatos, California, in July, loves music, so teaching through song comes naturally to him. "A good teacher incorporates other subjects into lessons. A good music teacher also covers math, language arts, science and social studies," Selak explained. "Rather than simply talking about geography, explore where famous composers lived. Instead of passing out a worksheet on fractions, write a song that includes 16th notes and 8th notes."

That's the innovative thinking that landed Selak on California State Superintendent Tom Torlakson's Education Technology Task Force, which came up with recommendations for bringing digital age tools into the classrooms in 2012.

Using technology in the classroom is something Selak has experience in. He maintains a music podcast of students' performances, recordings and compositions. And he has recorded a series of video tutorials to asynchronously teach band students how to play their instruments and learn new pieces of music. All this content is available on as well as YouTube and SchoolTube.

Selak devotes time to these projects because he knows they make a difference.

"The arts are essential in our schools. Brain research shows that students who participate in the arts are more successful in every other subject," Selak said. "I did not get into education to help raise test scores at my school. I got into education to change lives. Incorporating arts into classrooms is a prerequisite for changing lives."

This is an updated version of an article that first appeared in the November 2013 issue of Learning & Leading with Technology.