Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Sound It Out!

How often have you told your students to “Sound It Out”?

When Ms. Gottchalk tells her students to "sound it out" she is not encouraging students to use sound to SPELL the words of their story correctly, but instead is encouraging students to tell a story using only sounds. Students can either search for sounds online or create their own. Either way the activity develops several literacy skills.

They have discovered to search the web for sound. The student friendly website allows users to search a growing database of sounds collected from the Internet. The folks from from Comparisonics comb the Internet for sound effects (excluding songs and speech) Not only does the search engine return sound clips that match using keyword descriptions, but they also allow you to do a second search finding “like” sounds using the Comparisonics “sound search” algorithm.

Ms. Gottchalk’s students quickly refine their search skills and literary skills as they seek the perfect sounds. When the word “walk” returns no sounds, they try “footsteps” and get a variety of options. Refining their search skills also helps them shape their writing to include stronger and more varied vocabulary. The students then use Audacity, a free open source audio editting program, to create their soundscape stories.

Later that year, Mr. Podd, used a similar technique to have fourth graders collaborate to write a group story. The story, ”A Boy Named Bob” was constructed by each student adding the next phrase or sentence. The students each recorded their section as a new Audacity track, along with a sound effect they created or discovered on The elements of writing became part of the conversation as the story progressed. Watching the sound waves and other parameters as they used Audacity to mix their story offered additional opportunity to integrate science concepts. Later in the week, students were working together to write the lyrics to a 12 bar blues, comparing the elements of songwriting to the elements of writing.

In the classroom next door, Mr. Allen’s students are using SCRATCH to tell their stories. Scratch, a free program, developed by the Lifelong Kindergarten group at the MIT Media Lab, is a user friendly tool that can be used to write interactive stories, by creating characters (sprites) that can change costumes while they move on a stage with a variety of backgrounds. Scratch allows students to easily record or import sounds to help tell their story. Some students are using some of the advanced features of Scratch to turn their story into a computer game.

Down the hall, Mr. Galle’s younger students are using Windows free Photostory program and pictures he pre-selected using Flickr and Google’s Creative Commons search to create their stories. The students are getting ready to add sound, but first they brainstorm adjectives that describe the type of sound that matches their story. . They start using Photostory’s built in “create music” feature which allows even non-musicians to create musical soundscapes. Later in the week they expand their ability to use precise and powerful adjectives to communicate as they work with a guest musician who plays music based on their descriptors to help tell their story. Photostory’s built in narration recorder makes it easy for the young students to capture their new “film score”. The guest musician talks about film scoring and quotes George Lucas explaining that "Sound is 50% of the motion picture experience."

Later in the year, some students will have a chance to create their own compositions during music class. Ms. Jarvis’s students learn music composition using Sibelius Music software. Many participate in the Vermont Midi Project, which offers students a password protected online space to collaborate with real music composers. The Vermont Midi Project’s recent collaboration with the Young Writers project models yet another way to integrate sound with writing. Their recent 6 x 6 x 6 project yielded six 1 minute compositions to accompany 6 six word stories created by young writers using collaborative online environments.

A new online music composition environment, called Noteflight, promises to be an exciting collaborative tool students can use to create original music composition and save for a variety of multimedia uses. The free version of Noteflight can be used by anyone with Internet access to collaborate while composing music.

Noteflight has offers Noteflight Learning Edition, an online subscription program for schools. Individual teacher accounts allow up to 750 student accounts and do not require student e-mail addresses making this a perfect solution for elementary and middle level classrooms. This course management system integrates seemlessly with the Noteflight online notation program.

Programs like Garageband by Apple or MixCraft by Acoustica (for PC) provide additional tools for using digital music loops to create soundscapes. These programs are very popular and engaging, even for students without music notation skills.

Books like MixCraft for the Classroom available through can help even teachers without music background to use Gardner's multiple intelligences principles to engage students in all subject areas using today’s new technology tools.

If your school doesn’t have access to these tools, students can search for free Creative Commons music loops online and use programs like Garageband or Audacity to remix their own soundscapes. Sites like has free and fee based music loops that students can download without login. Sites like RoyaltyFreeMusic offer some free sounds and loops to students with a classroom login. What free music options have you discovered?

The sound of creativity, collaboration, and fun coming from any classroom I’ve seen use today’s sound technology tools has convinced me that these tools are often an untapped resource to engage students across all curriculum areas.

Even before digital audio, the sound effects methods developed to accompany Ancient Greek theatre or the pianist or organist that accompanied talking films were integral parts of the storytelling process. And with today's technology, integrating sound into story has become an art mastered by musicians and sound designers and today's 21st century learner. Won’t you share creative ways you have made sound part of your classroom experience?