Call and Response: Ella Jenkins

“To serve children well, you have to like them and feel they have something to share. You respect them. You respect their thoughts and aspirations, and their accomplishments.”
- Ella Jenkins

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When I was a new music educator, figuring out how to engage with my students, I knew I didn’t want to be there to entertain - that’s more appropriate for rock concerts and backyard barbecues. In the classroom, I wanted to encourage meaningful dialogue, for music to interweave with the other classroom conversations. Inspired by the 100 Languages of Children that are the center of the Reggio Emilia pedagogy, I knew I wanted to interact with children on an equal level, and find some common ground where everyone felt safe and heard. In addition to many folk songs which I already knew, I went searching for more songs that felt interesting and authentic - songs which I could joyfully present to the class as an opportunity for group singing and collaboration. I specifically wanted to bring songs into the classroom which encouraged us to listen to each other. I also wanted to incorporate songs from around the world.

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Imagine my delight at discovering the powerful and far-reaching song collection of Ella Jenkins. Well-known as the "First Lady of Children's Music," Jenkins's album, “Call And Response” contains the most authentic voice and simple approach to music education I have ever heard. Now in her 90’s, Ella Jenkins  remains the gold standard for many educators and children’s performers. She explains the inspiration for "Call and Response" this way:

"Well, you know, I was born in St. Louis, Missouri, but I grew up in Chicago, Illinois, and we had a wonderful theater called the Regal Theater, and I used to go there because that's where you had live entertainment. And one of the people that intrigued me a great deal - and then that's where I got some of these ideas - was a man called Cab Calloway. When he said, hi-dee, hi-dee, hi-dee, hi, then you said back, ho-de, ho-de, ho-de. And so I started doing this not only with his songs, I thought I would make up a few songs myself. And the children can learn very easily by imitating, following the leader, and then pretty soon be able to teach it themselves."

Her songs - both the originals and the world folk songs she interprets - are elegant and easy to follow. Her manner of speaking is precise, relaxed, and inviting. Listen to "Toom-Bah-Ee-Lero." Pay attention not only to how the song goes, but how she speaks to the children.

Start the year with call and response songs. We hear our voices as part of a chorus, as part of a community. It’s terrific foundation for collaborative learning. Everyone is listening, and everyone makes a contribution. Don't want to sing? Clap, tap, or sway. We need dancers and drummers too....

I also encourage my students to step into the role of leader. Students love to lead, follow and learn from each other. They can change the song to match their voice and their ideas. Listen to other Ella Jenkins recordings like “No More Pie,” “Jambo” and “Who Fed The Chickens?” (and so many more) for more examples of how call and response can work with your children. These can be infinitely modified for different lessons, interests and occasions.

For thousands of years, in good times and bad, people have celebrated togetherness through song. Let's share that spirit with our children and encourage them to raise their voices!

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Dan Costello is a professional musician, music educator and Children's Yoga Instructor specializing in early and elementary education. A music teacher for ten years, Dan has developed music education curriculum which combines movement-based activities, joyful sing-alongs, and songwriting. Dan plays piano, guitar, clarinet, drums, ukulele, and just about anything he can find. He plays in bands and writes songs for children and adults. His favorite songs are the ones we sing together.


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