Project-Based Learning and Cross-Curricular Units for the Middle School Orchestra

Making Connections

Project-Based Learning and Cross-Curricular Units for the Middle School Orchestra

By NAfME Member Arlene Bennett


Every piece of music is rich with connections to history, culture, literature and other subjects that are a part of our students’ curriculum and to the culture beyond their daily lives. I often found myself wishing that all of my orchestra class periods were ninety minutes long instead of forty-five minutes. How could I teach playing skills and prepare them for concerts and still fulfill my desire to immerse my students in the deeper meanings of the music they are playing and how it connects to other areas of the school curriculum?

Without doubling the length of class, and without disruption to achieving their performance goals, I found a way make these connections and enrich the students understanding of their music. I decided to develop either a single project or a cross-curricular unit to highlight at least one connected area of study. Student-centered, cross-curricular units and projects assist students in seeing the relationships between music and history, literature and math. The projects give students an opportunity to develop and display their creativity.


Designing Your Projects

The development and implementation of projects and units is not very difficult. Students in my classes worked on these non-performance tasks each Friday afternoon. Being middle school students, they loved working in groups or pairs. It was a welcome activity after playing and rehearsing the four previous days.

To begin the process of developing your projects, look at one or two pieces that you have already programmed for your concert. What connections can you make? Is there something interesting historically? Can it relate to literature? Is there anything in the music that you would like your students to know more about (for example; form, timbre, dynamics, expressive qualities)?

I’d like to share one or two projects that I have done in the past that were very popular with the students.


Boys using laptop in library
Creatas Images/Creatas/Thinkstock


Connecting to History and Culture

I programmed the piece “Follow the Drinking Gourd” (arranged by Carrie Lane Gruselle, Alfred Publishing) for my concert one year. I felt that it was important to know the history behind the piece, the words to the song, and exactly what they meant. I read them the children’s book “Follow the Drinking Gourd” by Jeanette Winter and gave them notes about the story. We discussed how the song was actually code to assist the slaves in escaping to freedom.

After discussing the code words and analyzing the song, the students were given the task of composing lyrics of their own that tell a story or give instructions through code words. If they chose to, they could add a simple tune to their lyrics. Some ideas for topics included:

  • A daily routine
  • An event in their life
  • Tell a friend where to meet and how to get there
  • Tell their parents what they want for dinner – where they want to eat and at what time
  • Tell a brother or sister that you hid something – what it is and where it was hidden


The students were to compose a minimum of two verses and a chorus using code words, and then write out a list of their code words or a translation and what their song was trying to convey.

I was quite impressed with the creativity the students displayed. Students presented songs that included catching fireflies, being a soloist, a typical school day, Santa bringing gifts, and even meeting their new step-father. The students were not only learning about the history of slavery and their culture, but also participated in an English/Language Arts project.


Connecting to English Language Arts

My students produced their own ballads when we were playing “Loch Lomond” (arranged by Carrie Lane Gruselle, Alfred Publishing)

We started with research into the meaning of the words to the famous Scottish ballad. We examined another Scottish ballad, Annie Laurie, as well as more contemporary ballads. One focus of studying these ballads was to find out what the themes or topics of ballads are. Another focus was rhyme schemes. After the students felt comfortable with the elements of topics and rhyme schemes, they were asked to work in pairs to write a ballad of their own. The format of the assignment looked like this:


Ballad Writing Assignment

With a partner, you will write a ballad.


  1. The ballad must contain three or more verses and one chorus. The chorus is sung between each of the verses.
  2. The ballad must contain a theme of love, tragedy, the supernatural, a hero, or history.
  3. Verses to the ballad must be in the abcb rhyming format. The 2nd and 4th lines rhyme. The chorus does not have to rhyme.
  4. Verses and the chorus MUST follow the correct rhythmic rhyme scheme.

Verses must have the following rhythmic stresses:

            Line A  4 stresses

            Line B  3 stresses

            Line C  4 stresses

            Line B  3 stresses (must rhyme with 2nd line B)


The chorus or refrain must have the following rhythmic stresses:

            Line 1  4 stresses

            Line 2 4 stresses

            Line 3 4 stresses

            Line 4 4 stresses       


  1. Ballads must be typed. You are encouraged to use spellcheck.
  2. All students must participate and contribute to the writing of the ballad.



Three or more verses composed        20 points

One chorus composed                          20 points

Rhyme scheme is correct                      20 points

Ballad follows rhythmic stresses         20 points

Actively participated in the project     20 points

Presentation                                          15 points

Typed in requested format                  10 points


Total                                                           125 points


Once again I was truly surprised by their creativity (and even a little craziness)! This little ditty was written by two of my cellists:


Crazy Bride

Verse 1

Finally, it’s here, the day is here

I’m the bride to be

At first my groom denied the marriage

But I have a plan you see



Here comes the demented bride

People stare as she twitches her eye

No one knows what she has planned

But if you stay, you will see


Verse 2

I have a few tricks up my sleeve

My plan is in the cake

I have to keep my groom for me

It’s only for his sake


(Repeat Chorus)


Verse 3

Oh! It’s time to cut the cake

I hope the bomb is fine

BOOM! It’s over! My plan has worked

My love is finally mine


Since speech is inherently musical, it was a very logical next step to have the students notate the rhythm of their ballads. Students were asked to choose either common time or six-eight meter and to notate the rhythms that seemed to flow naturally from the words. “The Crazy Bride” became this rhythm piece:


June 13 - Crazy Bride


Though the cross-curricular portion was focused on English/Language Arts, the students also created a rhythm composition.


Endless Possibilities

The ideas for cross-curricular units are plentiful. From nearly any piece of music, one can find connections to other areas of study. By doing so, and through interactive and fun projects, you are making the music more relevant to your students. You are giving them an opportunity to creatively display their knowledge as opposed to paper and pencil assessments.

I will be presenting a session on making these and more connections at the 2016 NAFME National Conference in Dallas, Texas. If you are attending, please have in mind a piece you may be programming soon and let’s brainstorm a cross-curricular unit!


About the author:

June 13 - Arlene Bennett bio photo

NAfME member Arlene Bennett is a 32-year veteran string teacher in the Monongalia County Schools, Morgantown, WV. Since 1983, she has grown a program of 15 students to over 200.

In the past, she has served as president of WVSTA, WVODA, as a clinician and a guest conductor. In 2008, she was named WVSTA Classroom Teacher of the Year.

She has worked as a curriculum consultant for the West Virginia Symphony Orchestra, developing cross curricular units to correlate with the WVSO’s Young People’s Concerts.

Mrs. Bennett holds both a Bachelor’s degree and Master’s degree in Music Education from West Virginia University.


Arlene Bennett presented on her topic “Making Connections: Project-Based Learning and Cross Curricular Units for Middle School Orchestra” at the 2016 NAfME National Conference. Register today for the 2018 NAfME National Conference



Did this blog spur new ideas for your music program? Share them on Amplify! Interested in reprinting this article? Please review the reprint guidelines.

The National Association for Music Education (NAfME) provides a number of forums for the sharing of information and opinion, including blogs and postings on our website, articles and columns in our magazines and journals, and postings to our Amplify member portal. Unless specifically noted, the views expressed in these media do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Association, its officers, or its employees.

Brendan McAloon, Marketing and Events Coordinator, June 6, 2016. © National Association for Music Education (