Note: This lesson is one of a group of lessons created to teach about the Transcontinental Railroad through the arts. Titles of the lessons can be found in the additional resources section below.
Activities one and two are stand-alone activities that may be done in any order. Allow additional time for the “Applying to Literature” section of activity one and any variations on the activities if you choose to expand the lessons.
Show the illustrations as you read the book Iron Horses by Verla Kay. Read this metered text to a steady beat. Students keep a steady beat by quietly patting, finger-clapping, or tapping the steady beat as the words are read aloud. You may choose to occasionally stop and discuss the text, define unfamiliar words, help students make inferences about the content, and review facts about the Transcontinental Railroad. Challenge the students to play the beat all together, without speeding up or slowing down as you read.
If you do not have access to the book, read just the following excerpt:
Hot steam hissing,
End of tracks.
“End of tracks” refers to the fact that even though there were railroads throughout the eastern part of the nation, they ended at the Mississippi River. Before the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad, getting to the western part of the continent meant a long journey traveling on foot or by stagecoach or wagon, or sailing on a ship around South America.
Students explore various ways to express the text through sound by using simple classroom instruments, found sounds, body percussion, or vocalizations. Found sounds are created using everyday objects. Some examples include tapping a pencil on a desk, dropping a book on the floor, scraping a chair across the floor, and crumpling a piece of paper. Body percussion includes snapping fingers, clapping hands, thumping chest, patting legs, and stomping feet.
Encourage the class to find many ways to express the sound of “piercing whistles.” Have each student choose his or her favorite way and perform it to the teacher’s continuous, steady eight-count beat played with sticks, a drum, clapping, etc. Students may choose to whistle for four beats and be silent for the other four beats, or whistle every two beats, or do some other variation.
Have students imagine the sound of “shrieking wheels” on a train and find a way to express the sound using instruments, found sounds, body percussion, or vocalization. Students perform the sound to the teacher’s continuous eight-count beat.
Continue to have students interpret each phrase of text by making sounds for “hot steam hissing, “high-pitched squeals,” and “huffing puffing, smoking stacks.” Enjoy exploring many sounds and rhythms.
Students who have not had a lot of practice performing sounds to a steady beat may need the teacher to model examples and ideas of ways to play sounds to a steady beat—how long to play each sound, how often, and when to not make sound within the eight beats.
Divide the class into five groups and assign each group a sound: (1) piercing whistles, (2) shrieking wheels, (3) hot steam hissing, (4) high-pitched squeals, and (5) huffing, puffing, smoking stacks.
Each group will collaboratively determine how to make their assigned group sound and when they will play during the eight beats. Encourage students to make their group’s sound different than the other groups.
Some students may benefit from making a chart showing when to play and when to be silent. The students who created the chart below decided to shade in the boxes to show when to play, or use the symbol | to show how many sounds to make per beat.
Use this example for students to practice layering rhythms for a soundscape before creating their own.
Have each group practice repeating their sounds to a steady eight-count beat. When groups are ready, have one group start their sound and continue as each subsequent group joins in every eight beats. Students continue playing all the rhythms at the same time to the same steady beat. Challenge students to continue their train rhythms for 16 counts, 32 counts, and 64 counts without changing tempo or “getting off track.”
This video clip shows the first time this fourth-grade class practiced layering the parts as shown on the chart above. They began with huffing and puffing, then hot steam hissing, piercing whistles, shrieking wheels, and finally high-pitched squeals. They used only vocalization, instead of instruments.
The rhythm layering video can be found here.
Teacher: Do our combined rhythms sound like a train? What imagery do the combined rhythms convey? Is there a sound we could change to something different? Is there a sound you would like to add? Is there something we need to improve? Do you want to change the rhythm of your group’s sound?
Make changes to the chart and the soundscape according to students’ suggestions and ideas; then repeat the soundscape. Other lines from the book that you may want to reflect in your class soundscape include the following: “thumping, bumping,” “ties and rails,” “clanging, banging,” and “spikes and nails.”
Trains start by moving very slowly until they gradually pick up speed. When it is time to stop, they slow down little by little. Steam engines typically come to a stop with a big blast of steam. Help students organize a way to start their rhythms together slowly, continue at tempo for a number of set beats, then slow down until they all end together in a hiss of steam.
Define and use some of these common musical terms: accelerando (gradually getting faster), andante (steady walking speed, about 80 to 100 beats per minute), allegro (quickly, about 120 to 160 beats per minute), ritardando (gradually slower), piano (quietly), mezzo forte (medium loud), forte (loud), crescendo (gradually getting louder), decrescendo (gradually getting softer).
Record and evaluate the soundscape performance according to criteria set by the teacher and/or the class.
Review the book Iron Horses and choose excerpts from the book that are most relevant to the students. Assigning students to choose the most important lines of text is a valuable language-arts activity.
Students perform their railroad rhythms to the same steady beat as the chosen text. The text may be read aloud by the teacher or by student readers who have practiced saying their parts to a steady beat. Adjust dynamics and performance ideas as needed so readers may be heard above the noise of the railroad rhythms.
One performance idea would be to begin with students performing the railroad rhythms, and then have students quietly play or show the steady beat through movement as the text is read. You may want different groups or individuals to read parts of the text. After the text is read, students resume performing the railroad rhythms at the same steady beat. End with a hiss of steam.
Students research the plants, animals, and landforms of the various ecosystems affected by the Transcontinental Railroad. Consider what the living things and environment would have sounded like in these diverse ecosystems and land areas before the Transcontinental Railroad was built across them. Have students create soundscapes reflecting the sounds they would have heard in each ecosystem before the advent of the railroad. Compare and contrast these soundscapes with the Iron Horses soundscape.
Students should have prior knowledge of the history of the Transcontinental Railroad. Some helpful resources are listed under “Additional Resources.”
On the board make a list of words relating to the Transcontinental Railroad. List them in columns by the number of syllables. An example is shown below.
Ask for four volunteers to each tell his or her favorite word from the list. Show how to write each word, divided into syllables, onto a corresponding “Railroad Rhythm” word card (1, 2, 3, 4) . Put the cards into a sequence, and have all students practice saying and playing the rhythm of the words to a steady beat. Model various examples until students are able to create and play their own cards independently.
Students get in small groups and make a train of cards using their favorite words from the list and four of the “Railroad Rhythm” word cards. Write each word on a card using one syllable per blank space. Students practice playing and saying their entire train to a steady beat using simple instruments or body percussion. They may want to rearrange their cards to find the most enjoyable and interesting rhythm.
Consider prosody. Some words such as “explosion” or “American” are not accented on the first syllable. Students who need to feel an accented first beat to stay together may find these words difficult to play.
Each group places their word-train cards in a continuous “track” with the other group’s cards. Each group stands in front of their section of the track and plays their rhythm as the rest of the class or the teacher keeps a quiet, steady beat. As soon as one group finishes the last beat of their train rhythm, the following group begins their train rhythm on the next beat.
This lesson can be used to meet standards in many grades and subject areas. We will highlight one grade’s standards to give an example of application.
Image 1: Jennifer Purdy.
Image 2: Iron Horses Image 5, www.alibris.com
Image 3 and video clip: Pieter Lingen.
Images 4-5: Jennifer Purdy.
Image 6: Pieter Lingen.
Image 7-8: Jennifer Purdy.