Jorge Valenzuela
Students code a dance routine.

Many students love music and dance, and research indicates that learning through music and structured movement is good educational practice. Whether you teach coding or another discipline, you can use your students' love of song and dance to deepen their enjoyment of the learning experience. Here are three strategies for bringing music and dance to your classroom.

1. Create a class playlist

When executed effectively, music at the right time can liven any content lesson. Many of our students are already listening to music by their favorite artists and have a system for curating and sharing their playlists electronically with peers. Digital platforms like Spotify and Apple make sharing music simple, quick and inexpensive — and teachers can easily get in on this practice by creating a class playlist.

To start, I recommend compiling your playlist by theme, appropriateness to your educational setting and by topic — such as a historical figure or time period. If you are unsure how to create or organize your music list, your digital music platform has a plethora of curated playlists at your fingertips that are already organized into the categories mentioned above.

Or better yet, ask your students to help create a playlist related to the content covered in class. By allowing students to connect what they are learning with music is a great way to address the Empowered Learner standard within the ISTE Standards for Students, which expects students to leverage technology to take an active role in demonstrating competency in their learning goals.  

When I teach kids how to become computational thinkers and coders in my computer science class, I incorporate their favorite songs and dances in my teaching space. For example, I use videos with catchy tunes to hook students during my mini-lessons and guided work time.

Additionally, I play the class playlist during work time activities, and I make it standard practice to gauge if singing along distracts from learning and their capacity for heavy mental lifting. On those days, I resort to playlists containing music without words, such as jazz, classical or other instrumental tracks.

2. Use lyrics to enrich a lesson

When planning to incorporate music into a specific lesson or unit, the key is to enhance your content standards by making curricular connections and setting the tone and mood. Educators do not have to be experts in music to facilitate the intended learning.

For making connections across both the content and specialty areas, teachers can play music in the background or use lyrics to enrich a lesson. Some examples  include:

  • Using songs to teach grammar and spelling rules, such as "i before e" and the use of irregular and phrasal verbs. I Before E Except After C by Charlie Brown and Linus from the Peanuts kids is good resource.
  • Helping to teach essential vocabulary, idioms, pronunciation, intonation and reading comprehension. Songs for Teaching provides an extensive curation of music for helping teach these concepts through songs.
  • Providing inspiration to do a particular task or project.
  • Livening the mood when students are transitioning, introducing themselves or involved in discussions during lessons.
  • Learning to count with math songs. Here are 10 top counting songs compiled by the Super Simple Songs YouTube channel.
  • Reviewing material.
  • Memorizing the names of classmates, places, the ABCs, math rules and formulas, scientific properties, etc. Pam Barnhill provides excellent tips for helping students memorize through songs on her blog.
  • Teaching listening skills for both transcription and pulling key details.
  • Introducing new topics or themes, such as holidays, emotions, colors, shapes and the human condition (social justice, poverty, distribution of wealth, etc.). Here is a handy curation of 150+ Free Kids Songs organized by educational themes.

3. Have a classroom dance party

Although a dance party is not the prerequisite for making logical curricular connections, it sure is fun for both you and your students! Like music, dances have countable steps and with good planning, you can incorporate popular dances into your lessons to enhance their understanding of new concepts and practices.

Did you know there is a list of fad dances educators should know for helping us connect with learners, namely the dab, the floss and the shoot? Moreover, there are also the ever-popular dances like the cupid shuffle, the cha-cha slide and the electric slide, to name a few.

Code.org recently introduced the Dance Party code tutorial, which quickly became a class favorite for us as it capitalized on the students' love of some popular dance steps, such as the body roll, the dab, the high clap, the floss, the star and this or that.

By tapping into their prior experiences in the computational thinking elements of pattern recognition and algorithmic design, I was able to help students make connections to how events and measures are used in music. I also instructed them to choregraph and execute some of the dance steps as a scaffold for coding and to help them understand how similar logical instructions are executed in algorithms found in computer programs.

Here are some strategies for integrating the arts into various subject areas:

  • Correlate the choreographic process with the steps of either engineering design, the scientific method, design thinking, the essay writing process, the creation of timelines or the orders of operation. 
  • Have students write a dance choreography using the steps in the choreographic process. This can also be explained and performed.
  • Have students watch a dance video and express their feelings in a writing assignment.
  • Have student use dance to simulate the life cycle of various animals and also the photosynthesis process.
  • Teach students to count and recall the steps in their favorite dances. Use it as a warm-up and for motivation when students need breaks or pick-me-ups.

Don’t be afraid to infuse arts in academics

Regardless of the subject you teach, it's critical to help students construct and connect learning in ways that are fun, engaging and most relevant to them. I believe music and dance afford us this opportunity, and both of these arts present the opportunity to scaffold many concepts and practices in many classrooms.

Looking to deepen your teaching practice? Explore the book Stretch Yourself.


Jorge Valenzuela is an award-winning educational coach, author, education advocate and adjunct professor at Old Dominion University. He is the lead coach for Lifelong Learning Defined, a national faculty of PBLWorks and a member of the Lead Educators Team for littleBits. Jorge was appointed by Virginia’s governor to serve on the STEM Education Commission for the 2019-20 school year Connect with him on Twitter and Instagram @JorgeDoesPBL to continue the conversation.