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Spirituals are one of my favorite styles of music to teach. I sprinkle them throughout the whole year, but this year I am doing a more intentional spiritual unit with my fourth and fifth grade music students. We will be doing some of my favorite spirituals for elementary music. Today, I’m sharing them with you!
Spirituals are songs that originated in the US. They began as worship songs sung by slaves, and they are still popular today. They
are also precursors to other styles of music, such as blues and gospel.
All of these spirituals are featured in my Spiritual Google Slides Lesson on Teachers Pay Teachers. You do not need it in order to do each of these pieces, but it does give some info, and include lessons, lyrics sheets, sheet music, videos, activities and ideas for teaching them.
Peace Like a River
I may have started this list with my favorite one.
Peace Like a River is a song that I learned in Children’s Church a long time ago, and I often use it with my fourth and fifth graders, or as a warm up with my choir.
We add the following actions:
- Peace: Peace sign
- River: Wave hands like a river
- Soul: Touch your shoe (like your sole)
- Joy: Fingers to the side of your face + smile
- Fountain: Make a fountain pose
- Love: Cross hands across your chest
- Ocean: Hands spread out wide
The fun part comes next. We do each of these verses, and then we put them all together for, “I’ve got peace, joy, love like a river, fountain, ocean.”
Then you do it all again– faster.
And faster. Until they give up.
It’s so silly and so much fun.
This Train is Bound for Glory
This Train is Bound for Glory is a really good piece. I like to use this with my younger students. We make a train and walk to the steady beat around the room. I usually lead the train so that I can move in and out and around in a crazy pattern.
I like to use a recording that has an accelerando to make it even more fun.
With the older students, I will teach them the chorus, and then we will use rhythm sticks to keep the beat and feel that accelerando.
Also read: 10 Favorite Books for Black History Month
Bring me a Little Water, Sylvie
This one is new to me this year, but I am very excited about it because it features…. Body percussion! Instead of trying to explain the body percussion, I’m just going to put a video here so that you can watch it.
Swing Low, Sweet Chariot
Swing Low, Sweet Chariot is one of my favorite spirituals for elementary music, but to be honest, I don’t have any creative ideas that go along with it. We just learn the chorus and look at the dotted notes– it has both dotted half notes and dotted quarter notes. It also has syncopa (eighth-quarter-eighth). This means I can use it with fourth grade to teach dotted quarter notes and with fifth grade to work on syncopa.
Despite not having creative ideas, this song is so good, and your kids will love it.
You can also use it with the partner song All Night All Day, which you can check out here.
Follow the Drinking Gourd
If Peace Like a River is my favorite song, then Follow the Drinking Gourd is my second favorite.
Follow the Drinking Gourd is a song that was taught to the slaves to teach them about the Underground Railroad. It has many different coded messages in it so that they could sing the song and other people wouldn’t know what they meant.
A few of the secret codes:
- Drinking gourd = Little Dipper (as in follow the North Star!)
- First quail calls = in the Spring, when it is safe to travel
- Left foot, peg foot = a symbol that was often inscribed to show the path
There’s a lot more, but these are the three that we typically focus on with my kiddos.
I love to use it with this book. It tells a the story behind the song to help the kids understand it! I use this lesson with my second graders most years.
He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands
He’s Got the Whole World in His Hand is another spiritual for elementary music that I use with second grade. We use it for movement and to practice half notes.
As for movements, we just go with hand gestures that go along with the words.
- World: Move hands in an arc
- Hands: Hold out hands like you’re holding water in them
- Little bitty babies: Rock a baby back and forth
- You and me brother: Point to yourself, then someone in the room
- Sun and moon: Make hands in a circle
- Wind and rain: Move hands back and forth for wind and up and down for rain
- Mountains and rivers: Hands up in a point, then wave hand like a river
After we learn the song, I’ll ask the kids to come up with our own verses, which makes it extra fun and makes it last even longer.
Where are my choir kids at? If you’ve never heard Moses Hogan’s Elijah Rock, you’re missing out.
I teach the kids the simple melody, and then we listen to Moses Hogan’s version. We talk about what he did to change it, how it sounds different than the simple melody, and what they think about it.
I’ve always loved this piece (I’ve sung it in choirs two different times). I took my fifth grade choir to see a college choir a few years ago, and the choir sang Moses Hogan’s Elijah Rock. I looked over, and all of my students were in the audience with their mouths hanging open. They said, “That was amazing!”
Joshua Fit Battle of Jericho
The Battle of Jericho is one of my favorite spirituals for elementary music. Then I saw the way that Katie Wonderly did it on her Instagram, and now I’m obsessed.
Basically, while singing the verse, one student pulls a piece out of a Jenga tower. Then they pass the piece to the steady beat around the circle during the chorus. Whoever the piece lands on takes the next piece out.
Um… Spirituals and Jenga? What’s better than that?!
We’re currently teaching online, so I won’t be able to do this one, but I look forward to using it on a normal year.
Lift Every Voice and Sing
I figured that we should end with what is probably the most important spiritual for elementary music– or for people in general.
Lift Every Voice is commonly known as the Black National Anthem. It is a spiritual popular in the 1960s that talks about overcoming adversity and achieving liberty and freedom. Boy, do those themes still feel relevant today.
I teach Lift Every Voice to my fourth graders, and we use this book. I would highly recommend it. It tells the story of the song being passed from generation to generation, and it includes bits of the song in the book.
So those are some of my favorite spirituals for elementary music! I always feel weird doing these round up posts, because I have SO MANY things I’d like to include, but I have to stop somewhere.
Don’t forget to grab the Google Slides Spirituals Lesson! It includes all of these song, plus a few extras. Each song has the lyric sheets, sheet music, an embedded YouTube video with the song, and at least one activity that goes along with the song. That could be answering questions, learning the movements, looking at instruments, watching read alouds, creative extensions, and more!
What’s your favorite spiritual for elementary music? Let us know on Instagram, and tag me @beccasmusicroom.