The Masters and the Classics

“Get your journals ready,” I tell my 6th grade students every morning. From 8:00 to 8:10 a.m. most school days, I have a short piece of classical music on queue in the CD player, along with a work of art from one of the masters displayed on the music stand at the front on the classroom.

I feel that this beginning part of our day is perhaps the most important thing I do. I had to work hard to squeeze it in, because if you work for a school, you know that your schedule is very tight with all the other subject requirements and content you are obliged to cover in a given year. But the beauty this brings to my classroom is worth every bit of effort. Music feeds the soul, and art, well, a good long look at a masterpiece could be the equivalent of reading a 300 page classic novel.

I have to make clear that this 10-15 minute art/music journal time is meant to be a broad overview to simply expose kids to the greatest works of art and music of all time. I figure that by the end of the school year, they will have been introduced to more masterpieces than most adults ever will be familiar with.

On the whiteboard, there is a section on the left side reserved for the daily journal questions. In bold letters I write “Look” with little eyeballs in the o’s, followed by the title of the painting and the journal question. Below this I draw an ear icon next to the word “Listen,” along with the title of the musical piece and a query. Writing prompts help them to get started and stir up ideas. Here are a few examples of how it works:

Day 1:

LOOK: The Dancing Couple, by Jan Steen, 1663.

Journal Question: Jan Steen loved to paint life “as it is,” and used painting as storytelling. What details of this painting tell you that Steen captured daily life with all its messiness?
The Dancing Couple, by Jan Steen

(My students noticed broken eggshells strewn on the floor, a stray spoon, turned over containers, and a general chaotic, merry feeling.)

LISTEN: Art of the Fugue, BWV 1080, by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750), from Classical Kids, Mr. Bach Comes to Call.

Journal Question: A fugue is when you have have more than one musical line going on at once, and they all use the same theme. It’s called imitative counterpoint. Bach is the prime example of the fugue. Can you hear the themes?

(I will generally have the kids write in their own words what a fugue is for this journal entry, otherwise it would simply be a yes or no answer.)


Notice that the above painter and musician come from generally the same time period. I like pairing them like this. Even better is pairing the artist and the musician from the same country and time period, and aligning this with your history curriculum.

Day 2:

LOOK: Red Boats in Argenteuil, by Claude Monet, 1875

Journal Question: Pure black is rarely used by the impressionist painters. Monet would instead combine several colors to achieve the appearance of black: blues, greens and reds. What color are the shadows in this painting?

Argenteuil-(Red Boats)-Claude Money
LISTEN: Peter and the Wolf by Sergei Prokofiev, Introduction.

Journal Question: Write down each character and the musical instrument that corresponds to it. Which is your favorite?


One of my proudest moments came earlier this year, just after the Super Bowl, actually. During the Super Bowl, a cute Coke commercial was aired, the one with the insects in a meadow who steal away with the sleeping guy’s Coca Cola. The entire commercial is set to just one sound, with no voices: the music from Peter and the Wolf. It was Peter’s theme, the most recognized piece of the composition.

That Monday, I asked my kids if any of them watched the Super Bowl and noticed the Coke commercial. A few of them made me jump for joy – Yes! they chimed in–it was Peter and the Wolf! A few parents even noted to me how surprised they were when their children recognized the tune. This small incident highlighted for me why I do what I do.

Now, I’d like to share some resources that make this art/music series possible and mostly FREE. I don’t have a written program I follow at this point, but I hope to develop one to make this much easier for teachers to replicate, along with journal questions for each piece. For now, I gather materials as I go, and decide about a week ahead of time what to present, trying to align this with our history/social studies units. Here’s a short list to get you started.

1. National Gallery of Art. Most folks are unaware that the National Gallery of Art has a free lending program. This has been invaluable to me! So far, almost all of my art, with the exception of some books I own, has come from this fabulous program. Most teaching packets come with a teachers guide, a CD of images, slides, and large color study prints. I sign up online for the programs I want, NGA ships them right to me at no cost, and I’m responsible only for the cost of returning them media mail. Can’t beat this.

If you don’t have a slide projector, look for one. Or just use the large prints. If you are fortunate enough to have a projector for your computer, you certainly have an easy job! Some of my favorite teaching packets so far have been:

Painting in the Dutch Golden Age
Picturing France (1830-1900)

2. Your local public library. This has been the source of nearly all my classical music for kids. If you have a collection built up already, you’re in luck. The most difficult part of the music for me was coming up with journal questions. I loved the classical kids CDs that incorporated a story with the music, because this made the journaling so much easier for the kids. This way, my questions can also be about details from the composer’s life, which are typically included in these CDs, or questions about the storyline if it’s an opera or ballet. Here are my favorites:

Famous Composers, written by Darren Henley, read by Marin Alsop.

Vivaldi, Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Dvorak, and Shostakovich make up this delightful introduction to FAMOUS COMPOSERS, an Audie-nominated production filled with re-enactments, musical excerpts, and facts on the six composers. (from AudioFile)

More Famous Composers, written by Darren Henley, read by Marin Alsop.

This delightful production focuses on portraits of Handel, Haydn, Mendelssohn, Chopin, Rachmaninov, and contemporary artist Paul Williams. (from AudioFile)

Peter and the Wolf by Sergei Prokofiev, by Stephen Simon and narrated by Yadu.

Narrator Yadu sets up the classic story by introducing the characters and the individual musical themes that represent each one. His voice has an appealing storytelling quality but is not intrusive. The rich music itself, played by the London Philharmonic, directed by Stephen Simon, takes center stage. (from AudioFile)

The Story of Swan Lake, by Tchaikovsky, from Maestro Classics.

Featuring the London Philharmonic Orchestra with music conducted by Stephen Simon, and narrated by Yadu. Also includes a biography of Pyotr Tchaikovsky and a lesson about the music.

Classics for Kids

A fabulous website that you shouldn’t miss!! Podcasts, a musical dictionary for kids, pieces from all the famous composers at the click of a button, and online musical games are just a few of the outstanding features of this award-winning site.

I hope you’ve been encouraged today to devote some teaching time to the classics of art and music. Just a few minutes a day, with consistency, will achieve more than you can imagine. Some of you may have some other great resources to add to my short list – if so, let me know about them!

Music is a more potent instrument than any other for education. Plato

The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance. Aristotle

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12 Responses to The Masters and the Classics

  1. Jen says:

    I meant to add that I teach in a self-contained classroom, meaning that I teach all subjects to my students, unlike a lot of 6th grade classes in a middle school where the students have a different teacher for each subject. So, this lets me align my art/music program as I wish. The kids do have a band and choir teacher they go to, but that is for music performance and learning an instrument, not necessarily music appreciation, which is part of what I’m trying to accomplish.

  2. e-Mom says:

    Your sixth graders are a blessed bunch. How lucky they are to have you for a teacher! I didn’t get a lick of Art or Music History until college; a pity.

    These are fabulous paintings… a joy to see here.

  3. Mandi says:

    Fantastic Jen! I love this! We love the Classics for Kids site too.
    We are doing rotating studies of artists, composers, poets and hymn writers. I find a children’s biography at the library and we read it and then take a look at their work – it has been great – one of my kid’s favorite parts of the day. I love the journal idea and will definitely be incorporating it into our studies!
    We are studying Audubon right now, Bach will be next.( :

  4. Mrs darling says:

    I want you to be my teacher!

  5. holly says:

    I LOVE that you do this! I didn’t even know you did and I am on the other side of your wall! I can’t wait for Erica to have you. You are a wonderful teacher and example to your kids. Music and art DOES feed the soul! Can I come in and write a journal entry too?? I’m sure my first graders can manage themselves for a little while!


  6. Jen says:

    e-Mom, I never got a lot of music or art history either – a bit from my Mom and one high school art class that I loved. My students will appreciate me some day…probably not quite yet, though. :-)

    Mandi, I love what you’re doing. I know nothing about Audubon, I’ll have to study up!

    Mrs. Darling, and you have already taught me a ton, so it’s a great trade. :-)

    Holly, you made my day!! Come journal anytime.

  7. tipper says:

    What a wonderful thing you’re doing for your students!! Just so neat that you’re making sure there is time for this-and it goes to show you what can be learned in 10 to 15 minutes-just amazing!

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  9. MTheads says:

    What a wonderful way to start the day! As a homeschooler, I’d love to have been doing this everyday. You could write a guide on how homeschooling parents with little music/art knowledge could incorporate this activity into the school day.

  10. Pat says:

    This was great! I loved the writing prompts. I was a high school self contained teacher and we did journal writing at the beginning of class also. Many of my students really looked forward to it once they realized that I was consistent about making them do this. Thanks for sharing this though and spelling the process out for others teachers to model.

  11. Renae says:

    What a wonderful idea! Thanks for sharing all the nice resources.

    I tend to be so all-or-nothing. My intentions to do artist studies are seldom realized. I can do this! :D

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