Using Picture Books as a Tool for Creating a Culturally Inclusive Elementary Music Classroom

By Suzanne Hall

This article is reprinted from volume 34 issue 2 of General Music Today and with the permission of the National Association for Music Education ( As of October 1, 2021, General Music Today has become the Journal of General Music Education. 10.1177/1048371320961378

Promoting Inclusivity and Cultural Knowledge

The use of picture books in the elementary music classroom not only promotes imaginative play but also contributes to exposure and involvement in the dramatic arts. Picture books can also assist teachers and students in developing cultural knowledge and help promote inclusivity in a meaningful way within the classroom. The inclusion of ethnically diverse children’s literature, in tandem with music activities and experiences, can cultivate an environment where students see themselves. Mini-lessons presented in the article offer examples of music and literature activities that reflect the various cultures that make up today’s classroom.

The United States is a multicultural, multiracial society, and by 2060, “nearly one in five of the nation’s total population is projected to be foreign-born” (Colby & Ortman, 2014, p. 9). Educators from all subject areas are striving to create classroom environments where students feel valued for their authentic selves. Therefore, the implementation of culturally inclusive practices remains a high priority for teachers and teacher preparation programs (Liu, 2020). Nurturing a culturally inclusive classroom requires educators to recontextualize their teaching practices toward those that demonstrate a commitment to working with students of diverse backgrounds.

Culturally Relevant Research

There is extensive research about multiculturalism (Banks, 1999, 2002; Campbell, 2018), culturally relevant (Gay, 2002; Ladson-Billings, 1995), culturally responsive (Abril, 2013; Herrera et al., 2012; Pearson, 2015), and culturally sustaining (Paris, 2012) pedagogical practices. A joint facet among these practices is the necessity in developing a curriculum that reflects students’ cultural and racial identities. Music teachers are positioned well toward accomplishing this goal as music is present in every culture (Huron, 2001) and holds a significant connection to identity (Campbell, 2018; Kelly-McHale, 2013).

For years general music curricula have mainly been inundated with content from the European classical tradition (Abril, 2013), but as the topic of inclusion has become central to education discourse, efforts to expand the musical landscape to embrace music from other cultures are increasing (Campbell, 2018; Chen-Hafteck, 2007). Although there has been significant progress, “it is still common for many music teachers to teach from a single, Eurocentric point of reference, finding musical diversity too complicated or too irrelevant to implement” (Cain, 2015, p. 464).

While multicultural resources exist, research indicates that teachers are reluctant to use them due to the lack of firsthand experience with cultures not of their own (Cain, 2015; Kelly-McHale, 2013; Robinson, 1996). Conversely, Shaw (2015), who examined teachers’ pedagogical approach in an urban classroom, reported that successful teachers who taught diverse populations relied on their cultural “insiders” (p. 209). Cultural insiders, or “culture bearers,” (Campbell, 2004) are community members, parents, colleagues, or students with whom teachers work in partnerships for cultural exchange.

These insiders bring aspects of culture into the classroom through presentations, discussions, or performances to assist teachers in garnering the cultural knowledge and experiences needed to support their diverse students resulting in immeasurably rich moments of cross-cultural awareness and understanding. In addition to the inclusion of diverse repertoire and the support of culture bearers, children’s literature within music instruction can also aid teachers in creating an inclusive classroom.

Benefits of Using Children’s Literature

The use of children’s literature in the elementary classroom serves as a vital resource for teaching an array of topics, including those that are challenging and complex (Sigmon et al., 2016). In the music classroom, children’s literature assists in the understanding of concepts and skills (Colwell, 2013), like structure, expression (genre), and harmony (Gauthier, 2005) as well as making connections to history and culture (Colwell, 2013). They also offer a unique opportunity to immerse students in a multisensory experience using sound, graphics, and text. Picture books use text and illustrations concurrently to tell a story (Villarreal et al., 2015). Prater et al. (2006) describe this unique relationship when stating, “the skillful blend of these features allows authors to connect with readers in ways that are exciting and new or that expand readers’ personal perspectives” (p. 15).

Incorporating culturally diverse picture books within the music curricula creates an environment where students see a representation of themselves (Robinson, 2006; Galda & Cullinan, 2006). It also validates student voices and experiences, creating a sense of belonging that lends itself to free exploration and learning on the part of the students (Wanless & Crawford, 2016). Additional benefits include having the author of a text serves as a “culture bearer.” The text can also elicit a whole new meaning toward the discussion of music from various cultures. Here are some considerations when choosing ethnically diverse literature in the general music setting.

Suggestions for Choosing Literature

Choose literature that reflects the identity of the students in your classroom. At the beginning of the year, provide ample opportunities for students to share something about themselves, who they are, the lives they live, and what matters most to them. This will require music teachers to get to know their students in a more intimate way (Abril, 2013; MacLeod & McKoy, 2012). For example, organize a multicultural day, for each class, where students bring aspects of their home culture through pictures, music, or other artifacts. Teachers can take inventory of the diverse cultures represented, keeping in mind that culture is not static, and develop an initial library representative of the classroom demographics. From this initial library, teachers should expand their selection to include diverse voices and experiences from cultures that are not represented. There are specific genres in literature designed to shed light on cultures. Folklore and legends help understand cultures from around the world, and biographies help to understand people’s thoughts and ideas. These novels offer intricate details about various facets of culture, including characters, locations, experiences, or traditions (Yenika-Agbaw, 2014).

Choose literature with stories that are either told by a cultural insider or share a biographical narrative. It is necessary to spend time doing background research on the author to determine whether the author is from within the culture or someone writing the story from an outside perspective. Snowy Day, published in 1962, told the story of a young black boy enjoying a day in the snow from the perspective of Ezra Keats, a white author. This groundbreaking children’s book enabled black children to see themselves and relate to a character in a story for the first time. Today, stories from authors of all backgrounds sharing stories that depict the lived experiences from various cultures are readily accessible. For example, Chief Jake Swamp, a highly regarded leader of the Mohawk people, serves as a cultural insider in the story Giving Thanks: A Native American Good Morning Message (1995) as he recounts the thanksgiving message taught to young children in the Mohawk culture. Through the text, readers get a glimpse of his life from a cultural perspective.

Choose literature with representations of different aspects of daily life within a culture, with particular attention given to issues of setting and racial relevance (Banks, 2002; Wanless & Crawford, 2016; Yenika-Agbaw & Napoli 2011). This helps to quell cultural incongruity and create a level of cultural understanding and awareness essential for building classroom community. Consider also options that present characters in professional roles. Hearing stories of professionals encourages aspirational goals for all students. For example, books such as Rap a Tap Tap by Leo and Diane Dillon (2002) or Dancing Hands: How Teresa Carreño Played the Piano for President Lincoln by Margarita Engle (2019) share the story of legendary performers and their journey in the arts.

Use culturally diverse literature as a springboard to discuss culturally diverse genres of music. Children’s literature can be the means where culture and music converge. Through literature, students can acquire context for deep engagement with music from other cultures making the experience meaningful, relevant, and tangible. Students see members of a culture, hear their stories or perspective, which, in turn, humanizes the musical experience. Books such as Too Many Tamales by Gary Soto (1992) can be used to present cultural context that supports a deeper understanding of the music from the culture.

Link text or illustrations to opportunities that evoke students to respond, perform, create, or connect to music in meaningful ways. Every story has the intent of sound, whether it is explicitly stated in the text or implied by the images. Teachers can introduce or reinforce music concepts (i.e., melody, form, rhythm, expression) that can enhance the picture book bringing the story to life. Campbell (2018) encourages music teachers to use stories as a framework for interdisciplinary projects with culture at the core. For example, in the story When I Was Young in the Mountains by Cynthia Rylant (1982), the author describes her childhood experiences growing up in the Appalachian Mountains. By including this text in the music classroom, teachers can teach a lesson on Appalachian fiddle music and teach or rein-force binary form, the form often used in that genre of music.

Lesson Examples

The following lesson examples were used in a professional development conducted for a school district with a diverse student population. The literature was carefully selected by either identifying authors from the culture that was represented in the school district or biographical narrative. For the sake of brevity, the activities focus only on the use of the picture book with connections to music concepts to which music teachers can extend to meet additional music objectives.

Grade Level The grade level indicated are recommendations by the author of this article and not those suggested by the authors of the texts. It is encouraged that teachers modify the grade level to those that best suit their students’ needs. It must also be noted that the activities presented only represent one step toward being culturally inclusive in the classroom. Further strategies are warranted for effective inclusive practices.

Cultural Exchange Using ethnically diverse children’s literature in the elementary general music setting can be a springboard for cultural exchange where all students feel welcomed. Through the combination of music’s inherent ability to reflect culture and language’s ability to tell a story, students can begin to develop a knowledge base for cultural diversity that is important for a thriving classroom community.

Giving Thanks: A Native American Good Morning Message

by Chief Jake Swamp (1995), ISBN: 978-1-880000-054-0, Grade: 1, Standards: Responding, Common Anchor 7 Analyze: Analyze how the structure and context of varied musical works inform the response. Music concept: Timbre
Objective I can classify musical instruments based on timbre.

  1. Group students in pairs and have them discuss things for which they are thankful.
  2. Read Giving Thanks . . . and have students identify commonalities between what they are thankful for and what was listed in the story.
  3. Discuss the Akwesasne Mohawk Reservation (e.g., geographic location, traditions, language).
  4. Read the story again with the text in the original language available to view. The link of Chief Swamp reading in the native language can be found here:
  5. Introduce Akwesanse instruments (i.e., water drum and flute). Be sure to use visuals and videos of the instrument being played and discuss the construction, role, and purpose of the instruments.
  6. Discuss the characteristics of the instruments including the sound. Have students identify descriptive vocabulary for the timbre that can be posted on a word wall. Students can then refer to the terms when analyzing music.
  7. Have students create a homemade instrument using various timbres (ringing, tapping, scraping, thumping, whirling) or bring music or instruments from home that reflects their culture. Students can then classify the instruments based on their timbre.

Rap A Tap Tap

by Leo and Diane Dillon (2002), ISBN: 0-439-45597-9 Grade: 2, Standards: Performing, responding, connecting, Common Anchor 4 Analyze: Analyze the structure and context of varied musical works and their implications for performance. Common Anchor 7 Analyze: Analyze how the structure and context of varied musical works inform the response. Common Anchor 11 Connect: Relate musical ideas and works with varied contexts to deepen understanding. Music concept: Rhythm/timbre
Objective I can create and perform rhythm patterns using quarter notes, eighth notes and quarter rests to accompany a text.

1. Transfer the rhythm of “Rap a Tap Tap—Think of That” to body percussion and/or instruments:

Divide students into two groups, where one group performs the rhythm of “Rap a Tap Tap” and the other group performs the rhythm of “Think of That.” Add the performance to the reading of the story.
2. Discuss the historical contributions of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. A link to his bio is included here: Biography by the National
Portrait Gallery (Smithsonian Institution)
3. Discuss the various timbres involved in tap (e.g., in addition to the tapping of shoes, one can also hear the tip of the shoe, or
a shuffle as shown in the video clip, Christopher Rice and friends)
4. Discuss the percussive and rhythmic nature of tap dancing. Have students create an 8-count rhythm pattern to accompany the story using eighth and quarter notes and quarter note rests. Replace the “Rap a Tap Tap” section of the text with the new rhythm(s) the students create.
5. Link each 8-count pattern to create the classroom version of Bojangles tap-dancing that can be performed at the end of the story.

The Other Side

by Jacqueline Woodson (2001), ISBN: 78-0-39-23116-2, Grade: 4 Standards: Responding, connecting, creating, Common Anchor 2 Plan and make: Use standard and/or iconic notation and/or recording technology to document personal rhythmic, melodic, and simple harmonic musical ideas.
Common Anchor 7 Select: Choose music appropriate for a specific purpose or context., Common Anchor 11 Connect: Relate musical ideas and works with varied contexts to deepen understanding. Music concept: Analysis
I can use text to analyze music based on musical elements.
I can use text to analyze music according to story elements of setting, characters, theme, conflict, resolution.

Overview Jacqueline Woodson’s The Other Side is a story of hope. The book tells the tale of the relationship between two young girls in a segregated world. Through their resistance to societal norms, they inspire change within their small circle of friends. After reading the book, have students describe the “someday” referred to on the last page of the book. Topics can include demonstrating empathy, compassion, kindness, or integrity.

1. Have students create simple poems based on the discussion of “someday.” For example, students may choose to write a poem based on empathy.

Be kind,
Caring is love.
Love lifts all of our hearts. Empathy matters so
Be kind.

2. After writing the poem, have students turn the lyrics of their poem into a simple melody. Students can record their songs using applications like Acappella or SoundTrap.
3. Students can then create a simple ostinato as an accompaniment to the song.

When I Was Young in the Mountains

by Cynthia Rylant (1982), ISBN: 9780140548754, Grade: 3, Standards: Creating, Common Anchor 1 Imagine: Generate musical ideas for various purposes and contexts. Common Anchor 2 Plan and make: Select and develop musical ideas for defined purposes and contexts. Plan and Make: Use standard and/or iconic notation and/or recording technology to document personal rhythmic and melodic musical ideas. Music concept: Composing Objectives
I can analyze music to determine its form (theme and variations).
I can create a musical composition to reflect my classroom environment.
I can create a variation of a musical theme in a composition.

  1. Read When I Was Young in the Mountains with Ora Lee (Brittany Haas) as a background accompaniment.
  2. Talk about the inspiration for the book that is based on Rylant’s experience living in the mountains with her grandparents. Talk specifically about Cool Ridge, West Virginia, and show images of the location for a point of reference.
  3. Discuss Appalachian fiddle music including the genre’s origin and musical characteristics. Students can listen again to Ora Lee and indicate the form. Binary form is commonly used in Appalachian fiddle music.
  4. Allow students to work in small groups to create a story about the school environment. From these stories, students can compose a composition of a typical school day. Using the school environment offers a shared experience from which all students can draw ideas. Examples include sounds of the classroom, transitions from location to location, lunch, recess, or library.
  5. Perform the compositions in class.
  6. Students can evaluate one another’s compositions. Encourage students to critique the specific elements of the composition that depicts the school environment.
  7. For individual practice, have students describe their home environment. Ask students the following:
  8. How would you describe your home in a musical way?
  9. What is your favorite location in your town, city, and so on?
  10. How would you describe the sounds of that location?
  11. Students can create their own musical pieces that depict their home environment. This can be a project that encourages family participation and can be rotated by either using graphics or standard notation. Students can also use recording applications or DAWs (digital audio workstations) such as Acapella, Garageband, or Soundtrap to can record their pieces, if students are not able to dictate the notation. Student can share their compositions with the class.
  12. Allow students to create a variation of their composition. Discuss possibilities for varying the theme through augmentation or diminution, adding ornamentation, or experimenting with a change in texture.

Too Many Tamales

by Gary Soto (1992), ISBN: B00HTK3WPE, Grade: 2, Standards: Responding
Common Anchor 7 Select: Choose music appropriate for a specific purpose or context. Analyze: Analyze how the structure and context of varied musical works inform the response. Music concept: Analyzing Objective: I can analyze holiday music from different cultures.

Read Too Many Tamales or have students listen to the narrated version on Audible, which has a musical accompaniment. As the story is being read, have students perform the instruments listed below when the assigned words and/or phrases are spoken in the text:

  • Kneading—Cabasa or sand blocks
  • Telephone ringing—Jingle bells or Triangle
  • Ring sparkled—Windchime
  • A spoonful of meat . . . —Lollipop drum (24 times for the 24 tamales)
  • Upstairs—Glockenspiel ascending scale (one or multiple to reflecting all the cousins going upstairs) Cutting—Ribbed rhythm sticks
  • Eating—Castanets

Have students predict what holiday songs would be playing in Maria’s home as the story unfolds. They can also discuss their favorite holiday meals.
Introduce Mariachi bands. The music from Mexico is not only used for celebratory purposes but also as a fundamental part of identity that promotes community. It includes an array of different styles and ensembles (i.e., banda de Guerra, “town band” orchestras, symphonic bands, mariachis; Lychner, 2008). Instrumentation in Mariachi bands includes the trumpet, violin, classical guitar, vihuela (Spanish guitar), guitarron (acoustic bass guitar).

Traditional attire consists of the traditional large hat, waistcoat, and tight-fitting pants with boots. Additionally, the clothing is heavily embroidered and/or ornamented. When introducing mariachi bands, present as one of many diverse representations of Hispanic culture. Have students listen to holiday performances by Mariachi Sol De Mexico.

Students can also watch the performance of Guadalajara by Mariachi Sol De Mexico, which describes the beautiful land of Guadalajara ( Have a slideshow with images of Guadalajara available to view for reference.

Have students analyze and describe the sound of mariachi music. Through guided analysis, students will expand descriptive vocabulary to use when describing other musical pieces. Introduce a Spanish traditional dance and have students perform that dance to the music. Video of traditional dance steps for a Mexican Waltz:

Dancing Hands: How Teresa Carreno Played the Piano for President Lincoln

by Margarita Engle (2019), ISBN-10: 148148740X, Grade: 5, Standards: Creating, Common Anchor 2 Plan and make: Demonstrate selected and developed musical ideas for improvisations, arrangements, or compositions to express intent, and explain the connection to purpose and context.
Plan and make: Use standard and/or iconic notation and/or recording technology to document personal rhythmic, melodic, and two-chord harmonic musical ideas. Music concept: Creating Objective I can compose music that represents parts of a story.

After reading Dancing Hands, students can discuss the various aspects of the story (e.g., main events, characters, geographic locations). Students can then work in pairs to create a research project on the major music contributions by Teresa Carreño and other notable female composers/artists (i.e., Hazel Scott, Adele, Beyoncé).

  1. Discuss the role of music in films and television shows. Play examples of both with and without music and have students compare and contrast the mood.
  2. Identify three significant events in the story Dancing Hands . . . Students will then create a musical rendition of each event. Divide the class in half with each half divided into three groups. Each group will be assigned to an event. Examples of the events are listed here:
    • Teresa’s struggle with playing the piano. Specifically, students can create the sounds reflecting her playing “gentle songs like colorful birds” that contrasts with “powerful songs the roar like a prowling jaguar.”
    • Teresa and her family’s turbulent journey fleeing Venezuela, Oregon, the contentious moments of the civil war.
    • Teresa’s piano concert had a calming effect or healing component for President Lincoln.
  3. Students can either use graphic notation, standard notation, or various applications to record their pieces. Each group will perform a musical rendition for the class.
  4. Discuss each group’s interpretation of the musical rendition. Were there any moments that sounded similar? Were there stark differences? Have each group reflect on their approach to the composition.

Declaration of Conflicting Interests The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article. The author(s) received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.

About the Author

Suzanne Hall

Suzanne Hall is an associate professor of Music Education at Temple University where she teaches courses in general music and Introduction to music education. Her teaching experiences include elementary general music in Florida and Tennessee. Her research interests include secondary general music and the parallels between music and language arts.

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