Unlike his fellow countrymen U2, Patrick Jackson is not a rock star, though he does have rock star moments. My 4 year-old student Chikara was over the moon to show me Patrick's autograph on several books from the Potato Pals series (authored by Patrick) which he collected over the weekend at an Oxford University Kids' Club Event in Tokyo. Since one great feature of the Potato Pals series is the music on the accompanying CD, and since Patrick has extensive experience teaching young children, I asked him to give us some of his thoughts on music and early childhood education. Here is our e-mail correspondence:
Hi Patrick. Thanks for taking the time to answer a few questions. We really enjoy the Potato Pals Series...I think it's very well thought out; distinctive characters, great illustrations, situations kids can identify with, and it's easy to use with kids of varying levels of English ability...readers and emerging-readers alike. The CD also makes it easy for children and parents to use at home, which I think distinguishes it from a lot of young children's English learning materials. With a lot of our students, they go home and learn the new book by heart before we even use it in class. How long did it take to develop the series and did you have a lot of input from children?
Thank you for the kind words, Devon. Your school was one of the first to adopt Potato Pals when they first came out and it’s really great to hear that that your students enjoy the books and songs. Delighted!
Potato Pals ‘grew’ in a kid’s English conversation school where I worked for the first 4 years I was in Japan. Rie Kimura, who illustrates the books, was my classroom assistant so we were just enjoying making materials for our students.
After a few years had passed like this, trying out all sorts of things in the classroom, we sent a proposal to various publishers and had the good luck to be contracted by Oxford University Press to do a series of readers and support materials.
It wasn’t until then that we thought of putting songs to our books and it was that step that really transformed them. Although I had always ‘done’ quite a lot of music and movement in my lessons, I hadn’t fully understood the power of music; the magic ‘spoonful of sugar’ for the language teacher.
As for input from kids, well my own children (6 and 2) listened to the early versions of most of the songs and funnily enough, their favorites have become mine too!
A great feature of the series is the songs that come on the accompanying CD. The thing I love about the songs so much is that kids can start singing them right away. The pace and the spacing allows children time not just to sing, but to act out each of the lines in the song. The songs do tend to get in the head and bounce around a bit. Can you tell me a bit about the creation of the songs?
Brian Cullen wrote and arranged all the songs. He had to work from existing books that weren’t originally written as songs at all. We had a lot of fun sitting in the park together, trying to fit the words to tunes with puzzled mothers and kids watching in disbelief as two large Irishmen howling “I brush my teeth…Oh Yeah!” Brian has written an interesting paper on the creative process behind the songs (pdf. file) which is recommended reading for anyone who is into songwriting for kids.
What role does music play in your classes for young children?
Language learning classes for young children without music and movement would be like swimming lessons without water. I couldn’t even imagine surviving a lesson for young children without at least a few songs.
I like the fun of using music with kids, the positive energy, the great effect it has on students’ confidence and the way it creates an inhibition-free atmosphere in the classroom. Music and movement are an essential part of teaching kids and when I hear teachers say that they don’t ‘do’ songs, I wonder how they manage to keep the students and themselves from going up the walls.
In my youth (not long ago!), I was always very self-conscious about dancing and would avoid it at all costs! It is only through teaching kids that I have been able to overcome my inhibitions in this department and throw caution to the wind! Thank goodness!
What characteristics do you look for in a good children's song?
Positive, easy to perform, well-paced, and above all, fun.
Potato Pals songs had to meet a number of criteria; follow the original text of the books, have plenty of repetition, be catchy, be easy for small kids and teachers to sing and go well with TPR movements. We also wanted to match the themes of the books with the genre of music so, for example, “On the Farm” has a Country sound and “At the Zoo” has some very jungly sound effects. “At Home” (about doing chores) is a Blues number!
Can you share some of your favorite children's music artists or favorite children's songs?
The CD that gets played the most in our car is called ‘Hello Children Everywhere’. It’s a 3-CD compilation of 60 mainly British classics dating back to the 40s and includes some really wonderful stuff. You’d love it, Devon!
Thanks for coming to the presentation the other day, Devon. It was good to see you and I think we were definitely the two tallest people in the room! Hope we cross paths again soon!
Thanks Patrick! I will check out Hello Children Everywhere, and thanks for the great materials.