PSEA Learning Lessons: Let's play the cajon

Voice: March 2016

Learning Lessons

This story is part of a regular series, "Learning Lessons: Great ideas, Great schools,'' that features educators who are doing great things or conducting great programs in Pennsylvania's public schools. For other stories in the series go to

In the W.A. McCreery Elementary Music Room, fifth-grade students sit on what look like plain, wooden boxes. Others hold smaller, unassuming wooden structures.

These don't look like traditional musical instruments. But at the direction of their Marion Center Area High School peers, the students begin tapping and pounding rhythms to create a diverse, vibrant sound. The classroom in the rural, western Pennsylvania district in Indiana County sounds more like a stage for a Caribbean band.

The students are playing cajon drums and bongo cajons, which are instruments found in Latin American culture. The opportunity to play real instruments and learn from older peers is all thanks to Marion Center Area High School music teacher Jonathan Schaller.

 Learning Lessons - Let's Play the Cajon

In 2014, Schaller was awarded a PSEA Innovative Teaching Grant to launch the "let's play the cajon" program in his district. The program benefits generations of students, providing Schaller's junior high and high school students with the opportunity to build the cajon drums, create elementary music lesson plans using the instruments, and then get experience teaching their younger peers.

A unique opportunity

Once the drum kits arrived, Schaller's students took action in a make-shift workshop in the corner of the band room. An assembly line was created, with wooden parts, glue, screws, drills, sanders, and sawdust filling the students' time as they created the cajon drums and bongo cajons.

"The project tapped into a very different part of my students that they sometimes do not have the opportunity to experience," Schaller said. "This program was very vocational. Some of my students who may not excel as the best musicians, but still enjoy being in band and in the percussion section made an extra effort to help craft the drums."

 Building the drums from kits essentially cut the cost in half.

After the drums were constructed, Schaller said he and his students spent a couple weeks developing learning objectives for elementary lessons, and putting together simple rhythms that the elementary students could learn quickly. Schaller's 20 percussionists were then split into smaller teaching groups, and each took turns presenting the lessons they had prepared for the fourth-grade students.

Benefits abound

Elementary music teacher Rebecca Blashock found the program to be very beneficial for her students.

"It was great having other students within the district and from the high school band program introduce the instruments that they made," she said.

At the end of the project, the fourth-graders wrote thank-you notes to the high school students, citing anecdotes from their lessons - something Schaller said his students particularly enjoyed.

"They loved reading the thank-you notes," he said. "They got to see what part of their teaching actually stuck with their students and were delighted with some of the humorous responses."

Blashock tells Schaller every time her students use the instruments in her classroom, which Schaller enjoys.

The drums are also being used in life skills music classes by elementary music teacher Kasandra Buente. She offers two classes - Drum Circle and Musical Buddies.

"The Drum Circle class is for students in fourth, fifth, and sixth grade, who are in Life Skills and want to play a musical instrument, but couldn't meet the physical needs of regular education band students," Buente said.

"(These students) love music and wanted to get involved, and I didn't want to see them left behind in regular lessons," she added. "In our Drum Circle, we use cajons as an extra fine and gross motor skills therapy."

In her Musical Buddies class, Buente said a group of recommended fourth-graders come together to assist Life Skills students in grades K-6 with musical elements needed for an upcoming concert.

"They aid in singing, dancing, instrumental playing, and keeping the students on task and excited," she said. "We use the cajons for steady beats, tempo changes, name game patterns, and as a next step from bongos."

Tip Sheet - March 2016

A lasting impact

Schaller's high school students also got a taste of what it's like to do his job every day.

"My high school students got to see a little behind the scenes of what kind of time and knowledge goes into the preparation of a lesson," he said. "We actually used the district's lesson plan format when were developing lessons."

Tenth-grader Jane Herring especially enjoyed this part of the program.

"We gave the kids a lesson on how to play, which was my favorite part, because I want to be a teacher," she said. "We just taught them simple rhythms, and they had a lot of fun."

The older students used words to help their younger peers learn rhythms, like tapping out the syllables to phrases such as, "pepperoni pizza." This tactic helped the elementary students remember the different rhythms.

"I think a program like this is important because, when I was in fourth grade, if we wanted to learn rhythms, we just did it on our laps," 11th-grader Zachary Pounds said. "I think it's really cool they have something to learn rhythms on."

Schaller thinks the long-term impact on both sets of students makes the program worthwhile.

"This was a great opportunity for my band students to leave their comfort zone, and mentor new and developing instrumental musicians," he said. 



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