Review by Erin Brereton, Common Sense Education | Updated December 2013

Smithsonian Folkways

Text-centric world music site could use more activities, music

Subjects & skills
  • Communication & Collaboration
  • Critical Thinking

  • Arts
  • Social Studies
Grades This grade range is a recommendation by Common Sense Education and not the developer/publisher.
Common Sense says (See details)
Teachers say (2 Reviews)

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Pros: Well-organized written and audio content can give kids a specific and big-picture view of some culturally based music genres.

Cons: Some songs are just brief audio samples, and interactive items are few: kids will need to do a lot of reading.

Bottom Line: Kids won't hear every tune in its entirety, but Smithsonian Folkways' resources can help them comprehend and appreciate cultural music.

You can use the site's magazine articles, artist bios, and other content as assignments to provide reading practice and background on world music. A few interactive elements, some of which are available in Spanish, also provide a look at topics like jazz and Latin music.

The content, which features musical styles and songs from various cultures, can potentially be used in social studies or geography lessons, as well. Lesson plans are also available on the site for various age groups, including grades 3-5, 6-8, and 9-12. 

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Smithsonian Folkways is a website that features downloads, streaming video, articles, teaching materials, and other items based on the Smithsonian Folkways Recordings record label's archives, which are maintained by the Smithsonian Institution. Founded in 1948 to document spoken word, regional and other music from around the world, the label was acquired by the Smithsonian in 1987. The museum itself contains a collection of more than 3,200 culturally influenced albums and 45,000 tracks, some of which are available on the Smithsonian Folkways site.

Kids can check out performance-based videos that showcase musical styles from Africa, Central Asia, Europe, and other areas; listen to podcasts based on the archive collection; and read artist bios. Albums are labeled by country of origin, culture group, the main instruments used, lyric language, and keywords like folk songs or sound effects.

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The well-planned content can help kids draw connections between music history and genres. Most items link to additional information about the time period or artist and include song snippets. But kids should know that this isn't Spotify. Younger users may struggle with the amount of reading; audio elements help break things up, but the information is generally presented in articles, bios, and other written formats. Kids also can't immediately play each song they stumble across on the site, which can be frustrating. A Smithsonian Folkways radio station plays tunes at random. Articles from Folkways Magazine link to artist albums, but track listings just feature a brief sample. A 2009 Pete Seeger cover story, for example, leads to a video of Seeger being interviewed and song teasers; but users have to purchase or download an album to hear entire tunes. Kids can, however, listen to full-length songs and access additional information through the site's themed playlists, which center on subjects like Civil War songs.

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Overall Rating

Engagement Is the product stimulating, entertaining, and engrossing? Will kids want to return?

The site has a few interactive elements but mostly involves a lot of listening and reading. Kids can hear song portions, or a site radio station; watch videos and slideshows; or search for songs by year, instrument, and other qualifications.

Pedagogy Is learning content seamlessly baked-in, and do kids build conceptual understanding? Is the product adaptable and empowering? Will skills transfer?

Kids will learn about musical genres, history, and individual artists by reading articles and bios, listening to songs, and watching videos. Playlists provide insight into musical themes; podcasts provide a look at the label's collection.

Support Does the product take into account learners of varying abilities, skill levels, and learning styles? Does it address both struggling and advanced students?

Teachers can download lesson plans, grouped by continent; offer interactive games and activities; and view links to other resources to use music in the classroom. Lesson plans other tools are also available on iTunesU.

Teacher Reviews

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Featured review by
Cameron M. , Technology coordinator
Technology coordinator
More than just music-rich cultural learning resources

The Smithsonian Folkways site is well organized with rich resources. Students and teachers can search for resources by country, genre, or keywords. There are powerful recordings offered that can allow rich discussions on history and culture. You can use these as starting points for discussions and comparisons to our world today. There are an abundance of lesson plans and resources for teachers. You can choose the lesson plans from an interactive map. They are all downloadable in PDF format. Many of the lessons involve lessons for music classes and students but there are also lessons that involve history and cultural awareness. Use the site as a supplement when learning about various times in history or various cultures. Know that some parts of the site are not free. For example, if you want to hear a native american medicine song you can hear an excerpt but would need to pay around 99 cents to download the full version. However, there are many free resources available. Take some time to browse. The oral histories section is vast. For example, you can hear commentary from Eugene Allen, a butler at the white house talking about First Lady Nancy Reagan. The site contains such a vast array of primary resources that you will need to allow a good bit of time to explore it all However, the search tools should help you find what you need. Also, from the site, it reads that you can "Find Smithsonian Folkways Tools for Teaching at iTunes U. Download free lesson plans, videos, activities, and other great educational resources - or subscribe to get automatic updates." This is site is rich with resources so take advantage and give your students the gift of introducing them to it.

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