Drum Dream Girl: How One Girl’s Courage Changed Music Mini-Unit

The Mini-Unit Designer

Ms. Rebecca Kossman

Hiram L. Dorman Elementary, Springfield, Massachusetts

Mini-Unit plan created February 2017

Introducing the Mini-Unit

While I teach third grade, this unit is planned with first grade in mind. It can definitely be used in second or third grade. I did in fact read this with my third grade class who loved it and found many connections to it.

This book has many interesting features:

  1. It is a biography written as a poem, so there are many angles with which to approach teaching it.
  2. It talks about utilizing music and rhythm.
  3. It teaches about overcoming obstacles.

There are many interesting issues in this short book to discuss with students. While many students may understand and have experience with overcoming obstacles, the idea that a girl wasn’t allowed to play drums may seem strange to them. When I was planning this unit I read the book with my students to see their reactions. Many of them were really shocked that such a rule or idea would exist. It is important to explain that this book takes place in the 1930s in Cuba. While now it would seem ridiculous that we would have such a rule, we should note that women are still not given the exact same opportunities as men. This is seen to different degrees in different countries. A good comparison could be Malala Yousafzai. There is a great book, Malala a Brave Girl from Pakistan/Iqbal a Brave Boy from Pakistan, that explains the plight of young girls simply wanting an education—something that is a given in the United States. Depending on your students, you may want to share this book with them. I read it with my third graders in the beginning of the year and I think it was a very meaningful experience. Students asked to look at it during independent reading, and often still reference Malala when we talk about people in difficult or unfair situations.  If your students are younger you may just want to summarize the story (Malala is shot, so it may be difficult with first graders). Malala’s story takes place in 2012—this was not so long ago. With your younger students you want to be careful not to scare them, but to impress on them the importance of understanding that things are still not equal for women, and while we have made great progress we have a long way to go.

Contextualizing the Picture Book

Title: Drum Dream Girl

Author: Margarita Engle

Illustrator: Rafael Lopez

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Date of Publication: 2015

Context: This book takes place in Cuba in 1932

Genre(s): poetry, biography


Drum Dream Girl is a poem that tells the story of a girl in Cuba who dreams of playing the drums. At that time though, it is thought to be inappropriate for girls to play drums. This is the story of how she convinced others to let her follow her dream.

About the author and illustrator:

Margarita Engle grew up in Los Angeles, but was inspired by her mother’s home country of Cuba. Margarita has written many children’s books. Her website includes many great resources for teachers as well.


Rafael Lopez grew up in Mexico City. His dad was an architect, and his parents raised him on a love of books. He has illustrated many children’s books, and is also a muralist. His website has a lot of great information.


Geographical region/time period: Cuba in the 1930s.

Cultural theme(s): Music, family, tradition and when to break it.

Media of illustrations: Acrylic paint on wood.

Critical Analysis: Use visual thinking strategies and critical multicultural practices.

  • Before reading look at the cover. What do we think this story will be about? What is realistic about the illustration? What is not? This is an interesting theme to look at throughout the book. It is based on a true story so it is very real. The illustrations represent the girl’s dreams more than reality. Why is that? How did she turn her dreams into reality? How does the front matter continue this theme as an introduction? Is it realistic for a girl to be sitting on the moon playing drums?
  • You may want to think about and ask: what are dreams? Sometimes we discuss dreams as the stories and pictures we see in our sleep. We also use the word dreams to mean the things we hope to accomplish. This book weaves the two concepts together. It is the girl’s dream that she be able to play drums, but we see her thinking about that dream in the context of her dream world when she sleeps.

Pages like the one that starts with “But everyone on the island…” are much more realistic looking. Why is that? You may want to point out that here is where the author is showing us the girl’s harsher reality, rather than her dream world.

Learning Experience Design #1

As introduction watch this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_lruQabrUco.

It is actually a promotion for the book, and does a good job setting the scene and getting the students excited for the story.

Make a prediction: what is this book going to be about?

Students will describe characters and setting using details from the text and illustrations.

As we read, make a chart of what we learn from the words and what we learn from the illustrations (T chart). For some of the pages, use the visual thinking strategies questions to look at the illustrations first, then read the text. Because the book is about a dream, many of the illustrations do not reflect reality. This is a great discussion to have with the students—how the illustrations are often reflecting her dreams rather than what is happening in actuality.

The visual thinking strategy questions are:

  • What's going on in this picture?
  • What do you see that makes you say that?
  • What more can we find?

The following are the pages that I would choose to focus on more with the VTS questions:

  1. “But everyone on the island of music…”
  2. “At carnivals, she listened…” This is a good page to also look at the use of space. Why is it turned the other way? What is the illustrator trying to show?
  3. “At home, her fingertips…”
  4. “(T)he brave drum dream girl…” This is another page good for looking at space. Why does the illustration flow from one side to the other? Why is the girl floating towards the moon?

For independent work the students will each write two sentences describing the setting, and two sentences describing the main character. Then they will create an illustration of the setting, and one of the main character.

Multimodal Families and Communities Connections:

Music is very important to the girl in this book. Have students discuss with their families what music they listen to at home. Over the next week you could have students share a clip of music from home. This could be done either by having parents email clips of music to you, or you could have parents sign up to come in and share it in person.

Additional Multimodal Opportunities:

Listen to some popular songs and have students notice the importance of the drums in each song. What do you think the song would be like without drums?

One example would be Happy by Pharrell Williams.

You may also want to look at/listen to songs that use alternate forms of percussion. This version of When I’m Gone (which has also become known as Cups) by Anna Kendrick shows a lot of alternative percussion:


You could also look at clips of the group STOMP that does musical performances without any instruments.

Learning Experience Design #2

Reread the text. This time go through and find sensory words and details. Below is my list of sensory words and details that I would want to highlight and discuss:

  • Drumbeats, drum dream girl dreamed (d sound)
  • Pounding, tall, tapping small, boom boom booming with long, loud sticks
  • Wind-wavy palm trees, flower-bright park
  • Whir of parrot wings and clock of woodpecker beaks
  • Dancing tap of her own footsteps, comforting pat of her own heartbeat
  • Rattling beat of towering dancers
  • Dragon clang of costumed drummers
  • Rolled out their own dream drum rhythm
  • Tall conga drums, small bongo drums, big round silvery moon-bright timbales
  • Hands seemed to fly as they rippled rapped and pounded all the rhythms
  • A starlit café that looked like a garden
  • Everyone who heard her dream-bright music sang and danced

Make a list of these words and phrases in a chart that has the five senses, putting each one in the appropriate category.

Ask: why is sound so important? Have discussion about how the author wanted us to really feel the drums as we read—there is a rhythm to the words. How does this also help us know that we are in Cuba?

Independent work: students will be given a series of images to describe with sensory words.

Multimodal Families and Communities Connections:

Since the third and culminating learning experiences will be about the central message of overcoming obstacles to make your dreams come true, a packet could go home at this point to have parents discuss with their children a dream they had growing up and how they made it come true.

Creating Multimodal Interdisciplinary Opportunities:

At this point you may want to act out or dramatize the story with the students. Below are a few different ideas for this:

  1. Tableaux: split the class into groups of about four and assign each group one page from the book. They will need to create a tableau—or “frozen snapshot”—of the scene. Groups will go through and present. They will also share why they froze the way they did.
  2. Have students spread out around the room. Reread the story slowly and have the students mime the story. They will be working on their own, internalizing what the girl in the story is thinking, feeling, and doing. Explain that they should focus on their own movements instead of watching each other. They are not performing, but rather moving for their own understanding.

If you will be culminating this learning experience with parents and families coming in, you may want to have students perform for the parents based on what they did in class.

Learning Experience Design #3

Today’s learning will be focused on determining the central message. In order to do this we will reread the book. After each page write down what was important about that page. Then ask: what did you learn from this story?

At this time I would read the historical note in the back which explains how this is a true story. Explain that the girl in the story had a dream and she made it come true.

Ask: what is a dream you have? Have students share with a partner and then share with the class.

For independent work students will write two sentences about their dream and illustrate it.

Multimodal Families and Communities Connections:

In preparation for the family summative experience, have students bring home their dream sentences/illustrations to share with families.

Additional Multimodal Opportunities:

Listen to the song A Dream is a Wish from Disney’s Cinderella and look at the lyrics. Compare and contrast the song with the book. The main similarity is the focus on dreams as things you want to happen. They are also both hopeful in that the main character does not give up on these dreams. How are they different? In Drum Dream Girl she works to overcome her obstacles. How does she do that? Who does she have help and support from? Does Cinderella work as hard to make her dreams come true? She waits for someone to come to her rescue. Cinderella is also a fairy tale and Drum Dream Girl is based on a real person. What do we learn from that?

Summative Learning Experience

Invite families into class. Read the book to the whole group and have the students help explain what they learned about the sensory details and the illustrations. Explain that when we read this book together in class we determined that the central message was making our dreams come true. Each of the students have already chosen their dream. Today they will sit with their family member(s) and write and draw about what might make it hard for that dream to come true, and what they can do to overcome that challenge. They will present these dreams, challenges, and what to do to overcome those challenges, in posters, PowerPoints, videos, or any media that you have available. Families will then share at the end.


CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.1.2 Retell stories, including key details, and demonstrate understanding of their central message or lesson.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.1.3 Describe characters, settings, and major events in a story, using key details.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.1.4 Identify words and phrases in stories or poems that suggest feelings or appeal to the senses.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.1.7 Use illustrations and details in a story to describe its characters, setting, or events.

Next Steps for Learning

The extra multimodal activities could be done while you are reading the book, or after you are reading to continue the theme.

You may also want to read about other musicians or other people who have overcome obstacles.

You may also want to focus on the fact that this book is a biographical poem. Have students write biographical poems. These poems could be about themselves, people in their families, people in their communities, or famous people.