Refine. Hone. Distill. The self is a text, too.
…as lyrics are to poetry.
Writing as an art, or even as a basic necessity, is a notion continually challenged by many students, and the classes of 60 to 90 reluctant learners that I taught in Florida were no exception. Luckily for me, however, many of my students were creative and explored their skills in degree programs like digital arts and design, film, computer animation, and recording arts. Even though they may not want to write their stories, I could usually get them to agree that they had stories to tell, whatever they were and however they intended to tell them.
Although only some of my students were pursuing music-industry careers, music, in general, was a “safe zone” where everyone in class could relate on some level. I used lyrics to explain grammatical concepts like the subjunctive tense (where I pointed to Beyonce’s “If I Were a Boy”); lyrics from bands like Alkaline Trio helped me explain simile (“Your voice like the sound of sirens to a house on fire / you’re saving me”).
But, by far, the most success I had getting students to engage with writing concepts was the day that I used cover songs to illustrate the idea of tone in a story: that the same material can evoke a different emotion or response if presented in a different way. (Taking credit for this idea would be specious, since it came from my then-supervisor, a teacher and poet whom I admire). During the classes leading up to this lecture, I told students that we would be using cover songs and that they could bring in examples for us to listen to and discuss. The response was overwhelming, and not only did we exceed the time allotted to that segment of class but we also didn’t even have time for all of the songs on the list. Some of the most lively discussion came from listening to the following:
I was astounded by the energy with which my students debated the differences between songs (what one of them dubbed “sound flavor”). They even acquiesced to my continued insistence that this related to writing and to the “significant moment” memoir-style essays they would be submitting in a few weeks. We discussed how changing the key, the pace, or the rhythm of a song affects the atmosphere it creates and then linked that concept to word choice, pacing, and scene arrangement in their mini-memoirs.
While I am under no delusions that a lecture about cover songs and tone changed anyone’s life that day, I do know that my class (which was an EIGHT-hour block lecture/lab) actually ended with groans and students imploring, “Can’t we listen to just one more?” It was the first time I’d ever heard a student say, “That was the best English class I’ve ever had; I’ll actually remember that.” Again, this may be teaching with a little bit of trickery, but I count it as a win that almost 80 kids stayed awake for an entire class on a subject they disliked because the method of delivery was a bit unusual.
What other cover songs can you think of that would be good additions to this lesson? Are there other activities that you’ve used to teach writing concepts through music?