By Kathy Garland
When I taught high-school English, I remember creating a project that required students to locate, interpret and analyze popular music. The example that I gave them included music centered on line dances. You know songs like, Electric Boogie (Slide) (1989) or Boot Scootin Boogie (1992)? Together, we listened in class and read the lyrics. And then, we interpreted and analyzed these songs and words in terms of literary devices and patterns. I challenged them to find their own appropriate popular songs so that they could do the same. Sounds like fun, right?
However, that was before Ty Dolla Sign, Nicki Minaj or Two Chainz! Music has changed, but students are still listening. So what’s a language arts teacher to do in the 21st Century?
Here are some suggestions based on your level of popular song knowledge:
1. You are familiar with popular songs. Use the clean version.
If you’ve recently listened to any popular songs, then you might have noticed that there are two major subjects: sex and drugs. Therefore, using the clean version might be helpful. However, I would only suggest this if you are familiar with either the artist, or the lyrics. For example, one language arts teacher I spoke with once began class by rapping the words from Gorilla Zoe’s Hood Figga (2007), a very explicit song. He used the song to better explain the characteristics of American Romanticism. He was well established in his career, familiar with hip-hop and rap culture, and knew his students, school and district, so this lesson worked out well for him.
2. You know some popular songs from the last ten years. Integrate one song that supports the curriculum.
Find that one song you really like that will not make you look as if you haven’t watched videos in decades. Locate similarities between that song and another mandated curricular text. I recently interviewed a senior, high-school teacher who guided students through a comparison of Beyoncé’s, If I Were a Boy (2008) to Judy Brady’s Why I Want a Wife (1972). According to her, students were surprised by the similarity in theme even though the mediums are different and the writers are decades apart. Imagine the other possibilities for this culturally relevant method for teaching.
3. You know zero popular songs. Consider flexible assignments.
Are your students writing? If so, then ask them to list ten popular songs that they might be listening to. Perhaps follow-up questions might encourage them to give supporting details for their songs’ similarities, or maybe ask students to provide rationales for listening to this type of music. In addition to learning about what your students find important, they will also practice using literacy practices deemed important for academics. This brief question might later turn into a writing assignment where they defend today’s popular music.
YouTube, Pandora, Spotify, I Heart Radio, the list is endless for how our students are currently listening to music. These 21st century tools have made popular music more accessible. And as language arts educators, we should be mindful of how students are processing the texts of their lives. Any of these suggestions can be extended to teach about specific artists and their word choices; likewise, these activities can be used as methods for supporting students as they examine their own sociocultural worlds that are oftentimes rooted in popular music.
How do you currently use music in your secondary language arts class? Feel free to comment with your recommendations as these might be useful for someone looking for a fresh start to a new year.
Brady, J. (1971). Why I want a wife. The Bedford Reader. XJ Kennedy, Dorothy M. Kennedy.
Beyoncé. (2008). If I were a boy. On I am…Sasha Fierce. [CD]. Columbia.
Brooks & Dunn. (1992). Boot scootin boogie. On Brand New Man. [CD]. Arista.
Gorilla Zoe. (2007). Hood figga. On Welcome to the Zoo. [CD]. Bad Boy/South Block Entertainment.
Griffiths, M. (1989). Electric boogie. On Carousel. [CD].
Ekaterina Rybakova and Shelbie Witte
As much as we want to teach a majority of young adult literature in the 6-12th English/Language arts classroom, the reality of teaching a canonical text, whether by choice, by district or school requirement, or by curriculum, isa challenge for many of us who strive to engage our students in text as mirrors experiences. We make this clear as we challenged our pre-service teachers taking a class on adolescent young adult literature to create reading ladders culminating in a complex, canonical text. Ideally, a teacher wouldn’t jump directly into Romeo and Juliet in the 9th grade without scaffold. The idea of reading ladders, stemming from Lesesne’s (2010) research on the concept, allows gradual development of reading strategies and motivation that closes a theme with a complex text.
Lesesne’s (2010) book Reading Ladders highlights issues with incorporating young adult literature in the English classroom, and focuses on how to do so in a way that doesn’t overwhelm students. There is a misconception, she says, that YAL is less literary than canonical texts taught in the classroom (Lesesne, 2010). We need to incorporate books that are not written by “dead white guys” (Wolk, 2010) and instead that speak to today’s students, to real life (Lesesne, 2010).
We challenge our pre-service teachers, then, to create a ladder, or a series of books or materials that relate to a specific theme, time period, or even author, with the end text being a different canonical text for every student. The caveat is to utilize such text that both prepares students for the complex canonical text while still engaging students and motivating them to engage in the text they provide. As Lattimer (2010) suggests, texts that motivate students are first and foremost an authentic experience, an experience that connects the text to the real lives of students. Authentic texts, Lattimer (2010) suggests, include everything from scientific research articles to ads to websites to poems to media to song lyrics.
After suggesting ways of tying in texts from different avenues into their reading ladders, the pre-service teachers in our class embarked on the journey to make sometimes dry texts more engaging, and the experience with them both useful and informational. We are pleased to share our students work, of course with their permission, with you, and hope that these can be useful tools for all teachers trying to break the mold, scaffold and motivate, and continue to find ways to engage their students to become lifelong readers.
To see the Reading Ladders, look under the Theory to Practice Connections section of this site.
Lattimer, H. (2010). Reading for learning: Using discipline-based texts to build content knowledge. Urbana, Illinois: NCTE.
Lesesne, T. (2010). Reading ladders: Leading students from where they are to where we’d like them to be. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Wolk, S. (2010). What should students read? Phi Delta Kappan, 91(7), 8-16.
by Kathy Garland
Mrs. T.: Have you seen the Halle Berry version of Their Eyes Were Watching God? Just wondering about your thoughts…
KG: I haven’t, but I think I might use that or Gatsby movie this fall with undergrads. What did you think?
Mrs. T.: It [Their Eyes] is the worst movie I’ve ever seen. I literally threw the book at the SmartBoard today while we were watching it in class. They change and re-write metaphors and key scenes. It’s just torturous. Anyway, I did show Gatsby and I am absolutely in love with it. It does have some differences from the text, but it makes you love the text even more.
I immediately located the film, which you can view for free via YouTube. My teacher friend was right. The made-for-TV movie is not an ideal version of the iconic novel. Several key parts are diluted, and as a result make integral chapters and themes seem irrelevant. However, no matter how terrible, I would still encourage language arts teachers to show the film. But I’ll get back to this point in a minute.
This recent and timely conversation about how and when language arts teachers should use popular culture is where my past and current work is situated. For four years, I had the opportunity to observe one high-school English teacher’s use of media literacy education (the formal study of media). One important part of the class required that students learn film language as a means for analysis and evaluation; the teacher’s purpose was to help them attain media literacy, “the ability to access, analyze, evaluate, and communicate messages in a variety of forms” (Aufderheide, 1993, n.p.). However, close examination of her class demonstrated that students were not only becoming more proficient with “reading” media, but they were also developing and using literacy practices that closely resembled what many teachers expect in traditional English classes (Garland, 2010). More specifically, these students exhibited the initial phases of critical literacy.
My study (2010) and others (Boske & McCormack, 2011; Hobbs, 2007; Kist, 2005; Morrell, 2004) have shown that examining the nuances of popular film is a culturally relevant way for teaching secondary students to pay close attention to their mediated worlds. Whether we deem films “good” or “bad,” students can learn to critically think about movies that they may otherwise passively view. If we continue with Their Eyes Were Watching God (2005) as an example, students might benefit from a conversation about the similarities and differences between director’s purpose versus author’s purpose. Why would the director choose to exclude scenes that advance the plot of the written novel, especially when those scenes support a feminist lens? Does the director’s gender influence such exclusions? Whatever the answer, these types of questions about director’s omissions of texts can help students develop a critical view of movies and literature. Other publications I’ve written also provide research-based methods that would help frame lessons centered on directors’ decisions (Garland, 2011; Garland & Smith, 2013). These lessons demonstrate how literature-based films, such as Percy Jackson (2010) and The Lorax (2012) omit and add texts that subsequently affect plot, characters and message.
One current movie that many language arts teachers seem to agree upon using is The Great Gatsby (2013). Mrs. T. and I concur. She and I both appreciate it as a “good” film version of a novel; however, our love is based on two different reasons. According to her, “it makes you love the text even more,” which is a common rationale language arts teachers use for showing movie renditions of books (Day, 2010; Jolley, 2009). But my love of the popular film is due in part to the purposeful way that Baz Luhrmann weaves rap music and jazz into the movie’s text and narrative. What might high-school students’ opinions be? After reading the novel, students could also consider other pertinent questions. For example, should a movie strictly follow the author’s written text? How important is it for a movie to reflect aspects of current society (e.g., Gatsby)? The questions asked are bound to promote student thought and initiate critical perspectives.
How are you integrating film with language arts? No matter if you’re showing the movies that make English teachers cringe (e.g., Romeo and Juliet, 1996) or the ones that we anticipate viewing with students, feel free to share the experiences that you’ve had with teaching, studying or using popular films in academic settings. I’d love to hear about the film choices that you’ve made or are thinking about making.
Aufderheide, P. (1993). Report on the National Leadership Conference. Washington, DC: Aspen Institute.
Boske, C., & McCormack, S. (2011). Building an understanding of the role of media literacy for Latino/a high school students. High School Journal, 94(4), 167–186.
Day, J. (2010). Of mice and media. English Journal, 100(1), 70–75.
Garland, K. E., & Smith, S. (2013). Exploring the core with in-depth popular film analysis: How students can create a film review using a critical media literacy framework. Florida English Journal, 6-12.
Garland, K. (2011). Re-viewing popular film adaptations of young adult literature using
three contemporary literacy strategies. Signal, 34(2), 19–24.
Garland, K. (2010). Literacy practices in an English language arts elective: An examination of how students respond to media literacy education. (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses. (Publication number 3436333).
Hobbs, R. (2007). Reading the media: Media literacy in high school English.
New York: Teachers College Press.
Jolley, S. A. (2009). Connecting to conscience: Shakespeare and Woody Allen. English
Journal, 98(3), 73–79.
Kist, W. (2005). New literacies in action: Teaching and learning in multiple
media. New York: Teachers College Press.
Luhrmann, B. [Director], & Wick, D., Fisher, L., Martin, C., & Knapman, C. [Producers] (2013).
The Great Gatsby. United States: Warner Brothers.
Luhrmann, B. [Director], & Luhrmann, B. and Martinelli, G. [Producers] (1996). Romeo and
Juliet. United States: 20th Century Fox.
Martin, D. [Director], & Carlisle, M., Jones, Q., & Winfrey, O. [Producers]. (2005). Their eyes
were watching God. United States: ABC, Harpo Films.
Morrell, E. (2004). Linking literacy and popular culture: Finding connections for
lifelong learning. Norwood, MA: Christopher Gordon-Publishers, Inc.
Renaud, C. and Balda, K. [Directors], & Meledandri, C. and Healy, J. [Producers] (2012). The
lorax. [DVD]. United States: Universal Pictures.
*Special thanks to Mrs. T. for allowing me to share our personal conversation.