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].