As I walked around the room with my guitar, groups of students raised their hands, asking “Can you come check ours?” I approached and sang the lyrics they had written, strumming along to check their rhythm. My students were writing songs as a novel way of responding to literature.
In California, one of our GATE standards states the following:
Differentiated curriculum focuses primarily on depth and complexity of content, advanced or accelerated pacing of content, and novelty (unique and original expressions of student understanding.)
What a lofty goal to provide our gifted students with unique and original expressions of understanding.
Incorporating music into response to literature is one way I’ve attempted this.
Literary Response as Song
In my district, we use Houghton Mifflin as our language arts program. The curriculum is broken into themes of three or four stories. In 6th grade, we begin with stories about “courage,” from the physical courage of Brian in Hatchet to the moral courage of Sugihara in Passage to Freedom. As an exercise in literary response, I wanted to connect the four different types of courage displayed in these selections.
I considered how well songs connect an abstract idea (featured in the chorus) with concrete examples (displayed in each the verse). Since songs often have three or four verses, and our themes include three or four selections, it seemed like the perfect fit and it would provide students with a unique way to express their understanding of the characters.
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Naturally, this whole process needs to connect to grade-level content. Since each verse was basically a miniature response to literature, I easily identified a few standards to steer the project towards. These 6th grade language arts standards are CA specific, but you will have something similar to draw from:
3.2 Analyze the effect of the qualities of the character (e.g., courage or cowardice, ambition or laziness) on the plot and the resolution of the conflict. 3.3 Analyze the influence of setting on the problem and its resolution. 3.6 Identify and analyze features of themes conveyed through characters, actions, and images.
I selected the U2 song “Where The Streets Have No Name” because of its readily identifiable theme, ease of melody, and the relatively clean image of the band. Feel free to use your own song.
- We analyzed how songwriters often use a chorus to drive home the big idea of the theme, while the verses are focused on specific details. I asked students for examples of songs that fit this pattern and made a graphic organizer to keep track of their ideas.
- We then listened to the U2 song and discussed the theme (Wikipedia will help you look like an expert, youtube has the music video (now taken down!), and here are the lyrics).
- I explained that we would be rewriting this song using our weekly reading selections. Each verse would correspond to a selection and would feature the unique display of courage show by that week’s protagonist. The chorus, however, would represent an abstract generalization about courage that we could only get to after reading all four stories.
- Each Friday, after taking the selection’s test, we worked on this project. I would do a quick brainstorm with the class, identifying unique qualities of the characters that contributed to the theme of courage (touching base with my state standards).
- Students got into groups and rewrote the lyrics of one verse of “Where the Streets Have No Name” using the melody and rhythm from the U2 song (In the past I tried to have kids write their own songs from scratch. Even our gifted students need scaffolding).
- I walked around and helped with rhythm issues, singing the song out for shy groups. As groups finished, I sang a few of their verses for the class (unless the groups were comfortable with their own singing).
- After four weeks, we finally approached the chorus. Students connected the four displays of courage together using a generalization. We re-examined how U2 repeated the line “where the streets have no name” in their chorus to emphasize the theme of a city with no boundaries. Students tried to do the same with courage and our four selections.
- Groups then created a published copy of their lyrics to present to the class (and to practice their presentation).
- Finally, and optionally, if you are comfortable with Garageband, it would be easy to make a backing track and allow students to record their voices singing their own lyrics.
Any novel ideas for approaching a response to literature? Or using music in the classroom? Leave your thoughts in the comments.