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.
Literary Response as Song
In my class, we begin the year with stories about “courage,” from the physical courage of Brian in Hatchet to the moral courage of Sugihara-san in Passage to Freedom. As an exercise in literary response, I wanted to connect the four different types of courage displayed in these selections. 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.
Especially interesting to me was noting how songs connect an abstract idea in the chorus with concrete examples in each the verse. This idea of moving from abstract to concrete or vice versa is a core technique when differentiating for gifted students. When we give students the abstract idea and let them work with the concrete examples, this is deductive thinking. If we give them examples and let them create an abstract idea, it’s inductive thinking. Both are worth practicing.
I selected the U2 song “Where The Streets Have No Name” because of its readily-identifiable theme, simple melody, and the relatively clean image of the band. Plus, it’s a chance to expose students to a classic they may not otherwise encounter. Feel free to use any song you’d like.
First, I explained that songwriters often use the 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.
I explained that we would be rewriting this song based on our four reading selections. Each verse would correspond to a reading and would sum up the unique display of courage shown by that story’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 ongoing project. I’d do a quick brainstorm with the class, identifying unique qualities and specific actions of each protagonist that contributed to the theme of courage.
Too often, I’d give directions and then just let the kids at it. Over the years, I’ve learned that no matter who the student is, when we ask them to stretch their thinking, they need thoughtful and careful scaffolding. Some day I’ll get a tattoo that reads, “Scaffolding is for everyone.”
So, I’d model with a different song and story first. This gives me a chance to think aloud, to demonstrate the techniques I want them to use, and (of course) realize how unclear my original directions were!
Then, we’d write collaboratively. I’d demonstrate my own thinking, my eager-beavers would throw out their ideas, and we’d all move towards a verse together. I’d always offer students the chance to re-write this verse if they didn’t like it.
Writing The Songs
Now that the directions are all clear, students got into their groups and rewrote the lyrics of a verse of “Where the Streets Have No Name” using the melody and rhythm from the U2 song. I walked around and helped with rhythm issues, singing the song out for shy groups. As groups finished, and with their permission, I sang a few of their verses for the class. Some kids were even comfortable with their own singing.
After four weeks, we finally approached the chorus. Students job was to connect the four concrete 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.
In the end, we have an approach to a response to literature that incorporates novelty, abstract and concrete thinking, a classic, the arts, and a really fun time!
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