a Hardy Meal
on the Table of
but How Shall We
Choose to Put It to Work in the Classroom?
By Christian Z. Goering
To Make Meaning
and Act Upon the World
“So pile on those mashed potatoes and an extra chicken wing, I’m having a little bit of everything” are lyrics from the band Dawes that relate to the ample and delicious possibilities for the use of music in the classroom, especially in an English language arts setting. The singer, just before he asked for mashed potatoes, also shouted-out for a serving of biscuits and beans, creating a hardy meal for a hungry musician.
Extending the metaphor into the classroom,
we are sure to find a full table of practical and theoretical fare whenever we sit down to dine in academia — some of it tasty and healthful, and some of it over-cooked and greasy, for sure not good for the intellectual welfare of our students.
In an academic climate committed to textual complexity, we come across a spate of lists identifying exemplar texts — none of which include song lyrics, a move I detest — and encounter a legion of evolving standards. But the idea of using music in the classroom hasn’t caught the imagination of list builders and standards writers. It should. And here’s why.
The Common Core State Standards essentially direct those of us concerned with literacy to do more with less. We are told to focus on complex texts as we challenge our students to write more argumentatively. In a nutshell, that may not be a bad thing for students who are currently stuck in a No Child Left Behind purgatory — that is, if you think standards and assessments are the way forward. Though we admit that new challenges from sensible standards can lead to enhanced instruction, we also identify the certain risk of seeing lots of students and teachers left behind in the trail dust of misguided reform.
In Vygotskian terms, the Common Core State Standards, as Nagy related in an editorial in Reading Research Quarterly in 2012, represent a shift that will equal “too much” for many readers (and I’ll add, many writers as well). This isn’t to say that our students can’t get there, but it does say that we’ll need to provide scaffolded learing environments to help them move forward a little bit at a time. And whether part of that socially constructed scaffold is raised on music and lyrics, or on YouTube videos, or on movies, or on graphic novels, or on any other innovative platform, the scaffold still must stand as a well-wrought frame to help students move first to the Zone of Proximal Development (i+1) closest to them, and then move ahead to a level presently out of reach (i+too much).
Some students enter the classroom with all of the necessary tools for success, but they, too, can benefit from innovative instruction tied to pop music. Ultimately, the goal is to push students to new heights of language proficiency while teaching them how to think with clarity and depth of understanding.
Learning, as They Say, Is Forever
The National Council of Teachers of English recommends music lyrics specifically in their 2004 Position on Adolescent and Young Adult Literacy.
Reading is not a technical skill acquired once and for all in the primary grades. Rather, reading is a developmental process that continues to grow through engagement with various types of texts for many purposes over a lifetime. Through a diverse array of literacy practices, young people make meaning and act upon their worlds. Adolescents read in multiple ways, both in and out of school, with texts ranging from clothing logos to music lyrics, from weblogs to comic books, from the Harry Potter series to The Scarlet Letter. (www.ncte.org)
As we search for new methods of reaching adolescents who are increasingly disengaged from the traditional practice of reading, tools such as music lyrics can pique the interest and allow students to connect with classroom texts. We are also charged with finding new methods for engaging and challenging advanced students, and here music provides avenues for complex, creative thinking. When we start to think about music and lyrics and their combined messages and meaning, the possibilities for purposeful, academic work in a classroom situation is nearly unlimited.
Songs can connect on multiple levels. In this sense, students participate more actively when they read as they attempt to make connections to songs, movies, websites, poems, short stories, novels, or plays. Those valued connections reinforce a central skill in becoming expert readers.
Read, Compare, Discover
Meaning and Relationships
"The act of reading, theorists claim, plunges us into a network of textual relations. To interpret a text, to discover its meaning or meanings, is to trace those relationships" (Allen 2000, 1). Chandler (2003) continues, "Texts provide contexts in which other texts can be created and interpreted. Texts are framed by other texts" (5). It is this process of reading one text while thinking of others that truly makes literature relevant to the students' lives, a skill favored in CCSS. Langer (1995) offers a key perspective on comparing different texts:
They never take their new ideas as they find them but probe beyond, rounding out their understandings by exploring feelings, intentions, and actions [...] New understandings to not lead to endpoints, but instead reveal further areas for examination. In this way an ongoing exploration of horizons of possibilities lies at the heart of a literary reading. (3)
This give and take between song lyrics and other texts, broadly defined, is precisely what our students need. Students build upon their interest in music and begin to discover the layers of meaning in classic works, graphic novels, other song lyrics, poems, and artwork.
John Steinbeck discusses how readers matter in the scheme of understanding his classic text The Grapes of Wrath. "Throughout I tried to make the reader participate in the actuality, what he takes from it will be scaled entirely on his own depth or hollowness. There are five layers in this book and he won't find more than he has in himself" (1992, xiii).
As educators we are often encouraged to use music and other forms of media effectively to motivate, inspire and engage our students. Music makes an engaging pre-reading activity to interact with a text and the ideas and themes presented within it. As an effective hook to capture attention, music and lyrics can often serve as a bridge linking material already familiar to a student to other texts she might find more difficult and more challenging.
Song Lyrics Build a Scaffold
for Literary Terms and Concepts
As Morrell and Duncan-Andrade (2002) report, contemporary song lyrics are "literary texts and can be used to scaffold literary terms and concepts and ultimately foster literary interpretations. [These texts] are rich in imagery and metaphor and can be used to teach irony, tone, diction, point of view [...] theme, plot, motif, and character development" (89). Morrell and Duncan-Andrade continue and suggest that it "is possible to perform feminist, Marxist, structuralist, psychoanalytic, or postmodern critiques" (89) of contemporary music texts. Once learned, the skills and processes of the critical analysis of contemporary music can be applied to classic literature as well.
Our students need exposure and experience in deciphering and assessing those messages, and practice in making meaning from the complex, multi-faceted world around them. Elizabeth Thoman (2003) offers: "In a world that begs to be interconnected, our participation and understanding of worldwide media through media literacy is one exciting new way to contribute to the building of world peace, ethnic harmony and sustainability for all of humankind." Music and lyrics are a part of that picture.
Natural, Thematic, and Relevant
I am suggesting that we enhance John Steinbeck with the Bastard Sons of Johnny Cash, and that we find a fresh perspective on William Shakespeare through the music of Blue Oyster Cult. I am not suggesting that we replace book-length texts with contemporary music and popular culture in the secondary English classroom. What I am suggesting is that we pair pieces of classic literature with contemporary music, allowing some of the natural, thematic connections to come to the surface and allowing our students to see these connections and their relevance to their own lives. As Steven Luebke (2005) writes:
We can perform the same close textual analysis on many song lyrics that literature classes have traditionally done for our canonical texts. We can discuss the social or political implications of songs in the same way we now do with standard literary texts. We can illuminate and make relevant what may appear to our students as the cryptic experiences of obscure humans in ancient times. (11)
Further, Weinberger (1998) connects the use of music to brain research: "Music offers great opportunities for communication and expression, for creativity and group cooperation-plus, it's good for the brain and can enhance learning and intellectual development" (39). Jensen (2000) agrees, "Music, when used as a carrier (or accompaniment) to content learning, provides a powerful superhighway straight to the brain. The value of embedding lyrics in music is that learning this way activates emotional responses, as well as memory in the auditory cortex" (84).
Today and now we arrive at another crossroads along the path of American education. One sure path forward follows the rhythms and lyrics of adolescence.
September 14, 2012
Allen, Graham. (2000). Intertextuality: The new critical idiom. New York: Routledge.
Chandler, Daniel. (2003). "Semiotics for beginners." See www.aber.ac.uk/ media/ Documents/ S4B/ sem09.html. Accessed November 5, 2003.
Jensen, E. (2000). Music with the brain in mind. San Diego, CA: The Brain Store.
Langer, J. A. & Close, E. (2001). Improving literacy understanding through classroom conversation. Albany, NY: National Research Center on English Learning and Achievement.
Langer, J. A. (1995). Envisioning literature: Literary understanding and literature instruction. Columbia: Teachers College Press.
Luebke, S. R. (2005). In defense of popular music. Paper presented at the annual joint meetings of the Popular Culture/American Culture Association (Philadelphia, PA, April 12-15, 1995). 10 June 2005 http://www.eric.ed.gov.
Morrell, E. & Duncan-Andrade, J. M. R. (July, 2002). Promoting academic literacy with urban youth through hip-hop culture. English Journal 91.6, 88-92.
Nagy, W. & Townsend, D. (2012). Response to Krashen. Reading Research Quarterly 47.3, 234.
Sturtevant, E.G.& Linek, W.M. (2003). The instructional beliefs and decisions of middle and secondary teachers who successfully blend literacy and content. Reading Research & Instruction, 43 (1), 74-90.
Thoman, Elizabeth. Media are the world; media literacy is the guidebook." Media & Values 61 (Winter 1993). 1 June 2003
Weinberger, N.M. (1998). The music in our minds. Educational leadership, 56:3, pp. 36-40.
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