Using Music to Bring Life to Poetry

As it came time to teach the eleventh grade English curriculum’s required poetry unit, I looked for ways to bring the poetry alive for the students. I certainly found Robert Frost’s “Fire and Ice” intrinsically interesting, but would the students share my opinion? I soon realized that my fears were well-founded when I gave the students a pre-unit interest survey and received comments like, “Poetry is boring, at least most of it, like poems,” and “I don’t really like that much about poetry.” As William Ayers states in To Teach: The Journey of a Teacher, “[teachers] must respond to the real children coming through the door and find ways to teach them” (15). Instead of lamenting the lack of poetry scholars in my classroom, I decided to start small and meet the students on a common ground – music. While I initially saw music as a segue into formal poetry study, I soon realized that songs provided fertile ground for analysis and discussion in their own right.

I have always had an interest in music, beginning with the sound. I would sing along without truly noticing the words. As I matured, the words I sang began to register, and I realized the depth of expression that was possible through music. My attention turned to music with compelling lyrics.

As I observed the students in my classroom before school and in the hallway, they seemed to have the same fascination with music. From the Rage Against the Machine t-shirts that they wore, to the headphones they surreptitiously packed in their backpacks as they exited the buses, to the CDs they swapped, the students seemed to be immersed in a musical world. I planned to merge this world with the English classroom, and more specifically, the world of poetry.

Jabari Mahari explains the benefits of using the students’ backgrounds as an entry point to classroom activities. In his study, “the depth of learning engendered among their students and the extent of creativity unleashed was a direct result of the teachers acknowledging the students’ choices and interests in accessing the curriculum content.” (140). For instance, throughout the year, “Ms. Cato created entry points into the texts and the discussions, attempting to draw on student knowledge and interests as she perceived them” (124). When one student brought in a teen magazine with a “Gatsby” photo spread, Ms. Cato allowed room in her lesson for the students to compare their own knowledge and perceptions of The Great Gatsby with the images presented in the periodical (128). When Ms. Cato asked the students to think about the issue of truth, she paired a Depeche Mode song with a short story. “The ensuing discussion was animated by lots of laughter and total class involvement” (132).

In an article in Education Week, Charles Beadle, the president of a historically black boarding high school, explains how he follows a similar line of thought. He feels “If we can find a way to tap into the popular culture that captivates youngsters and use its power to motivate and educate, we will have a powerful teaching tool at our disposal” (14). Although his methods include recording a rap CD, the idea that “Young people will listen to and talk about things that they are ‘into'” (18) remains constant.

I selected four songs that I thought the students might be “into” to introduce the unit: “Bullet With Butterfly Wings” by The Smashing Pumpkins, “Fell on Black Days” by Soundgarden, “Wonderful” by Everclear and “She’s Leaving Home” by The Beatles. I framed the poetry unit around the idea of “confronting reality” to add coherence to the sequence of lessons. The first criteria for selection was that the songs dealt with the theme. “Bullet With Butterfly Wings” and “Fell On Black Days” both confront the fact that life hasn’t turned out as planned. There is also a certain element of confronting the reality of celebrity in both songs. “Wonderful” is about a young boy facing the reality of his parents’ divorce. “She’s Leaving Home” introduces a mother and father who are confronting the reality that they weren’t able to provide their daughter with a full and satisfying life.

In addition to their adherence to theme, I also selected three of the songs based on specific poetic qualities that I found in them. “Bullet With Butterfly Wings” starts off with a memorable metaphor; “The world is a vampire/sent to drain.” The song also contains Biblical allusions to Jesus and Job. “Fell on Black Days” creates several paradoxes like, “Whomsoever I’ve cured, I’ve sickened now/ Whomsoever I’ve cradled, I’ve put you down.” Finally, since “Wonderful” is written from the viewpoint of a young boy, it is a fine example of persona.

I played the songs in class over a three-day period, following the same format each time. I passed out printed lyrics and played the song. I would then introduce the literary device(s) each song contained so that the students could create a dictionary of poetry terms by the end of the unit. Finally, we would move on to a large and/or small group discussion of the meaning of the song. As a cumulative assessment for this portion of the unit, I asked the students to write an essay comparing two of the songs and the ways in which their authors present and deal with reality.

The students performed well on the essay. They seemed to find the ideas in these songs more accessible than they did in later pieces of poetry from the unit. While analyzing “Fell on Black Days,” one student observed that when “he said, ‘I’m only faking when I get it right,’ he feels like he is wrong so much that when he does get something right, he really doesn’t believe it.” She goes on to say that since black is a “dark and hurtful colorâÂ?¦all of his days are black and hurtful.” This student goes beyond the surface meaning of the words to analyze the mental state of the singer.

Another student dealt with “She’s Leaving Home” in her analysis and made the observation that when the parents in the song ask, “Why did she treat us so thoughtlessly,” “maybe they were being thoughtless to her” and “she doesn’t want all the material, money things.” This student has clearly determined the problem the girl faces in the song and her reason for leaving, which is vital to understanding why her parents don’t realize she is unhappy.

A third student became more philosophical in his analysis of “Wonderful.” He proposes that the singer “would rather hide from the problems and half-heartedly deal with them so he can validate himself, but play on the sympathy of others.” When this does not occur, “he has to force away the things that make him feel weak (i.e. hoping it’s over)âÂ?¦” He moves past the seemingly innocent persona of the young child and looks deeper to find motivation.

Another student compares the concept of being “a rat in a cage” to being stuck in the same spot. He states that the speaker in the song “says he’s been patient ‘like old Job,’ but it sounds like he’s at the end of his patience.” This student was able to use the song’s literary techniques of metaphor and allusion to further his analysis.

When I administered a post-unit survey, the general consensus was that the songs were the highlight of the unit. The first question asked what they had liked about the poetry unit. One student answered, “I liked hearing the songs, rather than reading a poem that someone wrote.” This student also requested some Metallica or AC/DC. Other students simply listed “songs” for this question or “play more songs” in their suggestions for improving the unit. I take that as a decided vote in favor of music as poetry.

So not only were the students able to analyze the songs successfully and learn skills they could transfer to other poetry, they enjoyed working with these songs. The students seemed genuinely interested in the material I was presenting and the ideas we were discussing. The boredom that sometimes surfaces wasn’t present when music was playing or when we were working with lyrics. Finally, the students saw their teacher in a new light. They gained a perspective on me outside of my role as an English teacher because I was sharing my musical interests with them.

Using music in the classroom is certainly not foolproof. One student expressed, “I did not like the choice of music only because I have never heard any of the songs.” While I’m constrained to a certain degree by the music I listen to and own, I will certainly consider ways to add variety to the music I select and to allow for more student input on the genres of music I play in the classroom. There are also issues with the appropriateness of lyrics. If you are allowing students to select their own songs to play in the classroom, be diligent. It may be intimidating if you’re dealing with music with which you are not familiar. However, it’s fairly simple to check lyrics beforehand. A little bit of caution will be well worth it in the long run.
While one student pushed for “more songs and less Walt Whitman poems,” I certainly don’t encourage completely dropping Walt Whitman and poets of his caliber in favor of the latest rock, rap or pop group. I do think that music can provide a link between the students’ everyday experiences and the often foreign language of poetry study. So turn on MTV, pick up a copy of Rolling Stone and expand your poetry curriculum.

Works Cited
Ayers, William. To Teach: The Journey of a Teacher. Teachers College Press: New York, 1993.
Beady, Charles. “Whatever It Takes 2 Motivate 2-Daze Youth.” Education Week 11 Apr. 2001.
The Beatles. “She’s Leaving Home.” Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Capitol Records, Inc., 1987.
Everclear. “Wonderful.” Songs from an American Movie Vol. 1: Learning How to Smile. Capitol Records, Inc., 2000.
Mahiri, Jabari. Shooting for Excellence : African American and Youth Culture in New Century Schools. Teachers College Press: New York, 1999.
The Smashing Pumpkins. “Bullet With Butterfly Wings.” Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. Virgin, 1995.
Soundgarden. “Fell on Black Days.” A-Sides. A&M Records, 1997.

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