Teachers at Work

A column about teaching

Using Music to Connect Literature

Almost 30 years ago, back in the stone ages of 1983 when records debuted on vinyl and the idea of iTunes just another science fiction, my Advanced Placement English teacher Claudine Vignery taught me something I still use today. She taught me that everything is connected. At the end of a unit she'd let us listen to music. She'd pick out a song, put it on the record player, and for around three to four minutes we'd sit quietly and listen.

She brought in Kate Bush's "Wuthering Heights" after we'd read the Emily Bronte novel of the same name. "Heathcliff, it's me, Cathy, I've come home..." Bush would wail. We could lose ourselves, envisioning Cathy being "so cold" out on the moors.

Mrs. Vignery tied T.S. Eliot's poem "The Hollow Men" to Joseph Conrad's novel "Heart of Darkness," and at the end of the unit we listened to Toto's "Africa." The band Toto would sing "I bless the rains down in Africa" and we would listen to the song and feel the soulful mood. We felt the beat of the drums. That idea of layering, of connecting literature to what was going on in our present world, took us beyond today's read-memorize-assess mentality. We applied skills. We used our imaginations.

Today, despite all the recent educational theory of "teach this way" or "don't teach that way," I harken back to how I learned in Mrs. Vignery's classroom. Long before people talked about learning styles or differentiated instruction, Mrs. Vignery was finding ways to connect her students to the real world. She was taking students, many of whom would go on to MIT, Washington University, or Yale, and infusing pop culture (something many of the upper end students find irrelevant unless they're questing to someday be on "Jeopardy").

So, even though not one of my educational classes ever mentioned music, I infuse it anywhere I can, like in "The Song Project," which you can find on this website. I also do what Mrs. Vignery did. I make connections.

A few weeks ago I connected Switchfoot's song "Meant to Live" to John Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men" and Robert Burns' "To a Mouse." Lightbulbs came over my students' heads as, a song that most of them knew, suddenly took on a new meaning. Natalie said, "I listened to that all the time and this was the first time I heard the line ‘or whether mice and men get second tries.'" Suddenly, for Natalie and others, a song they'd heard went to a new level. Natalie came back later and told me, "Do you know that's (St. Louis Cardinal) Matt Holliday's song every time he's up to bat?" She'd connected the song even further, finding the reason behind that particular choice of song.

I use other songs as well. Since I don't want my students to think T.S. Eliot is all doom and gloom, I taught Eliot's "Macavity." Then I played the Youtube clip of the song's stage performance and told my students some of the background of the musical "Cats." Only two of my 60 English III students had seen or heard of "Cats." They were intrigued, and we began discussing Broadway shows like "Mamma Mia," something the kids on the FBLA trip to NYC had just seen. The next day, after my lesson, Jack, one of my students, told me there was a local St. Louis band that had used T.S. Eliot and his poetry as the inspirations for almost all of their songs. Now, after learning about Eliot and his history with St. Louis, Jack, an aspiring musician himself, understood why.

There are many ways music can be tied into the teaching of literature. As one of their optional projects for "To Kill a Mockingbird," my students can create 10-song CDs that represent 10 scenes in the novel and then create liner notes that explain why they chose the songs. My younger daughter had to do a similar project for "Romeo & Juliet" and she chose the band Receiving End of Sirens and chose its song "...Then, I Defy You Stars" to illustrate the scene in which Romeo says the same thing. In fact, the band's album "Between the Heart and Synapse" is filled with songs based entirely on Shakespeare's works.  Other classroom activities can include picking five songs that represent the character's character arc and writing paragraphs explaining why. You can also have your students begin searching their iTunes libraries for songs that use literary allusions.

Music can also be used to connect to history as well. The Wii game "Just Dance 2" has a Boney M. song entitled "Rasputin." I often wonder if the kids dancing to it even know who he is or how his actions helped spur on the Russian Revolution (although the song does tell you some history). And my oldest daughter, who is headed to Kent State in the fall, knows all about the May 4, 1970 tragic shooting there, and how it inspired Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young to write their song "Ohio." And one can easily connect Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Fortunate Son" to the Vietnam War (along with much of the "Forrest Gump" movie soundtrack). For more contemporary issues, you can just look to the music out today, such as John Rich's "Shuttin' Down Detroit" which deals with the auto manufacturing bailout. I'm sure you can easily find more.

Lyricists and musicians are like novelists and poets in that their creations often come from the heart and reflect the world around them. As teachers, we need to connect these things to our students' lives so that they begin to see cause/effect relationships and so they begin to see the lines of connection. Doing so creates relevance and interest, and continues to nurture their desire for learning and exploration, something that often gets lost in the tediousness of the test-based classroom environments currently being foisted on us. By infusing something fresh and providing perspective that comes with a musical beat, we can create new rhythms and provide some harmony in a chaotic learning world.

PS—In the comments I'd love if you share some of your music choices and how they connect.


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Michele Dunaway is an award-winning English and journalism teacher who, in addition to teaching English III, advises the student newspaper, yearbook and news website at Francis Howell High School in St. Charles, MO. In 2009, the Journalism Education Association awarded Michele with its Medal of Merit. She has received recognition as a Distinguished Yearbook Adviser in the H.L. Hall Yearbook Adviser of the Year competition and was named a Special Recognition Newspaper Adviser by the Dow Jones News Fund. She also practices what she teaches by authoring professional journal articles and writing novels. Look for an upcoming Christmas-themed book from St. Martin’s Press later in 2014. Click here to read more articles by Michele Dunaway.

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Comments from our users:

Thursday May 24th 2012, 1:47 AM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
Vinyl debuted in 1983? You mean the LP? Wasn't that closer to 1948?
Thursday May 24th 2012, 6:18 AM
Comment by: Monica Y. (Huntsville, AL)
(I took it to mean when an album was released, it was released on vinyl as opposed to a cd or being released directly to iTunes; maybe I am wrong, but that is how I understood it).

Music is a wonderful way to bring words to life and at the same time bring an added layer to the music. It's almost like finding a small treasure hidden within the lyrics when I make a connection between literature and a song.
Thursday May 24th 2012, 8:18 AM
Comment by: Derek B. (Moorpark, CA)
In 1968 while at CSU, I took freshman English whereby our professor encouraged this same recognition of connection. I remember this because it was one of the rare cases in which I received (actually earned) an A grade. I had written out the entire lyrics to the Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young...."Helplessly Hoping"...in answer to a question about alliteration.

Michele, I really enjoy your postings. I now 'interview' my chatacters in notebooks when I get writers block during writing of my stories.

What a Wonderful World.
Thursday May 24th 2012, 8:53 AM
Comment by: begum F.Top 10 Commenter
"The Song Project," is a refreshed idea to make connections in teen ager's busy life. I loved that.
I thought some links will be available at the end of or in between the column in order to able to make connections easily. Now I need to take help from You Tube any way.
I am very fond of country music, those lyrics and the wordings. Using very simple words these songs depict the true color of ordinary people's life. In fact it is the reality for all class of people's living.
I am with a science major crediting your stone aged teacher(Claudine Vignery)for teaching you a very fundamental message of science: Everything is connected.
Thursday May 24th 2012, 8:54 AM
Comment by: Sérgio V. (Brasília Brazil)
Our brain is always associating something! It works in this way ! Because of this the internet growth quickly ! Do you rememeber the hiperlink era ?
Thursday May 24th 2012, 11:26 AM
Comment by: Jeffery F.
For history teachers, Billy Joel's "We Didn't Start the Fire" cleverly encapsulates the period from the late 1940s through the beginning of the 1980s.
Thursday May 24th 2012, 3:00 PM
Comment by: Laura B. (Toronto Canada)
@Roger: She didn't mean vinyl debuted in 1983. She meant that 1983 was the year the class took place, and at that particular point in time, albums were only coming out on vinyl.
Thursday May 24th 2012, 4:41 PM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
Thanks, Laura B. The mind can do strange erroneous misinterpretations at times! I now get it.
Friday May 25th 2012, 9:56 AM
Comment by: greg K. (blaine, MN)
My High School english composition class listened to Pink Floyds Atom Heart Mother (the 'cow' album) and then wrote a story about what we heard. I have wondered since then whether music inspires images, or we have preconceived images that people have told us music represents.
Friday May 25th 2012, 1:19 PM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
GGreat point, Greg.
It is the same concept I have pondered for 70 years!
In the 1930's, vivid images have remained in my "visual brain" that derived from the many RADIO programs we then lived on in those pre-TV years.
I Love A Mystery, Little Orphan Annie, X minus One, The Shadow, etc. All these auditory sources are rife with VISUAL images.
Where does this visual richness derive?
Saturday May 26th 2012, 7:37 AM
Comment by: Hopping for Philology (MI)
Greetings Michele! As a guitar player, I use music in my classroom whenever possible. But your article reminded me of an activity I once put together. Some years back, when I had more wiggle room in my curriculum, each class was required to put a stage act together for the annual school program. My 6th graders and I listened to "The Point" by Harry Nilsson. You may recall the hit song off that album, "Me and My Arrow." Based on the story of little Oblio, the boy with no point, we wrote our own play. Not only was the show a hit with the rest of the school, I was able to launch into other classroom activities and discussions about individuality and community, point of view and justice.
Wednesday July 4th 2012, 10:00 AM
Comment by: Madeline T.
I, too, have used music in my classroom to reinforce or introduce themes in literature. When my 9th grade students read "Marigolds," by Eugenia Collier, I played The Waifs' "Fourth Floor" in class. Students made the connections and some even discovered a new band whose work they followed. I have used music to snag interest and to elucidate; my students remember and build on what we discuss more effectively when the ideas are connected to another genre or discipline. The kids also appear to be having fun at the same time!

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