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.