Music and English learning go seemingly hand-in-hand. All around the world, songs are used to teach language, especially in primary schools. It is fantastic way to keep young children engaged. The problem, however, is that as the children get older, music becomes less and less used in any of the school subjects syllabi, despite the fact that teenagers are listening to music all the time on their smartphones. For those who teach high school students, the reasons for not including music in a curriculum are quite clear. Very few teenagers would ever sing in class in front of their peers. They are too cool for that now.
My colleague and I had this very discussion a few months ago, but we were still determined to find a way to get some music in our program. There are simply too many brilliant songs that we could use to engage our students, most of whom have no idea that songs could be about something other than just love, dancing or partying. A perfect example of this was when our students had to make a presentation about their favorite English songs. One young man chose to present Maroon 5's international hit, 'Moves like Jagger', but when I asked him who the song was about, he had no idea!
After several more occurrences such as this (several students who had never heard of U2), we decided to give it a go. However, seeing that there too many genres of music to choose from, we knew that we would have to narrow our focus down to songs that we could use in an academic context. Therefore, we finally decided upon finding songs that would make our students think. In other words, we would use songs that have various underlying themes, such as the environment, bullying or war, just to name a few, to lead us into a whole class discussion on that particular topic. We would also add several thematic consideration questions to help students better understand the lyrics, as well as help move the class conversation along. Then, for homework, the students would write their ideas and opinions of the song and discussion of it on our class PLN, Edmodo.
Finally, to take it even a step further, we would try to match up songs that share the same theme(s) as the readers and novels in our syllabus. After serious brainstorming sessions, and many hours spent on putting the videos and discussion questions together on Blendspace, we have come up with a list of more than 50 songs that we believe will get the students thinking and talking, and we call these Critically Thinking Music Videos.
To give you a better idea of how these mini-lessons work, here is an example of one of the first music videos that we discussed with our students, 'Another Day in Paradise', by Phil Collins. At the time, our students were reading the ESL version of A Christmas Carol. While working on the reader, we focused a lot on the underlying themes of poverty and homelessness, and introduced the subject of Dickensian era workhouses to the students. For this reason, we felt the addition of Collins' song would really get our students to empathize more with those who live in these dreadful situations. If you are not familiar with the song, watch the music video just below.
We left a 15-minute space in the last period to do the activity, which was a nice way to end a busy day. After introducing Phil Collins and basic information behind the song, we showed the music video to the students. Then, we asked them how they felt about the song, followed by the thematic questions we prepared on the Blendspace, pictured below. I was genuinely surprised when, during our class discussion, the majority of our students were engaged by the song. They simply couldn't believe that there could be a hit song about poverty and homelessness. It was not something they had ever heard before. These feelings were further reinforced that night when they wrote short responses to the song on Edmodo for homework. Our critical thinking music videos were a hit, or so it seemed.
Unfortunately, not every music video we have shown since then has been as successful. We teach a fickled group of 14 to 15 year-olds who typically enjoy doing something new the first time, as with Phil Collins, but when the second time comes round, they get bored very easily. Moreover, if the sound or rhythm of a song does not appeal to them, they automatically switch off. This happened when we showed U2's famous ballad, 'Where the Streets Have No Name'. Just two minutes into the song, they all stopped listening. We learned that it all depends on the student group you have. After the U2 debacle, for instance, we started choosing more upbeat music videos that would appeal more to them. 'War' by Edwin Starr was another winner.
In the end, these music videos have overall been a positive addition to our curriculum. They are a brilliant way to break up the day, and introduce the students to songs they would have otherwise never listened to. The activity leads to a engaging discussion where all students are involved. As with all new additions, though, it takes some time to find out which of the songs work best. The links to our videos can be reached below, or alternatively, they are always available on the right side of the blog. Try some out, and let us know if your students enjoy them or not.