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HomeClassroom ResourcesLesson Plans

Lesson Plan

The History Behind Song Lyrics

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The History Behind Song Lyrics

Grades 6 – 8
Lesson Plan Type Unit
Estimated Time Seven 50-minute sessions
Lesson Author

Lisa Storm Fink

Lisa Storm Fink

Urbana, Illinois

Publisher

National Council of Teachers of English

 

Student Objectives

Session One

Sessions Two and Three: Research

Sessions Four and Five: Final Projects

Session Six: Work on Final Projects

Session Seven: Project Presentations

Extensions

Student Assessment/Reflections

 

STUDENT OBJECTIVES

Students will:

  • analyze a song to critically examine the subject addressed.
  • identify the people, places and events addressed in a song.
  • research information presented in song lyrics.
  • interpret song lyrics based on contextual clues and research information.
  • chart their research using an online graphic organizer.
  • synthesize their learning through completion of a project related to song lyrics.

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Session One

  1. Begin this lyrical study by asking the students if they can think of any songs—classic or contemporary—that discuss history and times passed. Some examples may include “1985” by Bowling for Soup, “American Pie” by Don McLean, and even songs from Schoolhouse Rock. Ideally, students will be able to share many titles and musical genres.  For song ideas, visit this Free Technology for Teachers blog post.
  2. Explain that the class will critically listen to such a song that discusses historical events, discovering the meaning and the history involved.
  3. Play the song “We Didn’t Start the Fire” by Billy Joel, or show the music video if it is available.
  4. Ask the students if they have ever heard the song and if they recognize the artist.
  5. Invite students to share other song titles by Billy Joel.
  6. Ask students to take out a piece of paper and fold it into fourths. The columns on the paper should be labeled with the following headings: People, Places, Events, and Uncertain.
  7. Play the song again. This time, ask students to jot down as many people, places and events as they are able while they listen to the song.
  8. After the song concludes, invite students to share and discuss the items that they identified as they listened to the lyrics.
  9. Distribute the song lyrics to the students and allow them time to read and think about the lyrics.
  10. Play the song a third time, with the students following along with the lyrics.
  11. Explain how Billy Joel used events, terms, and people associated with a certain time period in history to create the lyrics for this song. Except for the chorus, the song is a collection of words and phrases focused on historical events, people, and places.
  12. Invite students to share what they know about the information in the song.
  13. Ask the students if they know why the lyrics are divided where they are.
  14. Lead a discussion that includes the following questions: “Why do you think these events were selected? What events do you think were left off? Why? ”
  15. Divide students into project groups, and assign each group a section of the song.
  16. Explain that groups will determine the relevance of each of the words and phrases in their section of the song. By researching and interviewing, students will assign to each event, person, and place an approximate date, location, significance in history, and any contemporary connection. All this information will be recorded in an Online Chart.
  17. If there is time, invite students to find and share any trivia related to the events, people and places.

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Sessions Two and Three: Research

  1. Before beginning the research process, share the Rubric with the students so that they know the goals for the assignment.
  2. With your assistance, students should research their selected topics to answer the Lyrics Research Questions.
  3. Encourage students to make the most of the available resources for their research, including their library media center and computer lab. Point out books, magazines, newspapers, and other periodicals that include pertinent information as well as Web resources, such as the Decades: A Study of the 20th Century page, that will help students identify information about their topics.
  4. In addition to the typical research mediums, explain that students will interview community members about their section of the song. This step is crucial as some of the topics or items mentioned in the song and not found in typical research mediums.
  5. Students can create their own interview questions, or use the Guiding Questions handout.
  6. Assist the students as they research. Help them to determine keywords, or evaluate the effectiveness of a text or Website.
  7. Students will be recording their information using the Online Chart. This can then be printed and used as part of the final project.

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Sessions Four and Five: Final Projects

  1. When the students have completed their research and their Online Chart, present the list of project ideas, and invite students to share any additional project ideas they have.
  2. Once students have selected their project type from the list of project ideas, present the options for publishing their research findings and displaying their final project:
    • Create a newspaper, flyer, booklet, or brochure with their research using the Printing Press.
    • Create a 6-page booklet about their findings, using the Stapleless Book.
    • Use the Multigenre Mapper to create a project using multiple genres such as illustrations, poetry, quotations, biographical information, and recipes.
    • Chart the high and low points of the decade they’ve studied with the Graphic Map.
    • Record the data from their time period using the Interactive Timeline.

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Session Six: Work on Final Projects

  1. Allow time in class for the completion of the students’ final projects.

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Session Seven: Project Presentations

  1. When all of the projects are completed, invite the students to share what they have learned:
    • Students can share their research from the Billy Joel song lyrics.
    • Students can share their selection from the final project ideas.

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EXTENSIONS

  • Students can categorize all of the items listed in the song, using their own categories. Ask students to justify the placement of each item. For example, if Marilyn Monroe is placed in a Tragedy category, students would identify the things about her life that were tragic (e.g., her suicide, her unhappy marriages). If Marilyn Monroe is placed instead in the Hollywood category, students would identify information about her movie career that tied her to the category.
  • Set up categories yourself and ask students to place the people, places and events from the song in the correct location. These categories work well:
    • Political/International Relations/Military Events
    • Economic/Scientific/Technological Developments
    • Social/Cultural Developments
  • Repeat this project with the movie Forrest Gump. Unbeknownst to him, Forrest, the protagonist, finds himself in the middle of many important American places and events.
  • Using the Timeline Tool, students can place items in their correct place in history. It would be interesting to see if students place the items in the same year as they are in the song.
  • Challenge the students to think and learn more about the connection between poetry and music. Invite the students to set some of their original poetry to music or rewrite new lyrics for existing music.
  • Extend your students' study of music in the classroom with one or more of these lesson plans from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum.

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STUDENT ASSESSMENT/REFLECTIONS

  • Using the Self-Reflection questions, ask students to think about the steps they took as they worked on this assignment—what they had problems with, how they worked out their problems, and how they feel about their final project and presentation.
  • Use the Rubric to evaluate students’ work on the research, group work, final project and presentation.

 

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