Making History Come Alive Through Poetry and Song
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This lesson pairs a magazine article about the Edmund Fitzgerald shipwreck in 1975 with the Gordon Lightfoot song, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” After comparing and contrasting the elements of each text, students will choose a historical event and, using the song as a model, create a narrative poem about their chosen event.
In addition, more contemporary songs and current events will also work for this activity.
- Gordon Lightfoot: "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald": This site provides historical background on the shipwreck, links to the lyrics and music, as well as links to additional Edmund Fitzgerald websites and news articles.
- Prewriting Chart: Students will use the chart to brainstorm and organize their ideas before drafting their poems.
- Historical Poem Checklist: Students will use the checklist as a guide while they draft, revise, and edit their poems.
From Theory to Practice
Increasing student interest and motivation is a constant concern for teachers. Incorporating history and music into an English Language Arts lesson can serve to “motivate students, increase student achievement, [and] promote positive attitudes toward subject matter” (Cruickshank). NCTE echoes this idea in its Position Statement on Multimodal Literacies, noting, “It is the interplay of meaning-making systems (alphabetic, oral, visual, etc.) that teachers should strive to study and produce. ‘Multiple ways of knowing’ also include…music.”
In its “Adolescent Literary: A Policy Research Brief,” NCTE also notes that “allowing student choice in writing tasks…can increase motivation.” Further, NCTE asserts that “self-selection and variety engage students by enabling ownership in literacy activities.”
Cruickshank, Douglas. "Kaleidoscopic Learning: An Overview of Integrated Studies." Edutopia. The George Lucas Foundation, 7 Oct. 2008. Web. 30 Aug. 2012. http://www.edutopia.org/integrated-studies-interdisciplinary-learning-overview.
Common Core Standards
This resource has been aligned to the Common Core State Standards for states in which they have been adopted. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, CCSS alignments are forthcoming.
This lesson has been aligned to standards in the following states. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, standard alignments are not currently available for that state.
NCTE/IRA National Standards for the English Language Arts
- 1. Students read a wide range of print and nonprint texts to build an understanding of texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of the United States and the world; to acquire new information; to respond to the needs and demands of society and the workplace; and for personal fulfillment. Among these texts are fiction and nonfiction, classic and contemporary works.
- 3. Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts. They draw on their prior experience, their interactions with other readers and writers, their knowledge of word meaning and of other texts, their word identification strategies, and their understanding of textual features (e.g., sound-letter correspondence, sentence structure, context, graphics).
- 4. Students adjust their use of spoken, written, and visual language (e.g., conventions, style, vocabulary) to communicate effectively with a variety of audiences and for different purposes.
- 5. Students employ a wide range of strategies as they write and use different writing process elements appropriately to communicate with different audiences for a variety of purposes.
- 6. Students apply knowledge of language structure, language conventions (e.g., spelling and punctuation), media techniques, figurative language, and genre to create, critique, and discuss print and nonprint texts.
- 7. Students conduct research on issues and interests by generating ideas and questions, and by posing problems. They gather, evaluate, and synthesize data from a variety of sources (e.g., print and nonprint texts, artifacts, people) to communicate their discoveries in ways that suit their purpose and audience.
- 8. Students use a variety of technological and information resources (e.g., libraries, databases, computer networks, video) to gather and synthesize information and to create and communicate knowledge.
- 11. Students participate as knowledgeable, reflective, creative, and critical members of a variety of literacy communities.
Materials and Technology
- Computers with Internet access and word processing capability
- LCD Projector/overhead projector
- CD player/MP3 player/computer with speakers
- Copies of article “The Cruelest Month” (available online or at your local library)
- Copies of “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” lyrics
This site provides historical background on the shipwreck, links to the lyrics and music, as well as links to additional Edmund Fitzgerald websites and news articles.
This site includes an extensive amount of information on conducting Internet research and evaluating websites, including surveys to guide students as they complete their research.
This site, from the Academy of American Poets, contains brief definitions and examples of poetic devices.
Students and teachers will find step-by-step instructions on how to cite sources using MLA format.
- If your classroom does not have computer access, arrange for class time in the computer lab.
- Make copies of “The Cruelest Month,” “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” lyrics, Prewriting Chart, Historical Poem Checklist, Historical Poem Rubric, and Reflection Sheet.
- Prepare a montage of song clips about historical events. Suggestions: Toby Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue,” Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” Nena’s “99 Luftballons,” Kanye West’s “Diamonds from Sierra Leone,” The Cranberries’ “Zombie,” or U2’s “Sunday Bloody Sunday.”
- Depending on your students’ familiarity with research and citations, you may wish to spend time teaching these concepts. See the ReadWriteThink lesson Wading Through the Web: Teaching Internet Research Strategies for more information. You may also wish to refer to Critical Evaluation of Information or Purdue Online Writing Lab.
- Depending on your students’ comfort level with reading and writing poetry, you may decide to spend time teaching or reviewing these concepts. See the ReadWriteThink lessons What is Poetry? Contrasting Poetry and Prose or Poetry: Sound and Sense for ideas. You may also wish to refer to Poetic Forms & Techniques for brief definitions and examples of poetic devices.
- Test the Venn Diagrams to familiarize yourself with the tool.
- read, analyze, and compare a news article and poem on the same topic.
- use research techniques to find historical events of interest.
- compose a poem inspired by the historical event of their choosing.
- Begin class by playing the montage of song clips about historical events.
- Pose the question: Can you guess what each of those songs has in common? Encourage students to share their guesses with the class. If no one is able to guess correctly, tell students that each of those songs is about events in history. You may wish to point out one or two songs in particular and briefly explain the event (For example, Toby Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue” is a response to 9-11).
- Tell students that they will also have the chance to write about their responses to a historical event, but first the class will look at an example together.
- Distribute copies of “The Cruelest Month.” Explain to students that the article is from Newsweek magazine in 1975 and describes an event in history.
- Have students read the article (silently or aloud).
- Ask students to highlight or underline major facts in the article. They should consider the 5 W’s and H: who, what, where, when, why, and how.
- Lead students through a discussion of their findings, prompting them with the 5 W’s and H as needed.
- Tell students that a songwriter named Gordon Lightfoot also read the same article. He was moved by the tragedy, so he decided to write a song about it as a tribute.
- Distribute copies of “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” lyrics.
- Ask students to highlight or underline any facts from the article that Lightfoot uses in his song.
- Play the song while students follow along with the lyrics. Students should highlight facts as they listen.
- Ask students to re-read the lyrics, this time noting poetic devices and narrative techniques they find. Students should mark the text as they re-read. Elements they might look for include:
- internal rhyme
- figurative language
- chronological order
- use of emotion
- Model the use of the Venn Diagram interactive. Then have students use the interactive to compare and contrast the article and song.
- Discuss student findings. How are the article and song similar? How are they different? How does Lightfoot transform the factual article into a poetic song? What facts from the article did Lightfoot include in his song? What elements does he include that are not found in the Newsweek article?
- Encourage students to add to their notes during the discussion. Point out literary devices (tone, for example) that students may have missed.
- Remind students of yesterday’s discussion comparing the Edmund Fitzgerald article and song.
- Introduce the historical poem assignment. Explain to students that they will use the song as a model for their own poems. You may also wish to provide students with the list of songs used in the montage from Session One as additional examples.
- Depending on your students’ familiarity with online research techniques, you may want to discuss how to evaluate a web site. Refer to the ReadWriteThink lesson Wading Through the Web: Teaching Internet Research Strategies or the Critical Evaluation of Information.
- If your students are unfamiliar with using MLA format to cite sources, you will want to devote class time to discuss the guidelines. Refer to the Purdue Online Writing Lab for more information.
- Allow time for students to research historical events on the Internet. You may wish to approve each student’s topic before they continue with the assignment.
- Once students have selected a topic, they should narrow down one or two articles they plan to use to write their poems. Remind students that they will use their articles to write a poem, just as Gordon Lightfoot used “The Cruelest Month” to write his song.
- Model an example of a bibliography using an LCD projector. You may also wish to create a sample bibliography as a class.
- Students should create a bibliography using MLA format to document the articles they selected.
- Distribute the Prewriting Chart and allow students time to complete it.
- Distribute the Historical Poem Checklist and Historical Poem Rubric. Discuss the requirements of the assignment before students begin. Clarify any questions students may have on how their poems will be evaluated.
- Allow time for students to draft a poem about the article(s) they have chosen.
- Students should refer to the Prewriting Chart, Historical Poem Checklist and Historical Poem Rubric as they compose.
- Encourage students to use the Gordon Lightfoot song as a model for their own poem.
- Students may choose to write their poems freeform or based on a specific poetic form. Depending on students’ comfort level with poetry, teachers may opt to use the Diamante Poems, Acrostic Poems and Line Break Explorer tools to structure students’ poem.
- As the class works, circulate through the room and conference with students as needed.
- Students may also wish to ask their peers for feedback as they write and revise their poems.
- Students should finish final revisions and editing of their poems.
- Allow time for students to share their poems with their classmates, either as a whole class, or in small groups.
- Distribute the Reflection Sheet and have students complete before submitting their poems.
- Teachers may wish to use more contemporary songs and events as models for the lesson. Consider:
- Bruce Springsteen’s “The Rising” about the 9-11 terrorist attacks
- Melissa Etheridge’s “Scarecrow” about the murder of Matthew Shepard
- You may also find appropriate songs in the lesson, “A Collaboration of Sites and Sounds: Using Wikis to Catalog Protest Songs”
- Have students share their historical event and poem to the class as an oral presentation.
Student Assessment / Reflections
- Use the Prewriting Chart for formative assessment before students write their poems.
- Use the Historical Poem Rubric to guide your formal evaluation and feedback of the finished poems.
- Students can assess their own work by completing a Reflection Sheet.
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