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Virginia Journal of Education

Totally Tuned In

An Albemarle teacher uses contemporary music to teach language and literature.

By Michael J. Romick

I was in eighth grade, sitting in a classroom in Memorial Junior High in Fair Lawn, NJ. It now seems like eons ago, but if I close my eyes I can picture it vividly, like I’m almost there. My English and social studies teachers were co-teaching, and talking about things not always being what they seem. There was a record player in the room. I didn’t think much about it at first, but its presence did pique my 13-year-old curiosity (teachers didn’t play records).

Mr. Donovan had us turn to the Edwin Arlington Robinson poem “Richard Cory” in our textbooks, and he read while we followed along. Then he reached behind his desk and pulled out a Simon and Garfunkel album and, after removing the record from its sleeve, placed it on the record player, lifted the arm, and placed the needle on the LP. The classroom was immediately filled with the cool sound of coffeehouse folk music. My favorite singing duo was harmonizing about the same guy we’d just read about in the poem. I was stunned! My teachers were using a combination of poetry and current music to teach. I was totally engaged (although I didn’t know that term at the time) for perhaps the first time in my short academic career.

Flash forward more years than I would like to admit and I am now in my 10th year of teaching high school English, but still inspired by that one lesson from so long ago. I’ve built upon that wonderful combination of classic literature and “real world” examples by creating “Mr. Romick’s Song of the Week.” Each week I play a song for my students while having them read its lyrics as they listen (I project the lyrics on the board). It’s a great way to illustrate, to teach, and to make my students think. I use songs to teach literary elements, figures of speech, figurative language, poetic techniques and symbolism. I use songs to help students better understand and analyze the sometimes hidden, deeper meaning of stories, books and poems.

Using song lyrics has proven to be an effective and engaging way to help my 10th-graders master important Standards of Learning concepts, including allusions, idioms and connotations. And, by using song lyrics together with classic literature, I’m also able to show the evolution of language. 
At first it took quite a bit of time and effort to come up with a song for every week of the school year, but judging by my students’ interest, it’s more than worth it! They eagerly anticipate the Song of the Week, wondering what it will be and what secrets or hidden gems it might contain.

I find that some students, at first, are somewhat reluctant to believe that writers purposely use language figuratively, and that there are hidden meanings in books, stories and songs. We discuss that skepticism is healthy and talk about denotative and connotative meanings of words and phrases. I then illustrate how language is used figuratively in song lyrics and short stories, discussing how to read closely and the various levels of meaning of some works of literature.

Song lyrics also provide a wonderful inspiration for my students as they write narratives and poetry. In using songs of the week, I’ve found they find thoughts, emotions and ideas they can identify with in song lyrics that can then serve as a starting point for writing. Often, my students have told me of song lyrics that give voice to emotions or experiences they’ve had but were unable to express. This inspired me to have them find and share a song or poem they identify with personally. The sharing of these songs has led to some fantastic discussions and writing inspirations. I do this song-share early in the first semester as it also helps to establish the classroom as a safe, creative and interesting environment.  

Songs provide an excellent hook and help to add relevancy to important concepts for my students. A former high school English teacher, Christian Goering, who now serves as a literacy researcher at the University of Arkansas, agrees. He wrote this in a paper called “Springsteen, Steinbeck and The Bastard Sons of Johnny Cash: Connecting Music to Literature”: “What I am suggesting is that we pair pieces of classic literature with contemporary music, allowing some of the natural, thematic connections to come to the surface and allowing our students to see these connections and the relevance to their own lives.” He went on to say that using song lyrics together with classic literature can help students “discover layers of meaning in classic works,” and that using popular music also helps students develop and improve recognition and analytical skills.

One lesson I’ve refined over several years that’s proven to be particularly thought-provoking is about defining “home.” We first read Robert Frost’s “Death of a Hired Man,” which contains two often-quoted definitions of home. Then we listen to and read Bruce Springsteen’s “My Hometown,” and Simon and Garfunkel’s “Homeward Bound.” Students then write their own definition of home. I share some of my experiences of growing up (I lived in four different houses by the time I was in seventh grade) and what home means to me. Afterward, we discuss the various definitions we all have for that one word—“home.” It’s an effective learning experience using both classic literature and more recently-penned song lyrics, and a lesson in which students learn the evocative power of words and how many words have special connotative meanings in addition to their denotative meanings.

I encourage teachers to use songs with your students. You don’t have to do one every week, but I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the increased engagement of your students and all of the possibilities and teachable moments that using songs helps to create. I’m always careful to cite the author(s) and performing artist of each song.

Romick, a member of the Albemarle Education Association, teaches English at Albemarle High School.


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