I’m tickled pink and very honored to be invited to guest post for Minds in Bloom. Thanks for the wisdom, warmth, and fabulous materials you share with us all, Rachel. You are truly amazing.
Once upon a time, in the town of Santa Barbara, lived a little boy who was quirky beyond belief. Gifted, sweet, funny–he refused to hear anybody’s drummer but his own. More times than not, when other kids were playing baseball, he’d be off swinging on a swing.
The munchkin’s mom, also the music teacher at his school, was highly amused by her son’s unusual personality. One day, she penned a song about her little nonconformist. When she brought the song to school, it became an instant hit. All of a sudden, every last student insisted on being a nonconformist “like the boy in the song!” “Different” became the new “cool.” Kids changed their attitudes overnight.
And I remember thinking, “Really? All it takes is a song?”
Yes, you guessed it. I was the mom with the quirky kid. And ever since then, I have used lyrics to teach life skills, social studies, and creative writing. Whenever I want to inspire students to care more about the world, to be more thoughtful, to express themselves on paper, or to think more deeply, I just find the right song–or rather, the right lyrics–and we’re there. Lyrics have become my magic formula.
“Wow. This song really helps! It solves my problem!” I get that a lot.
And just to be clear, it doesn’t take a music teacher to teach with lyrics. All it takes is a teacher who enjoys mixing things up a bit with her class.
Trick or Treat
Since Halloween is soon approaching, I’m going to use the song “Scary Guy” as my example of how a teacher might teach with a song.
The lyrics to “Scary Guy” encourage kids to stay positive. “Scary Guy” points out that dreary friends are actually quite a snore. It can be draining to hang around a lot of negativity! Why choose friends who bring us down? Who put us down? And when a person ponders properly, isn’t a bully nothing more than a silly ghoul?
I find a light touch works wonders. When we teach kids to take themselves less seriously, it’s like putting lots of money in their emotional banks. They stand taller, stay happy, do better in school—the perks are endless! “Scary Guy” is a great example of a song that takes a light approach. The lyrics offer up insight while they make us laugh.
Possible Ways to Use “Scary Guy” in the Classroom:
- Lyrics are passed out, and we listen to the song together as a class.
- Now we take a minute to identify the genre. Dance music? Retro? Blues? Country? Where does this song plant its feet? I like to share songs from varied genres to broaden musical horizons. (“Scary Guy” is a “retro” tune–a “blast from the past,” as most Halloween tunes are.)
- If time allows, I teach a song to students and have them sing it. This is the best possible way for the song’s wisdom to hit its mark. Lyrics stick like glue–handing kids a clue–for life!
- If there’s not enough time for singing, a teacher can play a well chosen song in class whenever music is being played. This quietly presents the song’s message and familiarizes the students with the lyrics.
- A quick written assignment based on “Scary Guy” might be to have students make a list of negative comments. Next, have students re-phrase the original comment into “positive speak,” creating a positivity list. How could a person express themselves more gently? What other word choices might they use to say what they need say?
- We share and discuss the above as a class.
- Two students at a time have a short conversation in front of the class. We try on our new more positive phrases and explore how they feel.
- A longer writing assignment might be: “Would you rather be a good guy or a ghoul? Please explain your choice.” Hopefully, the answer is good person!
- Students who enjoy drawing can draw a cartoon that shows two people in a conversation. What would each say? How would they frame comments in a positive versus negative light? Maybe one person could be dressed like a vampire, another like an angel. There are endless possibilities for humor here.
- A favorite! Write a verse and a chorus for your own poem or song around the topic of positivity using the Halloween theme. Extra credit: Make a one minute video and share it with the class. This song, poem, and video can be an individual project or created by students working in teams. For example, I once met a ghoul from New York…He always calls me a dork… Haha! Hopefully there’s a better rhyme to be found for “York,” but it is the message that counts.
Choosing the right song is key–but where does one look? Indie tunes, when focused on life, not romantic love, can be full of marvelous insights. Wisdom-packed sixties songs are pretty easy to find. Many country tunes are packed with wisdom and insightful humor. Dance tunes can be fun to sing but, honestly, are not usually that viable as classroom “think deep” adventures. They tend to be a bit one dimensional–but there are a few.
Think back to your own childhood. Was there a song that really touched you and made you think? Share it with your class sharing the story of how it made you think more deeply. They’ll love the personal touch.
“Off the beaten path” songs that no one has really heard of can be golden. YouTube can be a virtual treasure chest if one has the time to go exploring. Also, it’s always exciting when a student discovers a thought-provoking song and brings it to class. I call these kids “song detectives.” By searching out golden lyrics on their own students learn to appreciate better writing and are inspired to write with more depth themselves.
As a pro songwriter, I have one luxury most teachers don’t have. When I can’t find what I need, I just write what I need. But here’s an idea for the bravest teachers: How about writing a song as a class wrapped around a history lesson? Wow, what a way to make history interesting! If you’re stumped by the melody/music part of the equation, use an existing tune–or write a positive rap on a gentle drum beat. The boys in your class will especially love that!
At first your students may tell you they only want to sing songs they know. Well, hello, who’s the boss? I guarantee, once you present enough interesting songs to your class, they will change their tune completely. I’ve seen this happen over and over again.
It doesn’t take long before students not only begin appreciating rich meaningful lyrics, but they’ll also insist on them! Congrats! You have now made a huge dent in young perceptions by teaching your students to stay open to new musical adventures instead of just being little media driven robots walking around on automatic. You have, in one swoop of solid faith, helped your students develop a more sophisticated musical pallet for life! Wow. That’s something.
Young people ache to feel grown up. You are handing them deeper life wisdom, which makes them feel wise. When they feel wise, they feel more grown up, and that makes them feel happy! No-brainer. Win-win. At least this has been my experience. I can’t tell you the amount of times I have heard, “It’s so cool to have songs that actually help me with my life!”
And may we all, as teachers, be just a little nonconformist. 🙂
A sampling of songs with great lyrics:
Lessia Bonn is the songwriting force behind I am Bullyproof Music. She has been writing for and producing gifted young singers for years. Her songbirds include Jessie Bridges (daughter of actor, Jeff) and Rachel Sand, an actor who shares a manager with Hilary Duff. Lessia served as a songwriter/music teacher/life counselor to a giant pop tween and teen choir known as “Lessia’s Crew” for nearly a decade. She works in elementary classrooms, consults for musical productions, and is the proud mom of two wonderful sons.