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Songs of the Times

Feed teens’ appetite for popular music with this lesson inspired by songs that reflect the times in which they were written.

  • Grades 7 and 8
  • Multiple Lesson Periods
  • Directions

    1. Introduce the lesson by playing several popular songs that clearly reflect the times in which they were written. One example is the 19th century song, “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” which told escaping slaves to follow the North Star (part of the Big Dipper) to freedom. The 1960’s produced many protest songs. “Abraham, Martin, and John” is a clear reference to the assassinations of Lincoln, King, and Kennedy. “Imagine” by John Lennon expressed a longing for a better world in the midst of war and political upheaval. Ask students if they can imagine a world without music. Does music play a role in our lives beyond mere entertainment? How does music reflect the era in which it was written?
    2. Have students form small groups and ask each group to brainstorm a list of other songs which they feel reflect the societies that produced them. Can students think of current songs that reflect society today?
    3. Reconvene the class and discuss songs suggested by the student groups. What eras do they represent? How do they reflect what was going on in those times? What images do they paint in listeners’ minds?
    4. Ask each student to select one of the songs discussed or briefly research the music of a particular era in order to find a song that reflects that era. Encourage them to obtain and read the full text of the song thinking about what it might have meant to the people living in the era when it was written.
    5. Invite students to illustrate their songs using Crayola® Crayons, Colored Pencils, Markers, or Paints. Suggest that they think in terms of symbolic images rather than specific details. How can they best convey the mood and message of the song with visual images? Remind them to choose colors in keeping with the mood of the era. Music from the “Roaring 20’s” tended to be loud and joyful while protest songs reflected a darker mood. Some students may wish to create a background first with color(s) that establish a mood and then superimpose other images over that in a collage effect.
    6. Ask them to incorporate the song title and an approximate date somewhere within the illustration.
    7. Once illustrations are complete, invite students to share them with the class. What do students know about the eras represented? What do individual songs reflect about those eras? What visual images have students chosen to illustrate their songs? How do those images also reflect the eras in which the songs were written? How have students used color to reflect the moods of the eras?
    8. If several students have chosen songs from the same era, compare the songs and the accompanying illustrations. What conclusions can the audience draw about the eras based on the music and art?
  • Standards

    LA: Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze its development over the course of the text; provide an objective summary of the text.

    LA: Evaluate the advantages and disadvantages of using different mediums (e.g., print or digital text, video, multimedia) to present a particular topic or idea.

    LA: Conduct short research projects to answer a question (including a self-generated question), drawing on several sources and generating additional related, focused questions that allow for multiple avenues of exploration.

    LA: Engage effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grade level topics, texts, and issues, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly.

    SS: Describe ways in which language, stories, folktales, music, and artistic creations serve as expressions of culture and influence behavior of people living in a particular culture.

    SS: Identify and use various sources for reconstructing the past, such as documents, letters, diaries, maps, textbooks, photos, and others.

    VA: Students will investigate, plan and work through materials and ideas to make works of art and design.

    VA: Students demonstrate how creative thinking and artmaking skills transfer to many aspects of life.

    VA: Students experience, analyze and interpret art and other aspects of the visual world.

  • Adaptations

    Invite the class to create a display of their work accompanied by written versions of the songs’ lyrics. Encourage discussion of how and where to mount the display. If there is to be an “opening” of the exhibit, ask students to try to obtain recorded versions of their songs. Invite a technologically capable student to create a playlist of the songs for visitors to listen to while they are viewing the exhibit.

    Encourage aspiring songwriters to write songs reflecting today’s society. This could be done to the tune of an already existing song, or musically talented students could pair up with lyricists to compose entirely new music. Provide time for student performances!

    Adapt the assignment to one particular social studies unit such as World War II, or Protests of the 60’s. Invite students to all focus on songs related to that particular era or topic.

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