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Using Songs in the English Classroom

Updated on May 17, 2016
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The Class is Alive with the Sound of Music

First, let me just say that simply by adding music to your classroom, you're not suddenly increasing the rigor or engagement. There's more to be done. Songs are resources just as supplemental printed texts and movies; to access their educational potential, you must interact with them to establish connections and pose challenging questions. This page offers you a list of songs that I used while I taught high school English. The songs are organized by the piece of literature to which they relate.

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William Shakespeare's MACBETH

The majority of these songs relate to the play mainly through their titles. For this reason, I used several of these as bellringer activities in which the students selected three from a list of five and wrote a 2-3 sentence explaining how each title relates to the parts of the play that we had read at that point. I enjoy this type of activity. Not only does it quickly provide feedback on the students' understandings but it also requires critical thinking and connection building, provides writing practice, and allows variety among answers based on the students' perceptions of the characters.

  • Double Trouble (Harry Potter soundtrack)
  • Smiling Faces Sometimes (Undisputed Truth)
  • Big Girls Don’t Cry (Four Seasons)
  • Walk Like a Man (Four Seasons)
  • Fly (Nicki Minaj) *contains the single use of m**********r (can be muted over)
  • Trouble Sleeping (Corinne Bailey Rae)
  • No Moon at All (Mel Torme)
  • All Shook Up (Elvis Presley)
  • Be Prepared (Lion King soundtrack)
  • Crazy in Love (Beyonce Knowles)
  • Somebody’s Watching Me (Roxwell)
  • Trouble in Mind (Nina Simone)

Listen to "Smiling Faces"

Nicki Minaj
Nicki Minaj

As an option for a final project, the students create a soundtrack for Macbeth. Essentially, after being trained in bridging connections between a song and a literary text, they will find songs that further link to the play. They compose developed paragraphs that clarify the connections while simultaneously using direct quotes from the songs and play. The following is an excerpt from a paragraph establishing the connection between Nicki Minaj's "Fly" and Macbeth.

“Fly,” performed by Nicki Minaj, relates directly to the character of Macbeth. Once he receives the title of Thane of Cawdor, he believes that the next step is King. However, when Malcolm is named the next in line, Macbeth refuses to give up. Duncan is “try[ing] to box [him] in” and prevent him from reaching the crown, but as the song says, Macbeth “came to win, to fight, to conquer, to thrive.”

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Shot from Michael Jackson's "Earth Song" video
Shot from Michael Jackson's "Earth Song" video | Source

H.G. Wells's "The Door in the Wall"

  • The Sweet Escape (Gwen Stefani)

Katherine Mansfield's "Miss Brill"

  • People Watching (Jack Johnson)

George Orwell's "Shooting an Elephant"

  • I'm Your Puppet (James and Bobby Purify)

William Wordsworth's "The World is Too Much with Us"

  • Earth Song (Michael Jackson)

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Kurt Vonnegut's "Harrison Bergeron"

  • Stand (Sly and the Family Stone)
  • I’m Your Puppet (James and Bobby Purify)

John Steinbeck's "The Pearl"

  • Hope (Jack Johnson)
  • Smiling Faces Sometimes (Undisputed Truth)

Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Elizabeth Barrett Browning | Source

Love Poems

  • Solid (Ashford and Simpson): used with Browning's Sonnet 14
  • Dontchange (Musiq Soulchild): used with Browning's Sonnet 14
  • 25 reasons (Nivea): used with Browning's Sonnet 43
  • Secret Garden [instrumental] (Quincy Jones): used as background music to the out loud reading of Marlowe's "The Passionate Shepherd to His Love"
  • No Scrubs [instrumental] (TLC): used as background music to the out loud reading to Raleigh's "The Nymph's Reply to the Shepherd"
  • Still (Tamia): used with Browning's Sonnet 14
  • Give Me You (Tamia): used with Raleigh's "The Nymph's Reply to the Shepherd"

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Comparison of Browning's Sonnet 14 and Musiq Soulchild's "Dontchange"

See whether you make potential and substantial connections between the poem and the song. I've supplied Browning's lines and the music video to make it easier for you.


Sonnet 14

If thou must love me, let it be for nought
Except for love’s sake only. Do not say
“I love her for her smile—her look—her way
Of speaking gently,—for a trick of thought
That falls in well with mine, and certes brought
A sense of pleasant ease on such a day”—
For these things in themselves, Belovèd, may
Be changed, or change for thee,—and love, so wrought,
May be unwrought so. Neither love me for
Thine own dear pity’s wiping my cheeks dry,—
A creature might forget to weep, who bore
Thy comfort long, and lose thy love thereby!
But love me for love’s sake, that evermore
Thou may’st love on, through love’s eternity.

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The Goal: Making Critical Connections

Ultimately, the purpose for bringing in songs such as these is to strengthen the students' abilities to think critically in order to see connections between multiple texts and construct valid written arguments effectively. So feel free to use any of these songs; just be sure to teach with a purpose.

If you know more connections, let me know and I'll update what I have.

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