8 Ways to Use Music in the Language Arts Classroom
There is still a persistent suspicion that a teacher who uses music or art or theatre in the Core classes is too “soft” or “granola-y,” in my opinion when we talk about using music, art, or theatre in the Core classes. Please do not become enraged; I am simply stating an observation of perception, not a factual statement of truth. I would argue, however, that incorporating the arts into core subject-area classes is far from being frivolous or a waste of time.
What I do recognize, however, is that not everyone has the training to be a musicologist. Not everyone is well-versed in the works of this composer or that artist, and this can act as a barrier to incorporating the arts into an organization. Although I believe that more casual everyday use of music can have as much impact as explicitly teaching music about one’s subject matter, I believe that explicit teaching of music about one’s subject matter can have more impact.
It is not necessary to have Bach playing in the background to qualify as having used music. There are numerous ways to incorporate the benefits of music into a classroom setting, such as a Language Arts class, that does not necessitate extensive knowledge of music in general.
Why Use Music?
Music can be used to help control the environment in a classroom or to support the content being taught in that classroom. As well as serving as a writing prompt, it can be used to signal different transitions within the class.
Music can also serve as a means of fostering community and expressing yourself as a teacher. As a result, if your students do not have a sense of who you are as a person, they will inevitably lose respect for you as a professional. Music is a gateway into the classroom, a way for students to learn about you while also allowing you to learn about them. Moreover, we are aware that reciprocal learning in the classroom, whether to develop subject matter competency or create a sense of community, is essential in achieving the best academic results from those students.
Every period that walked into my middle school classroom the week after I saw The Lego Movie was greeted with the words “Everything is AWESOME!” You haven’t heard it yet? I challenge you to remain asleep or otherwise uninterested in anything for at least one full hour after hearing that 2:43 song on the radio. As a self-proclaimed Cappella fanatic, I have been known to perform a song by the a cappella group Pentatonix on occasion. The beatboxing in some of their YouTube videos is slamming in every direction you look, and their beautifully blended voices are capable of taking on a wide range of musical genres.
I, on the other hand, had never considered myself to be a fan of K-pop until one of my students introduced me to it (sort of in thanks for me turning them onto some Danny Elfman scores).
Music not only contributes to the creation of a creative environment in the classroom, but it also has the additional benefit of making the brain more receptive to deeper critical thinking. Music opens up neurons and opens doors in your brain, creating a kind of loft space that is conducive to learning and memory consolidation.
But what do you do if you don’t have a lot of background knowledge in the music industry? It can be intimidating to think about incorporating another content area into your lesson plan, but adding music as a learning layer is not difficult, and there are numerous options available to keep those students awake and more receptive to absorbing your content. Here are eight creative ways to incorporate music into your project:
#1 Song to Teach Academic Vocabulary in the Classroom
It’s just plain smart to use music as a memory aid when learning new material. When you include songs that are specific to your content area, you have a winning combination. That is why history teachers continue to use the song “Elbow Room,” from the Schoolhouse Rock series, to introduce the concept of exploration to their students. As a Language Arts middle school teacher, I enjoy listening to the Princeton Review Vocab Minute podcast every morning. You can browse through a list of short minute-long songs that teach concepts ranging from word origins to synonyms and everything in between.
#2 The Use of Lyrics as Poetry
Looking at lyrics through a poetic lens is something I enjoy doing. Because my own second-teacher grader’s sent him home with the printed lyrics to Imagine Dragons’ “Radioactive,” it is clear that I am not alone in this sentiment. Several nouns had been circled, and action verbs had been underlined by my son. My students have even created a web in an attempt to trace the logic behind Willie Nelson’s version of “I Am My Own Grandpa,” which I have used in my classroom.
Songs as Writing Prompts (No. 3)
Take a look at this. The students make their way into the classroom. The music of John Williams is playing through the speakers. Perhaps it’s the ominous opening sequence from Jaws or the flying sequence from Hook that gets you in the mood. Now is the time to write.
#4 Use of Music to Facilitate Role-Playing
My students began a project-based learning unit on the United Nations earlier this year, which I developed in conjunction with the school district. On each day, we were treated to music from various countries, including national anthems, processional marches, and other such selections, as we pretended to be ambassadors to the United Nations.
Create Playlists to Teach Narrative Composition #5
When I was in eighth grade, I completed a fantastic project in Ms. Sauve’s class that has remained with me to this day. We were tasked with designing an album cover, which would include visuals on the front and a song list on the back. Afterward, we were required to include a dust jacket with the lyrics to each of the songs on it. After further consideration, I believe that it would be interesting to have the students create a mythical playlist, a mix-tape of sorts, that tells a story through the songs on the playlist.
#6 Using Jingles to Teach Persuasive Commercials
Jingles are a great way to demonstrate that people are writing persuasively in a variety of genres and a variety of modalities, as demonstrated in commercials. Students should analyze a jingle in the same way that you would analyze an article or a review. Better yet, ask them to write one for you.
#7 Reviewing as a form of literary analysis
Aside from the fact that music reviews can be persuasive, they are also a form of literary analysis. Look for elements of analysis in Amazon reviews or Rolling Stone reviews, for example. Students should be asked to listen to the music that they are referring to. Is it possible that the reviewer missed the boat? How much do they agree with the findings of the review and what evidence can they bring to bear on the issue to support their claims?
#8 Music to listen to while taking “Syn-naps”
Finally, but certainly not least, simply turn on a good song now and then to relax. Judy Willis’ concept of “syn-naps” is something I talk about a lot. This is the point at which you jolt the brain a little to get it going. It is possible to use an image that has been stuck in the middle of a Powerpoint slide in some cases, but music works equally well in stimulating the groggy brain into wakefulness. Even though it doesn’t last for very long (a stanza or two at most), it’s just enough to re-establish oxygen flow to their brains and restore alertness to their eyes.
Because of all of the brain-based research that has been done on the use of music as a learning enhancer, I could pretend that I do use music in my Language Arts classroom. However, the fact remains that I use it to set a tone in my classroom — a tone that acknowledges that music is in our species’ blood, that it makes us smile, cry, and laugh, and that it brings us together in a shared experience in our hearts —
It should be the goal of every teacher’s classroom to bring their students together for a shared experience. Is this a destination that students are interested in visiting? Is it a place where they will not be wasting their time? If so, is it a place that is concerned about their interests and challenges them to appreciate the interests of others? Music helps towards all of those goals.