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How music can inspire strong student writing and discussion

ELA teacher Nathan Garvin describes how he uses music to elicit ‘creative, deep, and original writing’ in his classroom

music-student-writingOn the first day of school, I give my students a pep talk. My goals for the year are laid out. I tell them I expect them to leave my class better writers and more careful readers. But beyond that, and more importantly to me, I want them to leave as better people.

I want them to walk away as young adults who are able to problem solve, empathize with others, think out of the box, and be prepared to contribute to society. I put my usual sarcasm aside for a day and get all inspirational. It’s my Michelle-Pfeiffer-in-Dangerous-Minds moment.

There’s another goal, however, that I don’t tell them. It’s part of a diabolical year-long mission. I call it musical indoctrination. My taste in music is pretty much the exact opposite of theirs. They like bad music; I like good music. I have one year to plant the seeds that hopefully will bloom into a more refined musical palate. I do this by using songs I like in class.

Music is a natural fit in the English/Language Arts classroom. You can find narratives to discuss and poetry to analyze. Themes, mood, tone, and plenty of other literary topics are also set to music. Words alone are powerful, but when combined with the right music, students are able to connect with them on a deeper level. It can also inspire them in their writing.

Pitch-perfect journal prompts

One way I use music in my classroom is for journal writing prompts. I want my students to love writing. My hope is that they’ll enjoy writing the longer essays I assign, but we have to build up to that point. Students typically come into my class carrying some kind of emotional baggage from prior writing experiences. They say it’s just not something they do well or that they’ve always hated. So I start with smaller journal writings that will build confidence. My goal is to cultivate a love for writing over time.

(Next page: Garvin’s favorite journal prompt—and how he uses a learning management system to facilitate discussion and reflection after this exercise)

A favorite recurring journal prompt of mine is one that combines images and instrumental music. I start by playing a song for them. One song I use is “Intro” by The xx. After the song hits the 20-second mark, I start showing a series of four images.

When I get to the last slide, they begin writing. I give directions before I start the song, so they’re ready to write as soon as the last slide appears. They’re instructed to write a paragraph about which image they feel is the best match for the song. Being as specific as they can, they have to articulate why they chose that image. They detail exactly what about the song and image made them think the two were a good pair. They aren’t allowed to say that it reminded them of a movie, commercial, TV show, etc. Their responses have to be original.

Creating harmony with Edmodo

One thing I love about this activity is that it allows for a variety of responses. Some students prefer to tell a mini-story. They create a character who’s either shown in the picture, or the picture is seen from their point of view. They describe what’s happening to that character right at that moment. Other students talk about what emotions the song and the image invoke. Students who are more knowledgeable about music can be more technical in their description of the music and why it connects with a certain image.

I usually play the song through twice to give all the students time to write. When it ends, I ask them to log in to Edmodo. On Edmodo, I’ll have four posts that simply have the letters A, B, C, and D. I ask them to reply to the post that has the letter they chose and type their paragraph. I give them a few minutes to read the other students’ writing, then I wrap it up and move on with class. It’s a simple journal prompt that can lead to creative, deep, and original writing. I repeat the same format with different songs and images three or four times over the course of the year.

Here are some other songs that work well for this assignment:

“Whale & Wasp” by Alice in Chains
“Mount Modern” by Dad Rocks!
“Emer’s Dream” by Colm Mac Con Iomaire
“Penultimatum” by Jamie Saft (from the Murderball soundtrack)
“Coloring the Void” by M83
“Wire” by The Low Anthem

Nathan Garvin is a seventh and eighth grade English Language Arts and Reading teacher at Walnut Grove Middle School in Midlothian, Texas. He has been teaching there for nine years and graduated from Murray State University in Murray, Ky.

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