Harmony Through History Beats

I teach both Grade 8’s on a Monday, so it was extra fun that History Beats became our contribution to Music Mondays. This is the second year that I have done the History Beats BOB. I knew it was engaging as soon as I first drafted the outline, but I didn’t know just how rich the task was until I reflected by blogging about it last year. I have made some positive improvements in the outline to better support my learners, but my role is only part of the experience.

History Beats has many goals. The big idea is to take an “historical” song and analyse it in terms of its historical account, the role of the music, and the meaning/message of the text. What makes a song “historical” can be as specific as an event or people, or issues such as racism, homophobia and sexism. Each student teaches me something from their ideas, insights or perspectives, and I am as engaged as the rest of the learners in the community as the presenter begins by annotating the lyrics of their selected song. With each comment, question or inference, the presenter leads us into the song lyric as we witness the convergence of history and music, or the lack there of.

I was so fortunate to have Derek Rhodenizer visiting my classroom during one of the final presentation weeks. Every Monday of school, from Feb – April, not usually more than 3 students presented their work. Often, there was a slideshow with lyrics annotated as a comment in Google Docs, or the students sent me the lyrics in advance to add to the Smart Notebook document that they could annotate on the Smartboard. One of the things Derek noted about that day was that he was glad to have seen a spectrum of song choices and project calibers. It gave him a sense of exemplars and non-exemplars and the endless possibilities of the assignment.

Derek viewed 2 presentations from one class and 3 from the other. He witnessed a History Beats on Waving Flag by K’naan and Same Love by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis. Those presentations may have taken more than the generally allotted time, but they were both worth it as the presenters demonstrated a deep analysis. In the second class, he saw presentations on Pumped Up Kicks by Foster the People, Oh Canada (The Canadian national anthem), and We Didn’t Start the Fire by Billy Joel. Some of his reflections really helped me realize aspects of the assignment and experience that I had never noticed, and it was nice to hear his feedback to presenters as a part of the community who welcomed his presence on that day.

Based on student feedback and my own observations, a key next step for me is to support the individual student in developing their research question. While I did some explicit instruction on how to develop a research question, I should have added an approval process to help ensure that they were properly formulated to drive a deep inquiry. Closed ended or limited questions bred limited answers, so that will be a key focus when I revisit this BOB again. I value my students' experiences and use their reflections as formative feedback for my work.

Reflections on History Beats from students and parents alike have been mostly positive. After writing to a parent to compliment their child on her great work, especially since it reflected her best self as a learner and some of her most developed work to date, the parent responded, “She really loved this one. It really was a cool project. She learnt a lot.” That is the goal. When you find something like this that can light a student up, it's limitless and, more often than not, students use this time to shine.

Positive feedback reflected aspects of the song or the music itself such as:

I enjoyed looking for the song because I found many other songs that I didn’t know connected to history or had a back story behind it. (Rebeca)

The most enjoyable part of “History Beats” would definitely be choosing and listening to songs. I love music and I found it so interesting that some of the songs that I listen to daily are actually based on events in history. I also liked listening to how passionate the singers were on their cause or issue. (Leah)

History Beats gave me an amazing opportunity to learn about multiple times in history through music. I did my Beats on The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald by Gordon Lightfoot. I got to learn about the Edmund Fitzgerald and how it affected those around. My favourite part about preparing for my History Beats was getting to learn all about the chosen time in history through music. (Stacey)

As an audience member I really felt like I learnt a lot from my peers as they presented. There were new facts thrown around each day of presentations and I really learnt something new each time. Also, there were some songs that I never knew related to history yet they were based off of a large historical event and this amazed me. (Ori)

The thing that I enjoyed most about History Beats was researching to find a song about an historical event. I liked hearing all different kinds of music. A lot of the songs that I found were songs I had already heard, but had no idea that they were about a historical event. (Sarah)

I enjoyed learning about a history event, that I have never heard about. I enjoyed learning new facts about how the world has changed since the event. (Aura)

I enjoyed listening to different songs and researching about each one. I also liked annotating the lyrics and understanding it better. (Evan C)

History Beats was very interesting as I got to learn all of the history out of each song. I never knew that so many songs connect to history and have deep meanings to them. It was just a very unique experience and I am very happy I got to listen to many of them. (Evan G)

A lot of students reflected on the experience of presenting to their class and learning from each other:

I loved learning about the different songs. Obviously some of the presentations were better than others, and I found that some of them were more educational and connected to me more. I also loved all of the different perspectives and approaches taken on this task. (Taylor)

It was cool to see how committed my friends were to their presentations. I also enjoyed hearing the feedback of others to the students. (Aidan)

To me, the most enjoyable part of this assignment was being able to present in front of our peers. We were able to express all of the information that we had learned, and we were able to teach it to all of our friends. Additionally, this gave us the chance to learn about their songs, and their historical implications. However, there were also several challenging parts of this assignment, one of which was trying to select a song. There are numerous songs that have been made with historical value, and it was slightly overwhelming. However, in the end, it was completely worth it, and all of my classmates were satisfied with their selections. Being able to learn from my peers was an unforgettable experience that I am so glad that this project was presented, and not just submitted in as a report. It allowed us to learn about history, and how songs may have more meaning than you may originally think. (Noah)

We were all fortunate to participate in this experience. Supporting my students on their journey and seeing them own their moment brings me almost as much joy as they get out of the high levels they achieve in their evaluations because of the nature and relevance of the assignment and their hard work meeting and surpassing the expectations. Preparing, presenting and viewing music-related projects are a great way to invite students to develop skills and learn from each other. I love music, and I love that I have created BOBs that use music and lyrics as a conduit. Music is the beat of life, now and in narrating the past. Dylan, Marley, Seger; they are all great BOBs. So is History Beats. Its power builds skill beyond analysing the music and lyrics. Hopefully, it can also harness the power of music to enlighten, explore, bridge and heal.