Using Pop Music to Teach Classic Poetry
I spent my first couple of years teaching middle school ELA in downtown Los Angles. Those years were ripe with the creativity and energy of my own youth. One of my fondest memories of that time was a hip hop poetry unit from authors Sitomer and Cirelli. The unit taught poetic devices like imagery, figurative language, and hyperbole with music selections from Tupac, Run DMC, and Eminem along with poems by Frost, Hughes, and Kipling. My young students identified with the themes and appreciated the cultural relevance of the curriculum.
Fast forward a decade. I left LA and now I am teaching American and British literature to juniors and seniors in college prep and advanced high school levels. I’ve gotten older and decidedly less energetic (gasp!) and I’ve started to lose that age connection enjoyed by many young teachers. There are some definite advantages to the experience and maturity, but there are also some definite drawbacks in losing the connection with youth culture.
To bring back some of that connection, I recently decided to add music selections to my renaissance poetry unit for my 12th grade British literature students. For each poem, we walked through content, scansion, poetic devices, and historical context. Then, I played a song with some relationship to the poem. We then had a discussion of the connections between the poem and the song. I really enjoyed teaching this unit because it motivated critical thought around universal themes and it was fun to experience pop music with my students in a meaningful way. As an added bonus, students were totally into the lectures because they were trying to guess what song I was going to play at the end.
My unit had several renaissance poems, and I’ve picked out a couple examples to share with you below. I’d love to hear your thoughts on my ideas and your additions in the comment section!
Poem: Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29
Pop Song: Justin Bieber’s “As Long As You Love Me”
Connection: Shakespeare begins by describing the pressure he feels to succeed and concludes his sonnet with the couplet, “For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings/ That then I scorn to change my state with kings.” Bieber echoes this sentiment in the pressure of 7 billion people trying to fit in, which leads to the chorus, “As long as you love me, we could be starving, we could be homeless, we could be broke.”
Poem: Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130
Pop Song: “Just the Way You Are” by Bruno Mars
Connection: Shakespeare uses Sonnet 130 to criticize the cliché, idealized woman other sonnet writers croon over. He describes the real imperfections of his love and ends by saying, “And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare as any she belied with false compare.” Bruno Mars begins his song with the same clichés that Shakespeare criticizes. Shakespeare says “my mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun” while Mars says “her eyes make the stars look like they’re not shining.” This leads us into a discussion about clichés used in love poems and songs. Then we launch into the discussion of the congruities of the chorus with the main idea of the sonnet. It is interesting to talk with students about where the feelings of inadequacy come from (partner vs self).
Poem: Sidney’s Sonnet 39
Pop Song: “I need some sleep” by The Eels
Connection: The sonnet and the song focus on the need to get some sleep as a source of peace and solace in heartbreak.
Poem: Spencer’s Sonnet 35
Pop Song: “Anyone Else But You” by The Moldy Peaches
Connection: The Spencerian sonnet claims that his eyes cannot be satisfied with anything less than beholding his love, which is reflected in this cute little ditty from the Juno soundtrack where the singers “can’t see what anyone sees in anyone else but you.”
Poem: “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love” by Christopher Marlowe and “The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd” by Sir Walter Raleigh
Pop Song: “No Scrubs” by TLC
Connection: Sir Walter Raleigh famously writes the nymph’s rejection of the passionate shepherd, claiming the shepherd is full of empty, unrealistic promises. Similarly, TLC rejects the modern “scrub” who offers things that he simply cannot deliver.
Any questions or suggestions for the teaching strategy? I’d love to hear them!