Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The power of ballads

This past week, I've been teaching some medieval ballads to my college prep senior class and will be teaching some to my other senior classes next week too. I love this unit because it's all about the power of words set to music. I always begin by talking to students about their favorite songs now and the songs they remember from their childhood. Many times, they'll tell me that the words of their favorite songs just seem to speak to them in some way. Rarely do I encounter students who prefer music without words. We've listened to "Long Black Veil,"  "In Color," "Hotel California," "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald," "I'm Not the Only One," "Gold-digger," and "Brandy" to illustrate the power of words in music as a way to tell stories. For me, the most important bit of information my students should remember is that literature is simply a culture's effort to tell the one story - the story of humanity. And I do love a good story, probably as much as I love good music - as long as it has lyrics.

I'd love to be able to enjoy and appreciate instrumental music, but I just don't. My whole life is about words, you know. I'm an English teacher - words. I teach writing and speaking and listening and literature - words. I podcast with Tracie - words. I scrapbook the story of my life and family - words. I blog - words. I'm writing a book (or books, depending on the day) - words. I love music that tells a story - words. I enjoy reading - words. Characters in television and movies matter to me because of their - you guessed it, words. Words are basically my whole life. My words. Your words. The words of great writers. The words of inspirational figures. The words that live only in my head and haven't found a home on paper yet. The words I imagine you're thinking. The words I want to say but don't. The words that might get me in trouble. The words that shouldn't have been said. The words I never want to forget because they taught me lessons, either good or bad. Words that I regret. Words that speak to my soul. Words that make me feel something. Words that create my reality and words that feed my fantasies. The words, the stories, they matter to me.

As I'm teaching British literature in its historical and chronological and thematic context, then, I'm also teaching my students about the power of words on people who weren't that much different than you and me. Maybe these were poems performed 1000 years ago, but the things people feared and loved and desired haven't changed that much. In this unit so far, I've taught "Sir Patrick Spens," "Barbara Allan," and "Get Up and Bar the Door." If you like the medieval time period or poetry, I encourage you to check them out in your spare time. I'd still like to teach "The Twa Corbies," "Edward, Edward," and "Lord Randall," but it looks like those will have to wait until we return from fall break.  I think all of these poems are available online for free; if you take a look, I'd love to hear what you think of them.

Ultimately, it comes down to this simple fact: maybe my students won't remember every poem we read, but I hope they'll remember some of the themes and stories and discussions we shared. I hope they'll remember that all of us have a story to tell, and that our stories are really what connect us to others.

What do you remember studying in your high school English classes?  What stories are you anxious to tell from your own life?

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