Luke Meddings’ Six Songs about Teaching

Right, after the controversial “poll post” I thought it was time to bring back a guest post. I’m really happy to have convinced Luke Meddings to do one, and such a nice one at that! Luke Meddings is the author of Teaching Unplugged (with Scott Thornbury) and a firm advocate of Dogme ELT. His list is six songs about teaching… and how they relate to his beliefs. A great post, but as usual feel free to add songs of your own in the comments!

1 ‘Don Alonso’, in Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia, 1816

Our first teacher isn’t actually a teacher: he is a lover in disguise, using the cover of a music lesson to pursue amorous ends. Count Almaviva is trying to seduce Rosina, nubile ward of old Doctor Bartolo, and dresses up as a music teacher to gain entry to the Doctor’s house.

‘Sit by my side, fair young lady,’ the Count begins. ‘In place of Don Basilio, I shall give you a short lesson.’ ‘Oh’, she replies, recognizing her suitor, ‘with the greatest of pleasure.’

Dogme in ELT is suspicious of artifice, preferring a direct, open and straight-forwardly conversational approach. However, the Count’s improvisational skills are to be admired.

2 Chuck Berry, School Days, 1957

This song is about the rush of freedom experienced at the end of the school day by all school-children and most teachers. Or is that most school-children and all teachers? Chuck’s unnamed student starts out with good intentions, but is distracted by classmates, a lunch break and the teacher’s ‘mean’ expression. By mid-afternoon, he (or she – Berry’s lyric is clever in its inclusiveness, sounding both personal and general, male and female) is desperate for release:

Soon as three o’clock rolls around
You finally lay your burden down
Close up your books, get out of your seat …

An unplugged approach, less reliant on opening books, may have proved less trying

3 The Beatles, Maxwell’s Silver Hammer, 1969

Teachers come off badly in some of the songs on this list, but it could be worse. This one gets murdered. One of the Beatles’ least worthwhile tracks, the song is a feeble ditty about a serial murderer who goes around topping people with a silver hammer. Oh, and his name is Maxwell. That’s about as interesting as it gets, but by virtue of appearing on a Beatles album (the otherwise sublime Abbey Road), Max’s second victim is one of the most widely-encountered teachers in history.

The final straw for Maxwell appears to be the teacher’s insistence that he write out lines as a punishment; a more humanistic approach could have defused the situation.

4 Van Halen, Hot For Teacher, 1984

Van Halen’s enthusiastic tribute to the, ahem, motivational skills of a new teacher is in some respects a companion piece to The Police’s ‘Don’t Stand Too Close To Me’. But where Sting’s teacher is unnerved by the allure of a pupil (‘He starts to shake and cough/Just like the old man in/That book by Nabokov’), Van Halen – a band it is hard to imagine unnerved by anything, let alone reflecting on Nabokov – relish the thought of some hands-on homework.

‘Maybe I should go to hell,’ reflects singer Roth, before cheering up considerably: ‘but Im doin’ well. Teacher needs to see me after school.’

This learner is clearly a fan of Total Physical Response.

5 KRS One, My Philosophy, 1987

Many songs featuring teachers rail against education (see Pink Floyd’s ‘Another Brick In The Wall’), or celebrate the distractions of sexual attraction in the classroom: this great rap from 1987 actually says that it’s cool to be a teacher! Although not without its philosophical inconsistencies, the song advocates education in a way that was thrilling at the time.

see I’m tellin’
and teaching real facts
… who gets weaker?
the king or the teacher
it’s not about a salary
it’s all about reality
teachers teach and do the world good
kings just rule
and most are never understood

He was right about the salary.

6 Bob Dylan’s Floater (Too Much To Ask), 2001

On one level this song makes no more than a passing reference to teaching in a song full of passing references; on another level, like so many of those passing references, it feels like an utterance from the past, a haunting summation of someone else’s received wisdom.

You can smell the pine wood burnin’
You can hear the school bell ring
Gotta get up near the teacher if you can
If you wanna learn anything

What does it mean? Are they the words of an anxious mother who wants her child to do well, or the words of a father who struggled at school and is disengaged from the whole process? You have to hear Dylan sing it – his croaking voice a blend of wisdom and bafflement, pity and disgust at every turn.

A classroom set-up with chairs in the round, providing the opportunity for people to move around, would be fairer to all students. But it would have spoilt Dylan’s song!

Luke Meddings is an author based in London. He has been involved in ELT for the past twenty years as a teacher, school manager and journalist.

Published in: on June 23, 2009 at 3:25 pm  Comments (4)  
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Six songs to sing with students

As I mentioned in an earlier post, one of my beginner classes asked me if we could sing a song together at the end of the year. When I taught in Mexico this was regular practice for me and my students, but after a couple of dismal experiences with some very serious students in Europe I kind of gave up. I had forgotten what a great feeling it can be for a group to sing a song together, in English.

So, with that in mind, I suggest here six songs that are suitable for singing along with beginners. They are recognisable, slow and relatively easy to sing to. At the end, I’ll share with you the way I’ve “done” this in class. I stress by the way that these aren’t reflective of my own personal music tastes, which stray towards the hard rock end of the spectrum, but I can’t exactly sing those in class.

1. I have a dream – Abba

A bit soppy and schmultzy, but the message went down really well with my beginners. Plus the singing is very slow and clear.

2. Yesterday – The Beatles, although a close second could be Hey Jude (except the na na na is TOO long)

I know, I know. It’s SO typical. And it isn’t the best Beatles song. But it’s SO recognizable, and I bet your students would go home and tell someone “Hey, I sang Yesterday today in class”.

3. My Way – Frank Sinatra

Great tune, great build up and great to sing as long as you don’t mind students doing it “their way”.

4. The Sounds of Silence – Simon and Garfunkel

Good pauses between bits of this song, helping students to pronounce chunks. Any song with Hello at the beginning also works. The only problem with this song is the large vocabulary load that has to be dealt with if students want to understand the words. Sometimes I’ve given it to them the day before for homework to translate. 

5. What a wonderful world – Louis Armstrong

Easy lyrics, recognizable tune and easy to sing along to. Hits all the right buttons too.

6. American Pie – Don McLean

A song with “bye bye” also tends to be a hit. You’ll hear your students walking down the hall humming this one for weeks after if you do it in class. And I would do the original, not the Madonna version.

Here’s what I do with any of these: first we do a listening activity (circling words, gapfilling or putting lines in order) and listen to the song once. Then we do a “read through”, with me reading a line and the class repeating it for pronunciation. I focus here on difficult words and phrases to pronounce, as well as stress and rhythm. This sometimes has the weird effect of feeling like we are at church but my lower level students love it.

Once we’ve read it, everybody stands up. I play the song again and we all sing along. The key here is to play the song quite loudly so people can “hide” behind the music as they sing the first time. As people get confident, I slowly turn the volume down bit by bit while we are singing. If it sounds really awful, I turn it back up again! Once the song is finished, and if there’s time, I ask them if they would like to sing it again but with less music. In my class they all said yes. We repeat the process, but I turn the music down earlier and slightly more.

I fully realise that this isn’t for everyone, and certainly not for very small classes unless they are keen singers and you are too. However, with a large (20+) group of beginners, I’ve found it a motivating and even sometimes (gasp, I say this at the risk of sounding TOTALLY corny) magical experience.

Have you ever done anything like this? Was it a disaster or a triumph? Post a comment.

Published in: on June 9, 2009 at 8:02 am  Comments (25)