Music has always been a reflection of the times and a chronicle of important issues and viewpoints. Analyzing the themes and perspectives in music can be a powerful tool to help our students look critically at current events, historical perspectives, and engage with social justice issues. Janet Jackson once said, “With music by our side, to break the color lines, let’s work together to improve our way of life,” and that’s exactly what we’re going to do.
When choosing songs to use in the classroom, there are a few considerations.
If you don’t feel like spending hours scrolling your playlists or searching YouTube, I have two sets of song compilation resources that you can check out – Songs for Social Change, and Songs to Explore Identity. Both of these resources contain slides with critical thinking discussion questions related to a song with a link to the music video, as well as a corresponding digital and printable student notebook.
Now that you have some songs in mind, I have compiled some activity ideas below! Before facilitating these activities however, it is important to create a positive culture and safe space for differing opinions by establishing guidelines or class norms beforehand. Having these discussions or setting up a list of rules can help students to feel safe to share and be open to learning about new perspectives.
Play a song and/or music video with a social justice theme and provide students with a question that requires them to reflect on the perspective provided in the song, where they stand on the issue, and how this issue is affecting our communities today. Students can participate in a class discussion by arranging chairs in a circle for everyone to share. Provide an item for the speaker to hold so that everyone respectfully listens to the person holding that item. If your students need time to reflect on the issue first, conduct a think-pair-share activity, with the share portion being the sharing circle.
As far as debating goes, I don’t believe that there is room for debate when it comes to social justice, but I do think there is opportunity to understand varying perspectives on an issue, and one way to facilitate this could be a four corners activity. After playing a song, provide students with four perspectives on a social justice issue, or four reactions (you can use emojis). Ask students to discuss why they chose the corner they did with their group mates first, and then with the class.
After listening to a song and/or music video with a social justice message, ask students to participate in these line activities. If students are uncomfortable sharing their opinion with the class they can sit out.
While listening to a song with a social justice theme, ask students to create a visualization drawing or painting of what they see in their mind while they listen. This can be distinct images or more abstract. Students can then write a reflection about their artwork, explaining the feelings or themes they tried to convey. After, students can complete a gallery walk by displaying their pieces around the classroom and discussing with their classmates as they rotate through.
After listening to a song with a social justice theme and discussing it as a class, provide students with a creative writing prompt that requires them to put themselves in the shoes of someone experiencing the social injustice depicted in the song.
After listening to a song and/or music video about a social justice issue, provide your students with learning stations that require them to rotate through a series of “stations” where they are given tasks related to the social justice issue and how it was presented in the song. An alternative to stations is to provide students with a webquest that includes various web links to visit and tasks to complete.
Tasks could include:
Students can choose a lyric from the song that they found particularly meaningful and create a poster that contains the lyric and an illustration of what the words mean to them. You can create a class mural by providing students with a shaped template to create their poster on – ideas could include puzzle pieces, leaves to make a tree, or banner shapes to string up a class banner.
Students can choose a song with a social justice theme to research for a project or essay. Project formats could include posters, slide presentations, videos, flipbooks, oral presentations, or any other format you can think of!
Provide students with research questions such as: