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Using Music to Help Students Explore Social Justice Issues

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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. 

  • We want to find music that captures the themes and perspectives that we are looking for, but we also need to be cognizant of classroom appropriate language and topic matter, which of course differs depending on your grade level and maturity of your students.
  • Another aspect to consider is whether the songs you are using touch on issues and experiences that may be triggering for your students. Again, this would differ with each group of students you teach, so think about who you have in your class and whether any debriefing activities or supports might be necessary.
  • Remember that even though songs may have a clear stance on an issue, we as teachers can present the songs as a perspective to explore. We don’t need to take a stance, we are just presenting a viewpoint for our students to consider.

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.

1. Sharing Circle

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. 

Using Music to Help Students Engage with Social Justice Issues

2. Four Corners

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.

3. Take a Stand - Line Activities

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.

  • Ask students a series of questions related to the issue. If students agree with a statement they stand on the line. 
  • Make a series of statements about the issue. Students stand on the line where they feel their perspective lands (each end of the line represents polarizing opinions)
  • Ask students to stand on the line if the song made them feel (name a variety of emotions)

4. Visualization Drawing & Gallery Walk

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.

Using Music to Help Students engage with social justice issues

5. Creative Writing

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.

6. Learning Stations & Webquests

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: 

  • reading an article about the historical context behind the issue and then evaluating how effective the song is in reflecting an accurate history
  • reading personal accounts or watching video accounts from people affected by this issue
  • Analyzing the lyrics for poetic devices and reflecting on how they help to convey the message

7. Lyric Posters

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.

Using Music to help Students engage with social justice issues

8. Research Project or Essay

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:

  • What social justice issue does this song explore?
  • What stance or perspective does this artist take on the issue?
  • What information did you learn from the song or music video that surprised you?
  • What information from the song or music video made you wonder or question?
  • Provide a brief historical context for this issue.
  • What movements or activists can be credited with helping this issue?
  • What work still needs to be done to help this issue?

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