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The Library of Congress > Teachers > Classroom Materials > Presentations and Activities > Songs for Our Times

How to Use this Activity

About this activity

“You can learn more about people by listening to their songs than any other way, for into the songs go all the hopes and hurts, the angers, fears, and the wants and aspirations.” - John Steinbeck

This activity provides an opportunity to enhance the teaching of both history and music. State and national learning standards suggest the use of primary sources to promote historical thinking skills and to develop historical understanding through knowledge of the people, events, policies, beliefs, and all else that comprise an era. In this activity, students analyze song lyrics and graphical sheet music covers as part of the historical evidence of the past.

Directions for using the online activity

  1. Students (individually or in small groups) choose a song.
  2. Students listen, view, and explore the content for the selected song.
  3. Students use the Song Analysis worksheet, if assigned by the teacher, to react to the material.
  4. Students create new lyrics for the song, based on teacher’s directions that reflect the desired learning outcomes.
  5. Students enter their new lyrics into the "Rewrite the Song" form on the individual Learning Activity pages.
  6. Students may print out their rewritten lyrics for individual assessment and/or to present and defend to the class.

Preparing to use the activity

Your students are presented with three document sets and supportive background information about the era/event, which they describe. After viewing each set, students are challenged to rewrite the lyrics to the song. Each song tells a story that can be considered in various ways.

  • What was the intent of the song’s author?
  • Why might the song have been written?
  • Is it carefully constructed propaganda written to make a point? How can you tell?
  • Is it an ironic or satirical telling of a significant event’s details? Why do you think so?
  • Is it an emotional reflection that shares heartfelt feeling? What makes you believe this?

Consider these strategies:

  • Will you ask your students to rewrite a song’s lyrics from a different point of view about the same event in the same era?
  • Will you ask them to compare and contrast the lyrics of a song written about an event from the past with events in today’s world, and then rewrite the song with contemporary lyrics?
  • Will you use the activity at the culmination of a learning unit to reflect what students have learned and understand?
  • Will you use the activity to engage your students when introducing a new unit of study?

The Songs for Our Times Resources has links to media analysis worksheets and graphic organizers, as well as to lessons and articles that may spark your creative planning. Be sure to explore these resources while planning your use of the activity. Additionally, consider any necessary pre-teaching needed.

  • Do you need to teach primary source analysis skills?
  • Do your students need background information to understand the event or issue in this song?

Extending the activity

Songs have been written about many events in history, about social movements, and about universal themes of love, grief, family, holidays, etc. Explore the Songs for Our Times Resources to find primary source documents and sound recordings about other themes, as well as links to excellent resources outside of the Library of Congress.

Consider these strategies:

  • Play two or three sound files and have the whole class participate in the analysis of the songs, using the Song Analysis worksheet as a guide.
  • Print out graphical sheet music covers and engage your students in small group or partnered document analysis based on the visual evidence.
  • Elementary school - collaborate with the music teacher to have students learn to sing other historic songs.
  • Middle school and high school - collaborate with the music department to have students learn about characteristics of musical composition for an historical era.
  • High school - create collaborative, interdisciplinary lessons or units of study between history/social studies and language arts classes.

Let us know about the wonderful lessons that YOU create using song as a vehicle for learning about a people or a time. Consider sharing your success stories and creative teaching ideas by e-mailing them to edoutreach@loc.gov.

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