Teaching a song to a group of students takes skill but it doesn’t necessarily require a lot of creativity or insight. Making the song that you teach meaningful to your students is a much harder thing to do and is the true mission of the music teacher.
When I decided to have my 3rd graders perform John Lennon’s “Imagine,” I knew that it would be a challenge. Lennon didn’t compose the rhythms in the melody to be sung by a group of people and 3rd graders' voices are better suited to sing folk songs like “Old Dan Tucker,” than a pop song. Also, the lyrics, like I explain in this earlier post, are very challenging to understand.
Around the time I started teaching "Imagine," my principal had us meet in small groups to think about ways we could integrate diversity into our classrooms. As I was talking to some other teachers, I realized that through exploring diversity I could make the experience of learning “Imagine,” be as meaningful as the performance.
I decided early on to use performances of “Imagine,” to help teach my students this song. I started with John Lennon’s music video.
After we watched this video, I asked my students if they had any questions. Some of them asked about the hairstyle and Lennon's glasses. One of my students asked about “the Asian lady.” I explained that this was Yoko Ono, John Lennon’s wife who was from Japan and that Lennon was from London. A different student raised her hand and commented that she had parents from different countries as well. Then I related that my wife and I come from parents who are from different countries as well.
We weren’t talking about the song anymore but we were talking about differences and ourselves. This was a little scary because I wasn’t sure where we would go with these discussions but it was exciting because it attached something personal to this song.
Instead of listening to Lennon’s performance for further study of this song, we explored different people’s performances of “Imagine.”
In the next class we watched PS22’s performance:
Before we watched it, I told the students to listen to the children’s voices and look at their faces. This was a great example of the type of singing and expression we had been working on.
After we watched the video, I asked if there were any questions or comments. Students observed that the auditorium looked old, the fact that they weren’t in a music class room, the uniforms that the students wearing and the one girl pointed out that unlike our school, most of the students weren’t white.
I asked the other students to try to answer some of these questions. In the conversation, the class realized that this school didn’t have the same resources as ours did. This was a very different community than ours, but it excited my students when I asked them to think about the fact that we were singing the same song.
And then we watched Ms. Gaga:
I wanted my students to watch this video to realized that this was a song that could be sung by a woman and that "Imagine" was alive in our culture. Once my students got over the fact that we were watching Lady Gaga, they noticed all of the changes she made in the lyrics.
This was the most divisive video. Some kids really didn’t like this performance, which I told them I was okay with. Beyond those reactions, there really weren’t any interesting conversations. This one didn’t really make the students think in the same way previous videos did.
The last video I showed them, I prepped. I asked them what was the word for not being able to see or hear. We talked about deafness and how some people are born without being able to hear and some people like my mother lose hearing as they get older.
Some students were really sad to hear about people with disabilities, while others didn’t think it was such a bad thing. I followed up with this talking about the unique culture and language that deaf people share, sign language and how they live happy full lives.
Then I explained how people who are deaf can speak and sing, but sometimes they sound different. I asked them to be sensitive to that as we were going to watch this video from Glee:
When the soloist started singing, none of the kids giggled. They were all completely quiet throughout the entire video (which is a big deal with 3rd graders).
This video more than any other inspired my students. They pointed out how the two choirs were singing along through the singing and the signing. Multiple kids wanted to learn to sign this song. I told them I wish we could but that we didn’t have time before the performance. One boy noticed the student in a wheelchair and how that person could sing and dance despite his disability.
I spent a lot of class time watching and talking about these videos. In that time we could have learned another verse, got some hand motions down and even learned another song.
Why bother spend so much time on these diversity discussions? I’m a music teacher, shouldn’t my focus just be on the music? I understand if some people think I should have watched fewer videos and made the discussions stay more focused on the song itself.
I'm not sure if this learning experience made "Imagine" a more meaningful song and led to a better performance. But I do know that thinking about these videos made teaching this song more meaningful for me. Some of it was scary. I was worried they would look down on the students in the PS22 Choir and laugh at the Glee video. You never know, but you got to take chance and sometimes like with the Lady Gaga video, things fall flat.
We need to find meaning in what we teach if we are to even attempt to help students find meaning in their own learning. Exploring diversity is one way to get there. Think about what you can do in a small way to open your students' minds to think about diversity as you consider diversity in your own life.
Be brave, take a chance and listen to you students. You may fail but you also might go to a place of meaning with your students that you never imagined.