Teaching SEL with Rock n’ Roll

hand, rock, hands

By Roxee Lore, Co-Founder and Executive Director of Elementary Education

American educator and philosopher Nel Noddings wrote, “My contention is first that we should want more from our educational efforts than adequate academic achievement and, second, that we will not achieve even that meager success unless our children believe that they themselves are cared for and learn to care for others.”

That being said, today’s teachers are tasked with an ever expanding and challenging curriculum that they are expected to complete in one year. With so much going on, it’s sometimes difficult to teach students to really care about the lessons they should take away from the lessons. 

In my years as a primary school teacher, I’ve regularly used music to teach content areas while incorporating social-emotional learning skills and having fun with my students along the way!  

I’ve found that children are highly susceptible to music that’s been introduced to them by their teachers. Many teachers choose to play music for their children for fun, but at Attentive Teaching, we want to help you find a way to weave music into your classroom curriculum so that whatever you’re teaching — be it compassion, empathy, kindness, caring, truth, justice, honesty, or tolerance — really sinks in. 

Not sure where to start? Here are our suggestions for how to weave Rock n’ Roll into various school subjects: 

Rock n’ Roll, SEL Concepts, and Language Arts

Friendship and “I’ll Stand By You” by The Pretenders

After taking turns reading the lyrics, delve into a discussion with your students on friendship.  Analyze lines from the song such as, “Nothing you confess could make me love you less,” or, “Hey I get angry too, well, I’m alive like you.”  

The writing lesson can be a poem about a friend, or a story about when they helped a friend.

Taking a Stand and “I Won’t Back Down” by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

Read the lyrics to this song together and then discuss the ideal of taking a stand for what you believe in.  Discuss the meaning of lyrics such as, “I’m gonna stand my ground, won’t be turned around” and “I’ll keep this world from dragging me down.” This could lead to a writing exercise about a cause that they believe in, leading to a research paper or a letter written to a government representative.

Math, Science, and Rock n’ Roll

You might think that a more difficult task would be trying to implement SEL goals within Science and Math lessons.  With a little creativity it can be done!  All one has to do is search for a song that highlights the particular Math or Science concept you will be teaching and go from there.

Love and “Eight Days a Week” by the Beatles

After reading the lyrics have the children skip count out loud around the room by 8’s, or multiply by eights etc., grade appropriate of course. After completing this task, ask children why they think John Lennon would choose to write 8 days a week instead of seven.  Lead them to a conversation about loving someone so much that you needed eight days a week to think, care and love them. This will be a springboard into a short story where each child can share and then write about someone special in their life, like  a family member, a pet, or a friend.

Infinity and “Figure of Eight” by Paul McCartney

Create a lesson plan using the notation and meaning of infinity.  After playing this song, read the lyrics together and discuss what infinity means. As a symbol infinity looks like an 8 on its side. Infinity has no boundaries. How would it feel to have no boundaries with people? How would it feel if we could all be friends no matter that person’s religion, color, place of origin,  etc? 

Connecting to Other Beings and “Mammal” by They Might Be Giants

Read the lyrics of this song together.  Explain what mammals are. List all the mammals found in the lyrics. Identify some they may not be familiar with like; the marsupial, shrew, or echidna.  Discover  and discuss that we are mammals too.  Why should we care about other mammals?  Should it matter that many are becoming extinct?  Is there anything being done to stop this?  Should we do some work to find out about this and if there is, anything you can do yourself? This can easily lead to a research project.

Teaching History with Empathy and Music

History is a cinch because the lyrical message within the song often introduces a historical reference point that also easily incorporates the valuable lessons within SEL concepts.

Read our previous blog post about how to teach history empathetically!

Some examples are:

Heroism and “The Rising” by Bruce Springsteen 

This song explores the tragedy of 9/11. Bruce Springsteen said of the song, “One of the most powerful images of the 11th, that I’d read in the paper, some of the people coming down were talking about the emergency workers who were ascending. The idea of those guys going up the stairs, up the stairs, ascending, ascending. I mean you could be ascending a smoky staircase; you could be in the afterlife, moving on.”

Ask your students what they think they would have done as firefighters, and why some people lay down their lives for the good of others. 

Revolution and “The British are Coming” by Weezer 

This song explores the American Colonies‘ relationship with the King of England during the American Revolution. Ask your students to consider what it might have felt like to be one of the first Americans fighting against a perceived tyrannical regime. Imagine what the American experiment would have seemed like at the very start.

Shared Rebellion and “Boston Tea Party” by The Sensational Alex Harvey Band

The lyrics of “Boston Tea Party” are fairly straightforward and will get kids interested in the history of the Boston Tea Party. But another layer you can add to this, depending on the age group of your students, is the idea of shared rebellion. The Sensational Alex Harvey Band is originally from Glasgow, Scotland. Many ex-Jacobites (group of Scottish who fought against King George II just 30 years earlier in the Jacobite Uprising) would have fought against the British again during the American Revolution. 

Have your students imagine what it would have been like to flee persecution from the British in Scotland, only to be confronted with another chance at rebellion in the colonies. 

Displacement and “Indian Sunset” by Elton John 

This song explores the plight of the Native Americans on the Trail of Tears (and it was sampled by Eminem on Tupac’s “Ghetto Gospel.”) What other groups around the world today are suffering from displacement? How might your students feel if their lives were upended and their homes taken from them?

How Will You Incorporate Music Into SEL Learning?

I mainly stuck to topics that I know are taught in elementary school today but there are many out there for any grade level. Make it your own! Bring some Rap or Pop music into the list. Rock n’ Roll is how I find expression, but every teacher or student is different.

Perhaps you might explore one artist and investigate their history, choosing someone who has written a lot about important world events, such as Neil Young. For older age groups, you could talk about the power of music to change the world!

Of course, the most fun is singing these songs together. Put that song on and get everyone to sing.  In the words of Arlo Guthrie, “You have to sing loud if you want to end the wars and stuff.”

Please make sure to review all lyrics and by all means take poetic license to alter a word or phrase that you might feel is objectionable in any way. One year, I taught my second graders Neil Young’s song, Like a Hurricane. Two years later, Zachary, a former student from that class, stopped me in the hall and reported to me, You know, Mrs. Lore, you had the words wrong to Neil’s song! It wasn’t, “Once I saw you standing in a crowded hazy PARK.” Neil really said it was, “a crowded hazy BAR!!”

They don’t stay young and innocent for long. 

2 thoughts on “Teaching SEL with Rock n’ Roll”

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