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Musical Interludes: Using Songs as Secondary Historical Sources

written by: Sarah Degnan Moje • edited by: Carly Stockwell • updated: 9/6/2013

When it comes to secondary sources, there's no need to rely strictly on the textbook! Instead, choose something students will engage with more readily. There are actually history lessons to be found in popular music. Try teaching with Coldplay and Billy Joel.

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    Use music to liven up your history class! Who says the history textbook has to be the only secondary source used in the classroom? Students tend to skim those passages, glance at pictures, and jot down one word answers to the questions.

    Teacher notes are good secondary sources as well, but the “talk and chalk" days are over for educators. Reading and absorbing knowledge from secondary sources is the way to direct your students.

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    Get Creative With Your Secondary Sources

    As educators, we have a great variety of secondary sources on hand for us. Video clips, internet clips, excerpts from other texts, newspaper articles, even songs drawing on a historical experience can all be used as viable secondary sources. At times, it is these documents more than anything else, that help to ensure student understanding.

    450px-Chris Martin in Hong Kong Using Coldplay to Teach Absolute Rule

    Big fan of the band Coldplay? Some of us are. Did you know you could use their song Viva La Vita to teach absolute rule? The downloadable power point and student worksheet found at the end of the article can be used to aid students’ understanding of Absolute Rule in European Monarchs. The lyrics to Viva la Vida, a popular song by Coldplay reflect some of the major beliefs of absolutism and of monarchs in Europe at this time. In the lesson, students take a look at the lyrics as they were written, an interpretation of the meaning behind the lyrics, and see if we they gain a better understanding of absolutism.

    This lesson provides teachers with a great opportunity to understand how well students can apply their knowledge. After working together in class on the song, they can ask students to do the following. Have them chose one stanza from the song or chose one of the 2 choruses. Chose one “absolute ruler" studied so far in class. Using their own words, have students pretend to be that ruler and re-write the 4 lines you have chosen in that ruler’s “voice". Take the ideas from the song and write them as if the ruler you chose was speaking those ideas to the people of his/her country. It only has to be 4-5 lines. Students must name the ruler at the beginning of the paper and tell what country he/she ruled and for what years.

    Billy Joel Teaches About Communism

    Teaching the fall of Communism in Europe? Are you students struggling with the way life was for people in the U.S.S.R under Communist rule? Do they have trouble understanding what it meant to live in a communist country? Use Billy Joel’s popular song Leningrad to help their understanding.

    Billy Joel is an American songwriter from Long Island, NY. He was born in 1949, right at the beginning of the Cold War. He was in elementary school during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Right after the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, Billy Joel was invited to give a concert in Russia. He was one of the first Americans to visit Russia since World War II. He spent some time in Russia and got to know some of the people there. He met a man a little older than he was who had also lived through the Cold War. He came back to the United States and wrote this song about the man. The song compares Joel’s life in America with Victor’s life in Russia.

    The downloadable lesson and power point once again calls upon students to analyze the lyrics and their meaning and apply the knowledge to their understanding of the topic. These lessons are fun, simple, and make for a lively classroom. In short, they are music to a teacher’s ears!

    Viva la Vida & Absolute Rule Power Point

    Viva la Vida Lyrics & Assignment Handout

    Leningrad & Communism Power Point

    Leningrad Lyrics & Questions Handout

References

  • Photo of Chris Martin by Crystalspman [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Reading Primary Sources in Social Studies

There is sometimes a disconnect in High School students between English and History classes. Students need to be reading primary source documents but have not yet learned the skills to do so. Bridge that gap in your Social Studies class by having students interact with primary source texts.
  1. Integrating Primary Source Reading Strategies in Social Studies
  2. Acting Out! How To Use Primary Sources as Performance Pieces
  3. Musical Interludes: Using Songs as Secondary Historical Sources
  4. Relating Fiction to Social Studies: Creating Links Across the Curriculum to Aid Understanding

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