I like to use music lyrics to teach poetry, because it makes the lesson more fun for my students and for me. Plus, it’s always fun to torture your students by bringing in music you know they aren’t going to like.
For this poetry lesson plan, I teach my students about trying to avoid reader bias when they read poetry. It’s not like having your own ideas about things is bad, but if they can’t see beyond their own experiences when they try to interpret a poem that’s where they run into trouble. When I teach this lesson, I have them read a poem and tell me what it means, and then I get to tell them that they’re wrong. What could be more fun than that?
In order to teach this lesson, you will need the following items:
- A CD/mp3 player and a copy of Reba McEntire’s song, “The Only Promise That Remains”
- A copy of the lyrics to the song, available here.
- A chalk board or dry erase board with chalk or markers.
Set up the Lesson
Begin the lesson by telling students you are going to play them a song; distribute a copy of the lyrics to each student. As they listen to the song and read the lyrics, they should write down their impressions of the speaker, audience, and central purpose or message of the poem. Let me explain a little bit about those three things before moving on:
1. Speaker: this is the narrator of the poem. It is almost never the same as the poem’s author, as we wise English teachers all know and our foolish students never seem to understand. When a student describes the speaker of a poem, they should tell you what they know about that person, including gender, personal feelings, status in life, age, or other considerations. When you use music lyrics to teach poetry, tell your students to imagine who the singer is portraying, or what character they are playing in the song. If the song were a music video, who would the protagonist be?
2. Audience: this is the person or group of people the speaker is addressing in the poem. Sometimes it might be specific, other times it’s an anonymous audience group. They might even be talking to God, or to the voices in their head. Like with the speaker, a student needs to identify the audience by that person or group’s defining features or characteristics. They should be able to prove their impressions using quotes from the poem.
3. Central Purpose: this is the message the speaker/poet is trying to convey. It might be a profound statement about the nature of human existence, or it might be a hate message toward an ex-girlfriend. Either way, the poem is trying to do something, and this is what the poem is trying to do.
Play the song for the students and ask them to write down their notes as they listen.
Teaching the Lesson
When students hear the song, they’re going to think the following:
1. The speaker is a woman in love. She has strong feelings toward her relationship and wants to be there for her partner.
2. The audience is the man she loves.
3. The central purpose is to explain to him that she loves him and will always be there for him no matter what, 4ever, like, totally.
How do I know this? Because I have spent more than five minutes with teenagers. They’re driven by their hormones, and they rarely go five minutes without thinking about the opposite sex. Okay, that may be a slight exaggeration, but the point is that when they read a poem like this they’ll always think it’s about a romantic relationship.
This is where the fun comes in: you get to teach them that they’re not always right. Tell them that their version of the speaker/audience/central purpose isn’t the one you came up with, and challenge them to find another option.
Finishing the Lesson
This is the point in the lesson where I usually get blank stares. Then I remind my students that when they read poetry, they need to think outside of their own frames of reference. I give them a clue: they look at the poem through the eyes of a teenager. I look at the poem differently. I ask them to think about how my own frame of reference might lend to a different reading of the poem.
This is when they remember that I’m old, and also a mom (sometimes I have to lead them there). So when they think about how a mother would read the poem, they consider this alternative:
1. The speaker is a mother who cares very deeply about her child and will always love him no matter what. (See lines 4, 6, and 8.)
2. The audience is her child, who is probably going out on his own or starting a new phase in his life where he will be away from his mother. (See lines 3, 5, and 8.)
3. The central purpose is to let the child know that he can always come home again, no matter what, and his mom will always love him and be there for him, regardless of where life leads him. (See lines 17-19 and the refrain.)
Then I challenge my students to think even more deeply, and they consider the other options for speaker/audience/central purpose:
- Father/Child/I will always love you. (Same references as mother version.)
- Deity/Believers/I will always love you. (See lines 12-15, 18-19, and the refrain.)
- Friend/Friend/We’ll always be there for each other. (Pretty much the same references.)
See how many versions you and your students can come up with. When the lesson is over, remind them to read a poem beyond their own personal frame of reference next time. Whether you use music lyrics to teach poetry or choose a poem of your own, the message is the same: read outside the box!
This post is part of the series: Poetry Lesson Plans
This is a series of free online poetry lesson plans to use in the high school English classroom.