June 28, 2009

Covers and Remixes: Black Steel

As I have mentioned in previous blog posts, I teach kids that are so young that they have no memory prior to American Idol. This has got me thinking about covering and remixing songs. As I searched the internet for music and themes, I found that many songs have been rerecorded into different genres.

I have chosen a song to examine that has been remade in a different genre. The song is "Black Steel (In the Hour of Chaos)." It was originally released by Public Enemy in 1989. In 1995, a British artist called Tricky released a version of this song with a female vocalist. When comparing the song, the lyrics are nearly identical:

I got a letter from the government
The other day
I opened and read it
It said they were suckers
They wanted me for their army or whatever
Picture me given' a damn I said never
Here is a land that never gave a damn
About a brother like me and myself
Because they never did
I wasn't wit' it but just that very minute...
It occured to me
The suckers had authority
Cold sweatin' as I dwell in my cell
How long has it been?
They got me sittin' in the state pen
I gotta get out - but that thought was thought before
I contemplated a plan on the cell floor
I'm not a fugitive on the run
But a brother like me begun - to be another one
Public enemy servin' time - they drew the line y'all
To criticize me some crime - never the less
They could not understand that I'm a Black man
And I could never be a veteran
On the strength, the situation's unreal
I got a raw deal, so I'm goin' for the steel

I am embedding Tricky's version audio only although the video is available. I am also embedding a live version of Public Enemy performing.

When I first heard Tricky's version of this song, I was confused. Growing up in the United States, I was familiar with the history of oppression and racism in this society. I also knew that Public Enemy was a controversial challenger of racism at the time this song was released (on their album "It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold us Back"). For this reason, I associated the lyrics with United States history. I was surprised to hear a British artist remake this song using a female vocalist. Recall that in the lyrics, she sings "I'm a black man and I could never be a veteran." This really challenged my understanding of Tricky's song. Why did he choose this song to remake?

More recently, I have been listening to the album that Tricky recorded this remake on. There is another song on this album that I started to connect with Tricky's Black Steel. This song is called "Hell Is Round the Corner." Here is an excerpt from the lyrics:

I seem to need a reference to get residence
A reference to your preference to say,
I'm a good neighbour, I trudge,
So judge me for my labour,
The bond on me ensures my good behavior
The constant struggle insures my insanity.
Passing the ignorance ensures the struggle for my family
We're hungry, beware of our appetite.
Distant drums bring the news of a kill tonight.
The kill which I share with my passengers.
We take our fill, take our fill, take our fill.

Public Enemy used music to bring social issues out on a relatively local level and Tricky is doing the same thing. Both are addressing the marginalization of members of the society in which they live. It makes me want to learn more about the history of the United Kingdom.

I am embedding the audio only for "Hell is Round the Corner," but the video is available on youTube.

June 25, 2009

Kid Pix Projects

For my next series of assignments, I would like my students to work with the "Kid Pix" computer program. This is a program that we have on our computers at school and that some students have explored. It has many capabilities. I would like my students to use the slideshow feature. Kid Pix is compatible with the Apple program iTunes which is also on our computers. This compatibility will allow the students to integrate music into their assignments.

Prior to either of the projects, the students need to be comfortable making pictures, adding text to pictures, saving pictures, and retrieving their saved pictures. This will take several lab experiences.

My first assignment will be an extension of writing. In our writing curriculum, our students work on writing personal narratives made up of a series of "moments." I would like the students to convert one of these stories into a slideshow. To prepare for the musical component of this assignment, I will share several movements from Peer Gynt my Edvard Greig. My intention is to choose movements that offer very different moods.

The students will start their planning on paper by sketching a story board to outline what their pictures will look like once they get on the computer. Part of the story sketch will be a choice of a song or songs from Peer Gynt to help the audience understand the student's story.

Once students have planned their story, they will work on Kid Pix to create a series of slides that use music, text, and pictures to tell their personal narrative. Ultimately, I would like the students to present their stories to the class. Since there are only a few songs to choose from, the students will be using the same songs to convey different emotions depending on the content of their stories. I would like to use this lesson as an opportunity to discuss how the stories impacted the audience's understanding of the music.

My second assignment will be linked to a district wide anti-bullying project. For this project, students typically create a poster encouraging anti-bullying behavior. I will be modifying this project by having the students work in groups to use kid pix to create an anti-bullying commercial. For this project, the students will have a larger list of songs to choose from and we will not preview them as a class. I will provide songs, but I will also get songs that students request for their projects.

Similar to the previous assignment, the students will sketch a storyboard of their commercial before moving to the computer lab. Again, students will share their commercials with the class. As a class, we will talk about the tone the music set for the various commercials. For example, some music will be more positive than other music. How does that impact our understanding of the message in the commercial?

June 21, 2009

Multimedia Storytelling for Primary Students

I would like to start out by saying that this was a hard assignment for me. In Mahiri's article and Autrand's lessons, the content was designed for students who are much older than mine. I will be teaching 3rd grade next year after finishing 2 years of second grade. In general, I think my students are comfortable creating visual projects. However, they are used to creating them for the purpose of bring them home.

As I read Mahiri's article, I realized that my students are just beginning to understand what it means to write for an audience. We spent a lot of time this past school year asking ourselves, "what do I want my reader to understand when they are done reading my work?" I think that we could use modalities beyond reading and writing to explore the idea of communicating to an audience.
My students use computers, but they do not crate projects on them much if at all. I would like to have my students create a project using computers to link visual images, music, and text. However, we will need to do some work to prepare for that culminating activity.

For our first activity, I will guide the students through an exploration of the song "This Land is my Land." I chose this song because it is a song that some kids are familiar with and that we will already have sung it together. It also relates to our social studies curriculum unit about communities. I will post the lyrics and take notes while the kids answer the following questions together:

Why do you think people sing this song?
How do you feel when you sing this song?
Pick a line from the song and tell us what it means to you.
What do you see in your head when we sing. . .?

Then I will have the student break up into groups. I will assign each group a verse or line from the song and their job will be to create a poster that has the words from the song and a picture to help people understand what the song means to us. Once the posters are created, we can make a book to use while singing the song.

Ultimately I would like to put their images into a digital presentation to share with them. This would be a launch into a second activity. For this activity, I would like to the kids to use the computer to illustrate a song. I would like to provide a list of songs that the students are familiar with and that will lend themselves to the assignment. The students will use a program such as kidpix to make illustrations to go along with the song that they choose. I would like the students to include the lyrics as text for this assignment. As a presentation, we will sing the songs while viewing the pictures. We will talk about the experience with the following guiding questions:

How do you feel when you sing this song?
What is something that you saw that made you think while you were singing this song?
Has your thinking changed since you have seen these pictures while singing this song?

Moving on, I would like the students to create a multimedia presentation that does not have to have the lyrics as the text. I also want to have them teach the class about something of their choice using music and a digital presentation. The "digital divide" is a major hurdle to overcome. I am not comfortable with these modalities myself, so that makes it hard to envision what the possibilities are at my students' level of technological ability. As we experiment, this should become less of an issue.

June 18, 2009

My Role in the Classroom

180px-Parental_Advisory_label_svg.png In my previous post, I mentioned that I have concerns about the "adult" topics that I know children are exposed to through music and media. I feel like I am promoting censorship for having these concerns even though I try to avoid acting on them as I mentioned earlier. As I read Negus' chapter about politics and music, I realize that this urge opine about what others listen to is not just because I am a teacher. According to Negus, people in power have been trying to manage how and which music is heard for centuries.

I do not want to manage what children listen to. I want them to be able to be intellectually prepared to experience all kinds of music. I am unsure of how much I can be involved with that as a teacher. There are some things I feel parents would prefer to talk to their kids about. When kids ask if Santa is real, I am confident telling my students to talk to an adult at home about that, and I know that the parents appreciate that. Would they be okay with me teaching about popular music in the classroom?

As I got to the end of the chapter, I started to release myself from the burden of trying to prepare my students for all of the "adult" content in popular media. I buy into Negus' argument music is a medium that provides knowledge gaining experiences (222). My job is to create an environment where music in general is valued as an experience. We sing a little in second grade, but we could sing more. To start of the year, this would be a wonderful way to build community. Then, I could find songs that we could analyze and sing together as an extension of our Social Studies curriculum and our literacy program. I may not be able to solve the problem of how to "protect" the kids from controversial music, but preparing them to be aware of their musical experiences and understandings is a better goal anyway.

I Teach, Therfore I Mediate

While reading "Popular Music in Theory" (Negus 1996), I found myself bouncing back and forth between the many different roles I have in my life. I suppose that is appropriate seeing as Negus essentially argues that our state of mind and the condition of our environment at the moment we experience music, or in this case his book, has a profound impact on how we perceive the experience. As a music lover, I feel excited to know that due to the ever changing nature of music, there is music that I've never heard that I will love when I discover it! As a second grade teacher, I feel concerned about the content of what I consider to be "adult" topics in music. I know kids listen to songs with "explicit lyrics," and I worry that they do not have adult support to help them understand what they are hearing in a way that is not harmful. As a parent, I want my child to listen to whatever she wants to, but I want to be responsible for the same reasons I have concerns as a teacher.

As I read Negus' chapter about mediations, I kept thinking that as a teacher and a parent, I am in a position with great power. While the children I work with are in my care, I mediate their musical experiences based on our social relationship. I act as a filter, allowing them to listen or watch certain pieces and determining that others are "not appropriate." At the age level that I teach, the students are not totally aware of the censorship that is implemented on their behalf. But they generally trust their teacher and believe that what I present is "good" in a very basic sense.

Up until now, I have tried avoid any judgment of music with my students. I realize that this has resulted in my avoidance of something that they are interested in and eager to talk to me about. I have had kids approach me about music before, but I usually just sort of generically tell them that I love lots of kinds of music and change the topic. In the future, I will ask them why they are bringing a song up and try to open dialogue. I think that I can talk about music with second graders without imposing value judgments on them. Even so, I will always be a mediator as a teacher.

June 14, 2009

If you want to teach, why not?

“School of Rock” is a funny movie and I believe that is the purpose of the movie. From a business standpoint, it is accessible to a variety of audiences. Part of the reason for this is that the majority of the movie takes place in a school and everyone has attended school.

In general, people in our society consider themselves to have an educated opinion about school because nearly all of our citizens have attended as students. Attending school as a teacher is a drastically different viewpoint than most people have experienced. Movies that have a teacher as a protagonist give many people their most in-depth look at what teaching is like.

Continue reading "If you want to teach, why not?" »

June 8, 2009

Leslie, Fionna, and Kim: Exploring Females in Pursuit

Leslie Gore, Fionna Apple, and Lil’ Kim all sang about a female who is or was pursuing an experience with a male. Leslie Gore’s song was popular a few years before the sexual revolution was in full swing. Fionna Apple’s and Lil’ Kim’s songs come a cuple decades later. In the mean time, music videos became an important part of selling singles in the music industry. Music Videos have allowed performers to become actors, as Fionna Apple and Lil’ Kim demonstrate.

In Gore’s song, “It’s My Party,” the video seems to be a performance at a dance. Gore is dressed in a suit covering her collarbone, elbows. In her song, the female who is pursuing a male is Judy, the girl who is taking Johnny from poor Leslie Gore. In the video of her singing this song, she does not seem to be taking on the role of the wronged girl while she performs even though the song is written from that point of view.

Fionna Apple’s video for “Criminal” was popular on MTV at the time. I remember thinking that it was controversial because she was very skinny and at various stages of undress through out the very sexual video. In her song and video, it is hard to figure out who all is pursuing who at the beginning. Fionna seems to be having an encounter with multiple partners and has wronged a different male who is not at the event where the video takes place. The lyrics indicate the song is sort of a confessional where she is admitting that problems from this situation are completely her fault. However, the video leaves one feeling that perhaps she was taken advantage of by someone. There are pictures of Fionna in the video that may or may not indicate that she has been exploited. Towards the end, Fionna is singing about trying to make sure her “lover” stays, so she is pursuing the man she has wronged because “he’s all I’ve ever known of love.” Fionna is definitely acting as the protagonist of the song, taking on all of the emotions associated with the story the video is trying to tell.

Lil’ Kim’s “How Many Licks” was released a few years after “Criminal.” In this video, it is arguable that she is pursuing all men who are willing to perform specific deeds that she sings about. The part that puts this song and video into it’s own category is that throughout the video the viewer is watching a factory where anatomically correct life size dolls are being created in the likeness of Lil’ Kim. There are many connotations that she slips in that make the purpose of the dolls difficult to understand. She sings that men should use these dolls to practice, but she also sings that the dolls are very expensive which alludes to prostitution. In fact, there are frames in the video that make it look like the video is a commercial for these dolls. Lil’ Kim is completely taking on the role of the doll that the video is featuring. In real life, she has had so much plastic surgery that her face is remarkably different than from the cover of her first album. She sings and performs this song with confidence, but I am not sure I am buying it.

June 5, 2009

Integrating Popular Music with Social Studies

In the current education climate, the emphasis on standardized tests has put pressure on teachers and administrators to teach facts and test taking skills so that schools can avoid financial punishment. What are our young citizens leaving adolescence with? As our children graduate from our education system and are ready to vote and participate as adults in our society, how effective will they be if they are not being pushed to make connections beyond the facts we believe they will be tested on? In order for our democracy to function well, we need critical thinkers, not good test takers.

We live in a time of rapid technological change. This has allowed pop culture to evolve in ways that I had never dreamed of during my own adolescent years. Music and media are intertwined with many children’s social life. As educators, tapping into this part of the adolescent experience can be powerful. When considering a new Social Studies curriculum, there are two compelling reasons to integrate popular music and media. One is to allow students to make connections between historical events and the culture of the music at the time. The other is to empower students with the critical thinking they will need to be successful and safe participants in a media rich society.

Encouraging students to make personal connections is a common way help students understand content. Music is something that all students have in common. Integrating relevant music into a history curriculum promotes conversation allowing students to benefit from connections other students have made as well as their own personal connections. Popular music is thoroughly woven through history and is an enjoyable way to deepen one’s understanding of how events are tied together.

As our recent history has unfolded, music and media have become huge participants in our capitalist market as well as strong contributors to social change and art. It is important for students to be critical of the function of popular music and media that they are encountering. When teaching reading, I ask my students why they think the author wrote a given piece. What is the author hoping we will come away with? Music gives us examples of many purposes people have when sharing their creations with the world. Some music is used as an instrument for social change, some is an artistic exercise in poetry and music theory, and some is designed to make money.

Obvious opportunities for integration with a social studies curriculum are songs of social change and protest from the Vietnam era. Much has changed since then and rather than gathering at concerts singing along, one can download one song and video and experience it in ways that were only fantasy mere decades ago. As students grow up with this media rich society, we can help them become critical and savvy when assessing the mounds of media they do and will encounter. This can be done by providing an academic setting to explore the connections between popular music and media, history, and current events.

Using popular music to help students comprehend content is clearly relevant to the every present test issue. Teaching students to be critical of the intent of popular music will help prepare students for participation as a citizen. They will become comfortable assessing purpose and looking at broad connections related to the function of a given song or media experience. This has value beyond test scores.