Adventures in Education

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Using Music with ELL Students

If you didn’t know, one of my gigs is as a writing lecturer at the university level. Being a lecturer is far more uncertain than my days as a tenured secondary school teacher. There is a great deal of grappling for classes, worrying about healthcare, and simply staying relevant in the ever-changing world of academia–especially for those of us nearer to retirement than graduation. This spring is no different. But this is not a sob story. I love what I do.

Part of what keeps me enthused is my value of lifelong learning. And my newest adventure on the other side of the desk includes earning a Teaching English to Speakers of Foreign Languages (TESOL) credential (finally). And it has definitely sparked some creativity.

I thought that I would share a little of the assignments that I am completing to help spark those of your who are also on an educational adventure–or simply want to know that an old dog can learn new tricks. These aren’t pretty. It is just my dialogue with others in the class. Take what you will.

I am going to start with “Why music is important to English Language Learners?” Academia tells us that it stimulates learning, is lower risk, creates a connection with language patterns, and stimulates phonemic awareness. I’m going to be personal here. I am currently enrolled in Spanish classes, and I struggle. I can look at the paper and tutorials all day and listen to someone repeat the words, but it doesn’t click for me to speak the language (read-yes, speak-no). Then, I find an amazing video or our instructor teaches a song (or I turn on Malo!). Suddenly, just as the academics promised, my listening skills are enhanced; the patterns seem to make sense in a new way, and my decoding skills are heightened.

This was a fun exercise for me to look for something new to use with my current students. When I was teaching younger kiddos, I loved to use songs with prepositions in them or days of the week (“Friday, I’m in Love” was on the radio and super fun when I first started teaching). But with my adult learners, I tried to find something about 20 years more recent and selected one that I already use for my social work students: “Firework” by Katy Perry (2010).

First off, I like to share links to upbeat, empowering songs each week on Canvas as a What I’m Listening To. I play songs as the students are assembling in person or as we wait on Zoom. Selfishly, “Firework” is one of my favorites for bringing energy into the room on Thursday mornings about midway through the semester when midterms are beating us down. It’s almost like a personal note to my students letting them know that I see them and what they are going through. However, for this exercise, I looked at the song again and noted that it would be really great to use it as a way to discuss figurative language and the development of strong vocabulary when writing for advocacy. My students have to describe a social problem within the community they choose to serve. However, many still have limited word choices. I see a great deal of “things are really bad,” “a lot of problems are happening,” or “people feel bad.”  My second language students can really benefit from discussing the images songs they hear and how they can use different vocabulary to demonstrate the images which are similar to the ones their community members feel.

I really became excited as I thought about this and plan to use it with my upper-division university students. But I could definitely see using this with middle school and high school-aged students (depending on language development). One way to address the song is through writing teams assigned a few lines and then asked to describe the literal and figurative picture and then brainstorm strong vocabulary words or phrases that could be used in their own writing. These are just a few examples from “Firework.”

Do you ever feel like a plastic bag/Drifting through the wind/Wanting to start again? What does it feel like to be a “plastic bag drifting”? Powerless, inadequate, lacking control

Do you ever feel, feel so paper thin/Like a house of cards/One blow from caving in? First off, what is a house of cards and how is it used as an idiom in English?  How do we as individuals experience that same feeling? What contributes to this situation? What is “caving in” literally? How do we “cave in”?

And then the positive stuff.

You just gotta ignite the light, and let it shine/Just own the night like the 4th of July/Cause, baby, you’re a firework/Come on, show ’em what you’re worth …
As you shoot across the sky
What is the image we see in that lyric? What does it mean figuratively? How can we describe our “worth”? 

And so on. 

I hope this sparks a few fireworks in your classroom. “Boom, boom, boom.”

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