Sunday, September 18, 2016

Using Music to Distinguish Between "Content" and "Structure"

A major objective in all my classes is for students to distinguish between content and structure, between the meaning of a text and the strategies authors use to construct that meaning. Students typically come into my class with strong summary skills, and they are definitely on the path toward being able to identify an author's main and secondary ideas, i.e., the content. Certainly, they can strengthen those skills - and that’s why they're in my class! 

The more difficult skill to master for practically everyone in my classes is to identify the moves or structures that the authors use to express those ideas. By “moves” and “structures,” I mean what the writer does to express her content: describe, explain, contrast, express effect, tell a story, use dialogue, state a point, or give examples.

Certainly, “meaning” and “moves” are mutually reinforcing, difficult to separate. At the same time, I want students to be able to identify what writers do so they can emulate those moves to express their own ideas. To introduce students to this process, we examined texts students are already deeply invested in: music they love.


I demonstrated with India.Arie’s “I Am Not My Hair,” asking students to articulate her message and moves. They proceeded to give a great summary and slight variations on her message. Practically all the comments about the content were on the money. Identifying structure was a bit more complicated.

To help students along, I wrote a list of different “moves” on the board: explain, define, state, list, compare, tell personal story, give an example, use dialogue, state the cause or effect, etc. Then I asked students, who were working in pairs, to identify where they saw these moves being made, these strategies being used. And they basically got it - with prodding and guidance. But I know that mastering a single activity doesn't translate into deep understanding.

To reinforce the lesson, I asked students to select a song of their choice (something in English, not instrumental, and something that had a meaning beyond trying to get a date or party). Students uploaded a YouTube clip of the song to a shared Padlet (see below for what the UMOJA Learning Community posted) and brought printed lyrics to class the next period. 


Again, we brainstormed a list of strategies, and then I asked students to work independently to jot down notes about their song’s personal significance, the song’s message and which line(s) best expressed that point, and the lyricist's moves (taken from the list of strategies). I asked them to write their brief answers directly on the lyrics they had printed to use as notes for when they would share their songs with a partner. 


I cased the room, helping people identify strategies. In many cases, students noted literary devices that they noticed (anaphora, epithet, epiphora, metaphor, and hyperbole), so I named those for them.  I wasn’t so concerned about distinguishing between moves/mode and literary devices - just as long as students could identify that lyricists were “doing” something with words.

After about eight minutes of solo work, I asked students to pair off and “teach” each other their songs. I gave them about eight minutes to discuss their song's significance to each other,to share their songs'  content, and to identify strategies the lyricists used, being sure to point to actual lines or stanzas in the lyrics. Because students were invested in the music they chose, the interest level was high. And I was able to help ground the definitions of “content” and “structure” to something personally relevant. Here’s a sampling of some of their comments that I took directly off their notes: 


  • One student chose to write about the song “The Hound and the Fox” by the group I the MIghty (not to be confused with Pearl Bailey’s rendition of the Disney tune of the same name - damn, I’m old!). “I chose this song because of what the lyrics express,” he writes. “ . . . it tells a story based on the corruption in our society.” In addition to noting that the lyricists used narration, the student also caught that the lyricist directly states the song’s point, uses rhetorical questions, and provides comparison. 
  • Regarding the song “Young & Stupid” by Travis Mills, one student wrote, “I can relate to a lot to this song. The language is powerful.” This student also noted repetition of particular words and phrases. She also noted how lines toward the end of the song referred to moments earlier in the song, and how the singer reflected on the content. 
  • Another student wrote this about “Warning” by Biggie Smalls: “This song taught me a lesson about how friends can become foes” . . . “how when things start going good for you, people may get jealous and want what you got.” This student noted Biggie’s extensive use of dialogue, violent wordplay, how the lyrics opened with a rhetorical questions. 
    It was interesting to read what made particular songs so important to individual students. It helped me recognize students beyond their role in the class but as consumers and interpreters of signs. And because I’ve aged out of being “in the know” about contemporary popular culture, the activity helped me keep abreast of some of what students enjoy and value. 


    Plus, I realized that by asking students to express their subjective experience of their music, I am better able to help them distinguish between their personal reaction to a text and the text's  meaning and moves - the kind of critical distance they'll need to do analysis. Too often, I find myself having to corral discussion away from their personal connection to a text toward a more “academic” analysis (can I get an “amen?”).  I expect we’ll revisit this notion of subjective response vs. critical observation throughout the semester! I also can appreciate that I need to make some space, however small, to acknowledge how texts have a subjective impact.

    As an introductory set, I recognize that I can’t fully elaborate on the distinction between larger structural pieced/modes and literary/rhetorical devices. The activity did allow me to assess how hard it is to even notice that writers make particular decisions about how to express their content. And after reviewing their notes, I have a sense what we need to attack next. 


    As we proceed, I expect to make finer distinctions between organizational patterns (description, definition, compare/contrast, cause/effect, problem/solution) and craft moves (rhetorical devices). This gives us a good primer as we dive into more formal texts, which they've already begun to analyze for meaning but not for moves. 

    Another possibility (if time were no issue!) is to mine the students' musical choices, for example structures and devices, to have them learn from texts they’ve chosen. Of course, the goal is to move to other texts - slowly by slowly, looping back to what we tried here to deepen and broaden their understanding of what writers do.