Listening for detail: “Kilkelly, Ireland”

American songwriter Peter Jones discovered a collection of letters in his parents’ attic written by his great-great-great grandfather, Byran Hunt, to his son, John Hunt, who had emigrated from Kilkelly in Ireland to the United States in 1855. The Great Famine in Ireland had forced large numbers of people to emigrate in search of a better life. The five-stanza ballad he wrote based on these letters cover the time period from 1860 to 1892.

“Kilkelly, Ireland” is a breathtaking, thought-provoking song in which family news, including births and deaths, are shared for a period of thirty-two years. In the activity, the students listen for specific information by writing an explanation for each of the words, names or pictures in the timeline. Pat McNamara, for instance, is the teacher who writes the letters for John’s father. At the end of each letter, go over the answers and have the students read the lyrics if necessary before moving on to the next. If needed, you may want to pre-teach a few words such as “dampness”, “turf”, “pass on”, “bury” or “feisty”, although both the slow rhythm pattern of the song and the type of words used in the lyrics make it a challenging yet attainable listening task for students with a B1+ level and above.

Kilkelly

Kilkelly.pdf

 

The song could be an excellent starting point to get the students talking about why people migrate and cultivate empathy in the classroom. Alternatively, the students could write their own personal responses at the end of the song and focus on the universal theme of the sadness and longing by people who have been separated for a long time. In my experience, though, the song is so powerful that you can often tell what the students want to talk about after listening to it and thinking about it for a short while. Perhaps now it’s our turn to listen.

 

Talking about the environment: “Big Yellow Taxi”

“I wrote ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ on my first trip to Hawaii. I took a taxi to the hotel and when I woke up the next morning, I threw back the curtains and saw these beautiful green mountains in the distance. Then, I looked down and there was a parking lot as far as the eye could see, and it broke my heart… this blight on paradise. That’s when I sat down and wrote the song.”

Joni Mitchell. Los Angeles Times, 1996

Next week I’m using this activity as an introduction to a unit on environmental issues. The task is based on a song by Joni Mitchell, “Big Yellow Taxi” (1970), and it asks the students to find two words in each sentence which should change places with each other in order to make sense. The students then explain their answers and listen to the song to check if they are right.

I’m including two versions for different levels here, from easier to more difficult:


big-yellow-taxi-1

BigYellowTaxi1.pdf

ANSWERS: parking – paradise, and – hotel, know – go, parking – paradise, put – took, half – dollar, that – put, birds – spots, last – late, old – yellow


big-yellow-taxi

BigYellowTaxi2.pdf

ANSWERS: put up – paved, hotel – boutique, till – that, put – took, half – dollar, now – away, birds – apples, slam – door, old – yellow

(Extra support can be provided if needed by having the students circle a few of the target words at the beginning.)


Apart from Joni Mitchell’s original song, there are several cover versions out there with different styles, so I’m also including a few I like to choose from based on what I know about a particular group of students.  Notice, however, that the Counting Crows’ cover version changes “slam” for “sway” and “man” for “girl” at the end, and that in Amy Grant’s version the people are charged “twenty-five bucks” instead of “a dollar and a half! Just another great opportunity to provide an extra purpose for listening!

I’m planning to have the students write a one-sentence personal response to the song and the topic in general, read a few and discuss them, and then use them again at the end of the unit in a plenary discussion. The students will be asked to make any changes they want and to write a few more lines with the new information and personal thoughts which will hopefully demonstrate their critical thinking skills and help them to take a stance on the issue.

We need this more than ever, don’t we?

Pathways to Accuracy: “Somewhere Only We Know”

At the beginning of “Somewhere Only We Know” (Keane, 2004), the singer walks “across an empty land” and knows “the pathway like the back of my hand.” In this activity, the students find their way through the maze to read and understand the lyrics of the song while facing a series of challenges related to grammar and sentence structure along the way. The use of articles and possessive adjectives, or differences such as “been”/”gone” or “say”/”tell”, are some of the questions that the students will need to solve as they connect the words with a pencil or a highlighter. The students are also asked to fill in the circles with a suitable preposition. Depending on the level of the students, the prepositions that they are allowed to use can be provided beforehand (although here I’d have them think of an answer first or leave it blank if they don’t know it, check it later when they listen to the song, and then discuss any other possibilities.)

somewhere-only-we-know

Somewhere Only We Know.pdf

Lyrics

There are plenty of opportunities for language analysis and further practice after the students have listened to the song and checked their answers, but you may also want to work on comprehension and discuss what the song means to each student, get them to share their ideas, and finally compare them with these words by the band’s drummer:

We’ve been asked whether “Somewhere Only We Know” is about a specific place, and Tim has been saying that, for him, or us as individuals, it might be about a geographical space, or a feeling; it can mean something individual to each person, and they can interpret it to a memory of theirs… It’s perhaps more of a theme rather than a specific message… Feelings that may be universal, without necessarily being totally specific to us, or a place, or a time…

Richard Hughes

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Using Context Clues: Ten Halloween Songs

In this activity, the students first read a narrative ‘poem’ and complete a story map with as much information from the story as they can. After discussing the parts of the story that remain unclear or open to interpretation, they think of a title for the story, write it down at the top, and share it with the rest of the group.10-halloween-songs-1

Once the students are familiar with the ‘poem’, explain to them that each verse has been taken from the beginning of ten songs considered to be the top ten Halloween songs in this publication by Billboard in 2014. Their task now is to find which song each of the verses in the poem belongs to. Depending on the level of the students, this can be done by having them read the lyrics, fill in the missing lines independently or in small groups, and then check by listening to the songs, but you can also provide extra help by playing a few lines or providing extra oral prompts as needed. In all cases, although the students will be mainly using context clues to decide which verse best fits each gap, they should also be asked to focus on rhyme schemes as a valuable aid in completing the task. Model the procedure and the type of thinking behind with one or two songs before having the students start working by themselves.

The songs in the worksheet can be cut out and played at random so that the students can decide on their own top ten ranking list at the end, compare it with the official list, and discuss any differences. Alternatively, after playing a few of the songs for checking or correction purposes you can have the students start guessing which song will be the next one and create further interest. No matter how you approach it, this process of reconstruction will surely get the students working on a variety of complex language skills in an engaging and meaningful way.

10 Halloween Songs.pdf

10. “This Is Halloween” –  Danny Elfman (2006)

9.“Highway to Hell” – AC/DC (1979)

8. “Don’t Fear the Reaper” – Blue Oyster Cult (1976)

7. “Creep” – Radiohead (1992)

6. “Superstition” – Stevie Wonder (1972)

5. “Werewolves of London” – Warren Zevon (1978)

4. “Deal With the Devil” – Pop Evil (2013)

3. “Ghostbusters” – Ray Parker, Jr.(1984)

2. “Monster Mash” – Bobby “Boris” Pickett & the Crypt-Kickers (1962)

1. “Thriller” – Michael Jackson (1984)

There are places I remember

Adding and deleting words from texts allow students to use their grammatical knowledge to manipulate sentences, play with the language, and analyse the impact each of these changes have on meaning. In this activity, students add and delete words from two texts following certain rules. This close reading will also help students understand the texts better and compare them, contrast them, and finally be able to express personal opinions about them.

placesPlaces.pdf

After discussing the first line written on the board (“There are places I remember all my life”) and coming up with special places that they can remember and the reasons behind this, the students read the lyrics of “In My Life” by The Beatles and decide which words can be deleted as long as they don’t cross out two or more words together. Students justify their answers orally first and then listen to the song and check the lyrics. How does the singer feel about those places he remembers? Are they good memories? How do they compare to the present? Is it any better?

For the second text, students add the words provided in the box wherever they think it’s possible and/or appropriate. Unlike the first one, however, a few more options are available here and so more discussion will be needed before listening to the original lyrics of “Half the World Away” since the addition of words will have to conform to both grammatical and semantic rules. How does the singer feel about the place he is in? Why do you think so? What do you think he needs to do? What would YOU do?

Finally, the students compare both songs, analyse how these places are used in each one, and choose the one they can most relate to, perhaps writing their choice and their reasons on post-it notes that can both hold the students accountable and provide a visual component once they are stuck on either side of the board.

 

Reported speech and creative writing: Fifty ways 

After reading the reported conversation and discussing what it is about, the students practise simple reported speech structures by rewriting each line into direct speech while changing tenses, pronouns, possessive adjectives and time references when necessary. With the aid of a few extra words provided, the result will be the actual lyrics from “Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover” by Paul Simon. The students listen to the song and check their answers at the end.

FiftyWays1

The class can then work together and write a few more “ways to leave your lover”, following the model in the chorus. The students first choose one of the one-syllable proper names in the circle and match it with any words that rhyme in the box on the right. They then write their own lines, such as “Go to the gym, Tim”, “Don’t pull my leg, Meg”, “Get on that van, Dan”, or “Let’s make a deal, Neil”. The types of sentences will vary depending on the level of the students, so the possibilities are endless! Can the group of students come up with the remaining forty-five pieces of advice to make the song title a reality?

FiftyWays2

FiftyWays.pdf

Reconstructing a story from questions: “Tom’s Diner”

Suzanne Vega’s classic “Tom’s Diner” (1981) is used in this activity to practise comprehension skills by looking for specific information, reading between the lines, making predictions, and establishing connections both within the text and with the world outside — including the students themselves!

Students first read the questions and try to answer as many as they can. Some of the answers will be in the following questions, others will be close guesses using the information available and their own predictions, and yet a few questions will allow for multiple interpretations. When students are asked to listen to the song, they should already have a fairly clear idea of what this personal narrative is about or, at least, enough details to make the listening comprehension activity both purposeful and meaningful. Students listen, confirm their guesses, make any necessary changes, and evaluate their own predictions by comparing the information they had at the beginning of the activity and the new details after listening to the story.

TomsDinerImage

TomsDinerWorksheet.pdf

Tom’s Diner Lyrics

Have groups of students discuss the last two questions and share their ideas. How are they connected to the rest of the story? As an extension activity, you may want to try and have students write a stanza about the typical daily routines that take place in your classroom to the tune of the song, record them, and then join the different files together into one final song. Would you give it a try?

Diner by #96, on Flickr
Diner” (CC BY 2.0) by  #96