Today's featured guest blogger is Shane Bradley, Administrative Dean, Writing Program Director, and Assistant Professor of English at Erskine College.
Anyone reading this old enough to remember the song “Where the Party At” by Jagged Edge? The year was 2001, and I’d just finished what I call my “Middle School Odyssey” – teaching ELA to seventh and eighth graders – and had joyfully made it home to high school English.
I began my high school stint teaching ninth graders, and everybody knows there’s little difference between eighth and ninth graders. So, the odyssey continued. My students urged me to include music in my lessons, and eager to get them involved, I complied. Fridays found us listening to their favorite songs and talking about what we heard.
When one of them played “Where the Party At” that fall, we listened happily, tapped our fingers, and bobbed our heads. Several students sang along with the lyrics, and two were so moved that they broke into dance.
Music is an inescapable component of our lives. We listen to it in the car, from our phones, around the store, at the gym. Our students wear their Beats headphones like old people wear shirts: part of their wardrobe. What I realized early on was that while music takes us places our ordinary, soundless existences can’t, those words, those structural patterns attached to the music also stick in our heads, becoming part of us. With that in mind, I decided to keep “Where the Party At?” as a teaching tool for my high school students.
I try to play the song in my American Literature classes during the first weeks of a new semester. We enjoy the music, but most students don’t sing along because they’re too young or too cool or both. Because I also begin most semesters with a review of what a sentence is, how it functions, and the ground rules for clear academic writing, the refrain in the song – “Where the (da) party at?” – serves as an appropriate example.
“Grammatically,” I ask, “what’s wrong with the song?”
“There are three key issues in the chorus that we want to avoid in our writing. Can anyone identify them?”
“They end the sentence with the word at,” someone shouts.
“Yes, and why is that wrong?”
“No object of the preposition,” another student says. “Sounds bad.”
“Good. What else?”
“They don’t say the word the; they say da.”
“Yes, and while saying da may not be that big a deal, do we want to write da in the place of the word the?”
“No,” they laugh.
“There’s one more,” I say.
This one always takes a moment, but someone finally realizes and blurts out, “Hey, there’s no verb in ‘Where da party at.’ It needs an is.”
Music may brighten our students’ days, help them study, and keep their workouts and practices on pace, but it also tattoos on their impressionable brains habits that drive English teachers nuts! Whether we’ll admit it or not, the music our students like doesn’t cultivate the most effective written academic communication.
Instead of beating them over the head with all the bad habits popular music creates, I try to help them recognize the influence music has on our culture. I play another hit from my past, “Run Around” by Blues Traveler from all the way back in 1994. Remember the first lines? “Oh, once upon a midnight dearie, I woke with something in my head.” Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” – “Once upon a midnight dreary.” Honestly, they don’t get that reference any more than they know Poe is responsible for the raven on Baltimore’s helmets.
By the end of the semester, we’ve listened to and discussed a variety of songs inspired by the literature we read. Here are a few:
“Ahab,” MC Lars (Herman Melville, Moby Dick)
“Tom Sawyer,” Rush (Mark Twain, Tom Sawyer)
“Anabel Lee,” Stevie Nicks (Edgar Allan Poe, “Anabel Lee”)
“Richard Cory,” Simon and Garfunkel (E.A. Robinson, “Richard Cory”)
“Thieves in the Night,” Blackstar (Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye)
“Firework,” Katy Perry (Jack Kerouac, “On the Road”)
And while some of the songs might be a bit of a stretch, like Katy’s Perry’s “Firework,” and listening to the songs does require us to read all or part of the works referenced, students do appreciate our efforts.
To my surprise, some of my students are familiar with the band Iron Maiden, and any Internet search of their songs (“Flight of Icarus” and “Murders in the Rue Morgue,” for example) will reveal a strong literary influence. Like the band’s music or not, there’s no mistaking that the members either paid attention in high school or spent a lot of time with their noses in books.
When my students want to know where “da party at,” they know it probably won’t be in my classroom, but what they do know is that we’ll listen to Jagged Edge, laugh, bob our heads, and talk about literary influences on the culture. The odyssey continues.