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4 Resources to Teach Kids About Social Justice Issues Using Music

By Tony Buitrago

“There may be no more powerful method of learning than through music, and no more important lessons for children than those that focus on character and social and emotional skills.”

These are the words of Dr. Don MacMannis, the chief songwriter and music director of the PBS children’s show “Jay Jay the Jet Plane” and the clinical director of the Family Therapy Institute of Santa Barbara. His statement holds true in humane education as well. Listening to music is a daily occurrence in the life of a young adult, and one that can be used in humane education in a variety of ways. Here are a few different lessons that incorporate music into humane education lessons.

Build a Lesson Around a Song with a Social Justice Message

This article from the Association for Psychological Science suggests building a lesson around a song that is relevant to a social justice topic and creating a respectful discussion around the song. It provides an appendix featuring songs from artists as diverse as John Lennon, The Beastie Boys, Bob Marley, and Ani DiFranco, and provides a structure for listening, analyzing and discussing music regarding social justice.

Ask Students to Create Their Own Lyrics

The Songs for Teaching website includes many fun songs about the environment that can be used in a variety of ways. Educators can play the recordings and then discuss the lyrics with their students. These songs could also be sung during a school assembly or recital. Another possible activity is to have students create their own songs about the environment using the songs from this website as examples. 

Discuss Music’s Role in Social Justice Movements

This is a lesson about the Freedom Riders. It involves analyzing music’s role in the protests,  and an interview-based activity designed to relate historical events to current ones. Some of the learning objectives include being able to “recognize the connection between non-violent protest and the use of music for social change groups such as the Freedom Riders and their actions,” “analyze lyrics of prominent songs of the era and the civil rights movement and extract meaning and value from them through textual analysis,” and “have a better grasp of the role of popular culture as a tool for social change.”

Explore How Music Relates to Social Justice Issues

These last two lessons from Teaching Tolerance focus on social justice. Move to the Music invites students to pick and present a song that relates to a contemporary cultural, social or political issue. The students will teach a mini lesson on the song, briefly describing it and explaining the context surrounding its release. The students and teachers then identify and define vocabulary within the song, and the lesson continues with students doing critical analyses of the songs. The lesson ends with a class discussion.

The Sounds of Change is a lesson designed to get students to recognize music’s role in society, and how music creates connections between people, deconstructs stereotypes and educates people. Students list their favorite songs and then the teacher asks them questions about the songs, such as whether or not the students listen to the lyrics or if the songwriter is trying to portray a particular message.

It contains lessons for elementary school children and students from grade 6-12. The discussion questions students’ answer in both lessons are based on what kind of music they listen to and what kind of mood it puts them in. Both lessons involve analysis of different social justice related songs and writing new lyrics to the melodies of those songs. The songs they write should reflect an issue they care about. The lesson for older students differs from the younger students because they include more readings, such as an editorial by a New York Times writer, and more in-depth analysis of the songs as well analyses of the articles they read.

These lessons provide a way for students to take an everyday part of their life and use it to further their understanding of social justice movements. We hope you can find a use for them in your classrooms or that they inspire you to create similar lesson plans of your own.

Photo Credit: Flickr/Sascha Kohlmann

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