Today’s Music Can Build Understanding of History

A MiddleWeb Blog


Once we had a student ask: “What does anything we are studying have to do with us right now?”

This was disheartening, of course, because when teaching about the past, it does sometimes seem like the events we teach about are far removed from the realities of the present.

Nothing said in that moment was likely to convince this student that what we were studying was relevant to her life. Developmentally, it’s hard for kids to see the connections that adults can — we have an easier time understanding cause and effect, and the universal trends in human behavior that we see evidenced in human history. Often kids will understand larger themes as unique to the context that they learned it in–unless these themes are specifically connected to current ideas.

Sound_Of_Da_Police 260When Jody and our fellow blogger Aaron Brock planned out the curriculum of our U.S. History class some years ago, they made sure to add music. It’s this music that can de-contextualize the history themes and allow the students to make connections tying the past to the present–to show the reverberations of an event to the present day.

If we tell students that historical themes can be universally present, we get head nods and eye rolls. But if they hear Tupac singing about the same issues they just learned in the context of the nineteenth century, they start to think that we may actually be on to something.

2Pac_-_Changes 260Two particular pieces of music that Jody uses to make this connection are KRS-One’s Sound of da Police and Tupac’s Changes. While the themes discussed in these two songs are difficult, the language is appropriate–sometimes a challenge when selecting contemporary music to use in the classroom.

2 views of living in America

To kick off the study of the creation of the Constitution, which raises questions about who historically who has been protected by the Constitution (and who it was designed to protect), we introduce the unit with two different views of America.

Students explicate the lyrics of Charlie Daniels Band’s In America, finding the parts that present an opinion, and then discuss why the band might feel the way they do (that America is a beautiful country, both due to its landscape and its values). Then they listen to Tupac’s Changes, which, among other things, discusses police brutality, systemic poverty, and the Panther movement.

Seeing these conflicting views of America really helps our eighth graders hold two different perspectives in their mind. We ask them: “Who is right, Charlie Daniels or Tupac?” Charlie_Daniels_-_In_America 260We then discuss why different citizens might have a different experience of the same country. Current issues come up and students are encouraged to reflect and share their experiences and opinions.

Sometimes our decision to open with music helps them to feel that they can talk more freely–and as a text the song lyrics are often more engaging, too. Listening to and close-reading the text of the music is great for an anticipatory set, and its effect reverberates throughout the unit. Our students will often quote the song in a discussion to connect what we were studying to the present day.

Music adds context to Civil War issues

The next song that we close-read is KRS-One’s Sound of da Police. The main theme of this song is the comparison of current law enforcement officers to the overseers on plantations of the past, framing the current system as slavery by another name.

We use this song as an anticipatory set to the Causes of the Civil War unit, again attempting to connect the past and the present. Students here discuss perspective and bias as well–what in our own experiences affects our perception of the place where we live? Of fairness? Of justice? These are all questions that arise from the music.

dividedMusic is a vital part of middle school history curriculum, we feel. Often it can humanize the people in the past — as with the heart wrenching, and alternately jubilant and horrific songs on the album Divided and United which has contemporary performers singing songs from the time of the Civil War. And the album can elucidate more clearly – and with more pathos and empathy than a discussion or a textbook – the social, political, and economic effects that choices in the past have had on the present day.

So while we can’t always answer the student’s question about WHY she is learning history as eloquently as we would like, we hope that some of the words of Tupac and KRS-One can help speak the rationale better than we could.

Students don’t have to agree with views expressed in any particular song, but what they cannot disagree with is that this is someone’s experience and that it is rooted in choices made by other humans of the past.

How do you use music to connect the past with the present in history class?

Jody & Shara

Jody Passanisi is an eighth grade U.S. History teacher in Los Angeles and the author of History Class Revisited. She earned her teaching credential and an M.S. in education from Mount St. Mary’s College and an M.A. in religious studies from the Graduate Theological Union. Shara Peters teaches eighth grade U.S. History in a Los Angeles independent school. She earned her teaching credential from Hebrew Union College and her M.A. in teaching from American Jewish University. Follow them on Twitter @21centuryteachr

1 Response

  1. Lisa says:

    In September, I saw a 9th grade teacher I am working with, use Dave Matthews Band “Don’t Drink the Water” as a way to get students to verbalize their 21st century filter so that they could talk about the Trail of Tears. It was powerful. Even after reading primary source documents and discussing them, a student still wanted to know if Andrew Jackson “knew in his heart that what he did was wrong”. Music helped them gain an understanding that Andrew Jackson didn’t live in the 21st century and contextualize so that they could put what they were learning into perspective.

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