Using Taylor Swift Lyrics to Engage Kids with Text
By Patty McGee
Taylor Swift is affectionately nicknamed T-Swizzle, Swifty, Tay Tay (or just Tay) by her countless devoted fans. She has won so many awards from Grammys to Country Music Awards that it is hard to keep track.
Even college courses about Taylor are popping up all over the country at renowned institutions such as NYU, University of Texas, and Stanford.
As a middle school teacher, whether you are a Swiftie (otherwise known as a fan of Tay) or not, you can absolutely consider her music and lyrics an engaging literary resource. Ready to bring some T-Swift into your classroom? Here are three plans for your consideration. Use your teacher judgment about what’s appropriate for your students and comfortable for you.
Taylor Dahling Plan #1:
Gift a Character a Taylor Swift Song
A captivating approach to analyze characters and their development is to ask students to choose a song they would play for a character in the text they are reading.
This experience builds a nuanced understanding of the character themselves as well as the implications of this character on the student’s own thinking. Once the song is chosen, it can be used both as a response to text and as a springboard for conversation in book clubs.
To gift a song to a character, use these steps:
1. Pick a character from a book.
2. Explore the many Taylor Swift songs that have been written over the years and pay close attention to the lyrics.
3. Choose one song that would be a timely gift to a character.
4. Plan and/or write an explanation as to why this song was chosen. Consider the following questions as inspiration:
a. Why did you choose this song for this character?
b. What would you want this character to know or learn by listening to this song?
c. What lyrics are most important for this character to take to heart?
Here’s the example I created to model with students:
Character: Coyote from The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise by Dan Gemeinhart
Song: “The Best Day”
Why I Chose This Song: Coyote has been on a journey to forget her mom and sisters, but it has been impossible and heartbreaking for her. When she takes time to remember her mom, she thinks about moments that were just like the times Taylor sings about in this song. Coyote’s memories about her mother are all she has left and I want Coyote to remember them with warmth and love. I also want her to relive those memories to keep them alive in her mind and heart. Taylor’s song would help her do just that. The lyrics I most want Coyote to hear are:
And now I know why all the trees change in the fall
I know you were on my side
Even when I was wrong
And I love you for giving me your eyes
Staying back and watching me shine and
I didn’t know if you knew
So I’m taking this chance to say
That I had the best day with you today
These lyrics will help Coyote remember the best days, the time she did have with her mom, and that in many ways her mom is still with her.
Some students may find they would like to expand out of the Taylor Swift collection and into other musical artists. My answer to that is by all means! This type of analysis through a musical lens will cultivate many unexpectedly creative responses.
Taylor Dahling Plan #2:
Layer Lyrics, Music, Video, and Commentary
One of the most challenging aspects of analyzing text is often recognizing and articulating the author’s intent and perspective. While students must make their own meaning in response to a text (Rosenblatt 1938, 1978), part of that response is considering the author’s implications.
Just words on a page sometimes create limits to understanding the author’s deeper message. Taylor Swift’s songs help us go into an artist’s intent and perspective with great depth. Here’s the process I have followed:
1. Study the written lyrics of a song.
2. Listen to the song with the written lyrics.
3. View the video of the song.
4. Read comments from the artist about the song and/or video.
5. Infer the artist’s intent, implications, and perspective.
For this layered experience, I have used “Anti-Hero.” We first took a look at the lyrics and considered the following questions:
• What does Taylor Swift want us to think, feel, or know?
• What makes you think this?
We then listened to the song and considered the very same questions. Then we moved onto the video, which is especially useful because Taylor both wrote and directed the video. Finally, we considered the response from Tay Tay herself as she shared some insights about the song, specifically that the video gives fans a chance to “watch [her] nightmare scenarios and intrusive thoughts play out in real time.”
This article from The Harvard Crimson is a stellar example of the depth and nuance one can bring to understanding the layers of lyrics, music, video, and commentary.
Taylor Dahling Plan #3:
Compare the Original to Covered Versions
One of the wonderful things about songs is that those who sing them can add their own spin. To study tone, motif, imagery, or other literary elements, consider taking a T-Swizzle original interpretation and compare it to a covered reinterpretation.
I have chosen to use “Shake it Off,” both the original and a cover by Jesse Will. (Disclaimer: If you are going to share the video as well as the audio, please vet the video to be sure it’s suitable for your setting). These are the steps I follow:
1. Listen and watch the original video.
2. Jot down words that come to mind. These words can be colors, emotions, themes, or other reactions to the song.
3. Ask, “What is this song making me think and feel?”
4. Repeat steps 1-3 with the cover song.
5. Compare the two interpretations and share your thoughts in small groups.
During these conversations, I like to encourage students to come back to the song itself to back up their thinking. Get ready for these conversations to need some extra time: they tend to go rather deep!
In Taylor Swift’s Words:
One of my favorite lyrics from Taylor herself is, “The road not taken looks real good right now.” If you are noticing students have difficulty engaging with the texts at hand or need a refreshing experience to practice standards, take the Taylor Swift road less traveled. It creates an enchanting literary experience under Tay’s “lavender haze.”
Do you have other ways of using Taylor Swift in the classroom? Add them in the chat. We would love to hear from you and spread the Taylor LOVE far and wide!
Also see Patty’s ideas about Harry Styles songs:
“Add Harry Styles’ Magic to Your Students’ SEL”
Patty McGee is an author-educator and consultant. She is the author of Feedback that Moves Writers Forward (Corwin 2017); 7 Essentials: Writer’s Workshop Made Simple; and Grammar Units of Study (both Benchmark 2021). She regularly consults with teachers and principals in Grades K-12 on literacy instruction.
Patty’s favorite moments are in the classroom with both educators and students. A former classroom teacher, media specialist, and staff developer, she is the 2002 recipient of the prestigious Milken Award for Excellence in Education. Follow her @pmgmcgee or at www.pattymcgee.org.