BY: JENI GEARHART
Teacher brain. At this point in the year, that phrase brings to mind an internet browser with 10 different tabs open—or a pile of mush. Teacher brain is my excuse when I can’t put together coherent sentences on a Friday evening past 7:30 PM. Every teacher knows that it is very difficult to “turn off” your teacher brain.
Despite its exhausting hamster-wheel like tendencies, Teacher-Brain is also a beautiful gift. We are always looking for new ideas, and as English teachers, we are constantly making connections between the novels that we teach and what we read, listen to, or view in our free time. The lesson I’m sharing today came out of a teacher-brain late night inspiration.
In the words of Shakespeare in Twelfth Night, “If music be the food of love, play on.” Song lyrics are poetry. English teachers know that, of course, and we often use this to our advantage.
One of my favorite writing activities is a rhetorical analysis comparison between popular songs and famous passages from Shakespeare or other famous poets. Ok, some of the songs, are a little bit “old school”, but the kids still enjoyed the activity, even if they weren’t as familiar with the song. You can access the assignment document here.
Just recently, my 10th grade students compared Linkin Park’s “In the End” to Macbeth’s soliloquy after the suicide of Lady Macbeth. Both the song and the soliloquy are expressions of grief after loss. For Linkin Park, it’s the ending of a relationship, while for Macbeth, it’s the passing of his “partner in greatness.”
We started off by reading and annotating Macbeth’s soliloquy in detail. Students discussed the meaning of Macbeth’s comparison of life to “a walking shadow,” “a poor player that struts and frets upon a stage,” and “a brief candle.” We talked about the connotation of words like “creeps” and “frets” and discussed the nihilism of Macbeth’s final statement that “[life] is a tale/ told by an idiot, full of sound and fury/ signifying nothing.” Students discussed the tone and overall significance of the passage.
Then, we listened to Linkin Park’s song. Many students were already familiar with the song despite the fact it came out before they were born. Students then annotated the song for the same purpose. We focused especially on the clock and time imagery, where we “watch it [time] fly by as the pendulum swings/ Watch it count down to the end of the day/ The clock ticks life away.” Student discussed significance of words like “unreal” and “wasted.” Like Macbeth, this song concludes that despite trying hard, “in the end/ it doesn’t even matter.”
In groups, students discussed which passage they thought was more depressing and why. They discussed the connections that they saw between the two pieces, such as time imagery, and negative words like “nothing,” “last,” “memory,” and “in the end.” Several groups also brought up the effect that the musical choices had on the tone. One student noted that if “In the End” were sung acoustically, the overall tone may change to be more depressing, rather than angry.
Finally, after this discussion, students responded to the following prompt:
Remember that immediately before this soliloquy, Macbeth receives news of his wife’s death (probable suicide). Is Macbeth mourning the loss of his wife here, or the loss of his own sense of purpose?
Now, WRITE A 200 WORD RESPONSE to answering the following prompt:
Consider both Macbeth’s speech and “In the End.” Compare and contrast the speaker’s views on the meaning and purpose of life, especially in the face of a loss. Consider the tone of each passage and the specific diction (individual words) as well as other literary devices that the speaker uses to communicate the tone. You must use specific examples from both Macbeth’s speech and “In The End” to prove your point.
Overwhelmingly, the students got it. They identified and analyzed the tone and purpose with specific evidence from both texts.
Here is a great excerpt from one of my students’ responses:
“Macbeth often refers to his life, and life in general, as meaningless . . . Macbeth says ‘out, out, brief candle.’ The candle in the quote refers to life, and Macbeth acknowledges how short it is. At the same time, he is wishing his to be shortened. While he wants his life to be shortened, he is too proud to end it himself. In the song ‘In the End,’ Linkin Park references time in life and how precious it is. They talk frequently [about] how you can waste it. The chorus even says, ‘I tried so hard, and got so far, but in the end, it doesn’t even matter’. I believe this also relates back to how Macbeth views his actions up till now. He thinks no matter what he does, this fate is inevitable.”
I’ve also done this activity comparing Prospero’s final speech in The Tempest to “Dust in the Wind” by Kansas (another old school choice, but the lyrics were too perfect to pass up). In my AP Language class, we compared “Ode on a Grecian Urn” by John Keats to “Photograph” by Ed Sheeran.
So, next time that you’re listening to the radio, let your teacher brain wander. You never know when that new top 100 hit (or an old favorite) will come in handy.
What songs remind you of great literature? Got an idea for a close reading activity like this? Leave us a comment, Tweet us your thoughts @WVCTE, or connect with us on Facebook!
Jeni Gearhart is a member of the Executive Committee of WVCTE and teaches 10 Honors English and AP English Language at Hedgesville High School in Berkeley County. Originally from Western PA, Jeni loves West Virginia and has taught all six years of her teaching career in the Wild and Wonderful state. When not wandering the internet for new teaching ideas or grading papers, Jeni likes to drink coffee and devour good books.