Tuesday, March 27, 2007

the words of the prophets are written on the subway walls

So goes the lyric from the song that I played and sang for one of my classes a while back. For that group I prepared a short set of three tunes, Sound of Silence and The Boxer by Simon and Garfunkel and One More Dollar by Gillian Welch. The overarching theme was immigration and/or alienation, more or less.
Playing the songs was well received, there is always a songbird or two in the room that wants to sing along. The kids had to choose one of the three songs to memorize, the vast majority chose Sound of Silence . Several of them told me their parents owned the cd (in one case they actually had the vinyl!).
With a different group I played Israel Kamakawewo'ole's Somewhere Over the Rainbow and Jack Johnson's Taylor. I urged the kids to go to YouTube and see both songs done by the original artists. Many did and so we were able to talk about that as well. I gave them a biographical sketch of Israel and we did some writing about the tension between hope and sadness that exists in each song.
With yet another group I used some other songs to initiate some paraphrase excercises...I played November Blue by the Avett Brothers, Sittin' On the Dock of the Bay by Otis Redding, and Desperado by the Eagles. It's also interesting to get kids to imagine what English teachers call the rhetorical situation, who's talking to whom and about what. Man breaking up with girlfriend but hoping somehow to appear the victim, Man at the end of the road and the end of his rope, Woman trying to talk sense to a cowboy...talk about excercises in futility.
The technological environment is so dramatically different from when I began teaching. Imagine me playing a song on my acoustic guitar that I have learned by caturing the lyrics and chords on the internet, and by putting the song on my Ipod and also by watching YouTube videos. Several of my students in the room are filming my performance using their cell phones...a bit nerve wracking, and maybe against school policy...oh well. To top it off, three or four kids ask if they can bring their guitars some day to join in the fun. What the heck, I say. I'm not sure what to make of all this serendipitous energy but at times I imagine this is what surfing a wave must feel like, things kind of come together in a very tenuous and contingent way. You either catch it or watch it go by.
The first time I played here I was nervous but since then it's become something I look forward to doing. There are kids who perk up with the introduction of music to the equation...it's far from a panacaea but it's also not just cheap tricks. I'm nursing some new found flickerings of attention from some previously unengaged kids and a generally better connection with many others. One afternoon, I took my guitar out to the far end of the courtyard - I had an hour to kill before a meeting - I thought maybe there I could practice a little in the sunshine. About ten minutes later there three or four kids hanging around, five minutes later about ten kids, by the time I left we were about twenty strong. Many were from my classes but not all. I know that I'm something of a curiosity here but it's nice to be something more than merely odd.
Each week since I've picked up a song recommendation from someone. The last two for example were Creep by RadioHead (covered by Korn in acoustic) and 74-75 by the Connells. The point is not really whether I share their musical tastes or not...it's a bit of a stretch to be honest; rather, it's about another kind of exchange, the one in which the teacher allows the students to reciprocate.


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