However, as I listened to Pink Floyd’s Another Brick in The Wall yesterday on the radio, I realized suddenly that when my English 11 students in 1991 were begging me to study The Wall (the entire album), there might have been more to their exuberant interest than just liking the music.
I now understand that perhaps my students wanted to send me any or all of the following messages:
- They didn’t “need no education.”
- They felt teachers practiced “thought control.”
- They wanted me to know that I was “just another brick in the wall.”
- They’d rather be “comfortably numb,” than be in school and teachers should “leave them kids alone.”
Had I been the wiser, more reflective teacher I eventually grew to be, I might have embraced their suggestion and created an engaging unit plan that would not only allay their fears that I was practicing thought control, but would also have helped them flex their powers of critical thinking.
But, I didn’t.
If I had, here is what that unit might have looked like.
Supplied with printed lyrics, we would listen to selected songs. Each student would annotate the lyrics first on his or her own. Later, students would pair up to discuss their annotations. The result of this process would be a whole class discussion about what we think each song means. Of course, I would do my own annotations, too.
We’d list these big ideas on the board. If no one came up with them, I’d add these:
- An individual is only one small part of a vast human society and an even smaller part of an infinite universe.
- What is an ideal student teacher relationship?
- What is an education? What does it mean to be educated?
- How can one control the thoughts of another?
- How does the knowledge that human beings have perfected the technology to exterminate ourselves affect how we live? What does it mean to live in a post-apocalyptic world?
To help them clarify their thinking and struggle with big ideas, I’d ask students to choose three ideas from the board and write about each one (about 300 words each, minimum). Among others, these questions could guide them:
- What does the idea mean to you? Where does it happen? Who does it affect? Why is it important?
- How have you experienced this idea in your own life or watched it in the lives of others?
- If you could control the idea, what would you do? Make changes?
I would create a collection of related texts: fiction, nonfiction and poetry to complement the songs and ideas. Some of these works would be readily available in the English 11 American Lit text, but I would go beyond to find meaningful and accessible texts. I would reach out to my department and online colleagues for recommendations to help me generate a list of possible texts. A few that immediately come to mind are excerpts from John Hersey’s Hiroshima, Robert Bly’s poem, Keeping Our Small Boat Afloat, and Emerson and Henry Adams on education. Emerson is also a good one for individualism, as is Thoreau, of course.
I can imagine we might also need to define abstract terms, such as apocalypse, mind control, alienation, and more.
We’d spend time reading, discussing, and making connections between these related texts and the songs, revisiting the lyrics as often as needed to support our assertions with direct textual references. I imagine that certain students, scholars of The Wall, would let us know about other songs that also relate to the literary works.
To conclude the unit, I’d ask students to write a reflective essay. The essay would show, I hope, evidence of informed and distilled thinking about one of the big ideas in the unit. In drafting, students would support their claims and include textual references to at least five works, including songs, too. We would practice good drafting, revision, and citation strategies, of course. Before they began to plan their essays, I would share the one I had written as a model, so they would have a vision of where they might go in their own writing.
In the end, most of them will have thought more deeply about the songs on one of their favorite albums than ever before. Not only that, they will have read and thought critically about related literary works. They will have practiced important English skills: close reading, annotating texts, and drafting and revising. They will have improved their inferencing skills and made important connections. They will have worked in teams and on their own to formulate ideas and clearly express them verbally and in writing. And all of that is good. All of that is what school means.
And while a few students will surely retain their cynical “teachers, leave [us] kids alone!” attitude, maybe the rest will come away mentally energized or even enlightened. And while it all began with them slyly letting me know how uncool school is, a unit that they instigated might turn out to be a memorable experience, because even though they hate to admit it, when students are engaged in meaningful work, school is a place where they can feel that they are more than “just another brick in the wall.”