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May 11, 2018

Exploring Themes in Novels With Songs

By Mary Blow
Grades 3–5, 6–8, 9–12

    We are a short way from state tests, music is playing in the classroom, and my sixth graders are be-bopping to Coldplay while exploring theme.

    This year we read The False Prince by Jennifer A. Nielsen. If you are a Game of Thrones fan, this medieval fantasy book is the kids’ version of the popular HBO series. As you might guess, it captivated my students. When we finished the novel, we explored theme by pairing songs that relate to the characters or events in the novel — songs that if our wildest dreams were to come true, would become the theme songs in the movie adaptation of our favorite book.

    This activity will work with any novel or short story. You could easily convert this assignment into a debate, which I would have treasured. However, in preparation for the state assessments, we needed to focus on essay writing.

     

    Create a Theme Playlist

    When creating a playlist, I lucked out because Nielsen shared “The False Prince Playlist” on her blog. These are the songs she listened to while writing the novel. She reveals that Sage, the main character, is inspired from a line in the song “Guaranteed” by Eddie Vedder: I knew all the rules, but the rules did not know me, guaranteed. Ah-ha! Heads were nodding when I shared this information.

    Other songs inspired various scenes or contributed to character development. My students suggested additional songs. I purchased our most popular songs and created a “The False Prince Theme Songs” playlist in Amazon Music and posted a  Spotify playlist “The False Prince Theme Songs” on my class website for my students.

    Defining Theme

    Begin the lesson by defining theme: the author’s hidden message, a life lesson that the author wants the reader to walk away with. Emphasize that the lesson must apply to both the character and the reader.

    Determine the Theme

    Next, we determine the theme in The False Prince by identifying the theme topics or “big ideas” woven into the novel: abuse of power, friendship, identity, loyalty, social structure, treason, and trust. We consider the resolution, paying particular attention to the fate of the characters, and contemplating the lessons the characters learn and then connecting it to our lives.

    Writing Theme Statements

    Finally, we write theme statements, life lessons that apply to both the character and reader.

    I modified my SMART Board “Determining Theme” lesson and “Determining Theme” student handout so you can use them in your classroom with any novel or short story.

    Analyze the Theme Song

    After the students understood theme, we selected three theme songs from the playlist, offering my sixth graders choice when responding to the essay question. I found the lyrics at AZLyrics.com, using excerpts because of time constraints. “Viva la Vida” by Coldplay, “Eyes Open” by Taylor Swift, and “I Don’t Want to Be” by Gavin DeGraw play in the classroom while students analyze the lyrics. Be sure to preview the songs. I found clean versions if I encountered an issue.

     

    We struggled at first. Different lines in a verse could relate to different characters, which had them all over the place. We had to stop and consider the song as a whole. For example, in “Viva la Vida” by Coldplay, the lyrics is about a king who abuses his power and is dethroned by revolutionaries, which relates to King Eckbert in The False Prince. The students, however, were connecting different lines and verses to different characters without considering the song as a whole. Understandably, the connection fell apart. It created one of those teachable moments. We backtracked and analyzed the lyrics as a whole. Once we understood the song, we determined the themes, writing theme statements that applied to both the song and the novel — a shared theme — creating the thesis for the essays.  

    By now, you are probably thinking of songs you can use in your classroom. Don't be afraid to ask for help. I'm sure we can come up with a playlist for your novel.

     

    We are a short way from state tests, music is playing in the classroom, and my sixth graders are be-bopping to Coldplay while exploring theme.

    This year we read The False Prince by Jennifer A. Nielsen. If you are a Game of Thrones fan, this medieval fantasy book is the kids’ version of the popular HBO series. As you might guess, it captivated my students. When we finished the novel, we explored theme by pairing songs that relate to the characters or events in the novel — songs that if our wildest dreams were to come true, would become the theme songs in the movie adaptation of our favorite book.

    This activity will work with any novel or short story. You could easily convert this assignment into a debate, which I would have treasured. However, in preparation for the state assessments, we needed to focus on essay writing.

     

    Create a Theme Playlist

    When creating a playlist, I lucked out because Nielsen shared “The False Prince Playlist” on her blog. These are the songs she listened to while writing the novel. She reveals that Sage, the main character, is inspired from a line in the song “Guaranteed” by Eddie Vedder: I knew all the rules, but the rules did not know me, guaranteed. Ah-ha! Heads were nodding when I shared this information.

    Other songs inspired various scenes or contributed to character development. My students suggested additional songs. I purchased our most popular songs and created a “The False Prince Theme Songs” playlist in Amazon Music and posted a  Spotify playlist “The False Prince Theme Songs” on my class website for my students.

    Defining Theme

    Begin the lesson by defining theme: the author’s hidden message, a life lesson that the author wants the reader to walk away with. Emphasize that the lesson must apply to both the character and the reader.

    Determine the Theme

    Next, we determine the theme in The False Prince by identifying the theme topics or “big ideas” woven into the novel: abuse of power, friendship, identity, loyalty, social structure, treason, and trust. We consider the resolution, paying particular attention to the fate of the characters, and contemplating the lessons the characters learn and then connecting it to our lives.

    Writing Theme Statements

    Finally, we write theme statements, life lessons that apply to both the character and reader.

    I modified my SMART Board “Determining Theme” lesson and “Determining Theme” student handout so you can use them in your classroom with any novel or short story.

    Analyze the Theme Song

    After the students understood theme, we selected three theme songs from the playlist, offering my sixth graders choice when responding to the essay question. I found the lyrics at AZLyrics.com, using excerpts because of time constraints. “Viva la Vida” by Coldplay, “Eyes Open” by Taylor Swift, and “I Don’t Want to Be” by Gavin DeGraw play in the classroom while students analyze the lyrics. Be sure to preview the songs. I found clean versions if I encountered an issue.

     

    We struggled at first. Different lines in a verse could relate to different characters, which had them all over the place. We had to stop and consider the song as a whole. For example, in “Viva la Vida” by Coldplay, the lyrics is about a king who abuses his power and is dethroned by revolutionaries, which relates to King Eckbert in The False Prince. The students, however, were connecting different lines and verses to different characters without considering the song as a whole. Understandably, the connection fell apart. It created one of those teachable moments. We backtracked and analyzed the lyrics as a whole. Once we understood the song, we determined the themes, writing theme statements that applied to both the song and the novel — a shared theme — creating the thesis for the essays.  

    By now, you are probably thinking of songs you can use in your classroom. Don't be afraid to ask for help. I'm sure we can come up with a playlist for your novel.

     

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