"Culture Through Music & Song" University Course

Because of my personal enthusiasms I wanted to run a course at my university linking music and song to EFL. I started a course called Culture Through Music and Song and gathered lots of information that I looked forward to passing on - history, geography, lots of musical information especially focussed on my own interests in traditional and 60s music.

I have been running it for two years now, and pretty quickly I realised that it was unfair to expect Japanese students 18-20 years old to share my personal enthusiasms for rather niche aspects of British/American music. Whenever I asked them to make presentations of their own they always went for very mainstream contemporary pop artists and of course rather more modern than my own passions. I supported them but I felt it was a bit off my main beam. I soon knew I had to change my expectations. It was well intended, but retrospectively I guess it was a bit idealistic if not selfish of me. Part of this is due to the generation gap of course (I'm the same age as their mothers), but another part comes down to the history of cultural transfer.

When you teach our students you have to strike a compromise. They don't have great English, but they are interested in other cultures - music, places, people, but especially music - it's an international currency with lots of 'street-cred' tags. As a teacher, you want to expand their horizons of course, but you also need to nurture their own enthusiasms and guide them towards fulfilling their own desires; it's pretty cool to them to know about British and American music. Quickly I realised that in order to hold their attention I had to at least show them the links between the old (my field) and the new (their aspiration). That was one key realisation I made pretty early on. Next, I had to keep them lively - I wanted this course to be a bit different: more participatory and more active in ways different from their regular English language curriculum. They do lots of other lessons with reading and homework prints. My potential role in this elective course was to fire up their energy for this and their other courses by giving them a reason for all their learning. I worked hard on trying to find their enthusiasms but I soon realised they didn't have much of a basis to start from. They didn't know much beyond the very mainstream, so although they were enthusiastic they simply weren't aware of the variety of directions they could pursue.

Recently, for the third year of this course, I changed tactic radically. I cut down on text and facts and focused mainly on really salient, chunky, major vocabulary, lots of pictures for visual memory, brief listening for lyrics on lots of different songs, and more and more active singing (selecting songs I/they could easily play on guitar, and giving them close-test lyric sheets that we could eventually sing together from). So far it seems to be working well. They get lots of leads so that they can follow up independently on anything they are very interested in (they all have internet access and iPods or similar) and in class we don't get bogged down in any one story. For the pix above I use Gerry and the Pacemakers' You'll Never Walk Alone (Liverpool unit) and Ewan MacColl's/The Pogues' 'Dirty Old Town' (Manchester unit re Salford).

It's not a tough course, but students get out what they put in. In the last few weeks of the semester they have to make a presentation that teaches their classmates about some musical theme connected to a cultural theme. They make a hand-out and spend about 15-20 minutes each presenting a talk and a song. Even the lowest-level speakers can do it, and, since the course is still changing it is possible for them to come back and do it again annually without repeating content. This year I have four repeaters who all passed well last year but are back for more, I guess because they enjoyed it. In the end I think that giving them a reason to enjoy this and other English courses is a pretty big step in itself.

1 comment:

FJG said...

George with a ukulele said: This is very interesting. I saw the recent documentary on UK TV about english sea shanties and noted that the composed song "The Shoals of Herring" was presented as a "folk song". I've encountered people who swear that the song is actually really called "The Shores of Erin". Many others don't know that it was written for a BBC "Radio Ballad" by Ewan McColl. It reminds me that Malcolm Taylor of the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library told me that he had heard young girls singing in a south london school playground "That's the way (I like it)" as made famous by KC and The Sunshine Band. I had always thought that "Yellow Submarine" would "become" a folk song, but I now see that the ideal lyrical component for a song suitable for a skipping game is "That's the Way (A-Ha, A-Ha) I like It". Folk song? High Art? Commercialised Pop Music? Perhaps it all depends on the context and your point of view. Perhaps the choice of the people in the end is like democracy, like voting, like pop idol, a lowest common denominator choice which over time might reveal a noble truth. It bears thinking about at least. Do the Japanese students know something which I don't know? Will "I believe I can fly" become the folk song of 300 years from now? Will "nostalgia" become "tradition"? Will sugary pop become folk? Don't worry... Let me take you by the hand and lead you through the streets of London, I'll show you something that will make you change your mind!