Creating a Book Soundtrack with Middle Schoolers

7th and 8th grade digital book club is 2/3 of the way through The Honest Truth, a novel by Dan Gemeinhart. Last week, I wrote about one of the ways that we’re exploring identity and privilege through the novel (you can read about that here). This week, we’re taking a new angle to make a connection with the text – the power of music.

There are so many cool and unique things about holding a book club online, but there are also some honest truths about teens that come across clearly in distance learning. First, it’s easy to see that discussion about deep, vulnerable topics can be especially difficult in this format. Keep in mind that many of these readers have never met in real life, and we’re talking about big subjects like life, death, friendship, identity, and privilege. And if you’ve taught teens in the past year you know what’s coming next: Many learners this age are more comfortable with cameras and sound off.

Students switching their cameras and sound off for their own comfort doesn’t bother me. Honestly, I’ve found that in some meetings and webinars, I focus better with those options too – and why would I take freedom away if I didn’t have to? I’m not grading this session and students chose to participate, so as long as they can stay present, it’s fine with me. But it does add a wrinkle. Honestly… how’s a teach to know if the group reading, following along, and… getting it, if all I’m seeing is gray rectangles?

Thank goodness for music.

Music gives all of us – including teens who prefer mute – the language to express those things we’re desperate to communicate but don’t know how to say.Screen Shot 2020-07-07 at 11.56.26 AM  Expressing your own feelings can be overwhelming and cause people to shut down. Alternatively, sharing a song that speaks to you and moves you can build connection and feel like a much safer way to express and share your feelings. This slide is the assignment that I gave the group before we parted ways on Thursday for the long weekend. I also included three guidelines:

  1. Our soundtrack will include music and lyrics, so please provide a video that shares both (I’m happy to help if you need it!)
  2. Be prepared to explain to the group why you chose the song you did, with examples from the book
  3. I trust you – remember that you’ll be watching my face as I hear the song and the words (this got a laugh as we all thought about just how far they would go to avoid having to talk to me about explicit or inappropriate lyrics in front of the group!)

Students had the opportunity to post their videos to Google Classroom over the weekend, or to bring them to class today. In today’s session, we shared our picks. I found videos with lyrics included, shared my screen, muted participants, and we listened and watched together, right over our Zoom call. Here are the songs that they selected:

The group was mostly quiet between the songs, which may have been reflection or may have been boredom (hey, I’m being honest here). But when pushed, the connections were there.

After listening to Landslide, my pick for the album, I asked them to describe what happened in a landslide. They mentioned many of the physical aspects – the land literally slides, rocks fall, dirt moves, landscape changes. Then, one student said, the ground can disappear from under your feet.

The group went quiet for a bit, and I restated – not only is the landscape changing around Mark, but the ground is disappearing from under his feet. What is he standing on? What is he looking at? How would that feel? The moment felt big.

There are a million different ways to show comprehension of a text. There’s certainly room to grow with this soundtrack, but I love the way this assignment allowed readers to express themselves while pushing them to consider the text’s themes and symbolism. It’s a totally different kind of mastery.

Tomorrow, we’re using online design tools to create album covers. Because after all – what’s an album without an iconic cover? Wish us luck!

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