Using Music to Review Novels

Music Matching

Most kids have a real passion for the music that they like, and most kids spend hours listening to music—especially with all the portable music devices we have now. This in-class activity allows the kids to tap into their music knowledge and taste to add to their understanding of the novel in its moods and themes.

This task is for the students to match music to the novel in three ways: matching the mood, matching the theme, and realizing a character’s need or predicament.

Mood Matching

They choose a song or musical piece that matches the mood or tone of a scene. This is a great way for students to show that they get a scene, they understand what the author was going for in the language of the book, but they can explain it with another song. ELL kids have a real chance to shine here; where words fail them, they can use music instead.

A Mood Matching Example

A screengrab of the movie

A screengrab of the movie

A great mood-matching example from The Great Gatsby is the theme song from Intersteller. My student Heather chose this one to put at the end of the novel when Nick is finished with New York. As the song played she explained that Nick is on a train heading back West. He is in the train thinking about everything that happened, and we see him looking out the window. The city is reflected on the windowpane. As the song progresses, we see the city slowly turn to woods and forest. The mood is perfect and the move back West is also symbolic of his move back toward people who are “morally upright.”

Theme Matching

They choose a song with lyrics that match the theme of the novel. The mood of the song doesn’t need to match, but the lyrics do. It can apply to the overall theme, or just to a particular moment.

A Theme Matching ExampleImagine Dragons

My student Hanna, selected a theme song for the man Gatsby. He dreamed so high and so far that reality couldn’t possibly fulfill that dream. Hanna chose “Smoke and Mirrors” by Imagine Dragons. The lyrics fit so well:

“I want to believe…All I believe

Is it a dream that comes crashing down on me?

All that I hope

Is it just smoke and mirrors?”

We placed the song as background music for the vigil Gatsby had outside of Daisy’s house after the big blow up at the hotel when the true Gatsby is revealed. He has not let go of the dream, but we as readers know that it is over. The song is the prefect sentiment for that moment.

  1. The Dedication

Dedicate a song to a character. If a character is in need of something, or a character needs to learn something, a song can have the right message. This activity is like those days when people could call into the radio and dedicate a song to a person who might be out there listening. In this case, the student can show that they understand a character’s needs or faults by picking a song that suits the character.

A Dedication Example

The singer Elizabeth Mitchell (photo from her website)

The singer Elizabeth Mitchell (photo from her website)

My own choice for a dedication is for the main character of the novel The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd. The character Lily is in such a tough spot in her life that she really draws out my sympathy. I just feel so bad that her mother is dead, and she has no good memory of her. I want to give her a happy memory of her mother loving her and caring for her. So this is that memory: the song “Who’s my Pretty Baby” by Elizabeth Mitchell (her site). I imagine for Lily this song playing while a Summer day is shining. Her mother is hanging sheets on the drying line. Lily, a child of 2, runs through the sheets as her mother chases her, catches her and laughs love into her life.

Next Step

Then students share their choices. My school is a 1:1 school where every student comes with a MacBook, so the searching time and sharing time is very smooth. I have pretty hefty speakers on my desk that they can plug into for us all to enjoy the sound. The kids have a sharing time at their pods, and they can talk over the choices then. This stage is important for the introverts and second language students to work out how they will explain their choice. Headphones are important at this stage.

Next, if time allows, I have every student share, or I have one or two share from each pod. They come up one at a time, plug into the speakers, and play their selection as they explain how it fits.

Most of the time, the fit is pretty accurate. The kids get to show off their understanding and share some music that they like. I love to see their enthusiasm in the activity, and I even get exposed to great music I end up adding to my own playlist.

Adapt the technology

If your kids don’t have their own computers, consider using phones, iPods, or having the search happen before class. If they send the teacher a link to a YouTube video, you can still play the songs.

Modify the approach

I prefer having the kids to name the moment in the novel before they start the music and explain it as the song plays. Usually they get to play a couple of minutes. Another approach is to have the kids play the music and have the class try to guess the scene or theme. Additionally, the class can even join in the description of how the music fits in mood or theme. This happens in some of my classes and the energy and interest is really exciting.

Another Way to Review Novels: How Iconic!

These gilt edged books can represent the hope of new money for Nick or the grand but false image Gatsby portrays in his library: the educated man.

These gilt edged books can represent the hope of new money for Nick or the grand but false image Gatsby portrays in his library: the educated man.

Because we are nearing the final exams, my students are eager to review the semester of reading. I’ve tried to keep the other readings fresh in their minds by linking the readings together as we read—looking for parallels and significant differences—but the time has come for an overall review. I want them to be able to plan their essays without the time needed to recall the events and character names. So we review:

Objects for the novel

This is a fun and random way to review. Choose objects that are important for the novel and show pictures of the objects to the students using a projector, or

This car is only yellow, not gold. Gatsby can only create an artificial dream. The real one can't be. Also, here's the car that killed Myrtle!

This car is only yellow, not gold. Gatsby can only create an artificial dream. The real one can’t be. Also, here’s the car that killed Myrtle!

print them out. Each student has to identify when the object occurs in the novel and why it is important. For students who remember better with visual cues, this is a great review activity.

There are many web sites for photos, but the one that I recommend is Pixabay because it is free to use and the images are not copyrighted. The users of the site allow their images to be used without protecting them with copyright—an important fact when teaching and modeling ethical use of online sources. Do you have another favorite source?

This activity can easily be extended to help the kids review the story chronology. If you have printed out the images, have the students put them in order of the events of the novel. If they are doing it as a group, it can be interactive and involve movement—make the kids hold the image and line up across the room in the order that the objects would appear in the book. This involves two other ways students can remember content, and it allows for more flexible thinking about what happened in the novel.

The gun that killed Gatsby: George's anger toward Gatsby was also an illusion, but the death was not, either of them.

The gun that killed Gatsby: George’s anger toward Gatsby was also an illusion, but the death was not, either of them.

Here is a list for The Great Gatsby: train ticket, polo pony, wine glass, old phone, green light, gas pump, old spectacles, puppy, bloody nose, gild edged books, molars, rain, very fine shirts, yellow car, gun, old diary, wet paper, yacht, coffin. I’m sure you can think of more!

Daisy cries over these shirts. When she is first reunited with Gatsby, his love and attention are overwhelming, especially compared to the brutality of Tom Buchanan.

Daisy cries over these shirts. When she is first reunited with Gatsby, his love and attention are overwhelming, especially compared to the brutality of Tom Buchanan.


After having your kids do an activity with your choices, have them select images that illustrate another novel. At first, they can explain their choices, or have others try and explain why another student chose an image.

Use Tech

If your school has Google Docs, this would be a great time to have them use Google Presentation. They each get to create a slide and add it to the presentation. Once they get finished explaining their choices, have them try to organize them chronologically. They’ll have to communicate; otherwise, the re-ordering can get a little crazy.

Watch for the next post on more creative ways to review novels.

Activity for Reviewing Novels: Say it Again?

As my students are facing IB exams soon, they are starting to sweat over all the content that they have to remember for the exams—a number that can easily exceed 16! So I have started to review the readings from this semester that will be their fodder for rich essays on their final Paper 2 Examination. Here is an activity that involves everyone and can only take a few minutes.

The activity is not, of course, limited to IB exams. This works for review of any novel you will assess.

The Timed Retelling of the Tale

Desk Bell

My bell is colored like the classic apple on a teacher’s desk.

You need something to act as a bell. I use a red desk bell because the sound is not overbearing but easy to hear. I also throw in a more international flavor with bells from Thailand.

The rules are pretty simple: we are retelling the story from memory, everyone will tell a portion, and when the bell rings, switch tellers. I move randomly around the room. This makes every student have to listen because they have to pick up where the other person leaves off. I also call on students more than once, so they don’t think that because they talked they are finished. They aren’t.

If a student skips too far, I let them know after they are finished talking that they missed some important parts, and I ask someone else to fill in the gaps.

I keep the telling fast paced. If a student pauses too long, I hit the bell. Occasionally, if a student can’t start talking when I call on them, I move on. But, of course, I come back to the student again. The idea is to have the telling move quickly and energetically through the book.

Thai bells

I got these bells from Thailand. Great harmonics!


All kids are engaged—no one wants to be caught napping.

The kids really want to show off their knowledge. When they get passed up too quickly, they usually react with an “Aww, I was just about to say more.”

No student who draws a blank is in the hot seat too long, only seconds.

Everyone hears the whole book in a few minutes.

If the rhythm and timing really get going, they applaud their efforts when they are finished.

They get better the more you do it.

When exam time comes, the whole of the novel is there for recall in seconds. That way, the kids can really focus on the more challenging side of writing their thoughts, rather than spending time trying to remember events in the book.

(If you don’t have any bells, you could just use the sounds of these. I’ve added them for you to use.)

What to do when students say, “This book is boring.”

Students Sleeping

This moment really happened. At a break time they all zonked. Their all-nighter for another teacher’s exam wore them out–or the book was really terrible?

When I first started teaching, I hated hearing my students say that they thought a book was boring. It pained me. I was full of enthusiasm (still am) about teaching books and the amazing journey that a reader can take with a book. We can get to know so many interesting—and repulsive—characters from the author’s imagination. So what was happening with my students?

 My fear was if the students did not like the book, then they would not read the book, then they would fail the test. I wanted them to pass. I wanted them to love the book, but years of trying to generate enthusiasm through my own over heated cheering about the books got me nowhere. A Tale of Two Cities just didn’t do anything for any of my kids—sorry Dickens.

Then it hit me.

It’s okay to dislike a book, or even find it boring. It happens to me, too. I recently gave up on a book that claimed to be a thriller; it turned out to be more sleep inducing. The key to making the opinion educational is seeking why the book is boring.

So I started asking the students why they thought that a book was boring. Their answers came in two categories: 1) they didn’t understand the book, and 2) they genuinely didn’t find it interesting. It was the second one that I found most interesting. But first, the first. If they didn’t understand the book, I knew what I had to do. There are many reading strategies that I could use with them to bring up their reading comprehension. This is the stuff of Methods of Teaching Literature in college courses. It is possible that the book level was too high in their Zone of Proximal Reading Level, so I have to incorporate strategies to help them bridge the gap. Not easy to do, but easy to understand what needs to be done.

The second piqued my interest. If they were saying the book was boring, then they had in their minds a sense of what a book should be. They had criteria. Their evaluation was based on criteria they had not articulated yet. I needed them to start articulating what the criteria were. Then we would have a solid point for an educational and informative discussion on taste in books and ways in which we evaluate the quality of the story. At first, it wasn’t a formal part of the lesson, more a discussion point. A student would say, “This book is boring.” I’d reply curiously, “Why do you find it boring?” It is important that I don’t sound defensive, nor offended—I didn’t, after all, write the thing. I would get answers like “He does on and on and on about this house.” “It’s too descriptive.” “There is no action.” “Who cares what the main character thinks.” These were some pretty good standards to start using. They wouldn’t make a Master’s Thesis, but it starts getting at the heart of what appeals to kids and what doesn’t.

Once we get our reasons out in the open, we can ask deeper questions that point our understanding back to the book: why did the author write the book without any action scenes? Why is this character so unlikeable? The questions can get at interpretation by comparing what their reactions are to what the author may have intended. Now we are doing literary criticism, albeit, only in a limited way. But it adds legitimacy to the opinions that the students have on a book and challenges them to go deeper than just “It’s Boring.” If they are justifying their opinion on a book in comparison to the author’s intent with a book, they are doing so much more than dismissing a book because it does not appeal to them. Hopefully, they become more insightful into how authors use the tools of literature and language to tell us something about humanity and my students see that they can take part in this conversation too. How do you handle kids who say that the book is boring?

Mother Tongue in English Class: Bilingualism in Assessment


Cynthia plays the part of the girlfriend, who is misunderstood.

During a presentation of a video, a student of mine stumbled on a truth that has been known for some time, but this truth seems to have stayed out of discussions on assessment in education—as far as I’ve heard. Here’s how it happened:

Cynthia, Toni and Jenny were making a video of a little drama they wrote to illustrate how language does not work the same for guys and girls. (You can watch the whole thing at the bottom of the post.) In the scene, a guy misunderstands the subtle hints his girlfriend gives him. By the end, she gets angry, and he doesn’t get what is happening or why it’s happening. It was a brilliant show of this comical and painful problem in relationships.

But in the video all of the conversation was in Korean. I do have to assess the work, and the students know that I don’t speak Korean. So why would they use Korean in a project for English class?

In the explanation part of the presentation, Cynthia said that they tried writing it in English, but it didn’t feel right. English just didn’t work for the realism of the scene. This boyfriend and girlfriend would not be using English to have these chats. Only Korean sounded right.

I was so pleased at her insight. She had instinctively understood how different languages work for bilingual people. If a person wants to communicate personal or highly emotional ideas, a mother tongue works best. Second languages work better for more analytical thinking. In Cynthia’s drama, she was talking to her boyfriend about getting together on their 100th day of dating. She didn’t want to ask directly, so she hinted about it to her boyfriend, but he didn’t get it. All these intimate feelings and complex emotions just couldn’t be said in English. Korean had to do.

1. Boyfriend

This is Jenny playing the part of the boyfriend.

I first came across the of emotions in language when my school’s tech integrationist, also my wife, sent me an article on emotion and mother tongue. The article on the web site Science Daily summarizes the research by Yan Jing Wu and Guillaume Thierry published in the Journal of Neuroscience. Here are the comments on emotion and language:

“…People have a greater reaction to emotional words and phrases in their first language- which is why people speak to their infants and children in their first language despite living in a country which speaks another language and despite fluency in the second. It has been recognized for some time that anger, swearing or discussing intimate feelings has more power in a speaker’s native language. In other words, emotional information lacks the same power in a second language as in a native language.”

Cynthia was not able to get at that emotion and the tension in the relationship in English. The subtlety came from the nuanced use of her Korean—and so did the believable nature of the conversation. I would even suggest that certain meanings can’t be communicated except through the mother tongue.

This brings us to the big question of how3. Misunderstand to assess this task. Because the conversation is in Korean, I can’t understand what they are chatting to each other. The students did include translation (with several grammatical errors), and that translation misses some of the flavor and meaning of the original, but it was enough for me to tell what was going on. The students used English to explain how the indirect speech Cynthia’s character was being misunderstood. They tracked three different ways the girlfriend was using language subtly and explained it thoroughly. I could easily see that they had an excellent level of understanding of how indirect speech could lead to misunderstandings—or new understandings, as we see in the end of the video.

My conclusion was that Cynthia, Jenny and Toni were able to show their mastery of the goals of the unit through their analysis of the situation—in English; they explained how the indirect speech led to confusion and even put the relationship in jeopardy.

This has gotten me to thinking about how to include mother tongue more often in assessment. Any ideas?

Mother Tongue in English Class: the Benefits of Bilingualism

Teaching in an international setting—or in the immigrant rich areas of the States—handling language use in the classroom can be tricky. As English students, they need to develop their English skills, so we insist that they use English as much as possible. But there are times when the kids could and should use their mother tongue, because there is understanding and meaning that they can achieve that they can’t by staying only in English.

I’ll explain using one Korean word that my students came up with during a discussion in a literature unit. We were reading Pride and Prejudice. They had to explain what was happening between Elizabeth and Darcy. The two had moved past antagonism and were clearly feeling strongly for each other, although neither had said anything about that feeling. What then was that feeling? Was it love?정 Jeong

As the kids debated, the discussion would slip between Korean and English (all the students were both English and Korean speakers). At issue was whether the Korean idea of jeong fit. I asked what it meant, and this led to few minutes of explanation, as they threw out ideas of what the word meant. The nuances were hard to track. We had the ideas in English, but without the ease of a single word, they had to dance around the meaning, what it was, what it wasn’t.

Here is a replay of another conversation later with two students Yeeun and Seohyun as they try to describe the meaning of jeong.

Seohyun: It’s not love.

Yeeun: Not love, but like friendship. Loyalty.

Seohyun: But it’s more than that.

Yeeun: Yeah, you can’t define it in one word.

Seohyun: It’s like: You live with that person for a long time, and it comes. Natural liking.

Yeeun: Yeah, I’d say, after time, you get used to that person, and as time passes, you get to like that person.

Seohyun: After being with that person for a time, and they leave, you miss then.

Yeeun: Like affinity.

Seohyun: Yeah.

Other conversations added more interesting elements: it can be like brother and sister, even though they don’t like each other; it can be a person you hate, but you have jeong with them. My students reading Pride and Prejudice said it was like how they felt about the girl’s soccer coach. He was rude and angry, but he got them good results. I once heard him say to a student that she was way too heavy. He was terrible. Yet, they had jeong with him.

There is no English equivalent.

The students had come to a subtle understanding of what was happening between these two characters, but to get there, they needed to dip into their Mother Tongue.

What meanings have developed in Spanish from the different culture that could highlight literature interpretation differently than English could? How would a person of Latino culture see a novel differently than the English speakers in the class? Imagine how diverse and rich a class discussion could become with each person finding their Mother tongue affirmed in the context of students learning better how to understand literature.

Look for the next post on Teaching and Mother Tongue when I look at what this means for assessment.

Makin’ Memes

Technology is certainly changing our world today, and if we allow it, it can change the learning in our classes.

one-way-street-362172_1280One important difference in the media today from yesterday is the participation factor. When I was a child watching TV and movies, I sat passively taking it all in. The active part came in playing with the themed toys that marketers smartly targeted to kids. But the world of the media was mostly a one-way road.

Then came the Internet.

With people now able to upload anything from text, to pictures, to videos, the world of the Internet is now our world, too. In a fascinating TED talk, Why Video’s Go Viral, YouTube trends manager Kevin Allocca notes that one significant difference in the media today is that people can participate in the conversation, partly why, he explains, videos go viral. The media is no longer a one way road.

I wanted to get my kids participating, and in the recent unit on satire, I finally saw a way: Memes. In class we came to understand that satire humorously points out the flaws in society, government, religion, etc. Then we followed this sequence:

1. I wanted to make sure that everyone understood what was meant by memes. I had to avoid an open search for memes because some of the them are not appropriate for high school. I preselected some for them to view and posted links on the class web site: Why Women Live Longer Than Men, If Alcohol Labels Told the Truth, Welcome to Parenthood, and Magazine Pictures Vs Others.  We could have talked a bit on which ones served as satire and which ones just humor, but I needed to keep the pace of the lesson quick.

2. Next I wanted them to see the just how participatory and influential memes could be, and the summer World Cup gave us lots to look at. Because it is a class on media, I wanted them to study the structure of articles as part of the lesson. So we doubled the task, looking at information on the influence of memes and news article structure. This article titled, How the World Cup Became a Cup of Memes,  from the Wall Street Journal served nicely. (If you have Spanish speakers, they could look at the many Spanish memes referenced in the article.)

3. Now for the kids chance. The students could use the meme generators available at and Both have lots of pictures from which to choose. I also provided an image to get them going if needed; they could use Preview on their Macs, which allows the addition of text to any jpeg. This images was taken by the tech department when an unnamed teacher tried to get more toner our of a toner cartridge. He did, but not in the way he expected.

meme copier

4. For the collection of the memes, I created a Google Presentation and gave them editing rights. They easily made their own slide, put on their name, and pasted in the meme. After watching the show, the kids wanted more–especially more on an IB theme (We’re an International Baccalaureate School), but they wanted to share their favorites that they had read online. So we added more slides.

5. Sharing with the community. I wanted other students and teachers to see what the kids created and how valuable it was to show the kid’s creativity and sense of satire. So I made a bulletin board in the hall. I know, its anachronistic, but it would get to my audience. I’m hoping that the other teachers would be impressed, and maybe, inspired to find ways to integrate memes into their lessons. (Imagine memes of historical characters? Literary characters? An atom talking to an enzyme?)

Student Created:

Student made!

Student made!

Student made!

Student made!

Student made!

Student made!

Student made! (A summative is a test or assessment of any kind.)

Student made! (A summative is a test or assessment of any kind.)

Student made!

I found this student made meme particularly poignant. This kid is under a lot of pressure.