When students return to class in the fall, whether live or online, there will be many conversations about the coronavirus and many opportunities to reflect upon what they missed when schools weren’t open, how the summer was different from usual, and perhaps on family members and friends who were affected by the coronavirus. Parents will be affected by the stress of having to return to work, bring children to child care, venture to restaurants, gyms, etc., and worry about their children. As we transition into a new school year, the main focus for educators will be helping students reflect, refocus, learn, and move forward.
Research has shown that when we experience emotions like sadness or anxiety, expressing them through visual and performance art is one of the most successful ways to address them. Psychologists John Pellitteri and colleagues have been pioneers in showing how creating and playing music provides an outlet for children to process their emotions, and three major research studies suggest that the arts are complementary with children’s cognitive and social development. School administrators increasingly focus on meeting social-emotive learning (SEL) requirements by using the arts to engage students in deep and meaningful activities.
Research has shown that when we experience emotions like sadness or anxiety, expressing them through visual and performance art is one of the most powerful ways to address them. Psychologists John Pellitteri and colleagues have been pioneers in showing how creating and playing music provides an outlet for children to process their emotions, and three major research studies suggest that the arts are complementary with children’s cognitive and social development. School administrators, increasingly focusing on meeting social-emotion learning (SEL) requirements, see the arts as one way to use SEL in order to reach many students in deeper and more meaningful ways.
If you’re looking for a place to begin with your students, I’ve created the lesson plan “Turn Off the News” that uses the arts to teach students (maybe fourth and five grade students, as well) to think critically about their emotions, the COVD-19 pandemic, how to cultivate hope for their future, and how to be resilient during these difficult times.
Reflecting on “Turn Off the News”
Written before the pandemics, “Turn Off The News” is an incredibly timely song that expresses concern and coping, but also hope. Most importantly, it works in both a live or virtual environment. Here’s what
Watch this video featuring Lukas, son of the legendary Willie Nelson.
Ask your students to think about what they’ve heard from an SEL or art perspective. Some questions might include:
- What made you decide to move? What feelings did you feel while listening?
- How did the mood come about, musically?
- What was the message behind the song?
- What was the structure?
- What did you think about the lyrics related to building a garden. What emotions did that evoke?
- How does the song influence your thoughts about how much news we need to absorb about COVID-19?
Add other questions that may fit with your current arts curricula—for example, the roles of tonality, rhythm/pitch, harmonics, instrumentations, or tempo.
Then, play the next version of the song below, and ask your students to listen for the lyrics. Ask them what they think of this version, which has an illustration accompanying the words rather than the performer. Ask yourself the same set of questions again to see if they’re different. Ask them if there were any differences they noticed or felt when the performer was the focus, rather than just the words and illustrations. Ask this question specifically about the “building the garden” lyric.
To help promote your student’s social emotional learning skills, you can encourage themto describe the range of emotions they felt when watching the video and where they felt empathy most strongly. Invite them to consider the problem that Nelson was trying to solve when he wrote this song, how he might have arrived at his specific solution (taking into account everything about the song) and, as a transition, what they might have done differently instead.
Creating your own pandemic song
That’s why we want to encourage our students to create their own version. You can guide their reflection by asking them questions like:
- What do you want people to know about the coronavirus and the lessons you’ve learned?
- What did you miss most during the pandemic, and why?
- What do you look forward to?
- What would you like things to look like now?
Suggest the following options for creating their own version of the game:
- Change the lyrics of “The News” to something else.
- Create new melodies using the same lyrics.
- Recheck the performance
- Create a new graphic to go with the song
- Write your own song
Students can express their own feelings by modifying lyrics or creating a song about returning to school and the effects of the pandemic on them, their friends, families, their grandparents, communities, and the wider world. They can also use this activity to reflect upon the other pandemic that came to the fore, the racism pandemic. For some students, the coronovirus pandemic has been the most influential factor in underlining inequalities in our society, and therefore themes of social justice are the ones they wish to express.
Students will get the most out of their SEL skills by working in pairs or small groups either live or in virtual breakouts. They can share their product—perhaps in the form a music video—with others in their grade level, families and schools, and communities. Your visual and performing art curriculum can help guide the specifics.
Helping students in need
People who are struggling with issues related to the coronavirus and its impact on them and their families may find that listening to and commenting on and creating their own versions of this music are highly therapeutic.
For these students, it might be helpful to frame the task as though they were music critics. You could say that you are screening a movie in two versions to get their opinions about their usefulness, their emotions, and more. Then, ask them how they would improve their videos by asking the following guiding questions or questions tailored to issues your students might share. Creating art can be tremendously helpful for students who may not feel comfortable discussing their thoughts and feelings directly.
“Turn off the news” can be used for arts education or SEL activities, connecting to both CASELSEL standards and visual and performance art standards. It can also be used across multiple sessions for counseling, psychotherapy, and social work.
You can adapt this lesson plan to teach other songs. It was adapted for the song “Lean On Me” for the Worldwide Day of Giving on April 27, 2020 It inspired students from all over the world to create something remarkable. They used their social emotional skills to help them succeed. Two particularly inspiring examples of growth hacking came from Chatham (NJ) Schools and the STEAM academy middle school in the Ferguson-Florisdant School District in St Louis. Louis, Missouri.
Now, it‘s your turn to use the arts and SEL skills to help students make a successful transition into this new school season. Thanks to Lukas Nelson, who wrote the song “Angels,” and his father, Willie, for the inspiration behind the song.