Teaching Protest Music in Upper Elementary

Talking about protests (and therefore protest music) can be a delicate topic – but it’s an important one to discuss.

Why Protest Music?

In the U.S., protests fall under First Amendment rights and students are sure to encounter them in their lifetimes, if they haven’t already. In fact, students likely engage in small-scale protest without realizing it. Protest music has been around for hundreds of years as a method of creating unity behind a cause. Elementary school students are often passionate about a variety of causes like anti-bullying, environmentalism, and animal rights. Teaching protest music shows students yet another way they can use music to express their feelings.

What is Protest Music?

A protest is when someone stands up for something they believe in or fights against something they believe to be unfair. Protest music raises awareness about a cause and seeks to unify people behind that cause. This music is based on social or political change. Protest songs were especially popular during the 1960’s; however, protest music has existed for hundreds of years and is still used today.

How Can I Use Protest Music in the Classroom?

The idea behind protest music is expressing yourself – one of the fundamentals of music education. There are a few main ways students can learn about protest music in the classroom:

  • analyzing
  • singing
  • composing

First, I like to introduce what a protest is. Students may have a general idea about what a protest is, but often don’t have an in-depth understanding of the topic. You can find my list of great books for teaching about protests in this blog post. (If I had to pick just one to start with, I’d go with Let the Children March!)

Analyzing

Invite students to listen to protest songs. I recommend providing a list of songs and either going through them as a class, or first modeling analyzing a song and then having students do so individually using their devices. (Don’t have 1:1 devices? You can still pull this off using listening centers, if you can get ahold of just a few tablets, laptops, iPods, or even CD players and some headphones.)

Some ideas for kid-friendly protest songs:

  • We Shall Overcome (spiritual)
  • This Train (spiritual)
  • Imagine (John Lennon)
  • Solartopia (Pete Seeger)

Personally, I also love Ralph Vaughan William’s Dona Nobis Pacem, although this may be a little too abstract for some elementary students. As always, I’d recommend previewing whatever songs you put out there for students. Figure out what works with your population, keeping in mind that growth usually comes from places of discomfort, but also thinking about what “kid-friendly” means in your context.

Singing

I’ve found that students are typically passionate about a variety of topics that could easily be turned into protest songs, or perhaps already have been. Singing a protest song together may be a good opportunity to let students use their voices (no pun intended) for something they care about. Ideally, you could poll your class and decide on a topic together. Alternatively, you could teach a protest song about the Civil Rights movement, the environment, or another topic in conjunction with the students’ social studies curriculum.

A few examples of protest songs to sing together:

  • Wade in the Water
  • We Shall Overcome
  • Let There Be Peace on Earth

I know this is aimed at lower elementary, but I couldn’t help but share this wonderful mini-lesson and song from Ms. Katie while we’re on the topic!

Composing

Perhaps most powerful is allowing students to voice their opinions through music. We already know how powerful music can be in communicating emotions, but students don’t always realize how this can be used to create collective action. By guiding students through the composition process, they can become more confident in their ability to express themselves and create change, even though they’re “just” a kid!

Before composing, I make sure that we’ve discussed what a protest and protest music is, listened to a couple of examples together, and practiced prerequisite skills. I often find that students are comfortable with each of these skills individually, but when applying them together, things start to go off the rails!

Important topics to review before composing:

  • identifying rhythms to match words
  • time signatures
  • writing notes on the staff
  • identifying form
  • (optional) tonality (You could also just assign a set of notes for students to work within.)

I’ve prepared a protest music unit that covers both analyzing existing protest songs and student composition. Click here to find the lessons on Teachers Pay Teachers!

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