School of Rock…

I have tried so many different ways to awaken a love of poetry in my students, and one way of helping them access the beauty of language was to look at lyrics from songs; I never used their favourite songs, that was a sure fire way to turn them off, as if I was poaching on their territory.

I once came across a wonderful song on MySpace by a terrific Scottish Indi band, The Deadbeat Club, their songs written mainly by the lead singer, a gorgeous bear of a man, Andy Tucker. I wrote to Andy asking if I might use his lyric and he was delighted that I should want to. The lessons, which I repeated for several years, were always a success and the ‘poem’ gained many students good grades in their GCSE English exam.

This story was picked up by the press and this was an article in a Scottish newspaper printed some years ago about my attempts to interest my students in language and poetry:

School of Rock as Dead Beat poetry helps pupils to learn

HAZEL MOLLISON ( hmollison@edinburghnews.com)

A BAND from Edinburgh has seen one of their songs taught alongside Shakespeare and the poets of the First World War to help pupils improve their English. The Dead Beat Club, a Capital-based band formed just over a year ago, have been approached by a school in England and asked if the lyrics to their song, Circa 1985, can be used as part of their GCSE course work.

The band have already played prestigious gigs supporting Snow Patrol and The Beautiful South, but their work found a new audience when teacher Lois Elsden heard the song on their website and felt it would fit in well with the poetry they were studying. It was written by lead singer Andy Tucker, and is based on his own experiences as a teenager in Bruntsfield.

It contains couplets such as “running down Rose Street chased by a crowd, cursing my white slip-on shoes” and “drinking our cocktails from SodaStream bottles, sitting up on Blackford Hill”.

Andy, 35, from Leith, said: “Many of the kids have problems with drink and drugs, and they’ve struggled with learning at school. They were studying poems about childhood and growing up, and she felt that this would be something they could relate to. The song’s mostly based on my own experience about growing up in Edinburgh. It’s all about illicit drinking and chasing the girls. She got a great response from the kids. Most of them loved the song – I think they identified with it. It was amazing to have kids studying our song and to get their feedback.”

Andy said he was shocked the song was used, especially given his record when he was a pupil at George Watson’s School in the 1980s. “I don’t think I was really the ideal pupil – we were quite a lively bunch of teenagers,” he said.

Ms Elsden, a teacher  in Weston-super-Mare, contacted the group after she tried to introduce her class to poems from different cultures in their English lessons. She said: “We try to encourage a love of language in our students. We try to broaden and expand minds and to appreciate a variety of works from different sources. Song lyrics offer a wonderful resource and stimulus for creative writing for our young people. I didn’t tell the kids that the poem they were studying was a song and it was interesting hearing them pick their way through the lyrics, and the comments they made. At the end I slipped the CD into my computer and played them the track. Their faces were a picture when they realised it was what they had just been talking and writing about.”

Andy Tucker

She added: “The song has wonderful images – and it fits in so well with what we’ve been doing, such as poems by Martin Espada, a Puerto Rican American poet, and Jon Loomis, also from the States. They are all about childhood and the past.”

The pupils, aged between 14 and 16, certainly loved the choice of poetry and even sent Andy some of their essays and comments on his “poem”.

Display of my students’ work

The band, which has six members, play eight or nine gigs a month around the city, and supported the Beautiful South at the Corn Exchange this summer in front of a crowd of 2000. They also supported Snow Patrol at their Hogmanay gig in Glasgow in 2005. Andy said the Dead Beat Club now hoped to go down to play at the school next year. They are planning to record their second CD over Christmas, as well as going on a mini-tour of the Highlands. Their next performance will be a charity gig in the Cafe Royal on Thursday.

CIRCA 1985

My first stroke of luck, when some chewing gum stuck in your hair
And I got it all out
I was famous, for that lunchtime at least
The look on your face made my chest swell with pride
I was convinced I was in
Then you smiled, that sucker punch knocked me out
What a feeling it was to be sure I was yours
Just believing that we didn’t want any more.

Running down Rose Street, chased by a crowd
Cursing my white slip on shoes
But I saved you, like you rescued me too
You introduced me, to Marvin & Tammi
I showed you smoke rings and rock
We could stay up, every night just to talk
What a feeling it was to be sure I was yours
So relieved that we weren’t alone anymore

Drinking our cocktails from Sodastream bottles
Sitting up on Blackford Hill
Had to hide them
I think they might be there still
Sharing a Walkman under the stars,
Songs that we taped off the charts.
Wires tangled, when the time came to part

I still have a picture, it’s us on the hill
As we shiver in our winter coats
You are smiling, I’m just staring at you
What a feeling it was to be sure I was yours
Just believing that we didn’t want any more.
No, I did not mind, I had to explain myself every night

 Andy Tucker

Here is a report of Andy’s latest gig:

http://www.thesouthernreporter.co.uk/lifestyle/life/city-acts-do-it-for-free-as-they-prepare-to-gather-in-peebles-for-mouth-watering-festival-1-1743159

7 Comments

  1. Jeremy Nathan Marks

    I think this is just awesome. I love that you started a dialogue with Andy Tucker and got the students involved like this.

    I remember trying to get my students (grade 11) to appreciate literature. They were supposed to be reading lThe Great Gatsby and The Old Man and the Sea and some (limited) selections of poetry. I can safely say they basically hated all of it, especially Gatsby (which surprised me). I was a long-term supply teacher at the time so I was being handed a curriculum with direction and expectations from the teacher who was then out on maternity leave. The classes were not easy even though they were considered “honors level” which, frankly, was a bit of a joke.

    Anyway, I tried to get them into some of what we were covering by being conversational and by trying to go “off script” by getting them talking. This worked with one class, the other two not so much. What is funny now, thinking back (this was 8 years ago), is that I kept thinking about Bruce Springsteen and his songs while I was teaching. I was listening to a lot of his music at the time and I kept thinking “if only I could connect the language we are reading with music, with pop cultural expression.” Springsteen really made real living poetic. I didn’t act on this feeling experimentally but I would today.

    This is a great story and I give you a lot of credit for what you did.

    Like

    1. Lois

      Thank you Jeremy… it is just so frustrating as a teacher to be held back by the curriculum. I chose an exam board which had an enlightened view on language, and because I was in what was thought of as a ‘special’ school and because I was the only English teacher I was pretty autonomous in the classroom… which made for much more enjoyable teaching!

      Like

      1. Jeremy Nathan Marks

        In my experience autonomy is always best. I don’t like to feel that I am stuck imposing standards that are essentially test-driven. And in the United States, where I was teaching, test-driven curricula are widespread and a source of controversy. In many cases, middle and high school students don’t ever touch literature apart from excerpts included in textbooks or “modules.” And if students are considered “on-level” rather than honors level there is no expectation to get them exposed to literature at all. At least, this was my experience in what was and is considered one of the best school systems in the United States: Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland.

        Like

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