Spurred by my recent foray into ideas for increasing critical thinking, here’s an idea that I think combines a lot of different ideas, including critical thinking and logical inference, into a skill-building activity that engages a virtually universal student interest: music.
The text I will use for the activity I have in mind is Jonathan Coulton’s fabulously bittersweet song Blue Sunny Day. I suspect that this activity could be repeated with other songs, but I chose this song for several reasons. The first is that the song itself is musically upbeat – peppy and in a major setting* – and that will help engage students from the get-go. The second is that the tone of the music does not actually match the tone of the lyrics, which are slightly ironic but in the end a little depressing.
The third – and perhaps the most important – is that the song is quite ambiguous. The problem of the narrator – for there is an actual story to this song – is not entirely evident from the lines, but if you read closely enough, you can piece together the very odd problems that the narrator indeed faces.
In fact, the problem itself is another way to engage students: one of the narrator’s key problems is that he is a vampire and cannot go into the sun. (Here I will clearly have to exorcise the ghosts of the Twilight franchise from the room!) The song never says this overtly, though, and the clues are very sparse: the second verse begins, “Looking for an easy mark/I hit the Denny’s after dark/And take a lonely waitress home to drink,” and the song ends with the narrator stepping into the sun: “As I go to pieces and the breeze blows me away”. The underlined sections are puns, and students may interpret them in ordinary mundane ways instead of how they are intended to be taken (e.g. “take X home to drink” as “invite X to one’s house in order to consume alcohol” vs. “invite X home to literally drink X’s blood”).
These ambiguities make the language rich with meaning, and it provides a perfect opportunity to have students learn how to do a close reading and how to make inferences based on prior knowledge. For instance, it takes an understanding of the normal (non-Twilight) vampire mythos to see how “going to pieces” could be a clue indicating that the narrator is literally turning to dust as vampires normally do in the sunlight.
I hope to make this a fun centerpiece to a lot of introductory thoughts on literacy and what it means, especially taking it into realms that they know – movies, comic books, video games, music, etc. – and drawing out what makes them literate in those media.† If they can start thinking analytically about their own literacy, then that should hopefully carry over into other spheres of thought and will cultivate a better sense of critical thinking in general.
I’m hopeful and excited about the idea since it gives me a more interesting start to the year and will hopefully build some much-needed literacy skills. But if nothing else, I hope it will be a fun and engaging activity.