In some of my classes, most notably my slam poetry and hip-hop class, I have students think about identity construction & representation through a music playlist. What this means is that I have them combine words, images, and music together into one representation of their lives. This is something they are usually already familiar with and requires them to think about literacy in a different way.
The end result is a multimodal autobiography that combines text, images, and music to express meaning.
Make it happen
This activity is appropriate for any grade level. I’ve used variants of this in middle grades, high school, and higher ed. This is sometimes used as an “ice-breaker activity” to start a school year, or a culminating activity at the end of a semester. In my slam poetry class, we complete this assignment near the end of the course after we’ve spent a lot of time building trust and community in the classroom.
Part One – Brainstorm
To begin this activity, have students brainstorm to develop a list of the most meaningful moments in their lives up to this point. Only share what you feel comfortable sharing.
I share the following prompt:
Consider what events have shaped who you are, what you believe, and how you view the world. What major events have changed you, shaped you, influenced you, shook you? Are there times that were wildly happy or incredibly sad? What moments have made you shift in how you see the world? They may be huge like the death of a loved one or your first day of school. Or they might have seemed insignificant at the time– like meeting your best friend or starting to play a sport.
If you have more time, you may pair this assignment up with having students develop an auto-ethnography prior to developing the soundtrack of their lives.
After this brainstorming, I have them select at least eight events that were meaningful and identify a song or album that accompanies those events.
Part Two – Produce It
After students have selected songs or albums to accompany each event, now they need to bring order to their assembled materials.
I share the following prompt:
Just as music producers do, try to create a progression in the sequence of your chosen songs/albums. For example, your songs/albums might be listed in the chronological order of the events they document. You might also mix the selections together so you don’t have all of the slow songs back-to-back. DO NOT just list them randomly. Put some thought into the order of your songs and the complete package you are presenting. Remember sometimes album releases include bonus tracks!
For each song/album, the students should indicate the name of the song/album and the artist. Why is each song/album important to you? How does each song connect to your life? What does each song reveal about the kind of person you are and what you think is important in your life?
Part Three – Share It
This is my favorite part of the assignment.
Have students organize these materials in a Google Doc to make it easier to create, revise, and share with others. I have them link their selections to audio versions of tracks or albums on Spotify, or the music service of their choice. Increasingly, YouTube is also a great opportunity to connect to online versions of music.
Have students share their playlists with others in the class. In some groupings, I pair students with one another, and give the groups time to listen to each other’s soundtracks in and out of class. Time can then be spent in class discussing the selections, getting feedback, and talk about the lives and identities of others.
If time is at a premium, you could also have students create and share a “greatest hits” review of their soundtrack and offer clips (between 30 seconds and 1 minute) of a minimum of three songs, and explain why the tracks were chosen.
In other classes, I have the students all add their collective playlists to one playlist for the class to make it easier to review, and document our time together. In the slam poetry class, we have an ongoing collaborative playlist that we add to each semester.
Students could and should use feedback during these sharing sessions to modify their work, and reflect more deeply.
Part Four – Distribute It
Now that students have a good idea of their top group of songs/albums and what they mean, it is time to bring it all together for distribution.
To the Google Doc that has been used to brainstorm, create, and revise the soundtrack, I have students create some sort of visual aide that will accompany this work. It could be an album cover, concert poster, flyer, or some other visual component that represents this work.
Lastly, I have the students situate the work a bit to help the audience make sense of what they’ll consume. I have students add the following structure to their work.
- In the first section, introduce yourself to the “listener.” This should just be a brief, autobiographical paragraph about who you are. This can be text, audio, or a video.
- In the second section, explain your soundtrack to your listeners. What is this soundtrack explaining about you? What do you want the listeners to get out of hearing/reading your soundtrack? This can be text, audio, or a video.
- Next, introduce each event/song/album combination as described earlier.
- Finally, in your conclusion, thank the listeners for “sharing” these meaningful life experiences with you. This is where you should sum up what this project has meant to you.
During the process, I offer examples and share my own soundtrack with my students. I never expect them to open up and share their work, without offering to engage as well. In this, I try and highlight the varying degrees of seriousness that I hope they’ll bring to this work. We may share insights on deaths that have been close to you, love, dreams, aspirations, and failures. This may include some of the darker, or more inspiring moments of our lives. This is as deep and/or as personal as you choose to make it.