Teaching Literature with Musical (and Written) Notes

Progressive Fenwick English Teacher Geralyn Magrady finds common ground with students; treats sophomores to live duet in classroom.

By Mark Vruno (photos and video by Scott Hardesty)

Local musicians Rob Pierce (left) and Terry White performed recently for sophomores in Ms. Magrady’s English II College Prep course as part of their Tale of Two Cities literature lesson. (It was a pre-Christmas dress-down day for students.)

What’s on your playlist? A playlist is, of course, a list of digital, audio files that can be played back on a media player either sequentially or in a shuffled order. In its most general form, a playlist is simply a list of songs, according to Wikipedia. And almost all the kids have their favorite, thematically inspired lists these days — and they’re quite passionate about the music they like.

One may not think that playlists in 2019 have much in common with Charles Dickens and A Tale of Two Cities, the historical novel written about the French Revolution 160 years ago. Fenwick English Teacher Geralyn Magrady, however, would beg to differ. Ms. Magrady was introduced to a creative, character-analysis activity when she participated in Stevie Van Zandt’s (“Little Steven”) TeachRock professional-development program. (Yes, that Steven Van Zandt – Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Bandmate and of “The Sopranos” HBO/cable TV fame.)

“The idea is to develop a playlist for a main character, and I chose Sydney Carton from A Tale of Two Cities,” Magrady explains. The next day, she asked her English II College Prep students to do the same. The assignment took off running.

“The final result turned into a virtual album with a mix of every student’s top song,” she reports. In addition to the collection, each morning the classes listened to part of a classmate’s pick. “They took notes as to the connections found between the characters and the lyrics,” she says, “and then discussion was opened to share those insights.”

The teacher asked students which of their peers’ selected songs worked best to describe the Carton character? Responses in one class were as eclectic as the children are diverse: “Humility” by the Gorillaz, “Hurt” by Johnny Cash, “Lucid Dreams” by Juice Wrld, “Drinkin’ Problem” by Midland and “Reminds Me of You” by Van Morrison.

Along with her students, Magrady continued her own character-inspired playlist, which included original songs by some local musicians whom she knows. These two artists agreed to perform those tunes for her classes: Strumming their acoustic guitars at Fenwick, Rob Pierce sang “Rise Above” and Terry White played “When Your Hour Comes.”

That resurrection thing

Before beginning, Mr. Pierce offered some context for his young audience: “Just so you guys know, ‘the 101’ is a highway in Los Angeles.” One student recalled, “Hey, there’s a ‘Highway Man’ in the beginning of the book!” The song’s concept of rising ties into Dickens’ resurrection theme, which recurs throughout the story. Brain synapses clearly were firing as students diligently jotted down notes and observations while they listened to the live music. Pierce’s refrain was, “Rise above, rise above; all we do, we do for love.” Another student chimed in after the song was finished: “It makes sense. Sydney [Carton] will do anything for Lucy.”

The lyric I’ve paid for everyone I’ve loved spurred more connections for the youthful readers, as did:

  • Can’t get off this lane I’m on. “He couldn’t stop his drinking and can’t stop his love for Lucy,” a 15-year-old girl offered in a moment of revelation.
  • A line about being down on your luck elicited this reaction: “His one goal in life is ruined — she’s marrying someone else.”
  • Pray it all comes back to mind. “He reflects at the end of his life.”

Next up was the talented Mr. White, who played the harmonica while plucking his guitar. “When Your Hour Comes” reminded Magrady of Carton’s comforting talk with the seamstress before his beheading. Also, “when he’s waiting in the jail cell and counting down,” a male student suggested. “Yes,” the teacher encouraged, “leading up to the moment of hearing the guillotine’s ‘chop’ and counting out the number of the next victim!” This song’s words connected in other ways to their reading experience:

  • We’re no longer gonna grieve, the universe about to set us free could be signaling the end of the French Revolution.
  • Another lyric reminded a student of “Sydney’s peaceful face at the guillotine.”
  • There is one wild flower standing tall at an autumn shower. “The wild flower is Lucy, when she stood out at the courtroom … her empathy,” a classmate exclaimed. Magrady interjected, keeping them on their toes: “Ah, but it could be ‘little Lucy,’ the next generation!”


Although the two musicians are bandmates in the local favorite, Yellowhammers, Pierce also owns the Friendly Music Community in Berwyn, a setting that combines a live music venue, music-themed coffee lounge and a nonprofit music school. White, meanwhile, gigs solo as well as in other bands such as Cannonball, frequently appearing at Fitzgerald’s nearby. Magrady and her students thank both talented men, who took time out of their hectic schedules to support music in our school and share their artistic gifts!


About TeachRock

Launched five years ago, TeachRock is a standards-aligned, arts integration curriculum that uses the history of popular music and culture to help teachers engage students. As the New Yorker magazine wrote last May, in the TeachRock program, “Beyoncé’s ‘Single Ladies’ video becomes a text about the slave trade.” It is an online educational resource presented by Van Zandt’s Rock and Roll Forever Foundation and offered free-of-charge to educators and individuals. Interdisciplinary in nature, TeachRock is geared toward middle and high school students but includes resources for learning at all levels.

Watch Little Steven’s intro video.


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