When students return to school in the fall—whether live or virtual—there will be many conversations about COVID-19 and many opportunities to reflect on what they missed when schools were closed, on how the summer was different, and perhaps on family and friends who were stricken with the virus. Children will be affected by the anxiety of their parents, who are returning to work, bringing children to child care, and venturing to haircuts, restaurants, gyms, and beyond. As we transition into the new school year, the task for educators in the coming weeks and months is to help children reflect, refocus, and move forward.

When we experience emotions like sadness and anxiety, research suggests that expressing them through visual and performing arts is one of the most effective ways to address them. Psychologist John Pellitteri has been a pioneer in showing how creating and performing music provides an outlet for processing strong emotion, and three major research reviews suggest that the arts are synergistic with children’s social and emotional development. School administrators, increasingly focused on meeting social-emotional learning (SEL) mandates, see the arts as a way to use SEL to reach many students in deep and meaningful ways.

If you’re looking for a place to start with your students, I created the lesson plan “Turn Off the News” that uses the arts to help secondary school students (maybe fourth and fifth graders, as well) to reflect on their emotions, the COVID-19 pandemic, and how to cultivate hope for the future.

Reflecting on “Turn Off the News”

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Written before the pandemic, “Turn Off the News” is an amazingly timely song that expresses concern, coping, and hopefulness. Most importantly, it can be used in a “live” or virtual environment. Here’s how.

Play this video featuring Lukas Nelson, son of the legendary country and western singer Willie Nelson.

Ask your students to reflect on what they heard, from an SEL or arts perspective.  Some guiding question might include:

  • What moved you? What feelings did you experience while listening?
  • How was the mood created, musically?
  • What was the message of the song?
  • What was the structure of the song?
  • What did you think of the lyric related to building a garden? What feelings did that evoke?
  • How does the song affect your thinking about how much news we really need to absorb on COVID-19?

Add other questions that might fit with your current arts curriculum—for example, the role of tonality, rhythm, harmonics, instrumentation, or tempo.

Then, play the second version of the song below and ask your students to write down the lyrics. Ask what they thought of this version, which features an illustration accompanying the words, rather than the performer. Again, ask the same set of questions above to see if their answers are different. Ask what differences they noticed or felt between having the performer as the focus, rather than the words and illustration. Be sure to ask this about the “building a garden” lyric, in particular.

To help promote your students’ SEL competencies, you can encourage them to describe the range of emotions they felt at each viewing (and to notice differences) and where they felt empathy most strongly. Invite them to think about the problem that Nelson was trying to solve in writing this song, how he might have arrived at his particular solution (considering everything about the song), and, as a transition to the next part, what they might have done differently.

Creating your own pandemic song

That brings us to perhaps the most important part, the part that builds resilience in our students: encourage them to create their own version of a song. You can guide their reflections by asking:

  • What do you want to communicate about the pandemic and the lessons you have learned?
  • What do you want to say about what you missed doing most during the pandemic?
  • What are you looking forward to?
  • How would you like things to be now?

Suggest the following options, and others that may better fit your curriculum, for creating their own version:

  • Modify the lyrics of “Turn Off the News”
  • Use the same lyrics and create new melodies
  • Re-score the performance
  • Create a new graphic accompaniment to the song
  • Create your own song

In modifying lyrics or creating a new song, students can express their own feelings about returning to school and how the pandemic affected them, their friends, their families, their grandparents, their communities, and any aspect of the wider world. They also can use this activity to reflect on the other pandemic that has come to the fore, the pandemic of racism. It may well be that for some students, the coronavirus pandemic has been most influential in underlining inequities in our society, and so themes of social justice are what they wish to express.

Students will give their SEL skills particularly good exercise if they work in pairs or small groups, either live or in virtual breakout rooms. They can share their products—perhaps in the form of a music video—with one another or their grade level, families, school, and community. Your visual and performing arts curricula can help guide the particulars.

Helping students in need

Young people experiencing difficulties, particularly as related to the pandemic and its impact on their loved ones, may find that listening to, commenting on, and working to create their own versions of this song are highly therapeutic. 

For these students, you may even want to frame the task as if they are “music critics.” Say that you are screening a video in two versions to get students’ opinions about their usefulness, the feelings they evoke, and more. Then, ask how they would make the videos better, using the guiding questions above or questions tailored to issues that your students might share. The act of creating art can be tremendously helpful to students who may be less comfortable with directly talking about their thoughts and feelings.

“Turn Off the News” can be used as an arts education or SEL activity, connecting to both CASEL SEL standards and visual and performing arts standards. It also can be used across multiple sessions by school counselors, psychologists, and social workers.

In addition, you can adapt this lesson plan for other songs. In fact, it was adapted for the song “Lean On Me” for the Worldwide Day of Gratitude on April 27, 2020. It elicited extraordinary creations by students of all levels worldwide, who put their SEL skills to work and found the process helpful and gratifying. Two particularly inspiring examples among many were created by Chatham (NJ) Public Schools and the STEAM Academy Middle School in the Ferguson-Florissant School District in St. Louis, Missouri.

Now, it’s your turn to combine the arts and SEL to help students make a positive transition into this new school year. Thank you to Lukas Nelson, and his inspirational dad, Willie, for the gift of this song.

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