36/52: Laying the Track, Locking the Flow

October 4, 2014

I’m not exactly sure how it started. I guess I blame Weird Al. I was sitting in the back of my aunt’s car, probably around 10 years old, when my cousin put in one of Mr. Yankovic’s cassettes. The song was “Lasagna”, a parody of “La Bamba” and it made me chuckle. The fact that I remember this fairly ordinary moment seems to validate its significance.

On that day, my mind was really opened up to how words can be bent, twisted, broken up, and reformed around a skeleton of melody to create something memorable. I kept this knowledge with me as I began my teaching career. Accompanied by my trusty ukulele, I used popular melodies as the delivery vehicles for knowledge. The 50 states. The process of erosion. Math facts. But mostly, I used it to teach verses from the Bible.

I’m really not sure what the first song was, but it must have been fairly effective. After dozens of songs, I’m still going strong. Because of this, kids from the Skagit Valley have sung 1 Corinthians 13 to “Ob-La-Di” by the Beatles. City kids from Rochester have accessed their inner Elvis while singing Psalm 96:1-3 to “You Ain’t Nothing But a Hound Dog”. Academic offspring from the Napa Valley have rapped the words of James 1:17 to Warren G’s “Regulate”.

But last year, I lost my safety blanket when I taught 5th-grade Bible. If you know like I know, that meant I used up my greatest hits by the time my current 6th-grade class stepped to this year. Aside from the scripture song well running a bit dry, the novelty of singing songs to popular tunes had worn off a bit. This meant that I had to raise my game.

So this week, when Psalm 27:5-6 came up to the plate, I had to serve up a pitch that my class could knock out of the park. Enter Frozen. Alice is constantly bursting into songs, or at least an ELL jukebox version of them. The college student I worked with last year, told me how his friends would blast the soundtrack in the guys’ dorm. And most relevant to me, my sixth graders often sing these icy tunes on field trips. With a little lyrical wrestling and the help of a karaoke soundtrack on YouTube, the music and lyrics melded into one. Lines were repeated. Words were stretched. Syllables were stressed in awkward places. The end result was a bunch of sixth graders singing to the tune of “Let It Go” at the top of their lungs. Their enthusiasm was palpable each time. “Can we open the door?” they inquired, apparently forgetting Elsa’s advice to the contrary. There is something rather salubrious about singing with eighteen invigorated sixth graders. It was the opposite of soul-withering.

In looking at the verse, I thought the whole process was rather apt:

“For in the day of trouble he will keep me safe in his dwelling; he will hide me in the shelter of his sacred tent and set me high upon a rock. Then my head will be exalted above the enemies who surround me; at his sacred tent I will sacrifice with shouts of joy; I will sing and make music to the Lord.” Psalm 27:5-6

I suppose our only real enemies were self-consciousness and cynicism, but the kids fought these off admirably. In all my years of teaching, no parent has ever questioned me about the appropriateness of pairing Scripture with popular music. I feel like I would be able to justify myself if they did, but I hope that the technique is a pleasing offering to the Inspiration and not just a gimmick. This week definitely gave me the impression that we were on the right track.

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