Teaching Critical Thinking Using Songs
When I teach my introductory courses on the Bible, I first want to make sure students are comfortable reading critically. For first-year students, I find that jumping into reading the Bible critically is difficult for them, so I have decided to get them used to critical reading using texts outside the Bible for the first week of class. This semester, I used the classic song, American Pie, by Don McLean. I opened class by asking all the students to close their laptops and turn over their phones. Then, I gave each student the lyrics, printed on paper. I asked them to try to read the lyrics as closely as possible, trying to figure out the "meaning" of the song. I encouraged them to write on the paper, to annotate it (highlight, circle, write questions, brainstorm ideas). Then I played the song from YouTube.
After the song was over (and this one is a long song!), I asked if anyone figured anything out about the song on their own that they were willing to share with the class. Surprisingly, none of the students knew any background about this song, even though most of them knew the song when I played it. Several students noted that the song felt "sad," and several made guesses that it was about a girl who the singer loved (Miss American Pie). A few of them referenced the phrases about God and the Trinity at the end of the song. But one student said: "This is the most confusing song I've ever heard!" After I heard from a number of them who shared ideas, I allowed them to use their laptops and phones and encouraged them to do "research" on the meaning of the song. During this time, the room filled with energy. Students were saying "ohhh!" and turning to their neighbor to show them what they found. I let them read and look for about five minutes and then asked them to tell me what they found. This time, a lot of students wanted to talk. "There was a plane crash in 1959!" They figured out the references and many of them found out things about some of the lyrics that I didn't even know myself!
After this exercise, which took about 20 minutes of class time, I connected this back to their reading of the Bible in this class. I noted that they may read sections of biblical text that seem confusing at first, but if they read closely and slowly and think, the text will begin to make more sense to them. Additionally, talking with others about the text helps to formulate ideas, and conducting research on the passages helps as well. I also addressed how their first inclinations weren't necessarily "wrong" even after they found out the historical information about the song. In a way, many of them had figured out aspects of the lyrics on their own, even without research. But the research helped to flesh out their hunches and ideas.
Overall, this exercise worked really well, especially using this song. I think there's a lot of room here to talk about trauma and the haunting nature of the past, that affects the writing of so many biblical texts as well.