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Blogger Challenge & The Heartbreakers

April 18, 2015

I’m over a week late getting to this, but fellow #oklaed blogger Blue Cereal Education issued a challenge a few days ago to write about content for a change:

Most of you are or have been classroom teachers – whether that classroom is actually in Oklahoma, in a traditional public school, or whatever. We talk policy a great deal – and rightly so. From time to time we’re inundated with pedagogy – which can be either helpful or a tad pompous depending on who’s doing the inundating. But it’s not all that common to use the wonders of the interwebs and edu-blogosphere to get all giddy sharing something content-related that gets us all tingly in our hoo-ha.

I don’t know about that last part. It must be Latin or something.

Lesson: Introduction to poetry, featuring Free Fallin’ by Tom Petty (solo, without the Heartbreakers actually)

In 1989, Tom Petty released his first solo album, Full Moon Fever. I already owned every Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers record (yes, record), so I had to buy this one too. Since then I would have to say that Free Fallin’ (which is a colloquialism rather than a nod to our current governor) has become my favorite song, conveniently located on my favorite album, and recorded by my favorite artist. In fact, Full Moon Fever is one of three Tom Petty (and/or the Heartbreakers) I keep framed on the wall of the home office.

photo

Early into my career teaching high school English, I came to realize that my favorite things weren’t always my students’ favorite things. And that was, as Stuart Smalley would have said, okay. One of the things I have always enjoyed was poetry. Among my favorites:

The thing with teaching sophomores is that you can’t just lead with Wordsworth:

The world is too much with us; late and soon,

Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—

Little we see in Nature that is ours;

We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!

This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;

The winds that will be howling at all hours,

And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;

For this, for everything, we are out of tune;

It moves us not. Great God! I’d rather be

A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;

So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,

Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;

Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;

Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.

Sordid boon? What’s that, Mr. Cobb? Plus, the next line contains the word bosom. There’s nothing wrong with the word, but you don’t start there when your audience is a bunch of teenagers. So I introduced poetry with song. I’m not the first to do this. I’m probably not even the first to do this with Free Fallin’.

I would start by showing them the lyrics. This was the late 90s and early 2000s, so most knew the song, but few could say they knew all the words.

If YouTube had been a thing back then, I would have made them watch the video. Even in 1999, then we would have had a good time with what people were wearing in 1989!

I would start by reading the lyrics without inflection. It was probably something of a Ben Stein or Steven Wright type performance.

She’s a good girl, loves her mama
Loves Jesus and America too
She’s a good girl, crazy ’bout Elvis
Loves horses and her boyfriend too

I’d get about that far and they’d stop me. Mr. Cobb, you’re doing it wrong. You need to read it with some emotion. I would continue, just as before.

It’s a long day living in Reseda
There’s a freeway runnin’ through the yard
And I’m a bad boy ’cause I don’t even miss her
I’m a bad boy for breakin’ her heart

And I’m free, [LONG PAUSE] free fallin’
Yeah I’m free,[LONG PAUSE] free fallin’

Again, they’d interrupt. You’re not really … [searching for words] … performing it. I’d ask, do you want to try it? Usually someone would. They’d read it with slightly more feeling than I had, and then we’d discuss the song, section by section. Through the few years I did this lesson, the conversation went about like this:

Me: Who is the speaker?

Students: Tom Petty

Me: No it’s not. That’s lesson one. The author is usually not the speaker.

Students: Well then who is it?

Me: Look at the lyrics. Who is narrating the song here?

Students: [after an uncomfortable silence] A bad boy?

Me: Yes, a bad boy. Maybe the song is autobiographical, but we don’t have enough evidence from this one song to assume that Tom Petty is a bad boy. So we know the speaker is a bad boy. Why is this? Why is he bad?

Students: [much faster this time] For breaking her heart!

Me: That’s right. For breaking her heart. But does that necessarily make you a bad boy? Sometimes, things don’t work out, right?

Students: But he doesn’t even miss her!

Me: No, he doesn’t. What do we know about her?

Students: [simply parroting the lyrics] She’s a good girl! She loves her mama! She likes horses!

Me: Okay, we have a list of reasons she’s a good girl. She loves a predictable set of things. Her mama. America. Horses. Jesus. Elvis. There’s nothing wrong with this list, is there?

Students: Not really.

That one student: Well, kind of.

Me: What do you mean?

That one student: It’s a predictable list of things. It’s boring.

Me: Fine, but does that mean she’s not a good girl, as the speaker has suggested?

That one student: No, but that doesn’t mean the speaker has to stay with her.

Me: Well of course not. So is he really a bad boy? I mean he doesn’t even miss her? What’s the deal with that?

That student with recent experience: Sometimes you just feel you’re better to rip the band-aid and move on.

That student who used to date the previous student: And sometimes you just don’t care about other people’s feelings.

That awkward moment: [silence. long, uncomfortable silence]

Me: [with vigor] Let’s look at the rest of the song.

All the vampires walkin’ through the valley
Move west down Ventura boulevard
And all the bad boys are standing in the shadows
All the good girls are home with broken hearts

And I’m free, free fallin’
Yeah I’m free, free fallin’
Free fallin’, now I’m free fallin’, now I’m
Free fallin’, now I’m free fallin’, now I’m

I want to glide down over Mulholland
I want to write her name in the sky
Gonna free fall out into nothin’
Gonna leave this world for a while

And I’m free, free fallin’
Yeah I’m free, free fallin’

Me: So, what does Tom Petty mean by vampires?

Students: Speaker.

Me: What?

Students: What does the speaker mean by vampires?

Me: Yeah, right. What does the speaker mean by vampires? Who are vampires? Why are they vampires?

Students: Because they just walk around with glazed-over looks on their faces.

Me: You’re thinking of zombies. Vampires are the blood-sucking ones.

Side note: I think I should get some credit/blame for re-igniting the vampire book craze. I’m sure that’s when it started.

Students: Where’s Ventura? And Mulholland?

Me: They’re in California. That’s a good point…do we necessarily need to know anything about these locations?

Students: Not really?

Me: Would it have mattered to you if the line had been, I want to glide down over El Reno?

Students: That would have been weird.

Me: Agreed.

Keep in mind that the above conversation is an amalgam of comments from several years of classes. In the end, opinions would vary as to whether or not the speaker was in fact a bad boy. Sometimes, students would even argue that the girl wasn’t actually all that good. There’s so much we really don’t know from the lyrics, and that’s part of the beauty of poetry. Writers can use language, with economy, and stimulate thought or tell a story. We discussed speaker, word choice, tone, and many other literary elements within the framework of this one song.

As a classroom teacher, I probably was never more effective than when my students were engaged with a work of literature that I could discuss passionately. From here, we moved to songs they brought to class to poetry of different eras chosen by me to poetry that they found from different anthologies that I made available for them. Now, with fairly universal access to the Internet, we would have an endless anthology from which to choose.

One year, at the end of the poetry unit, I had a boy walk up to me after class and say the words that should be on my tombstone someday.

Mr. Cobb, that didn’t totally suck.

That may be the single biggest compliment I ever received as a teacher. All of my former students are in their late 20s and early 30s now. I am friends with quite a few of them. More mention the song Free Fallin’ to me than anything else we ever did in my classroom. And that doesn’t suck at all.

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  1. teach4kids
    April 18, 2015 at 1:27 pm

    This may be my favorite post you have ever done. I really enjoyed it. Thank you for letting us all take a breath and remember what we do, why we do it, and stop thinking about all the policy crap!

    Liked by 1 person

    • April 18, 2015 at 1:32 pm

      Thanks! It was one of my favorite ones to write. I have grad student papers to grade and I’m in the middle of another long policy post on testing. This was the break I needed!

      Like

  2. Kate
    April 18, 2015 at 6:46 pm

    I think even Friends of The Pre-Existing Condition could agree: This post doesn’t totally suck. 😉

    Like

  3. April 19, 2015 at 10:15 pm

    I keep coming back to this. I may have to steal it. You’re ok with that, right?

    Like

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