Making Curriculum Pop

As most of you know Nicole and I run a company that sells differentiated lesson plans for rock and roll music. We have a crazy backlog of songs we've licensed lyrics for by folks like 2Pac, R.E.M., Will Smith and Ani Difranco. We haven't been able to bring the guides to the store yet because our crazy day jobs, NYC life, doctorate coursework and the Mindblue produced Popular Culture in Education conferences. These circumstances forced us to put study guide writing on hold. With no adverting or any of that snozzy stuff we've made about enough to cover half our website costs over the last four years. We're hoping to change that with fresh content and new study guides in 2010.

When we select songs for the study guides there are a series of things we look for. We usually look for tracks that:
1. are well written enough that they can stand alone as an object of study
2. lend themselves to interdisciplinary/differentiated connections
3. have strong links to core curricula

There are two main reasons songs don't end up making it to the Mindblue store.

Sometimes we can't afford to license a songs lyrics or they are too complicated to track down. Some hip-hop songs require you to get permission from up to seven different writers (because of samples). It has been pretty common for me to run into situations where I can't make contact with a writer because their contact number has been disconnected. In other situations, like when we tried to license Beatles lyrics, Sony wanted INSANE $$$ for the lyrics - since we're an out-of-pocket venture, that was not an option.

Those things don't drive me nearly as crazy as the other common situation. We'll find a brilliant, totally teachable song where the artist uses one or two things - like a monster f-bomb or something "too hot for TV" that makes it impossible to consider for a wide range of classrooms.

That brings me to today's fun song...

Last night I was working at my computer with the 'ol iTunes DJ shuffling my 11,000 song library in the background. Suddenly, a track popped up that I hadn't thought about in years. Back in the 1990's I worked as a marketing rep for Virgin Records and had the pleasure of promoting this talented songwriter named Charlie Terrell. From the looks of his website, he's managed to make a living with his art - and so it should be because this dude can write.

The song below, "Toystore," would test any student's background knowledge across a bunch of disciplines. For obvious reasons, this almost perfect track never made the cut for a Mindblue study guide.

However, it does not mean that you grownups can't appreciate the poetry of the adult content below - maybe we should all write Terrell and ask him to record a PG-13 version?

You worked hard today - take a break - and enjoy a cool teacher tune (lyrics below). NOTE: please ignore the Rollins track and press the play button for "Toystore."


On the day that i was born i got into a fight.
My mama called the doctor.
And my daddy got uptight.
There i was already misunderstood.
Oh i crawled out of the window and i hit the road for good.
Yea, i musta crawled forever deep into the night.
‘Til, i saw this building with artificial light.
i went up to the entrance.
Threw a brick right through the door and i walked in unencumbered to the toy store…

i saw this shopping cart go flyin’ doin ninety down the aisle.
Yea, it was Cassady pushing Kerouac in true, Dean Moriarty style.
Yes, uh, Eve was playing with a slinky.
Cain and Abel had a fight.
i saw Houdini playing Twister with Ayn Rand and Frank Lloyd Wright.
Jack the Ripper was with a stripper.
They were playing Operation.
Yes, but, Ghandi wasn’t there yet.
No, he was in some other incantation.
Yes, Rodan was into Playdough.
Dali’s Aunt Farm was intact.
Yes, and Vincent had the 64 Crayolas with the built-in sharpener on the back.
Well, Hemingway had a pop gun over by the fish and pets.
Yes, and Edgar Allen was in the corner with his Creepy Crawler Set.
i found Bukowski in the bathroom.
He had a woman in the stall.
Yea, he was drunk on Mr. Bubble and writing “fuck you” on the wall.
Yea, Mussolini had the guns and the tanks and little plastic army men and all, yes, but Hitler forgot about the army for his perfect Ken and Barbie Dolls.
Aristotle was with a model.
They were sniffing airplane glue.
Yes, and Galileo found a ladder and dropped basketballs on Tarzan’s shoes.
Charles Manson was just dancin’ while jesus mopped the floor.
Bob Dylan walked in with a tambourine and said “Yes, I’ve had this dream before.”…’bout the toy store.


Feel free to share your thougths on the this track and your favorite "teachable / almost teachable" songs below!

Terrell's website:
Song Lyrics from:

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Thanks for the interesting song which requires much schema to understand! I appreciate your hard work in getting permissions.

Many kids never really listen to the lyrics of the songs they love and are often surprised when they find out what the song's about. I have used "Brick" by Ben Folds Five to have my students analyze meaning. It requires some deep analysis because everything is implied and some students never understand because they lack experiences that are alluded to in the song. I think the most important element in the song to understand what it is about are the pronouns, especially "you."

The meaning is unusual because of the gender of the speaker. This isn't normally a topic about which a boy would be concerned or feel this way.

Brick performed by Ben Folds Five

6 A.M. day after Christmas
I throw some clothes on in the dark
The smell of cold
Car seat is freezing
The world is sleeping
I am numb.

Up the stairs to her apartment
She is balled up on the couch
Her mom and dad went down to Charlotte
They're not home to find us out.
And we drive.
Now that I have found someone
I'm feeling more alone
Than I ever have before.

She's a brick and I'm drowning slowly
Off the coast and I'm headed nowhere
She's a brick and I'm drowning slowly

They call her name at 7:30
I pace around the parking lot
Then I walk down to buy her flowers
And sell some gifts that I got.
Can't you see
It's not me you're dying for?
Now she's feeling more alone
Than she ever has before.

She's a brick and I'm drowning slowly
Off the coast and I'm headed nowhere
She's a brick and I'm drowning slowly

As weeks went by
It showed that she was not fine
They told me, "Son, it's time to tell the truth."

She broke down, and I broke down
'Cause I was tired of lying.

Driving back to her apartment
For the moment we're alone.
Yeah, she's alone.
I'm alone.
Now I know it.

She's a brick and I'm drowning slowly
Off the coast and I'm headed nowhere.
She's a brick and I'm drowning slowly.
When I teach about tolerance and/or war, I almost always use Chumbawamba, though not popular here in the U.S., their songs carry a mighty message that only words can provide. "Homophobia" is a fantastic song for teaching tolerance, especially right now.

As for war, I find that many country songs can be used to discuss the different dispositions of soldiers in war. Chely Wright's "Bumper of My S.U.V." is a great neutral song that isn't sure about much but knows to support the troops, no matter what. I also use Toby Keith's "Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue (The Angry American)," which promotes war and violence and retaliation and irrationality. Then there's songs like "Some Mother's Son" by Carolyn Dawn Johnson or the incredibly controversial (and communist according to past presidents) "I Didn't Raise My Son to be a Soldier" to point out the loss of a life, not a pawn. "Hanging on the Old Barbed Wire" is a good song from a standard soldier's point of view about the higher-ranked officers in WWI and WWII, sung by British soldiers in the trenches.

Similarly, the effects of war are often sung about by The Cranberries, as with "War Child," "Zombie," and "So Cold in Ireland." And Tommy Sands' (or Cara Dillon's beautiful version) "There Were Roses" touch the heart with a group of family and friends divided by the Troubles. Sorry, many of my songs are about Ireland. It's my main musical taste.

And hopefully not controversial, I'd like to use "With God on Our Side" by Bob Dylan and "Walking into Battle with the Lord" by Chumbawmaba. I'd like to think it's not controversial because it's criticizing the way each culture believes their god is on their side and the other side is evil and terrible. But would someone like God support war? It's a good thing to think about. That Mr. Dylan....gotta love him!

And there's a few bands who talk about slavery in Barbados; one I love is by Damien Dempsey "To Hell or Barbados." A few lines are taken nearly word for word from Tituba in The Crucible. Damien Dempsey has sooooooooooo many songs one could use for colonialism and war. On the same topic is "Tobacco" by Flogging Molly, and Irish rock is still in, right? I got a pop culture reference for real!

Speaking of carrying a mighty message and the power of words, another Chumbawamba song comes to mind from their most recent album The Boy Bands Have Won: "Words Can Save Us," lyrics following.

April morning summer come soon
Clouds follow after
Morning sun is hidden by noon
Day shrouded over
Tears to face the morning news
We watch our future burn
And wonder if we'll ever learn
That words can save us

War in Broken Promise Land
Fame fear and gunfire
Cowboy culture blood on its hands
Flag fuel and empire
Bit parts for shooting stars
Above the dying trees
No-one looking up to see
How words can save us

Number one Favourite son
One more outsider
Army drops its cluster bombs
Boy sees his future
World are you listening now?
This fool just had his day
Who'll be brave enough to say
That words can save us?
Sean and Jeana,

Thank you so much - as always for your great/ideas responses! You collectively rule! Now I have to make a new Sean and Jeana playlist!

This track "You Must Learn" by KRS ONE is obvious for teaching history (from an angry black perspective) but is instructive and provocative nonetheless. No profanity, but could be controversial.
Lyrics to You Must Learn (Remix) :

Verse One:

It's calm yet wild the style that I speak
Just deal with facts and you will never get weak in the heart
In fact you'll start to illuminate
Knowledge to others in a song let me demonstrate
the force of knowledge, knowledge reigned supreme
The ignorant is ripped to smithereens
What do you mean when you say I'm rebellious
Cause I don't accept everything that you're telling us
What are you selling us the creator dwell in us
I sit in your unknown class while you're failing us
I failed your class cause I ain't with your reasoning
You're tryin make me you by seasoning
Up my mind with see Jane run
See John walk in a hardcore New York
Come on now, that's like a chocolate cow
It doesn't exist no way, no how
It seems to me that in a school that's ebony
African history should be pumped up steadily, but it's not
and this has got to stop
See Spot run, run get Spot
Insulting to a Black mentality
A Black way of life or a jet Black family
So I include with one concern, that
You must learn

Verse Two:

I believe that if you're teaching history
Deal with straight up facts no mystery
Teach the student what needs to be taught
Cause Black and White kids both take shorts
When one doesn't know about the other ones' culture
Ignorance swoops down like a vulture
Cause you don't know that you ain't just a janitor
No one told you about Benjamin Banneker
A brilliant Black man that invented the almanac
Can't you see where KRS is coming at
With Elie Whitney, Haile Selassie
Granville Woods made the walkie talkie
Lewis Lattimer improved on Edison
Charles Drew did a lot for medicine
Garrett Morgan made the traffic lights
Harriett Tubman freed the slaves at night
Madame CJ Walker made a straightin comb
But you won't know this is you weren't shown
The point I'm gettin at it it might be harsh
Is we're just walkin' around brainwashed
So what I'm sayin is not to diss em man
We need the 89 school system
One that caters to a Black fratern because
You must learn

Verse Three:

Akebulan is the original name
Of Africa now stripped of it's fame
It's good to note, that in ancient times
Egyptians developed all sciences of the mind
To the point where they ruled the planet
But Rome, Greece and Persia wasn't havin it
They attacked, and won the war
But it wasn't enough, they had to get to the core
Cause in that time it was Akebulan
That ruled religion, politics and man
In order to destroy the Egyptian race
They had to wipe the sciences, from off the face of the planet
So they proceeded to ban it
Then replace it with Christianity
And it's, been that way, all the way to today
Learn what we teach, hear what we say
But here comes the K-the-R-the-S-the-O-the-N-the-E
The BDP and we rhyme intelligently
Let me continue with Theodosyius
A Greek ruler not known to most of us
He in the fourth century A.D.
Calls the Egyptians fools you see
Two years later, Justinian rules
Six A.D., was it for schools
As a result, ignorance had swirled
Over Christian Europe and grateful Roman worlds
This went on for a thousand years
Of ignorance stupidity and tears
Now comes the seventeenth century hardness
Europe, began to come out of it's darkness
So J.F. Blumenbach, a German
Came out of nowhere and started confirming
White supremacy and men of colors
Before this time, all men were brothers
It was Johann, who went on to say
There are five different colors in the world today
That's caucasian, malayan, and mongolian
American-indian, and ethiopian
Yes, the ignorance gets scarier
He believed whites were superior
According to his idiotic fountain
The purest whites were from the Caucas mountains
J A Blofener, and H S Chamberlain
Both supported this outrageous racism
This went on to what the master race should be
And why they killed the Jews in Germany
Here is the reason why I'm so concerned
Because you, must, learn
K to the M,

This is great - awesome way to teach events and historical POV. Have you listened to K-OS you might dig him a lot, he's like an heir to KRS one/ Native Tounges crew with a good chunk of teachable songs. This isn't teachable, just fun.


Thanks so much for sharing the track! So cool that you're here!




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