Teaching With Taylor

22 Nov

Two summers ago I was at the Reading Institute at Columbia’s Teachers’ College, and Jen Serravallo was sharing ways that media could enhance reading instruction.  She showed us something brilliant: using music videos as a way to focus on symbolism and theme.  As You Belong With Me, by Taylor Swift, played, Jen paused the video at strategic points to think-aloud about the meaning behind Taylor’s outfits, or the symbolism of viewing the two main actors separated by a framed window.  She asked us to talk to our partners about the meaning behind the color choices in certain frames, and to predict what might happen next.  Thirty educators were on the edge of their seats to watch the video and see what she would ask us next.  The enthusiasm in the room was palpable, and I couldn’t wait to try it out in my own classroom.

Back in California, I did run into a slight snafu.  It’s challenging to find videos that are appropriate for elementary school age children and that still have a story that incorporates literary elements.  Over-zealous dancing or soulful camera-gazing have overtaking most of the tween-video market, and the market for teenagers is, for the most part, inappropriate.  A few videos I’ve found that can work are:

Taylor Swift, Mine: Use to teach time shifting, repetition

Taylor Swift, You Belong With Me: Use to teach inference from details: clothing, scenery, actions

Taylor Swift, Mean: Use to teach foreshadowing, object symbols, details

Notice a pattern in the singer?   Taylor loves story telling in her videos, and they tend to be appropriate in terms of language and visual elements.  I’d love to have some other videos and artists in this list, but they’re tough to find!

I started out with the video Mean, both because I thought the subject would appeal to fourth graders (bullying) and because there are objects that carry symbolic importance. This matched a major goal of my reading unit: noticing important details, especially objects that repeat, and thinking about their meaning.

I marked down stopping points where I would pause to think.  My first few stopping points were for my think-alouds, and later on I stopped and asked students to talk to their partners about what they noticed.

I wanted students to notice how authors describe characters in books, so I focused on a scene where there’s a marked contrast between the way different characters are portrayed in the music video.  In one scene, some popular students tease a dowdy waitress.   I thought aloud myself in the first, modeling for students how to notice key details.  In a later scene, where the waitress has become an important executive, I asked students to talk to their partners about what details they think are important.

What Worked:

When you do this kind of work with videos, you tend to find lots and lots of places to stop.   It’s important to limit your pauses and target just one or two teaching points so that students remain engaged with the video.  I stopped at three points to think aloud myself, and another two spots for students to think with their partners.

The class loved it.  Not only did the media aspect engage them, but you could audibly hear them gasp when they noticed objects like a piggybank appear in multiple scenes.  We’d been discussing the importance of repeated objects in the read-aloud, and now they saw it in a video.  The noise in the room was tremendous as they hurried to tell their partners what they noticed, and talk about the possible significance.

Right after watching the video, I reminded students that they could do this same kind of thinking work in their books.  I asked them to be alert to important details and to objects that repeat in their own story.  I saw a renewed excitement for finding these kinds of important details in their own books during their independent reading time.

Next Steps:

I would like to come back to the same video multiple times, using it like a touchstone text.  Each time you view the video you can have a slightly different focus.  Like a touchstone text, students will grow to know the story well, which will free their minds to focus on whatever element you choose to highlight.


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