January 23, 2022

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Teaching With ‘The Playlist’

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Students in U.S. high schools can get free digital access to The New York Times until Sept. 1, 2021.

Featured Column: “The Playlist

Every Friday, pop critics for The New York Times weigh in on the week’s most notable new songs and videos in “The Playlist.” With sharp and engaging commentary, they analyze each of the 10 or so tracks in their roundup — breaking down their lyrics, dissecting the instrumentals and discussing where they fit in the current music landscape.

In this lesson, we invite you to use this column as a model for your own annotated playlist. First, you’ll take a close look at a playlist from The Times. Then you’ll put together your own collection of songs around a particular topic, theme or event and, in the style of “The Playlist,” write a paragraph on each, explaining how it relates to your subject.

Ideas for Teachers

  • You can use this exercise in any number of ways depending on your subject area and learning goals. For example, in a history class, students might collect songs related to a historical event, like the civil rights movement, or to a broader topic, like protest. In an English class, students might round up songs that use a specific literary device, like irony or metaphor, or songs that relate to a novel. Playlists can even be autobiographical, with students selecting songs that express different aspects of their identities.

  • Have students create playlists on their own, or in small groups, with each student choosing a different song to contribute and write about. Students can share their playlists on YouTube or Spotify.

  • For more ways to teach with music in The New York Times, see our lesson plan “Nine Teaching Ideas for Using Music to Inspire Student Writing.”

What is your current favorite playlist? Did you make it, or did someone else? Do you like making playlists for different occasions?

Choose one playlist you have listened to recently and write about it. How would you describe the theme of the playlist? How do the lyrics, rhythms, melodies or instrumentals of the songs relate to that theme? Give an example of one song on that playlist that clearly speaks to the theme and explain why.

If you are in a classroom context, share what you wrote with a partner.

Choose one playlist from “The Playlist” column to read. As you read, take notes about what you notice about the way it is structured and written. Here are some questions to consider:

1. First, analyze the structure of the column. How is it organized and formatted? How many songs are included? About how long is the commentary on each song? Who are the authors?

2. Next, focus on the commentary. What kinds of information are included in the explanation of each song? Why do you think the critics chose to include this information?

3. Now, choose one song or video and its commentary to focus on.

  • What is the author’s opinion of this song? Underline or highlight at least one line that communicates what the author thinks.

  • Imagine a reader hadn’t heard this song. How does the author provide background and context so the reader knows what this song is about and where it fits into the genre or current music scene?

  • What specific details — lyrics, instrumentals, rhythms and more — does the author share about this song? What do you think the author is trying to express through these particular details?

  • Remember that the overarching theme for “The Playlist” is “the week’s most notable new songs and videos.” How does this track speak to that theme? Circle words or phrases that show how this song is “notable.”

4. Finally, take a look at the language the authors use throughout the playlist. Which words, phrases or lines stand out to you? Why? How would you describe the overall tone of this column?

5. Which “writer’s moves” from the playlist do you admire that you’d like to try in your own writing?

Now it’s your turn: Create your own annotated playlist of songs around a particular topic, theme or event modeled after “The Playlist” column.

1. Identify a subject for your playlist and clearly define it (see the “Ideas for Teachers” section above).

2. Brainstorm a list of five to 10 songs that relate to that subject.

3. Write a paragraph-long annotation for each song. Like the Times critics, you should provide relevant background on the track; explain how the song relates to your topic, theme or event; include details from the song (e.g., lyrics, instruments, rhythm or melodies) that speak to that topic; and write with style.

4. Format your piece like “The Playlist” column and give it a title.

5. Present your annotated playlist to the class and share your collection of songs on YouTube or Spotify.

About Lesson of the Day

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Teachers, watch our on-demand webinar to learn how to use this feature in your classroom.

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