The Playlist

All of our teachers and staff are Advisors to groups of about ten students, and this year I’m advising sophomores.

Every Monday, a group of 15-year olds comes into my office for a 30-minute activity. Over the past month and during the next few weeks, we’re guiding them through an exercise in which they are writing personal narratives. The purpose is to get them to reflect on who they are so they can think about their future.

Last week students were asked to develop a playlist of songs and explain what each one says about them as people. To illustrate, we asked students to listen to a popular song, describe what the artist was trying to express and what they feel when they hear it. Five options were available – three were artists I never heard of, one by Beethoven, and the fifth was “Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” by U-2. Wisely, I stayed away from Beethoven and chose the popular hit from U-2, though the song was from an album that came out in 1987, a decade before they were born.

“Mr. Thielman, this is about a guy who can’t make up his mind,” one told me matter-of-factly. “What are we listening to this for?”

Ivana, who decided to sit at my desk, saw the options given, and noted the “Pursuit of Happiness” by Kid Cudi was an option. “Let me help you out, Mr. Thielman,” Ivana said. “Everybody likes this one.”

So, we switched to a hip hop song, which says that everything that shines isn’t gold, and life is about the pursuit of happiness. “It means you gotta keep going, things aren’t always easy,” one said.

When the session ended, I gave the students their assignment – select 15 songs that say something about their lives and be ready to use them in another activity next week.

The next day, one student saw me after school to explain that he didn’t agree with his classmates who see the “Pursuit of Happiness” as an expression of who they are. “My song is ‘You need me, I don’t need you,'” he said, as we listened to the song by Ed Sheeran. “You’re supposed to be your own person,” he told me. “That’s my goal, that’s what the song is saying to me.”

This week, armed with their playlists, students wrote about events in their lives that impacted them and selected songs that described how they felt at the time. The events they shared were as mundane as the first time they met a new friend and as powerful as surviving a serious illness. The kids were engaged in the discussion and listened quietly to each other’s stories.

A little hip-hop, some time to reflect and write, and before you know it high school sophomores are writing intimate personal narratives, sharing them with friends and a headmaster, tying their stories to music, and beginning to write lyrics for their own unique futures.

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