For the Appalachians Abroad Teach in China program, Anna and I are enrolled in an online eight week crash course in teaching English as a foreign language that particularly emphasizes the Chinese classroom. The past couple weeks, we have been coming up with lesson plans using various learning techniques. This week, we had the choice of doing a lesson incorporating music, games, or drama (or all three!).
I wanted to incorporate music into my lesson because I have always enjoyed playing, singing, and listening to music. Anna and I were racking our brains trying to think of fun and adult-friendly songs, while also avoiding those that discussed what might be politically sensitive topics in China. We scoured Youtube.com and Grooveshark.com, listening to no less than 100 songs in the search.
Non-native interpretation of "I Am the Walrus"
Anna looked at her entire Ipod library, and we still weren’t sold on any one particular song. They were all too simple, too difficult, too fast, too slow, too religious, too political–or in the case of “I am the Walrus,” too completely nonsensical.
After listening to and laughing a little about it, I decided that John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads” would be fun and innocent while providing some interesting food for thought that could be fleshed out into a class discussion. Like anyone, though, I was having second thoughts about playing John Denver music to college students.
American university counterparts after listening to John Denver
So, Anna and I did some research on what kind of Western music is popular in China.
Much to our bewilderment, John Denver is HUGE in China. We found story after story about expats sitting in nightclubs enjoying a drink when the familiar words “Almost Heaven, West Virginia” begin to ring out from the PA. Of all the widely distributed American music out there, why is John Denver considered one of the seminal Western artists in China?
It turns out that John Denver has a peculiar history with the people and government of China (the results of which are probably at least as effective as any UN good will ambassador could dream of). When Deng Xiaoping was given the royal treatment at a state dinner given by Jimmy Carter in 1979, he was treated to the sounds of America’s favorite country boy. Deng was rumored to be a big fan of Denver even before the dinner.
Deng Xiaoping, one of the most influential world leaders in recent memory
Then, in 1992, Denver became the first Western artist to tour the post-reform China. In China today, the song “Take Me Home, Country Roads” is ubiquitous and synonymous with Americana.
It really should come as no surprise that John Denver was the sort of Western musician that would be palatable to the Chinese. No doubt, Denver’s optimistic celebration of the simple life was well received by China’s leadership, who could now show their population that economic liberalization was not inconsistent with their deeply held cultural values–even Americans can be humble. A proud, self-proclaimed country boy, John Denver has a lot in common with the 0.7 billion or so country folks in China.
A Chinese train station during the Spring Festival
The song “Take Me Home, Country Road” talks about the nostalgia that comes with leaving one’s countryside home. For John Denver and for many modern Chinese, that departure stems from the need to work. Nonetheless, many Chinese still consider their rural homes to be their permanent homes–this is one of the reasons an accurate urban vs. rural Chinese population count is so difficult. People will work 360 days out of the year in Shanghai or Chongqing, and then return home for the remaining 5 days during the Chinese New Year. This is referred to as chunyun, annually representing the largest human migration in the history of the earth. Because Zhengzhou–where Anna and I will be teaching–is a significant transportation hub in China, we will likely witness chunyun in a way that residents of Beijing or Shanghai may not.
Many university students in Henan province probably participate in chunyun, so I think it will be easy for them to personalize/relate to this song.
Anyway, all of this was interesting food for thought, and I was seriously amused that John Denver is so well-known in China (many Americans don’t even know who he is).
Below is the lesson plan that I developed, using “Take Me Home, Country Roads” as a focal point for a larger discussion on rural life.
In this activity, I will introduce (or reintroduce) high intermediate level students to the John Denver song “Take me Home, Country Roads.” I thought this would be a cool and fun song for university age students in Henan province, many of whom may be from rural areas. I myself am from a middle-sized city in Alabama, and so the song really rings true for me as well. At first, I had reservations about whether this song would be appropriate–conceptually, lyrically, and musically–for a Chinese audience. Much to my surprise, I discovered that John Denver has a rich history in China (including being a personal favorite of Deng Xiaoping and being the first Western musician to perform in post-reform China), and is really well liked by Chinese people. Since some students may have already heard this song before, I think it will be easy to get students engaged in the lesson. Also, chunyun is an event that many of the students may have a personal connection to, and I will discuss this as well.
For this activity, we will listen to the song, examine the lyrics, have a discussion about it, and then students will compose lyrics about their home town.
To introduce the song, I will tell students the name of the song and who wrote it. Then, as the text suggests, we will listen to the song three times. The first time, the students will listen to it quietly. Then I will pass a lyrics sheet out to students, and we will listen again quietly as we follow along with the lyrics. The third time, we will sing the lyrics together as a group. I will use my beautiful singing voice to get the class engaged. I was actually thinking it would be fun to bring a guitar to class and play along to the music as we sing it for this portion.
After students have had a chance to listen to the song a few times and read through the words, I would like to make sure that the students actually understand the lyrics. I will pass out a work sheet with some general questions about the song, and we will discuss the answers as a group. The questions will be simple and content-based: “Where is the singer from?” “Why do you think he wants to go home?” “What physical descriptions can you give about the area where the singer is from?” I will bring pictures of West Virginia, including areas that are included in the song (the Shenandoah River, for example). I will explain some cultural elements that may help to make the song more clear (what is moonshine?).
This will be integrated into step two without a break in the class. I will lead the class in a discussion about personal connections to rural areas. Because much of China’s population is from or lives in a rural area, this is a theme that my students can most likely relate to. I will ask the students feeder questions that will hopefully get them to open up their minds to the rest of the class. “Would you rather live in a big city or in the country? Why? Why do you think John Denver prefers to live in the country? If you are from a small town or rural area, do you consider it your home?”
Next, I would like to get the students to discuss chunyun, the annual return of urban chinese back home for the Chinese New Year. Why do people return home for the Chinese New Year? I think this is an appropriate subject because the song discusses returning home to one’s rural roots. Since they know more about chunyun than I do, I will have them explain to me the event and the reasons behind it. This will get them to talk in English using more abstract and creative language, and will also challenge them intellectually.
Finally, I will have the class listen to the song one more time now that we have discussed some of its thematic elements. I will ask them to think about where they are from and to try and imagine the song from their own perspective.
Follow up activities
To follow up this lesson, I will ask students to go home, think about where they are from, and write a one page poem about their home town in the style of (or to the tune of) John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads.”
Alternatively, or additionally, I could ask them to write an essay describing their home, and whether they agree with John Denver’s sentiments about rural life.