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December 2005 - Issue No. #59 (p.14-16)

War Protest Music in the EFL Classroom

by Louise Haynes

Nanzan University, Japan

Music in the English Classroom

People of all ages enjoy music. Many of our students spend time outside class listening to music in English and reading the lyrics. It's easy to use songs in various ways in class. What about the language teacher who wants to raise issues of war, peace, protest or conflict resolution? How could these be approached through songs? How accessible—in terms of obtaining songs and of students' English level—is this type of music for the EFL classroom? Music in the English Classroom

An EFL Unit on War Protest Music

This article offers advice on teaching this topic along with suggested classroom activities. It also summarizes the reactions of 4th year Japanese EFL students who studied war protest music as part of a 6-week college English conversation course. These students were given a choice of topics and chose war protest music to focus on. The course was divided into two parts: 3 weeks were devoted to music about the Vietnam War and 3 weeks to music about the 2003 Iraq War. A quick search of the Internet brings up many sites that allow web surfers to listen free of charge or to download songs about these topics for listening offline. I have included a list of such websites at the end of this article.

Protest Songs - Past and Present

In the past few years, I've been collecting songs about the wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq and the Palestinian conflict. So far, I have about 150 songs, and haven't yet investigated hip hop, reggae or punk. A good number of these songs are available on the Internet. Several would be easy for lower level English classes, such as "Peace in the World" (Nancy Lancy), "This is My Song" (Harmonious Combustion), and "Rich Man's War" (Steve Earle).

Most Americans over the age of 40 are familiar with some of the music of the Vietnam War period. Songs such as "Blowin' in the Wind," "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" and "Universal Soldier" contain simple lyrics that are repetitive and appropriate for lower level learners. Many less well-known songs are equally accessible to students of English.

The Problem of Background Knowledge

The main problem in teaching this kind of music is that, once the lyrics get above a basic level, it is necessary to understand the historical background of the era in order to comprehend the meaning of the song. Many songs of the 60s in the U.S. reflect the turbulence of protest against the Vietnam War and the draft, the civil rights movement, and the emergence of the ecology and women's rights movements. Most EFL classes are not history classes, so finding a balance between presenting enough history and having students fall asleep can be challenging. It takes a bit of preparation, but giving short jigsaw reading passages on a part of history needed for understanding the song is one way to fill in that schema. Students can also complete a skeleton outline while listening to a short lecture. My class even suggested that the students go out and take one song each (or even a part of a song) and research that part of history and then report back to the others in their group.

A Historical Approach to Music

Another approach could be from a music history standpoint. Listening to sample songs from the early 60s and 70s and then comparing these with songs today shows not only the development of technology (from folk singers with a guitar to today's computer manipulation of presidential speeches set to rhythmical loops) but also changes in music culture.

Tapping Into Student Interests

An extension of this would be to invite your students to bring in music on a topic (war, AIDS, poverty) that Japanese singers or groups have produced. Teachers could present Sato Kibi Batake as an example of a Japanese war protest song. The lyrics are relatively simple and could be used as a conversation starter or translation activity. Many Japanese music groups have written songs with themes on social issues. Students may already be familiar with singers and music groups such as NOFX, Michael Franti and Spearhead. Students could also be encouraged to write their own poetry/lyrics in English and set these to music.

The second 3 weeks of the unit dealt with protest songs about the 2003 Iraq war. Because of the temporal distance between 2005 and the 1960s, teaching peace and protest songs of the Vietnam War is perhaps less emotionally charged than teaching peace and protest music about Iraq. As with any historical event, there are more viewpoints than it is possible to adequately present in a 60 or 90-minute class. In the worksheets I developed, I included the following note to students and reminded them of the wide variety of media available to them, from CNN and BBC to

This unit is a brief look at some reasons why some people are protesting the war in Iraq. Our study does not give all people's opinions of the situation, for or against the war. You are encouraged to do your own research and draw your own conclusions. As with any social or ethical issue, it is wise to read a wide variety of sources and talk to many people before making up your mind.

Student reactions

I conducted a survey at the end of our six weeks of study. Most students didn't have time to listen on the Internet to the songs we'd covered because they were too busy. In general, comments were positive. Some felt frustration at not understanding the historical background. Some wanted the material to be easier and a few wanted help reading newspaper headlines. Students wanted to watch films about the Vietnam and Iraq wars, and to talk more about Hiroshima, Nagasaki, terrorism, and the relationship between Japan and the U.S. They appreciated learning about current issues because they don't know much about these topics even in Japanese.

Using peace and protest music can be an entertaining way for teachers to raise awareness of issues of peace and protest, to teach culture and history, and to stimulate critical thinking. I encourage you to try it with your students!

Protest Music of the Vietnam War Era

(a 3-week EFL unit with topics, songs and activities)
Topics Addressed
  • Geography of Vietnam (map)
  • French occupation
  • Early US involvement
  • Key figures in the conflict
  • John F. Kennedy era
  • Lyndon Johnson era
  • My Lai Massacre
  • Assassinations of MLK & RFK
  • Kent State Shooting
  • Pentagon Papers
  • Watergate break-in
Songs Taught
  • Blowing in the Wind (1962)
  • Universal Soldier (1964)
  • Eve of Destruction (1965)
  • Lyndon told the Nation (1965)
  • For What It's Worth (1966)
  • Fortunate Son (1969)
  • Abraham, Martin & John (68)
  • Ohio (1970)
  • War (1970)
  • What's Going On (1971)
  • Imagine (1971)
Class Activities
  • Brainstorming
    • "What do you know about...?"
  • Jigsaw Readings
    • on content prepared by teacher
  • Comprehension Questions
    • on readings and mini-lectures
  • Internet Research
    • about people, events, songs
  • Discussion Questions
    • student opinions of songs and events
Week 7
  • 1945-1962 Early History
    • Blowing in the Wind(1962)

  • 1963-1964
    • JFK, Lyndon Johnson
    • Universal Soldier (1964)

  • 1965-1967
    • Eve of Destruction (1965)
    • Lyndon Johnson Told the Nation (1965)
Week 8
  • 1965-1967 (cont'd)
    • For What It's Worth (1966)

  • 1968-1969
    • My Lai Massacre
    • Fortunate Son(1969)

    • Assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy
    • Abraham, Martin & John (1968)
Week 9
  • 1970
    • Kent State Shooting (video)
    • Pentagon Papers
    • Ohio (1970)
    • War (1970)
  • 1971-1975
    • Watergate break-in, Richard Nixon
    • What's Going On (1971)
    • Imagine (1971)

Websites for 1960s / 2003 Protest Songs and Related History

Vietnam War
Iraq War
Free mp3 downloads
Other music about the war
Other Resources:

This article is based on a presentation given at the PGL IV conference in Kyoto in 2005. The author also runs a website on AIDS education:

Louise Haynes, Nanzan University, Japan


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