October 5, 2001

Exploring the Message of Peace in Popular Music

Grades:  6-8,9-12

Subjects:  Fine Arts, Language Arts, Social Studies

Related New York Times Article
"Imagining John Lennon, in a Time of Anguish, By JON PARELES", October 5, 2001

Overview of Lesson Plan:: In this lesson, students explore ways in which music can relay messages of peace and how popular songs can be interpreted as commentary on current issues and themes.

45 minutes

Students will:

  1. Ascribe personal meaning to John Lennon's song "Imagine"; consider how this song's lyrics relate to current events and sentiments, particularly in relation to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
  2. Learn about how a charity benefit using the songs of John Lennon also served as a commentary on current issues by reading and discussing "Imagining John Lennon, in a Time of Anguish."
  3. Analyze, in small groups, the central themes, meaning, imagery, and point of view of songs that address peace in some way; select one theme as the focus of a class "musical tribute."
  4. Individually examine songs that focus on the class's theme; compose reflections on those songs; participate in a "musical tribute" to the class theme by presenting songs and analyses.



  1. WARM-UP/DO-NOW: As students enter the classroom, play a recording of John Lennon's song "Imagine" and hand each student a copy of the song's lyrics. Have students sit quietly and follow the lyrics. When the song ends, play it again. Then, allow students five to ten minutes to free-write in their journals on the song's meaning and effect on them. After writing time has ended, encourage students to share their thoughts. How many students wrote about the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and why did this song bring this current event to mind? What other specific events came to mind when listening to the lyrics? What images did the song call to mind? Who does the song seem to address, and for what purpose? What is its central message? The song was released in 1971; why is it so poignant thirty years later? Explain to students that today they will be exploring ways in which music can relay messages of peace and how popular songs can be interpreted as commentary on current issues and themes.
  2. As a class, read and discuss "Imagining John Lennon, in a Time of Anguish," focusing on the following questions:
    1. What were the original intentions for the "Come Together" tribute, and why did the meaning of the concert change? Who did the tribute honor?
    2. Why does the author of the article assert that "Lennon's yearning to give peace a chance, and his conviction that 'love is the answer,' made an uncomfortable fit with the prospect of imminent war"?
    3. What was the setting of the concert, and why?
    4. Who were some of the musicians who participated, and how did the John Lennon songs they sang have a particularly poignant and relevant meaning in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States?
  3. Divide students into small groups, and give each group copies of the lyrics of a song that explores the theme of peace or nonviolence. (Suggested songs include, but are not limited to, Michael Jackson's "Heal the World," The Beatles' "Revolution" and "Give Peace a Chance," Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On," Cat Stevens' "Peace Train" and the hymn "We Shall Overcome." Include the year of the song's release on the lyrics.) Allow groups fifteen minutes to read the lyrics aloud and answer the following questions about their group's song (written on the board for easier student access; one student in each group should write down students' responses):
    • What is/are the central message/s of this song?
    • In what different ways does the song relay this message (images, metaphors, etc.), and how does each item listed convey this meaning?
    • Who does this song seem to address, and why do you say this?
    • How does the songwriter feel about the central message about which he or she is singing, and how do you know?
    • What current events does this song bring to mind, and why?
    • Look at the date of this song's release. What was happening in the world then that is reflected in the song's lyrics in some way?
    • What is the theme of this song in five words or less?
    After students have completed their song lyric analyses, have one student from each group write on the board their response to the final question (the theme of their song in five words or less). As a class, select one of these themes. Explain to the students that each of them will be analyzing a song that addresses this theme and presenting it to the class during a class "musical tribute" focusing on this theme. Brainstorm on the board a list of songs that students know that relay this theme, and have each student (or pairs of students) select a different song from the list.
  4. WRAP-UP/HOMEWORK: Each student or pair finds a recording of their selected song and its lyrics and writes a one-page reflection on that song using the questions posed in the class activity as a guide. Have students bring their recordings and copies of the lyrics to a future class designated as the "musical tribute" on the class theme, during which each student will play his or her song and offer his or her reflection on it. (Be sure to have a tape recorder, CD player and any other similar device that students may need so that students can play their recordings.) To add the "benefit" concept to this tribute, compile the songs on a tape as a soundtrack, design a cover for the tape that includes lyrics and/or student reflections inside, sell the tapes and donate the money to a charitable organization.


Students will be evaluated based on initial journal response, participation in class and small group discussions, individual analyses of songs based on class theme, and presentation of songs during the class "musical tribute."

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  1. Collect quotations from well-known people who also publicly espoused "support of a nonviolent world," such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. Create a series of posters to display throughout your school (with your principal's permission), each offering a quotation from one of these people about peace, tolerance, nonviolence or a related issue. Encourage students to add their commentary and thoughts about these quotations on the posters.
  2. Investigate another benefit that took place in recent years, such as Hands Across America, Farm Aid, Comic Relief and Live Aid. Who organized the benefit? What was the mission of the benefit, and what was done to meet this purpose? Who participated, and how were they chosen? How much money was raised by this event or series of events, and how? How was the money allocated? Based on this benefit, create a guide to successful benefit planning that might be used by students your age to plan a charity benefit.
  3. Learn about the life and impact of John Lennon and his music. Develop an illustrated biography about him that uses song lyrics, images, and other creative representations to supplement the text of the biography.
  4. Create a visual representation of nonviolence, and, if many students are involved, place these art objects throughout the school or as an exhibit in a public area.
  5. Compose a song that relays your sentiments on the themes explored in this lesson or expressing your feelings about the terrorist attacks or another current event.
  6. Organize and execute a school-wide or community-wide music benefit to raise funds for the victims of the terrorist attacks.

American History/Journalism- Interview adults about their memories of the tragic and/or unexpected deaths of famous musicians and other people in the public eye (politicians, actors, etc.) Write a newspaper article about how the deaths of these people impact society.

Economics/Mathematics- Create a series of graphs that track money-related issues tied to the September 11 terrorist attacks (such as the costs of rebuilding, federal aid to New York City, funds raised by different charitable organizations, and international aid to Afghan refugees.) Update the graphs as the numbers change.

Technology- Develop a Web guide focusing on useful sites about the terrorist attacks. The guide might focus on one or several of the following issues: charities; helping children cope; media resources; information about Afghanistan, the Taliban and Osama bin Laden; and the concepts of heroism, patriotism and recovery.

Copyright 2001
The New York Times Company

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