Song Lyric Poetry Assignment For High School

I created this lesson to teach ten basic poetry and literary elements to high school students from the Rochester City School District at the Nazareth College/Hillside Work-Scholarship Connect Homework Helpers program. You can download the handout as a .pdf at the end of this article. I encourage you to use it however you want in your classroom and, if you do, please contact me to let me know what you did and how it went! My contact information is also at the bottom of the page so please tag me if you share this page too.

How I Start the Lesson

I open with a little bit of the history of rap and hip hop and I play the game “Rapper or Shakespeare” that I blatantly stole from Akala’s TED talk (which you can watch below). The “Rapper or Shakespeare” game is easy, you read a line and ask the audience or class if it was written by Shakespeare or a rapper. I did a speech on this at my Toastmasters club and people guess wrong all the time which kind of forces “rap skeptics” to acknowledge the poetic nature of rap.

What the Lesson Covers

The first part covers defining ten common literary elements. The ten elements covered are as follows: simile, metaphor, personification, hyperbole, alliteration, assonance, consonance, onomatopoeia, repetition, and rhyme (end rhymes and internal rhymes). Each element is defined and has examples lines from a rap song to demonstrate its use. I read the definition and then call on volunteers to either read the example or come up with their own.

The second part has four quotes from four different raps for students to go through and identify each instance of a literary element being used (as well as what that literary element is). I have students break up into groups to do this part cooperatively and then I give them a chance to share afterwards. When we start going over the lines, I personally rap each part for the students, but if you’re not comfortable doing it maybe one of your students will volunteer or you can simply read it.

The third part includes a couple poems by the legendary rapper, Tupac Shakur (who was a fascinating human being despite how the media portrayed him), as well as poet Langston Hughes. These poems can be used to identify literary elements and/or compare and contrast the poems. Students can go over the similarities and differences between the poems as well as rap music.

A book that I highly recommend is Tupac Shakur’s The Rose that Grew from Concrete. Not only does it have some awesome poems, but it also includes scans of the actual poems with Tupac’s handwriting and doodles. The students really loved seeing it. I give a copy out as a prize for participation when I present my lesson.

Concluding the Rap Lesson

To conclude the lesson, I give students the opportunity to write their own poems and raps that they can later share with the class if they want to. I’ve had great success with this; some students have even pulled out their own personal notebooks of poems that they’ve already written and are eager to share. It’s incredible to listen to the art they create. Some students are too shy to read their own work so some time their friends will read it for them or they’ll ask me to read it and I do.

Freely Use this Lesson!

Feel free to use my lesson as an outline for your own class. My only request if you do decide to is to let me know what you did and how your lesson went. I’m also willing to volunteer to present this lesson to students; it’s a ton of fun! You can download any version of the lesson below.

Download the Lesson’s Handouts

I have been revising the versions to keep modern examples and to clean up some oversights. There is no swearing in any of the examples but the first version does have some content that could be misconstrued potentially. Check the versions out and pick your favorite.

If this lesson was helpful to you please buy Tupac’s poetry book for your classroom or to give as a prize to a student. You can also say thanks by buying me a cup of coffee! ;)

P.S. If you are a teacher who is interested in earning some extra cash on the side, please consider checking out my website, How to Start Tutoring. I created it to share the business side of becoming a tutor. Some of my popular posts there are on how to sell your tutoring services and how to market your tutoring services.

How Other People Have Used this Lesson

Here are some more resources around this lesson. If you write about this lesson or create a resource from it please let me know and I’ll add you to this list!

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Lesson Plan

The History Behind Song Lyrics


Grades6 – 8
Lesson Plan TypeUnit
Estimated TimeSeven 50-minute sessions
Lesson Author





The events described in Billy Joel's “We Didn't Start the Fire” span about forty years of U.S. history. The lyrics include references to people, places and events from four decades of world occurrences. In this lesson, students research and categorize items from the song as well as illustrate their historical relevance. Students use an online chart to display their research. In addition, students make personal connections by working on a self- or teacher-selected lyrical project.

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  • Self-Reflection: Students use this sheet to evaluate how well they interact in a group activity, including what they did, what they enjoyed, what they found difficult, what worked well, and what they would do differently the next time.

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Does nonprint media-television shows, films, and songs-belong in the classroom? Absolutely! Nonprint media reach students and make connections in different ways from print media. Further, nonprint media often focus on contemporary topics that are not yet included in classroom textbooks. Jerome Evans states, "Artifacts of pop culture serve as advanced organizers for students, who can then connect new material (prominent and persistent themes in American literature) to their own experiences with literature (song lyrics). Once they see that songwriters and performers develop themes in the music they enjoy, discovering those themes (and, of course, others) in literature new to them is simply not so difficult." As Evans discusses, the use of nonprint media aids students when they do need to read and respond to print media.

Further Reading

Evans, Jerome. "From Sheryl Crow to Homer Simpson: Literature and Composition through Pop Culture." English Journal 93.3 (January 2004): 34-38.

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Students read a wide range of print and nonprint texts to build an understanding of texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of the United States and the world; to acquire new information; to respond to the needs and demands of society and the workplace; and for personal fulfillment. Among these texts are fiction and nonfiction, classic and contemporary works.



Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts. They draw on their prior experience, their interactions with other readers and writers, their knowledge of word meaning and of other texts, their word identification strategies, and their understanding of textual features (e.g., sound-letter correspondence, sentence structure, context, graphics).



Students adjust their use of spoken, written, and visual language (e.g., conventions, style, vocabulary) to communicate effectively with a variety of audiences and for different purposes.



Students employ a wide range of strategies as they write and use different writing process elements appropriately to communicate with different audiences for a variety of purposes.



Students apply knowledge of language structure, language conventions (e.g., spelling and punctuation), media techniques, figurative language, and genre to create, critique, and discuss print and nonprint texts.



Students conduct research on issues and interests by generating ideas and questions, and by posing problems. They gather, evaluate, and synthesize data from a variety of sources (e.g., print and nonprint texts, artifacts, people) to communicate their discoveries in ways that suit their purpose and audience.



Students use a variety of technological and information resources (e.g., libraries, databases, computer networks, video) to gather and synthesize information and to create and communicate knowledge.



Students participate as knowledgeable, reflective, creative, and critical members of a variety of literacy communities.



Students use spoken, written, and visual language to accomplish their own purposes (e.g., for learning, enjoyment, persuasion, and the exchange of information).


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Resources & Preparation


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  1. Decide whether to choose students’ final project or to have students selecting their own projects. Arrange for computer time if any of the final projects require technology.
  2. Make appropriate copies of Song Lyrics, Interview Guidelines, Research Questions, Project Ideas, Rubric, and Self-Reflection.
  3. Test the Online Chart Toolon your computers to familiarize yourself with the tools and ensure that you have the Flash plug-in installed. You can download the plug-in from the technical support page. If you use any of the other online student tools, test those as well to ensure that they work properly on your machines.
  4. Familiarize yourself with some of the ReadWriteThink interactive presentation tools students might use in their final projects. They may choose from the Printing Press, Stapleless Book, Multigenre Mapper, Graphic Map, or Interactive Timeline.

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Instructional Plan


Students will:

  • analyze a song to critically examine the subject addressed.
  • identify the people, places and events addressed in a song.
  • research information presented in song lyrics.
  • interpret song lyrics based on contextual clues and research information.
  • chart their research using an online graphic organizer.
  • synthesize their learning through completion of a project related to song lyrics.

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Session One

  1. Begin this lyrical study by asking the students if they can think of any songs—classic or contemporary—that discuss history and times passed. Some examples may include “1985” by Bowling for Soup, “American Pie” by Don McLean, and even songs from Schoolhouse Rock. Ideally, students will be able to share many titles and musical genres.  For song ideas, visit this Free Technology for Teachers blog post.
  2. Explain that the class will critically listen to such a song that discusses historical events, discovering the meaning and the history involved.
  3. Play the song “We Didn’t Start the Fire” by Billy Joel, or show the music video if it is available.
  4. Ask the students if they have ever heard the song and if they recognize the artist.
  5. Invite students to share other song titles by Billy Joel.
  6. Ask students to take out a piece of paper and fold it into fourths. The columns on the paper should be labeled with the following headings: People, Places, Events, and Uncertain.
  7. Play the song again. This time, ask students to jot down as many people, places and events as they are able while they listen to the song.
  8. After the song concludes, invite students to share and discuss the items that they identified as they listened to the lyrics.
  9. Distribute the song lyrics to the students and allow them time to read and think about the lyrics.
  10. Play the song a third time, with the students following along with the lyrics.
  11. Explain how Billy Joel used events, terms, and people associated with a certain time period in history to create the lyrics for this song. Except for the chorus, the song is a collection of words and phrases focused on historical events, people, and places.
  12. Invite students to share what they know about the information in the song.
  13. Ask the students if they know why the lyrics are divided where they are.
  14. Lead a discussion that includes the following questions: “Why do you think these events were selected? What events do you think were left off? Why? ”
  15. Divide students into project groups, and assign each group a section of the song.
  16. Explain that groups will determine the relevance of each of the words and phrases in their section of the song. By researching and interviewing, students will assign to each event, person, and place an approximate date, location, significance in history, and any contemporary connection. All this information will be recorded in an Online Chart.
  17. If there is time, invite students to find and share any trivia related to the events, people and places.

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Sessions Two and Three: Research

  1. Before beginning the research process, share the Rubric with the students so that they know the goals for the assignment.
  2. With your assistance, students should research their selected topics to answer the Lyrics Research Questions.
  3. Encourage students to make the most of the available resources for their research, including their library media center and computer lab. Point out books, magazines, newspapers, and other periodicals that include pertinent information as well as Web resources, such as the Decades: A Study of the 20th Century page, that will help students identify information about their topics.
  4. In addition to the typical research mediums, explain that students will interview community members about their section of the song. This step is crucial as some of the topics or items mentioned in the song and not found in typical research mediums.
  5. Students can create their own interview questions, or use the Guiding Questions handout.
  6. Assist the students as they research. Help them to determine keywords, or evaluate the effectiveness of a text or Website.
  7. Students will be recording their information using the Online Chart. This can then be printed and used as part of the final project.

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Sessions Four and Five: Final Projects

  1. When the students have completed their research and their Online Chart, present the list of project ideas, and invite students to share any additional project ideas they have.
  2. Once students have selected their project type from the list of project ideas, present the options for publishing their research findings and displaying their final project:
    • Create a newspaper, flyer, booklet, or brochure with their research using the Printing Press.
    • Create a 6-page booklet about their findings, using the Stapleless Book.
    • Use the Multigenre Mapper to create a project using multiple genres such as illustrations, poetry, quotations, biographical information, and recipes.
    • Chart the high and low points of the decade they’ve studied with the Graphic Map.
    • Record the data from their time period using the Interactive Timeline.

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Session Six: Work on Final Projects

  1. Allow time in class for the completion of the students’ final projects.

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Session Seven: Project Presentations

  1. When all of the projects are completed, invite the students to share what they have learned:
    • Students can share their research from the Billy Joel song lyrics.
    • Students can share their selection from the final project ideas.

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  • Students can categorize all of the items listed in the song, using their own categories. Ask students to justify the placement of each item. For example, if Marilyn Monroe is placed in a Tragedy category, students would identify the things about her life that were tragic (e.g., her suicide, her unhappy marriages). If Marilyn Monroe is placed instead in the Hollywood category, students would identify information about her movie career that tied her to the category.
  • Set up categories yourself and ask students to place the people, places and events from the song in the correct location. These categories work well:
    • Political/International Relations/Military Events
    • Economic/Scientific/Technological Developments
    • Social/Cultural Developments
  • Repeat this project with the movie Forrest Gump. Unbeknownst to him, Forrest, the protagonist, finds himself in the middle of many important American places and events.
  • Using the Timeline Tool, students can place items in their correct place in history. It would be interesting to see if students place the items in the same year as they are in the song.
  • Challenge the students to think and learn more about the connection between poetry and music. Invite the students to set some of their original poetry to music or rewrite new lyrics for existing music.
  • Extend your students' study of music in the classroom with one or more of these lesson plans from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum.

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  • Using the Self-Reflection questions, ask students to think about the steps they took as they worked on this assignment—what they had problems with, how they worked out their problems, and how they feel about their final project and presentation.
  • Use the Rubric to evaluate students’ work on the research, group work, final project and presentation.

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Related Resources


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Grades   7 – 12  |  Calendar Activity  |  January 25

Poet Robert Burns was born in 1759.

Students read examples of traditional Scottish ballads and use this information to write and perform their own ballads.


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Grades   7 – 12  |  Professional Library  |  Journal

From Sheryl Crow to Homer Simpson: Literature and Composition through Pop Culture

High school teacher Jerome Evans makes popular culture an integral part of his courses. Through analyzing themes in song lyrics, rhetorical devices in essays and advertisements, and psychology in contemporary film, students improve their skills in critical thinking and writing.


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Alexis Wyman

May 09, 2012

I've used this lesson plan with 7th & 8th grade classes & it has worked so well each time. Most of the kids think the video is hilarious & it gets them interested in the topics mentioned. They love sharing what they know about each topic & they are eager to research (once I printed off the research for each topic & distributed it in lieu of booking a computer lab) because there are so many topics they're bound to be intrigued by one. Fun! We listen to the song nonstop for about 4 days & the kids walk through the halls singing it, too.



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