Beautiful and Ugly Songs: Building Community

I have written elsewhere in this blog about the “Beautiful Songs” activity we often use in our classes at the University of Washington, and a lesson plan appears in PLATO’s Toolkit, as well as in the textbook Philosophy in Education: Questioning and Dialogue in Schools that Michael Burroughs and I co-authored. This powerful activity, created by Seattle high school teacher Terrance McKittrick, raises questions about the nature of beauty, the role of music in our lives, and other aesthetics questions.

A shorter version of this activity is also a compelling way to build relationships among students and strengthen the classroom community. It can be done in one longer session or several short sessions, depending on the number of students.

Ask each student to choose a few songs they thing are among the most beautiful they know, and one or two they think are ugly, and to think about why. Then they share their songs, first saying a little about the song and why they think it’s beautiful or ugly, and then playing a minute or so of it, sometimes the entire song. You can also start by breaking students up into smaller groups and having them talk with one another about the songs they chose and why.

You can do this activity as a short morning or end-of-day activity, with one student at a time sharing a song and talking about it. But make sure at some point, at the end of the week, or when everyone has shared their music, to make space for a longer discussion about the philosophical, aesthetic, and ethical questions inspired by the activity, such as what makes something beautiful and/or ugly, what it means for something to be beautiful or ugly, why music is so meaningful to us, and other issues of aesthetics. You can also ask the students if the experience led them to see one another differently.

One of the most wonderful aspects of this activity is that it allows students to see one another in new ways and to share something of themselves that often ends up being both very personal and deeply philosophical. In my experience, it is always extraordinary.