I believe teachers have a great opportunity to creatively integrate social and emotional learning (SEL) and culturally responsive teaching (CRT) into the high school English language arts curriculum via song lyrics. English teachers have long used lyrics to teach aspects of poetry and literary devices, but lyrics can also connect to current teaching priorities that transcend those devices.
Most teachers have heard about the benefits of SEL but may not be too familiar with CRT. Culturally responsive teaching is meeting students where they are, making the curriculum relevant to their life experiences and interests to increase engagement. I have a personal connection to the songs below because I’ve used them to boost my own SEL competencies and my students embrace every aspect of hip-hop culture. All genres of music can offer SEL skill building—catering the lesson to your group of students is what makes it culturally responsive. You can ask your students about their favorite artists and songs and evaluate them for future activities. You can be a detective, thoroughly investigating the songs and lyrics to determine if you can connect them to SEL competencies and if portions of the song can be played during class. As you'll see, when you find that sweet spot of appropriate lyrics that can improve SEL competencies students will truly appreciate it.
Three out of the four songs below are examples of hip-hop. I know there are negative perceptions of the genre, but I think I can show that hip-hop lyrics can be used to boost SEL competencies.
Examples of How to Use Songs to Boost SEL Skills
Juelz Santana, “The Second Coming”: A Nike promotion birthed this song full of motivating and inspiring lyrics, and it’s OK to play it during class because of the themes and the fact that there’s no profanity. (I would not play the songs below in a classroom.) The lyrics “Best of the best, is what we strive to be / A legacy is what we trying to leave,” can be used to open up a Socratic discussion about self-awareness and self-confidence and how one develops them.
The lyrics “If you fall, get up and try it again / If you drop, get up and try it again” can lead to a discussion on self-awareness and resilience and growth mindset. This discussion would be a great time to share with the class a time when you were able to overcome adversity.
The lyrics “Hard work pays off, you get what you put in / So why stop now? Gotta keep pushing” can lead to a discussion on self-motivation.
Rick Ross featuring Drake, “Gold Roses”: Arguably two of the biggest hip-hop artists in the world. The chorus offers an opportunity for students to discuss how to develop more positive relationships.
The lyrics “Before I’m gone outta this place, yeah / Put some flowers in my vase, won’t you? / Let me know that I did okay, yeah / Don’t wait ’til some other day, no, no. / They love to wait ’til it’s too late, it’s too late” can lead to a discussion about communication and relationship building. Some people tend not to let others know how they feel about them because of stigmas around showing emotions.
Teachers can model this for students: If you like someone’s shoes or clothing, tell them, and if someone did a nice deed for you, thank them publicly. This will show teens that you don’t lose “cool points” for appreciating people. Discuss with students the idea that they don’t want to live with regret about not telling someone how they feel about them when they have the chance.
Red Hot Chili Peppers, “Can’t Stop”: The only non-hip-hop song here; like many rock and pop songs, it connects to SEL competencies. I use this to show students and my fellow educators that SEL skills can be found in other genres as well.
The lyrics near the end of the song “Your image in the dictionary, / This life is more than ordinary” and the outro lyrics “Can’t stop the spirits when they need you, / This life is more than just a read through” can lead to a discussion about self-motivation and goal setting. We should be constantly empowering our students to maximize their potential. You can ask what kind of legacy they want to leave and if the actions they are currently engaged in are aligned with that. This is a great way to begin a discussion on short- and long-term goals.
Lil Baby and Gunna, “Drip Too Hard”: Most students will know this song, but they have most likely overlooked how it connects to reducing negative interactions with their peers.
The lyrics “I know they hatin’ on me, but I don’t read comments” can lead to a discussion about impulse control and self-discipline. We know that social media is a source of a lot of conflict, and the line above is about avoiding potential conflicts because the artist knows he might respond negatively. So that form of self-discipline is helpful, but teachers can also use this song to encourage students to normalize seeking out individuals who build them up versus the alternative, which leads to conflicts—this is an opportunity to foster self-awareness and self-management.
I’ve given y’all a few examples that I have used, but many of the songs you and your students love can also be used to promote SEL skills.