Good vs. Evil – A Character Study with Toys

This morning I got to teach one of my all-time favorite lessons in a remarkably engaged 5th grade class at P. Elementary School. Fifth grade classes can be rough. In case you don’t know any 5th graders today, and can’t remember what it was like to be one, let me remind you: fifth grade can be pretty rough. It can be an onslaught of self-conscious awkwardness that comes with the beginning of puberty–it can also be the time when students become old enough to be Mean. Not just bullies, but aggressively Mean. This, however, is not one of those 5th grade classes. This 5th grade class is a dream: they are an engaged, focused,  insightful, creative, smart, and articulate group of kids who I look forward to seeing every week.

The lesson we did together today starts with a  homework assignment: Bring a toy to class (everyone loves this, since it grants temporary amnesty from the school rule that states do not bring toys to class). I ask that the toys they bring are characters–dolls, stuffed animals, and action figures. The students are then assigned a task: put your toy on  the table that most accurately describes its personality. Should it join the Pure Good table, the Mostly Good table, the Mostly Evil table, or the Pure Evil table? Inevitably, a stuffed pink pig ends up on the Pure Evil table. If the owner is able to convince us why, the pig stays. If not, the pig gets dropped from the game.

It’s a fairly simple game. I play a variety of music clips, and the students decide where it fits–is this the theme song for a pure evil character? A pure good character? It’s fun to watch the class point with conviction at a specific table, then change their minds as tempo and dynamics shift. Sometimes they unanimously settle on one table. Sometimes they are split into even quarters. The real fun  is hearing why:

  • According to one student Summertime was Mostly Evil because of his association between jazz and mafia in movies (another student declared it mostly good because it sounded like entertainment).
  • Music from Eternal Sunshine started all over the map, then landed unanimously on the Mostly Evil table as soon as a legato string line entered.
  • Bobby McFerrin induced instant laughter, and landed all over the good/evil map. Interestingly enough, most students agreed it was sad, with some explaining the sadness as a (mostly evil) murderer repenting, and others as (pure good) heroes mourning the loss of a loved one.

At the end of the day, what happened during this class is all I could ever ask from teaching. So many students had spontaneously created a nuanced and detailed life story for characters born in a minute of music that we had to leave hands stranded and uncalled on to get to lunch on time. Not only was the day a lot of fun, but it sets us up to make important decisions during the coming weeks when we get to compose our own music for student-created characters. The end goal is a 10-minute mini-opera, and we are officially well on our way.

Pure Good to Pure Evil – The Lesson in a Nutshell (35 min)

  1. As a class, arrange toys on 4 tables, ranging from ‘good’ to ‘evil’
  2. What are the similarities between the tables? What are the differences?
  3. Listen to songs without words, and have students point to the table they think that song fits.
  4. Why? What do we hear in the rhythm, instrumentation, and harmony that tells us this?
  5. What is the story of the emotion behind this song?
  6. Who agrees? Who disagrees? Why?

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