Thursday, January 15, 2015

“We Shall Overcome” – A Song Activity

heyer_picBy Sandra Heyer
ESL Teacher and Author of the textbooks True Stories Behind the Songs and More True Stories Behind the Songs
Songs and Activities for English Language Learners

In recent interviews, iconic American singer Tony Bennett has been critical of today’s songs for not having “lasting quality.” He might be right; only time will tell. I admit I have brought flash-in-the-pan songs into my classroom, knowing full well that they will probably not hold up well over time. But if, like Tony Bennett, I am still practicing my craft at age 88(!), there is one song I’m quite certain I will continue to share with students. That song is “We Shall Overcome.”

“We Shall Overcome” is a chameleon of a song. It was perhaps originally a folk work song, then a hymn, then a protest song during the tobacco workers’ strike in South Carolina in 1945, and finally the anthem of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. The song is sung around the world during times of political turmoil, sometimes in English and sometimes in translation. For example, hundreds of thousands of people sang it in Prague during the weeks of the Velvet Revolution in 1989, and it was an anthem of the apartheid movement in South Africa.

As various causes appropriated the song, the lyrics changed to reflect the circumstances. Pete Seeger, the folk singer who helped popularize the song, is credited with adding the verse beginning “We’ll walk hand in hand,” and a 14-year-old girl is supposed to have spontaneously added the line “We are not afraid” during a Ku Klux Klan raid. So asking our students to write new lyrics for the song is entirely in keeping with its history. Students can write new verses as a class, in small groups, or as individuals. Here is one way to structure the writing as a small-group activity:

1. Have students listen to “We Shall Overcome” while reading the lyrics. Clarify new vocabulary. Call students’ attention to the lines below and point out that each line has five syllables.

We shall overcome.
We’ll walk hand in hand.
We shall live in peace.
We are not afraid.

2. Ask students what changes they would like to see in the world. Write their ideas on the board.

3. Divide the class into small groups. Each group chooses one change they all want. That will be the theme for their new verse of “We Shall Overcome.” Each group writes a new five-syllable line on the theme. (If students seem daunted by the five-syllable restriction, ask them to supply a few key words, which you write on the board. Collaboratively, the class will probably be able to write the line.) The group writes the new line three times, tacking on the words “some day” the third time they write it. For example, one group in my class of adult learners, hoping for immigration reform, wrote this line:

They will have IDs.
They will have IDs.
They will have IDs some day.

4. Each group writes its new verse on the board, and the whole class sings it.

5. After each new verse is sung, everyone sings:

Oh, deep in my heart
I do believe
We shall overcome some day.

I have done this activity several times and I am often moved by the verses my students write. One verse in particular stands out in my memory. Several of my students were employed at a nearby factory, where they sometimes worked nine or ten hours a day, six days a week. One group wrote the verse below, which the whole class sang in solidarity with their classmates:

No more 10-hour days
No more 10-hour days
No more 10-hour days some day

I look forward to singing the verses my students will write this year, and in the years to come. This activity has, as Tony Bennett put it, lasting quality.

Thanks to: Tim Murphey, who suggests “Writing to known tunes” in his resource book, Music and Song.


Comment from Peggy Miles
March 9, 2016 at 5:55 pm

This is a great activity which I will certainly use in my class! It is appropriate to all levels of ESL and can be used in conjunction with an American history component.

Comment from Cheryl Jacob
November 17, 2018 at 3:13 am

This is a good activity and increases the scope of the song and application.

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