For English/Language Arts

Lesson Plan - English/Language Arts – Late middle or high school English classes

Objective: Students will demonstrate comprehension of the structure of ballads by examining the structure of existing ballads and creating new verses for a ballad following these patterns.
Materials: “Ballad of Big Moose Lake”; “Ballad of Montcalm and Wolfe”; “Elder Bordee”; “Tebo”; “The Cold River Line”; “Young Brennan”; “Banks of Champlain”; “Beaver River”; et al.

Amount of time required: 3-5 days for ballad study; another 5 days for students writing their own ballad.
Preparatory Set: Students will have read and examined other ballads from a variety of sources. . Comparative studies will have been made in structure, thematic content and narrative style. Review some points learned from this material prior to beginning this lesson. 

1. Print out copies of the sheet music [downloadable PDFs on this website] of several ballads chosen from the list above for each student. Listen to the recording of the ballad or a performance of it by the teacher (accompaniment is optional). Repeat once or twice so the students can learn the tune and sing along. [It is important that they sing, rather than just listen, as it gives them a deeper and more intimate appreciation of the text.]

2. Study the verse structure of the ballads. Examine the meter, the syllables per line, and the rhyme scheme. Also study the themes and how they are developed in various ballad types: tragedies (“Tebo,” “Big Moose Lake,” “Young Brennan”), war (“Montcalm and Wolfe,” “Banks of Champlain”), piracy (“Elder Bordee”) and lumber camp made-up  (“The Cold River Line,” “Beaver River”).

3. Consider some contemporary topics of interest to the students, or delve into some bit of local history to find an event worthy of a ballad.

4. Choose a topic and develop a story around it. It could be an in-group song about funny things that people in school do, things that  give them their identity; a war ballad about a local who was wounded or killed in combat ; a tragedy concerning some local event; or a ‘made-up’ story drawn from the students’ fertile imagination.

5. In choosing a topic, also choose a tune with which the students are familiar (one of the ballad tunes that they have sung/heard in class) and base the structure and meter on that tune.

6. Have the students perform the ballad for each other, as a class for a group of peers, or at a school-sponsored talent show.

Lesson Plan Extensions [perhaps as a collaborative project with social studies or geography lessons]:

Ext 1. If there is access to the book, Adirondack Tragedy: The Gillette Murder Case of 1906, by Joseph W. Brownell and Patricia A. Wawrzaszek (Interlaken, New York: Heart of the Lakes Publishing, 1986), have the students read the book and make notes of the pertinent details of the events leading to Grace Brown’s pregnancy and death at the hands of Chester Gillette, and his subsequent execution. Then examine the “Ballad of Big Moose Lake,” playing the recording or singing it with the students. Make a comparison between this ballad and the events as outlined in Adirondack Tragedy. What are some of the details covered in the book which are missing from the ballad? Create another verse or two to “fill in the gaps” of the ballad following the metric pattern of existing verses, and make the story more complete. Be sure stressed syllables are on the first beat of each measure. Sing the ballad again including the new verses. With the addition of reading the book, this extension could take two or more weeks.

Ext 2. Using the information from Adirondack Tragedy, create a map of Chester and Grace’s last journey from Cortland to Big Moose Lake, and Gillette’s path after the murder, eventually ending at Auburn.

New York State Learning Standards – The NYS Learning Standard (quoted from state publications) is presented in italics.

Learning Standards for ELA

Standard 2: Students will Read, Write, Listen and Speak for Literary Response and Expression.

Students will read and listen to oral, written and electronically produced texts and performances, relate texts and performances to their own lives, and develop an understanding of the diverse social, historical and cultural dimensions the texts and performances represent. As speakers and writers, students will use oral and written language for self-expression and artistic creation.

1. Listening and Reading:

Listening and reading for literary response involves comprehending, interpreting and critiquing imaginative texts in every medium, drawing on personal experiences and knowledge to understand the text, and recognizing the social, historical and cultural features of the text.

This website provides a trove of material for developing listening comprehension and interpretation. Most songs and ballads included here have audio tracks available to listen to on–line, in addition to having a complete transcription with full text in an easy-to-read and easy-to-print format. This makes it a wonderful resource for studying the texts of traditional songs and ballads. Given the fact that these songs emerged “from the folk,” students may be able to relate to events or activities described in them, sharing with others their own stories or relating family histories relevant to the texts.  The song texts can serve as a starting point for explorations into the social contexts in which these songs were written and/or performed, the historical facts relating to the events detailed in some songs, and the diverse ethnicities which melded in the Adirondack region, each contributing its unique characteristics to the lives of the people who created these works. One might also focus on some of the older folk songs and ballads contained in the site as oral literature, exploring the ways in which these songs were passed down through the ages before they were put in written form. What were the circumstances where these songs were shared? Among family members? At social gatherings? Were they learned from strangers who were traveling through and needing a bed for a night? This could lead to a discussion of the differences between learning songs and tunes through oral traditions and learning them through recordings or from printed music. What effect might that have on the music itself? Would minor changes in text and tune be acceptable to these people? Would they be acceptable in the modern era where we have easy access to a permanent record of the way the song is to be sung? MaNew York avenues of discussion could evolve out of this study.

2. Speaking and Writing: Speaking and writing for literary response involves presenting interpretations, analyses and reactions to the content and language of a text; speaking and writing literary expression involves producing imaginative texts that use language and text structures that are inventive and often multilayered.

In examining the texts of the songs and ballads on this website, one is immediately struck by the prevalence of local color in imagery and expression in some songs, contrasted with the archaic nature of the text of the English and Scottish ballad transplants. Either way, they are at least a century or more away from the way young people speak, communicate and otherwise interact today. A writing lesson could be made from the analysis of an old ballad, then rewriting the story in the current language of the youth and turning it (with the requisite beat) into a hip-hop version of the same story. A similar exercise could be done using a thesaurus, transliterating a text full of colloquial usage into something which, while not terribly poetic, could be viewed as “proper” usage of the language. A debate could then ensue as to which version was more expressive to the contemporary reader.