Philip Kehe may be 17, but that doesn't mean he doesn't get it. For a school assignment, the Wilde Lake High School senior had to watch "Don't Know Much About History" - a recent CBS Evening News segment about whether 17-year-olds are out of touch with cultural references and historical facts. The segment included an interview with Mark Bauerlein, author of The Dumbest Generation.
Kehe's and his classmates' task was to write a poem about their generation and set it to music using Wilde Lake's Music Technology Lab. "We had to actually relate to current events and what's going on in the world," Kehe said. "We had to make some kind of music to describe what we were feeling" in response to the news segment.
The assignment, called "Your Words to Music," was a joint effort of two classes at Wilde Lake - English 11 Honors and Music Technology. About 100 students in two English and two Music Technology classes recently finished the project and presented their audio files to peers, teachers and administrators.
Denise Perry, who teaches Music Technology, came up with the assignment last year as a way to teach students to write lyrics. "They learn how words and music are connected and how maybe it's not so easy to meld them together," she said.
English teacher Allison Pinto, who is new to Wilde Lake, team-taught the lesson with Perry.
English 11 student Cheyenne Falat, 16, said Pinto wanted her students to have "an outlet to express their creativity in different ways than English students are used to doing."
During last month and this month, groups of five to eight students spent class time writing a poem or song lyrics "about how our generation is going to shape society in the future, what we have to offer," Falat said. "The guidelines were very loose. ... They told us just to have fun with it."
Most groups used the "Your Words to Music" project to argue that today's teens are hopeful, and that they want to confront social, environmental and political problems.
Said Pinto: "The kids really liked it because it changed up the poetry unit."
Students used rhyming dictionaries and counted syllables to match their poems with the beat of the accompanying music. "They were really thinking about it - using a lot of math skills, too," said Pinto. "It's a way for us to talk about some poetry techniques."
Jill Cleveland, 16, is one of Pinto's students. "When you're thinking about a poem to put to music, it helps you think of the meter ... and the mood you want" to create, she said.
Some students composed music for the assignment. Falat and Cleveland played guitar and recorded it for their group's project. Other groups used prerecorded music and sound effects available on the music technology lab's computers. They layered the sound with vocal recordings of the poems.
Pinto said that combining classes "put two totally different groups of students in the same room." Some teams used rap or rock music, others had a folk style.
English student Leigh Stanislaus, 16, worked with Kehe, Falat and Cleveland.
"I liked how they combined the classes so we got to experience the Music Tech stuff," said Stanislaus. "They had a lot of different programs on the computer. ... The Music Tech people can read notes and do a lot of stuff most people can't do."
With two Music Technology students per group, Perry said, the assignment "forces them to know what they're talking about because they're the tech experts in their group."
She said that audio problems with the voice recordings provided a good lesson for her students. "That's real-life experience," Perry said. "They need to know how to fix those things."
Students gathered in Pinto's classroom last week to present their compositions.
Cleveland explained to her peers, "We don't have a lot going on in our music. It's pretty simple because we wanted to focus" on the lyrics. She said that her group's poem mentions climate change, murder rates and oil. "We are able to overcome all these problems. We're just as capable as anyone," Cleveland said.
"We didn't want to use anything premade because our generation is fresh," Falat added.
Perry was pleased with the positive themes in her students' songs. "I'm encouraged with their attitude and their hope for the future," she said.
Added Kehe: "I like that it wasn't just making music. ... Our song has a message about the problems that we're going to have to face as we get older. There are very real problems that we're going to have to deal with soon."