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What I did with this: The World Turned Upside Down

Ingredients:

  • The World Turned Upside by Billy Bragg (for example the Youtube version above)
  • Lyrics to the above song
  • 1 guitar and a rudimentary knowledge thereof (the chords E, B and A if you want to play it in the same key)
  • Willingness to face down a class full of disbelieving 12 & 13 year olds

So as they arrive the video is already playing. Some of them think it’s something lingering from last lesson, others that it’s connected to whatever I have planned for the next hour. Others think I’ve just lost it a bit.

Once they’re settled, I play them the video again, telling them that I’ll be asking questions afterwards.

After the second play we see what we heard, or thought we heard. They normally get 1649, St Georges Hill and something about ‘someone digging’ (sic) in addition to a range of other suggestions. I explain that the song is about one of the many groups of people who had ideas about how the UK should be run in the aftermath of the execution of Charles I and it will be our job to unpick the song and see if we can work out what they thought.

By this point most of them will have clocked the guitar, but there’s still something wonderful about the sense of disbelief that echos round the room as I pick it up. That, right there, that’s what I’m going to be trading off for the rest of this lesson.

I explain that the best way to understand the song is to sing it. Someone comes up to scroll through the words and we sing.

I say we sing. It’s a little trickier than that. The first attempt at the first verse is normally me and 2 others. At least until they realise it’s just the three of us and then they stop singing as well. So I chide, I demand, I laugh, I joke, we do some girls vs boys, this side vs that side and by the end most of them are singing along with gusto.

Then I ask them again what they though the Diggers stood for, what happened to them and why. Then the big question. Why is a bloke standing on a stage in 2007 singing about something that happened in 1649? (Clue’s in the last couple of verses. They all get it, even if they don’t want to say it out loud).

For the rest of the lesson, in groups, they get Nick Dennis’s information sheets about one of the other groups from the period and they have to write a verse that sums up the key points about they. Most choose to adapt a current song or nursery rhyme, and towards the end of the lesson they sing (or recite if they’d rather) their creation and everyone else has to report back on what they’ve learned and I fill in any missing blanks.

Notes and Variations

  1. For those unable or unwilling to take the singing route, I was at the SHP conference a couple of years ago when Donald Cumming talked about getting students to act out the song with a series of movements.
  2. I’ve tried the same approach with year 10 and Redemption Song. Died on it’s arse. Even with everyone standing up and the offer of chocolate it limped at best. There is definitely something 12 year olds have in terms of willingness to just just stuck in that 14 year olds have lost
  3. Of course, some songs definitely should not be sung. I use ‘Strange Fruit’ during the introductory lesson to Civil Rights, and that one just has to be listened to.

Thoughts? Comments? What other songs could be used in this way? Let me know below.

Dave Stacey

One Comment

  1. I’ve been wanting to use this song in just this way ever sinse I first heard it, long before WCYDWT was even named.

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