The Heavy Metal Classroom

I’m currently in a hotel room with my parents in Wakeeney, Kansas, which I realize doesn’t sound like a real place. We, along with a couple other families, are headed to Copper Mountain in Colorado to go skiing over Spring Break (obviously, I’ll really be living on the edge during my week off from student teaching). As we were making the (horrendously boring) drive through Kansas I began to think about the rather beautiful drive we’ll experience tomorrow as our car weaves through the mountains. (To be fair, Kansas does have some pretty cool wind turbines that would totally freak out Don Quixote.) I then remembered driving through the mountains in 8th grade on a church trip while listening to Metallica. Even now when I listen to …And Justice For All (1988) (specifically, for some reason, the intros to “Blackened,” “…And Justice For All,” and “One”) I think of driving through Colorado and admiring the mountains. Remembering how I felt about these songs eight years ago made me remember how I incorporated Metallica’s “One” into my English II classes just a couple weeks ago. And this got me thinking more about heavy metal’s potential value to high school English curriculum.

The sophomore English classes I am currently teaching are in the middle of a “War as Lit” unit, which is full of World War 1 and World War 2-based literature, which tells the stories of real people who experienced these wars. Because this unit moves chronologically (and alphabetically) we start with various prose pieces and poems about World War 1. Some of this stuff is pretty shocking even for today (descriptions of amputations, living in trenches, etc), but some kids were still unable to keep their heads up. I remembered the “One” music video by Metallica, a long, dark video that features mostly close-ups of Kirk Hammett’s hands and the creepiest clips from the movie version of Johnny Got His Gun, originally an anti war novel written by Dalton Trumbo in 1939. After finding text for the Johnny Got His Gun novel, I read about our main character waking up in a hospital after exploding in a trench and discovering that he has no arms, legs, or face (yes, he’s still alive, even though he is blind, deaf, speechless, and can’t walk or juggle). Then I read about him banging his head against his pillow to say “KILL ME” in morse code to his doctors. I thought, “This might be a little heavy for the students. I don’t think I’ll use this.” The next thing I knew I was reading parts of the novel to them and then showing them the “One” music video.

I forgot how much high schoolers like Metallica. Seriously, they love Metallica. Eventually they’ll turn 16 and realize that Megadeth is better, and that Kirk Hammett abuses the wah pedal, but until then, they are crazy-excited to listen to “One” and play along on their air guitars. All of a sudden Metallica made WW1 and its literature more interesting to many of my students.

I didn’t know Metallica had such educational potential.

If you’re a teacher discussing war or war literature, maybe consider using “One” in your class. Or “Disposable Heroes” from Metallica’s Master of Puppets album (and don’t forget about “War Pigs” by Black Sabbath, or “BYOB” by System of a Down, which are similar thematically even though they are written decades apart from each other). History teachers, maybe use “Don’t Tread On Me” from The Black Album (I guess Metallica never saw that one bit in This is Spinal Tap), and show that picture of the snake flag, too.

I once saw a presentation on using music in the classroom by Alan Sitomer and one example used was Iron Maiden’s “Run to the Hills,” the most rocking song about genocide ever.

“White man came across the sea

More fun than a textbook

He brought us pain and misery
He killed our tribes, he killed our creed
He took our game for his own need”

This is the first stanza of “Run to the Hills” (The Number of the Beast, 1982) and it should give you an indication that the song is about the killing of Native Americans. This song alone could be used in English to teach about Native American literature or genocide (maybe I can use in Night?), in American history class to teach early American history or immigration, in science class to teach about disease, or even in math to teach percentages (using the lyrics to inspire a word problem in which students figure out what percentage of Native Americans were wiped out by disease brought from overseas). I wish I had come up with those ideas for this song, but these are all from Mr. Sitomer.

Still, look how metal can be used! Are you an English teacher teaching Samuel Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner?” Well, put on the last track of Iron Maiden’s Power Slave (1984) and listen to Maiden’s own take on the poem!

Iron Maiden is surprisingly literary. So is Rush (“Tom Sawyer,” anyone?). Does the content Iggy Pop’s The Idiot remind anyone of a Dostoevsky novel of the same name? The Rolling Stones wrote about Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita in “Sympathy for the Devil.” David Bowie sang about George Orwell’s 1984 in “Big Brother” and “We Are The Dead.” Literary references are everywhere! (I realize these last few examples have strayed away from heavy metal.)

As my dad continues to watch March Madness and my mom is dozing off, I’m realizing how tired I am as I write this. This is definitely something of interest to me (hopefully you too, at least a little–I mean, even if you don’t like metal, your 10th grade self would take a metal video over poetry alone, right?), so I’ll probably write about it again at some point, but right now I need to charge my ipod, since I am obligated to listen to some Metallica at some point on tomorrow’s drive.


5 thoughts on “The Heavy Metal Classroom

  1. Seriously Tyler, we NEED you at CHS…
    The months you have been with us, the kids have really been drawn to you – not just your magnetic personality :) While I tend to be the fun chick (except to 4th block, aka “the bad cop”) and Beth is the “real” teacher (“good cop”); YOU have found a way to reach these kids with a creative and interesting teaching style; don’t EVER second guess that. Even though it it may seem difficult or frustrating to you, (yes I do see it) you are doing a great job rolling with the punches. Sometimes that’s exactly what you have to do. They get it, they just act like they don’t/don’t want to. Our kids are all over the map and diverse learning styles require diverse teaching methods; yes it may require Metallica or Cake to get the point across. I learned a long time ago that my teaching methods (while unconventional to most) work with our kids/kids at any school. Sometimes that IS what you have to do as a teacher – you just have to try different teaching methods and find your groove. I think your love of music and performance are an advantage to you in the classroom. Always remember wherever you end up as a teacher, your time with our kids and what it was that may have “flipped the switch” even if it was only with one kid while you were here.
    As a teacher, I’m always excited to walk in every day to see what you’re going to do to get them interested; it’s fun and inspiring. Always stay true to YOU as a teacher and I will continue to figure out which teacher to push down the stairs….

  2. So, I’m interested in what this looks like in the classroom. As previously mentioned, I have not had the luxury of trying some of these things this semester. I am living vicariously through you… How does this play out? Do you say, “Speaking of genocide… Here’s what Iron Maiden has to say about it…Let’s discuss” How do you incorporate this in a way that it feels fluid and seamless? Forgive my ignorance.

    • I really don’t have a specific answer for this–it kind of depends on your style and the structure of your lesson. Keep in mind that this is used not only as a teaching tool, but also a tool for engagement–you are demonstrating to students that what they are learning about has relevance outside of the classroom, and THAT is why it is important and worthwhile to learn. For using “One” by Metallica, we were already in the middle of the WW1 unit, so it was already established that we would be looking at WW1 poetry. I introduced and read a portion of text from “Johnny Got His Gun” after reading a few poems (the poems followed a freewrite at the beginning of class related to the texts, and this freewrite kicked off the class). So I explained that there is also prose about WW1 that was written 20 years after WW1 ended. The text is freaky it was attention-grabbing alone. THEN I explained how Metallica wrote a song about “Johnny Got His Gun” and showed the music video. Tying everything together: There was still poetry being written about WW1 70 years after the war ended…and by Metallica, one of the world’s biggest bands, in one of their biggest songs.

      I think the pattern would usually be something like:
      establish topic, use either the text or music, then use whichever you didn’t the first time, compare for understanding,.

      Something like that. I’ve used Cake’s “Short Skirt Long Jacket” to teach similes, and, again, I just threw it in the middle of a lesson to show how similes are used in song writing (it isn’t just for “lame” poetry or fancy writing). After they listened to the song and we discussed which lines were similes, the students identified similes in poems and practiced writing their own.

      I hope that helps!

  3. Wow! I know I came across this three years later, but it was just what I was looking for. I took my 14 year old cousin to the Warped Tour and saw a variety of metal bands, punk bands, etc. We had just finished watching one of our favorite bands ( Black Veil Brides) and she said ” man I wish we could listen to this in school.” Really random comment right? Well I’m a teacher (6th grade Langauge Arts) and I was thinking, what if I did use it in school. I’ve used the Beatles ( Yellow Submarine is great for imagery) and Gym Class Heroes for metaphors, but seriously why not metal? So I was looking for anything about using metal in the classroom and came across this post. Very intriguing, I don’t know what you are up to, but I would love to bounce some ideas off of you! :)

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