Monday, June 27, 2016

We Didn't Start the Fire

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One of my favorite things to do is incorporate multiple subjects into a project. It shows that life isn’t compartmentalized, and it helps when a student hates a certain subject. You can trick him or her into enjoying a project because you can focus his or her attention on the subjects that aren’t hated. Today’s lesson centers around Billy Joel’s hit song “We Didn’t Start the Fire” (1989).

Grade Level: Middle School or High School

Subjects: Music, History, English

Objectives: After completing this project, the student will be able to:

  • list important moments in history from the 1990’s, 2000’s, and 2010’s
  • place events in chronological order
  • understand the historical context present in the song “We Didn’t Start the Fire”
  • produce rhyming lyrics within specific syllable limitations
  • record a new version of the song for the 1990’s, 2000’s and 2010’s


First, make sure you listen to the song and read the lyrics before you start this lesson. Make sure you are comfortable with this information before you start teaching it.  The next step is to introduce the song to your student(s). Let them listen to the song and write down any names or events they recognize.

Most likely they won’t know much, and that is okay! These are events that happened in the 50’s-80’s. Lucky for you, Wikipedia has a great article explaining why Billy Joel wrote the song as well as information explaining the lyrics with cross-referencing articles to go more in depth, if you wish.

It might take a few lessons to go over everything in the song. I suggest making sure you listen to the song every day so that the timing, syllables, and chorus gets stuck in your head, and hopefully in your students’ head too. That will make writing new lyrics easier.
Hopefully the students have noticed that the song ends with 1989. Task your students with coming up with lyrics for the 90’s and 2000’s and 2010’s. This will require a ton of research. If you are teaching a class or co-op, you can divide up the years and split the kids into groups.
To help with focus, have the students make an outline, use notecards, or use a graphic organizer to organize thoughts as they research important events. Getting the information on paper can be a daunting task, so make sure you help them with this step. If they are organized when researching, writing the lyrics will be much easier. Middle school students will need help and editing from you. High school students will be able to complete this without much help. The internet and the library will be your students’ best friends. Some useful links include: and . 

Another research option includes interviewing family members or neighbors to see what sticks out in their mind.

Next, listen to the song again. How many syllables are in each line? Which lines rhyme? Get the style of the song down so that when they write the lyrics it fits. Using their research, have students write their lyrics based on the syllabic and rhyme structure Billy Joel created in his song. Most likely they will need to whittle down their research and only pick things that are the most important or that fit easily into their lyrics. That is ok! This is where artistic liberty and expression can be taken.

The last part of this project is to record! This is my favorite part. You can use a karaoke version of “We Didn’t Start The Fire” as background and have your student rap/sing their part over top.  If you want to take this project further, add visual arts and filmography into it by having your students create a music video for their new song. I wouldn’t know where to begin with that, but I know a few high school students that would eat up making a music video and posting it on YouTube.

I hope you enjoy this fun project and let me know how your songs turn out; I would love to hear them!

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