To demonstrate a student centered approach to the introduction of civics, I propose that the teacher utilize two constants that adolescents bring to class each day: (1) a love of popular music and (2) a propensity to be suspicious if not outright critical of the behaviors, styles or accomplishments of previous generations. I invite their critical opinions and yes, I know that beginning civics students are ignorant of much of the greatness of our Constitution and Bill of Rights. But a student who voices a comment critical of our government or society is a student who #1 is not apathetic and #2 is verbalizing an opinion that others can~agree or disagree with and the resulting energies can kick off a lively discussion and demonstration of our First Amendment right of free speech. The following lesson uses the lyrics of four popular songs (songs that were commonly sung or played) to stimulate critical thought and discussion of what is right or wrong with American democracy.


The student will be able to: 

  1. construct a beginning definition of democracy
  2. analyze the lyrics of selected songs for idealistic or critical points of view
  3. list for each song positive statements of American democracy
  4. list for each song negative statements of American democracy
  5. list the ideals that they think American democracy should stand for
  6. brainstorm the failures of government
  7. work in a small group to design and construct a visual exhibition of the on-going development of our American democratic government
  8. list areas that the students themselves could do community service work


This lesson was planned for a high school one semester civics class required of all freshmen. I use this lesson in the first full week to introduce the concept that our democratic form of government is not a finished product and that each student is strongly encouraged to think critically about our government and their own responsibility to participate in its betterment. Their critical speech and writings will serve as the basis for follow up lessons on building their portfolios of community service.

Time Frame

Students rotate into my class four times per week. These activities are presented in six parts spread out over six 48 minute periods culminating in an exhibition on a sixth day. The exhibition provides a springboard for identifying areas in which students may choose to do their community service requirement work.


Day One: a class quantity of lyrics of Samuel F. Smith’s “My Country Tis of Thee”

Day Two: CD player/CD and class quantity of lyrics of-Leonard Cohen’s “Democracy” / poster paper or oak tag

Day Three: CD player/CD and class quantity of lyrics of “Why” and “Talkin’ Bout A Revolution” both by Tracy Chapman / previous day’s definition of democracy / student notebooks with paper and pen

Day Four: CD player/ CD and class quantity of lyrics of John Lennon’s “Imagine"/ poster paper or oak tag / class quantity of Day Five’s “Project Directions"/ class quantities of the evaluation requirements/ an example or model of a desirable tri-fold project

Day Five: a quantity of “Project Directions” and “evaluation requirements” for those who lost theirs / supplies should be multiplied by the number of small groups in each class doing a display: 

  1. 3 tri-fold panels - I prefer foam board
  2. 1+1/2 inch tape - to tape sides of completed panels together
  3. 1 long title panel - (of the same material as the tri-fold) to notch along the top of the display showing the title; “Democracy.. .A Process Under Construction”
  4. 3 scissors - for cutting and trimming pictures and cutting letters for"Important Last Step"(see directions)
  5. 1 scotch tape
  6. 1 glue stick or white glue
  7. 1 thin mechanical pencil
  8. 1 ruler
  9. 1 yard stick
  10. 1 pack of lettering stencils
  11. 1 pack of wide felt tip markers of 2-3 colors; black is a must

*teacher may wish to have a supply of magazines and/or discarded history/government textbooks that (unprepared) groups might ravage for pictures of concepts they want to make visual

Day Six: CD player and a selection of other CDs with chamber or piano music to be played as soft background music during the exhibition / class quantities of the evaluation requirements to be used as a grading sheet


This lesson used as an introduction to the study of government does not require proceeding lessons nor extensive background on the song writer/performers to satisfy the objectives. It can be pointed out that the lyricists are products of their own time periods and influenced by them. The students are not participating in the following exercises to “like or dislike” a song but are to listen carefully and critically to “the message and meaning of the lyrics.”


Day One 

  1. Distribute lyrics of “My Country Tis Of Thee” by Samuel F Smith. Students will analyze lyrics and be ready to discuss the following:
    • What ideas and virtues of America do the lyrics celebrate?
    • What do you think about when analyzing the lyrics?
    • If the song writer were alive, what question would you ask him?
    • (extra credit) for tomorrow: when was this song was written?

  2. Students will share their observations and questions aloud.
  3. A textbook reading assignment will be given that complements the class work and expounds on the ideals and virtues of democracy. It will have a short written component due at the start of Day Two.

Day Two 

  1. Process the homework and discuss such questions as the following:
    • What would be a good definition of “democracy”? (From student input, work up a definition on the board that all can agree with. Copy it onto poster paper to refer to later in the week.) Did America invent democracy?
    • Do we own “democracy”?
    • Is our way of government the best?
    • Is our democracy an end product, created, perfect and done?
    • Do we have work to do to make our government work better?

  2. Distribute lyrics and play Leonard Cohen’s “Democracy” to the class. Students will analyze the lyrics and answer on paper and/or brainstorm:
    • What is the main idea or message of the song?
    • List the issues of contemporary society that are highlighted by the song writer/performer?
    • Explain the chorus lyrics and use of metaphor.
    • How does “Democracy” compare or contrast with “My Country Tis Of Thee”?
    • Discuss how the two songs of the same subject can differ in their lyric content so much.

  3. Assign homework
    • A textbook reading assignment over complimentary material.
    • A short term assignment to cut out or download pictures of issues that our government must address to ensure that America will become our “Sweet land of liberty”. These pictures will be shared on Day Four in a small group activity.

Day Three 

  1. Look again at the classes definition of “democracy” done previously and brainstorm:
    • Is our definition still OK or are there changes we need to make?
    • Review aloud the issues that our government is not adequately dealing with.
    • List on the board groups of people that have yet felt the promises of American democracy.

  2. Distribute lyrics and play Tracy Chapman’s “Why?” Student will analyze lyrics and:
    • Write down the issues the song writer/performer identifies.
    • Make a class compilation of the groups of people yet to feel the benefits of American democracy.
    • Identify the main idea or message of this song entitled “Why”.

  3. Distribute lyrics and play Tracy Chapman’s “Talkin’ Bout A Revolution” and do the following:
  4. Compare and contrast “Talkin’ Bout A Revolution” with “Why”
  5. How are they similar?
  6. How are they different?
  7. Assign homework: Put this on the board or hand out
    • Pretend you are a song writer working with Tracy Chapman on a third song entitled “What’s Gotta Happen” about what the American federal government has to do to truly become the “Sweet land of liberty”.
    • Your lyrics should suggest specific solutions to the problems Tracy voiced in the two songs we analyzed.
    • On one notebook page write your ideas, phrases and perhaps whole lines of lyrics. This work in progress is due at the beginning of the next class.

Day Four 

  1. Students share their homework lyrics for “What’s Gotta Happen”
    • List on the board or poster paper suggestions made by students.
    • Student lyric writers defend their ideas. The class may spark on a collaborative effort for a few minutes.
    • If the student suggestions of improvements were enacted, what populations or groups of people would benefit? Discuss this.

  2. If the idea has not been generated by the students themselves at this point, bring into the discussion America’s expanding global role and assumed responsibilities. Brainstorm what effect this has on our domestic social programs.
  3. Students are encouraged to think globally and about America’s role as a world leader and after the following prompts do a writing assignment in class. The class participants are asked to “close their eyes” and in a meditative state imagine a world very different from ours where everyone lives in harmony and with dignity.
    • After a minute of silent thought, play John Lennon’s “Imagine”.
    • Hand out lyrics and replay “Imagine”.
    • Have students share their thoughts.
    • Consider for discussion or writing:
    • Is there a place for dreamers in government?
    • What is the future of our government planning if dreamers are excluded?
    • What one specific accomplishment do you dream will happen for the future of Ameridan democracy?

  4. Assign homework
    • Finish class writing for next class.
    • Show tn-fold mode,I that they will design next class.
    • Ask students to bring in pictures that they might use on the three panels of their own tn-fold.

Day Five 

  1. Show students a model of what you expect the project to include.
  2. Explain that the project will be give an overall grade for the group from the teacher and an individual student grade assigned by that group evaluating her/his cooperation and contribution to the project.
  3. Have a supply of disposable magazines and discarded history/civics textbooks for pictures of concepts to make visual.
  4. Each student small group (3-5) will:
    • Follow the instructions of (Exhibit A) the “Tn-fold Project Directions” sheet.
    • Design a tri-fold showing three visions of American Democracy. 
      (left panel) = “The Vision Intended (1776-1800’s)” 
      (middle panel) = “The Vision of Reality (1900’s to now)” 
      (right panel) = “The Vision Renewed (In My Future)”
    • To get started use pictures cut for Day Two’s homework for the middle panel. Read the directions aloud emphasizing key instructions.

Day Six: Exhibition Day 
I use this day to celebrate the student’s work and their desires for a better future (or occasionally concerns about a troubled future). Each group discusses among themselves, evaluates and assigns a letter grade for each of its participant’s contribution to the group effort. The teacher awards grades to each of the group projects. This coming together of ideas provides a great kickoff to our follow up unit; “The Responsibilities of Citizenship” where each student begins to design their own “Plan of Community Service.”


Homework = 20% 
Class Verbal Participation = 50% 
Project = 30% (average of teacher and group grade)

Since I use this lesson as an introduction to me, my expectations, my style of instruction (with an emphasis on verbal participation) and the civics course too I will use a combination of the above criteria for student evaluations. Since everyone’s contributions are valued, I carry a clipboard with a dated student seating chart copy on which I quickly checkoff every response.

(check- = weak response; check = average; check+ = good; check++ = outstanding)

The “clipboard grading” method has helped me be sure that I don’t ignore a student who halfway into the lesson has yet to offer any contribution and it acts as instant gratification for the students to see me “grade” their comment then and there. Positive body language, a head nod, a smile etc. as I check off their contribution is really effective. At the end of each class/week/lesson/unit I tally up each student’s checks (each + counts for an additional check) and assign a grade that goes into the grade book (greatest number = 100, next = 98, next = 96...). I also want to point out that I award a + to any pertinent question a student asks in class so as to reward inquiry. “A question is worth twice as much as an answer!” I will say, or “Come to class with a question and you’ll start your day with an ‘A’!”

Selected Recordings

“My Country ‘Tis of Thee” (lyrics only used) Written by Samuel Francis Smith (1832); music by Henry Cary (1740).

The song recordings played for the students are:

“Democracy” recorded by Leonard Cohen (Capitol,1992); written by Leonard Cohen; Sony/ATV Songs LLC.

“Why?” recorded by Tracy Chapman (Tracy Chapman, Electra/Asylum Records, 1988); written by Tracy Chapman; published by SBK April Music, Inci Purple Rabbit Music, ASCAP

“Talkin’ Bout A Revolution” recorded by Tracy Chapman (Tracy Chapman Electra/Asylum Records,1988); written by Tracy Chapman; published by SBK April Music, Inc.! Purple Rabbit Music, ASCAP

“Imagine” recorded by John Lennon (Imagine, Capitol/EM Records, 10/04/88); written by John Lennon; Lenono Music.

Contributed by

Bruce Bowers 
Windham, ME


Student’s Name:

Stop...don’t do anything...until you have read the directions completely!

Do the planning for each panel on the flip side of each panel so as not to mess up the finished product.

Do all printing with light pencil before committing to felt markers or paint!

Plan dry layout of pictures before using small dabs of glue or glue sticks (don’t use scotch tape for the pictures).

Examine the completed tri-fold model to help with your planning!


Each group will get: 

  • 3 sections of foam board (poster board)
  • 1 heading board upon which the title will be printed
  • scissors
  • 1 pack of felt markers (don’t use until the group agrees you’re ready)

On the teacher’s desk is a dispenser of wide tape for: 

  • putting the trifolds together 
    (a) only after each panel is completely done and 
    (b) taking care that they are not so tightly taped they can’t be folded flat (for storage or transportation).