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Teaching “America the Beautiful” and Coca-Cola’s Super Bowl commercial

americanbmainfavicon My colleagues and I used to begin our interdisciplinary American Studies class with a close reading, and then a Socratic Seminar, of the Pledge of Allegiance.

It was a great way to get kids to read, think, and speak from the very first day.

But if I were teaching an American Studies or U.S. History class next year, I’d likely start off with “America the Beautiful.”

Coca-Cola’s Super Bowl commercial — which included singing in English, Spanish, Keres Pueblo, Tagalog, Hindi, Senegalese French, and Hebrew — has made the tried-and-true patriotic song a political hot topic, and perfect for some analysis.

Here are a few things I’d do.

1. Have students read the lyrics on their own.
In this first-draft read, students would monitor their understanding, mark their confusion, and ask questions. The words aren’t easy. Here are the first four stanzas of the 1904 version:

O beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountains’ majesty
Above the fruited plain!
America! America!
God shed His grace on thee,
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!
O beautiful for pilgrim feet
Whose stern impassioned stress
A thoroughfare for freedom beat
Across the wilderness.
America! America!
God mend thine ev’ry flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law.

There’s a lot there — just on an explicit level. What are “amber waves of grain?” What’s this about purple mountains? Immediately we can see how just understanding the words takes word knowledge and background knowledge, combined.

2. Model re-reading a stanza or two with a focus on analysis.
Um, Stanza #3 is particularly intense. Is poet Katharine Lee Bates suggesting that the pilgrims’ Protestant ethic resulted in a Manifest Destiny that forged freedom (against native savages) across the frontier? (Frederick Jackson Turner’s thesis was published just 11 years prior.)

Sure, newbie students wouldn’t necessarily be able to follow that level of analysis, but it’s important to demonstrate how meaning emerges through re-reading, close reading (Common Core, New Criticism), prior knowledge of American history, and the reader’s prior experiences (Reader Response).

3. Have students practice re-reading with a partner, then discuss.
What else do they see? What do they notice? This might be a good time to have students share their questions and thoughts. Depending on the class, they might want to talk about Ms. Bates’s main claim and whether they agree. Or perhaps it would be time to introduce the off-text-but-related concept of the American Dream and whether students think it exists.

I would guess that many students would openly question the outright patriotism of the song. Others may worry that the lyrics aren’t inclusive, that they emphasize a Christian god, or maybe that their message is outdated, not right for our post-9/11 times.

And then, the turn.

4. Have students watch the commercial and see if their viewpoints change.

How did they feel? Do they feel more positive, more patriotic? If so, why? What’s the impact of transforming the lyrics into music? What’s the impact of adding the visual aspect? And, obviously, what about the choice to include seven languages?

Depending on time, consider doing a re-read of the commercial to identify techniques of pathos. How does Coca-Cola make us feel what we feel?

But we’re not done yet.

5. Have students read some tweets in response to the commercial.
The tweets are everywhere: here, here, and here, to name a few. Here’s just one example:

After students read the tweets, get their reactions. But also push students to consider underlying values and assumptions that the tweets reveal. Students may say, “There are a lot of racist people out there,” which could prompt the question, “Yes, but where do those sentiments come from?”

Also, the hope is to have students summarize their feelings after reading each text. Why were many cynical after the lyrics, hopeful and proud after the commercial, and angry and aggressive after the tweets? How do we interact with words, images, and various media?

6. Have students talk and/or write about a big question.
This is an introductory lesson, so the specific prompt doesn’t matter too much. But the key is to ensure that students are writing from evidence in the text and having the sources talk to each other. A possibility:

  • According to the three authors, what does it mean to be an American? With whom do you agree most, and why?
  • How do the three authors define the beauty of America? With whom do you agree most, and why?

There are other prompts, of course, which may be more creative (but require less textual evidence). For example: (1) Ms. Bates, the Coca-Cola commercial director, and Mr. da Silva are in a room together. What do they say? (2) Why do you think the Coca-Cola commercial was controversial, and do you think it was effective in its purpose?

Anyway, there it is. What’s great is that this lesson could take just one class period or could be extended over 2-3 days. The writing could turn into something formal. There could be a little research involved. And maybe the students might need a more formal setting to practice some academic discourse. Ultimately, of course, it’s up to the teacher’s goals and what the students bring to the conversation.

Please let me know your thoughts! I welcome your feedback. Let’s consider this a tuning protocol. favicon

2 comments

  1. Dave Keller

    I used the song and video today and it was great! Students loved reading the tweets, made connections to other documents we are studying (Federalist #10, CNN Article) and discussed the value of diversity in our society. They needed help doing the deeper analysis but did make many references to specific language in the song in order to make arguments about our society. Thank you very much for the post.

    • Mark Isero

      Dave, thanks for trying on the lesson. I’m interested in how your students made connections with Federalist #10. Was it around the topic of diversity? I’m happy that your lesson had so much text in it.

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