The Formation of Thesis Statements: Beyoncé in the Secondary English Language Arts Classroom

Summer Melody Pennell

Abstract

The author shares an example from her own teaching experience (with a student population of primarily African-American and Latinx youth) that illustrates that the lyrics and video for Beyoncé’s Formation can be used to teach thesis statements. This lesson was successful because (a) the lyrics paired with the video created depth of meaning, and (b) it highlights Beyoncé’s strengths because of her blackness, not in spite of it.

Introduction

          “What is Beyoncé day?” my students asked, as they entered the classroom and saw “Beyoncé Day! Get in Formation” displayed on the overhead projector screen. I replied that we were going to use the lyrics (Williams, Brown, Hogan, & Beyoncé) and music video (Beyoncé) for Beyoncé’s Formation to learn about thesis statements. Students were cheering, dancing and singing as we watched the video, and this engagement remained as I gave a more traditional PowerPoint-accompanied lecture on how to brainstorm on themes, create thematic statements, and write a thesis statement. I have taught thesis statements to students from middle school to college, using texts ranging from magazine advertisements to Harry Potter, and this lesson resulted in more student engagement and depth of analysis than any of my previous attempts. I think this success is owed to a few key factors: other than the fact that this song was already popular with most students, (a) the lyrics and video combined to create an incredible depth of meaning, and (b) the song highlights Beyoncé’s strengths because of her African-American roots, not in spite of them, which further connected with the students.

Utilizing media and music videos that relate to student lives is nothing new and is often cited as being of great benefit to students (Copeland & Goering; Latta; Rodesiler; Rubin) but in this article I will relate why this particular text is ripe with possibilities for the secondary English classroom. Bringing pop culture and new media into the classroom can also be an easy way to engage students and bridge out of school literacies with in-school literacies. While teaching World Literature and American Literature in a summer program for minoritized high school students, I wanted to incorporate contemporary texts into our discussions of Things Fall Apart (Achebe) and Pudd’nhead Wilson (Twain) so that students could compare different black, African, and African-American experiences. At the time of the lesson, we had already discussed themes in each text and how they related to current events, such as the Black Lives Matter movement and police brutality against people of color.

Right before I taught this lesson, two more black men—Alton Sterling and Philando Castille—were killed by white police officers, sadly placing those themes in the forefront of students’ minds. This song provided another way to illustrate the themes, allowed students to reflect on current tragedies, and gave students an opportunity to practice their analytical skills on a subject of personal relevance. Many of my students were African-American and I wanted to show them a text that valued black lives for their very blackness. In other words, I did not want them to see narratives of black people as a deficit (as is frequent in mainstream media), but a narrative that described strengths stemming from blackness. In this way, I sought to highlight the cultural capital (Yosso) Beyoncé displays through her song and video. Additionally, the Formation texts allowed me to incorporate critical literacy (Luke), an intentionally political method that incorporates social justice, into my lesson.

Beyoncé and Education

The first time I saw the music video for Formation, I was entranced by the amount of symbolism. I was not alone, as in the weeks following its release many commentaries and critiques were written (ex. Blay). Many of my teacher friends flooded social media with enthusiasm for its possibilities for the classroom. This enthusiasm included college professors, as many black academics were sharing articles on Twitter and other social media accounts with the hashtag #FormationSyllabus, including texts on the Black Panthers, recommending books by Audre Lorde, and other works by and celebrating black people. This continued after Beyoncé released the full visual album Lemonade, which includes the single Formation. Candice Benbow used the hashtag #lemonadesyllabus to gather text suggestions from black women academics that related to topics on the album and created a document available for free download (http://www.candicebenbow.com/lemonadesyllabus/). The texts are diverse and include academic readings, novels, music, and film.

Aside from these public forms of pedagogy, college courses also center on Beyoncé. The course “Politicizing Beyoncé” was created by Kevin Allred in 2010 (http://www.politicizingbeyonce.com/about.html). It is an interdisciplinary course that pairs texts on topics such as black feminism with Beyoncé’s music. More recently, Franklin Roberts of New York University created a course called “#FORMATION: Approaching The Black Lives Matter Movement” (http://www.blacklivesmattersyllabus.com/summersyllabus/).  This course includes texts by black scholars such as Michelle Alexander and Cornell West. Formation in the classroom also ties to work in hip-hop pedagogy, in which scholars see hip-hop music as “a powerful cultural form, a vocabulary, and a method for crafting resistant worldviews that speak to questions of racialization, dispossession, imperialism, and subjugation” (Viola and Porfilio 6). Given the intellectual curiosity for Beyoncé’s work, and the potential for using culturally-affirming, social justice-aligned media in the classroom, I was excited to bring her work into my secondary English courses.

My Literature Classes

I used this lesson in three classes for rising high school sophomores and juniors participating in a five-week summer program meant to give them skills needed for their fall courses in their individual high schools. As such, I focused on critical thinking, reading, and writing skills and tried to make the material challenging yet accessible and engaging. The sophomores were reading Things Fall Apart (Achebe). Achebe’s novel is a classic taught in many world literature classes, and it tells of the Igbo tribe in Nigeria both before and during British colonization. In this complex text, no one is purely “good” or “evil,” and one of the things I hope students take away from it is that even if you do not like someone (Okonkwo, the main character, is a difficult person to love as he is often angry and violent) no one has a right to tell another how to live. In Pudd’nhead Wilson (Twain), read by the juniors,  Twain discusses the absurdity of the institution of slavery and a racial caste system that is based on the “one drop rule” through the character of Roxy, an enslaved woman who looks white. The conflict of the novel comes from her switching her white-appearing son with the master’s son. This novel provides fodder for discussion on slavery, the social construction of race, and the empowerment of black women, as Roxy is arguably the smartest person in the novel despite her lack of formal education.  Given the context of these texts, Formation seemed a perfect fit.

The Lesson

            The fifty-minute lesson started simply: giving each student a copy of the Formation lyrics and explaining that we would watch the video and use it to write thesis statements [1]. A few students had written them before or had an idea of what they were, but not all. I asked students to look for visuals that stood out to them, and to notice lyrics of interest. Some simply watched, some jotted down notes, but they were all completely engaged. Afterwards, I asked what stood out the most. Students brought up topics such as police shootings, the Black Lives Matter movement, black women’s empowerment, church services, black hair and a scene in a wig shop, pride in cultural heritage, and New Orleans. The students reading Pudd’nhead Wilson noticed that there were historical references in the video, and that in some scenes the women were wearing clothes that looked like those worn during the time of the novel (early nineteenth century). Others pointed out lyrics such as “My daddy Alabama, Momma Louisiana/ You mix that negro with that Creole make a Texas bama” and “Earned all this money but they never take the country out me” that highlight the strength Beyoncé feels in her race and regional background. Some students brought up how Beyoncé has been criticized for her daughter Blue Ivy’s afro hairstyle (Eggert), who is featured standing proudly in the video.

[1] [For teachers concerned about language, currently you can choose from “clean” or “dirty” versions of the video on www.beyonce.com/formation]

With their excitement still high, I transitioned to discussing thesis statements. I began by asking students to think about themes in the text, and stated that a good way to begin a literary essay is to use the question “How does the author illustrate a theme?” to guide your brainstorming. My specific question from Formation to guide our discussion was “How does Beyoncé illustrate the theme of black women taking control of their own lives?” This is only one of many themes a teacher could use for this lesson. I then showed students three examples from the texts to illustrate my theme: 1) the lyrics “I slay/ we slay”, 2) the lyrics “I dream it, I work hard, I grind ‘til I own it/ I twirl on them haters, albino alligators”, and 3) the image of Beyoncé standing in front of a line of men, flipping off the camera. I then wanted students not just to think of a theme on its own, but also ponder what the author thinks or feels about the theme, to create a thematic statement. I showed them these ideas for how the examples illustrated black women taking control over their lives:

  • Overcoming racism/expectations of racist white people (albino alligators)
  • Gaining power over men/ black men (Beyoncé standing in front of men)
  • Working hard despite challenges: (“I work hard, I grind ‘til I own it”; “I slay”; the above image could also mean she has worked harder than the men behind her)

Using these ideas, I showed them the thematic statement “with hard work and confidence, black women can take control over their own lives” and how it could be incorporated into a thesis statement: “In Formation, Beyoncé illustrates that with hard work and confidence, black women can take control over their own lives.” While stressing that there are many ways to write thesis statements, in this lesson I asked students to follow a simple formula so that they could focus on their analysis rather than craft: “In text, author illustrates thematic statement.” Throughout the lecture I stressed that thesis statements must be arguable, and that as a teacher I do not want a thesis that merely restates part of a text I have read many times, instead I want to read something interesting. Lastly, I paired students and asked them to 1) pick a theme, 2) find three examples of the theme, 3) use these to create a thematic statement, and 4) write a complete thesis statement using the model. At this point, there were approximately fifteen minutes left in the class, and perhaps this time crunch helped instill their motivation to complete their tasks in class and avoid homework. Most students were fairly successful in completing the assignment, with teacher-provided guidance and suggestions when needed. Not all of the thesis statements were arguable, but most had the beginnings of a strong thematic statement that would have allowed them to begin writing a critical and interesting analysis.

The Power of Formation

I think that this particular video, paired with the lyrics, was fundamental to student learning, especially the concept of using words as metaphors for larger social issues. Again, one of the prominent issues in the music video is police brutality towards black people. The lyrics do not include any direct reference to this: there are no lines about police, racial profiling, or shootings. However, the video includes scenes of a young black boy dancing in front of a line of white cops dressed in riot gear. The camera pans to graffiti that reads “stop shooting us” and then as the boy stands in front of the police with his arms spread wide, they hold up their hands as if in surrender. This powerful image resonated with many students, and was one of the first each of my three classes brought up in our discussion. One pair of students asked me what the lyrics were during the surrender, and when we re-watched we discovered the line is “Slay trick, or you get eliminated.” This made the image more potent, and the students could visually see how words can be a metaphor for a larger idea: in this case, resistance to police brutality on black bodies.

In a more traditional high school course, I would have discussed literary devices explicitly so that students included these in their brainstorming and thesis statements. In this case, they came to literary devices on their own. Because of this richness of image and text, students were able to understand theme as connected to metaphor. Without the video, I do not know if they would have come to the idea of police brutality from lyrics such as “Slay trick, or you get eliminated” or “albino alligators.” In turn, this depth of understanding helped them move from themes to thematic statements. I asked groups focusing on police brutality what they thought Beyoncé was saying about it specifically. Can it be stopped? How? Are the people in the video active or passive? What can you infer using the lyrics? Some groups thought Beyoncé was asking people to stand up to the police. Another group focusing on black women’s empowerment thought that the varied images that seemed to go through time showed that black women were strategic, and knew when to stand up for themselves (the lyric “OK ladies now let’s get in formation”) and when to lay low (the image of the women fanning themselves in an older Southern scene).  My American Literature students related this to Roxy in Pudd’nhead Wilson, who is a great strategist.

While in my short summer class we did not continue to write essays about the song, this would be possible for longer courses. There is enough material in both the lyrics and video to write rich essays on a number of topics [see Appendix: Figure 1 for more ideas] without the need to bring in more standard secondary texts. However, it is also possible to use this lesson as a stepping stone, and students could write essays or parts of an essay in groups to learn the writing process. It can then serve as scaffolding to write essays on longer texts more common on school pacing guides. In this way, students will gain critical skills on moving from theme to thematic statements and writing thesis statements that they can transfer to traditional assignments. As the video has references to many black cultural references, English teachers may also wish to partner with social studies teachers for a history lesson [see Appendix: Figure 2 for ideas].

Risk

As with any lesson focusing on a particular group of people, particularly marginalized groups, there is a risk of alienating students who are not a part of the group. In my own class I worried about my Latinx and white students. In this case, my Latinx students were able to discuss police brutality against people of color in broader terms, and one even mentioned that the image of a man riding a horse while wearing sneakers reminded her of Mexico. One white student related to the idea of cultural pride- most of my students were from rural locations and felt pride for their “country” background, despite those who judged them based on their thick Southern accents. If teachers use these texts and are met with resistance, I encourage them to ask these students what they are proud of in their own cultural heritage. What images would they include in their own version of Formation? Can they write a line equivalent to “I got hot sauce in my bag…swag” that represents their background?

Conclusion

            In essence, using Formation made all my teaching dreams come true. Students were engaged in the material, they enthusiastically discussed the meanings of lyrics and visual imagery, found metaphoric meaning in the texts, and wrote thoughtful thesis statements with carefully-crafted thematic statements. I do not believe this would have happened with another text. This particular pairing allowed students to “see” metaphors in action. They could read the lyrics and compare to the visuals to see the relation, and make connections of their own. It was as if the texts were giving students permission to make their own interpretations in a way that using the song alone could not have accomplished. It was also easier to teach thesis statements with a shorter text than starting from our novels. Students could quickly find examples without feeling discouraged. When they felt stuck in the first steps of choosing a theme, I asked them what lyrics or images interested them the most, and from that conversation they could continue. Writing thesis statements is less of a chore when you are picking something of personal interest; some students seemed surprised that a literary essay topic does not have to be prescribed by a teacher.

Furthermore, using Formation aligned with my commitment to social justice teaching practices. The song and video honors and celebrates black bodies, which showed my black students that they are celebrated and powerful. As we noted when exploring lines such as “I like my baby hair with baby hair and afros/ I like my negro nose with Jackson Five nostrils” Beyoncé talks about the value of black bodies and takes pride in her own and her child’s. Their blackness makes them stronger: it is not a weakness or an obstacle to overcome. With the terrifying prevalence of police violence against black bodies, this is a message I want my students to embody.

Beyoncé responded to the killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castille with a message on her website (www.beyonce.com). It began with “WE ARE SICK AND TIRED OF THE KILLINGS OF YOUNG MEN AND WOMEN IN OUR COMMUNITIES. IT IS UP TO US TO TAKE A STAND AND DEMAND THAT THEY ‘STOP KILLING US’ (para. 1).” For educators to take a stand, we must help our students think critically through the images used to portray black and brown bodies. We must also help lift them up in a society that tries to keep them down. Using affirming, culturally relevant texts such as Formation allow us to bring both affirmation and a call to action into the classroom, while meeting standard curriculum goals students need to master for academic success.

Appendix

Figure 1

Social Issues in Formation

Social Issue Lyric(s) Scene(s) from Video
Celebration of black bodies “I like my baby hair with baby hair and afros/ I like my negro nose with Jackson 5 nostrils” · Blue Ivy standing with her   hands on her hips

· Beyoncé’s dancers    touching their hair

Empowerment and success for black women “OK ladies now let’s get in formation”

“I might get your song played on the radio station”

· Women dancing in unison

· Beyoncé standing on a    police car

Police brutality “I twirl on my haters/ albino alligators” · Beyoncé sinking a police car

· Black boy dancing in front  of cops dressed in riot gear

Pride for your background/ culture/ heritage “I earned all this money but they never take the country out me/ I got hot sauce in my bag…swag” · Scenes of New Orleans:  Mardi Gras Indians,  parades, black churches,  wig shop, etc.

 

Figure 2

African-American cultural references in the Formation video

Video Scene Connections to Outside Texts and Topics
Black man riding a horse wearing sneakers and spurs Black cowboy Nat Love’s biography: The Life and Adventures of Nat Love Better Known in the Cattle Country as “Deadwood Dick” by Himself; a True History of Slavery Days, Life on the Great Cattle Ranges and on the Plains of the “Wild and Woolly” West, Based on Facts, and Personal Experiences of the Author. Available at http://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/natlove/natlove.html
Black women dancing in formation to show unity · The Combahee River Collective Statement

· Texts on the Black Panther movement

Footage of New Orleans post-Katrina · Readings, photographs and videos of the city post-Katrina
Newspaper with Martin Luther King, Jr., caption reads “More than a dreamer” King’s speeches and writings, such as Letter from Birmingham Jail


References

Achebe, Chinua. “Things Fall Apart.” (1958).

Beyoncé. Formation [Video File]. Beyoncé. 6 Feb. 2016. Web. 5 July 2016.

Blay, Yaba. “On ‘Jackson Five Nostrils,’ Creole vs. ‘Negro’ and Beefing Over Beyoncé’s ‘Formation’”. Colorlines. 8 Feb. 2016. Web. 5 July 2016.  

Copeland, Matt, and Chris Goering. “Blues you can use: Teaching the Faust theme through music, literature, and film.” Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 46.5 (2003): 436-441.

Eggert, Jessica. “Blue Ivy’s Hair: Beyoncé Swiftly Shut Down Her Daughter’s Critics in New Song ‘Formation’”. 8 Feb. 2016). Mic. Web. 6 July 2016.

Latta, Susan. “MTV and video music: A new tool for the English teacher.” The English Journal 73.1 (1984): 38-39.

Luke, Allan. “Critical literacy: Foundational notes.” Theory into practice 51.1 (2012): 4-11.

Rodesiler, Luke. “Turn it on and turn it up: Incorporating music videos in the ELA classroom.” English Journal (2009): 45-48.

Rubin, Daniel Ian. “Mindcrime and doublethink: Using music to teach dystopian literature.” English Journal (2011): 74-79.

Twain, Mark. “Pudd’nhead Wilson.” (1898). Harper.

Porfilio, Brad J., and Michael J. Viola. Hip-Hop (e): The Cultural Practice and Critical Pedagogy of International Hip-Hop. Adolescent Cultures, School, and Society. Volume 56. Peter Lang New York. 29 Broadway 18th Floor, New York, NY 10006, 2012.

Williams, Michael L., Kalif Brown, Asheton Hogan,  and Beyoncé. Formation [Recorded by Beyoncé]. 2016. Beyoncé. Web. 5 July 2016.

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