Overview: This lesson looks at history over the broad effects of time through a musical lens using Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire”.

This week’s lesson is one of my favorites to teach – especially to 5th, 6th, 7th and 8th graders.  Each grade level brings a different perspective to this lesson because it’s all about history.  So, as students gather more knowledge throughout the years, they bring more awareness of culture, both of their own and from around the world.



This lesson combines two natural contents – history and music.  How many songs can you think of that have something to do with history or culture?  Most of the music of the 60’s and 70’s could fit into this category.  In this lesson, students are working with historical culture from Africa and America and the song “We Didn’t Start the Fire” by master songwriter Billy Joel.


Step 1: Students watch the DVD Ladysmith Black Mambazo “On Tip Toe”. Discuss how this traditional Zulu music was influenced by the politics of apartheid in South Africa.

Step 2: Then have students listen to “We Didn’t Start the Fire” by Billy Joel. Explain that this was written as a broad history lesson in the culture of America from the 40’s to the 80’s. Is there anything in the music that sounds like traveling through time?

Step 3: Give students the lyrics to the Billy Joel song. In small groups, have them research assigned segments of the piece to find out more about the history of that section. Report back to the class.

Step 4: Ask students to interpret the meaning of the word “Fire”. Does it have a dual meaning? If so, what is it? How would this song be a political statement based on what they now know from their research.

Step 5: Have students come back together and create a wordle of topics from the last year that have affected American culture.

Step 6: Using the wordle, have each small group write a stanza of lyrics that would address these items of cultural significance in a song.

Step 7: Combine the stanzas into an updated “We Didn’t Start the Fire” song.