Celebrating and teaching Joni Mitchell

The Canadian singer-songwriter turns 75 on Nov. 7 and her catalogue contains a wealth of interdisciplinary teachable moments

Cover Art
A selection of my favourite Joni Mitchell albums Cover Art

I was once less than a few feet away from the legend herself, Ms. Roberta Joan Anderson, a.k.a. Joni Mitchell.

It was a fall evening in 2003 and Mitchell and a male friend were walking along the posh part of Toronto's Bloor Street. A friend and I were walking home, too, in the opposite direction — and decidedly not towards the Four Seasons Hotel, but rather our student-affordable apartments.

I only noticed it was Mitchell just as we passed by each other, and I immediately nudged my friend and loud-whispered, "Oh my god, that was Joni Mitchell. We have to walk by again, let's turn around. Now."

In my mind, I quickly had it all figured out, I was going to walk by her and say: "Excuse me, Ms. Mitchell, I'm sorry to interrupt your evening, but I just wanted to say thank you for your incredible music, and tell you how much of an inspiration you've been in my life."

So, my friend and I quickly turned around, sped-walked to get alongside her, then slowed to her pace and pretended to just pass by. I looked at the genius behind Blue and Hejira, and for a moment she caught my glance.

Then, I choked. I wanted words to come out of my mouth, but they refused.

She smiled at me knowingly, noticing that my friend and I had reversed direction just to catch another glimpse of her.

I blushed, and shyly turned back around in the opposite direction.

Coincidentally, the location where I saw Mitchell was in the same block as the Ontario College of Teachers offices.

The area around where I encountered Joni Mitchell, next to the Ontario College of Teachers.
The area where I encountered Joni Mitchell, next to the Ontario College of Teachers (smaller circle). Google Maps

Teaching was the farthest thing on my mind back then, as I was intensely pursuing a journalism career at the time. Still, I love noticing the serendipity of it all 15 years later.

Teaching Joni Mitchell

As I write this reflection, I'm working on a poetry unit plan and realize that I can now create lessons about the works of Joni Mitchell.

What a joy it would be to introduce Mitchell to dozens of middle school students for the first time! If I do it right, maybe even a handful of them will find a place for her music in their hearts and minds, too.

There's a wealth of choice, but I think I'd stray away from "Big Yellow Taxi", "River", "A Case of You" and "Both Sides Now". Who wants to be obvious, right? Plus, it leaves room for students to discover the more immediate, popular songs on their own. I also don't think I could teach "The Last Time I Saw Richard" without getting over-emotional, even though it's probably my favourite song of hers.

So, that leaves five songs that immediately come to mind as ones I'd want to teach, along with a small sampling of potential lesson ideas.


"Amelia"

from 1976's Hejira

Hejira was the first album of Mitchell's where her lyrics took priority over melody, and there are many great tracks in which to teach a lyrical poetry appreciation lesson. I chose "Amelia" due to its complexity, as on the surface, "Amelia" is a tribute to aviator Amelia Earhart (whose historical, mythical relevance can be introduced to students in a nice interdisciplinary teachable moment) but is actually a reflection on a lost love. Mitchell relates her heartbreak to Earhart's story, and imagines a conversation with the lost pilot, all while driving away to an unknown place.


"If I Had a Heart", "Sex Kills"

from 2007's Shine and 1994's Turbulent Indigo

Both songs are nuanced environmentalist anthems and can be appreciated both lyrically and thematically — and will hopefully lead to a greater discussion about sustainability and environmental stewardship in the classroom. Also, the tone of "Sex Kills" is angrier than the poignant indifference of "If I Had a Heart". Which song has the most impact to students? And why? Students could then produce a poem of their own, inspired by their views on current environmental issues.


"The Magdalene Laundries"

from 1994's Turbulent Indigo

While I'd hold on to teaching this song to older senior grades, "The Magdalene Laundries" is one of the best examples of a historically accurate song. Mitchell solemnly and bitterly recalls the tragedies of Ireland's Magdalene asylums, which confined an estimated 30,000 "fallen women" ("Prostitutes and destitutes / And temptresses like me") over a period of over two centuries. Lyrically beautiful, but also connected to a teachable historical event, I could see a deep and meaningful lesson plan develop from this work. Beyond appreciation, students could compose a first-person narrative poem from the point of view of an imaginary woman in the Magdalene asylum, or from their own personal point of view in present day.


"The Reoccurring Dream"

from 1988's Chalk Mark in a Rainstorm

Poetry and media literacy mix in this anti-consumerism sound collage. Mitchell intersects common advertising slogans in between her criticism of the industry itself ("Wouldn't it be fabulous / If you had that house, car, bottle, jar / Your lovers would look like movie stars"). The song itself could be deconstructed by students, but it could also lead a media literacy unit, and would compliment several oral communication learning strategies.

Postscript

Hear a collection of my favourite Joni Mitchell songs

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About Robert J. Ballantyne

Robert J.Ballantyne is a teacher-in-training at the University of Ottawa. In a former life, he was a journalist and producer/director at the CBC on a number of news programs including the fifth estate, Marketplace and The National. He also worked at the Toronto Star and freelanced at other publications.

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