Essential Question

How is Rock and Roll's power, at least in part, a result of its being born on the margins of society?


This lesson looks into the possible futures of Rock and Roll music. Not pretending to have a prophetic sense for what might be coming next, it examines the past to understand the future. Where did Elvis Presley come from? Howlin’ Wolf? The Beatles? Grandmaster Flash? Ask that question and the answer is generally this: “Somewhere out there, where only a few eyes and ears caught their first stirrings.” The Beatles didn’t start doing what they did because they thought they would become the Beatles. They were answering a personal need, finding their voices, seeing what they could make for themselves amidst the rubble of Liverpool. The most celebrated figures in post-1950s popular music have typically come from out on the margins of society—the working classes, the marginalized communities, the garages and the basements rather than the penthouse apartments. One can’t make a rule of this, of course, but history suggests that Rock and Roll and its offshoots have a special connection to what one might call “the outskirts.” And Rock and Roll’s future will likely be determined somewhere out there.

In the lessons gathered in this collection, much has been said about phases of exceptional musical change. It could be the periods associated with Punk Rock, Hip Hop, Early Rock and Roll, or Soul. But none of those periods of musical transition were untethered from their backdrops of social, cultural, and political change. New moments in music come when they’re needed, often just a little bit before, so as to be ready. But they are never born in a vacuum. Whatever comes next in this unfolding history of Rock and Roll—while it will likely be brought to us in the hands of some individual from “the outskirts”—will also be connected to its moment, a part of a wider history. A creative mind, a musical mind, is at work right now, in some corner we can’t immediately see, and though when that mind breaks through and presents its message it may at first seem out of sync with all that goes on around it (as has happened in the past), it will soon enough seem the very embodiment of its time. And it’s going to help us understand who we are and the times in which we live. But all of this hinges on the individual creators, working in what seems to be isolation.

In this lesson students will look at an unlikely film. It’s not about a musician. It’s not focused on someone they have learned about in their history classes. It’s about a man who lived in Watts, a Los Angeles neighborhood, a neighborhood you could definitely call “the outskirts.” In Watts, Simon Rodia, born in Italy and a laborer all his life, built his own version of a castle, from materials that others might have considered trash. His creation, the Watts Towers, is in some ways a perfect symbol around which to structure a conversation about Rock and Roll’s future, about the creativity at “the outskirts” that will play a role in bringing that future closer, and about the lasting power of art.

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Upon completion of this lesson, students will:

  1. Know (Knowledge):
    • The importance of Rock and Roll as a particularly democratic art form
    • The idea of “folk art” and its meaning in contemporary life
    • The Watts Towers and their symbolic value to early 21st century creativity
  2. Be able to (Skills):
    • Write creatively for personal and/or small group expression
    • Compare and contrast texts, arguments and ideas
    • Common Core: Students will examine a film and analyze its point of view (CCSS Speaking and Listening 3)
    • Common Core: Students will engage in a written assignment, either to take a position on the future of rock and roll as examined in the film and in the class discussion generated by the videos and class material (CCSS Writing 1) or to explain how music can change the world (CCSS Writing 2) or to conduct a more in-depth research project (CCSS Writing 7)


Motivational Activity:

  1. Explain to the students that they’ll be watching a movie about the Watts Towers.  (Note to Instructor: Do not supply information about the Towers prior to viewing.)
  2. Following this, structure a classroom conversation around the following questions:
    • What did Simon Rodia achieve?
    • How did he achieve it?
    • In what location did he build?
    • Why do you think Simon Rodia needed to do this?
    • Was he in search of fame, or did a kind of fame find him?


  1. Assuming you have introduced your students to a few different periods in the history of Rock and Roll, ask them to reflect on what they have learned in previous lessons by asking the following questions:
    • How is Simon Rodia like some of the major figures in the History of Rock and Roll? (Note to Instructor: encourage the students to focus on the early parts of these figures’ careers, before fame)
    • How, for instance, was Simon Rodia’s neighborhood in some ways like Elvis Presley’s, the Beatles, Grandmaster Flash’s, Diana Ross’s, Little Richard’s, Dion’s, Johnny Rotten’s, etc.?
    • How was his experience similar to their experiences?
  2. Have the students break into groups of three or four in order to have informal discussions around these questions. Keep encouraging them to think about the artists early in their careers and lives, Diana Ross living in a housing project, Elvis Presley in Tupelo, the Beatles living amongst the wreckage of WWII bombings, Grandmaster Flash in the Bronx surrounded by abandoned buildings.
    • Why were these artists practicing their art?
    • What mattered most at that point: the money, or the possibility of expression?
    • Again: how were they like Simon Rodia?
  3. Bring the class together again as a group. With the Beatles, Elvis, Diana Ross, Grandmaster Flash, and the others in mind, ask them:
    • Where do you think the next big moment in the History of Rock and Roll will come from?
    • What will it sound like?
    • What will it do for people?
    • How might the next major voice in Rock and Roll be a little bit like Simon Rodia?
  4. Next, show the class the clip of Dion, talking about what music did for him. Ask the class:
    • What did music do for Dion’s thinking? How did it broaden his view of the world?
    • What did music allow for him as a human that otherwise wasn’t allowed?
    • Who might Dion have become if music hadn’t changed his life?
    • Why, then, do you think Dion chose to make music his career?
    • Is he in some way like Simon Rodia?

Summary Activity:

  1. Remind the class that Rock and Roll, now more than sixty years old, didn’t always have an easy time in the world. If it has become clear what art can do to change a person’s life, consider the obstacles one faces when making music, when speaking with a new voice, play this clip of Dion DiMucci as he describes music as way out of his neighborhood and the life he had known into a larger world without limits.
  2. Play the clip of the DJ smashing Rock and Roll Records. Ask the students:
    • Why do you think he didn’t like Rock and Roll? (Note to instructor: see if the students can bring the conversation around to some of the race issues that have been so central to this larger classroom project. If they need a prompt, remind them that the man who connected the term “Rock and Roll” to the music in the mid-1950s, Alan Freed, lost his TV show when a white girl was seen dancing with an African-American performer)
  3. Once they have considered that Rock and Roll was a threat in part because it brought the races together, play the short clip of Otis Williams from the Temptations.
  4. Ask the class to consider what a Rock and Roll of the future might be able to do when it comes. Encourage idealism when it comes.


Assign one or more of the following:

  • Written Expression: Have students watch Dion talking about what his life in music did to change him and his way of thinking. Ask them to write a one-page response, addressing the ways in which music can come from “the outskirts” of society and then end up changing the world.
  • Creative Expression: Ask students to imagine they are the next creator of Rock and Roll’s future. Write a two-page description of what their music will be, who will listen to it, what its messages will be, what it will sound like, and why it will have such an impact.
  • Research: Have students do short research papers on an individual artist who they think is the one who points toward what the future of music is going to look and sound like. Have them connect that figure to one of the historical figures they have learned about in some of the RRAS lesson plans.


Common Core State Standards

College and Career Readiness Writing Anchor Standards for Grades 6-12 in English Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science and Technical Subjects

  • Writing 1: Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts, using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.
  • Writing 2: Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization, and analysis of content.
  • Writing 7: Conduct short as well as more sustained research projects based on focused questions, demonstrating understanding of the subject under investigation.

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Speaking and Listening for Grades 6-12

  • Speaking and Listening 2: Integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally.
  • Speaking and Listening 3: Evaluate a speaker’s point of view, reasoning, and use of evidence and rhetoric.

Social Studies – National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS)

  • Theme 1: Culture
  • Theme 2: Time, Continuity, and Change
  • Theme 3: People, Places, and Environments
  • Theme 4: Individual Development and Identity

National Standards for Music Education

Core Music Standard: Responding

  • Select: Choose music appropriate for a specific purpose or context.
  • Analyze: Analyze how the structure and context of varied musical works inform the response.
  • Interpret: Support interpretations of musical works that reflect creators’ and/or performers’ expressive intent.
  • Evaluate: Support evaluations of musical works and performances based on analysis, interpretation, and established criteria.

Core Music Standard: Connecting

  • Connecting 11: Relate  musical ideas and works to varied contexts and daily life to deepen understanding.

National Core Arts Standards


  • Anchor Standard 7: Perceive and analyze artistic work.
  • Anchor Standard 8: Interpret intent and meaning in artistic work.
  • Anchor Standard 9: Apply criteria to evaluate artistic work.


  • Anchor Standard 10: Synthesize and relate knowledge and personal experiences to make art.
  • Anchor Standards 11: Relate artistic ideas and work with societal, cultural and historical context to deepen understanding.

Career Technical Education Standards (California Model) – Arts, Media and Entertainment Pathway Standards

Design, Visual and Media Arts (A)

  • A1.0 Demonstrate ability to reorganize and integrate visual art elements across digital media and design applications.
    A1.1 View and respond to a variety of industry-related artistic products integrating industry appropriate vocabulary.
    A1.4 Select industry-specific works and analyze the intent of the work and the appropriate use of media.
    A1.5 Research and analyze the work of an artist or designer and how the artist’s distinctive style contributes to their industry production.
    A1.9 Analyze the material used by a given artist and describe how its use influences the meaning of the work. ia, and Entertainment |
    A3.0 Analyze and assess the impact of history and culture on the development of professional arts and media products.
    A3.2 Describe how the issues of time, place, and cultural influence and are reflected in a variety of artistic products.
    A3.3 Identify contemporary styles and discuss the diverse social, economic, and political developments reflected in art work in an industry setting.
    A4.0 Analyze, assess, and identify effectiveness of artistic products based on elements of art, the principles of design, and professional industry standards.
    A4.2 Deconstruct how beliefs, cultural traditions, and current social, economic, and political contexts influence commercial media (traditional and electronic).
    A4.5 Analyze and articulate how society influences the interpretation and effectiveness of an artistic product.
    A5.0 Identify essential industry competencies, explore commercial applications and develop a career specific personal plan.
    A5.3 Deconstruct works of art, identifying psychological content found in the symbols and images and their relationship to industry and society.

Performing Arts (B)

  • B2.0 Read, listen to, deconstruct, and analyze peer and professional music using the elements and terminology of music.
    B2.2 Describe how the elements of music are used.
    B2.5 Analyze and describe significant musical events perceived and remembered in a given industry generated example.
    B2.6 Analyze and describe the use of musical elements in a given professional work that makes it unique, interesting, and expressive.
    B2.7 Demonstrate the different uses of form, both past and present, in a varied repertoire of music in commercial settings from diverse genres, styles, and professional applications.
    B7.0 Analyze the historical and cultural perspective of multiple industry performance products from a discipline-specific perspective.
    B7.1 Identify and compare how film, theater, television, and electronic media productions influence values and behaviors.
    B7.3 Analyze the historical and cultural perspective of the musician in the professional setting.
    B8.0 Deconstruct the aesthetic values that drive professional performance and the artistic elements necessary for industry production.
    B8.3 Analyze the aesthetic principles that apply in a professional work designed for live performance, film, video, or live broadcast.