Feeling Good

“Today, I want you to compare the tone of Nina Simone’s 1965 song ‘Feeling Good’ and Michael Bublé’s 2010 version,” I say. I stand at the front of my classroom, in between the projector screen with frozen images of the two artists and my computer where I have sound files cued up and ready.

(I’m thinking of my fellow educators here as the school year begins once more. I’ve used this lesson in my high school English classrooms, and I must credit Ms. Sandra Effinger for the original plan. I start with a National Public Radio segment called “Vocal Impressions: Hearing Voices” from All Things Considered. First, we discuss tone, and Ms. Effie has some nice handouts with lists of tone words. We also discuss NPR—like “Who can tell me what NPR stands for?”)

“NPR invited listeners to take part in an originality experiment to describe how different voices sound. I’m inviting you to take part in that experiment. I’ll play a clip, and you write down whatever words or phrases come to mind, and then we’ll compare yours to the NPR Responses. This first voice belongs to Morgan Freeman. Talk to people near you about who Morgan Freeman is and then raise your hand if you can tell me something about him.”

Class continues in the way. In addition to Freeman, students listen to the voices of Marilyn Monroe, Truman Capote, and Patsy Cline. With each new voice, we compare student descriptions to the NPR audience responses. The class works to top their previous originality with each round.

“Great, you guys!” I say, “Now, we’re ready for Nina Simone. Do you know her? She’s a black American woman who first recorded this song in 1965. Think about her style, her tempo, and what she repeats. List words and phrases that convey her attitude. Here’s a copy you can write on. Michael Bublé’s version is on the other side.” And I press play.

Feeling Good

Birds flying high you know how I feel
Sun in the sky you know how I feel
Breeze driftin’ on by you know how I feel

It’s a new dawn
It’s a new day
It’s a new life for me yeah

It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day, it’s a new life for me
Ouh
And I’m feeling good

Fish in the sea, you know how I feel
River running free, you know how I feel
Blossom on the tree, you know how I feel

It’s a new dawn
It’s a new day
It’s a new life
For me
And I’m feeling good

Dragonfly out in the sun you know what I mean, don’t you know
Butterflies all havin’ fun, you know what I mean
Sleep in peace when day is done, that’s what I mean
And this old world, is a new world
And a bold world for me

Stars when you shine, you know how I feel
Scent of the pine, you know how I feel
Oh freedom is mine
And I know how I feel

It’s a new dawn
It’s a new day
It’s a new life
For me

And I’m feeling good

It’s fun to watch their little faces light up when the horns start. Afterward, we share some words. “The blues…strength…painful…broken…sadness,” they say.

“Okay, same thing for Michael Bublé. What do you know about him?” I say, and then we discuss some obvious and not so obvious differences. “He’s Canadian, and this is 2010.”

“Let’s hear some of your words,” I say.

They say, “Positive…inspired…optimistic…upbeat…smooth like silk.”

“Okay, now I want you to take your lists and combine your words into an adjective-noun phrase. You might have to play with the parts of speech to make it work. For example, optimistic and upbeat are both adjectives. How do we make optimistic a noun?”

They raise their hands. “Optimist…optimism,” they say.

“Perfect, now add upbeat to that. Upbeat optimism. That sounds sophisticated, right? Now do the same thing for Nina Simone. Do you need to hear it again?” I say.

It’s always a unanimous “YES!” They don’t even realize they’re learning. Ha! And the beauty is, this game could go on and on. Every Monday could be “Remake Monday,” and we can always start with music, and we can always think about “Feeling Good” no matter our circumstances. There is so much power in choosing our attitudes. What I’ve always loved about teaching English is the inherent opportunity to teach psychology. And they don’t even realize. Ha! (I take that back. Some do catch on when they start to know me.)

Eventually, we make it to something like the example below (which may have been written by a teacher), but then the next time around, maybe they work with a partner, and then the next time they’re on their own. After twenty years in the classroom, I’ve discovered kids need this sort of gradual release when trying something new or even when revisiting skills after a long summer. Oh, and I might have a great handout for Verbs to Use When Writing about Literature.

“Feeling Good” with Simone and Bublé

With virtually identical lyrics, Michael Bublé’s performance of “Feeling Good” conjures inspired positivity while Nina Simone’s rendition portrays bluesy strength. Elements of nature relate to each artist. Bublé sings of birds, the sun, fish, and the river knowing “how [he] feel[s]” as well as the dragonfly and butterflies knowing “what [he] mean[s].” The natural world not only influences his mood but identifies with Bublé’s upbeat optimism of each new day.

The racial injustice that ignited the civil rights movement in the U.S. underscores Simone’s broken tone. Her tangible sadness stands in stark contrast to Bublé’s zeal. Her heart-rending tenor conveys that nature knows and empathizes with her woes. When Simone sings, “It’s a new dawn/It’s a new day/It’s a new life/For me/And I’m feeling good,” her tone reveals both her suppressed pain and her resolute strength. Not only does her “new life” imply that she will overcome the past, but she “feel[s] good” and determined for a better tomorrow.