Fairytale of New York was performed by Irish group The Pogues and English singer-songwriter Kirsty MacColl. It was recorded in 1987 and is often voted the number one best Christmas song of all time. It tells the story of the downfall of a young couple who emigrate to New York in search of better things. In this activity, the teacher delivers the story before letting students hear the song. The storytelling process should not be thought of as a teacher presentation, but more as a whole-class communicative event.
- Language level: Intermediate (B1) +
- Learner type: Mature teens; Adults
- Time: 60 minutes
- Activity: Interactive storytelling
- Topic: Homelessness at Christmas
- Language: Remember + -ing
- Materials: Song
Notes about the lesson plan
During the storytelling, make things as interactive as possible by looking for ways to involve your students. For example:
- Look for language teaching or practice possibilities along the way (dictation, drilling, etc.)
- Identify questions to put to students throughout the story.
- Explore issues along the way (homelessness, pejorative language, etc.)
- Ask students to recap the story from time to time. This consolidates student comprehension and also provides an opportunity to reproduce language that has been introduced by the teacher.
- Draw attention to any new language that you introduce (words, phrases, structures, etc.)
- Teach unknown language (words, expressions, collocations, etc.) as you go along.
The lesson plan below and on the PDF file is presented as a series of teacher script notes and suggestions for making the storytelling session possible. Make use of the notes but aim to communicate with your students rather than read from them coldly.
- On the board, write the following words: If I can make it there, I can make it anywhere.
- Ask students the following questions:
- Whose words are these? (Answer = Frank Sinatra’s)
- What does it mean to make it? (Answer = to become successful)
- Where is ‘there’? (Answer = New York. The line comes from the song New York, New York)
- Tell students that you have another song for them. Tell them that it is a famous Christmas song that was written in 1987. Ask students how old they were and what they were doing in 1987.
- Tell students that you are going to dictate four lines from the song. Dictate the following:
- You took my dreams from me when I first found you.
- I turned my face away and dreamed about you.
- I’ve built my dreams around you.
- I can see a better time when all our dreams come true.
- Make sure that everyone has written the lines correctly. Let them pair up or form groups to compare what they wrote for this purpose.
- Ask students to guess what the song is about and who it involves. Establish that it is about two people and ask students to guess what kind if people they are and what kind of relationship they have with each other.
- Tell students that the song is in three parts. Tell them that you are going to tell them the story before letting them hear it.
II. Part one – High Hopes
Note that from here on, details and information about the story are given in normal text. Suggestions for student interaction are given in italics.
- The song is about two immigrants – a man and a woman – in New York.
- In the song, we don’t find out their names.
Ask students to give names to the couple.
Note that here we will refer to them as Shane and Kirsty (the names of the singers).
- The couple arrived in New York at the same time and quickly formed a relationship.
- He was handsome, she was pretty.
- He promised her that the city offered everything that home didn’t – endless possibilities and high hopes.
- Everything in New York was bigger and better than back home.
Find out if anyone has been to New York. If so, ask them how it compares with their own town.
- These were happy times. Years later, both of them can remember that first Christmas Eve that they spent together in New York. Here is what they remember:
- They remember Christmas bells ringing.
- They remember hearing Frank Sinatra on the radio.
- They remember the NYPD (New York Police Department) choir singing.
- They remember Shane taking Kirsty’s cold hand.
- They remember drunks singing in the street.
- They remember kissing on the corner of Broadway.
- They remember dancing through the night.
Drill these sentences and draw students’ attention to the structure of reminiscence.
- To remember doing something
- To remember something happening
Ask students to think back to the happiest Christmas that they can remember, perhaps a Christmas from their childhood. Ask each student to write three sentences of reminiscence that make use of the above structures. Let students pair up, tell each other about their chosen Christmases and share their sentences.
Bring students back to the story with the words, “where were we?” Encourage students to recap the story so far.
Ask students to guess what happens next. Did the couple in story ‘make it’ or not?
III. Part two – In the drunk tank
- The next part of the story takes place years later, also on Christmas Eve.
- Things are very different. Their relationship is in ruins and they are living in poverty. Their dreams have been frozen in time and replaced by lives of alcoholism, drugs and gambling.
Ask students to guess why / what has happened. Elicit social or urban problems that immigrants to the USA might face (Possibilities = lack of equality, lack of jobs, unemployment, prejudice and racism towards immigrants, bad luck, bad company, eviction, homelessness, being a victim of crime.)
- The pair are what some people might refer to as ‘bums’.
What does that mean? Is it a term of affection? (Answer = it is a word that is often used in American English. It refers to someone without a job or place to live who asks people for money in the street. Rather than being a term of affection, it is a derogatory word.)
- On this Christmas Eve, Shane is in the drunk tank.
What is a drunk tank? Is it the sort of place you would want to be on Christmas Eve? (Answer = traditionally, a drunk tank is a police jail cell for temporarily keeping drunken individuals until they sober up. Intoxicated subjects may be put in the drunk tank if they are seen to be endangering themselves or others, breaching the peace, etc.)
- There is an old man next to him.
- The old man says: “Won’t see another one.”
What does he mean by that? (Answer = he means that this will be his – the old man’s – last Christmas. In other words, he won’t survive the next year.)
- The old man starts singing.
- Shane turns his face away and starts thinking about his long-suffering partner.
- When he is released from the drunk tank, he heads straight for the bookie’s.
What is that? What would you do at the bookie’s? (Answer = a bookie or bookmaker is an organisation that takes bets on sporting events.)
- Shane puts his money on a horse which comes in eighteen to one.
Does anyone here bet? Can you explain what that means?
- He decides to take the winnings to Kirsty.
IV. Part three – The argument
- Kirsty is quite ill. She is in bed.
- Shane still smells of alcohol but hopes that his winnings will make up for it.
Do you think that she is pleased to see him? (Answer = no, especially not in this state)
- An argument turns into a slagging match.
What is a slagging match? (Answer = an argument or dispute which involves an exchange of insults and accusations.)
What words of insult do you think they throw at each other? What insults do you know in English?
- Many of the words in this part of the song caused it to be banned by the BBC on several occasions.
- The slagging match turns into a heart-to-heart in which the pair of them share their regrets of how they destroyed each other.
- Give out copies of the lyrics (included in the downloadable PDF lesson plan). Ask students to read them and guess the title of the song if they don’t already know it.
- Go over any unknown words or vocabulary (a glossary is included in the PDF download).
- Ask students to look for clues in the lyrics to answer the following questions:
- When do you think the couple moved to New York? (Possible answer = the fifties as “Sinatra was swinging”.)
- What sort of work do you think they were looking for? (They may have been musicians or performers since “Broadway was waiting”.)
- Specifically where was Kirsty when Shane visited her? (Possibly a hospital bed “on a drip”.)
- Tell students that the title is Fairytale in New York. Play the song and find out if they have heard it before and if they know anything about The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl.
- Tell students that they are going to hear the song a second time. Before doing so, ask them to read the lyrics again and attempt to recall which lines:
- Are sung by Shane
- Are sung by Kirsty
- Are sung by both Shane and Kirsty together
- Play the song a second time and let students check their answers.