“I wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free” by Nina Simone

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Area: History and Social Studies, Music, Other Areas
Grade Level: Primary/Elementary School
Topics: art, Freedom, Music
Estimated Time Necessary: 50 minutes or more

Lesson Plan

To explore freedom and identity through music (and can also be used to think together about music)
To explore the ways Nina Simone’s cover of “I Wish I Knew (How It Would Feel to Be Free)” can inspire and facilitate philosophical discussions of freedom, especially with regards to identity in the U.S. and how metaphor might help achieve understandings of freedom. This lesson is designed primarily as a way of using music to do moral philosophizing; however, it could easily overlap with philosophizing about music and/or aesthetics simultaneously.

Whole Sequence Breakdown:

Welcome and warm-up (c. 5-10 minutes)

Brief introduction to Nina Simone and the song (5 minutes)

Listening to “I Wish I Knew (How It Would Feel to Be Free)” with Lyrics (5 minutes)

Small group discussions (c. 10-15 minutes)

Whole-group share and discussion (20 minutes)

Possible extensions (for extra time, or additional lessons)

Welcome and Warm-up

  • Welcome students and share any updates, or follow-up on points from the last session.
  • Warm-up question:
    1. “How would you define freedom?”
      1. Examples: Freedom is the ability to choose to do something without having to worry about consequences; freedom means not being constrained in ways you don’t agree to
    2. “Can you think of a time you understood how someone who felt differently than you felt? How did you know?”
      1. Example: One time I was having a disagreement with a friend because I didn’t understand how she was, and she referenced a time that I had told her that I had similar feelings as a way of reminding me of that moment to help me understand her better in that situation.
  • Encourage students to give some more information about some of their choices, especially overlaps. Why does this make you feel respected?

Brief Introduction to Nina Simone and “I Wish I Knew (How It Would Feel to Be Free)”

  • Check prior knowledge: “Can anyone tell me who Nina Simone is?”
  • Fill in gaps as necessary with the following information:
    1. Nina Simone was a U.S. American musician and singer; she was also an activist during the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Power Movement.
    2. She was especially notable for her biting and critical music, which was against the tone of Civil Rights Music at the time.
    3. She was a classically-trained pianist who became a singer to “pay the bills” when racism prevented her from being the classical pianist she wanted to be
  • Introduce song: “As you listen today, I want you to try to think of a question this song raises for you, or one interesting point about the song you’d like to discuss more. In particular, this song uses a lot of metaphors. Maybe there’s something there that you’d like to explore further”

Listening to “I Wish I Knew (How It Would Feel to Be Free)” with Lyrics

  • Play a recording of Nina Simone singing the song accompanied by lyrics on the screen.
    1. For older students, consider using this live recording (with slightly different lyrics/metaphors that may be more difficult for younger students)

I wish I knew how
It would feel to be free
I wish I could break
All the chains holdin’ me

I wish I could say
All the things that I should say
Say ’em loud, say ’em clear
For the whole round world to hear

I wish I could share
All the love that’s in my heart
Remove all the bars
That keep us apart

I wish you could know
What it means to be me
Then you’d see and agree
That every man should be free

I wish I could give
All I’m longin’ to give
I wish I could live
Like I’m longing to live

I wish I could do
All the things that I can do
And though I’m way overdue
I’d be startin’ anew

Well, I wish I could be
Like a bird in the sky
How sweet it would be
If I found I could fly

Oh, I’d soar to the sun
And look down at the sea
Then I’d sing ’cause I’d know, yeah
And I’d sing ’cause I’d know, yeah

And I’d sing ’cause I’d know
I’d know how it feels
I’d know how it feels to be free, yeah, yeah
I’d know how it feels
Yes, I’d know
I’d know how it feels, how it feels
To be free, no, no, no

Small Group Discussions

  • Break students up into small groups (3-4 students per group) to discuss their questions or points of interest. Ask each group to return with one questions or point of interest to propose to the whole group for discussion.
  • In small groups, students should take turn discussing their questions/points, before subsequently deciding as a group which question or point to propose.

 Whole-Group Share and Discussion

  • Ask students to share their questions/points from their small group discussions. The teacher should supplement these as needed depending on the anticipated depth of discussion arising from the suggested questions and points (I.e., if it seems that the questions /points will be rather quickly discussed, the teacher should supplement with one or two questions or points with more opportunities for longer discussion.). For examples, see the Discussion Questions tab of the lesson plan.
  • The students will vote as a whole group for 2 questions/points to discuss.
  • The group who proposed the first voted discussion question/point will begin discussion, which will continue popcorn style from there.
    • If/when discussion of the initial topic quells, move on to the second voted topic.
  • Follow the thread of the students interests! If/when there are lulls in the conversation, give some time, but afterwards, feel free to follow-up with questions or statements on the conversation that is happening (for example, “So I think what I’m hearing is…, is that correct? If that’s true, do you think that…” and etc.)

Possible Extensions 

  • Introduce and listen to the original Billy Taylor version of “I Wish I Knew (How It Would Feel to Be Free)” with this guiding question: how are these versions different? What effect does a different performer or genre have?
  • Listen again and consider the role of the music: what does the music add here that the words alone do not capture? How does the music make you feel? Can music be free or unfree?
  • Explore musical adaptation: if we wanted to create our own version of this song, what would we change and why?
  • Begin a generative conversation using some of the following questions:
    1. What metaphors can you think of to explain freedom?
    2. How would you explain freedom to someone who didn’t understand it?
    3. Are there aspects of being free that can’t be put into words? How about music or art?

Discussion Questions

  • What is freedom? Is it a feeling? A way of life?
  • How does it feel to be free? How does it feel to NOT be free?
  • Is freedom something that can be given or taken away?
  • Can anyone be truly free?
  • Why are some people unfree?
  • What is the difference between free will and freedom?
  • Can one be responsible if they are not free?
  • Is freedom required to be moral?
  • Is freedom required for happiness?
  • Can animals be free, as Simone suggests? Why does she use this metaphor?
  • What are the "chains" and "bars" Simone refers to?
  • What is the opposite of freedom? Is it domination?
  • What is required to have the capacity to be free?


This lesson plan was created for PLATO by: Jack Flesher, University of Washington.

This work is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

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