Ballad Lesson Plans


A ballad is a poem that tells a story, typically sung, though we often just read ballads in English classes. We have a ballad for you to work with, “The Great Selkie of Sule Skerry.” It’s in a video at the bottom of this post, if you’d like to hear it. Click the title link to read longer, older versions of the song.

The ballad tells of a were-seal, a seal that can become a man when he is on land. Were-seals are traditional folk creatures of the Orkney islands, where they are called “selkies,” the same word used for seals. This selkie, as often happens with were-seals, has fallen in love with a human and they have a child. The selkie comes to get the boy, to teach him to swim like a seal — and indeed, as a seal. He also predicts that the girl will marry a gunner, who will shoot the selkie and their son.

Listen to and read “The Great Selkie.” Have students rewrite the story in their own words. Then challenge students to write a ballad of their own.

Ballad lesson plans online:

More about selkies:

Also have a look at our Werewolf Lesson Plans, and compare other werebeasts with the selkie.

Another ballad: “Shenanadoah.”

We illustrated this song with pictures from Pea Ridge National Military Park, a Civil War battleground, because one claim about this song is that it expresses the homesickness of a Civil War soldier from Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley.

However, you can also find versions of the song with verses like these:

The trader loved the Indian maiden
Away, you rolling rivers!
With trinkets his canoe was laden
Away, we’re bound away, cross the wide Missouri.

He gave the chief some fire water
Away, you rolling rivers!
He got him drunk and stole his daughter,
Away, we’re bound away, cross the wide Missouri.

We don’t often sing these verses; they’re offensive to modern ears, if nothing else. However, it could be interesting for older students to research this song and make up their own minds about its origin. It’s a great opportunity to learn about evidence and research as well as about ballads.


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