By Helena Elgindy,Värska Gümnaasium, Estonia


The Setos are a unique linguistic minority in South-East Estonia. Singing has always been a vital part of Seto history, culture and heritage. The Setos’ polyphonic style of folk singing, called leelo, is on the UNESCO list of intangible culture and is believed to be at least 1000 years old. Songs have been made about shepherding, everyday work, love and beliefs, grief and even about political events. In history lessons, we take a deeper look at these songs, which were rarely written down but rather passed on orally through generations, to try to have a better understanding of the historical events and the historical context behind their lyrics. The activities provide a valuable insight about the life and history of Seto people as well as Estonian history in general.

Introduction to the Practice

Songs have been an important part of the local culture, but for new generations these songs give little meaning, as the society has transformed tremendously since these songs have been created. Furthermore, the Seto language is not so well known to students anymore and even though they sing these songs themselves, they do not necessarily understand their meaning or their context. As a vital part of the culture, local folk songs provide the teachers with new means to look at events in Estonian history through decoding of the lyrics, subtexts and meanings. By doing this, students can acquire a deeper understanding of their own history and culture as well as  critical thinking skills.

Target group

Students from 5th grade till 12th have the opportunity to once or twice during a school year to  tackle a certain historical period or event by analysing the seto leelo song. Our classes are small, with  5-12 students on average. Local folk singers are also part of this project as they provide the teacher with songs and accompanying explanations of the lyrics, as the teacher sometimes also lacks a good understanding of the Seto language.

Teaching practice format

Using song lyrics is part of a lesson and usually takes one 45 min lesson. Beforehand the students will have studied the historical period (i.e Stalinism), and during the lesson they look at one or several songs about this era and try to decode it. They are given different tasks, for example one group looks for hints about the society, the other one about work, while a third group finds adjectives used to describe the period. 

Description of the practice

There are multiple ways one can use lyrics as a means to understand history. There is an option to listen to the song without lyrics and ask students to write down singular words they catch about certain topics (individuals, work, life, troubles, events etc). Students then use digital technology to add those words to a joint mindmap (, followed by a joint discussion about what was learnt through the song, piecing together a bigger picture. They may also have lyrics in front of them if their language skills are sufficiently strong.

Anoyher option I have used is  to have the students listen to the song and read the lyrics. They are then asked to use a RAFT method of creative writing to tackle certain issues the song and the society it reflects. For example,  in leelo song about WWII, students could either choose a role of a peasant or a soldier to describe either their livelihood, their worries, their condition, their fears, etc.. Students can use the information and descriptions given in the leelo song to complete this task. 

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