Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Rock and Roll High School

This post is the first of a series I am writing on some of my favorite teacher resources. For my opening salvo, I discuss why the use of music in academic classrooms matters and how it connects to, the coolest nerdy teacher thing I did on my summer vacation. Rock on, my friends!

One never knows where one’s fangirl silliness will take one in life. A few years ago, out of our mutual love for Tom Morello, Bruce Springsteen, and all things related to teaching and children, I became Twitter-friends (and co-founder of the hashtag #teachersfortommorello) with two educators in Australia. I have yet to meet them face-to-face, but I love them truly (Hi, Mary and Piera!), and they have made an important contribution to my teaching.
A photo of my Australian Twitter-friends, Mary and Piera (with their #teachersfortommorello sign) at a Bruce Springsteen show last year made the website (source: 
About two years ago, Mary tweeted me that she had added me to a Twitter list of educators called “Teachers Who Rock.” This, of course, sounded hilarious (I am, after all, a 48-year-old English teacher in small-town America—I’m not exactly Debbie Harry or Lourde). That Twitter list led me to Teach Rock and Roll from the Rock and Roll Forever Foundation (@TeachRock). Always on the lookout for something new and fabulous, I decided to investigate.

Cynical Step 1: Is this thing legit? Well, the website sure looks solid. When I went out to the website, I was struck by the professionalism of its splash page. It was organized, focused, functional, and modern, not like one of those hokey sites with links that go nowhere surrounded by cutesy apple graphics. splash page
Cynical Step 2: Who’s behind this? In the politicized educational climate in which we live, I must be careful about agendas. I clicked on the “About” page on the Teach Rock site and saw a Founders Board listing. I appreciate an About page that names those to blame because searching for new online instructional resources is a lot like speed-dating: Hey, baby, you look cute and all, but please tell me inside of 5 minutes what the problem is. Just tell me now so that I don’t wander in innocently and then stumble out heartbroken, awash in the detritus of something completely appalling like “A new approach to test preparation from the people who brought you No Child Left Behind!” or “Endorsed by Michelle Rhee!” Just cut to the chase.

So here’s the Founders Board:
"About" page on

Say WHAT?! Full disclosure: My level of fandom for this list would be embarrassing if it weren’t so clearly justifiable. Their professional accomplishments combined with their charitable endeavors over the years give them a combined appeal that most resources simply do not have. In addition, these artists are my artists. My favorites. They are my music, my movies, my television, my charitable concerns. They’re it for me. I want to listen to what they have to say.

Heartened by a clean website and dazzled by star power, I clicked on the link “For Teachers” at the top of the splash page. Therein lies a full explanation of their philosophy, approach, and materials. (Thoroughness goes a long way with this girl.)  

"For Teachers" page on
Next I moved to the link labeled “Curriculum.” Here’s where things usually fall apart. The problem is that I am a curriculum snob. I want a concept-based, flexible approach with student needs as the focus. I am cheerful and open-minded about many things, but give me a one-size-fits-all traditional curriculum, and I will run screaming from your educational roach motel.

In addition, most online curriculum resources like to say that they are aligned with every possible educational standard and approach. Usually these resources are pushing one particular agenda and lying about the others, or they are trying so hard to be all things to all people that they end up being a reductive version of each of them. Imagine my surprise (and groupie-esque squeals) when I clicked on that link to find their materials to be simply and clearly organized around four macroconcepts. Fantastic!

"Curriculum" page on
The fully developed lessons and materials within each macro actually are concept-based, do align with the Common Core State Standards, and are engaging, modifiable to various classroom contexts, and suited to differentiated instruction. My instant reaction to the Founders Board list was like one of those cartoon characters who has hearts where its eyeballs should be, but I had no idea that the materials would be so in sync with who I am not only as a fan but also as a teacher.

For years, I have used music in the classroom as an engagement tool. I use song lyrics to teach poetic devices, I use music from various eras to engage students in the time period of a piece of literature, and I use music as a way to get students to talk to me. Even the most stoic, disengaged, please-don’t-talk-to-me student will chat me up when I ask him about the music he likes.

In many ways, engaging students in talking about music is like this recent viral video on YouTube that I showed my students. See how Baby Christian responds once Mommy plays Pharrell on the iPhone.

Student engagement with music is like this.

Whenever I ask students what they care about the most, their answers are almost always some combination of their family, their friends, and their music. Sports sometimes make the cut or maybe a boyfriend or girlfriend, but music is a mainstay. Students who feel understood by no one feel understood by music. We know that, ultimately, deep learning is about making connections. Music can go a long way in helping students to connect with a lesson, a teacher, other students, instructed concepts, and even the rest of the world.

Teach Rock frames its curriculum around the history of rock and roll, but its resources are not limited to rock music. All forms of popular music are involved (because they, too, are all connected) in ways that can support not only in music and fine arts classes but also social studies and English classes.

For example, this year, I created modules in Blackboard for students in my English classes to enrich their understanding of the novels they were reading. For my ninth graders reading To Kill a Mockingbird, I used Teach Rock’s lesson on “The Blues: The Sound of Rural Poverty” to establish the setting of the book and to help students connect to Tom Robinson’s life more deeply. For my tenth graders reading The Road, I used sections of the lessons on “The Historical Roots of Hip-Hop” and “The Roots of Heavy Metal” to examine the forces that shape a culture to prepare students to discuss the obliteration of cultural norms in the book.

Not only were these lessons probably the deepest instruction I’ve ever done on those books in those particular areas, but also they demonstrated an important point: students engage with music even when the music in play is not their favorite type of music. Something about music is inherently engaging, inherently motivating, inherently humanizing (even primal, as Baby Christian demonstrates above), and students respond to that.

This past summer, I was lucky enough to attend a two-day workshop at Teach Rock headquarters in Manhattan. We examined specific lessons in the curriculum and those on the horizon, and we talked about music, music, music. In one session, the man who founded Little Kids Rock, David Wish, explained his organization’s approach to teaching music to kids. During his presentation, he needed volunteers who did not know how to play a guitar, and, at one point, that was me. He handed me an acoustic guitar, told me where to place my fingers, and told me to strum it. He then informed me that I had just played a G chord. When I discovered that I had played something on a guitar that was an actual, identifiable thing, I almost screamed like Roger Daltrey in "Won't Get Fooled Again."

Frankly, I felt like a badass guitar ninja, so much so that, when my husband picked me up from the train station that evening, I said, “So now I have to learn to play the guitar. It’s happening.” I felt the thrill of starting to learn and understand something that I thought I would never learn.

Mr. Wish is smart and talented, and I had been interested in what he was saying, but something changed in my level of engagement when he handed me the guitar. Sure, fear is a motivator, too, and I was afraid of embarrassing myself with a musical instrument, but the feeling of creating music (even just one chord) in that moment was incredible. After that one strum, I was riveted to the man. I heard every word he had to say. Music made that happen, and I want a piece of that action in my classroom.

Music, like learning, is about connection. It tethers us to each other and to the planet in a way that few things do. It is one of the universal bonds we all share in a world full of divisiveness. Instead of viewing music as something extracurricular, we need to view it as entirely curricular in engaging students in learning and in understanding the world. helps teachers do that in new and instructionally sound ways that help us to be better, more responsive, more inclusive teachers.

I like my school system’s bring-your-own-electronic-device policy, but many teachers are exasperated by students’ phones and earbuds. They complain that students’ music causes kids not to pay attention and to be disrespectful. To me, their ubiquitous earbuds show that students want to connect with something that makes them feel understood, powerful, and alive when school often makes them feel confused, excluded, and stupid. Perhaps school and music don’t need to be at odds. Perhaps, by using music as an engagement tool instead of as a battlefield, we can make music about checking in to school instead of checking out. 

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Child's Play

or, What One High School Teacher Learned from the Elementary School

The best professional experience that I never liked involved teaching graduate courses for a university in Baltimore. Some people view teaching at the college level as the Holy Grail, and I tried it for several years, but I never felt like I was any good at it. I am so tired at the end of the school day that I never felt “on my game” in those evening classes, and I was happy when an online version made those sessions obsolete. Nevertheless, teaching those classes forever changed the way I teach.

The courses involved teaching reading in the content areas (courses that the state of Maryland requires as part of state teaching licensure), and I was able to teach the classes here in our county so that our teachers didn’t have to drive to Baltimore to get them. Most teachers do not have the chance to hear about other teachers’ experiences outside of our own buildings, but I saw those differing perspectives every week—teachers at all grade levels, in all content areas—sometimes even administrators and system leaders who wanted to maintain their teaching certificates, too.

Because of those teacher-students (and administrator-students) taking those courses, I now have friends in all 29 of our school buildings and in the central office. The breadth of those contacts has given me a breadth in perspective as well. The work that those teacher-students completed for the course involved preparing classroom materials for their real students, all of them, at every level, in each of our buildings. What a gift to have that access to so many instructional methods.

Each semester culminated with a project in which my teacher-students created a full “reading lesson” for students in their content area, taught it to their actual students, and then presented the lesson to the class. Imagine—each semester I was able to see how teachers handle the instruction of different types of texts for different types of learners, to see their classroom materials, to see classroom photos, to hear about their students, to hear their instructional perspectives. And I was paid to do it!

All of this preamble is a long-winded way for me to say that, honestly, I fell in love during those courses….

I fell in love with elementary school teachers.

I mean, the penmanship alone! To die for.

The never-ending color-coding! Have mercy.

The cute and efficient ways of organizing everything from boxes of crayons to folders, folders, folders!

Is there nothing these folks can’t do?

Elementary school teachers have a knack for breaking things down, for categorizing and classifying and simplifying everything, whether they are teaching a complex concept like fractions or organizing classrooms into games for Field Day.

Elementary school teachers teach me a great deal. Some of my normal classroom routines come directly from those lesson presentations in those courses, and they all have their roots in elementary school classrooms:
  • My students use hand-held whiteboards to give me an at-a-glance assessment of an entire class’ responses to any number of classroom questions.
  • My students use color-coded folders for each strand of the English content (Reading, Writing, Listening/Speaking, and Language). I can find everything now!
  • I place what I jokingly call “baskets of knowledge” at each desk group so that students always have highlighters, Post-It notes, and index cards at the ready.
  • As I have posted previously, I follow the elementary schoolteachers’ lead on creating a colorful, organized, and harmonious classroom environment.
  • I give students “brain breaks” during our 90-minute blocks (because maybe all of that “sit still and be quiet” for an hour and a half stuff is inhuman for anyone, let alone kids).
  • I support positive behavioral approaches such as our PBIS program (interventions that aim to reward behaviors we want to see in students and provide tiered support to kids who struggle to get with the program). 

In short, everything I ever learned about classroom management and organizing lessons, I learned from elementary school teachers. (Well, OK, not everything, but a great deal, and more than I ever imagined.)

Sometimes, high school teachers push back at the elementary school and its methods, or at least we believe that we can’t do much of what they do because our kids are older. We think kids will be insulted by colorful materials, positive reinforcements, and a heavy dose of organizational “This goes here, and that goes there.” I disagree. The more I teach teenagers and adult learners, the more I see that what we teachers term "Dimension 1 needs" are the same throughout the lifespan.

In the end, I find that all humans (metaphorically speaking) need what little kids need: love, a cup of juice, and a nap. Everyone wants to be in a welcoming and forgiving environment, everyone wants their basic needs met, and everyone wants their leadership to be in control but sensitive to their feelings. (And imagine, corporate America, if, at 2:00 every day, you gave everyone some kind words, a cup of juice, and a nap. Tell me those employees wouldn’t follow you to the ends of the earth.)

Elementary school teachers support those needs as easily as they breathe in oxygen. Sometimes high school teachers can feel pressured to do what I call “hard, cruel worlding” to the kids, to think that it’s time for the kids to man up and need nothing but the paper and pencil before them, to follow orders and shut their yaps. In fact, in schools in general (and in other places in society, too), we tend to rationalize any policy or approach that is arbitrary, random, or just plain mean as preparing students for “the real world.” American history tells us the opposite, that if we want to change the world for the better, we need to change it in schools first.

Changes like Brown v. Board of Education (1954), Title IX of the Civil Rights Act of 1964,  the Great Society programs (1965), and the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (1976) show us that America doesn’t improve in how it treats people until schools improve in how we treat kids. Elementary schools do a better job of treating students the way the world should treat us all. And that is much more effective preparation for giving students a better world than the “hard, cruel” one we have now.   

Thank you, elementary school teachers. Back when I was in college, future high school teachers were taught that “hard, cruel worlding” was the name of the game. You taught me that there’s a different way to play the game, and I’m all in. 

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