I got a fever and the cure? More music in the classroom!

zombie memeWhen I was a full-time teacher, in my classroom, music was a constant. Whether or not my students realized it, I used music to influence their behavior. I used music to teach subjects other than music. I used music to help students connect the dots. I did not invent this concept. I ‘borrowed’ it from a physics professor I had at Michigan State. As we entered his lecture hall three times each week, our professor always had classical music overhead. As we settled into our seats, his lecture would begin:

“Now, what you just heard was a selection from Mozart’s opera Cosi fan Tutte. Cosi fan Tutte means “Thus do all” and it’s widely interpreted to mean “all women.” In other words, “women are like that.” This opera was first performed around 1790 in Austria. One thing we all know about all women is that they are very concerned about their weight.”

“About this same time, in England, Henry Cavendish was also very concerned about weight – the weight of the Earth. So, today, let’s talk about the Cavendish experiment – the work he did which showed there was an attraction between all bodies which eventually led to our gravitational constant “G,” and the first accurate measurement of the Earth’s mass.”

This occurred in 1978. Sexist? Probably. Effective? Nearly 40 years later, and I still remember this man’s lecture.

Ask any teacher – before you can teach content, you must teach behavior. For excellent behavior, you must create a classroom atmosphere that is positive, safe, and engaging. When the teacher and students are on the same page, you’ll have outstanding engagement. In my classroom, that page started with music.

As kids entered my room at the start of class, I chose music to set the mood for the day. For my lectures, I searched constantly for music that tied into the topic at hand. I discovered that a thirty second clip of Raffi singing Baby Beluga was the perfect ironic introduction to a discussion of the mammalian diving reflex. During quiet seat work in biology, we all found Miles Davis to be the perfect counterpoint to a lesson on protein synthesis. Test days always were accompanied by sprightly classical music.

After a few weeks, the kids always developed new sets of musical tastes.

“Hey, Mr. Stanley! Can we get some of that trumpet music with no words while we’re doing this vocab assignment?”

“You think you can play some Scarlatti during today’s lab?”

“Stanley, we’re all sick of that John Mayer stuff. What else you got?”

“Stan-man! I brought in a mix CD I made-got some stuff you’ll like. It’s school-appropriate. Play it during reading time?”

Although my main subjects were the sciences, I was also in the mix as an English teacher. If you teach language arts and have not yet figured out that nearly every book, poem, and essay can, and should, have a musical component, you’ve missed out on a mainline path from page to brain.

Our high school curriculum included Their Eyes were Watching God and To Kill a Mockingbird. One of the surest ways to grab attention for Mockingbird is to begin your discussion and reading with an examination of Southern music, country and bluegrass, during the 1930s. Nothing explains the tenor of those depression era times like Jimmie Rogers, the Singing Brakeman.

For Eyes, you go to the source: the blues of the early 1920s. Make the connection between today’s music and the blues of the era. Play your students some old blues. Break down the lyrics. The bleakness of the music speaks far louder about the era than any lecture.

In this era of iPods and Spotify and Pandora, music is ubiquitous. Everyone goes everywhere with their music. Music lifts our spirits. Music energizes us. Music calms us. Muzak (now known as MoodMedia) may have invented the idea of behavior modification via music in the post-WWII era, but now, we manipulate ourselves.

As a teacher, I wanted my classroom to be as positive as possible. Music makes things positive. More music, every day, in every classroom.

Especially on Fridays.

Fridays are special. At the end of each class period on Friday, as we lined up to head out the door, we had to hear some R. Kelly. Why?

Cos’ it’s the freakin’ weekend and we gonna have us some fun.


The Beginning
About David Stanley

Teacher & science guy, writer, musician, coach, skier and bike racer, I am interested… in everything; your story, food & spirits and music and everything in the natural world, spirit & sport. My son is 22 and still needs his Dad. I am 56 and so do I.
I blog on life and death, cancer and sports, kids and education at http://dstan58.blogspot.com/

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