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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Using Music in the Classroom to Inspire Creative Expression

Get in on
Give it up
Come on give it all you got

--AC/DC

If someone were crazy enough to let me run a school and I had the privilege of interviewing teachers, my first question would be, "What's your passion?" I almost stood and applauded when I heard Bruce Coville, children's author, croon those exact words. My smile went ear to ear. It was something deep down inside that said, "Thank you, Bruce." Passionate people move me. The energy, the excitement, and the love push me to become a better human.

"What's your passion?" Imagine that in an interview. Would you be afraid to answer? Could you answer? Did your college training prepare you for that question? When teachers are separated from curriculum development you remove the "thinking from implementation and the model of the teacher becomes that of a technician or white-collar clerk." (Henry Giroux) If "experts" continue to bash the humanity out of teaching, how on Earth will teachers teach? The dead honest truth is that inspiring people in the world, the best teachers out there really, are passionate about life. And no matter what the topic, they move people to better themselves in some way.

Edward Berman states that current reformists have "dropped the rhetoric about school as a vehicle for personal betterment." If we're not inspiring kids to search for their own truth why are we teaching?

This is a call for all teachers to bring the heart and soul back to the classroom. However, to do so they must first answer a very difficult question, "a moral as well as a practical question," posted by the most famous critical gunslinger out there, Alfie Kohn: Will teachers "treat students the way they, themselves, are being treated . . . or the way they wish they were being treated?"

Music in the Classroom

I've been listening to music for most of my life and playing it for quite some time. It's my best friend, my co-pilot, and my bedtime story. It's always there to shake up my bones or serenade me into sleepy daze. Music pumps feelings through my veins and clicks the switch on the mind's eye's projector. It conjures up images of people, scenes, landscape, and, if the tune is really rockin', transports me to far away places. As a kid, I was always up on that stage with Gene Simmons breathing fire and spitting blood or rolling around on two Jaguars (cars) in that White Snake video (come on, you did too). It's just the way I'm wired. Music always helps me to visualize and dream big.

My ten years of teaching have taught me many things about how kids interact with music. Some of my lessons failed miserably because of one major flaw: the wrong music. I've done the leg work for ya' so listen closely.

Tip #1 If you are using music for a lesson it almost always has to be instrumental unless you are directly engaging the lyrics. Little guys and gals just can't get over the artist's voice. I've asked them many times and the most common answer of all is... "It sounds funny." Hey, kids are kids.

Tip #2 Meet them half way. You can't put on some dusty old music and expect them to pump their fists and bob their heads. Classical music is awesome, but the kids need a variety of instrumental music to keep them interested. I've discovered some awesome artists searching for rockin' instrumentals. Here's a short list to get you started.

Or, by all means, write and record your own.

 To get you started I've included an original sample track and three levels of writing that I've collected from students.

Click on arrow to start, and read the stages. Running time: 1:00 min.

Level 1: Level one usually consists of a list. "Sad, guitar, boring, slow, funeral."

Level 2: Now we're talking in sentences. "This song makes me feel sad. Old people might listen to this song. If this was in a movie there might be kissing or stuff like that."

Level 3: The mind's eye sees a story. "A small boy sat on the edge of his bed. Tears fall darkening the letter he is reading. It's the first letter from mom since the divorce. He wishes he couldn't read."

You've got the music, now rock the lesson

I begin this lesson by showing John Williams and his musicians performing the Jaws theme in the studio (from my extended version of Jaws, of course). Watching a composer lead his orchestra while the movie plays on a huge screen is completely magical. Music tells so many stories. It's quite a gift to be able to write the musical story that matches the passion and energy of the actors all while enhancing the themes and the feelings of the scene. Just amazing. I want my students to use their mind's eye so I reverse the roles. Instead of writing music to the story, I want my students to write a story, a thought, a scene, or a list to the music. I usually spin six to eight partial tunes (about a minute) during each session. This takes practice and patience so if you get blank stares at first don't stress. Be happy, you're listening to music, remember?

In the end, your students will have a list of story nuggets or seeds or whatever you choose to call them. You will have fed the musical spirits, opened the eyes of the nonmusical, and perhaps even kindled a flame.

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