One day a student discovered a photo online from my days on the punk scene. I'm backstage at CBGB, the notorious punk venue. My white-blonde hair is streaked with blue. I'm wearing a leather jacket, fishnets, and engineer boots. I smiled when I saw the photo, but I was also terrified—what would my students think? What would their parents say?
My anxiety wasn't necessary. My students loved my punk rock music background, and they barraged me with questions about the music and the scene.
The Soundtrack to Your Life
My students are more likely to listen to hip-hop or techno than to punk, but that doesn't mean I can't use music as a bridge to reach them. At the beginning of the school year, I ask students to choose three songs that would make up the soundtrack to their life and explain why they made those choices. I learn so much about my students from this exercise, because they're excited to talk about the music they love. Alejandra wrote about the song "Estamos Bien" (We Are Good) by Bad Bunny. "The lyrics help me get back into my lane, and they give me strength to go forward," she wrote. Joel wrote about "Crossroads" by I Prevail. He said, "Sometimes I have feelings of doubt, but this song helps me cope with those troubling thoughts."
Using Music in Lesson Planning
When I was in high school in the 1970s, a teacher used protest songs to help us understand the opposition to the Vietnam War. More recently, I've created a lesson where I ask students to compare Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech to rapper Common's song "A Dream." I ask the students: Do Common and King have the same dreams? What's different? How close are we to achieving the dreams set forth in King's speech? What does Common hope for that King didn't? The students love this assignment, and they're anxious to dive in. Music can help students connect to history and better understand the use of language.
Further reading: A Class Video Project Can Empower Students
Back in the day, I learned about politics and government from punk bands like the Clash, the Dead Kennedys, and Crass. They fueled the activism that I still take part in today. Straight-edge bands spread the drug-free ethos that I found empowering. Contemporary artists like Lady Gaga, Joyner Lucas, and Childish Gambino do the same for today's youth. Asking students to discuss what they've learned through music can be a powerful lesson.
What if You Don't Like Their Favorite Genre?
Rap isn't supposed to speak to me the way it speaks to my low-income, urban students. If kids are our business, however, we need to know our business. When my students find a particular artist compelling, doing some research helps me discuss them with my students. Conversations with students about why they like the music, what it says to them, how it inspires them, or how it helps them find a release or escape in today's chaotic world can help you build relationships in your classroom. Do your homework so you don't look insincere or alienate your students.
What if You Don't Like the Content of the Music?
There's a great deal of misogyny in many musical genres. How can you negotiate the content of the music when you don't like it? I put it on the students. One of the assignments my students do is a feminist criticism of a music video. They examine how gender is presented in the video and explore the impact that the lyrics and visual representations have on the audience. My students immediately recognize damaging stereotypes and sexist attitudes.
Even artists like Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood do not escape their critical eyes. In their videos for "Since You've Been Gone" and "Before He Cheats," respectively, the women destroy the property of their cheating boyfriends. Rather than being empowering, my students point out, the videos make women look like hysterical psychopaths who are unable to cope with rejection. At the end of the exercise, one student said, "Wow, Barile, you kinda ruined this for me. I'll never listen to music the same way again."
Can Listening to Music Help in the Classroom?
In my youth, punk music got me through some tough times. I know my students probably feel the same way about their tunes. While more research needs to be done, my students seem more motivated to work if they can listen to their music when completing some assignments. Listening to music can help the social and emotional well-being of students.
Further reading: Establishing a Healthy Teacher-Student Relationship
These days, I use my punk rock music past to help build relationships with my students. We may not listen to the same songs, but music can help build connections to today's teenagers.