Two Rules for Music & School

It doesn’t surprise me that iPods are popular, or that I like them as much as my students do. Our iPods are our 1:1 music devices, customizable reflections of our interests and emotions. They are our 1:1 identity, expression, and need-fulfillment devices. When we need to feel big, we find big music. When we need our sadness acknowledged, we find sad music. When we want to share a bit of ourselves, we share bits of ourselves. When we need to have fun, we sneak in a game at lunch.

When we wonder if kids are losing something vital to human relationships because of technology, I wonder if sometimes we don’t understand what the kids are doing, don’t want to value what the kids are doing, or haven’t modeled for them how to build human relationships with technology that is equal parts techno-enriched solipsism and socially-vibrant communications satellite. However, I’m not worried. Kid share their technology and media; their electronics don’t silo them.

I’m reading a lot about #artsed, as well, thinking about students’ opportunities for artistic expression and production in the upcoming year 3 of our arts-infused charter. There’s no doubt that the gifts students use and receive through the arts help them learn, know themselves, and navigate the world. I’ve become especially interested in music across the curriculum thanks to GarageBand, Korg Nano Key USB keyboards, and different iterations of the soundtrack project, thanks in large part to Marco Torres and the possibilities he and his students share with teachers around the world.

ReadWriteThink has a good description of what an autobiographical soundtrack project could be. In our classes, we use the project to study history, and we allow ourselves the option of composing our own music in GarageBand to match the tone and mood of the events we study. For example, this year one student put together a particularly haunting and driving song for Kristallnacht punctuated by percussion and sound effects arranged chaotically throughout the piece. It was scary. The student could also explain what each sound effect was supposed to be as he acoustically imagined the terror of the Nazis demolishing Jewish lives.

For any soundtrack project, I ask students to research the who, when, where, and so-what of any event they want to include. Typically, I teach a brief overview of a time period or major event and ask students to become experts on 3-10 parts of the event, depending on its weight in history, weight in the curriculum, and complexity.

Then I ask students to assemble a playlist of songs that fit the events and to write liner-notes explaining how the tone and/or lyrics of the songs connect to the events.

With those guidelines providing us with some constraint, students riff on the rest of the project.


  • Some student use GarageBand to remix samples into songs that fit events’ tones.
  • Some students use GarageBand, samples, and USB keyboards – typically to compose their own melodies over pre-packaged rhythms.
  • Some students then write their own lyrics and record them over their songs to make literal connections between the songs and events. This makes writing liner notes less daunting in some ways because students can point out 1:1 vocab connections between their songs and events. They don’t have to explain the emotional inferences they make between the songs and events, which can be challenging or even frightening for some students, but worth attempting as a means of self-knowledge, empathy, and self-expression.
  • Some students bring in their own music on personal devices and make playlists. Then they use online lyrics sources to help write liner notes connecting the words in the songs to points of view people might have held during the events.
  • Some students make poster-albums. They use Glogster to embed music videos from YouTube and then annotate the videos with liner notes.
  • Eventually, while I accept liner notes in all kinds of media, some students burn CDs of their work and make album art and booklets for their liner notes.

Perhaps next steps include making our own music videos and burning DVDs and sharing those songs online. And sharing our glogs. Maybe even starting a class music blog, like largehearted boy, related to our content.

Certainly, in the past, it was also fun to make playlists and create album art for novels. It would be fun to do so again.

All of this brings me back to the idea I had walking out of the building today: kids’ theme music.

I think about the transformative power of music, especially in preparing us to take on challenges and celebrate successes.

I remember getting all twitchy with adrenaline as Thunderstruck played in the last minutes of ice-cleaning time before Whalers’ games (yeah, I know – the Whalers; deal). I remember Brass Bonanza playing after every Whalers’ goal. I remember listening to Survivor, Alice in Chains, and Kenny Rogers in the locker room before every high school football game. I sing in the car on the way to work (Glee soundtrack; deal). I play Aimee Mann and Bat for Lashes and Beastie Boys and Michael Franti and Gnarls Barkley and the Flobots and the Old 97’s and even the occasional Floyd (missed’em at Foxboro) or Rush (saw’em at Worcester) tune to get psyched when I feel a step behind. Who doesn’t feel the lift from singing the solo to “Deathly” or “Comfortably Numb?” Who doesn’t feel like a WWF superstar walking into the building with earbuds firmly in place?

Okay, probably several people. But they just need the right music.

And so do our kids.

Let’s ask them to write some kick-ass songs for themselves. Let’s ask them to compose something in GarageBand or I Am T-Pain or Audacity – something they can play or sing or hum like latter-day Trogdor-singing Strong Bads when they enter the room. Let’s help them put together a soundtrack of their learning lives so that entering the classroom is a celebration and affirmation. Let’s take all the time they want to write something that makes them feel good about walking around our shared schools, from class to class, from opportunity to opportunity to shine on like learning diamonds.

Let’s make sure students have access to their theme music whenever they want it.

And let’s have two rules for the music, two rules for school: it’s yours and it makes you happy.