Popular Songs to Engage Students? Play Tunes in Class, Says Music School Dean

Managing Editor

Austin, Texas

Teachers are used to ordering students to turn down the music pumping from one device or another—and telling those students to focus instead on the lesson at hand.

But Darla Hanley has a different message: Turn it up!

Hanley, the dean of the professional education division at the Berklee School of Music, argued today that schools aren’t doing nearly enough to use popular music to engage students in various subjects, such as English and history, and potentially many other classes.

In her presentation at the South by Southwest EDU conference, titled “More Music in Every Class: New Tools for Teachers,” Hanley offered examples of model lessons for weaving songs from musicians ranging from Kat Edmonson and the Cardigans to Bob Dylan and the Band into classrooms. 

Click to see more SXSWedu coverage.

She also pointed out that the various music-streaming services available today make using popular music in class a light lift for teachers.

The dean of the Boston-based school believes, not without justification, that schools are nervous about opening the door to having anthems from the worlds of rock, pop, and other genres filling their classrooms. But those fears are misplaced, she says.

In addition to music, teachers can use other, relevant streamed audio clips to help students connect with academic content. And they can do so while making sure that discussions of the songs stay focused on the academic content at hand.

“The line between music in the world, and what goes on in the classroom, we need to somehow blur those lines,” Hanley said, adding: “We have not taken advantage of using music [drawn from] society in the school building.”

Hanley didn’t leave it to attendees to imagine how tunes would roll out in a classroom. She let them hear it.

A lesson on the Civil Rights era, she said, could pair an audio clip of Martin Luther King’s “We Shall Overcome” speech—she clicked a button and sound streamed from Spotify filled the room—with a version of the song with the same title by singer Mahalia Jackson.

Another audio clip she played featured the poet Robert Frost reading, “The Road Not Taken,” which could be used alongside the Randall Thompson and Richard Auldon Clark musicial interpretation of the work. (You can listen to Hanley’s full playlist of songs from Spotify, embedded below.)

Hanley’s belief in the music’s potential to motivate students was reinforced by a project that she co-led last year, in which she invited teachers from around the country to experiment with integrating music into their classes, and collected their feedback. The teacher project was co-led by Kerry Steib, the director of social impact at the streaming service Spotify, who had traded ideas with Hanley about using music in classes, and who attended her presentation at SXSWedu.

The middle and high school teachers and college faculty participating in the project shared ideas with the project leaders and told them about obstacles—many of which turned out not to be big obstacles at all, Hanley explained after her presentation.

“Something magical happens when music is added to the [classroom] experience,” she said.

 

 

 

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