Using Music in the Classroom to Educate, Engage and Promote Understanding

In a day when activities and education methods get replaced year after year with the "next big thing," music will remain a constant to which every student (year after year) will form a connection.
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The song "Gone" by 'N Sync stops me in my tracks and nearly brings me to tears; this is not because it's a horrible song but because, whenever I hear it, I am reminded of the night my college girlfriend and I broke up for the 15th time. (It was for the best that time.) I'm not sharing this for sympathy, or because I'm still bitter towards her (she's an amazing person). My point is to share what we all know: We are emotionally connected to music -- particularly specific songs. We all have songs that remind us of people, places, events, good times and bad times and that bring back memories that have long been repressed or even forgotten. These songs define our lives and we all have this personal and emotional playlist that I call the "Soundtrack of Our Lives."

We all have this soundtrack, and the choices of songs are never finalized until we are dead. Music is the one constant to which everyone is attached, and that everyone understands. We may disagree about which musicians are good or bad or which generation's songs are better (every generation thinks their generation's music is the best). But we all can agree that, without music, life would be silent and sadder than the saddest Adele song (if that's even possible). Recently, my dear friend Rachel Nichols (a Columbia University graduate), who is one of the most talented actresses and brilliant people I know, surprised my students at school one day. After they regained consciousness (they were extremely excited), Rachel fielded many questions. One question in particular made me smile, a student asked "How do you mentally and emotionally prepare yourself for your differing roles?" Rachel went on to say that if a scene requires intense emotion, she will think of losing a loved one (like Rachel, the thought of losing my parents chokes me up instantly), and that she has various playlists she has made, consisting of different songs that will generate different emotions and mindsets. This just solidified something of which I was already aware: that she is brilliant as well as a beautiful person. My students have requested that she substitutes for me when I'm absent and a few of my male students want her to replace me entirely (I would too if I were them).

Educators have been using music to effectively educate for as long as there has been music. Many of us were fortunate to have those unconventional and edgy teachers (mine were Mr. Caliguire and Mr. "Weez," and I can't thank them enough), who played the iconic protest songs from the anti-war movement of the '60s and '70s, and then we analyzed and discussed the lyrics. This was one of my favorite activities and it helped me understand the nation and its differing political views better than any textbook or lecture ever could. This, however, is not the method of using music in the classroom to which I am referring. The method of using music that I will be discussing can be applied to all subject areas and used to engage all learners.

There is a reason why we can remember song lyrics for our entire lives, but we forget the lecture or notes our teachers discussed an hour later. I am not going to get into the psychological reasoning behind memory or mnemonics. I am discussing the aspect of using and creating soundtracks for people, places, events and even themes across nearly every area of study. As a film and TV writer (as well as educator), I have found myself, not only focusing on writing scripts with engaging characters, but also trying to find songs that would help create more dramatic effects for specific scenes which would eventually be added to their soundtracks. I wondered: If music is so personal to each of us and everyone listens to some form of music, why can't I utilize music and songs to engage my students? This would help them understand specific historical topics and, at the same time, help them comprehend and retain that information -- every educator's ultimate goal.

After doing so, the results and responses from my students were overwhelming. In a time where educators and education experts are struggling to find ways to engage all learners and differentiation has become a choice method to most districts, I was able to engage, educate, differentiate and increase understanding and retention by simply using something to which we are all already attached. Before I even begin to use songs in my soundtrack activity, I start the year off by having my students create the soundtracks of their lives. Additionally, each student must then describe why each particular song has a personal and sentimental meaning and has earned a place on the soundtrack of his/her life. This introduces students to our emotional attachment to music but also helps them learn a little about themselves. I, of course, share some of the songs on the soundtrack of my life; I play "Gone" and even "The Scientist" by Coldplay, and explain how these songs would lead me to tears. We all share a good laugh and I humanize myself (which is necessary for a comfortable and effective classroom environment). Then, they understand the purpose of the activity and are prepared to use it in class throughout the year.

Since I am a history teacher, I am going to provide a few examples of how to successfully and effectively use songs and soundtracks in class. First, in order to create any soundtrack, students must know some basic information about the person, place or event for which they will be creating a soundtrack. So, prior to the activity, I introduce and the basic information surrounding the topic. For example, when we discuss the Reformation, we cover the basic concepts: causes and effects, major figures, events and dates. Once the students have a basic understanding, they then create a soundtrack for the event and have to list 10 songs, with a brief description of why each song would appear on the soundtrack to the Reformation. In the past, they have listed songs such as "In the End" by Linkin Park (which is a great example of the Humanist movement), and "Jesus Walks" by Kanye West (which can relate to the Protestant movement and the questioning of the Catholic church). I am always impressed by my students' song choices and the variations of songs, artists and genres. The fact that a student can take a song that is completely unrelated to a specific event, and make it relative is a clear example of understanding and long lasting knowledge. I had a student, who had graduated five years earlier, visit the high school during his college break and the first words out of his mouth were, "Mr. Ferroni, do you know that every time I hear "Move B****" by Ludacris I think of Manifest Destiny, and can recite all the major facts and events of it?" I could only smile in response.

The last example I am going to provide is for a historical figure. For example, let's say that I ask students to provide a soundtrack or playlist for Christopher Columbus. Students would then list songs that would appear on Christopher Columbus' iPod playlist (if he had an iPod, of course), and briefly describe why each song would likely be on it. For Columbus' playlist, you may find everything from "Gold Digger" by Kanye West to "Down with the Sickness" by Disturbed, or even "A Whole New World" by Peabo Bryson and Regina Belle.

As I mentioned, this activity can be extremely effective is many subject areas. An English teacher can have students create a soundtrack for a play or book they are reviewing, or ask students to create a playlist and list songs that would likely be on Macbeth's, and even Romeo and Juliet's playlist; a creative writing teacher can have students find and discuss lyrics to their favorite songs; an art teacher can have students pick a song and draw or paint an image that they feel best represents the premise and emotion in the song. Finally, a science teacher can have students create soundtracks for specific topics of study, or even songs that would likely be on the playlist of a famous scientist. The options are endless, and even I have yet to scratch the surface of all the ways music and songs can be used in the classroom.

After the students complete their soundtracks (for any given person, place or event), we then create a class soundtrack/playlist. We even take it one step further and select one song to embody the overall theme for the topic of study. In a day when activities and education methods get replaced year after year with the "next big thing," music will remain a constant to which every student (year after year) will form a connection and association, and the only thing that will change are the songs and the artists (and all current musicians and songs are, after all, merely revised versions of older musicians and songs).

In addition to being an incredibly effective tool, it will turn a growing concern into an education aide. In a day when teachers and schools are finding it nearly impossible to regulate and control cell phone use during school, this activity allows students to use their cell phones, scan their playlists and turn what is a distraction and annoyance to many into an effective and useful means of educating. I am no education expert, but I do have a unique ability to find effective ways to engage students and, as the proverb states, "teach the way they learn." By using music and having students create historical soundtracks and playlists, I have had great success with nearly all of my students regardless of their learning levels.

If you would like a sample template for the soundtrack/playlist activity, feel free to email me at Next week, I will discuss how to use Twitter in the classroom, as both a learning tool and a method to understand various historical topics and figures.

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