How I Use Bill Withers and Tupac in My Classroom to Help Students Learn

Music is everywhere. We play it constantly in our cars and homes, and listen to it on our phones as we’re exercising or walking. Music is one of life’s great joys. It can move us to dance, help us relax or inspire us to think about the world in new ways. Yet when students enter the classroom, we expect music to disappear. Teachers are taught that the classroom is supposed to be a quiet place. If teachers play music, students will be distracted, right? I’ve found the opposite to be true. Music is a distraction only if we let it be; if used correctly, it can be a powerful instructional tool. Music can be a great tool for shifting the mood. It can perk up students or calm them down. On a typical morning, my high school students enter the classroom with little energy and seem half asleep. Like a DJ, I  find a song that will wake them up but not overpower the room. I select “Outstanding” by The Gap Band. As the song plays, the lackluster energy in the room shifts, and students are more attentive and ready to engage in the lesson. Afternoons call for a different strategy. When lunch is over, students enter the classroom brimming with energy. They’ve just seen friends in the halls and are talking loudly. They need to start settling down. Once again, I need to change the mood. I play “Lovely Day” by Bill Withers. As the song plays, the students’ voices start to lower and they gently sway in their chairs. As the song settles, so does the classroom. When it concludes, my class is ready to learn. I also use music to connect with my students. I ask what they listen to and why, and then relate my own musical tastes. Not only do I learn more about my students’ interests, but they discover music that exists apart from their own tastes. We also discuss the history and significance of certain artists and songs. This helps students to understand the importance of music and how we are connected to that history. Students learn that music is not just something to listen to, but also a powerful force for inspiration and change. Music also opens minds. Just about anything set to music helps students tap into their creative side as they access new and previously learned information. Sometimes I’ll play an instrumental while students freestyle—rapping without preparation—but ask that their freestyle align with what they are learning in class. Regardless of our performance, students and I are constantly hyping each other up. As with most activities in teaching, the more students freestyle the better they get. Encouraging students to expand their minds while developing their critical-thinking skills can also be facilitated with music. Students learn to listen for meaning, think about historical events in new ways, and reflect on their own experiences in relation to others’ lives. In my health class, I used Tupac Shakur’s “Changes” to first talk about the health triangle—physical, social and emotional health—but our discussion evolved into perceptions of race and social justice. This song is nearly 10 years old, but still has meaning for my students. We dissected the lyrics and discussed the social issues mentioned. Music can also be an incentive used to encourage students to work independently. It keeps the mood lively. When a song ends, I ask a student to select the next song. Or, after a class discussion, I’ll play a song chosen by the class. Giving students some control over their learning environment and filling the classroom with music they love can transform their attitude and motivation. Research has consistently validated the success of using music to enhance learning. It’s a great tool for teachers to connect with students and build a collaborative environment that encourages students to dive deeper into their learning. So, next time you see students walking with headphones on, before telling them to turn their music off, ask them what they are listening to…it just might make you a better teacher.
Tunji Adebayo
Tunji Adebayo is a teacher at View Park Preparatory Charter High School in Los Angeles and a member of Educators 4 Excellence-Los Angeles, a teacher-led education policy and advocacy nonprofit.

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