Setting Up Your Classroom with Lessons in Mind

Version 2As I write this post, it is three days before the first day of school for students in the new school year. Part of a teacher’s ritual during those final days leading up to classes starting is to set up the classroom. New bulletin board backgrounds and borders, posters, word wall, rules, and other subject-related text all find their way onto the walls, boards and cupboards of my classroom. At first blush, all of this is primarily for decorative purpose. I want to make my room as attractive and comfortable as possible, taking advantage of just the right amount of stimulation on my walls to encourage or help my students be attentive and engaged learners. Of course there is more to engaging students than putting posters on the wall, but the appearance of the room is important.

Appearance is important, but there is more to it than that. Those articles that I staple or tape to walls and doors also will be used during instruction. They will be referred to and made the center of attention during class. For example, at the beginning of the year, I like to discuss the value of music with my upper elementary and middle school students. By that age, some of them have come to the conclusion that because music isn’t part of state tests, it really doesn’t merit much of their time or effort. So why, I like to ask, do musicians make music? Why write it or play it or sing it for audiences and recordings if it doesn’t have any real value? I’ll then use my posters to start the discussion. Take this one, for instance. “Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and life to everything.” What does it mean to give a soul to the universe? What is an imagination in flight? What sort of life does music give to everything? Clearly these are metaphors, but what do they mean? Soul, mind, imagination and everything sounds pretty important, and this writer claims that music elevates all of them.

John Coltrane said, “When you begin to see the possibilities of music, you desire to do something really good for people, to help humanity free itself from its hangups…I want to speak to their souls.” Questions to use off of this poster are, what are the possibilities of music to do good for others? How can music be used to help humanity free itself from its hangups? What are humanity’s hangups, and which ones can be ended with music? I find that left to their own devices, students often experience music in a relatively superficial way. They enjoy it, like the beat and the groove, and maybe identify with the lyrics, but they don’t often see the value in it to affect lives and improve the quality of life. They use it to modify their emotions, or to dance to, but they overlook the more universal good that can come from music when its harmonious collaborations of sounds move human emotion and thereby ennoble people’s ambitions and vision of the future.

For example, consider the performance of the famous “Ode To Joy” section of Beethoven’s ninth symphony to celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall. Leonard Bernstein conducted an orchestra made up of players from several orchestras hailing from cities from both sides of the once divided country, now united in music-making in a performance that celebrates freedom itself. The performance of the same work conducted by Seiji Ozawa to open the 1998 Nagano Olympics again showcases the way in which music unites the souls of people regardless of differences. In the folk genre, singers effectively used music to unite people rallying for an end to racial discrimination in 1960s America. For example, Peter, Paul and Mary famously sang “Blowin’ In The Wind” at Martin Luther King’s march on Washington in 1963. These singers believed they could change the world, as is evident by their comments in the following video, and people can be seen joining hands and singing along, united indeed in song.

Other anthems of the time, such as “We Shall Overcome” became synonymous with the civil rights movement, and music around which people rallied to bring their message to ever more people. Pete Seeger championed the rights of many at countless rallies with just his guitar or banjo and his iconic voice. As teachers, we might ask our students, why did these songs communicate civil rights and social justice messages so clearly and effectively? We can extend the discussion beyond the songs themselves by asking, to what extent do the artists’ interpretation of these songs add to the meaning conveyed? Finally, we might even ask, why are songs remembered even when spoken content delivered at the same event is often all but forgotten?

The fact is music not only delivers us the poignant message of lyrics, but at the same time, through melody, harmony and memorable grooves and beats, stirs our emotions, our hearts, our desires. Music of this kind, in fact any art of this kind, inspires us to be better than we are, more noble and generous than we are otherwise wont to be. Certainly words of the great poets and orators stir us as well, but somehow music goes deeper, with a stronger influence on our humanity. This can easily be demonstrated by taking, for example, “I Have A Dream” and setting it to effective music. Though a great speech to begin with, it is all the more powerful when the full emotional force of music is Brough to bear upon it.

I also have posters of “American Musical Heroes” lining one of the walls in my music room. Included are Charles Ives, John Coltrane, George Gershwin, Marian Anderson, Aaron Copland, and Dave Brubeck. Each of these noted American musicians contributed to a different genre of American music-making, but the work of each of them remains a national treasure. Each is an example of utilizing imagination to forge a creative, unique and lasting influence on music. Charles Ives’ polytonalism, Coltrane’s innovative improvisation, Gershwin’s meshing of classical, popular, and jazz idioms, Marian Anderson’s stellar operatic singing, Copland’s “American Sound” depicting the open, spacious American west, and Dave Brubeck stretching metrical and harmonic boundaries within jazz to new extents. Having their pictures always before the students is a constant reminder of what can be done with creative, imaginative and ambitious activity. These are themes I will keep coming back to all year long, and their ever presence on the walls of my classroom help keep them on my students minds.

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