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The Schoolhouse Rocks: Using Music to Engage Learning


Voice of ExperienceIn this week's Voice of Experience essay, educator Max Fischer reflects on the first time he used pop music lyrics in the classroom. Since then Fischer has found many ways to introduce music -- from the Rolling Stones to Steve Martin -- to achieve learning objectives. Included: Tips for getting started.

Max W. Fischer

In the mid-80s I taught a lesson on drug education to my sixth graders. In that lesson, I wanted to debunk the stereotypical image of a drug addict. Many of my students thought of addicts as decrepit skid row bums who slept on the streets in cardboard boxes. I wasnt overly surprised by this prevailing mindset, because I was teaching in a suburban community at the time; the origin of the students stereotype seemed to be rooted in a community doing its best ostrich impersonation. To counteract that impression, I would play the Rolling Stones hit from the mid-60s, Mothers Little Helper, which included the following lyric:

"Kids are different today," I hear ev'ry mother say
Mother needs something today to calm her down
And though she's not really ill
There's a little yellow pill
She goes running for the shelter of a mother's little helper
And it helps her on her way, gets her through her busy day.

With those lyrics on the overhead, I would lead a discussion about who the song was about (a typical mother), what her problem happened to be (drug addiction), and the root cause of the problem (stress in dealing with various issues in her life). With that anticipatory set, I launched my drug ed unit designed as much to dispel the myth that addiction could never happen to these students as it was to give them concrete information about various types of drugs and their effects.

What I didnt realize at the time was how frequently I could have employed music in my various subjects as a dynamic engagement tool for young minds. It seemed to me that teachers had several reasons to exploit pop rock in the classroom.


With sloth-like ambition for traditional techniques such as lecture and worksheets, adolescents perk up to the novelty of a catchy tune played during class as part of the lesson. Ive witnessed enigmatic eighth graders energized about the War of 1812, of all things, simply by playing Johnny Hortons memorable tune, The Battle of New Orleans:

In 1814 we took a little trip
along with Colonel Jackson down the mighty Mississip
We took a little bacon and we took a little beans
And we fought the bloody British in the town of New Orleans

We dissected the lyrics and compared them to Andrew Jacksons actual tactics. Genuine engagement replaced mindless lethargy.


Critical thinking on the part of students can be a direct result of a well planned insertion of music into a lesson. When I initiate studies on ancient Greece, one of the first topics we deal with is the social structure of Greek city-states. Although the birthplace of democratic ideals, Athens certainly didnt represent our version of democracy. At this point, I introduce Everyday People by Sly and the Family Stone:

I am no better and neither are you
We are the same whatever we do
You love me you hate me you know me and then
You can't figure out the bag Im in
I am everyday people, yeah yeah

I ask students to describe how ancient Greeks would have reacted to the theme of the song. They ultimately come to the conclusion that Sly and his family couldnt have placed their bag in ancient Greece for long without meeting significant resistance.

Since critical thinking is closely linked to creativity, pop rock in the classroom can also open doors for gifted students. The following lyrics from an original tune, Socrates (played to an innovative melody on an electric piano), were created by one of my students a few years ago:

Socrates traveled around Athens
To get out of the philosophy rubble
He formed the Socratic Method
And it got him into trouble


Finally, just for the fun of it, on occasion I play some music that, while related to the topic at hand, is simply for comic relief. Steve Martins classic Saturday Night Live video skit in which he performed King Tut is absolutely hilarious. After 40 minutes of mentally dissecting the importance of a 3300-year-old mummy, why not have a little fun with it?

Now when I die now don't think I'm a nut
Don't want no fancy funeral just one like old King Tut (King Tut)
He coulda won a grammy (King Tut)
Buried in his jimmies


So, how does one initiate the use of popular music in the midst of lessons in any discipline from reading to geometry to earth science? (Its suitable for any class, not just history.) First, the instructor has to believe that people learn in different ways and that musical intelligence can be harnessed to obtain learning objectives in different areas. With that philosophical basis, the initial practical step is to obtain The Green Book of Songs by Subject, which classifies over 35,000 popular tunes into some 1800 categories. Its the first place to look in order to discover the multitude of music that exists for an incredible array of topics.

While my music vintage spans the late 50s into the mid-80s, any era of music has lyrics that can be relative. After I really began to think about how I could use music in my classroom, I found myself listening more intently to my favorite radio stations and realizing there were even more tunes that I could take advantage of than I had initially tracked down in The Green Book of Songs by Subject.

Cost shouldnt dissuade teachers from exploratory forays with this concept. Old LPs that have successfully survived your own garage sales are one place to begin. Thrift stores or garage sales can be a productive source of inexpensive music. Finally, discount stores, such as Wal-Mart and K-Mart, where Golden Oldie cassette tapes sell for three to five dollars, afford a budget-minded inventory of music. With various Internet Web sites devoted to discovering thousands of song lyrics, locating additional musical resources can be relatively easy.

A relatively meager investment will reap significant dividends in learning within the classroom for the instructor who realizes the value music has as a tool in the overall education of adolescent minds.

A teacher for nearly three decades, Max Fischer currently teaches seventh graders the marvels of ancient history. A National Board certified teacher in the area of early adolescence social studies/history, Max has authored nine resource books for teachers in the fields of social studies, health, and math. You can read a previously published article about Fischer: Simulations Engage Students in Active Learning.

From the Voice Archive

Have you seen these Voice of Experience columns from previous weeks?

* Yearlong Themes Spur Learning and Fun!
* Weighted Grading Can Work
* Inclusion Can Work -- Without Too Much Work!
* In Classroom, Computers Often Yield More Glitz Than Guts

More Voices Have you seen these Voice of Experience essays from previous weeks?

Article by Max W. Fischer
Education World®
Copyright © 2008 Education World

Originally published 01/24/2003
Links last updated 02/08/2008