To Help Teach Subjects, Teachers Learn to Look to Music

Jul 26, 2013

Teachers from across the United States have spent the last five weeks in Pittsburgh for the “Voices Across Time” program.

They've been learning how to incorporate music into their lessons, and the goal is to help students not only learn, but also connect with various subjects.

On the final Wednesday of the program, the group of teachers sat listening to a song called “The Blue Juniata.” Its lyrics are featured in the book "Little House on the Prairie." For the past month the teachers have been learning how to use such songs in their classes.

Dale Cockrell is director of the center for Popular Music at Middle Tennessee State University and heads Pa’s Fiddle Project.

“The Pa’s Fiddle Project is about the music that is imbedded in the 'Little House' books written by Laura Ingalls Wilder," he said. "There are 127 songs embedded in those books, and they function in interesting and compelling ways.”

The "Little House" books are required reading in many classrooms in the U.S. and are used extensively in home schooling. Each book features lyrics of songs, many of which people just don’t know anymore. Letting students hear the music allows them to better connect to the stories and stay engaged. That’s what many of these teachers are looking for ways to keep kids excited about learning.

“It has helped kids learn to read, learn their math facts," said Jena Moncheck, an early childhood teacher in South Carolina. "In early childhood you can use it to teach about historical figures, you can use it to teach about holidays and it keeps kids engaged.”

Music Teaches More Than Facts

Moncheck said music is a powerful tool to teach diversity, acceptance, history, and most importantly, historical context. For instance, there are numerous songs used to teach events of the 1960s, such as the Vietnam War with Bob Dylan’s "Blowin’ in the Wind" or "We Shall Overcome" — a key anthem of the Civil Rights Movement.

“It really helps us make the kids more interested in history, which is something a lot of kids really struggle with,” Moncheck said.   

But teachers have standards they have to meet with their curriculum. So finding time for music can be a bit tricky, according to Mary Beth Hutchinson, an eighth grade social studies teacher from Memphis, Tenn.

“A lot of us, even veteran teachers who have been teaching 20 or 30 years, the new reality is you teach to the test, and the tests do not include music,” she said.

Hutchinson said giving kids information through music can help them understand what they are learning.

“Whenever I’ve used musical examples, kids snap to attention," Hutchinson said. "They’re ready to engage. Kids that are in the back barely making eye contact feel comfortable with music and feel comfortable engaging in subjects that they might not otherwise have been."

Dave Witoslawski, a high school social studies in McKeesport, said the music used doesn’t have to be old to be an effective teaching tool. In part of his curriculum he uses songs of the Cold War, like Tears for Fears’ "Everybody Wants to Rule the World" or Crowded House’s "Don’t Dream It’s Over."

“Then I’ll have them create either a parody or a rap regarding the Cold War," Witoslawski said. "What it does is engages higher-level thinking in regards to synthesizing the information they learn and turning it into something that’s coherent." 

Learning Language and Culture Through Music

Beyond teaching history or literature using music, there are other practical applications. Azael Gonzalez teaches American History in the Dallas area. English is not the first language of many of his students. He said music, while effective for all kids, can be especially helpful to those learning English.

“It helps them develop their reading, their pronunciation, their understanding, listening, speaking — it helps a lot," Gonzalez said. "And music helps you remember a lot of things so if you remember a song it will bring out all these other memories of what we’ve done in class. It gets you moving. It’s more interactive.”

During the five-week program, teachers learned about songs of industrialization, the Great Depression, songs of the railroad, music of the Civil War and world wars and even the role of rap and hip-hop in history and current events. The “Voices Across Time” workshop is offered every few years.

Dean Root, director of the Center for American Music at Pitt, said the program is a true hit with teachers,  those who’ve completed the program say they’ve seen great results.

“One of the reasons this is so successful in their schools is because the sound of history is absent," Root said. "This provides them with a link to that very natural, very human, even preferred way of experiencing the world — through their ears.” 

The teachers said they’re excited to take what they’ve learned and use it in their classrooms this fall.

“The arts, especially in social studies or a U.S. history test, are almost nonexistent," said Mary Beth Hutchinson. "It is very fact-based. It is, who made the Louisiana Purchase? From whom did we purchase Florida? What is the purpose of the Oregon Trail? And you miss a lot of the human elements of the whys.”

And through music the whys become a little bit clearer or simply help students better retain information. And since music is, as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow put it, “the universal language of mankind,” there is no shortage of material for educators to pull from.