Saturday, 24 June 2017

Listen to the Music - Part 2

In my last post, I introduced my approach to music in my classroom and the “eight song bracket challenge” my students and I explore throughout the year. In this writing, I would like to share the story of an unexpected opportunity that resulted in an authentic conversation and a positive outcome.

Recently, the students wanted to look at eight songs by Michael Jackson and have them square off in the challenge.  For fun, I decided to share “Eat it”,  the ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic video lampooning Jackson’s “Beat it”. It was wonderfully well received and I squeezed in a quick lesson on parody, particularly focusing on the notion that the individual being satirized would be more flattered than offended. I currently have a group of boys who have a fascination with “pranking”. They are, as one might expect, still learning that a gag may not always be harmless, or be received as it was intended.

A few weeks later, we watched the “Bad” video - which is actually an 18 minute short film directed by Martin Scorcese. It generated lots of talk. There were some obvious commentary about how it hadn’t aged well, but we also discussed street violence, crime and poverty. We even brushed up against  the idea that we all wear different masks for different people in order to feel safe or belong.

It was around this time that I remembered that ‘Weird Al’ had a parody video called “Fat”. When the video was released, in 1987, I was working as a bartender at a pizza joint. There was an upbeat cook who would parrot lines from the video, peppering them comically into his daily kitchen banter. Consequently, I only remembered the song as being tremendously funny and hysterically quotable.


Thirty years later, I reflected on things differently. The song, although clever, could easily be seen as staggeringly cruel to people who were obese. I realized that endorsing it as “great comedy” would not be appropriate and I debated moving on. However, I also reflected on a mantra from the world of improvisational comedy.

“There are no mistakes, only opportunities”.

I decided to turn the wheel of my pedagogical car into this skid, and embrace this situation head-on. I showed my students the video without giving them any preamble. We then looked over the lyrics. Then we debriefed.

I began by asking the students to gather at the front of the class to show a continuum. We have done “opinion continuums” before, so they were familiar with the process.  

At one extreme was a space for students who felt the song and video was “totally fine, just good fun and not a big deal”, and at the other end was a space for students who felt the song was “inappropriate, clearly body-shaming people who were overweight”.

Interestingly, 94.7% of the class (19 out of the 20 students who chose to participate) gathered on the “totally fine/good fun” side, with 12 putting themselves near the most extreme end. The message was clear. Overall, the students did not think this was a big deal.

We then had a discussion.

  • Students openly shared their opinions about their position. Several suggested that "people were fat by choice" and that "it is okay to make fun of fat people because they are funny."
  • I floated the idea that other factors could contribute to obesity, including
    • Poor food options in childhood due to poverty.
    • Mental health issues, like depression leading to overeating.
    • Physical health issues, like issues with the endocrine system.
  • I asked them if their opinion would be different if we had a student in the class who was obese?
  • I asked them if their opinion would change if it was, equally cleverly written, but called “Black” or “Gay”?

There were some great ideas shared and the conversation was lively. My students, who are nearing Grade 6, are starting to become more aware of social charged topics. Their world of black & white truths are starting to bleed into an intricate mix of grays. Being part of this process with them is as wonderful and important as it is complex and delicate.

We returned to the opinion continuum after the discussion. This time we self-evaluated our choices before and after the chat by completing a Google Form anonymously. The results are here. As you can see, most students moved toward the opposite end with 26.4% recognizing it as some degree of insensitive, 31.6% in the middle and the remaining 42% still seeing it as a lesser degree of “just fine/good fun”.

Some final thoughts and questions

  • I am constantly amazed at the great things that can come out of a simple idea.
  • I sincerely feel that this activity made my students kinder, more thoughtful & considerate about the feelings of others.
  • There are some who might argue that I am using my position of authority unfairly. That, perhaps, I am trying to create "soft liberals". Students who will become overly concerned with Political Correctness & stereotyping while learning to be afraid of free speech.  I’d like to tackle that in Part 3 of this blog series - but that might be too big a nut to crack in a forum like this.

Thursday, 22 June 2017

Listen to the Music - Part 1

I love to incorporate music into as many lessons as possible. I try to have music playing during every work period. This year, I am responsible for about a third of the music instruction with the rest being covered by a rotary music teachers.

When I volunteered as a (very) late night DJ at a University Radio station, I picked up a rule that I still apply in my classroom today.

We can listen to anything that was not released in the last 12 months.

That radio station, CHRW 94.9 FM at Western Ontario,  still celebrates “a mandate to look outside what commercial radio stations and CBC are doing” on their home page.

My Grade 5 students are just at the point where they are discovering commercial radio and are defining their own taste in music. Consequently, I want to provide them with a rich & expansive buffet from which to choose.

Our musical choices come from many sources…

  • They can be curriculum inspired, Pump it Up by Elvis Costello & the Attractions was picked as a theme song by the group presenting their Cardiovascular System Talk Show.
  • They can be selected for practical reasons. Perhaps, they are simple enough for me to play on the guitar or ukulele. “Ahead by a Century” was our entry into the Canadian Music Class Challenge this year.
  • They can be situational. We looked at the music of Chris Cornell when he passed this May.
  • They can be selected through student voice. We often take a vote and pick a genre of music that we want to explore. This year, for example, we did New York Songs, Funny Songs & Hip Hop to name a few.

To facilitate this exploration, we select 8 songs from the artist or genre and then have them do battle, bracket style, to determine a winner. This is an example of a Knockout Bracket that we completed when David Bowie passed in January of 2016.

We put the songs up, head-to-head, using the Polls feature in Edmodo and voting (which is optional and anonymous) takes place each night. This is an additional tool to get the students onto the Edmodo (a teacher moderated and student safe Facebook-like environment) where they can chat and share opinions, building both their literacy and social media skills.

My 2016-17 class is currently in the last 5 days of school and we have reviewed the 32 entries on the Class Song List we have curated over the past 10 months. Spotify has made it easy for me to make the playlist that is the soundtrack to our year.

The songs are currently going head-to-head in an elimination bracket similar to the NCAA Basketball Tournament (aka: March Madness) format to determine our Song of the Year. At the time of this writing, we are into the Elite Eight and there is much debate about the eventual winner.

There was also agreement that ...
1.) We covered music from many decades (even centuries with our Genius Hour Mozart Soundtrack)
2.) We covered music from a variety of genres (Beatles to Reggae, Cajun to Hip Hop, Pink Floyd to Taylor Swift).
3.) It is okay to say that something "isn't my cup of tea", but we reserve the word "hate" for things like racism and war.
4.) It really was a good idea to look outside the music from commercial radio,

In Part Two - I will discuss how looking at a parody of a Michael Jackson song turned a potential mistake into a great, teachable opportunity.