Several years ago, I enjoyed some success as a middle school band director. I led an award-winning program that attracted nearly half the students in my school. But I was convinced I could do more. We did
exciting things—there were concerts, parades, and
travel—but our daily lessons seemed to be missing
something important. We never looked at the cul-
tural roots of popular music that students listened
to every day. We never
explored the physics
of sound or the rela-
tionship of music theory
to mathematics. My stu-
dents weren’t creating
their own music either.
Our modus operandi
was rehearse, rehearse,
I wanted to make a
my students’ perspectives around the importance
of music in global cultures and to give them tools
for enjoying and participating in music making
as adults. So over the span of one school year, I
changed crucial elements of my practice.
One humanities lesson I designed asked my
students to think about the impact of violent and
misogynistic lyrics in popular music. Parent appre-
hension over song lyrics is a huge deal with 7th
graders, most of whom believe that they’re “old
enough” to see or listen to anything and that it will
have no effect on their character or thinking. It’s
a dicey classroom topic—asking middle schoolers
to look at freedom of speech, cultural norms, and
increasing violence in media. But the other option
was to let the marketplace manipulate my students as
consumers of pop music, so it seemed worth the risk.
I spoke with my principal, telling him why I
thought I could do a better job as a music teacher.
He was reluctant to change a popular program, and
he was especially wary of an extended lesson on
song lyrics—he emphatically did not want to get
phone calls from parents. Mentioning that I intended
to share these plans at Back to School night did not
reassure him. He told me to proceed cautiously.
My students’ parents, on the other hand, were
enthusiastic about an occasional break from regular
rehearsal routines to study popular music, and they
were intrigued by a simulated case I presented that
involved two fictional students, Michael and Jessica.
Michael injures Jessica in a rage, after a steady diet
of songs with violent lyrics. Two parents who were
lawyers volunteered to read drafts of my materials
and help clarify legal issues, balancing the constitutional right to publish and distribute artistic media
with important reasons to guard against a violence-soaked culture. I used examples from real songs
as well as faux lyrics to illustrate how easy it is to
become desensitized to anger and misogyny; there
were no parent objections.
The Michael and Jessica simulation was one of
the most productive and satisfying pedagogical
experiences in my 30-year career in the classroom.
The questions that students raised varied from year
to year, but they never failed to explore the role of
music in shaping their own lives and cultural norms.
For example, many of my students assumed that
they were immune to the influence of media, but
they were willing to consider that younger children
might be pressured or harmed by inappropriate
lyrics. We also tackled the question of free speech:
Are there legal protections against potentially
harmful media? Do artists have the right to make
If You Really Want to Make a Difference . . .
Teachers need autonomy
over their own work
to engage as true
professionals and bring
about real change.