The Cure for the Common Core (And Other Musings About The Power Of Music)

As I mentioned in my first blog post, my music went with teaching like chocolate went with peanut butter. Music made the curriculum taste better and the curriculum made the music taste better. A certain synergy was created. It got me thinking, what makes music such a powerful teaching tool? Is it like the spoonful of sugar that makes the medicine go down? Do catchy melodies and rhythms motivate students to learn and practice otherwise dry material? Perhaps music gives us permission to let down our guard, that wall that sometimes prevents us from learning new things in a new way.

Music is definitely a powerful medium. The songs that shaped me are very much still with me. Though my French is somewhere between rusty and lost to the ages, I can still sing a song I learned in French class about a bird losing its feathers. I can name all 50 states in alphabetical order because I learned a song in fifth grade called Fifty Nifty United States. Sometimes though, a song will express something un-nameable. I distinctly remember traveling in the back of a car at the tender age of sixteen listening on a Walkman to “Caterpillar Girl” by the Cure (Yes, I’m a child of the 80s). It starts with a piano and two violins engaged in an intriguing (and highly original, I thought) string conversation and then dives headlong into a lush melody of exuberant melancholy (piano and voice over a bed of congas and Spanish percussion?) I was astonished at how well it expressed the fleetingness of our identities when we are in love. It named what I was feeling so exactly that the song was something of a revelation to me. I felt a lot of different things listening to that song, including admiration for the artist, but I think the main thing I felt was – “I’m not alone!” If a song could make me, then a sensitive teenager, feel deeply understood then perhaps it’s not hyperbole to say that music saves lives.

I don’t think music is alone in having the power to make education (and life for that matter) richer and more effective. Dance, drama and visual art all have the power to communicate on the multiple levels needed to truly engage students. (Gardner’s multiple intelligences anyone?) The arts give purpose to learning and create an authentic arena through which to process and then present the learning to others.

So when I asked myself, “How can I teach an ecology unit so that my students connect with and have empathy for plants, animals and all the living systems that make up our planet?” – it was natural for me to turn to the arts. Through the arts a child can speak as a tree, dance as the ocean or sing as the Earth. Through the arts a child can paint what is or what ought to be. Through the arts a child can view the world from different perspectives. The arts tap into what a child intuitively knows – that he or she is everyone else, that everything is connected, that all is one.

That is why the arts and the sciences are such a good match, like the aforementioned chocolate and peanut butter. (author’s note: My apologies for overusing this clichéd analogy and to all those who dislike this combo or are allergic to peanut butter. Ironic and sad as it may be I myself have developed a slight allergy to peanuts, so perhaps this is my way of hearkening back to the days when I could eat Newman’s dark chocolate peanut butter cups without consequence. If for any reason you abhor this combo or this analogy, feel free to substitute your own delicious yet surprising combo and leave a comment in the box below so I can try it out – unless it involves peanut butter.) In different ways both the sciences and the arts explore the connections between all things. It was therefore, natural for me to pair the pedagogy of science with the arts to learn about and explore our connections to the planet. So, I wrote songs to go with the lessons and after I wrote songs I wrote lessons to go with the songs – songs and lessons that encourage students toward an expanded view of themselves. A view that may be best expressed by the statement “I am the planet and I am not alone!”

The new Common Core standards for reading and writing ask students to make connections between disciplines. In some ways these standards attempt connect the disciplines of reading, writing, art and science by asking students to respond to texts, articles, art or performances and justify their responses with evidence from the text. Students are encouraged to make claims and cite evidence to back up their claims. Students are also encouraged to make connections between the text and other works with which they are familiar. Because of these new demands being placed on students, songs, plays, dances and artwork that address environmental science issues become perfect vehicles through which to teach the Common Core.

If you are interested in seeing some of the lessons I wrote to go with my song Reduce Reuse Recycle (complete with Common Core connections!) click the link below!

If you are interested in hearing the songs I wrote for my students that eventually became my album Kids of the Earth, click here-

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