In returning to the classroom this year, there is a lot that I’m joyfully rediscovering. I recently wrote about teacher aesthetic and building community and how those parts of my teaching have reemerged after so much time teaching online. Recently, another dimension of in-person teaching has grabbed my attention: music.
When I think about music in the classroom, I think about the five senses. Upon entering the room, for example, students can see the furniture and feel the temperature. If the chairs are set up in one large oval instead of groups, students’ interests will pique and they will probably wonder why (at least in my room). This seating arrangement is used to increase the awareness of others and induce different ways of thinking. If the windows are open and it’s chilly when they walk in, students will place their arms across their chest and desire a sweater. Without one, they’ll probably have a hard time focusing that day. These simple scenarios reveal how the classroom environment affects the body — and student behaviors and mindsets as a result.
I think this is also true when it comes to music. If I’m playing a catchy song when my students walk in — something brimming with melody — I believe it lights up my classroom and sets a positive, uplifting tone. The song can stir emotion, breed confidence, and establish a collective rhythm that lives in the background of our classroom. If the song is pouring out a set of quality speakers, all the better! (SmartBoard speakers are trash.) The music may not explicitly help students to calculate average rate of change or prove two triangles are congruent, but it can help manufacture the conditions under which they can do these things.
That said, it’s probably not surprising that I play music at the start of class and while my students work. I did this before and during remote learning, but it feels different since we’ve been back. The experience is livelier, more vivacious; the songs are hitting harder and the head nods, finger snaps, and body sways add warmth to the classroom climate. The tunes I play is a curated playlist of mostly R&B, hip-hop, and pop — both modern stuff and throwbacks — that I bump from a set of Bose speakers. The songs you’ll hear inside my room are no doubt a reflection of me (I need to vibe too), but I do my best to ensure my students’ joints are there, too. I ask them for music recs all the time. They keep me and my playlist current.
When I walk through the hallways of my school and listen, practically every classroom is absent of music. This reminds me that harnessing the power of music in the classroom pushes back against the norm that academic spaces need to be quiet and orderly spaces. This perspective dismisses the role of the body in teaching and learning. It guarantees that classrooms are purely intellectual and void of emotion (especially those in math and science disciplines). It means that hearing Jay-Z fortify us with his swag or Alicia Keys buoy us with her smooth vocals is unnecessary and even nonsensical.
I can’t disagree more with this belief. Being back in the classroom has helped me remember why.