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“Music goes on forever.” -Bob Marley

Photo by Ian Hayhurst on Flickr, Creative Commons License

I carefully consider the music I bring into my classroom.  I have found it to be a great tool that aides me in my teaching.  It is a community builder, an atmosphere changer, a memory device, and soothing to some of my most agitated students.  Here are some of the musical tips I’ve picked up along the way.

Entrance Music – I like to be proactive in setting the mood for my classes.  Music is one way that I try to do this.  I select entrance music based on the day’s lesson, the time of day and corresponding energy level, or individual class or student preferences.  Sometimes I’ll find a music video on YouTube that uses the kind of music I’m looking for and images related to our content.  Examples:  While studying India I may select a video that incorporates Indian pop music with pictures of the Indian countryside.  While studying the U.S. in the 1980s, I may put on some early MTV music videos.

Classroom Playlist – At the start of the semester, one of the pieces of information I try to gather from my students are their musical preferences.  With these in hand, I have a better idea of what music I can use to motivate them and what kinds of music will drive them crazy (so I can try to avoid it).  When my personal resources allow, I will use my own collection and  iTunes to create a personalized classroom playlist.  I shoot for one song per student.  Some students will often have similar tastes so it doesn’t really involve buying a new song for each student. I often reuse a lot of what I already have.  If a student likes something I don’t have on hand, I have fun going through and discovering new things.  It helps to keep me more aware of their personal preferences.  I then incorporate the playlist into class as appropriate.

Changing State - Teaching teenagers before 8am can feel like a waste of time unless you can change their energy level.  First thing in the morning, I play very upbeat music and do my best to get them moving and awake.  I’ve had people ask why my 1st block isn’t a bunch of zombies.  It can be as simples as some oldies songs and getting my students up and out of their seats during a warm-up activity or class discussions.

The last block of the day is the other big challenge.  By then, kids can be bouncing off the walls.  Especially if it is a Friday or the day before vacation. Using music that has 60-80 beats per minute (or about the speed of a resting heartbeat) can help to alter that sometimes frenzied energy.  This is where people often mention baroque music.  While I do make use of classical music and certain instrumental movie soundtracks in class, my favorite is music for this purpose is that of Dr. Steven Halpern.  Among other things, Dr. Halpern has done research on the impact of his music on learning and ADHD students.  He has found that non-predictive music has the most positive impact on learning.  Non-predictive music allows the brain to stop anticipating what comes next in the song and focus on the task at hand.  This is another reason to use music without words.  As a result of Dr. Halpern’s research, he has been able to compose music designed to optimize concentration and focus.  Just a note on Dr. Halpern’s music: While he does produce music with positive subliminal messages, I choose music that does not contain these messages for use in the public school setting.

I stumbled across the effectiveness of this music one beautiful, sunny Friday afternoon.  It  that happened to be my seniors’ last Friday before graduating the next week.  It was a 90 minute block.  The class absolutely couldn’t concentrate.  So we went outside for about 5 minutes and played a quick game of triangle tag (a good outlet for excess energy).  When we came back in, I dimmed the lights and hit play on the Halpern.  I was amazed at how well the class was able to concentrate on individual work and even they remarked on how much they accomplished that day.

Photo by lucianvenutian on Flickr, Creative Commons License

Musical Choice - The type of music you use in your classroom can have a profound effect at times.  I’ve found that oldies are often a great choice and recieve the least amount of complaints from my students.  Other discoveries along the way is that Marvin Gaye can have a calming effect, while Irish jigs can really energize students.  I also try to make musical choices related to the historical content we are studying in class.

Anchor Songs – This is a concept I’ve just recently begun to think about.  An anchor song is a piece of music that you use as a signal for students.  Some routine activities you may use anchor songs for include getting into groups, time to clean up, journal writing, activity transitions, and more.  Use the same song each time to trigger the awareness in students that it is time to do something different.  This is an obvious cue that tells students what they should be doing and, once learned, will save you time in the classroom.

Signal – Similar to anchor songs, any music can be used as a quick and simple signal that it is time to transition.  At the beginning of class, during group discussions, or other activities, you can have music playing.  When it is time to move on to a different activity, simply turn the music off.  This is an automatic signal to students that something new is coming.

Timer – Do you have an activity that you only want students to spend a few minutes on?  Select a song that fits the appropriate mood and activity length.  When the song is over, time is up!

Memory Device – Music is a strong memory device.  How many things as a child did you memorize set to song?  ABCs, anyone?  My favorite song to use in my U.S. History classes is the Presidents Song by the Animaniacs.

Discussion Enabler – Have you been in one of those situations where you have asked your class to have group discussions and no one seems to be talking?  I have found that music is a useful tool to help promote discussion.  “With music playing in the background, it is as if permission has unconsciously been given for people to speak to each other.” (Allen 2002)  In a quiet room, it can be a risk to speak first.  With music to help mask your voice at least a little, people are more willing to strike up conversations.  I encourage you to experiment with this.

Photo by Balakov on Flickr, Creative Commons License

Personal music players (iPods, mp3 players, etc.) can be a contentious issue in the classroom.  Personally, I welcome students to use them in my classes as long as they are used appropriately.  I have found that personal music players with headphones can provide students with the ability to block out unwanted auditory stimuli.  This can be very beneficial when students are trying to concentrate on individual work.  I have found this to be especially true for my ADHD students.  I make sure to lay the ground rules for personal music players in my classroom and explicitly teach when it is appropriate to use them and what appropriate use looks and sounds like.

Resources Consulted:

Workshops that address the use of music in the classroom:

Edit: Updated links on 3/12/13

What other ways have you found to effectively use music in the classroom?

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