Perhaps it is my own selfish desires to relive my teenage years (really? who REALLY wants to go through that mess??). But yesterday, something incredible happened in the "Music in America: Hip Hop, Rock, and Beyond" (M.I.A) class that I facilitate. But to put things in context, allow me to back up a bit...
Last year I envisioned a class that focused less on learning how to play an instrument and performing/creating and more about the discussion of music and how society and music are extremely intertwined. Not every student has a interest in learning instruments, OR, they are music junkies and love just talking about music. I wanted to facilitate a class that would appeal to these students. I considered the student population that I work with and how I might be able to address these varied interests, so I created this class. (The title is not mine....that was the "teaching and learning" department). Anyhoo...this semester has been very interesting for a variety of reasons. About half the class signed up to be in the class and has been incredibly engaged with discussions, projects, readings....etc. The other half of the class was "put" in the the class to "fill spots" and because "they needed a place to go". In other words, we don't have enough electives during this particular hour for students. SO, that has been challenging at times. At the beginning of the semester I had to advocate for several students because they were absolutely Level 1 ELL students, meaning they had no English skills. This class was completely inappropriate for them, BUT I got them into guitar and we are happily strumming along together. Some students still struggle with the readings as they are still learning the language, and they aren't able to "read between the lines" in terms of the lyrical content, but that is ok. They are working on their language skills and that is important too. I have learned how to adapt reading guides and create EL tests that require more basic skills versus critical thinking skills.
So, at times it has been frustrating and I have, on several occasions, found myself lamenting about the seeming "divide" between engaged and non-engaged students to my colleagues. My office-mate and choir colleague offered some words that have resonated with me and have helped me negotiate this feeling of failure. She suggested that so often we are concerned with incorporating students' cultures into our classroom that we miss that we are also teaching about our own culture as well, AND THAT THIS IS OK!!! This is especially ok with music. Students who are new to our country are trying to figure out what it means to be a teen in this world and there are new phrases and new sounds and what better way to experience that through music? Now...that is not to say that I have not utilized their expertise on Somali music or Ecuadorian music. I am not familiar with their music, so they have certainly educated us in the ways in which music is used in their cultures and what it means to them as young men and women. But to what my colleague was saying, even if the students were not "actively participating" in the experience doesn't mean they weren't gaining something from it The learning might just look different.
So, on to yesterday. We have been working our way through this "Seattle Sound" unit and of course we studied Nirvana. Guitar is an important part of this music and in American culture, so why not learn how to play a tune? I broke the class up into three groups. I worked with students who had never played guitar (and for some, never had touched an instrument before) and taught them a simple bass line. There are some students who were comfortable and well-versed in power chords/barre chords and they worked with the other students. It was amazing. Karen Howard, from the University of St. Thomas was in my classroom observing and caught it all on video. I told her before hand "I have no idea how this is going to go. It could be awesome or it could completely flop." It was beyond my wildest imagination. Seriously. Watch the whole thing. This was 100% unplanned. To quote a student: "We aren't supposed to do this in school, but we just did."