Twenty-seven sophomores were wilting away in my muggy classroom on that sweltering September afternoon in Houston, Texas.
They lethargically slumped down in their chairs and barely showed the sign of a pulse—until I told them that day they would be writing essays. They suddenly came alive with groans, complaints, and the starting up of fifteen side conversations. I redirected them enough to start instructions when a student called out, “Ms., can we listen to our headphones?” On one hand, I knew it was against district policy. I also knew assistant principals combed the hallways and could have just marched into my classroom unexpectedly, questioning any practices they saw as unfit. On the other hand, I knew that music had magical powers and if I allowed them this privilege they would be more willing to work. I gave in and allowed it. Immediately I heard exclamations of “yes!” as the majority of the class dug the tangled messes of ear buds out of their pockets and popped them into their ears. A few minutes passed by and I glanced around my room to notice they were all working— in complete silence! I had no idea if the writing was quality, but did I care at this point? They were putting words on the paper and I chalked it up as a success, especially since this was during the first month of my first year of teaching.
I allowed my students to listen to their headphones that day without any research to back up my instructional decision. Sure, I had heard snippets about how music could help students focus, but that was the extent of my knowledge on the topic. At the time, I had not considered the purpose of my choice; I was simply looking for the convenient quick-fix, and I had found it. But what if I could gain a basic understanding of the effect of music on the brain as well as the chemical processes taking place? If I could accomplish that, I would be able to see music as more than just a quick fix. I would be able to utilize it as an empowering instructional tool, integrating it into my lessons in meaningful and purposeful ways. Better yet, I could share my findings and open up a dialogue to others searching for practical and data-driven ways of using music within an ELA classroom. With these being the motivating factors of my research, I have formulated this paper in order to address the following: to provide background information on the beneficial effects of music on the brain and its functioning and to include specific strategies (using music) based on the instructional objective of the lesson.
Music in the ELA Classroom: Why It Works and How You Can Use It
Lyric-free Music and Free-writing
Sometimes students are hesitant writers despite the fact that the teacher establishes a welcoming, non-threatening environment within the classroom. In these cases, this type of distress can cause students to “downshift” into a “freeze, flee, or fight” mentality (Carroll, Joyce Armstrong. Wilson, Edward E. Acts of Teaching II. 2nd ed. Portsmouth: Heinemann, 2008). In these situations, it is imperative for the teacher to seek out a solution to alleviate the students’ stress and regain their ability to function at a higher functioning level. Music has the power to impact the students’ brain chemistry in a way to counteract this response, when used in the correct way. In “Music: It’s In Your Head, Changing Your Brain” Elizabeth Landau quotes Robert Zatorre, professor of neurology and neurosurgery who discusses the results of a study that showed when participants listened to music, “part of their brain called the ventral striatum release[ed] dopamine,” a chemical released in response to pleasure-related stimuli. It is important to note that during this study “they excluded music with words in order to focus on the music itself rather than lyrics—the melodic structure for example”(Zatorre qtd. in Landau). If the objective is to help students avoid a “downshift,” based upon this research, it is suggested to use non-lyrical music to achieve this particular chemical effect.
Music for Pre-reading/Building Community
We all know that listening to music can transport us to another time and place; help us conjure up images in our minds, even if they are far removed from our own lives. Our brains actively “seek out patterns and generalize from experience…” as well as tapping into our “ability to imagine” (Lemonick). This deep connection lends itself perfectly to a pre-reading connection. For example, before reading To Kill a Mockingbird last year, I researched popular music in the south during the 1930’s. The students listened to a few songs and wrote down images that popped up in their head during the songs. We then discussed the reasons why particular images were tied to the music, and consequently began tapping into their prior knowledge of the time period. The students were able to reflect on what they knew about the time period, and what they did not, and even create predictions for the novel.
Besides the intellectual and imaginative functions of music, studies have shown that listening to music can “make [people] more likely to be cooperative or pro-socially oriented toward [others] outside of a musical context” (Patel qtd. in Jaffe) If you want to help build community in your classroom, listening to music may help you achieve that goal. Patel continues, “Somehow moving in time with other people to a common beat blurs the line between self and other” (Patel qtd. in Jaffe). If we know this to be true, why would we not utilize this phenomena within the communities of our classrooms?
Music (and Listening to Music) as a Way to Reflect on Their Own Writing Process
So far, there is no conclusive evidence to determine if music with lyrics (no matter what genre) has either a positive or negative effect on students’ thinking or writing. Many seasoned teachers will argue that the music they play is the right music for their students, when in reality it is simply the music that the teacher prefers. Teachers will argue that music of today is not really music, and because of their egocentric preferences, will not allow students the choice to listen to “their music”. These teachers make this choice without data to back up their decision and may be doing their students a disservice by refusing them the option of choice. Why not open up the students to the idea that they can listen to their music (during the appropriate time,) as long as they actively record how it is impacting their writing? The student can then begin thinking about their own process, and analyzing whether or not the music helps or hinders their writing. In this way, the responsibility is put back into the students hands. They are forced to self-monitor their choices and perform higher level thinking skills throughout their writing process. Allowing students to listen to the music of their choice can be an empowering experience for the students, as long as the teacher explains the purpose behind the tool.
This is a guest article by an independent author. This article reflects the opinions of the author and not necessarily those of BusyTeacher.org as a publication.