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Teaching Effectively With Music
September 2, 2013 - 6:12pm

gh - musicJustin Dunnavant is a PhD student in Anthropology at the University of Florida. You can find him on Twitter at @archfieldnotes or at his blog AfricanaArch.

 "One good thing about music. When it hits you feel no pain." – Bob Marley

Last week marked the start of our semester and my first time teaching a course on “Pan-Africanism.” On the first day of class I walked into the room, greeted the students and asked, "How many of you are morning people?" At 8:30 in the morning the response consisted of a mingling of grunts and moans. I affirmed that I shared their pain and would try to open every class with a good musical selection.

I'm not a morning person and while I've been trying to improve my sleeping habits, going to bed at a timely manner is not my forte. As a graduate student, who still hasn’t completed his qualifying exams, I was granted the rare opportunity of teaching my own course with one caveat: my class time couldn't conflict with the scheduling of other major professors in the department. Thus I got stuck with the dreaded 8:30AM time slot on Tuesday and Thursday mornings. Although better than the 7:25AM class period, 8:30 is the penultimate of worst class times.

Anyone who has had to teach or attend an early morning class knows a typical lecture can be a kiss-of-death for the already sleep deprived students. Lively discussion and enthusiasm are important, but can't always beat the effects of fatigue. To combat the morning slump and demonstrate how themes relate to more mainstream concepts, I’ve been testing ways to effectively use music in the classroom and break the monotony of the typical lecture experience.

First, select good music. Students like to listen to songs they can relate to, and it helps to have a good music video for them to watch as well. On the first day of class, I played the music video for the song "Land of Promise," a track off of Nas and Damian Marley's collaboration album "Distant Relatives." Blending contemporary reggae rhythms and hip-hop lyrical styles with Pan-African undertones, the students were fixated on the video's juxtaposition of scenes of modern Africa and the Caribbean.

Next, make sure to demonstrate how the song relates to the topic of the day. It’s important to use the music as a teaching tool and not just a nice song. As the music video concluded, I described how the images sought to change common perceptions of Africa and the lyrics suggested a common bond between people in Africa and the Caribbean.

Finally, outline your class like a movie. A good class, like a good movie, should have a provocative trailer and a captivating soundtrack. Thankfully I found an apt trailer on Youtube and will be assembling the soundtrack over the course of the semester.

Since I’ve been experimenting with music in the classroom, I’ve found that video clips not only get students excited but also give tardy students a few extra minutes to arrive before they start missing some valuable information. At the same time, it’s important not to take up too much class time with music videos.

I'm looking forward to the remainder of the semester and I think the students are too. The day after the first class I received the following email from a student:

"I also have a song suggestion, I thought of it while reading the Pan Africanism vs "Pan Africanism" article ..."

It's rewarding to know that students are engaging with the reading and exploring ways in which it relates to different aspects of their lives!

While music has been well received in my classroom, not all subjects lend themselves to musical accompaniment. In such instances previous GradHackers have offered a number of tech savvy alternative ways to engage students by incorporating blogstwittermemestabletsGoogledocs, and even "Teaching with Batman.” All of these are great ways to keep students engaged during even the most mundane topics.

What are some creative ways you manage to engage students? Have any anecdotes of using music in the classroom?

[Image by Flickr user International Institute of Tropical Agriculture, used under Creative Commons License]

 

 

 

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