The power of music

I’m fresh off of the North Dakota Google Summit this weekend. Nothing can energize me more than spending a few days learning amazing things with other passionate people.  And while I’m in no way ready to start to form a cohesive thought about all of the incredible things I picked up this weekend, I thought I’d share something that I talked about with a colleague while at the summit.


It is many of our students’ lives! They would sooner go without water than their iPod and their new Beats headphones. Music can change the mood of a person. It can change the feel of a classroom, and it can change the atmosphere of a school.

Because of Monte Selby’s advice at a Nuts and Bolts Conference, I decided that I would harness the power of music and use it to my advantage to make connections with my students, start class off in a positive way, and sometimes change the mood.

After starting my class with music for the past four years, I’ll never go back. Not only does the music give the students a chance to get themselves involved in the class, but it is also a signal for students that, when it’s over, it’s time to get started. Let’s talk about some of the details.

I start with some of my own music as well as older music. Students may complain that Frank Sinatra isn’t quite their style, but when they ask if they can bring their own music in, you know you’ve got them. Of course they can! As long as it is appropriate for school and under four minutes long, it’s good enough for my class. Monte’s advice was to not push them to bring their own music, but to make them bring it up.

“As a teacher, you cannot be the keeper of what’s cool.  Let them decide.”  That is a memorable quote from Monte, and it is so true. Student choice becomes a big part of the music in my class, but they have to follow the rules. I haven’t had many issues with rules being broken, but if they do play an inappropriate song or if a song is too long, we can go back to my choice for two weeks.

I allow students to bring in a song or find one on Youtube. My colleague had the idea of using a Google Form to submit song requests. This would eliminate the few times I experience frustration in waiting for a student to come up with the song title. We have the list of requests, move through them, and class runs like a well-oiled machine.

Now music is great just for the atmosphere and feeling of the classroom, but it also has value in building routines and signaling our class. During the song, there should be a few things that must be done before the song is finished. These are up to you, but here are mine:

  • Have a sharpened pencil with you as well as your English notebook
  • Respond to the following ___ in your journal
    (I rotate this with a question, quote, fun/interesting fact, and various other short writings)
  • Be quietly seated in your desk before the song is finished

Other ideas include:

  • Fill in your planner or schedule
  • Have certain materials out
  • Tell someone something positive
  • Ask a question about a topic that we are involved in

The main point is that with this routine built in, my students don’t feel that I’m immediately talking to them and starting class. It almost feels as if they have a choice and some time to breathe. But once that song is over, it is our time together. When the song ends, I greet them as a group and we begin our day together.

Another great part of the music is that I have a chance to greet my students at the door, take attendance, and do any other last-minute things before we begin together. This allows me to be fully prepared and not waste time. When we begin, we are focused together.

One story that I remember Monte telling us was about a principal who played music in between classes over the speaker system. The music would start out soft, giving teachers a chance to finish up their classes, then play until the fade out began, signaling that it was time for class to start again. He said that seniors would dance their way to class. Talk about transforming school culture!

And that is the power of music – whether it is changing a moment, making a connection, or shifting an entire school’s climate. Putting a smile on someone’s face with music can change their attitude, and attitude is everything.


How do I start my school year?

One of the things  that students notice is if they are valued, respected, and recognized. Greeting them by name and with a smile on your face is the most important first impression that you can have. I still cringe when I hear someone say that they won’t remember students’ names until Christmas. Do what you have to do to know names of students without any introductions! That is the first main step in building an atmosphere of respect. Calling students by first name as soon as possible shows that you care about them and respect them. Watch a student’s face light up when you know their name before you are expected to!

I have used a variety of things from Harry Wong’s First Days of School as a reference. There is a link to a pdf that had a few of the important parts to start the year. This is one particular part that I pay attention to.

  • Seven things students want to know on the first day.
  • Am I in the right room?
  • Where am I supposed to sit?
  • Who is the teacher as a person?
  • Will the teacher treat me as a human being?
  • What are the rules in this classroom?
  • What will I be doing this year?
  • How will I be graded?

One thing that I try to do is to avoid going through a rules list. On the first day of school, I give a reading survey, play a “Find someone who…” game and highlight a few of the things from the list above. I now just project the syllabus and highlight a few key points. One thing that I am happy about, and I hear it every year from students is that they were so grateful that they didn’t have to sit and listen to classroom rules and procedures the entire time on the first day. School should be a positive thing, I’d love it to be a celebration! I’m probably not quite to that level, but I want to be close!

Practicing procedures the first week is something important as well. I start with just the first 5 minutes or so on the first day, where we do the task on the board before the song is finished. This gives me a chance to take attendance and get myself ready while the students are doing something productive. We practice checking out books from my classroom library in order to become familiar with the procedure. This also gives students a chance to look at some books and see other students who are excited about reading. The more we talk about books, the better!

Those are a few things that I do in order to make students feel comfortable in my classroom and begin our journey to a great year. What other ideas do you have for valuing students and making them feel respected, comfortable, and ready to learn?