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December 1, 2018
Vol. 76
No. 4

Confronting Inequity / More Than a Math and Science Teacher

Bringing students' interests into the classroom enriches learning.

EngagementInstructional Strategies
Confronting Inequity / More Than a Math and Science Teacher thumbnail
In my book Start Where You Are But Don't Stay There (Harvard Education Press, 2010), I showcase the practices of a mathematics and science teacher in a high-poverty urban middle school who immersed himself in his students' arts-centered practices outside of school. He did this to build relationships with his students and create a dynamic, welcoming classroom ethos.
This teacher, Mr. Jackson, understood that outside of school, his students were listening to music, playing video games, and watching movies, television shows, and YouTube clips (among other forms of entertainment). He also realized that many of them were engaged in various arts in their out-of-school lives: participating in plays at their church or community center, drawing and painting, and creating music with their friends, for instance. Some of the students were engaged in these activities almost nonstop when they weren't in school. Rather than disregarding or working against his students' outside interests and practices, which is common in too many schools, this teacher welcomed them into the classroom. He used every opportunity he could find to talk with his students, either one-on-one or in groups, about the things that gave them joy, which tended to be linked to their interests.
Mr. Jackson had discovered early in his career that chatting with his students about their interests allowed him to build relationships with them that informed his teaching and enhanced the classroom climate. He told me that he attempted to immerse himself into his students' worlds to connect with these kids and inform his own instruction.
He also felt it was important to learn about the cultural trends and practices that influenced his students' lives: "I am a D.J. I like the rap music [that his students listened to] myself. I feel like a kid at heart sometimes, so I kind of stay in touch with them in that way."
Music was almost always playing in Mr. Jackson's classroom. While this was unusual in a math or science class, he felt it created a richer learning environment and was not without impressive precedent. He noted,
Well, it's nothing new. [Music] was actually used in ancient Egypt, where they used drams and instruments in the classroom. I do it for a couple reasons. Number one reason is kind of—selfish—I like it. … It's like people like to go take smoke breaks or eat chocolate—I like to listen to music. And it soothes me. It's usually jazz, sometimes some soft rock [or] some soft R&B, but it's usually jazz, occasionally classical.
So with this practice, he was also able to share a bit about his own outside interests with his students—something that strengthened their bond.

The Power of Music

Mr. Jackson created an instructional game called "Science Feud," a take-off of Family Feud, except that in place of the square-dance theme music used on the TV show, he would play hip hop or the latest R&B hit. The questions were science-related, of course; he used the "feuds" to put some fun into the students' review for upcoming tests. And the students really got into it. They would study the materials with urgency and push their team members to answer the questions correctly. Mr. Jackson told me that students would always take their time walking up to the front of the room to face their opponent because they wanted to listen to the music being played as long as possible. They would dance and smile or laugh as they walked to the beat. Something special about the music added to the atmosphere and allure of the game. I often observed students from other classes peeking their heads into Mr. Jackson's class because they were drawn to the music.
So it's not that Mr. Jackson literally used music to teach math and science concepts or thinking. Rather, he used music as a way to build relationships with his students, to lighten the atmosphere, and to create the kind of classroom culture and environment where his students wanted to be. He understood that there's more than one way to broaden the curriculum and that kids in urban schools deserve to enjoy themselves just as much as those in other environments. He helped students bring their whole selves to class, something a focus on test scores and scripted curricula can never do.

Building Bridges

As educators work to build impactful, sustainable relationships with students and co-construct classroom spaces of respect and reciprocity, they might consider gaining a deeper knowledge of students' outside interests and working those interests into lessons or using them to enhance the classroom climate. Today's students are passionate about music (of all kinds), TV shows and streaming series that feature characters they can relate to, magazines like Teen and Seventeen, comic books and graphic novels, video games, and sports. We should be reading and watching what students are interested in, and trying to connect to those interests inside of school.
As Mr. Jackson understood, it's a mistake not to welcome students' interests into the classroom. They can be instrumental in building bridges to students' rich inner worlds.
End Notes

1 Milner, H. R., Cunningham, H. B., Delale-O'Connor, L., & Kestenberg, E. G. (2018). "These kids are out of control": Why we must reimagine "classroom management" for equity. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

H. Richard Milner IV is a professor of education and Cornelius Vanderbilt Endowed Chair of Education at Vanderbilt University. He is the author of Racing to Class: Confronting Poverty and Race in Schools and Classrooms (Harvard Education Press, 2015) and coauthor of "These Kids Are Out of Control": Why We Must Reimagine "Classroom Management" for Equity (Corwin Press, 2018).

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