By Asilia Franklin-Phipps

As a kid I was an avid reader and loved listening to my dad’s soul and funk records. By the time I was an adolescent, I became very involved in underground indie and punk music subculture—collecting and swapping records, promoting bands, selling merchandise for bands, and booking shows. I also wrote extensively about music and shows, designed fliers and zines, and distributed them to the other music nerds in my social circle. I made mixtapes, decorated tape-cases, and painstakingly wrote out the artist and song (all pre-internet)—hoping to tell a story that I could not yet speak. I think and know in music and wonder in song.

There was nothing that I ever did in school with this much joy. I was enthusiastic about working on these things with other similarly engaged young people. These experiences felt very distant from school-sanctioned learning, even though I am certain that my passion for music and everything related made me a better writer and thinker. I am not arguing that this feeling, this kind of learning and engagement, can easily be reproduced in the classroom. Instead, I am suggesting that if we as instructors can figure out a way to close the distance between this kind of learning and what often happens in classrooms, we might grow the space for students to not only consume knowledge, but to also produce and share it. My own experiences being a thoughtful and intellectually engaged young person out of school, and bored and disengaged in school, helped me think about how most formal schooling spaces have a very narrow view of what counts as learning, what counts as knowledge and who counts as smart. In many ways, I was often on the wrong side of those dichotomies.

These out-of-school experiences taught me the value of music, art, and culture. And as a teacher, first as a high school English teacher and later as a college instructor, I immediately recognized the pedagogical value and potential of connecting popular music to teaching in English, then in Ethnic Studies and finally, in Education Studies. When studying intersectionality in Ethnic Studies, we very casually created a playlist in class. I asked my students, what artists engage in some of the intersections of race and gender in their work? They yelled out things and I wrote them on the board. I made a playlist and shared it with them—you can do this on Spotify—and their homework was to listen and write a response. In English, we read poetry, short stories, and listened to music across a theme–loss, betrayal, and liberation. Students referred to the music most often in their class discussions and assignments so that it became a way into the ideas of the texts less familiar to them.

In Education Studies, we collected all of the references made to school in popular music and thought through how these references reflected perspectives different from Hollywood films and dominant discourse about school, such as the intro. to Biggie Smalls Notorious B.I.G’s “Juicy” where he speaks directly to “all of the teachers” who told him he would never become anything; Vince Staples’ “Summertime” where he struggles with the contradictions between what he learns in school and what he learns at home; and J Cole rapping about his college days. We explored the cultural significance of school as it was taken up across popular culture and digital media in ways that were different than we had experienced. We connected lyrics to scenes from Boyz N the Hood and The Wire. Working with cultural texts that were personally meaningful, interesting, unexpectedly resonant, or relevant in some way also built up students’ tolerance for texts that they had previously found boring. Students developed their ability to see it through and be patient while they waited for something interesting to happen–some connection, some clarification, some new way of knowing. When we take popular culture seriously as an important and relevant cultural text in the classroom, we signal to students that this class will be different from what might be common or familiar. And when they shared the music that was important to them, they became more aware that they have something important to contribute. This expands the possibility for new and unexpected teaching and learning. I do not mean to say that music is the only way that these things happen in classrooms, but the power and value of music has not yet disappointed in my classes.

As an instructor who had miserable and boring experiences as a student, how learning feels is never far from my mind. Do we make them more miserable with our teaching practice or do we say, hey look what else we can do in this space? As a college instructor I do not want to infantilize my students, but there are certain things that are true across age groups: all students like to feel that they have something to contribute, want their interests and experiences to have some place in the classroom space, like to learn in ways that are new to them, and to leave classes with a new way of knowing something that had become familiar or stuck. I am being bold by saying all students here.

Again, music is not the only way to get at these things but music is accessible, pervasive, and often unique to the individual. Popular music also takes up relevant cultural and historical topics in ways that can cohere and diverge with course texts like articles, books, films, etc. And you do not need to be an expert in popular culture or music to be able to do this in the classroom—you just need to make space for it and the people in your class will fill in that space.