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5 ways music and tech are adding a little STEAM to our lessons

Technology plus music is an easy, accessible way to put STEAM in lessons — and students love it

The holy grail for those of us in education is a method that imbues students with higher-level thinking skills that stick, preparing them for what comes next in their lives.  This means not just reaching all students with the content they must learn but making sure this information stays around in their heads to improve their school performance and knowledge base.

As we all know, this can be a tall order, but in my school district, we’ve been using the latest and newest technologies that help to engage kids in learning. Our results have been significant and, I believe, worth sharing.

My job involves instructing both teachers and students in how to implement technology tools into their lessons. All our middle- and high-school students in Moore County, N.C., have Chromebooks so our digital tools must be compatible. As part of our constant brainstorming of new ideas and tools, my team heard about an online music recording studio called Soundtrap that runs on Chromebooks and we developed a curricular program to use it at many schools in our district. I personally use it at both of my middle schools.  One is a Title 1 school with a minority population of about 50 percent, and a free or reduced lunch status of about 65% while the other one is not a Title 1 school and its minority population is about 20 percent.

Regardless of how you use music, our results so far are demonstrating that as a learning aid, music is a powerful technique. Here’s how we’re reshaping our classrooms for the better.

It’s captivating kids

My strategy was to have students take information and turn it into a song. As soon as I told the kids that they would be writing their own songs in class and performing them, their eyes lit up.  They were captivated by the idea of doing something so creative and different that was still part of their lesson plan.

The content could be something about World War I in history or it could be science or be about the planets or anything that teachers want them to remember. All students have to do is transfer it into lyrics then record it. We tell the kids to think of it as writing a poem using the information from class. Children at this middle-school age have such a strong connection to music and the famous singers who perform the music, so this approach really reaches them and makes them feel like they’re little superstars.

Brain research shows key role of music

Reinforcing the concept of our program was the fact that there have been neurological studies using MRI and PET devices that demonstrate how as people are involved with music, more areas of their brain are fired. Music engages practically every area of the brain at once, particularly the visual, motor, and auditory cortices. This kind of thinking boosts the ability to plan, strategize and focus on details, which translates to enhanced memory function.

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We’ve seen this play out with our students. Certainly, they’re having fun, but they tell us how easy it is to write an essay now after using the tool to record the content because the information is right there, stuck in their heads like an earworm. Some of our students are using this music tool to earn higher test grades because they’re recalling what they memorized much better.

Groups of three are optimal

We put our students in groups of three; the group dynamic has its own obvious benefits. One student might record a beat, the next one record the song over it and the third could sing the lyrics they’ve written. Or some sing together and there’s often one “tech person” in the group who will save the results, do the uploading, share with the teacher, and perform other tasks. In the midst of all this, students are also getting a healthy dose of the so-called four C’s — critical thinking, collaboration, communication, and creativity.

Also see: 7 ways schools can get creative with STEAM

Our program grabs students via the creative aspect of writing and performing music while still supporting our educational goals. For example, if we use this digital tool in a history class about World War I, the teacher would talk about concepts like militarism and nationalism in class. Then, the students use their computers to research the possible causes of the war, and create a song about it.  It’s teaching them, but in a different way that holds their attention.

Engagement, rather than poor behavior

Whenever I come into a classroom to do a creative music lesson in comparison to traditional pen and paper lessons, the kids are all engaged and everybody wants to participate. This includes the students who rarely raise their hand, don’t pay attention, or even misbehave. We’ve had great results in both schools, but particularly in the Title 1 school because those kids particularly relate to music. Our students there have a great love of rap music, and they relish the chance to create their own beats and lyrics. These kids are performers who love to get up and present their creations. For them, it’s also a confidence builder and a way to prove that they have what is takes to be successful in school.

I’ve worked with many digital tools that exploit various creative areas but the focus on music has been the kids’ favorite. By comparison, I’ve taught graphic design using online poster-making software based on their class content but I don’t get the same engagement that happens when the medium is music.

An extension, not replacement, of regular lesson plan

Naturally, pen-and-paper lessons are still a key part of the curriculum, but we’ve found that having lessons like this using music once a week or every other week is crucial. Without effective digital tools, teachers will lose the kids, so tapping into their creativity and interests using music as the medium is a powerful instructional technique. Most people have an innate response to musicality in its many forms so tapping into the basic response to music makes the learning of content so much more effective.

Ed. note: For more on the author’s story, see the video below.



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