I believe that as a teacher, I’m responsible for teaching both knowledge and character: How to finger tap, and also, usually in more subtle ways, how to be a kind person. And there are definitely some songs with offensive or “adult” lyrics that I would never teach a child.
But I don’t think “Highway to Hell” is inappropriate. The speaker in AC/DC’s song “Highway to Hell” is obviously a terrible role model, but the kids I teach know that. Teaching a young person the song wouldn’t make them do evil things, any more than a child dressing up like a vampire for Halloween would give them a thirst for human blood.
Six weeks until the Coffee Shop Jam! As my students’ rowdy recital approaches, I find myself watching video footage from past jams, reliving the exciting memories. One video I return to, not just now but whenever i need a boost, is Emma’s performance of her song “Snow Day.”
When my 9-year-old student Emma came to her first lesson after the winter break, there were still a few patches of snow in my backyard, the remnants of a massive storm that delighted kids, and mortified their parents, by closing schools for a week. Emma arrived full of stories of sledding on city streets and walking to the grocery store in Arctic gear.
Suddenly, interrupting her own story, she burst out, “I want to write a song!”
“Great!” I said. “What do you want to write about?”
“Um…I don’t know.” The muses had arrived at her doorstep empty-handed. I knew the feeling.
“Well, usually people write about things they feel strongly about—something that makes them really happy, or sad, or angry. You seem in a good mood. Want to write a happy song? What’s something that makes you really happy?”
A brief fermata, and then Emma’s eyes widened. “SNOW DAY!” she boomed. Yes, the girl boomed.
I knew from past songwriting sessions that Emma prefers to improvise singing parts while I play guitar. I grabbed my Les Paul—she insisted that the song should rock—and, with my audio recorder on, I played power chords while Emma shaped her snow-joy into words, rhythm, and melody. A few minutes later, she had her chorus, simple yet perfect: “Snow day, the best day ever.”
Over the next few lessons, she dictated verse lyrics while I typed, and then fashioned them into pleasing melodies while I played chords. Once the song was finished, we worked on stagecraft in preparation for the spring Coffee Shop Jam. Emma practiced singing into the microphone, moving her body with the music, and counting beats to help her know when to start singing a tricky line in the third verse. She wore a racetrack around the perimeter of my lawn by running while memorizing lyrics—talk about kinesthetic learning! I stood in the middle of the lawn, prompting her when she got stuck and, as I often do these days, marveling at what a strange and wonderful job I have.
You can guess how the story ends. Emma’s fantastic performance at the Coffee Shop Jam was a culmination of her creative gifts and hard work, and the teaching approach I’ve described in this chapter: Honor the students’ interests. Provide scaffolding (notice she didn’t even touch the guitar during the writing process—singing and playing would have overwhelmed her). Tackle difficult tasks by appealing to students’ learning styles. Motivate them with encouraging feedback and a chance to share their music with the world.
When I told Emma at the end of her performance, “That was the best song ever,” I wasn’t exaggerating for her benefit. It was one of the most powerful teaching moments of my life.