Pitt professor's goal is to help students learn other subjects through music
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What do Woody Guthrie, Neil Young, James Brown, Dolly Parton, Irving Berlin and Bob Dylan have in common? They, among others, just may save music in American schools and put a powerful tool in the hands of teachers of all subjects.Annie O'Neill, Post-Gazette
Molly Mason and Jay Ungar, who performed the music for the Ken Burns documentary "The Civil War," teach a session of the Voices Across Time program at the University of Pittsburgh.
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A University of Pittsburgh music professor is disseminating a new approach to teaching history, English, social studies and other humanities by including music to be studied like any primary text. The results have been stunning for those teachers who have implemented his program in their curriculums.
"A large percentage of teenagers are bored with education, find that it has less to do with their real life and become disaffected," said Deane Root, founder of the Voices Across Time program. "Textbooks already have vivid color and illustrations but miss out on music history. If music is one of the primary ways teenagers identify with each other, why not use it in the classes?"
The Voices Across Time project uses songs such as these to further students understanding of history:
1701: A moralistic hymn from New England gives an inside view of the English colonies' pejorative views of Native Americans. "Once More! Our God Vouchsafe to Shine"
1862: Set to a tune by Stephen Foster, this Union propaganda song calls for volunteers to fight in the Civil War for Abraham Lincoln. "We Are Coming, Father Abraam, 300,000 More"
1862: Prejudice against immigrants has a long history in America, as heard in this bitter song about a newcomer from Ireland looking for a job in America. "No Irish Need Apply"
1970: Neil Young's gritty anthem decries the killing of four Kent State student protesters by national guardsmen that year. "Ohio"
Dylan's "The Times They Are A-Changin' " fits snugly into a class investigating the protests of the '60s, for instance. Sting's "Russians" makes sense in a chapter about the Cold War. Root's project, however, also specializes in providing information about lesser-known songs from earlier periods.
Class discussions on slavery gain from the authentic voices expressed in spirituals such as "No More Auction Block for Me." An understanding of the abject, pre-union working conditions in American sweatshops gains depth with a listen to "The Song of the Shirt." Discrimination ("No Irish Need Apply") and prohibition ("Father's a Drunkard and Mother Is Dead") are investigated through song, as well as the many U.S. conflicts, from the birth of the country to the Civil War to the World Wars and Vietnam.
The trick, said Root, is to get teachers to treat music in the classroom in a more integrated manner, "not using music as wallpaper or window dressing or a curtain you walk through as you come into the room."
To do that, he realized he had to give teachers the tools to understand how to use the information found in music and in lyrics. All at a time when school districts have been curtailing music literacy.
Music a common target for cutbacks
In the past 20 years, "cut time" has meant something completely different to music teachers in public high schools. Financially strapped school districts were already decreasing music programs before No Child Left Behind was signed as federal law in 2002. It requires students to pass annual exams in reading and math, causing school districts to shift the balance of classes to those subjects.
A study released in March by the nonpartisan Center on Education Policy found that 71 percent of school districts participating in the federal program (more than 90 percent of all U.S. districts) reported a reduction in instructional time in at least one other subject to make more time for reading and mathematics. Music has been a heavy target.
"Though many programs across the nation are stable and some might even be growing, data from the Council for Basic Education, from analysis of California Department of Education data, and certainly from anecdotal sources suggest that the trend is downward," said Michael Blakeslee, spokesman for the National Association for Music Education.
"In Pennsylvania, it is rare to have music cut out completely, but things have been whittled down," said Richard Victor, former president of the Pennsylvania Music Educators Association. "Classes taught five days a week are changed to four or three days."
The fight is still on, in the greater cultural arena and in schools, to reinstate or provide better funding for music education and instrument lessons. Several studies have shown how playing an instrument increases responsibility and brain development, not to mention broadening cultural experiences.
But Root and others are making the bold case that music also is a potent way to help students learn other school subjects. "I want to change the whole notion that music is a periphery to education and show it is an integral part of the core curriculum," he said.
Earphone cords emerge from nearly every teenager's ears these days, attached to iPods, MP3 players, even cell phones. If they are not getting instrument study as much as they once did, listening to music is more important than ever.
"There is nothing in education school which teaches prospective teachers how to use music as a regular part of their lesson plan," said Root.
He began researching Voices Across Time in 1995, but it wasn't until 2004 that he could offer seminars for teachers -- as a partnership between Pitt's Center for American Music and the Society for American Music, and sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Now, any interested secondary education teacher can apply for funding to the classes here in Pittsburgh and in workshops he puts on throughout the country.
"With the kids connected to their MP3 players, I knew it was important," said Joanne Krett, who teaches English and humanities at Boyce Campus Middle College High School in Monroeville. In 2004, she participated in the first of Root's five-week summer seminars, and the results from implementing his approach, she said, had a "phenomenal" effect on her students.
"I always had music playing as a mood setter in the classroom; I just never had the tools to use it effectively," she said. "The kind of kids I teach are so turned off by traditional education. It definitely engaged them more."
Root and his assistants supplied Krett with a guidebook and CDs analyzing songs that intersected with the issues she was teaching. One such subject was American social history of the '60s, often misunderstood by her students. "The kids have this view of the '60s as hippies, they don't realize that was a small movement in a greater conservative environment," she said.
In addition to the standard historical materials, Krett had the students listening to two songs of the time: Neil Young's "Ohio" and Merle Haggard's "Okie from Muskogee." The study of the lyrics and the music brought to life both sides of the cultural divide of the time.
Not only do the texts of these songs offer a deeper context to the turbulent times, students also find they learn much from the music. They already have the tools to decode songs simply from listening to them all the time, and that deepens their understanding of the lyrics and the issues.
"Students often form identities around musical styles because it contains a lot of information they can understand," said Root, who also is chair of Pitt's music department. "Songs from throughout history are packed with information. ... Music is ubiquitous today, but it was everywhere in American history."
Effect on students
Mark Albright has taught history at St. Agnes Academy in Houston, Texas, for 26 years, but was astounded by the effect that the project had on his students.
"This is very effective in getting them engaged," he said. "They love the music, [and it] just dovetailed so nicely with all the other elements of the course. A book, a song, a picture -- is a means. Using as many of them as possible, you can help students come to understand a broader richer, deeper cultural sense of the nature of people in another time."
Albright also is amazed by other effects of including music in the curriculum. His students created a music video that speaks to the evolution of the image of adolescent women in society. Likewise, Krett had her students write new lyrics to "The Alcoholic Blues," a song protesting Prohibition. "We asked them to take any policy and write a song in the same meter and rhyme to protest that. They loved it [and were] actively involved." Subjects included curfew polities, the school's dress code and the No Child Left Behind mandate.
Both Krett and Albright had only limited background in music before attending Root's seminar, but Root was ready for that with activities that helped to make the learning curve less steep. For this summer's institute, wrapping up this week at Pitt, Root booked several guest speakers and musicians. Jay Ungar and Molly Mason, the songwriters who did the soundtrack to Ken Burns' documentary "The Civil War," sang through songs with the teachers in a recent seminar.
Other projects sing similar tunes
Voices Across Time is one of several independent projects funded by the NEH on this subject. Another was created by music industry expert Joseph Horowitz. "What Deane and I are doing is strategizing to get music back into the curriculum via social studies and history, [getting] music into the high school in classes other than the band room."
Horowitz's project includes a book, "Dvorak and America," and a soon-to-be published DVD-ROM by music historian Robert Winter that uses Antonin Dvorak's historic visit to America in the 1890s as a portal into understanding American culture at the time.
Horowitz is impressed with how Root has expanded such a project to include music for every period of history or aesthetic movement. "Deane is miles ahead of me in linking to high school teachers," he said. "I think he is a visionary."
The irony running through the efforts of Root, Horowitz, Vanderbilt's Dale Cockrell and others like a recurring bass line is that it has been through music's precarious existence in schools that these new, rich avenues for its inclusion have developed.
"It is very wrong-headed and shortsighted and an act of ignorance to remove music to save money and raise test scores. They are actually removing the incentives to become a better student," Root contends.
He hopes to extend his project to more teachers by finding a publisher and expanding the classes to other geographical areas.
"The kids are listening to music. Why can't we use it?" Root asked.
University of Pittsburgh professor of music Deane Root wants to tap into students' love for music to help them learn in other subject areas.
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First Published July 26, 2006 12:00 am