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Listening to Learn

posted: 3.14.11 by Susan Naomi Bernstein

How and why do developmental writing instructors make connections between the known and the unknown? I ask because of the seemingly implausible world and national events that have unfolded since the beginning of this new year. I wonder how to make to sense of these changes through writing. Even my usually reliable laptop freezes at the prospect of such a daunting writing task.

“Listen to music,” my friend Jeremy suggests. Jeremy is a professional writing tutor who worked with my developmental writing classes several years ago. He taught me that music that we love and that is familiar can provide a means for learners to create connections to unfamiliar material. Shannon Carter also makes a similar point about music in her book, The Way Literacy Lives: Rhetorical Dexterity and Basic Writing Instruction.

So I began to surf YouTube, and before long I found a link to Tupac Shakur’s “Keep Ya Head Up.” Perfect, I thought. Tupac’s music belonged to the students from my first teaching job after graduate school. I worked at a community college in a large northeastern city that had fallen on hard times in the mid-1990s. At first I knew barely anything about Tupac or his music. But in 1994, Tupac was shot five times and students in my developmental writing class argued fiercely about gun violence and Tupac’s attempted murder.

This is argument,” I suggested to the students. “What you’re doing with speech—that’s also possible with writing!” Their response was that if I really wanted to hear argument, I had to listen to Tupac.

I understood that I did need to listen—and to learn. The students brought Tupac’s music to class. They explained why his work was so important to their generation—so important to them. “Times are hard,” the students said, “and Tupac knows it. We face so many obstacles. Tupac reminds us that we still need to stand up—not to give up.”

“Keep Ya Head Up” includes a remix of “O-o-oh Child” by the Five Stairsteps, another song from my early adolescence. In the spring of 1970, I often felt frustrated, and not a little frightened, by the war far away and by the uprisings closer to home. But music remained a powerful connection to a future that often seemed difficult and bleak.  “O-o-oh child, things are gonna get easier. O-o-h child, things are gonna get brighter.”

As I listen again to that music by the Five Stairsteps and Tupac Shakur, I realize that I have started to answer my own questions. Tupac’s remix helped me create a connection to my own music—and to the music of my students’ experiences. That connection helped me to understand what the students valued, and how and why those values connected to the their abilities and desires to learn to write.

Music—the voices of our students—and our own voice—can bring us back to writing, and help us find words for the thoughts that we have barely begun to comprehend. Perhaps we can envision music as a shared assignment for our selves and our students. What music do you admire? What music best describes this time in your life? What music is your theme song as a writer? What music best connects you to changing events in the world you know and the worlds you don’t yet know? What music leads you to new understandings? Post links in the comments section of this blog—and encourage your students to do the same. And, as ever, good writing—and happy listening!

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3 Responses to “Listening to Learn”

  1. Mick Parsons Says:

    Music plays a large part in my writing. I need some kind of background. I listen to classical, jazz, the blues. I try to avoid any music with lyrics when I write… other people’s words tend to get in the way.

  2. Joanna Howard, Montgomery College Says:

    This week, I’m grading two sets of an assignment called “Writing The Playlist of Your Life.”. It’s an adaptation of an assignment that another community college prof. presented @ TYCA NE this year. I’ll let you know they turn out, but so far, I’ve been pleased with my students’ ability to work with narrative, analysis and exemplification.

  3. Susan Naomi Bernstein Says:

    @Mick, Music and writing seems so intertwined. I’ve watched students become more focused writers when they can listen to music on personal listening devices, or when when we can listen together as a whole class. Lately I’ve had Mahler and George Harrison playing as I write. By now I know the lyrics to GH’s music so well that they sound more like other instruments than like words.

    @Joanna, I would love to see the assignment for “Writing the Playlist of Your Life”– and to hear about your students essays. A few years ago, a friend posted a Facebook Survey called, “What is the soundtrack of your life?” It was really fascinating to read friends’ responses– and to write one myself.