My students take me to task whenever I forget to get a playlist started when it’s writing time in my classroom. I’ll give an assignment, a little time will pass, kids will start looking up from their writing like something’s amiss, then one will invariably raise her hand and ask, “Aren’t you going to play something?”
Which is funny, because my students are all 12 and 13-year olds and the music they are requesting often contains 60s-era jazz, noodly 80s electronica and Nigerian Juju music. You would think that they would demand some Kanye or Meek Mill, but they want my weird, little playlists because they say they are relaxing.
It’s gratifying to hear this because creating classroom playlists has been, more or less, an ongoing hobby of mine since I began teaching in 1993. Back then, I’d jam soul and reggae mixes, (lovingly recorded onto cassette tapes) into my boom box, just to alleviate some of the stress of being a new teacher. I was the one who needed to relax. It turns out my students liked it too and a ritual was born.
According to playlist aficionado, Emily Esposito, “Listening to music releases dopamine and serotonin into the brain, helping you relax and stay focused. Music has an energizing effect, so your mood naturally improves. This state of mind helps you get in the zone and accomplish more.” This I know to be true for myself. Music definitely focuses me and I’m surrounded by it constantly. I’ve seen the same results, albeit anecdotally, with my and kids at home and with my students.
I use all kinds of different modalities in the classroom. Sometimes it’s a cacophony of productive student chatter and discussion. During these sessions, my students know that they had better be involved in the conversation. Sometimes it’s time to hear one student’s analysis or point of view. That kid knows he should stand and wait for the others who, in turn, know they should refrain from talking. I dim the lights ever-so-slightly when it’s time to dig into reading and turn them back up when it’s time to transition to a new activity. I use cues in the classroom. Some cues indicate, “Let’s get loud”. Others direct students to quiet down. The students are aware of the cues and know how to behave when they are presented.
Music in classroom is one of many cues I use as a teacher to send the message that it’s time to write. In the culture I’ve created in my classroom, if your not writing productively when the music is playing, then your kind of “out of line”. You get “looks”, and no middle schooler wants to get called out with “looks”. And, as I’ve said, they not only learn to expect music, they learn to like it.
It’s eternally gratifying for me to watch my students work through the complexities of their latest essay while enjoying a contemplative, musical adventure that begins with the gorgeous, jazz piano of Horace Silver on Songs For My Father, meanders into Escalay, the Kronos Quartet’s interpretation of a Sudanese lament, then slides gently into Kraftwerk’s, quirky, but beautiful, Morgenspaziergang.
Some argue that music is a distraction and that silence is the best backdrop for productive writing, and I understand their concerns, but I stand by my own experience. Certainly, the choice of music matters. I tend to design playlists that are rich in slow to mid-tempo instrumental choices. Hip hop, sadly, is generally not a good choice, nor is a lot of my favorite free-form jazz (sorry Messrs. Coltrane and Coleman). But if you make the right choices, you will be able to effortlessly create classroom environments that are conducive to productivity.
Here’s a playlist that you can begin with. I call it “the classic”, because it’s one that I’ve had around for years, and it’s one that the students tend to request. It’s a Spotify playlist, which is my favorite streaming service:
So if you haven’t already done so. Get yourself a good set of classroom speakers, a Spotify subscription, and start creating a soothing classroom environment that you and your students will love.