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Rock & Roll High School: Steven Van Zandt Helps Bring Music To The Classroom

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Steven Van Zandt has rocked many a stage as a member of Bruce Springsteen‘s mighty E Street Band, and now he’s about to hit the classroom. Yesterday (April 24) at New York University, the guitarist announced that his Rock And Roll Forever Foundation has teamed up with the GRAMMY Museum for a unique curriculum designed to bring rock and roll (and its roots) into high school and middle school classrooms.

Clad in a half rocker/half educator outfit (jacket, tie and glasses, plus jeans and his omnipresent headband), Van Zandt introduced Rock And Roll: An American Story, a multimedia-based curriculum for middle and high school students that delves into more than just the music. Explored here is the influence of the blues, country music, gospel, R&B and rock and roll on social movement, politics, history and American culture as a whole, over the past seven decades.

 

Van Zandt said that he was inspired to get involved in the education system because of the alarmingly high rate of drop-outs in America.

“I saw one word recur in discussions of the drop-out epidemic that is crippling our country: engagement,” he said. “At-risk students are very often the students who do not feel engaged in school. Put another way, they are not seeing how the classroom relates to their lives.”

He recalled a teacher who made a big impact on him by using his interest in music.

“In my case, it was a librarian in my school, who saw my interest in Bob Dylan and encouraged me to make the connection between Dylan’s songs and the world of literature,” he said. “She helped me make the connection between ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ and the Beat poets, like Allen Ginsberg. That was foreign to me in New Jersey! Through this simple gesture, the classroom came alive to me, and all of the sudden it seemed relevant to me. I wouldn’t be the same person if she, as an educator, hadn’t empowered me to understand life through the music that she knew I loved. I realized at that point that [music] was more than just teenage entertainment. I want to do for young people what she did for me. We hope to do that for the students today. But obviously we can’t do that for the students today unless we do it through the teachers themselves.”

To that end, the Foundation has created curriculum and lessons that work for teachers within the confines of the today’s educational standards. Scholastic Inc. has been involved with the Foundation and will create support materials for teachers, including a micro-site and a teaching guide. The curriculum has also been officially endorsed by the National Association for Music Education and the National Council for Social Studies. Everyone involved with the foundation seems aware that, to have their curriculum accepted by Boards Of Education, it can’t just be fun or well-intended — it has to be practical.

“One thing that we’ve been doing is looking at existing teachers’ needs,” said Warren Zanes, the Executive Director of the Rock and Roll Forever Foundation (and a former member of ’80s rock band the Del Fuegos). “We can’t differentiate ourselves from the culture of testing that is out there. We connect to national and state core standards.”

Zanes points out that there are no teachers who are looking for “Beach Boys lesson plans.” But, he says, “There is a teacher who is teaching post-war America, and looking at the rise of the suburbs, and looking at the highway system, and how that has effected every aspect of American life. And how California was looked at as a utopia. All of those things are already in the classroom, but in our Beach Boys lesson plans, we find another way to get at them. You don’t just come out knowing more about the Beach Boys, but you’re understanding that music is a way of going deeper on things already being taught.”

He also recognized the importance of getting lessons into the hand of teachers who work in schools that are still not connected to the Internet, which still exist in certain parts of our nation.

The Foundation has created a bevvy of lesson plans, but Van Zandt says that he hopes teachers’ attitudes will change from “turn off your iPod” to “what are you listening to?”He told Radio.com that he will encourage teachers to help students discover older music through current hits.

“The continuing history includes today’s pop,” Van Zandt said. “Start with whoever you’re into now, like Lady Gaga, and then go back. Let students discover the roots themselves. I learned about Chuck Berry through the Beatles, I learned about Muddy Waters through the Rolling Stones.”

The Rock And Roll Forever Foundation isn’t Van Zandt’s only effort in stressing the importance of music with students. He’s also worked with Little Kids Rock, a totally separate organization that works to bring musical instruments – and music lessons for teachers – into schools.

“Little Kids Rock put music into kids’ hands, which is wonderful,” he said. “The Rock And Roll Forever Foundation has a different approach, but we complement each other. Little Kids Rock encourages kids’ interest in playing music, and put guitars in their hands. Ironically, kids who play music do better in standardized tests. That’s a fact.”

Little Kids Rock recently threw a fundraiser/tribute to Van Zandt that featured performances by Elvis Costello, Tom Morello and Bruce Springsteen, among others. Morello performed “Sun City,” Van Zandt’s ’80s-era anti-apartheid anthem, explaining from the stage that that song inspired a global movement that helped to end apartheid. Although that’s an extreme example, Van Zandt says he’d like to have students see the links between music and social movements.

For now, the Foundation’s curriculum is being piloted in New York City in two high schools and two middle schools, and this fall will be available to all U.S. schools at no cost. Learn more about the Rock And Roll Forever Foundation at its official website.

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