Stevie Van Zandt’s TeachRock eyed for more Long Island classrooms

Freeport music teacher Stephanie Arnell wanted her students to learn about farmworker rights activist Dolores Huerta, so she played two songs associated with her life to the sixth-graders.

For a lesson on the Jim Crow South, she turned to The Beatles and their refusal to perform before a segregated audience in Florida. Her classroom at Caroline G. Atkinson school is covered in band logos from Run DMC to Nirvana for students to appreciate the artwork. 

These lessons are part of a free curriculum called TeachRock, which offers online instruction plans, study units and materials for educators. Launched by rocker Stevie Van Zandt, the standards-aligned, open educational resource uses popular music from artists such as Beyoncé and Billy Joel to help teachers engage students. 

A newly announced partnership between TeachRock and the Long Island Music and Entertainment Hall of Fame (LIMEHOF) aims to bring the curriculum into more local classrooms.

The nonprofit LIMEHOF recently announced that it has adopted TeachRock as its education partner, and this fall, teachers across Long Island will be able to attend training at its newly established Stony Brook location. TeachRock offers more than 200 instructional plans online for grades K-12, covering subjects from algebra to world history.

“We are trying to educate people in a very broad way through music,” Van Zandt told Newsday. “We are trying to give teachers the tools they need to deal with the modern world.”

Tom Needham, the LIMEHOF vice chairman and education committee chair who is an educator in the Sewanhaka school district, learned about TeachRock through teacher training in New York City a few years ago. The nonprofit and TeachRock have held several events together, and in 2016 the organization’s Harry Chapin Award was presented to Van Zandt for his work in music education.

Stephanie Arnell is a teacher who specializes in using TEACHrock in the classroom, where popular music is paired with lessons from math to history. Credit: Kendall Rodriguez

When LIMEHOF opened in its new home on Main Street last year, Needham said he approached TeachRock about working together.

“Let’s do something bigger, and that’s what we are hoping to do now — something beneficial for their organization and most importantly for the kids that attend school on Long Island,” he said. 

Van Zandt, a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and longtime guitarist for Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, founded the Rock and Roll Forever Foundation (now the Rock and Soul Forever Foundation) in 2007, and the first 60 lesson plans of the TeachRock curriculum were published in 2013. 

He’s on tour with Springsteen and is scheduled to play Long Island’s UBS Arena in April. 

Prior cuts to arts education had concerned him, and he wanted to look for a way to improve graduation rates. A student who likes one class or one teacher is more likely to stay in school, said Van Zandt, who also has played a main character on HBO’s “The Sopranos.”

“I don’t like the arts being treated as sort of irrelevant — something you do after school,” he said. “I thought it was extremely important that the arts be integrated into the DNA of the public education system.” 

So far, 60,000 educators have registered with the online site, and other states are using it, too. In 2021, Connecticut officials announced they were integrating the curriculum into public schools statewide. 

The free lessons are tailored by genre, subject and grade. A math lesson for middle schoolers incorporates Beyoncé’s Instagram account and how ratios can be used to identify social media audience engagement. Instruction about the Cold War includes a video of Billy Joel’s 1987 concert in the former Soviet Union. 

“We want our curriculum to be practical, to be useful, to have a purpose,” Van Zandt said.

Some artists, including Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart, have created online lessons specifically for TeachRock. Hart, in an online video available on the website, shows children how math can be tied to the musical vibrations of a drum. 

Locally, LIMEHOF plans to promote the curriculum to schools through monthly email blasts, as well as posting updates on its website to highlight lessons each month. 

Starting in the fall, the LIMEHOF museum will host TeachRock teacher training sessions. The location can accommodate class field trips. 

“Our dream for the curriculum for kids is that you get the spirit of popular culture into the classroom and the kids forget that they’re in a classroom and they start just having fun,” said Bill Carbone, executive director of TeachRock.”The truth is that can happen for adults, too.” 

Arnell, the Freeport teacher, is considered a TeachRock ambassador and has collaborated on numerous elementary lesson plans and articles with it. Her school is the only partner school in the state. 

She has been using the lessons for years and has helped train other teachers in the school. Under her curriculum, there are no tests, as the lessons are designed to help students develop critical thinking skills. 

“Maybe you’re an ELA teacher, maybe you’re a social studies teacher, but there’s something on this website, something about this curriculum that you could bring to your kids,” Arnell said. “And then once you’re aware of it, there is something to being trained in terms of understanding how can I use this? Will it work with what my district already requires me to do?” 

Her recent lesson for Women’s History Month on Dolores Huerta showed video footage of the activist in California, including her work alongside Cesar Chavez. She played the song “De Colores,” which often was sung at United Farm Workers gatherings, marches and rallies. The lesson culminated with the poem “A Street Called Dolores Huerta” by Los Angeles poet Nikki Darling, set to music by singer Alice Bag.

Arnell recognizes that some artists may not be familiar to the children. Van Zandt once dropped in virtually to the classroom, and though the students did not know who he was, they peppered him with questions about his life.

“We do a lot of rock and we go all the way back,” she said. “We use Chuck Berry, we use Elvis, and I always try to connect it with today’s music. If it wasn’t for these people a long time ago … then we wouldn’t have what we have today.” 

Student Kaiden Tucker, 11, said the class helps him learn about more than just the arts. 

“All of Miss Arnell’s lessons, they weren’t just around music — they’re all around every subject and they help us,” he said. “It helps us understand everything.”


By Joie Tyrrell