For the 2015-16 school year, the Rock and Roll Forever Foundation has partnered with 11 educators who we selected to participate in the Rock and Roll: An American Story pilot program. The teachers span middle school, high school, and the university level, teaching in seven states including New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Ohio, Colorado, and California. All teachers are leading either a semester-length or yearlong course using the Rock and Roll: An American Story (RRAS) curriculum.
We recently interviewed Melanie Dana, one of our pilot educators from Goshen, Massachusetts. Melanie teaches a middle and high school elective called "History of Rock and Roll" at North Star Self-Directed Learning for Teens.
When did you begin teaching Rock and Roll: An American Story (RRAS) in your classroom?
Melanie Dana: I discovered RRAS shortly after it launched in Fall 2013, as I was preparing to teach a new course on the history of Rock and Roll. I’ve been teaching the history of American music on and off for the last 20 years and have a wealth of resources, mostly in the form of mixtapes, VHS cassettes and poor quality photocopies. I used to spend hours collecting material and cueing up tape to prepare my lessons. Now I can spend the same amount of time sifting through the abundance of content on the internet. I was thrilled to find almost everything I needed so readily available on the RRAS website. I am now in my third year of teaching this course and I am incorporating more and more content from RRAS all the time.
What has been the greatest strength of incorporating RRAS lessons into your courses?
MD: The greatest strength of RRAS is that it’s multisensory, creative, relevant, and a powerful tool for addressing issues of social change. There are entry points for all students regardless of their interests, musical backgrounds, and learning styles. The RRAS lessons are well-researched, thoughtfully constructed, and engaging. The website is easy to navigate and incredibly versatile. When preparing my curriculum I can go find individual resources or use an entire lesson plan as is. Each lesson can stand alone or they can be used in sequence as a complete curriculum. In addition to teaching History of Rock and Roll, I am also a math/science teacher and have been a homeschooling parent, and I have never come across another resource that is so comprehensive and freely available.
Is there a specific lesson or discussion that particularly engaged your students? How so?
MD: A few lessons stand out, The Blues: The Sound of Rural Poverty, Liverpool: Birthplace of the Beatles, and Beatlemania. These lessons provided a meaningful window into two cultures that can be somewhat foreign to students today—the rural south of the 30s and 40s and post-WWII northern England. The combination of historical background, music, lyrics, visual images, performances, and, in the case of the Beatles, interview clips, gives a rich context for understanding the forces that shaped the music and provides many opportunities for meaningful discussion.
What are some ways you've innovated or added onto the lessons?
MD: A good example would be our recent deep-dive into the Beatles following the two RRAS lessons. After completing the lesson on Beatlemania my students wanted to watch the movie A Hard Day’s Night, so I created a lesson on viewing film critically as a cultural artifact. One of the things that really stood out was how the camera work created the feeling of being a fan following the band around and how the movie both captured the experience of “Beatlemania” and also became a vehicle for spreading Beatlemania. My students were also very interested in discussing just what it was about the Beatles that made them so popular, iconic and influential. Because the majority of my students are also musicians, I asked a musician, Josh Wachtel, to co-teach with me this year. We ended up digging deeper into the Beatles' sound, and Josh led the students on an exploration of the often unusual way the band constructed their chords—especially the opening chord to “Hard Day’s Night” which has been the subject of much speculation and debate.
I have also created a great deal of content on the contributions of women in the history of Rock and Roll, because if we don’t include them, those women become invisible to the point where it appears women have had no role at all. I like to be responsive to my students’ interests and needs, and since half of them are girls, I feel it’s critically important to highlight women whenever possible. We have a wonderful resource where we live—The Institute for the Musical Arts—and many of my students have been through their Rock and Roll programs for girls. Women are still grossly underrepresented in Rock and Roll and I make a point of including and emphasizing the contributions of their "foremothers." We are used to seeing women fronting bands or as singers, but is still remarkable when a woman picks up a guitar, bass or plays drums; and even more unusual to see her recording or producing. Therefore, I like to include Wanda Jackson and Janis Martin when we learn about Rockabilly; discuss Lesley Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me” as a feminist anthem in the girl group era; introduce Carol Kaye when we discuss the importance of L.A. session musicians; bring in the Liverbirds when examining the Liverpool scene that spawned the Beatles; explore Rock bands like Fanny and the Pleasure Seekers when teaching about Hard Rock of the late 60s; include Estelle Axton and Sylvia Robinson when discussing record company executives and producers; and feature record companies such as Olivia, Righteous Babe, and Daemon when talking about the importance of indie labels, to name just a few. I also use the music industry as a framework for understanding institutionalized sexism and the evolution of the women’s rights movement, building on the topics introduced in the RRAS lesson A Song of their Own: Female Singer-Songwriters of the Early 1970s.
Do you have any advice to a teacher just starting to use the RRAS curriculum?
MD: Spend time exploring the website, read the chapter essays, watch the videos and listen to the songs. Notice what interests and excites you. Get to know your students, what interests and excites them, and find connections within the curriculum. It is unlikely that one course could cover all the content on the website, so it’s important to pick and choose what works for you, your students, and your course objectives.
Photo: Melanie Dana (third from right), with co-teacher Josh Wachtel and their students, during a unit on the Beatles.