This Rock Legend Is Combining Teacher PD With Live Music

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Munhall, Pa.

In a crowded concert hall here on a late October evening, rock musician Steven Van Zandt leaned into the microphone—nodding his head, wrapped in his trademark bandana—and turned his between-song banter to teacher appreciation.

“We’ve been, you know, just trying to give a little respect to the teachers around the country,” he said to audience applause, while intermittently strumming a guitar at the helm of his 15-person band, the Disciples of Soul.

“They’re underappreciated,” he said, pausing for emphasis. “Underpaid. Underfunded.”

Van Zandt, a member of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band and an actor on the HBO show The Sopranos, was giving a shoutout to teachers for a reason: This concert, at the Carnegie Library Music Hall of Homestead in Munhall, was one of the first stops on his “Soulfire Teacher Solidarity Tour.”

In part, the tour is a bid to get Van Zandt’s free arts-integration curriculum, TeachRock, into more classrooms around the country. The musician’s Rock and Roll Forever Foundation, which runs the educational initiative, has invited teachers at every stop on the tour—which is traveling to 19 states and Canada—for a free experience that’s half professional development, half night out: a one-hour arts integration workshop followed by a rock concert. So far, more than 10,000 teachers have registered for the workshops, the foundation reports. The organization has also partnered with local school districts in some of these states—which have agreed to offer professional-development credit to educators who participate.

Steven Van Zandt performs with his band The Disciples of Soul at the Carnegie Library of Homestead in Pittsburgh in front of a crowd with many teachers.
Steven Van Zandt performs with his band The Disciples of Soul at the Carnegie Library of Homestead in Pittsburgh in front of a crowd with many teachers.
—Jeff Swensen for Education Week

As teacher strikes and labor actions swept the country this spring before the tour began, Van Zandt took notice, and the tour took on another mission—bringing attention to teachers’ struggles and rallying community support. The show is scheduled to stop in Arizona, Colorado, Kentucky, Oklahoma, and West Virginia—all states that saw strikes or widespread teacher action over the last nine months.

At the event here in Pennsylvania, a state that didn’t see large-scale teacher activism this year, some teachers emphasized the importance of public solidarity with the profession. But for others, the show was an introduction to the issues other teachers across the country have been protesting.

Bringing Back the Arts

Years before this spring’s teacher strikes, TeachRock was born out of education activism.

Speaking from the stage to about 100 educators gathered in the concert hall for the professional-development workshop, Van Zandt recounted the story of the curriculum’s origin. “Ten years ago or so, the [National Association for Music Education] came to me and said, ‘This No Child Left Behind legislation is devastating all the arts classes across America,’” he said, referring to the previous federal education law.

“So I went to Congress. I talked to [U.S. Sen.] Teddy Kennedy and I talked to [Sen.] Mitch McConnell. And I said, ‘We got a little problem with this legislation.’”

The arts were being pushed to the back burner in many places, neglected in favor of subjects like math and English that were tested under the law. Van Zandt said he asked the legislators: Could they do something to bring music back into the classroom? “They were like, ‘Not gonna happen,’” said Van Zandt.

He went back to NAfME, he said, and proposed a different fix—an arts-integration curriculum that would weave music history through core subjects like English and social studies.

The online library now includes about 140 free lesson plans. Most resources are written by the Rock and Roll Forever Foundation’s staff, which includes current and former educators, said Christine Nick, the senior manager of policy and outreach. The organization also partners with several documentary films and the music education nonprofit Little Kids Rock to create some resources. The majority of lessons are tailored to middle and high school social studies courses, examining how popular music has reflected—and shaped—social, political, and economic forces in the 20th century.

Other materials integrate contemporary pop and hip-hop artists, who might be more familiar to 21st century students: A social-emotional learning lesson uses Alessia Cara’s song “Here” to explore anxiety and peer pressure.

Another traces the beats and rhythm in songs by enslaved people in the Americas through to Beyonce’s music today. (TeachRock is far from the only organization providing materials that infuse popular music into core curricular subjects—resources like Flocabulary, for example, use hip-hop as an access point.)

“If I’m being honest, I came in more skeptical than positive,” said Jeff Duda, a high school literature teacher in Latrobe, Pa., who attended the workshop and the concert, in an interview with Education Week. Professional development can be hit or miss, he said, with no guarantees that programs promising creative, thorough materials will actually deliver.

But Duda said he’ll be able to use these lessons in his English classroom. “I’m actually really pleasantly surprised,” he said.

For the pre-show workshop, teachers sat in rows in the concert hall as foundation staff led them through sample activities projected on a screen on the stage. In one activity, participants watched a British news spot on the Beatles from 1963, and then offered suggestions of historical and cultural factors that led to the band’s rise.

Steven Van Zandt stands with teachers during the arts-integration PD seminar in Pittsburgh.
Steven Van Zandt stands with teachers during the arts-integration PD seminar in Pittsburgh.
—Jeff Swensen for Education Week

These are the kinds of issues teachers can explore in social studies or history courses, said Bill Carbone, the foundation’s vice president and an ethnomusicologist by training. “If you start peeling back the layers on ‘She Loves You,’ it’s not about the chords or the drumbeats anymore,” he said to the teachers. The music opens the door to talk about the changing economy, generational differences, and repressed female sexuality in the 1960s.

Finding a path to student engagement is the curriculum’s No. 1 priority, said Van Zandt, in a sit-down in his dressing room with Education Week. “We want to be the cool class, the one that they look forward to, and the one they’re going to participate in and be engaged in,” he said.

“It’s what I call, ‘teaching in the present tense,’” he said later, “rather than, ‘Learn this now, and someday you’ll use it.’”

A History of Activism

Teachers are the latest cause Van Zandt has championed in a career that’s been in part defined by political activism—he’s well-known for the anti-apartheid protest song “Sun City” and his role in the cultural boycott of South Africa. (The TeachRock curriculum includes lessons on the song and the boycott.)

In the United States today, Van Zandt worries about division, and he thinks educators play a crucial role in shaping a well-informed citizenry. “It’s teachers that are on the front lines everyday in the war against ignorance,” he said.


See Also: Here's How the Public Views Teachers, Their Salaries, and Their Impact


The tour is meant to show gratitude to educators, he said, but also to garner support for teachers’ political action. “Of course you always hope there isn’t a strike,” he said. “But if there is a strike, you want to make sure the community is supporting it, so that the teachers can get what they need.”

In Munhall, a former steel town outside of Pittsburgh, Van Zandt was playing to a labor-friendly crowd. When he mentioned supporting teachers’ unions to the educators in the workshop, the audience erupted in claps and cheers.

Bill Carbone facilitates discussion about using music in the classroom with teachers at a professional-development seminar held at the Carnegie Library of Homestead in Pittsburgh.
Bill Carbone facilitates discussion about using music in the classroom with teachers at a professional-development seminar held at the Carnegie Library of Homestead in Pittsburgh.
—Jeff Swensen for Education Week

Later, Van Zandt said his song “Solidarity,” written to highlight the Polish labor movement in the 1980s, translates to today’s context. “Supporting union movements is one of my things,” he told Education Week.

Anne Funk, an elementary music teacher in Pittsburgh’s North Allegheny school district, said that kind of public appreciation is helpful—it shapes a positive narrative about teachers’ work and their value.

“I think that we can do better as a profession, just talking a little bit more about ... why what we’re doing with kids everyday in the classroom is important,” she said in an interview.

Some attended the event in search of unity with other teacher activists. Tara Blake, an elementary music teacher in Kane, Pa., said it was the name of the tour that first caught her eye—she hoped to forge connections with union members across the state, she said.

The community in her rural district thinks teachers are overpaid, she said, and she wanted to see if other educators in bigger school systems were facing the same problem—and how they were dealing with it. But Blake was doubtful she would be able to work with anyone she met at the event, “because of the distance.” Kane is about a three-hour drive from the Pittsburgh area.

But other teachers weren’t counting on the event to mobilize social change. Christina Kralic, a 3rd grade teacher from the North Allegheny school system, said that her district doesn’t generally lack funding or resources. She hoped the PD would give her some ideas to take back to her classroom—and perhaps a better understanding of the financial challenges other school systems face.

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Other teachers “spend a whole lot more on things for their classroom and resources for their classroom that we don’t have to spend,” she said. Understanding the different realities that teachers deal with—“that’s important for bringing people together.”

After the workshop ended and the general public began to stream into the concert hall, teachers said they were excited for the show. “I’m a big rock-and-roll person,” said Blake, the teacher in Kane. She would be coming back to the Pittsburgh area next week to see another rock concert, she said.

And even though the educators made up less than half of the audience, it was clear there were teachers in the house.

“There’s this thing called STEM,” said Van Zandt from the stage near the beginning of the concert. “It stands for science, technology, engineering, and math. One of our goals is to turn STEM into STEAM—and add the arts into the curriculum,” he said, and the audience roared its approval.

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