Teaching Social Justice in the Music Classroom

Music educators can open the door to dialogue and understanding of what can be difficult subjects to address.

By: Andrew S. Berman

This article originally appeared in the April 2015 edition of Teaching Music Magazine

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social justice in music classroom
Photo: Courtesy of Erich Shieh


CURRICULUM COMES FROM and goes back to the world.” That’s a summary of Eric Shieh’s teaching philosophy, which is fostered by the Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School (MELS) in New York City, which he helped found and where he teaches instrumental music. It puts what happens in the classroom within the context of what’s going on beyond the schoolyard, and it’s fundamental to teaching social justice.

Very simply put, social justice is the view that all people deserve the same rights, opportunities, and advantages. A discipline in itself, social justice is more than just a topic in a day’s lesson plan, but rather a frame of mind and a concept that permeates curricula in classrooms that are committed to equity for all. Music, being a universal language, is an ideal medium through which to teach social justice.

A Broad Approach

Shieh’s music education career intersected with social justice when he was a new teacher working in prison music programs. His training was classical, with a background in strings and orchestra, but he quickly found that he had to move away from that training to get through to his students. There were no instruments, and “It didn’t feel right to start with ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb,’” he says. He improvised, encouraging students to use what was available: their voices and bodies, tables, chairs, and the floor.

In prison, this music program became a space of freedom and creativity where students composed their own music, an example of which was writing songs about entering prison for the first time. This experience trained Shieh to listen and attend to students’ needs. He brought with him to traditional music education jobs a focus on facilitation as opposed to instruction—a distinction that can allow understanding to flourish in the classroom.

Juliet Hess, assistant professor of music education at Syracuse University in Syracuse, New York, points out that social justice issues don’t need to be brought into the classroom: They are already there.

“The key is being able to recognize these issues in our classrooms,” she says.

Two ways to do this are to acknowledge the differing levels of privilege of the students in the classroom, and to place the music in its sociohistorical and sociopolitical context. Modeling that recognition promotes the work of social justice for those in our classrooms.

From a music perspective, some students may have easier access to instruments and private lessons than others do. Similarly, certain kinds of music may get more classroom time than others. Western classical music, for example, can be perceived as having a position of privilege over other types of music. “That doesn’t mean you avoid classical music with students,” warns Hess. “It does mean that when you focus on classical music, you can take the opportunity to explore with the students why that music has come to be the dominant music in music education.”

Shieh’s approach to incorporating themes of social justice into music teaching is collaborative. At MELS, collaboration among faculty and across disciplines is common. He relates that projects often begin during casual conversations among teachers at social gatherings outside of school. In one instance, the vocal music teacher mentioned she had a set of music from the time of the colonization of South Africa. Other teachers expressed interest, and determined where in their curriculum they could fit the project.

Finding Social Justice in Music

Denise Levy and Daniel Byrd of Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina, have written two articles on the use of music to teach social justice: “Exploring social justice through music” (Association for Psychological Science Observer, April 2013, Volume 26, Number 4) and “Why can’t we be friends? Using music to teach social justice” (The Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, April 2011, Volume 11, Number 2).

As music is a medium of self-expression, many popular songs deal with the experiences of marginalized people and cultures. In the latter article, Levy and Byrd list 59 popular songs from 1940 to 2010 and catalog their themes (racism, poverty, homophobia, etc.). Bringing such music into the classroom can expose students to different points of view and start them thinking about the world around them in a new way. But it doesn’t end there.

As Byrd is quick to point out, “An instructor has to do more than just play the song.”

It’s important to have preplanned discussion questions to stick to the topic. Hess recommends an exercise developed by Lise C. Vaugeois of the University of Toronto called “musical life histories.” In this exercise, the teacher and students explore music by looking at the practices by which it is produced, specifically examining who is included and excluded at each step of the process. Vaugeois describes this activity in detail in the book Exploring Social Justice: How Music Education Might Matter (2009, Canadian Music Educators Association; edited by Elizabeth Gould, June Countryman, Charlene Morton, and Leslie Stewart Rose).

“It’s always important to consider what is not there,” advises Hess. She recalls an Ontario Music Educators Association conference 10 years ago from which she went home with some free posters for her classroom. After putting them up, she realized that all of the musicians photographed were white males—the posters did not reflect the diversity of her classroom. She was about to take them down when she realized leaving them up would offer the opportunity for a unique exercise. Students entered the classroom and first noticed the lack of women, then the lack of people of color. A teacher may brainstorm ways to incorporate issues of inequality and oppression into their lesson plans, but often the issues are there already, waiting to be acknowledged.

In New York, last year’s events in, for instance, Ferguson, Missouri, were very real and close to home for Shieh’s students and school community. “There’s no way the day after that happened we weren’t going to address it,” remembers Shieh. He played John Coltrane’s “Alabama” for the class and talked about how when things like this happen, sometimes he turns to music to make sense of the world. “It can begin from there, with spontaneous acts.”

Hess adds, “There are moments in class when the events of the world, both personally and globally, need to be the topic for the day.”

A music teacher doesn’t necessarily need to look far for a piece of music that addresses these issues. Beyond Byrd and Levy’s well-categorized list of songs and the topics they address, there are also songs that themselves serve as examples of oppression and ignorance. These can serve as the foundations for classroom dialogue.

Byrd counsels, “Teachers should not take a political stance, telling students what to think. There are ways that instructors ca n go about this in a way that welcomes all students’ feelings and opinions in a safe place.” These dialogues can develop students’ conversational skills. They teach kids how to discuss difficult subjects, even with people who disagree with them, in a safe environment Songs need not have words to communicate a message of social justice. Byrd cites traditional African drumming as an example. The teacher places the music in its context, and students can listen to a recording and then play the beats themselves. “You don’t have to be an expert percussionist to participate in a drum circle,” Byrd says. Discussion areas include why the piece was written, what message is hidden in the music, and how drumming together can form or bolster a community.

Finding Music in Social Justice

A music teacher needn’t rely on what’s already been published and recorded for classroom material. Social justice is about diverse points of view, so what better way to hear those points of view than to encourage students to put them into song? Levy advocates having students do a five-minute free write, circling words or phrases that capture the topic, and then getting into small groups and forming poems or songs out of the circled words. The result is a composite work of art—and a valuable dialogue.

Shieh says that an activity involving student compositions doesn’t require a topic, as kids will often write songs about social issues without prompts. Reflecting on doing this in his class, Shieh says, “All of a sudden, the world came in.” Hess recommends Michele Kaschub’s “Critical Pedagogy for Creative Artists” program, which focuses on student compositions as a study of social justice (this is described in detail in the aforementioned Exploring Social Justice: How Music Education Might Matter). Byrd thinks that compositions are a great way to address current events.

“If the student leaves the class only understanding history, we’ve done them a disservice.”

Social justice is to be handled with care. Not every topic is right for every classroom or age group. Shieh recalls assigning Gayl Jones’s Corregidora to his 11th- and 12th-graders in St. Louis. It was his first year of teaching, and looking back now, he regards it as a “miscalculation.” The book touches on LGBT issues, racism, and slavery, to name a few. There was backlash from parents and administrators, and incidents of student violence which resulted in some expulsions. “Sometimes I’ve made the wrong call; teachers do all the time,” remarks Shieh.

Bringing It Back to the World

As a social worker, Levy is called to speak out against social injustice.

“Showcasing music in class shows students there are a lot of different ways to be an advocate in their lives.”

Shieh agrees, “These days it’s easy to feel powerless. [The students] are not powerless—they can speak up. Music is a huge tool for that.” By presenting differing points of view, teachers can contribute to social change through their students. “In the classroom, we may have a slim possibility of doing work that levels the playing field within our classroom space. Modeling equity work for the next generation, however, could potentially have profound effects,” predicts Hess.

Teaching social justice in the music classroom has rewards for the teacher as well. For Shieh, it’s engaging his whole self in the classroom. “Many people come to the teaching profession because they want to make a difference. Teaching social justice allows you to hold onto your dreams.” Byrd says the best thing that can come out of teaching social justice is a student understanding his or her own and others’ basic human rights. “When you see the students become engaged, that’s the reward.”


sample project


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