Anyone who listens to or makes music will tell you it often makes them feel better. You may even know of situations where music helps improve medical conditions like dementia or speech impediments. In recent years, we’ve moved beyond casual stories of the benefits of music to research that suggest the effects of music are physiological. All of this creates the perfect setup for a Music & Health unit in our Music+STEM class.
Two of the goals for Music+STEM are:
- Reveal to and engage students in the ways in which music is part of our lives and society
- Engage students in the practice of the scientific process, critical thinking skills, and 21st century skills
We may take music in our daily lives for granted, but if students understand its direct effect they will be able to make intentional choices about its use – for themselves and those around them. In addition, we move beyond answers that include phrases like “I think…” to researched-based responses such as, “The research shows…”
So…how did we do all this?
First, we did a very limited review of the research that shows the benefits of music.
We focused on five areas:
- Music reduces stress and anxiety
- Music decreases pain
- Music may improve our immune system
- Music helps us exercise
- Music may aid memory
We looked at the research in each of these areas, being sure to understand the research process, included control groups and variables. We also talked about replicating studies and comparing the results.
Next, we narrowed our focus to music and memory.We watched the documentary, “Alive Inside“. This is an amazing look at the effort of one man to “awaken” nursing home dementia patients with music from their past. My students were absorbed in listening to the stories of the patients and seeing their reaction to music. I debated whether or not to show “Alive Inside” to my students, thinking it might be too serious for them, but decided to for three reasons. First, it’s message matches our course goal of discovering how music is a part of our lives. Second, many students have family members with dementia or may someday and it’s important for them to have the knowledge to help their loved ones. And third, the documentary shows the power of social media in the hands of young people to make a difference in the world. In the end, I’m glad I took two days to show the documentary. The responses of my students show it made an impact.
Someday I hope to partner with a nursing home so that my students can create playlists for residents – just like in “Alive Inside”. Since this was the first time we attempted this I decided to start closer to home. My students set out to create a MEAM – Music Evoked Autobiographical Memory – for a teacher. Teachers volunteered the year they graduated from high school and students chose one teacher for whom to find music (some students were so into this they did more than one teacher!)
Students then found the top 5 songs of the year the teacher graduated from high school and the year they were in 6th, 7th, or 8th grade. Students then chose one song from each of those years to share with the teacher and get their reaction and memories. A few students did this in person with their teacher, playing the songs for them and writing down their reaction. To make it easier to schedule, most students wrote a letter to their teacher (in Google Docs) and included links to the songs and questions to answer. The teacher then listened and typed their response when they had the time available. I was afraid I was adding one more thing for already busy teachers to do, but MANY said this was great fun and they looked forward to doing it every semester! The students also had a great time listening to popular music that their teachers listened to and reading their responses.
Finally, we needed a way for students to put everything together and showcase their learning. I initially considered filming news broadcasts. This is often a challenge with middle school students, however, because so many are self-conscious about how they look on camera. As an alternative, we recorded podcasts – an audio version of a news story. This exposed students to a form of media many were not familiar with and eased the anxiety when it came time to record.
Students had to include specific items in their podcast:
- At least 3 benefits of music to mental or physical health
- At least 1 piece of research to support one of the benefits
- A “real life” example of one of the benefits
In groups of two to four, students spent about two days writing and practicing their scripts for the podcasts. We then recorded them using the Podcast feature on Garageband. This was very easy to do and even allowed for editing when students were struck with the giggles or lost their place in the script.
The podcasts really showed what the students learned and the range of kids we have in middle school – from very serious, down-to-business to goofy, adolescent jokes and funny voices …. all while summarizing what they learned about Music & Health.
We put the best ones on our class youTube channel – here are a couple samples…
In the end, this is one of my favorite non-performing units I’ve ever done with middle school kids. My students were engaged and gaining knowledge that will truly help them throughout their lives, the teachers who helped us had fun and deepened their relationships with kids, and students created a final product that went public and informed others. Win – Win – Win!