Modern Band: Ryan Griffin

Mike Lawson • Modern Band • July 5, 2019

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As a modern band teacher in Pittsburgh, music teacher Ryan Griffin has learned how to use modern tools to support his program and encourage his students while creating a sense of school-wide pride and community.

Learning the culturally responsive music of his students is an important part of his class, but he has found that taking it to the next level by promoting the program through social media has been a successful endeavor as well.

Technology is an important tool in today’s music, where it can be used as instruments, for sound production, or with apps and websites for aiding teaching. It also changes constantly and has broadened the way our students experience and share their own musical journey. This was an important consideration for him when he was applying for a new position in an educational system focused on technology with STEM: “When I moved schools a few years ago, I found there were better musicians and people with more experience, but I had a lot of familiarity with social media, and the goal was to make the music program visible.” To achieve this, Ryan took advantage of social media not just to connect to school community and parents, but also to motivate his students.

“The process in my class all starts with student choice,” says Ryan. Ryan would start by sharing videos he found on YouTube with his classes, videos of other modern bands, street performers, covers of songs they knew and loved. He would guide the conversation about what they were watching, asking the students to come up with their own ideas of what they wanted to do and how to apply what they saw in the music they were learning in class. Soon the students would come in excited to share videos they found.

The next step was proving to the students that they could make their own videos. He found that his school had an Instagram page but that it didn’t have any music related items on it. “I told my students about it and asked if they wanted to help change that,” he says. “The kids went nuts.” He would record the students doing whatever they wanted to within the confines of the music classroom: dance video, a rap, or singing popular songs. This became a very strong incentive for the students to work hard, because they loved to be seen online by their friends and family.

“If we have a great class session, they know I will let them shoot something new. It becomes a positive incentive for good behavior,” he adds. It was important to make sure the administration was bought in from the start, but this was pretty easy to achieve. Make sure they sign off on it but know that it will just bring positive attention to the school. Also, it is crucial to make sure that the students all have release forms and that their participation is completely optional.

“A real turning point for our program and visibility in the community was our standardized test rap,” Ryan explains. They would watch other programs around the country put together their own standardized test songs on YouTube. This helped the students choose what format interested them, and when they chose a rap, Ryan gave his students a basic form for rhyming, with verses that had end rhymes (AABB) and a catchy chorus. They then sat down and brainstormed together: what are some important things you should do to prepare for testing?

Students were quick to point out a variety of things, such as make sure you use a number 2 pencil, get enough sleep, eat a healthy breakfast, specific test taking tips. Then they would all try to decide what could work best as a rhyme, such as “rest” and “breakfast.”

After recording the song and video, the school put it up on their own YouTube channel and Instagram page. The principal made sure there were links to it added to any communication that went out to the parents as well, and parents loved it, adding comments and encouragement that students could see. Soon, the whole school was watching the video over and over again to see their friends, and everyone was singing the song. It was a great way to make the kids feel like stars and encourage them to work on more musical projects.

As for Ryan’s advice to those teachers that aren’t as tech savvy? “Social media can be overwhelming if you aren’t comfortable with it, but it really can be simple,” he says. Spend a bit of time on sites doing research into what works and what could work in your classroom. Check in with your administration and technology faculty to see what already exists and how you can participate with it. With all the current technological advancement at our fingertips, we hold recording and video production studios on our phones, and making use of these tools can not only be a great motivating factor for our students in the course of their studies, but can bring your music program visibility in your school community.

Scott Burstein is the director of teaching and learning at Little Kids Rock, a non-profit organization that transforms lives by restoring, expanding, and innovating music education in schools.

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