Friday, October 14, 2016

Year 7: Week 8 - The Question

“Why did so many people write down that it was a woman singing in that video?  On the videos when men were singing, people didn't write down that men were performing.”

One of the projects I do in the beginning of the year is an observation exercise.  I have my 5th graders watch four different covers of “Have You Ever Seen the Rain?” and make objective observations about the different versions. This connects with the theme of observation that is discussed in their homeroom and in science class.

5th graders (and many adults) jump immediately to opinions when listening to a piece of music.  After deciding whether a person likes a piece of music, people often become closed off to details. To address this and help our 5th graders think deeper about music and the world around them, we teach about objective observations.

After studying John Fogerty’s original Creedence Clearwater Revival version of “Have You Ever Seen the Rain?” and working as a class to make lists of objective observations, I set them off with iPads to watch four other versions of this song and list the most meaningful objective observations of these covers:

Juan Gabriel

The Drivers


Joan Jett


The Barton Hill Choir


I collected all of my students’ observations when they were done and made a word map using Wordle.net. I typed in all of my students observations for each song into this website (I modified some observations that were similar). The words that are bigger appear more times in the list of word that I inputted, which represent the most frequent observations students wrote down. Fewer students wrote down the smaller words.

Here’s the Wordle word maps for each song:

Juan Gabriel:


The Drivers


Joan Jett


Barton Hills Choir


I pointed out some of things that I saw, highlighted some of the smaller words and answered some clarification questions. Then that 5th grader raised his hand and asked that question. At first I was surprised. Even I saw how large the word “woman” was on the Joan Jett version, I didn’t think a second thought about it. To give myself a minute to think, I asked him to ask his question again, explaining that it was an important question that deserved more thought.

Looking around the room, I noticed a mixture of shock, confusion, and worry in my students' faces. My instincts when things don’t feel right in the room are to make my students feel better but this was an instant that I think the students’ discomfort was okay. Now was not a time for false platitudes.

I asked the class why they thought that they had written down “woman” so often and except for one small instances had not written “men” as an observation. Students talked about pointing out what was not the norm, how the original was sung by a guy, then one students said, “ well, because most people who are singers are guys.”

The students looked at me in silence. It was like they were hoping that I could somehow comfort them saying that the student was wrong and that woman were not underrepresented.

In response, I asked them to help me make a list of their favorite musicians.  After vigorously writing for a minute, I had about twenty names of bands and artists written on the board. I circled four names: Beyonce, Taylor Swift, Rhianna, and Adele. I explained, “These four are women, the rest of the names that you stated were men. That’s four out of twenty, that’s less than a quarter. Woman make up more than half of the world population, and the majority, by a couple students in this class are girls, but you only named four woman musicians.”

I continued, “I’m not mad at you. I’m not disappointed. Your observations and your list of musicians is a reflection of our culture. And yes, this is disappointing and this makes me sad and I see that this bothers you. We need to do something about this. This is why, I have you listen to artist like Brandi Carlile and why the last two concerts I went to featured female artists, the Dixie Chicks and Adele. I can’t explain to you right now, why our culture and why your experiences have led us to this place where woman are so underrepresented in music. It’s very complex.  But more important than knowing why, is the fact that you are asking questions.  If this makes you feel uncomfortable, that’s okay, because when this feeling leads to questions, it leads to change.

This was a difficult moment.  It would have been easier to sidestep the question, but the student took a chance and asked a great question, so he deserved me taking a chance as a teacher.

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