My daughter and I were having a discussion about which changed more lives, songwriting or teaching? Good teaching has a pyramid-like effect, especially if you teach prospective teachers. Your students go out and teach others, who may end up teachers themselves and teach others. Sometimes you can see the effect almost immediately. Once I was teaching a course called “Writing in the Schools.” The students were all pre-service teachers, but some were going to teach grammar school, some high school, some college. I was teaching a book by Jerome Harste called Language Stories, Literacy Lessons, which is a longitudinal study of pre-school literacy. Harste and his team found that pre-school kids engage in all sorts of pre-literate behavior. They know that writing is different from drawing and they can recognize a McDonald’s from way down the street because they can read the logo. They often can recognize and name some letters in the alphabet, and they are often excited about literacy. However, when they get to kindergarten, teachers usually ignore all these abilities and make them begin writing carefully-shaped letters exactly between the lines. One student described in the Harste book went into Kindergarten saying “I can write!” and after the first week said “I can’t write.”
A student who was working as a teacher’s aid in a kindergarten class added my class late, so she missed the first lecture. As I signed her add form, she said, “My students can’t do anything. They can’t read or write, or follow simple instructions.” The next week, after she had read about half of the Harste book, she said, “My students are doing all of these things, but their teacher won’t accept it. She tells them to fill out something with a green crayon, and they use all different colors, so they fail.”
That teacher is undoubtedly in a classroom somewhere today, and it is likely that her kindergarten students are writing and reading much better than others because she is working with natural pre-literate behaviors instead of against them. Good teaching has a magnifying, multiplying effect.
Most pop music is entertaining fluff. It’s a pleasure, but it doesn’t have much substance or ideological content. When I first started listening to L.A. rock radio, KRLA and KFWB, the number one song was “I Got You Babe” by Sonny and Cher. There is not much to think about in songs like that. “Yesterday” by the Beatles was popular. It has a pretty melody and a lot of pathos, but there is not much for the mind. The first song that had a profound impact on me on multiple levels was Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone.” Imagine hearing “I Got You Babe” followed by this:
Once upon a time you dressed so fine
You threw the bums a dime in your prime, didnt you?
Peopled call, say, beware doll, youre bound to fall
You thought they were all kiddin you
You used to laugh about
Everybody that was hangin out
Now you dont talk so loud
Now you dont seem so proud
About having to be scrounging for your next meal.
To a seventh grader listening to pop music, that sounds real. It sounds wise and experienced. It’s a gritty fairy tale with a moral point. Don’t get too smug or comfortable, don’t be high and mighty, because you might fall. I heard it then, and I still hear it now.
Dylan had a talent for distilling a lot of experience into one line. The first line of “Queen Jane Approximately” goes:
When your mother sends back all your invitations
That line triggers a sense of weariness and alienation so complete it almost brings tears. Every verse describes a new way for things to go completely wrong. I was at a rock club one night listening to a group play African-influenced rock, when without warning they launched into this. I knew what it was from the first chords, and somehow, striking without warning like that with no context, it was even more powerful.
So which one wins, songwriting or teaching? Well, we didn’t resolve the debate, which will continue.