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About a song: What does it "mean"?

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As a middle school principal, I make it a point to do informal walkthroughs for at least 40-60 minutes each day (well, that's the plan anyway).  It is the best part of my job to learn alongside teachers and kids throughout the school.  I stopped by one of my teacher’s (@bess_murphy) classrooms this week.  I’m going to call her Bess, (cause that’s her name -- Bess).   

Bess was teaching students about measures of central tendency.  She modeled a problem at the board and demonstrated how to find the mean, median, and mode.  She asked kids to tell what would be the best method to find the measure of central tendency for a new data set that she provided.  They were to pair with the student next to them and work it out together,

Bess then cued up the song “Mean” by Taylor Swift.  It played for about 40 seconds.

Get it?  Mean… the song is called “MEAN”...

Like the arithmetic average… the MEAN !

As the song played, some kids got it and some kids didn’t, but it was so inventive and so much fun.  The students got right down to business.  

I only joined the class for about 10 minutes but from this snapshot I gleaned several takeaways:

Box1. This little instructional moment was quite natural for Bess to pull off… she didn’t make a big deal out of the song… she  just had it queued up and it played in the background as the kids started to work.  Awesome teachers naturally integrate innovative and engaging approaches into their practices organically.  This is especially important for adolescents with their finely attuned sense of “corny”.   Don’t “over-sell” it … let it happen.


2. There’s always room for music;  we don’t use it nearly enough in teaching.  Bess does.  It’s been written that music may help structure the intense feelings of adolescents into a beat and a pulse and hence make them primed for academic work  (Brewer, 2016).  EVERYBODY loves music, it speaks to our minds and our souls.  Music is mathematical, and this was a math lesson so --  why not?



3. The lyrics in this song contain a great lesson for kids:

But someday I'll be living in a big ole city

And all you're ever gonna be is mean, yeah

Someday I'll be big enough so you can't hit me

And all you're ever gonna be is mean

Why you gotta be so?...

They speak to an adolescent's insecurity and fragile self-image, to asserting one's identity in the face of a bully.  Developing students’ social-emotional literacy (SEL) and resiliency doesn’t mean dispensing with the stated curriculum to do a “special SEL lesson”, good teachers integrate SEL into the curriculum.  

I’d remark that I hoped the kids looked up the lyrics when they got home but I suspect I was the only one in the room who wasn’t singing this song in my head as it was playing.  And this brings me to my next takeaway….

4. Awesome teachers are “with-it”.  They are in touch with the music and the fashion and the expressions … the CULTURE of their students.  Anytime a teacher can chime in with something insightful about song choices, movies, games or a fashion statement, they gain instant credibility and build rapport (Barnes, 2015).  By playing a Taylor Swift song, Bess was communicating an important message to her kids, they are important enough for the teacher to pay attention to their interests and passions (and that she likes Taylor Swift also).  

This was only a brief snapshot of a terrific learning moment but I promised myself I would share what I observed because, at our school, we are all LEARNERS!  Thanks Bess!


Barnes, M. (2015). 5 Things Cool Teachers Do - Brilliant or Insane. Brilliant or Insane. Retrieved 30 March 2016, from http://www.brilliant-insane.com/2015/03/5-things-cool-teachers-do.html

Brewer, C. Does Teen Music (Rap, Rock & Roll) Belong in the Classroom?  (2016).Songsforteaching.com. Retrieved 31 March 2016, from http://www.songsforteaching.com/teachingtips/usingteenmusicraprockroll.php


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Donald Gately Ed.D. is the principal at Jericho Middle School on Long Island. J.M.S. is a high performing middle school that has a comprehensive school-wide program to develop social emotional literacy; the school was named a New York State/National School to Watch in 2009, 2012 and 2015. Don was a middle school principal in Plainview-Old Bethpage, the assistant principal at Memorial Junior High School in Valley Stream and a teacher of English Language Arts in the New York City public schools. He is the former p resident of the Nassau County Middle Level Principals Association and active in a number of organizations that leverage support for innovative middle school practice. Don is a middle level leader with a singular passion and commitment to the intellectual and social/emotional development of adolescent learners. He was a BAMMY Award nominee for Middle School Principal of the Year in 2014 and 2015. He was named New York State Principal of the Year in 2016.  Along with his wife Danielle (@dmgately) and an incredible PLN of committed Long Island educators Don cofounded EdCamp Long Island (@EdCampLI) in 2014.

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