It’s highly unlikely you would ever guess who delivered the keynote address this fall at an annual professional development workshop sponsored by this unsexy trio of education organizations: the New Jersey School Boards Association, the New Jersey Association of School Administrators and the New Jersey Association of School Business Officials.
It wasn’t a classroom teacher, or a curriculum writer, or a principal, or a superintendent, or any other likely suspect from the education world. The speaker was Steven Van Zandt, the flamboyant musician, actor, and music and theater producer who is now a most unlikely advocate for public education, teachers and music education.
His envy-worthy career includes being a member of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band and portraying consigliere Silvio Dante on the “The Sopranos.” Now, Van Zandt is the force behind an education project that uses the history of rock music as a way of teaching U.S. history and culture. Think of it as learning U.S. history through a musical lens with the help of lessons created by historians and curriculum experts that are interdisciplinary and available online for free.
“Teachers can’t teach when they don’t have the kid’s attention,” Van Zandt said in an interview. “And we think this is the way to do it. Music is the ultimate common ground and the way to keep kids' attention."
As part of his education focus, he is on a Teacher Solidarity Tour with his band to spotlight education issues and support educators. Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul is touring in places where teachers went on strike this year — or considered doing so — for better pay and more resources for their schools. Teachers are invited to attend for free, and they can get free professional development at the events. Van Zandt said the professional development has been created to meet the standards of the state where his band is playing.
“We want the teachers to be as enthusiastic as the students,” he said. “If you can’t get the teachers interested, you won’t get the students."
Van Zandt said he thinks teachers are getting a raw deal in this country, where they are underpaid and often forced to work in terrible conditions.
“Teachers are, in fact, our first line of defense,” he said. “All due respect, we all love the military, but a couple billion from the [Trump administration’s] $700 billion [Pentagon budget], well, they wouldn’t miss it.”
Van Zandt started the nonprofit Rock and Roll Forever Foundation years ago (with a founder’s board that includes Springsteen, Bono and Martin Scorsese) to promote music education. That’s happening through the TeachRock project, which offers not only free lessons but also free workshops to schools and districts.
More than 100 lessons, which took years to write and align with state content standards, are available (with more in development), he said. Teachers can go on the TeachRock site and select a grade level, academic subject, music genre, activity and topic to look for appropriate lessons.
If you select, for example, high school plus social studies/history plus rock plus music analysis plus civics and politics you get a lesson titled “Elvis and Race in America,” with featured artists Elvis Presley, Bill Monroe and Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup. It delves into the question “How did Elvis Presley’s early career reflect race relations and racial tensions in mid-1950s America?”
If you select middle school plus English Language Arts plus rock plus timeline (but no topic), there are two lessons. One is “Glam: The Return of the Teenager,” featuring Alice Cooper, David Bowie and Sweet and answering the question “How was Glam Rock part of a new teenage culture in the 1970s?” The other is “Folk Music, Rock and Roll Attitude,” featuring Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie and Albert Grossman, answering the question “How did Bob Dylan’s early experiences with Folk and Rock and Roll music influence his songwriting?”
Van Zandt said that several thousand teachers are using the lessons and that the goal is to have 10,000 by year’s end or soon after. His nonprofit has partnered with education organizations, including the National Council for the Social Studies, Scholastic, the Grammy Museum and Reelin' in the Years (the world’s largest library of music footage).
What’s motivating Van Zandt? In part, he said, it’s guilt.
Van Zandt said he was such a bad student that he barely graduated from Middletown High School in New Jersey — and actually quit once but went back for his degree to make his educator mother feel better.
“All I cared about was music to the extreme. I gave my teachers a hard time,” he said. “So, I’m trying to make up for that. I feel a little guilty."
He said he knows it will take time, but his goal is to have these lessons in every school, and he believes engaging students with material that speaks to them will help stem the dropout rate.
He has steeped himself in education and the associated jargon. He knows that NCLB is No Child Left Behind and that the K-12 education law led to the drastic reduction of arts classes when schools focused on two testable subjects: math and English language arts. He knows the difference between STEM and STEAM. (STEM is science, technology, engineering and math, while STEAM makes the arts as important as the other disciplines.)
“I feel very strongly that STEM should be STEAM,” he said. “We are the only country in the world that thinks art is a luxury.”