[callout]This post is written by Eric Herod, a former educator of 15+ years in Virginia and North Carolina and owner of Remixing Education, an educational consulting company striving to help students in America learn 7 life-changing skills. You can find Eric on Twitter @MrEHerod or on Remixing.Education. [/callout]
Have you ever seen an amazing DJ who can rock a crowd of hundreds, even thousands of party-goers? What is it that makes that DJ so amazing and so darn cool? Guys like David Guetta, Calvin Harris, Zedd, female DJs like Krewella, Alison Wonderland, and Rezz all have similar characteristics and objectives and dare I say, educators can learn from these great DJs and the world of DJing in general.
You, yes you, can learn to Teach like a DJ.
Mix based on genres, themes, messages, harmonies, beats, or lyrics
DJs will often use various selections of music to blend together to make a cohesive mix for party-goers and music lovers. The best mixes typically tie music together based on genres, themes, messages, harmonies, beats, and/or lyrics. As consumers of music, we enjoy listening to a blend of songs that are similar in some fashion. It’s what makes Pandora and Spotify streaming services so popular. You could call it the Amazon effect where musical selections are offered based on previous selections.
Educators can utilize this same tactic. The more content and skills that can be blended and mixed together, the more full a curriculum can get. Instead of providing topics, messages, subjects and themes based on standards and chronology, play with various mixes of content like a DJ might. Look for intriguing nuances of subjects.
Example: Teaching history using the anchor statement “History has been led by those chasing power” where what matters most is how the historical references are linked under a common theme, message, or questions asked throughout the year or course. It doesn’t matter if the statement is always true, but it matters if you make them think about each historical figure is connected by that thread or if there are outliers.
Focus on client and guest entertainment
A great DJ focuses on client and guest experience. The very best are the DJs who have their hands in all parts of the experience. Whether it is music production and editing, coordinating with the lighting crew, or being involved with the venue in marketing.
As an educator, producing your classroom environment down to the nitty-gritty details at the beginning of the year will pay off in the tougher moments later. Establish the routines, the structure and know your why.
Example: Structure your classroom with the result you want in mind first. If you know where you are going and where you want the students to go by the end of the year or course, you can begin to plan backwards and figure how every detail plays into the end result.
Build relationships with clients personally
In the DJ world, personal relationships are a top priority. These relationships are key to getting things done. DJs who produce music collaborate with others on vocals, chord progressions, beat creation and mixing multiple tracks. Each of these parts might be created by different people, but the producer pulls them all together into an original composition.
For mobile DJs who work with clients, whether they be private parties or weddings, the emphasis is on building a relationship with the client from initial inquiry to the event day and after. They ask questions first, listen with intent and work to understand what motivates each client.
For educators, everything is about the student. Top priority should be given to understand the motivations of each student and partnering with students in the creation of a positive learning environment. Foster a collaborative network within the classroom community and build trust with students by providing opportunities to share personal experiences and motivations. True, human connection comes from open dialogue and vulnerability.
Examples: Start by talking with your students. Ask them questions and listen. The best memories of my 15+ years in educating students didn’t come from teaching the curriculum. It came from the moments in between where we had conversations about life, how to treat their colleagues, motivating them with stories of inspiration and quotations. Even a quote of the day on the board can be the start of an influential discussion.
Build relationships with guests musically
You’ve heard how DJs can “read a crowd” and you have probably actually seen DJs who were good at it too. Think back to those killer party days. 😉
DJs who are good at reading crowds are actually really good at taking the guests into a musical journey and tapping in on their memories of certain songs. They have a breadth of musical knowledge that allows them to know what songs have gotten similar guests and clientele from previous events dancing. DJs will keep track of these hits and often take notes and create playlists based on these hits.
As an experienced educator, you have probably come across the same student more than once, just a different name, right? If you have felt like that, it’s because people have similar characteristic patterns and behaviors. It’s also the reason we have different levels of thinking and learning profiles to associate with our students.
Use these characteristics to your advantage. Once you understand the general profiles of your classroom dynamic and the individual motivations of certain students, like DJs, you can create playlists of activities, structures, and lessons that correspond to the groups of students you teach.
Example: Using learning menus is a great tool to tap into the different learning styles of your students. Offering various strategies to individualize their learning or product creation allows students the opportunity to share their strengths. Once you allow them to shine by building a relationship with them and the products they create, you will tap into their souls for just a few moments, but the relationship and memories wil last a lifetime.
Build a library of music and focus attention on crates and playlists
Similar to the concept of reading a crowd, great DJs continuously build a library of music. They meticulously focus on pruning and shaping playlists or “crates” of music within the software to pull from while at events rather than have to think too hard about what song comes next. Doing the pruning prior to an event allows the DJ to focus on watching the guests’ reactions and build relationships with them musically and personally throughout the event.
Like great DJs who prune their playlists and crates to facilitate playing the next best song, great educators have a toolbox ready and ripe with activities, lessons, strategies, games, etc. These tools are often categorized but rather than labels like “genres” or “club bangers,” the toolbox includes “strategies for group work” or “what to do when finished.”
Example: Read. Read. Read. Search through sites, authors, and companies who provide content that speaks to you or that you think will speak to your students. Build that library and prune it, categorize it, and use it like a DJ.
Research history of music and artists
DJs are notoriously addicted to listening to all types of music, plus being really good at remembering artists, lyrics, obscure hits from the 80s, etc. This ability is solely because they are always listening and looking for the next dance floor filler, a cool remix, cover, or version of a song you know, or even the song everyone forgot they loved. They are music historians who rate songs based on things like dancibility, mixability, cool background music, or underground cult classics. DJs know their music in a way most people never do.
Great educators know history as well. They learn to identify the tools that work all the time, even back to the most famous of educators like Plato and Socrates. They know the strategies that work, the material that needs adjusting for the current cultures and times, the true stories behind the textbook mythologies. Great educators research how best to teach students on how to solve the most difficult problems and learn by failure using the experiences of the past whether it be from learning about great minds, current examples, or relevant personal experiences. Like DJs, educators know how and when to share their historical knowledge at the right time for the right audience.
Example: Allow students to discover and uncover the secrets of great minds like Einstein, Edison, Twain, etc. by reading biographies or short stories of how these greats learned from past mistakes. As a class or small groups, analyze these mythological beings and share collectively the lessons we all can learn. Make these individuals more human by studying their human side just as much as their amazing genius.
Keep up to date with music trends and new mixing techniques
Great DJs are always on the cusp of new music trends and many times DJs are the cause of a music trend. Remember Disco? Music that comes from the underground scene is often what turns viral and goes mainstream and DJs are rarely afraid of testing new music with audiences.
Like great DJs, great educators are always on the cusp of the latest trends in education. They are lifelong learners who look for better ways to reach their students by reviewing trends and testing lessons and activities. Just review all the Pinterest boards for teaching ideas and you’ll spend hours saving new tools for your toolbox and seeing the latest trend in bulletin board material. 😉
Example: Combing through DitchThatTextbook.com for new ideas! ‘Nuff said.
The purpose of this article is not to make every educator a DJ. Obviously, that will never happen. Some folks just don’t have that kind of rhythm. 😉
No, the point is that we can look at other careers to find inspiration on how to better educate students today. Observe, study, and take note of what makes others so successful in reaching audiences. Use that information you gather and utilize it within your own classroom. Be a leader, a constant remixer, and a model of authentic and genuine passion for what you do and your students will take notice. It may not be today or tomorrow, but rest assured, they will know and perhaps they will share that with you down the line.
“Hey Mr. Herod, I haven’t talked to you in a really long time but that doesn’t touch the fact that you and your class had a tremendous impact on my personality and character growing up through middle school. So many of the things that you taught us about being a good person have carried through every year after I had your class. Some of the things you taught us didn’t make sense until life gave me the chance to apply it and I can’t thank you enough for that.”
– Matthew, June 2017, 5 years after taking my class.
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