Learning to Avoid “School Talk” (Part 1)

Nothing has brought pedagogical theory into greater disrepute than the belief that it is identified with handing out to teachers recipes and models to be followed in teaching .

– John Dewey, Democracy and Education

I’ve written about this before, but the concept of engaging students in conversations and engaging, as an educator, in conversational assessment, is something that I continue to investigate.

Of course, it is not easy to have meaningful and authentic conversations with students about a literary text that they’re reading. First of all, they know very well that I’m an expert – even if I don’t see myself as one. Therefore, they are absolutely convinced that they cannot contribute anything to the discussion that I don’t already know. No matter how much I try to show them that there are still many aspects of a given topic that I am not very familiar with, students persist in their belief that teachers are experts.

So, I often try to start conversations and create activities that are just as challenging for me as they are for them. This calls for quite a bit of creativity and forces me to abandon tried and tested lesson plans.

Last month, I decided to help my students engage with Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl as more than just a literary text. I wanted them to look at it as an experience, as life written down by someone their own age. They find it difficult not to treat the diary as just another "big book" that they study at school. I wanted them to think about Anne as a person and her diary as a personal record. I wanted them to have an opportunity to engage with the text and think about what Anne’s words and experiences meant to them. I wanted to create an avenue for a personal connection – not an easy task in a classroom setting where every text we study is likely to be perceived as a literary text first and a personal experience second. At the same time, I also wanted to engage myself as a participant. I wanted to model the kind of personal engagement I wanted my students to experience.

It occurred to me that one way of doing this would be to create a soundtrack for the diary. So, I spent some time browsing through the SeeqPod and SkreemR archives on the mixwit page . The next day, I walked into our classroom and explained to my students how I got the idea:

I always listen to music when I read. Last night I was listening to Mozart and re-reading parts of the diary for our discussion today. Suddenly, I realized that the piece I was listening to suited the passage I was reading perfectly. It felt almost like the best soundtrack for that specific passage. So, I decided to make a list of songs and classical pieces that, in my opinion, would work well as a soundtrack for Anne’s diary.

And then I showed them the soundtrack I had made and we listened to a couple of tracks. I saved my soundtrack using mixwit’s highly visual interface and then embedded it in my blog in the grade eight blogosphere:

(Click here if the above widget does not work)

Then, I continued:

I want you to know that this took a long time and I found it very difficult to choose the songs. I kept searching the mixwit database for all kinds of songs that I thought would be perfect, but then I realized that the lyrics didn’t really work or that the song was actually very different from how I remembered it. In other words, I had to spend quite a bit of time not just coming up with possible song titles for this but also justifying my choices.

So, I would like you to do the same. Create a mixwit account and then search the database for tracks that, in your opinion, would be perfect for a soundtrack for The Diary of a Young Girl . There’s one catch, though: You have to be able to justify your decisions.

And then the conversations started. The one thing that made a huge impact was that I had challenged them to create something that I myself had already done. They could interact with my playlist and learn from the process I had engaged in prior to starting their own. They could critique my work and analyze it before embarking on their own journey of creating a soundtrack. In other words, I had entered the classroom and started the conversation as a participant. Creating my own mixwit tape placed me in the position of a learner. I eagerly shared with them my experiences of using mixwit and choosing the appropriate songs.

The point here is that what they were encouraged to do was not based on an abstract assignment description. I had entered the classroom with evidence of my own meaningful personal engagement with the diary, not just a typed handout explaining what they had to do.

This exercise led to a number of meaningful conversations with my students about Anne Frank, her writing, and our interpretations of her personality and her work. The fact that they all needed to justify their musical choices ensured that the conversations we had focused not just on the music but also, perhaps primarily, on the text. I had many one-on-one conversations with my students in which they talked about specific aspects of Anne’s personality and shared their knowledge of popular music with me. They read and listened to the lyrics carefully because they realized that the choices had to be justified and couldn’t be in any way offensive to the sanctity of the text written by a girl their age who perished in the Holocaust. This wasn’t just about listening to music, it was about making connections, and they all realized that, in order to make them, they had to become very familiar with both the songs and the text – I had encouraged them to become experts.

I was also pleased that this activity gave all of us an opportunity to engage with the diary in a new and unique way. The students still studied the text, they still had to think about Anne as a person and a writer, but they had to do it in a context that rarely enters our classrooms, one that certainly is never present when we discuss literary texts.

I learned that entering the community as a participant allowed me to have conversations with my students that they did not perceive as instructional. Yes, they were talking to Mr.Glogowski about their songs and their reasons for picking them, but it did not feel like school talk.

Here are some examples of what they created:

… and, of course, the best thing about this was that there was no rubric or evaluation sheet. Why? Because when you listen to student soundtracks for The Diary of a Young Girl and the music works, the music fits, you just know the students did a great job … and they do too – not because they received a rubric with a high mark, but because their work emerged from meaningful conversations with each other and the teacher.

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19 Responses to Learning to Avoid “School Talk” (Part 1)

  1. Intrepid Teacher June 3, 2008 at 3:40 am #

    Let me start by saying that as a teacher who loves music and tries to incorporate it into my classroom as much as possible, I love the mixwit site. I look forward to using it on my Intrepid Classroom.

    I also wanted to agree with you that I often find students are much more engaged or motived when I do the projects I assigned with them. Every writing assignment, visual project etc, is an opportunity for me to try out my skills as well. I think it shows the students that I am not asking them to do busy work, but rather that I too feel their is some purpose to doing the work. I also love allowing students to create projects that I can complete as well.

    It is a great wake up call as well. If an assignment is not relevant or engaging I will know right away as I am doing it.

    I did a similar project like this with Anne Frank a few years ago, but we created a video commercial of Anne’s life set to music and images. We used google images so they were very static. Next time I would have them create the images or find metaphorical ones from Flickr.

    Here is what it looked like:


    Great post. Thanks!

  2. mrsdurff June 3, 2008 at 6:16 am #

    I have one up on you Dr. Glogowski! I look anything but like a teacher, hobbling into classrooms, walking with a cane, losing my balance, sounding strange. All this works to my advantage with other learners!
    I like the Freebird one!
    I have German relatives. The family house had many interesting rooms…..and they had many Jewish friends…..

  3. Mindelei June 3, 2008 at 8:31 pm #

    Thank you for sharing such an interesting way to get students involved with the text. I’m saving this to my del.icio.us so that I have a reference once I am in my own classroom. I also appreciate that you’ve shared the technology that you’ve used as well. Thank you from my future students (and from me).

  4. Konrad Glogowski June 3, 2008 at 8:42 pm #


    Thank you for sharing your Anne Frank project! Such a valuable resource – I’m going to add this to my delicious collection and use in PD sessions.

    I agree that “Every writing assignment, visual project etc, is an opportunity for me to try out my skills as well. I think it shows the students that I am not asking them to do busy work, but rather that I too feel their is some purpose to doing the work.”

    I’m interested in exploring how teachers can also learn in the classroom. It’s not an easy shift to master, but from what I’ve seen so far it’s definitely worth it and helps our classrooms become communities.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  5. Konrad Glogowski June 3, 2008 at 8:50 pm #


    All of those qualities make you human in the students’ minds. Let’s face it, that is something that teachers often want to avoid and instead manufacture an official teacher-persona.

  6. Konrad Glogowski June 3, 2008 at 9:20 pm #


    Glad you found this helpful!

  7. Ross Isenegger June 4, 2008 at 6:30 am #

    Hi Konrad,

    I am wondering whether you have any qualms about using music from “informal” sources?

  8. KarenJan June 5, 2008 at 8:10 pm #

    What a creative application of media to help students understand the text in new ways. This is brilliant and an excellent example of differentiated instruction as well.
    Time to collaborate with others from the network about how to engage students with the material that has meaning to them.

    Also, wish my son’s English teacher would have tried something as innovative with him this year when he studied (and decided he hated) Shakespeare. He is so into music and this type of assignment would have drawn him right in.

  9. Dean Mattson June 9, 2008 at 3:25 pm #

    I think this lesson is absolutely brilliant, the way it mixes literature and music, which students typically have a strong emotional connection too. I also like the way Mixwit embeds it into the blog post. I’d like for students at my school to do a similar project and post it on their blogs.

    However, my concern would be over the use of the music that obviously covered by corywrite. Has Mixwit signed agreements that allow these songs to be posted on blogs? If so, hooray for them! This is long overdue. Or have you found another way around it?

  10. Susan June 18, 2008 at 6:54 am #

    I agree with Intrepid Teacher that students are more motivated and involved when the teacher also participates in the projects that are assigned.

    When you explained to your students the process you went through, the difficulty you had finding songs that matched and then being able to justify your reasons for selecting the songs, you were modeling the metacognition that students need to understand takes place with learning and how to go about it themselves.

    This lesson will be one of those lessons your students will never forget because music brings out emotions in us, and whenever we tie emotions to learning, we create true memories. It’s kind of like when I hear a song from my childhood or teenage years, it’s always connected with what was going on in my life at the time or an event. Such will be the case with this lesson! Technology and the multiple intelligences…It does exist!

  11. Adam June 18, 2008 at 2:29 pm #


    Very interesting idea! This could even be extended to a soundtrack by chapters (depending on time constraints of course). I would be really interested to see/hear the student’s justifications for each song choice (perhaps an application for Voicethread?).


  12. Mimi July 2, 2008 at 8:05 am #

    Wow! I just discovered your blog, but think this idea is outstanding! What a great way to tap into different ways for students to express their understanding. I took a course in Understanding By Design last summer as part of my doctoral work, I am sure you have heard of it, since you sound outstanding. If you’re interested though, I have some really inspirational reading on transformative learning….

  13. Todd August 5, 2008 at 3:02 pm #

    This is a great idea. I like bringing in music and the discussion of why certain songs work and don’t work was surely one that helped further understanding of the novel. But I’ve got a problem with the way it’s assessed. I’m not comfortable with evaluation that ever looks like this:

    you just know the students did a great job

    Some kind of critical evaluation of their spoken rationale for song selections would be a fair thing to actually assess the quality of, but to just say that their mixtape was successful “because their work emerged from meaningful conversations with each other and the teacher” is an evaluation that works off a feeling. I really shouldn’t look at a piece of writing and declare “This works: A+!” any more than I should declare the exact opposite. I need to have reasons why the work meets, exceeds, or falls short of expectations. That also means that I need to have clear expectations, reasons why Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” might be acceptable and Soulja Boy’s “Crank Dat Soulja Boy” might not be (and, further, reasons why including any Joy Division song on a soundtrack about a girl trying to escape Nazis is inappropriate to some extent).

    I think this can be a better assignment, and still not feel heavy handed to the students, with an evaluation component that makes it worth the time invested. A decision of what skills you’re trying to assess and how students can be helped in developing those skills would go a long way. Otherwise this becomes an assignment that the students either get or don’t, with no way to bridge that gap.


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