Steven Van Zandt Creates a Free School of Rock: 100+ Free Lesson Plans That Educate Kids Through Music

When I think of rock ‘n’ roll high school, I think of the Ramones, but in the 1979 Roger Cor­man film no one real­ly learns much. In real­i­ty, how­ev­er, anoth­er leg­endary musi­cian, still going strong after five decades in the busi­ness, has put his cred to seri­ous use, lever­ag­ing star­dom as a musi­cian and actor to cre­ate a music cur­ricu­lum teach­ers can use for free, with lessons on rock his­to­ry, Native Amer­i­can pol­i­tics, Bob Dylan’s poet­ry, immi­gra­tion and the blues, civ­il dis­obe­di­ence, the fight to end Apartheid, and much more. That man is Steven Van Zandt—aka Lit­tle Steven of the E Street Band, or Sil­vio Dante of The Sopra­nos, or Frank Tagliano of Lily­ham­mer, or a few oth­er alias­es and fic­tion­al char­ac­ters.

“For the past decade,” writes John Seabrook at The New York­er, the ban­dana-clad gui­tarist has been “work­ing on a way to recre­ate” a “dynam­ic, out-of-school learn­ing expe­ri­ence inside class­rooms, through his Rock and Roll For­ev­er Foun­da­tion.” Work­ing, that is, to recre­ate his own expe­ri­ence as a dis­af­fect­ed youth who “had no inter­est in school what­so­ev­er,” he recalls. What inter­est­ed him was music: the Bea­t­les, at first, but as he learned more about them, he picked up “bits of infor­ma­tion” about East­ern reli­gion and orches­tra­tion. He learned about lit­er­a­ture from Dylan.

“You didn’t get into it to learn things,” he says, “but you learn things any­way.” At least if you’re as curi­ous and open-mind­ed as Van Zandt, who came to val­ue edu­ca­tion through his non-tra­di­tion­al course. Over ten years ago, when the Nation­al Asso­ci­a­tion for Music Edu­ca­tion told him that “No Child Left Behind leg­is­la­tion was real­ly dev­as­tat­ing art class­es,” he con­front­ed Ted Kennedy and Mitch McConnell, telling them, “did you ever hear that every kid who takes music class does bet­ter in math and sci­ence?” They apol­o­gized,” he says, “but they said they weren’t going to fix it.”

So Van Zandt decid­ed to do it him­self with a pro­gram called TeachRock. Work­ing with two eth­no­mu­si­col­o­gists, he built the cur­ricu­lum to con­nect with kids through music. “Instead of telling the kid, ‘Take the iPod out of your ears,’” he told a crowd of teach­ers gath­ered at Times Square’s Playsta­tion The­ater in May, “we ask them, ‘What are you lis­ten­ing to?’” Van Zandt calls his cur­ricu­lum “teach­ing in the present tense,” and while his own back cat­a­log may not nec­es­sar­i­ly be stream­ing on kids’ cur­rent playlists, he incor­po­rates not only his music and the fifties and six­ties rock ‘n’ roll he loves, but also hip-hop, pop, punk, and the “Latin rhythms of ‘Despaci­to.’” He even uses Beyoncé’s “Sin­gle Ladies” video to prompt a dis­cus­sion on the slave trade.

The focus on pop­u­lar music as a force for change is ful­ly in keep­ing with Van Zandt’s own path. His self-edu­ca­tion led him into activism in the 80s when he wrote and record­ed “Sun City” with 50 oth­er artists to protest South African Apartheid. Unlike some oth­er ben­e­fit songs of the time (like the cringe-induc­ing “Do They Know It’s Christ­mas”), “Sun City,” with its accom­pa­ny­ing video (above), took effec­tive polit­i­cal action—a blan­ket boy­cott of the Sun City resort—and didn’t sug­ar-coat the issues one bit (“relo­ca­tion to pho­ny homelands/separation of fam­i­lies, I can’t under­stand”). The Sun City boy­cott gets its own mod­ule.

As Van Zandt told Fast Com­pa­ny in 2015, “I had been research­ing Amer­i­can for­eign pol­i­cy post-World War II just to edu­cate myself, which I had nev­er done, being obsessed with rock ‘n’ roll my whole life. I was quite shocked to find that we were not always the good guys.” His dis­cov­er­ies com­pelled him to vis­it South Africa and to “ded­i­cate my five-record solo career to that learn­ing process, and also com­bine a bit of jour­nal­ism with the rock art form.” That same pas­sion for jus­tice informs all of the TeachRock lessons, which you can browse and down­load for free at the TeachRock site. The mul­ti-media units incor­po­rate video, audio, images, activ­i­ties, infor­ma­tive hand­outs, and oth­er resources.

Each les­son also explains how its objec­tives meet Com­mon Core State Stan­dards (or the state stan­dards of New Jer­sey and Texas). “TeachRock is root­ed in a teach­ing phi­los­o­phy that believes stu­dents learn best when they tru­ly con­nect with the mate­r­i­al to which they’re intro­duced,” notes the site’s “Wel­come Teach­ers” page. “Obvi­ous­ly, pop­u­lar music is one such point of con­nec­tion.” Per­haps not every kid who learns through music as Van Zandt did will go out and try to change the world, but they’re more than like­ly to stay engaged and stay in school. And that’s exact­ly what he hopes to accom­plish.

“Teach­ing kids some­thing they’re not inter­est­ed in,” he told the teach­ers in New York, “it didn’t work then, and it’s even worse now. We have an epi­dem­ic dropout rate.” Then, in his refresh­ing­ly hon­est way, he con­clud­ed, “Where are we going to be in twen­ty years? How are we going to get smarter look­ing at this Admin­is­tra­tion? You know, we’re just get­ting stu­pid­er.” Not if Lit­tle Steven has any­thing to say about it. He’s cur­rent­ly on tour with his Dis­ci­ples of Soul, and offer­ing free tick­ets to teach­ers, pro­vid­ed they show up ear­ly for a TeachRock work­shop. Sign up here!

For more, check out Steve’s new mem­oir, Unre­quit­ed Infat­u­a­tions.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Cheap Trick’s Bassist Tom Peters­son Help Kids With Autism Learn Lan­guage With Rock ‘n’ Roll: Dis­cov­er “Rock Your Speech”

David Byrne & Neil deGrasse Tyson Explain the Impor­tance of an Arts Edu­ca­tion (and How It Strength­ens Sci­ence & Civ­i­liza­tion)

New Research Shows How Music Lessons Dur­ing Child­hood Ben­e­fit the Brain for a Life­time

The Con­cept of Musi­cal Har­mo­ny Explained in Five Lev­els of Dif­fi­cul­ty, Start­ing with a Child & End­ing with Her­bie Han­cock

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness


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  • William Lever says:

    Let me start by say­ing I’m a fan for over 40 years now.

    Steven says “I had been research­ing Amer­i­can for­eign pol­i­cy post-World War II.…..I was quite shocked to find that we were not always the good guys.”

    First thing, Steven, you should’ve said “…we ARE not…” instead of “we were not”. “Were” gives the impres­sion our das­tard­ly ways are behind us. Quite the con­trary, in fact.

    Sec­ond thing.…keep study­ing US for­eign policy…if you’ve got the stom­ach for it.

    I applaud your conscientiousness…and your Rock n’ Roll!

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