When I was a kid, there were lots of things to do on warm summer weekends such as this one: Get to a pool, run through the sprinkler, chase down a Good Humor truck, watch the Yankees game in the air conditioning, and play some Atari games. As a lover of pop music and of lists, there was another treat I enjoyed: Finding a musical “countdown” on the radio.
Sunday mornings brought Casey Kasem’s American Top 40. Saturday evenings brought Dick Clark’s own radio countdown. In early July, the New York FM station WNEW would play its “Firecracker 500” of the top rock ‘n’ roll songs of all time.
These countdowns introduced me to the idea of the disc jockey, as someone who sat in a room, behind a microphone, and told stories while weaving one song into another. Before media giants bought most of the radio stations and turned them into auto-programmed playlists, and before iTunes, Pandora and Spotify turned listeners into their own playlist creators, we relied on professional DJs to introduce us to songs, and to fill the airspace in between tunes. There are still some radio stations, both traditional and satellite, that use DJs. But for the most part, the radio DJ is a thing of the past.
Interestingly enough, when I think about teaching, I find a lot of similarities between the classroom and the DJ’s space. I haven’t heard someone encouraging an educator to “Teach like a DJ,” but if you’ll humor me for a moment, I think it’s good advice, especially for secondary-school teachers who are seeing students once a day for short periods of time. Here are some reasons:
Engagement: Radio DJs have the obvious tool of playing music to engage the listeners, yet teachers who want to engage their students can start right there: Play some tunes while they are walking into class, perhaps even while they’re working on their “Do Now” or journal entry. The classroom engagement can continue by valuing movement in the classroom, and looking for ways to get students on their feet during class periods. Add in some strong group and partner conversations and activities, and teachers may find that their students walk in each day genuinely looking forward to this class because it engages them each day.
Context: The radio DJ needs to tell us why the music matters, and what it means to us. That might mean explaining just how many No. 1 hits Michael Jackson now has off the Bad album, giving us the story behind Kurt Cobain’s writing of Smells Like Teen Spirit, or sharing the tale of how the Little River Band got its name. In the classroom, it might mean showing students how the algebra they’re learning will matter in life, or illustrating the ways in which Napoleon or Julius Caesar help us understand the nature of power and the cult of personality. Every student should be able to know the “So what?” behind the material being taught.
Flow: Radio DJs, like club DJs, need to segue from one song to another without losing us. They look for that perfect transition between songs, one that fills the listener with a kind of joy they didn’t see coming. In the classroom, transitions are essential as well. If, for instance, our latest environmental science lab led to some dynamic dialogue about climate change, I want to make sure our next unit keeps that discussion going, because I’ve got a groove going in the class right now, and that groove is leading to self-directed learning. No reason to switch genres right now.
Storytelling: Casey Kasem would stop his countdown at certain points to read a “long-distance dedication,” directed from one listener to another. He’d read a letter that someone had written, perhaps a girlfriend whose boyfriend was away at college, or serving in the armed forces, or taking some time away from the relationship. Casey would read the letter thoroughly, giving us the details, then connecting back to the music: “Casey, can you please dedicate Open Arms by Journey to so-and-so, who I still love so much.” Teachers, like DJs, need to keep the stories going – not at the expense of instruction, but as a way of enhancing instruction. When I taught my journalism students about the importance of getting your facts right, I stopped and told them the story of the mock obituary I wrote for my first news reporting course in college. I received the assignment back and saw a giant letter F on the paper. The teacher spoke to me afterward and said, “You’re a good writer, and you’ll do well in this class. But you spelled the person’s name wrong in the obituary. This is a published document of that person’s life, and the last chance most families will get to seeing that. You can’t get the name wrong.” As I told the story, all eyes were upon me, and no one missed the message. They story had resonated.
Choice: Whether it’s a long-distance dedication or a listener calling in a request, radio DJs have always offered audience choice in addition to their own song selections. Teachers, at the same time, must balance the core curricular decisions they make with student-generated ideas. When we give students independent choice in assignments, we empower them to take ownership over their learning in ways that they value deeply. And, at the same time, we gain more leverage in asking them to hang in with the lessons and units we’re choosing.
Incentives: Radio DJs might offer a pair of tickets to the Madonna concert for the 95th caller, leading to a frenzy of dialing in hopes that somehow, the listener might hit the jackpot. Teachers usually don’t have concert tickets in hand, but incentives are important in the classroom nonetheless. It might be something as simple as rewarding strong participation and behavior with bagels one Friday morning. Or it might be allowing the class to hold its own holiday celebration on the day before winter break. These incentives don’t require much work on the part of the teacher, but they do offer a reason for students to stay tuned.
Pop Culture, Always: The radio DJ and the songs played are part of the pop culture scene, but DJs are also eager to reference other entertainers, songs, movies, TV shows or anything else that spices up the conversation. Teachers can do the same, finding a current news story that leads into this week’s physics unit, or a modern-day celebrity whose story reminds us in some ways of Macbeth. That doesn’t mean pandering to our students, but it can lead to some great openings. If I’m asking students to read Frankenstein and talk deeply about whether humans are inherently good or evil, I might ask them to find a short video on YouTube, Vine or Tik Tok that illustrates one side of this debate. The responses I get may solidify the learning for them in some significant ways.
Oldies and New Hits: Some of those old-school DJs were playing music from “the ‘60s, ‘70s and today” or whatever eras their stations were focusing on at that time. They knew that listeners wanted to hear the comfort of classics along with the shock of the new. Musicians, too, have always been interested in celebrating the past and present, from singing about the past (“Summer of ‘69”) to sampling songs from the past within a newer song (more hip hop songs than we can count). Teachers will find that some students genuinely want to read The Great Gatsby, because they find the writing and the themes to be timeless. But they also wouldn’t mind trying out something by Jacqueline Woodson or Colson Whitehead, because, well, these authors are delivering the hits of today, and their work matters just as much as the stories we’ve taught in years past.
Find Your Voice: The DJ works on vocal delivery, on word choice, and on knowing when to step back from the mic. The DJ wants to feel like a trusted friend to listeners, and wants to come across as genuine. Whenever I turn to a radio station and Delilah is on, I don’t know if I’m going to want to hear the adult contemporary song she’s about to play; but I do know that I’m going to feel respected by her delivery. Teachers work so hard to find their voice in the classroom. They often reach a point where they stop trying to be what the educational textbooks say they should be, and start incorporating their true selves into the instruction. Teachers want their voice to impact the instruction in a positive way. I never had the most dynamic voice in the room, but I kept an even keel almost all the time, and spoke in a soothing tone. One student, with whom I was close, would make fun of me as I walked into class, saying, “Oh no, here he comes with that monotonous voice of his.” This was, for a teenager steeped in sarcasm, a compliment to me.
Stay Humble: A radio DJ can go by a catchy nickname (“Wolfman Jack,” “Shadoe Stevens”) that serves as a sign that he or she has made it big. But in the end, every DJ is only as good as his or her latest broadcast. The reputation may be there, but you’ve got to bring it every day to maintain that rep. Teachers have the same responsibility: Prepare the lesson, deliver it well, make it count. Humility is essential in order to avoid resting on one’s laurels. As Casey Kasem said each week, “Keep your feet on the ground, and keep reaching for the stars.”
Connect: The last, and perhaps most obvious, piece to the DJ-teacher metaphor is that both are grounded in making human connections. As I sat there with my boom box playing in my bedroom, I was looking in some way to engage with that DJ through his or her words, delivery, and song choice. What came out of those radio speakers was incorporated into the life I was living at the time. Students are no different; they hear and see the teachers, and they are paying some level of attention. But when you put the academic, the social and the emotional learning together, are they leaving that classroom feeling known, cared about, and instructed? That’s the magical part, where we do so much more than teach the Revolutionary War or French verb conjugations. Our connections go beyond the content of the songs or lessons, and into the deeper human fabric that leaves someone feeling valued and understood.
It’s not easy to find a great radio DJ today. But the work they did is part of our cultural history of storytelling and communication. If educators heed the lessons of this craft, we might find that it’s always possible to teach like a DJ. In some ways, it’s essential that we do so. It’s one way to ensure that the hits just keep on coming.