Jazzing Up the Classroom

Tune-up mundane subjects with some lively jazz for a cross-currricular kick!

By Alicia Johnson


Silhouette of man playing trumpet

The first time I brought music into one of my lessons was with 8th graders after reading My Dog Skip by Willie Morris. I had created a computer lab assignment where many project options were offered. One included researching the music from the WWII era (the timeframe covered in Morris' memoir). One thing I discovered was that music from back in the day was not as old fashioned to my students as I thought it would be. Those who chose the music research assignment loved it. They enjoyed wearing headphones in the lab to hear different music samples they found online. They enjoyed seeing the old black and white images of the singers and musicians, and they even enjoyed the problem solving they had to go through to incorporate the music into their presentations. In short, they were hooked, and so was I.

Why Jazz?

There are many ways to introduce jazz into the classroom, and many reasons why. First and foremost, jazz is a music form that is uniquely American. We can trace its history alongside our national history from as early as the 1800's. A study of jazz is a study of America. Michelle Obama explains wonderfully the importance of jazz here in her introduction to The White House "Jazz Studio."

Jazz in the English Class

  • Novels: I think the best way to incorporate jazz into an English classroom discussion is to include it as part of a larger lesson. For example, this excellent reading project from Cornell University includes a close look at jazz as just a part of a larger study of the novel, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald.  Since the story takes place in the 1920's, it is a perfect chance to discuss America's Jazz Age. This site is a wonderful tool to help you generate ideas. 
  • Poetry: If you are in a poetry unit or studying the Harlem Renaissance, a discussion of Langston Hughes will begin at some point. He was greatly influenced by jazz.  A quote from an article about Hughes on Poets.org says he “tried to write poems like the songs they sang on Seventh Street.” A study of Hughes would naturally include a closer look at the music that influenced him. 
  • Common Core Application: 

Reading: Informational Text

RI.11.7. Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in different media or formats (e.g., visually, quantitatively) as well as in words in order to address a question or solve a problem.

Reading Literature

RL.11.3. Analyze the impact of the author’s choices regarding how to develop and relate elements of a story or drama (e.g., where a story is set, how the action is ordered, how the characters are introduced and developed).

RL.11.4. Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in the text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone, including words with multiple meanings or language that is particularly fresh, engaging, or beautiful. (Include Shakespeare as well as other authors.)

RL.11.9. Demonstrate knowledge of eighteenth-, nineteenth-, and early-twentieth-century foundational works of American literature, including how two or more texts from the same period treat similar themes or topics.

Jazz in a History Class

If you are studying the Great Depression, this PBS site provides a wonderful addition to your curriculum. It contains audio features from the Ken Burns film Jazz, as well as documented memories and anecdotes on how important Jazz was during that time in our history. This site actually discusses jazz in America's historical timeline from slavery to the 1960's. It provides an opportunity to discuss differing perspectives of American hardship during the Depression Era. 

  • Common Core Application:

Reading: Informational Text

RI.11.7. Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in different media or formats (e.g., visually, quantitatively) as well as in words in order to address a question or solve a problem.

Reading Literacy in History/Social Studies

RH.11.6.Evaluate authors’ differing points of view on the same historical event or issue by assessing the authors’ claims, reasoning, and evidence.

RH.11.7. Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., quantitative data, video, multimedia) in order to address a question or solve a problem.

Jazz in a Math Class

Trying to inspire a younger crowd with jazz? This news article about professional jazz singer, Lisa Henry, shows how she teaches jazz-inspired math principles to 3-6 years olds with a program called "Ella, Scat & Math" (the "Ella" is for Ella Fitzgerald). PBS doesn't forget about our K-5 jazz lovers either. There are some fun interactive links on their site where students can build a band and learn about jazz musicians. It also offers activities that, in addition to math, touch on music, history, language arts, and theater.

More Resources:

Jazz It Up

This high school level jazz project is designed as a culmination of a jazz-history study. It allows for plenty of group work, problem solving, and creativity. Even though it stretches over a three week in-class/out-of-class timeframe, a teacher could shrink it if needed. I like this lesson because it was created by English/history co-teachers so it addresses standards for English, history, and music. It also gives high schoolers a chance to brainstorm and create messages for peers as to why jazz should not be considered a dying genre.

Music Traditions of Southern Louisiana

If you are a French teacher, this will spice up your class with the sounds of jazz, Zydeco, and Cajun music. You will discover a historical research lesson that incorporates group work, music, and French vocabulary. It also includes a note-sheet handout for the introduction of the music being researched, as well as a vocabulary list. What a unique way to bring jazz into the French classroom, while also exposing your French learners to America's musical roots! 

Duking It Out

The New York Times consistently offers relevant and interesting lessons to the education community, and this one is no different. The "Duking It Out" lesson is based on a NYT article, "Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra: Mixing Treasures by Duke Ellington and Edvard Grieg." Your class is guided through an exploration of how jazz not only transformed European music in the past, but still has its influences on our own modern music. The end product is a better understanding of the history of jazz, and also a persuasive written musical review created by your new jazz aficionados.