Thanks to the Internet, I’ve been aware of Georgia science educator Dr. Annette Parrott for many years. Until now, though, I had never met her or talked with her in any depth about her own experiences and rationales for incorporating music into her courses. Read on to learn more about Annette!
SAS&M: Please tell us a bit about the different environments and classes in which you’ve taught.
AP: I have been teaching primarily as a high school science teacher since 1993. I have taught mostly Biology (all levels, from inclusion (special education) classes through Advanced Placement classes), but have also taught ecology, environmental science, and marine biology on the secondary level.
I have taught Anatomy and Physiology at a local community college and Environmental Science for online associate degrees.
I have also taught Master’s level science education courses locally.
SAS&M: When did music become a classroom tool for you? How and why did this happen?
AP: The first time I experienced music in a classroom (aside from learning that in 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue) was in my 1988 college Evolution class at the University of Buffalo. Dr. Clyde Herreid ended the course with a song and dance (he had a cool cane and hat). The lecture hall of 200 was pretty silent, I know I was shocked and in awe, a little weird for sure.
Little did I know, that 10 years later, students would be looking at me the same way.
I did not start singing immediately in my teaching career. My first song was one I heard at a staff development about “Oh Bacteria”. We used it as a mnemonic device to recall some details about the kingdom (it was still a kingdom back then, now it has graduated into 2 different domains). I took the words to that song (which I later found out was initiated by Doug Eldon) and added some of my own, found a .wav file for Oh Susannah,
found some pictures for my visual learners and created a timed PPT presentation that I used in my classes. I had so much fun with that, that by the end of that year I had about 5 songs, I called them “Biology Karaoke” and by the 3rd song, students started singing along.
Some years are more productive than others, usually a song will start by accident in the classroom and then I will complete it at home. Sometimes they are easily written, but other times they take a while (I have a few songs that I started and have never finished).
Being a child of the 80s, most of my songs are from that era. I like timeless classics that most people have heard before. However every now and again I will include something more contemporary if it is something I have heard repeatedly on the airwaves.
So now I have about 17 songs.
• Because I enjoy having fun in my classroom.
• Because I have moments of creativity that spill into my vocation/avocation of science education.
• Because it makes my teaching-learning experience unpredictable so students are more engaged looking for the “next surprise”.
• Because students like it.
• And last (most importantly?) because it helps students to learn scientific concepts in a fun, memorable and exciting way.
SAS&M: How do you incorporate these “Biology Karaoke” songs into your courses? Are they used as an end-of-unit review, or as a break during a long lab, or … ?
AP: The songs are interspersed between lectures and activities. Usually after we have learned about the topic, because the later songs have quizzes embedded in them (usually during the musical interludes) and I use these as formative assessments and/or extra credit. There is a quiz at the end of a song that I use for nursing Anatomy & Physiology students. They have until the music stops to finish writing.
SAS&M: Do you have any problems with students who don’t like the Biology Karaoke and would rather learn via more traditional approaches?
AP: My songs are usually a treat. They enhance, not replace instruction. For students who are openly critical of my songs, I invite and encourage them to bring a “better” mnemonic device within the week — no one has ever accepted the challenge.
However, if students are not interested in the songs (which has never happened as a class, those who want the song always outnumber — and loudly so — those who do not), or are not focused during them, I don’t sing.
After the first 2 songs, I typically do not sing alone and ask the class to sing along (a few times, I’ve even had students offer to do solos or be backup singers/dancers to their solo classmates).
SAS&M: Do you know of other teachers who use methods similar to Biology Karaoke? Does pulling it off require an unusual blend of musicality, courage, and adventurousness, or is it within the capability of many teachers?
AP: I do not personally know teachers who sing in their classrooms at this time. I know that teachers do it because I get emails to use my songs, and at least 2 of the teachers at the middle school in my high school’s feeder pattern use my songs — as my students report. I believe that actually singing the songs requires more courage than anything. I believe that that courage makes up for any lack of musicality as the songs are being used as a hook to engage students’ interest and/or memory devices to help students learn, not to demonstrate the vocal talent of the singer(s).
So, in my opinion, using music in science classes is within the capability of ALL teachers. Unfortunately, not all teachers believe that songs are beneficial and/or they are not willing to take the risks of giving up the “stoic authoritarian” persona that many believe a “credible content expert” should have.
However, I think that it may be a bit more challenging for teachers to come up with their own songs (compared to using songs already in existence). Even I am challenged with “on-demand creativity”. If I had the time and talent, I would create a song for EVERY lesson, but alas, I am not fortunate enough to have accomplished such :-)
It would be nice (and likely productive) if I did have collaboration and creative chemistry with other like-minded science persons. Perhaps your proposal [to the National Science Foundation] will produce such opportunities…