Teaching and Learning through Music in the Contact Zones

Elliot Waldman


In this issue of Outreach, Elliot Waldman shares the methodology he used to design an evening seminar class for university students in Vietnam. He was posted as a volunteer teacher at the International Education Center of Hong Duc University in Thanh Hoa. Students there spend six to eight hours during the day intensively preparing for the TOEFL. Though not mandatory, they also do homework each night, as strongly recommended by their teachers. The goal of the center is to send students abroad for postgraduate study. Before they go, Waldman wants to correct the distorted images the students have of the United States. Inspired by lessons he learned from the world of music and drawing on a wide range of media technology and an informed methodology, he shapes his classroom into a contact zone, a place where Vietnamese students can meet, clash, and grapple with American culture.


Teaching and Learning through Music in the Contact Zones

The use of music in classrooms has long been standard practice for language teachers. Songs such as The Beatles’ “Hello, Goodbye” and Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” enjoy widespread popularity, not only for their practical vocabulary and conversational motifs but because they make language fun. One of my fondest memories learning French was a lesson organized around a song by the French rapper MC Solaar, in which he chronicled the lives of residents of the banlieues, the crime-ravaged suburbs of Paris. As my professor expounded with evident relish on the social symbolism of everyday human interactions represented in a lyric about smoking a joint, I found myself becoming involved with the French language on a far more personal and analytical plane.

With this inspiring lesson in mind, from March2010 I led a seminar for intermediateto advanced students at Hong Duc University in Thanh Hoa, Vietnam, entitled “20th Century American Culture and History through Music.” Each week we examined a specific era or theme in American history through one or two songs, chosen for the unique perspective they lent to the topic. When appropriate, other materials such as movies, documentaries, photographs, and cartoons were incorporated. Although a small amount of lecturing on my part was unavoidable, every effort was made to keep the focus on small-group discussions emphasizing critical analysis of media.

Several unique characteristics of the student bodyat the International Education Centermade them ideal for the kind of integrated, multi-disciplinary class I envisioned, while simultaneously posing a unique set of challenges. Overall, students were bright and hungry for knowledge of foreign societies, but were generally limited in their prior knowledge of American culture. Engagement with American music, for all but a couple of students, stopped at boy bands and Hollywood soundtracks.

My goals for the seminar were personal and professional. Apart from a rather vague desire to foster mutual understanding between the people of the United States and Vietnam, I wanted to correct a persistent stereotype. During the months I spent in Thanh Hoa, I had come to realize that the average resident holds a profoundly distorted understanding of the United States. Students, taxi drivers, servers, and even local English teachers professed the innocent belief that America is a land of unabashed wealth. In Vietnam, with its median age of 25, Cold War-era American stereotypes have been replaced by the fantastical portrayals of life in popular films and TV shows. At Hong Duc University, the American Studies curriculum glosses over the grittier issues such as racial tension, income inequality, and high crime rates, leaving students with a rather stilted picture of America. The content of my class, therefore, focused mainly on aspects of American culture and society which tend to be overlooked—not only in Vietnam, but in many classrooms in the United States as well.

On a more abstract and theoretical level, the rectification of misguided beliefsabout America was accompanied by a more subtle upheaval of the traditional classroom hierarchyin Vietnam. The dominant method of teachingin Vietnam follows a “banking approach” to education (Freire, 1970). This is a rigid top-down pedagogy in which the student plays the role of a bank teller, passively and obediently receiving whatever knowledge the teacher chooses to deposit. One of my goals for the seminar was to challenge this antiquated educational model and restructure my Vietnamese classroom along the lines of Mary Louise Pratt’s (1991) concept of contact zones, “Social spaces where cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power”(p. 33). The aggressive give-and-take Pratt describes here often takes place in the modern ESL classroom, but rather than resist it, I believe that educators should welcome the occasional usurping of their power. Practical ideas concerning the use of music as “codes” in ESL teaching, which I picked up by attending BrendanRies’ (2010)workshop at the 6th annual CamTESOL conference in Phnom Penh, played an invaluable role in planning this seminar.

To facilitate discussion, each student received a 30-page booklet prior to the beginning of the seminar containing the course syllabus and table of contents, a map of the United States, brief readings providing background for each topic, definitions of key vocabulary, lyrics, and discussion questions. Songs for each session were posted onour class Google Groups page a few days in advance, allowing students to listen beforehand while reading along with the lyrics. I did my best to diversify the activities, although each session followed the same loosely organized flow, which I will describe using the example of my first session “Slavery and the Blues Tradition.”

The class began with a brief overview of slavery, highlighting the enormous scale of the Atlantic slave trade and its pivotal effects on America’s racial and socio-cultural spectrum. We discussed the horrifying conditions for most slaves, and how the music that supported them, mainly spirituals and work songs, was passed down orally from generation to generation and eventually grew into the Blues idiom. As an example of the waythat indigenous African songs were maintained by slaves transported to the New World, we listened to a field recording of traditional Yoruba music from the 1930s,followed by Muddy Waters’ “Mannish Boy.” The underlying theme here, recurring throughout the seminar, was the hybridization of culture. Students were asked to listen for similarities between the two seemingly disparate pieces, in particular for the clear useof call-and-response, a common Blues and Jazz technique of West African origin in which a single rhythmic and melodic device is repeated numerous times with variations upon the same theme.

For the final section of the class, we listened to Robert Johnson’s “Crossroad Blues”, which provided a wonderful opportunity for lyrical analysis. Students were encouraged to think about the singer’s point of view, and to identify and discuss the “5 W’s”(who, where, when, which, and why) of the narrative. In this particular example, students were able to uncover once dark secrets from their listening experience: Johnson sings “standing at the crossroad, rising sun going down / believe to my soul now, poor Bob is sinking down.” In all likelihood, thisverse is a reference to the once commonplace practice of lynching African-Americans walking alone at night.An amusing situation arose during discussion of this song, when a student asked about the final line, “Lord I didn’t have no sweet woman, babe, in my distress.” The student, unfamiliar with the African-American patois, was curious about the singer’s incorrect usage of grammar. After a brief explanation, she smiled presciently and responded, “I see. So we don’t have no grammar rules here!” Ultimately, it was a great way for students to learn that non-standard usage of language is acceptable, even normative depending on the cultural context. The potential to unpack various meanings contained in a single song is one of the great, underutilized strengths of music as an educational tool.

In conclusion, student feedback showed that the unorthodox, almost novel (by Vietnamese standards) structure of the seminar did leave a positive impression. By the end of the course, many of the students were actively initiating discussions with fellow classmates without a prompt, and their ability to analyze highly subjective media loaded with a diverse array of connotations had noticeably improved. Freed from the rigid constraints of the TOEFL curriculum, students were able to contextualize and “own” new ideas on their own terms. Participants in the teacher training program showed interest in the wide range of technology incorporated into the seminar.

Aside from such observations however, it is important to note that the impact of a course like this dwells largely in the realm of the intangible. The dominant trend at the moment, particularly in ESL programs of the developing world, is for a positivist model of education focusing on quantifiable results. Without neglecting the merits of such an approach, it is my sincere hope that the forces of standardization do not dissuade other teachers and administrators from pursuing the kind of interdisciplinary, content-based ESL curricula that I have tried to outline here.


Friere, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Herder and Herder.

Pratt, M. (1991). Arts of the Contact Zone. InP. Franklin (Ed.) Profession 91. New York: MLA.

Ries, B. (2010). Exploring Codes for Social Justice Through Music. Workshop Presented at the 6th annual CamTESOL conference.


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David McMurray