Disengaged student changed forever by Swift & Adams (Taylor & Ryan, that is)

Via Twitter a couple weeks ago, I conversed with a number of folks from across the eduscape about student engagement. Largely, these conversations started after fellow tweeters happened upon this tweet from me, which I dashed off in frustrated reaction to a piece in the Atlantic’s Education section:

(NOTE: As little enthusiasm as I have for the featured school’s methods and philosophies in a general sense, my biggest qualms with the piece were journalistic. Important, as articles like these — and, for that matter, content like that provided in TED Talks — carry more weight in schools’ professional development activities and in shaping public opinion than many journalists might think. My wish, accordingly, is that such journos would raise their level of care and thoroughness at least one more notch before such fawning over the kinds of ‘cool practices’ described in the piece. If I can ever get through my pile of partially finished blog posts, I’ll circle back and go more fully off. All that said, my big issues with the Atlantic piece itself are not this post’s main focus. Let’s get on to that now, shall we?)

If you know my Education Is Upside-Down (especially chapters 4 & 6), you know I have some pretty strong feelings on student engagement to learning — where it should be prioritized and why, how schooling should walk lines between guiding and following students’ desires/interests and why, etc., etc. As these are major professional interests of mine, and because I know these balances are both crucial and tricky to strike, I appreciated the dialogue.

Still, my mind definitely hasn’t changed much on the idea. Plainly: if we truly care about our students’ chances of succeeding in the world they will enter after their K-12 educations, we must put what we know about that world’s demands, not kids’ interests, first when designing our teaching. Though this will mean getting students to stretch outside their comfort or entertainment zones from time to time, our primary promise to young people (and indeed, to society) is not just that we will keep them sufficiently entertained. First and foremost, our promise to young people is that we will ably prepare them for the world they will one day join.

To enable students toward plugging into that post-K-12 world, we must (1) be real about what that world has in it and (2) own that it’s on us to engage students to those realities, however hard it may be. If we give up altogether that kids can engage to these realities and choose to let each student’s preferred interest provide our instruction’s starting points, we both damage and limit the youth’s eventual abilities to succeed within the post-K-12 world. Frankly, I find the whole idea of presupposing students’ abilities to engage with certain content — on bases of the content’s age or direct life-relevance or students’ demonstrated preferences toward video games or whatever — to be nothing short of insulting to the youth we work with. Please, give them more credit than that. And, of course, get to work figuring out how to connect that which has endured to your kids so they are equipped to join civilization’s long conversations. Our kids’ — and our civilization’s — overall health depends on it.


I got an interesting illustration of these ideas in the past year, though not through a teaching, teaching-observatory, or otherwise ed-enterprise-examining experience. Indeed, I experienced this illustration from the ‘Disengaged Student’ seat. It went something like this:

  • I had no interest in a certain text/body of work and, despite all the good things I was hearing about it from a number of sources, I had no intention of engaging with or learning from it. (Plainly, pride was involved: for a number of reasons, I felt the work in question was ‘below’ me.)
  • An artful and perceptive teacher got between me and the text — and, thanks to the range of instructive/interpretive techniques he employed, forever changed my mind about the text’s value.
  • Since the teacher’s intervention, I’ve been moved to re-visit the text independently and get even more out of it than the teacher had directly suggested.
  • As a result of the above transformation and further independent study, my understanding of and genuine appreciation for the text in question has allowed me to connect to certain others in ways I hadn’t previously thought possible.

The text I resisted so vigorously was 1989, the critically and commercially triumphant pop record from 2014 by Taylor Swift, and my ‘teacher’ was the mercurial and talented singer-songwriter Ryan Adams. More specifically, Adams ‘taught’ through his song-for-song cover record of Swift’s aforementioned megahit.

My ultimate engagement to both works started with my simple respect for the teacher. Though I suspected Adams’s 1989 was a kind of tongue-in-cheek PR (public relations? punk rock?) gag, I’d admired the guy since his 90s days with Whiskeytown. Combining that admiration with a few intriguing reviews of Adams’s 1989 cover, I decided it was worth checking out. At the very least, I thought, maybe hearing it could get me a little closer to knowing why my kids (my 16- and 12-year-old daughters are in the sweet spot of Swift’s target audience) were so crazy about Swift’s 1989 and/or why the record was inspiring bits like this one on SNL.

(In other words, Ed Cases, TAKE NOTE: Get the ‘student-respect’ part right, and it’s amazing what kinds of content kids will sit patiently for and hear out fully from you. To better engage students, then, work on the respect piece — not the content piece — first. Consider how your teaching approach/carriage/persona/expertise/etc., not the content you teach, might change.)

Now on to that content I wanted to have nothing to do with:

Once inside the work, Adams changed me by showing an unquestionable enthusiasm for the text. He pushed emotion through his vocal lines as though he’d written them (see ‘Out of the Woods’, especially ‘We were built to fall apart/And fall…back…together’, for a particularly evocative sample), and he took time to re-cast each song in appropriate molds.

Also, he brought me closer to Swift’s origin work by thoughtfully re-framing it for my musical background, biases, and interests, all without sacrificing the original’s crucial essences. Make no mistake, this was a true cover record. Lyrics were left intact (largely, anyway — see below), melodies could be picked out easily between the two versions, and vital lead/rhythm lines were adapted for song structures and reflected (if not duplicated). However: while Swift’s highly radio-pop-presented songs hit my ear and caused certain walls to go up, Adams’s re-finishing of 1989‘s songs with sonic palettes I have, as an old guy, come to prefer (‘Blank Space’ in Nick Drake-like folk tones, ‘I Wish You Would’ in full No Depression Americana, ‘Style’ in dark and groovy guitar rock, ‘Shake It Off’ as a demo version cousin of Springsteen’s ‘I’m On Fire’, and on and on) created a space where I could drop my snobbery and actually give the songs a chance. (He pulls a similar trick throughout the record, too, with subtle lyric alterations where appropriate: Changing Swift’s ‘You’ve got that James Dean daydream look in your eye’ in ‘Style’ to ‘You’ve got that Daydream Nation look in your eye’ creates a new, song-correct profundity for my Sonic Youth-reared demographic.) And, much to my surprise, once inside I realized the lyrics and melodies — not just Adams’s readings and tweakings of them — weren’t just poppy teen-pleasers. Indeed: having followed the career, trials, tribulations, and musical themes of Adams for some time, I no longer suspected he was just joking around with this thing. These lyrics speak to him, I realized, and the songs are just plain well-crafted!

Wait, what? Do I like Taylor Swift now?!

In the end, I found my teacher’s interpretation/instruction of the origin text so personally enriching (or psychically unnerving?) that I had to go into Swift’s 1989 of my own accord and see if it held up without all that teacher intervention and cover. And though I won’t pretend I enjoyed it as much as enjoyed Adams’s reading (the production and Swift’s voice will always make it too distant for me to appreciate the same way), I can confirm both (1) that Adams takes few song-structural or lyrical liberties, meaning these are indeed some high-quality songs and (2) that I don’t unequivocally hate shiny pop production and huge hooks; quite the contrary, I’m not sure I would’ve gotten through a couple recent downhearted flights without Swift’s record pounding in my earbuds. (Thanks, Taylor. You have unique gifts.)

Plus, and here’s my favorite part: Thanks to my ‘conversion’, I’ve been able to talk at length with my daughters about this record, something I could never have done if I’d have gone with my original snobby impulse and never listened to it. I sing along to 1989 songs when they come on in the car, and I sing along when I hear it blaring from one of the girls’ rooms. I single out lines and ask if that’s how girls their age really think, and we talk about them. I tell them ‘I really like what the drums do here’, that kind of thing. The point is that whatever I say or ask about this record from Adams’s instruction forward, I really mean it.  And that’s a pretty big deal in my book, especially as Swift’s 1989, just like Pleased To Meet MeSign o’ the Times, and others were to me, is sure to be one they’ll remember well after they age themselves out of my house. Hell — as popular as the record is, I’m fairly sure I’ll be hearing at least a few of these songs at my kids’ and their friends’ wedding dances. I’m thrilled to have the equipment I need now to talk with them about — and, indeed, to genuinely appreciate — the record, despite the generational distance.

In other words, y’all, stick to the challenging, enduring content when making those instructional choices and figure out what it’ll take — some genuine enthusiasm, some re-framing to fit sensibilities, and some clever twists — to get your students to engage to that content. Even those of us who are initially resistant will ultimately thank you for doing so.

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