Our Pledge To You

Entertainment and Culture

School with rock: Steven Van Zandt shows teachers how to bring music into class

Steven Van Zandt performs in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, on the opening night of his Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul Tour on Oct. 18. | Christopher Dolan/The Citizens' Voice via AP

Steven Van Zandt, also known as Little Steven, fondly recalls an early experience in his life when a teacher allowed him to play the Who’s 1965 debut album, “My Generation,” for the class.

“That blew everyone’s minds,” he recalls.

He hasn’t forgotten the joy and inspiration music brought in that moment. It strengthened his resolve to impact people through music. He’s done that for many years as guitarist for Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band and as well as a solo artist.

Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul — Soulfire TeachRock Teacher Appreciation Tour
When: 8 p.m. Nov. 5
Where: Copernicus Center, 5216 W. Lawrence
Price: $19 – $23
Info: copernicuscenter.org

Recently, he decided to take it a step further through the creation of the TeachRock.org curriculum with the help of his organization, the Rock and Roll Forever Foundation. The comprehensive K-12 curriculum encourages the use of music in teaching to inspire kids. His current tour with the Disciples of Soul is in support of teachers dealing with tough teaching environments.

“[Teachers are] our first line of defense. They’re the ones creating the future in our country,” says Van Zandt. “They’re having a very difficult time now because of being underfunded for supplies and their own salaries.”

Even more demanding, he says, is simply getting through to the current generation of students, who don’t necessarily learn things via the same methods as generations past.

“Teaching the kids ‘learn this now and someday you’re going to use it’ might have worked for us a little bit, but it’s not working for them,” he says. “So, I thought, ‘Let’s design something that suits the modern world, that helps teachers today, that helps students today,’ and the answer to that is music.”

Teachers pose with Steve Van Zandt (front row center) during a stop on the rocker's Teacher Solidarity Tour.

Teachers pose with Steve Van Zandt (front row center) during a stop on the rocker’s Teacher Solidarity Tour. | Teachrock.org

Since music is something that all kids can relate to on some level, the guitarist believes asking students to name their favorite artists could open the gates to productive learning.

“Whatever they name, let’s trace that back. Let’s see where that artist comes from,” Van Zandt says. “So, we’re not only able to show their influences but build historical context what was happening in the culture when that record came out and why that record came out when it did. Before you know it, kids are not only learning about music and history, they’re engaged.

“And that’s the key. You can’t teach a kid until you’ve got their attention, right? It’s an attention-getter immediately, and in the pilot programs we’re finding it’s working very well.”

The curriculum is something Van Zandt has been working on for the past decade, and he’s happy to see it now go public. For each tour stop, there will be a free workshop for registered teachers that serves as an introduction to the curriculum. So far, 10,000 teachers have signed up for the workshop, which they can apply toward their teaching certificate. They’ll also receive a teacher-only edition “Teacher Appreciation Tour” T-shirt, a certificate of attendance, and tickets for the educator and a guest to that evening’s concert.

“They have to do 20 to 30 hours of professional development every year and have to pay for it out of their salaries,” he says. “So, we give them an hour of professional development for free. We try to fit in all the teachers that we can.”

Part of the curriculum involves the use of documentaries for teaching lessons. That includes Ron Howard’s Beatles documentary “Eight Days a Week,” “Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World” and Dave Grohl’s “Sonic Highways.”

“We’re continually updating and keeping it contemporary as well as providing the entire history of music going back to the early 20th century,” says Van Zandt.
He hopes they can grow the program enough to start affecting the dropout rate, which is “epidemic” in some communities.

“Kids in the poor neighborhoods are dropping out at a 50 percent rate. One out of two. That’s very concerning,” he says. “Statistics show if kids like one single class or teacher they’ll come to school. And we want to be that class. We want to be the cool class that they look forward to.”

The tour fits well with his recent releases, 2017 album “Soulfire,” his first solo album in nearly two decades, and this year’s live release “Soulfire Live!” Both feature his unique spin on soul rock.

“I decided I should reintroduce myself because it had been a long time. I also felt, ‘Let me throw in some of my roots and show people where I’m coming from,’ ” he says. “The live show is my history, which is pretty much the history of rock ‘n’ roll. It connects up with the curriculum, in a funny kind of way.”

It’s unclear when the E Street Band will get back together next. So, Van Zandt plans to continue touring with the Disciples of Soul until he gets the call. He enjoys watching his bandmates from afar, including Springsteen, who has performed his Broadway show the past 15 months.

“He made an impact with a quite unusual show. It’s been an extraordinary success commercially, but more than that, it’s been a success artistically,” Van Zandt says. “He made the show about the book he wrote. It’s a different kind of unusual twist, an unusual view of him. He’s quite adept at adjusting to whatever medium he happens to be in. And that’s a rare gift.”

Once the tour wraps up, Van Zandt says he’s  looking forward to recording his next album, which he hopes to release sometime next year. He also is eager to get back on TV at some point, noting successes on “The Sopranos” and “Lilyhammer,” although music remains his primary focus.

“I’m very happy,” he says, “that my thing is evolving to the next stage after all these years.”

Joshua Miller is a local freelance writer.