Steven Van Zandt urges Colorado teachers to liven lessons with music

Teachers across Colorado traded their red pens for air guitars Friday night as a rock legend made his educator-targeted Denver tour stop with an academic opening act boasting the four R’s: reading, writing and rock ‘n’ roll.

Steven Van Zandt, better known as Little Steven when jamming with Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band or gracing television screens on shows such as “The Sopranos,” thinks teachers are the some of the most underappreciated, underpaid heroes in the country.

“They’re on the front lines in a war against ignorance,” Van Zandt said after speaking with a group of Denver students interested in the music industry. “I think that fight is the most important right now.”

As Van Zandt ended his talk at the Fred N. Thomas Career Education Center Middle College of Denver on Friday afternoon, when he reminisced about the “renaissance” of the music industry he grew up in, students still weren’t sure what to make of him. Some mentioned that their parents loved him and clamored for a selfie. Another asked to try on Van Zandt’s splashy multi-colored coat that dripped with tassels.

“I’ve got a really weird career here,” Van Zandt told the students. “I’m a low-level celebrity. I don’t need the spotlight.”

Instead, Van Zandt has turned to activism.

To give back to the profession he heralds, Van Zandt launched a Teacher Solidarity tour across the country to introduce the free music-integrated curriculum from the education standard-aligned program he founded, TeachRock.

A few hours after speaking with students, Van Zandt went to his next gig in Englewood.

The Gothic Theatre was packed with educators torn between squealing over Van Zandt and listening to the workshop, where they learned TeachRock lessons.

They did both.

When the rock star took the stage mid-lesson, the teachers — moments before engaged in a lesson plan discussion, encouraging students to make musical playlists for historical moments — jumped to their feet, stomped and flashed rock ‘n’ roll hand gestures.

TeachRock leaders at the Gothic Theater said the Denver leg of their tour, which began in mid-October, was overwhelmingly the biggest crowd.

“We figured you could use a night out instead of at home grading papers,” Van Zandt said as the scholarly audience went wild.

Before a free concert put on by Van Zandt, leaders of the TeachRock movement presented lesson plan ideas to showcase Van Zandt’s vision of using music to engage students in an array of subjects.

The TeachRock site features about 140 lessons ranging from “Native American music from Wounded Knee to the Billboard charts: A document-based exploration” to “Everyday heroes: Beyoncé and United Nations World Humanitarian Day.”

Van Zandt said tour stops, which dot the U.S. through mid-December, were focused on areas where teachers had recently gone on strike or came close to it. In April, Colorado teachers walked out of their classrooms and protested at the state Capitol in the name of increased educational funding. In May, Pueblo teachers launched the state’s first teacher strike in 24 years, advocating for a pay increase and better benefits.

Kay Landon, an English teacher at Wheat Ridge High School, braved the bitter cold line to get into the concert venue partly for the fresh lesson plans she hoped would interest her students, but she did have an ulterior motive.

“I think Little Steven is a god, and I love him all the more for doing this,” Landon said.

Kim Colegrove, a Mountain Range High School art teacher in Westminster, was inspired by one of the lessons related to punk rock and protest art.

“I think what we’re learning tonight will excite my students because it’s exciting me,” Colegrove said.

Van Zandt not only has praise for teachers, but for the young people he’s watched benefit from his program’s lessons.

“This generation is different,” Van Zandt said. “They’re the fastest and the smartest, and they don’t want to learn something they’re going to use in the future. They want to learn something they’re going to use now. The same way we’ve been teaching isn’t going to work with these kids. Kids are into music. Give them something they want to learn.”


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