“Can we listen to our iPods?”

This question is one that most teachers these days will hear at one time or another. Nearly all districts have school-wide policies on most electronic devices, some condemning their use (or even possession) altogether, others offering opportunities to integrate Mp3 players into classroom instruction. I’m lucky enough to teach at a school where Mp3 player use is left up to each teacher’s classroom rules, so I get to form my own answer to this question. In my mind, there’s really only one answer here. The answer is YES. I say this because I have observed an intense boost in concentration, productivity, and even creativity among my students during music-approved classes.

Teenagers have been “tuning out” since time began. Many people feel that the addition of earbuds as yet another layer between teachers’ voices and adolescents’ ears is a recipe for disaster. But I would argue that it’s a recipe for pure harmony. Music is often a driving force in people’s lives, particularly high schoolers, who may feel like their choice of music is one of the few things that others can’t control or take away. Music can calm or energize. It plays with the brain, instigates thoughts, and helps people “get in the groove.” The idea that music aids learning is not a new one–so why do we shrink away from this technology that lets every single kid listen to what he or she prefers, all the while co-existing with a room full of others who are doing the same? It’s a miracle! It gives them another stimulus in addition to classroom activities, which actually prevents other distractions. It discourages talking with others. It creates an “auditory cubicle,” as one of my former colleages called it–a virtual private space, spun by sound, supported by the listener’s imaginings. When kids listen to music, they are mentally far, far away… and that’s ok, because it’s there that they can feel safe enough to unpack words and thoughts that might otherwise be self-censored.

Now, clearly, I don’t allow my students to be jamming out during my lectures. When I have something important to say, they are indeed required to listen! I’ve put very specific management techniques in place to facilitate the use of Mp3 players. My first rule is that Mp3 players may only be used during independent reading or independent writing time, whether in class or in the lab. I also have a ridiculous lime green magnetic sign that says “MUSIC APPROVED!” that must be posted on my board before the earbuds may emerge. Volume must be low enough that no one other than the listener can hear it, and when approached by me with a question, they must pause the beats for a moment. I have never had a kid abuse these rules. Not even once. Music is precious to them, and gives them a reason to look forward to writing. I love looking over the class, watching heads bobbing, eyes closed and squinting, fingers on one hand drumming the desk while the other scribbles furiously. They are in their own world, and when it comes to original thought, that can be the best place possible.

I may be in the minority among teachers when I say, “Hey, get those headphones on!” However, I always come back to the same conclusion… My writing always goes better with music. (Usually the louder, the better.) Why, then, would I ask my students to write in silence?