Unique Classroom Method Helps Students with Disabilities Learn More Effectively

UNIVERSITY PARK — Jonte “JT” Taylor, assistant professor of education at Penn State, recently shared his unique lessons for using song lyrics to help teach students with disabilities, with an audience at the Kennedy Center’s Intersections Conference.

Early in his career, Taylor was a classroom teacher who worked with students who displayed emotional/behavioral disorder (EBD), autism and/or learning disabilities (LD).

“As a teacher in an alternative setting, I had students who were not motivated to do much academically and struggled with behavioral incentives as well,” Taylor said. “I wanted to find means to reach these students, particularly affecting learning and academic motivation.”

After one particularly trying day, Taylor went home to unwind, plopping down in front of the TV and mindlessly flipping through the channels. Eventually he stumbled on the Walt Disney movie “The Little Mermaid.” As he watched a familiar scene, he came to a realization as he hummed along to the lyrics for the song “Under the Sea.”

“It dawned on me that this song has a ton of prepositions and prepositional phrases and that maybe I could use this,” he said.

“I found the song lyrics and decided to use them for class the next day,” he added. “Surprisingly, the students were into it. I think it was the novelty of it that got them interested. Just the fact that we spent 30-40 minutes talking about this song and prepositional phrases seemed to be interesting to them.”

Encouraged, Taylor decided to try Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler” to identify nouns and verbs.

“The students really liked that, as well,” he said. “Students turned in assignments and seemed to spend more time on task during the lesson itself.”

Motivated by the results, Taylor decided to develop an instructional template, with objectives and goals, and collect systematic data.

“Over the course of the next few years, I was able to develop lessons with a variety of songs in various genres and a wide array of academic, behavioral and social goals in mind,” he said.

Taylor soon came to learn how his program, titled TUPAC (named after the late-1990s rapper), which stands for Teaching Using Popular Music Across Curricula, would work in classroom situations.

After years in an alternative placement setting, Taylor found himself as the behavior coordinator for a public school district with his own class of students with EBD. His time there allowed him see if TUPAC would work in a different setting with different students. The strategy proved equally effective. Taylor later presented those findings at a conference for special education teachers.

One teacher at that conference, Kimberly Rice, expressed interest in using TUPAC in her class. She asked Taylor if he had rubrics for evaluations or if his instructional template was fixed. The answer to both was “No.” He told her to adapt it to her needs and students.

A year later, Taylor had a chance encounter with Rice. He learned about her use of TUPAC that she was utilizing for her inclusive English class with students with LD and EBD. The two collaborated, exchanged modifications and presented at the same conference on how TUPAC works for students with LD, EBD and autism.

The following April, Taylor was approached by representatives from the Kennedy Center, which has a history of supporting not only the arts, but also the arts for individuals with disabilities. The representatives attended his presentation because they considered his talk as instruction using the arts.

“That was something that came as a shock to me,” Taylor said. “I never really thought of TUPAC as an ‘arts thing’ or a strategy related to the arts at all.”

The Kennedy Center reps said they thought the presentation would make a great demonstration if he could make it interactive and add about an hour to it for their Intersections Conference.

Taylor had no idea how it would look or how it would happen, but he accepted the invitation, on one condition: In order to maintain a connection with classroom teachers and encourage them to engage more in research and professional writing, he asked that the Kennedy Center subsidize the travel for his friend and fellow teacher Rice. They agreed.

In July, Taylor and Rice presented the TUPAC strategy in a presentation called “Let the Music Play: Using Song Lyrics for Student Motivation and Achievement.”

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