Guest blog courtesy of 2011 Summer Teacher Institute participant Bernie Howitt of Australia.
Rock and roll has a proud and rich history which celebrates a major American cultural achievement. To the rest of the world, rock and roll was often their first and most meaningful point of contact with “America.” When Chuck Berry sang, “I’m so glad I’m livin’ in the USA” in 1959, he was echoing the aspirations of everyone who wasn’t.
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum is deservedly the centre point of the celebration and commemoration of rock history. Equally impressive is the commitment to education embodied in the Summer Teacher Institute. To gather teachers together and share the resources and expertise of the Museum and its staff is an incredible opportunity. As an Australian history teacher passionate about the role rock music can play in enthusing and inspiring students, the chance to attend STI represented a dream.
Amazingly dreams can occasionally come true. I was supposed to visit the Hall of Fame and Museum in September 2001, when fate tragically intervened. For years I thought I’d missed my chance, but I kept checking the website, envious of the resources American teachers had available.
After working on the development of an Australian national Curriculum in History in 2010 that recognized the role of rock and roll as a cultural and historical force worthy of inclusion, I decided this was the time to cash in my frequent flyer points and apply to present at the Institute. I offered a workshop on the role Chuck Berry and the Beach Boys specifically played in winning the Cold War for the United States. It challenged a lot of historical orthodoxy by arguing that soft power, and particularly rock music was a more powerful agent of change in the Cold War period than traditional power such as the Arms Race.
I will always be thankful that the Education staff decided to offer me the chance to present my workshop and attend the 2011 Summer Teacher Institute. For a week I would come to “work” past Janis Joplin’s tunic. How cool is that? I could listen to lectures on the development of rock and roll from Museum staff who could delve into the stories that fleshed out the memories derived from an adolescence spent playing 45s on a turntable in the privacy of my bedroom. They had such an amazing array of resources to draw from; lectures became magic carpet rides of learning you never wanted to end. As all music does, they stimulated dreams, discussions, and arguments involving the merit of Michael Jackson over Prince, Chuck Berry over Jerry Lee Lewis, John or Paul, Beatles or Stones, Dylan – electric or acoustic? These questions mattered then, and the Institute showed that even when the names change, they still matter to kids today.
It seems painfully obvious that if you want to inspire students to learn, you use material that they find inspiring, but being an innovator can be a very lonely life in education. By gathering like-minded souls, the Summer Teacher Institute gave us all the chance to share. For me, the workshops were an invaluable insight into America. I could hear the songs that the US turned to in wartime and compare them with the songs Australia listened to in those same wars. I could hear the impact of Bill Graham’s pioneering work first hand, and listen to how American teachers dealt with issues of gender and race in the classroom. Above all, I could realise that I wasn’t alone. American and Canadian teachers also used rock and roll to inspire and enthuse. It didn’t matter if they were trained in English, Creative Arts, Special Education, Social Sciences, or Maths. They were great teachers who wanted to make a difference, and they saw rock and roll as a tool for doing that.
The opportunity to hear first-hand the powerful story of Genya Ravan was a rare privilege provided by the Institute. Here was a primary source for post-WWII American history sharing unique insights into her life and times. Moving, intellectually stimulating, and hysterically funny, it demonstrated directly how learning could be real fun. In short, the Institute practised what it preached.
I even had the opportunity to explore more of what Cleveland seems to do best, rock! I found my way to the atmospheric Grog Shop in Cleveland Heights and saw a young South African band, The Parlotones, just explode in that tiny room. It was their first trip to Cleveland, and where were they going to spend their first day off from their tour the next day? Exploring the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. I couldn’t have asked for a better example to prove my thesis that American rock and roll had helped win the Cold War by creating a generation raised on rock that wanted to come to America and see for themselves a land where “hamburgers sizzle on an open grill all night and day.”
By encouraging an exchange of ideas I felt that I was able to contribute as well as learn. Finally I was able to point out that Australia was the first place in the world to host a global rock and roll tour when Bill Haley arrived in January 1957. I could share the talents of the Australian artists who were inspired by America, Johnny O’Keefe, the Easybeats, and Go-Betweens. I could introduce a wonderful new Sydney band, the Jezabels, as proof that America remains the dream destination for rock and roll bands.
The Summer Teacher Institute was an extraordinary opportunity to learn. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum is the perfect setting, and the Education Department the perfect presenters. Rock and roll is an international language that has made a genuine difference to the world. The Summer Teacher Institute takes that language and uses it to share and inspire. There can be no nobler purpose.
Thank you to the Education Department for sharing your resources with us, and thank you to Cleveland for sharing your city. I’m returning to Australia brimming with ideas, and a second bag in luggage, brimming with resources. I have new contacts to continue an international dialogue. If anything can bring the world together, it’s rock and roll. Imagine a world full of juke boxes “jumping with records like in the USA.”