Education

'Born to be Wild': Teacher recognized for using '60s music to bring era to life

Jonathan Bernal teaches 8th grade language arts at Topaz Preparatory Academy in Hesperia, Calif.
Jonathan Bernal teaches 8th grade language arts at Topaz Preparatory Academy in Hesperia, Calif.
Courtesy of Jonathan Bernal

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Language arts teachers Jonathan Bernal has been assigning S.E. Hinton's novel "The Outsiders" to his eighth graders at Topaz Preparatory Academy in Hesperia, Calif., for years. And each year he assigns the 1960's coming-of-age novel, he asks students what they know about that era.

"I get the sense that every year, the less and less students are familiar with the time period," said Bernal. 

So, he built a unit around the book that highlighted '60s history and tied in music in a big way. 

That curriculum won Bernal the 2016 Grammy Museum’s Jane Ortner Education Award, which recognizes K-12 teachers who incorporate music into core academic subjects. The award was established in 2011 in honor of Ortner, a public school teacher who valued music as a powerful classroom tool. 

Bernal's lessons paired sections of "The Outsiders" with songs from the '60s. He linked the first chapter with Steppenwolf's "Born to the Wild." The students listened to the song and discussed their first impressions. Then, they read the chapter, looking out for connections to the song and concepts of individual and group identity and connections to the song. 

He planned similar assignments with The Who's "My Generation," and even the title track for the 1983 film version of "The Outsiders," Stevie Wonder's "Stay Gold."

As a culminating project, students worked in groups to produce radio shows where they discussed the novel, played '60s songs that related and presented news reports with stories from the time period. 

Bernal said he's taught "The Outsiders" in his class for years and students usually fall in love with the themes and characters. "And I think this time I saw more lightbulbs go off with the themes," said Bernal. "I started to see some really good connections between what’s going on with the music and the novel."

Adam LeBow, program manager for the Jane Ortner Education Award, said the panel of educators and administrators chose Bernal's curriculum out of 40 other submissions and were impressed by his multimedia approach. 

"The interesting thing here was that it combined so many facets of study," said LeBow. "It was simultaneously a history lesson and English and music integration and the use of media and technology." 

As a recipient of the award, Bernal got to attend the Grammy Awards and his class got to a take a two-hour bus ride from the school out in San Bernardino County for tour of the Grammy Museum in downtown L.A. 

Topaz Prep puts an emphasis on leadership and project-based learning, but doesn't offer students many arts classes, Bernal said. So, he said, he likes to incorporate music into his class regularly and, after the success of this lesson, he has a lot more ideas — maybe even tying in Kendrick Lamar's "To Pimp A Butterfly" in with "To Kill a Mockingbird."

"Using music is a really good gateway and a way to get students engaged," he said. "I think, why not work it into the other subjects that I teach?"