Eighth graders at Martin Luther King Jr., Middle School know when they walk into English teacher Rachel Garlin’s classroom that they could be in for a show.
“We’ll ask her to sing a song because it like relaxes you a little bit,” said Theresa Fortune, who had Garlin as her first period English teacher this past year.
A 27-year-old singer/songwriter who uses long weekends and teacher holidays to tour folk music venues throughout the western United States, believes music has an important place in the classroom – particularly a middle school English classroom.
Garlin said to begin with eighth graders love music. For them, devotion to favorite musical styles and groups is a way to express their growing independence, she said.
“It’s an area where they can be really independent,” Garlin said.
“They can be independent of the parents; independent of their peers.”
As an English teacher, Garlin tries to capitalize on this universal love of music by showing students the close relationship between song writing and other forms of writing.
“Anything you write can be put into song,” Garlin said. “A lot of song writing is really just recording events and putting it to music.”
To drive the point home, Garlin worked with eighth graders last fall to compose a song that would express a theme of particular importance to the school community: the daily struggle to live up to the ideals espoused by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
At King Middle School, everyone from the principal on down takes seriously the fact that their school is named after the famed leader of the Civil Rights Movement, Garlin said. Each year there is an award ceremony where students are honored for living up King’s ideals of courage, compassion and equality.
“From the sixth grade, (King students) know that award recipients are people who show compassion and empathy; who make an effort to be inclusive in their social lives; who show some leadership potential,” Garlin said.
Her students agreed.
“I feel like a lot of schools don’t try to live out what they’re named after,” said eighth grader Martina Miles, one of the students involved in the song writing project. “Our school really tries.”
But as the students set out to write the song, Garlin had them take a hard look at their lives at King to assess just how well this community of students and teachers lives up to Dr. King’s most cherished ideals.
Garlin composed the chorus of the song as a question:
“Dr. King, do you see your dream?
Dr. King, does the freedom ring?
Do we take every chance we see
To create true equality?”
Working with Garlin, the students filled in the other verses to the song, reflecting the divide they perceive between King’s ideals and the day to day reality of middle school life.
“It’s something I can see on the school yard,” said King eighth grader Jack Nicholas. “Once the bell rings, people are like, ‘screw you.’”
“I’ve had days at school where I like cried because someone made me so mad,” said eighth grader Bina Morris.
Writing the song gave them an opportunity to capture these emotions, the students said, and to share them with the rest of their community in a way that would be heard.
“It’s a lot different when people stand up there and sing because people will listen,” Miles said. “They won’t just turn their mind off to it.”
A self-selected group of half a dozen students, including Fortune, Miles, Nicholas and Morris, performed the song – “Equality” – at the mid-year award ceremony honoring those who live up to King’s ideals, and at the schools graduation ceremony last week. Both times the audience was encouraged to sing along.
“It really helping kids develop ideals and values,” Garlin said. “They get a strong message that education is about learning how to communicate effectively; learning how to clearly express yourself in a way that gives others respect...”
Garlin was so impressed with the graduation performance that she invited the students to perform “Equality” with her this Thursday, as she headlines for the first at the Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse – a popular traditional music venue in Berkeley.
“The song lends itself to a group performance,” Garlin said. “Especially with kids who represent the diversity of our school and city.”
Garlin performs at Freight & Salvage Thursday, June 21, beginning at 8 p.m. Tickets are $15.50 if purchased in advance, or $16.50 at the door. Freight & Salvage is located at 1111 Addison Street. Call 548-1761 for tickets.