Setting the Tone

By Marion Martin, Department of Chemistry
Dr. Marion Martin
The challenge of helping students develop a sense of belonging has been heightened during the pandemic. Recommendations for supporting students’ sense of belonging in the classroom include warmth and openness, encouragement of student participation, instructor organization, and messages about student success. An example of a practice to improve warmth and openness is sharing relevant personal experiences with students as a means of humanizing yourself.

As I was preparing for teaching on Labor Day this year, I couldn’t help but think about what that day usually looks like. My father is from the low-country of South Carolina and as far back as I can remember, we’d spend time with his family over that extended weekend. My father and his cousins would be gathered around the BBQ pit. My brothers and I would be racing our cousins in the churchyard to win a quarter to buy a soda. The soundtrack for these times was always 70’s & 80’s soul and funk: Maze feat. Frankie Beverly; Kool and the Gang; the Gap Band, just to name a few.

Flashing forward to Labor Day 2020, my students arrived to class on Zoom to be welcomed by September by Earth, Wind, and Fire. Students wrote in the chat “glad I joined early” and “this got me motivated today.” Others suggested “issa vibe rn” or “THE VIBES WERE IMMACULATE” (I think that’s a good thing?) I just talked to them about missing spending time with family like I usually would, and thought I’d bring some music to class to brighten the day.

The music was so well received that I continue to play music at the beginning of class and as students return from Zoom breakout rooms. I have switched over to playing mostly jazz. It gives me an opportunity to talk about my interests and explore a genre rooted very much in my African American identity. I have shared with students some of the artists I’ve seen perform live: Snarky Puppy, Christian Scott Atunde Adjuah, and Roy Hargrove. During Black History Month I highlighted some albums by famous black artists, including Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue and John Coltrane’s Blue Train. Those two albums also happened to be the first jazz CDs that I ever owned, which led to some blank stares from students when I shared that.

Students continue to appreciate the tone that the music sets for class as being warm and welcoming. I’ve even had students come by office hours to specifically ask about music which opens the door for us to discuss other interests. I hope that students find me to be more approachable as I openly share things about my life. As we have made it past the halfway point of this semester, I hope it will help both my students and myself stay energized as we finish out this year.

1 Comment

    Great post, Marion! I also really enjoy starting a class out with music instead of awkward silence. In my “getting-to-know-you” survey at the beginning of the semester, I ask students what music they would like to hear, and then rotate through that. It’s a nice way to connect in our current distant world.

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