“A Long Strange Class: A Curriculum with The Grateful Dead”

Published on December 29, 2019

Growing up my dad used to tell me if I’d put half the effort into my homework as I did learning about Phish and The Grateful Dead I’d be the smartest person he knew.  Being the pain-in-the-ass teenager that I was, I ignored the fact that my dad was simply trying to teach me a valuable lesson. I probably responded with something like, “If half the crap I learned were as interesting as The Dead, then maybe I’d try a little harder.”

My father was only trying to help the best way he knew how.  Unfortunately, we were both quite certain that “we knew best” and the conversation would abruptly end there.  But what if we were both correct?  Instead of degrading the time I had put into learning about my favorite bands, what if my father had asked me, “Did you know Jack Kerouac was Jerry Garcia’s favorite author?” 

This would have been impossible seeing as how my dad ONLY listened to Harry Chapin, Cat Stevens and Crosby Stills & Nash when I was a kid. 

Had my father known how to engage my interests by incorporating what I enjoyed learning with something that didn’t seem as exciting, could that conversation had taken a different path?  The Executive Director of The Rock and Roll Forever Foundation, Bill Carbone, thinks so.

A few days ago I had the pleasure of speaking to Carbone over the phone where he informed me of the exciting prospect of Grateful Dead themed curriculums.  Carbone told me, “We develop K-12 lesson plans that connect music with themes associated throughout all aspects of education from Pre Algebra to A.P. Biology. Recently we have been incorporating The Grateful Dead into the mix.”

“So you will encourage students to learn A.P. Bio through the Grateful Dead?” I asked.

“Yes. That’s exactly what the Rock and Roll Forever Foundation (RRFF) was designed to do: Create curriculums that are intended to engage students’ interests through popular music and culture,” Carbone explained.

In 2007, Steve Van Zandt (Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band, television’s The Sopranos) noticed that public school arts funding was disappearing across the country. Van Zandt started the RRFF to combat this dilemma. For the past 12 years, teachers from every grade level have downloaded, shared and used the curriculums that have been designed by Musicology and Public Education experts like Bill Carbone through the RRFF.

“Every lesson is free of charge,” Carbone went on, “Teachers can download whatever curriculum they need from our site.
https://teachrock.org/lesson-plan-collections/ One of our most popular downloaded topics is the music of the civil rights era. Because of the amount of downloads we have had in relation to this topic, we expanded the subject to include a LGBTQ section and Native American/Red Power section to include all aspects of the Civil Rights movement.”

You can watch this video to see a class’s involvement with the lyrics of Kendrick Lamar and how they associated with the 1960’s Watts Riots of Los Angeles:

A Deadhead himself, Carbone joined the RRFF almost four years ago after responding to a classifieds ad for a writer.  Carbone quickly rose to Executive Director by showing Van Zandt his dedication to the Foundation and eagerness to explore new avenues of recruitment.

“We are not trying to put instruments in students hands. There are already several, very good organizations that are designed to do that,” Carbone said. “At RRFF we look for access points that help start conversations with music. Our aim then is to help get the students fired up to start paying attention.  Once that threshold has been crossed, there is true engagement for authentic learning.”

As I began to wrap my head around this notion, Carbone continued with how The Grateful Dead associations sparked a new revelation in the ever-growing archives of the RRFF.  He and several colleagues had watched Amir Bar-Lev’s A Long Strange Trip and immediately started recognizing topics for different lesson plans ranging from Kindergarten science experiments to Senior English papers.

Carbone cited some examples he found that correlate to A Long Strange Trip. “An ongoing theme in the Bar-Lev Documentary is Jack Kerouac. What a cool way to introduce the beat poets to a High School English Class by showcasing them as contemporaries of The Grateful Dead!”

Carbone continued, “Kerouac is really for the Junior and Senior high school years. But then we learned of The Deaf Zone during the Dead Head section of Bar Lev’s doc.

“Several concert goers who were hearing impaired held balloons to feel the vibrations of the music while an interpreter signed the lyrics.  We thought that experiment would be great to introduce young students to music vibrations.  So we developed the plan called Feel the Vibrations that a teacher has already experimented with her Kindergarteners.”

Carbone graduated high school in 1995. “I had short hair and was pretty young so I only got to see The Dead a couple of times,” Carbone chuckled, “But the reason I am where I am today is because in 9th Grade my mother gave me Mickey Hart’s Book, Drumming at the Edge of Magic: A Journey into the Spirit of Percussion. That was the first time I learned of Musicology as the connection between a culture and it’s people.  Here I am practicing what I originally learned twenty-five years prior.”  I could sense the smile on Carbone’s face as he finished this last detail. 

Well, you can’t fault my father for not engaging me through The Grateful Dead or Phish back when we had that short conversation.  After all, I grew up around the same time as Carbone so two decades had to pass before Carbone’s ideas would come to fruition.  

However, in his own way my dad was a bit before his time by at least trying to mention The Grateful Dead and Phish when discussing my study habits.  And I have used a little of The Rock and Roll Forever Foundations methods to engage with him after I discovered Stephen Stills wrote a song with Jerry Garcia and Phil Lesh.

“Hey Dad, did you know David Crosby from CSNY wrote a song with a couple members of The Grateful Dead?” Extremely interested, he responded with a two-word question, “He Did?”

To this day we both claim that song as one of our favorites: If I Could Only Remember My Name.  The Rock and Roll Forever Foundation has tapped into something special.

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