WARREN, NJ – The teachers of Watchung Hills Regional High School are a unique collection of individuals with varied experiences and expertise. One such teacher, according to the Watchung Hills Regional Education Association, is Michael Porter.
Porter, an English teacher at WHRHS since 2005, strides to make his students fans of Shakespeare and literature. By using music as a learning tool, Porter applies his love not only for literature but also of music, focusing on what students can relate to in his. As a result, his students do not necessarily memorize but instead can understand and relate one piece to another.
“Music is art, literature, and emotion. Many of the same skills you would use to interpret a poem or a story are used to interpret a song,” Porter said. “But songs are also so much more than just lyrics. The rhythms and the melodies help to create tone, which in tern influences our emotional reaction to the lyrics.
In Porter’s English classes – he currently has four sections of seniors and one class of freshman – the music of such songwriters as John Lennon, Elvis Costello and other is brought in. They are there with not only in their words but also as music as Porter plays guitar in class as an enticement.
Playing pieces from Act IV of Ophelia, he puts music to it. “We Can’t Stop,” by Miley Cyrus connects with the students bridging Shakespeare to Porter to Cyrus. “I try to select music that fits the topic I'm teaching,” he said, adding, “I like the seniors for their maturity and their ability to have adult conversations. I like the freshmen for their energy, excitement, and curiosity.”
When teaching Edgar Allan Poe, Porter strives to point out to the students that Poe employs an unreliable narrator. “We can't trust the narrator of ‘The Tell-tale Heart’ to relate the story to us accurately, because he's crazy. He's convinced that something supernatural has happened - the dead man's heart started beating again, so loudly that the police could hear it, so he confessed to the crime,” said Porter. “But in the story Poe is actually telling us, nothing supernatural occurs. Poe is telling us the story of a mad man whose guilt overwhelmed him, so he confessed his crime.”
Before teaching this story to his students, Porter introduces the idea of the unreliable narrator with the song ‘4 of 2’ by They Might Be Giants. In the song, the narrator of the story is waiting for a girl who is supposed to arrive for their date at two o'clock; there's a clock on the side of the building that says it's four minutes to two. “She's not yet late, according to the clock. Then the sun goes down, but the man is sure she will be there soon because the clock says it's not two o'clock yet. He falls asleep and, Rip Van Winkle-like, wakes up in a futuristic society,” said Porter, adding, “The song ends "But I knew that the girl would be coming very soon for though everything had changed there was still that clock and it still said four of two.’ So without every saying the word ‘broken,’ our songwriter has told us a song about a broken clock, using a narrator who doesn't realize it's broken.”
Porter added that when teaching figurative language and tone, he turns to the song ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ by the Beatles. “Tone is a hard concept to teach, but when you match it with a real sad sounding A minor chord – as opposed to the bright, happy sounding A major chord – it's easier to understand,” he said, adding, “I think many of the concepts like tone are easier to grasp when music is involved. It's engaging, especially for the auditory learners. It's hard to sleep through. It's memorable.”
According to Porter, there are many benefits of using music as a learning tool and he references Dr. David Kolb, who proposed that there were different styles of learners - visual, auditory, kinesthetic, etc. “I think the truth is we all use all of our senses to learn, it's just that we generally rely upon one sense most heavily. So the visual learners need to see it; the auditory learners need to hear it; [and] the kinesthetic kids need to move around, get on their feet and perform it,” he said. “So one of my jobs as a teacher is to try to approach the material from several different angles, so that I can hit all these different learning styles in my classroom. Music will really engage the auditory learners. It's not the only technique I use, because if I only used music I would alienate my visual learners, for example. But if I employ it judiciously, it can give the class a good jolt.”
Porter didn't initially set out en route to a career as an educator but instead focused on law but was sidetracked when he moved with his wife to Poland for two years left him unable to practice. Porter used the opportunity to teach legal English at a small school in Portland and the bug bit him. His passion for teaching and the lifestyle of being engaged with new ideas, young minds, and literature won out.
And, since Porter himself plays the guitar and sings to his classes, students aren’t just getting a lesson but also a live performance. “Students who are half asleep at 8 a.m. tend to wake up when I pull out a guitar and start singing,” Porter said, noting, “I'm loud. Also, since it's live, there's always the chance that I'll mess up. The risk makes it interesting for me and for my students.”