Born to Learn: Springsteen's Sound Shapes a Middle School Club

Lyrics from the Bruce Springsteen song 'No Surrender' from his 1984 album 'Born in the U.S.A.' ('We busted out of class/Had to get away from those fools') could very well describe what has been called the first middle school club in the United States devoted to the iconic singer known to fans as 'the Boss': the Jukebox Graduates. Education Insider caught up with the teacher who claims only partial responsibility for the club's creation, Granite Falls Middle School's Michael Telesca.

by Harrison Howe

Jukebox Graduates

A University of Connecticut graduate and former Naugatuck, Connecticut resident (he moved to North Carolina to follow his son Andrew, a 'great kid and my best friend and traveling partner' who has seen more than 90 Bruce concerts with his dad), Michael Telesca of Granite Falls Middle School in Caldwell County, North Carolina, is not one to talk about himself. This is especially true when it comes to the Jukebox Graduates (the name is derived from a line contained in the song 'Growin' Up' from Springsteen's first album, Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J.). 'It's all about the kids,' the computer technology teacher will say repeatedly when asked about the club.

Having spent five years at an alternate school working with students who were not successful in a traditional academic setting, where he earned five Teacher of the Year awards, Telesca came to Granite Falls Middle School in 2003. He might have used his past experiences as an Army paratrooper and First Lieutenant infantryman to fearlessly spearhead the development of a club in an atmosphere that he will readily admit was not conducive to almost any type of club at all. But Telesca, and more importantly his students, persevered ('no retreat, no surrender'), turning the Jukebox Graduates into not just an academic or local success but a globally recognized group. How exactly did the Jukebox Graduates come to be formed? Did you approach the students with the idea, or did they come up with it and approach you?

Mike Telesca: Actually, the club formed in the most unusual manner. Back in 2000, I was working at an alternative school, and since I taught many subjects I utilized thematic units. One I tried was a 9-week Bruce Springsteen unit that culminated with me purchasing tickets for 40 students and taking them to a show in Greensboro. Almost ten years later at my current school, which is in another district, I had the crazy idea to take 63 students to another show, also in Greensboro (2008).

Well, five students from this trip asked if we could start a Bruce club at our school. I initially stated no as I fully understood what their request would evolve into - but they were relentless. I finally figured that I would appease them and tell them that if they reminded me the following school year I would consider it, figuring the summer would pass and so would their motivations. I was greatly concerned that in our school environment, and particularly with the administration at that time (which frowned on anything new, unusual or outside what is considered the norm), this would be an unpleasant endeavor and wind up being an embarrassment for me.

However, the first day of school I had five girls plus two additional sixth graders sitting on my doorstep asking, 'OK can we start the club?' I had to concede. You've taken groups of students to see a few Bruce Springsteen concerts over the past couple of years. How were you able to pull this off, and in what ways did these experiences impact the kids?

There is a line from a Springsteen song which states, 'I come from down in the valley/Where mister when you're young/They bring you up to do like your daddy done,' and to a great extent this mentality is true for many of our students. So any time you can push the envelope to show experiences in life that students are unaware of or at least seem unattainable to them, you are showing that there is more to life than they might know. Even just traveling to another city and meeting new people opens a level of thinking that might help them set goals for the future. These concerts were unique in that, while the students were familiar with the songs and their meanings, seeing and hearing the songs performed live allowed them to relate to the poetry in a fun and exciting manner. Also, I believe that by seeing the effort that goes into one of Bruce's shows we were able to examine what it means to give 100% even at a point in your life when you don't necessarily have to. What challenges has the club faced, and how did you overcome them?

MT: To put it bluntly, the administration and several members of the faculty did not embrace the idea. The atmosphere at Granite Falls Middle School at that time was not one that was conducive to anything outside the box. However, there was a large element of our school population that survived on the fringe of our school - socially speaking. There were very few non-athletic clubs or ones where you didn't have to 'be invited' or 'qualify' to be a member of, which was generally attached to high academics or even high socio-economic status. Therefore, I felt that whatever we did would be a positive if only from the perspective that the children were off the street, participating in an actual school club and feeling a part of something. On many occasions students stated to me that they felt like a part of their school for the first time ever.

The club has a steadfast rule of not ever looking at negatives, but preferring to look at the positives of the club (of which there are many). Students are not allowed to complain or discuss negative comments made outside the club. I believe that this actually helped these students become a closer group. There are no eligibility requirements, fees of ANY type, or anything that precludes a student from attending weekly meetings. This is why our membership grew from seven initially to about 50 at the height of its membership. In the words of one of the founders of the club, 'This is all that some of us have that makes us feel special and be a part of something different.' One of the main activities of the club is a weekly radio show. Can you tell us a bit more about that show and any other activities the club participates in?

MT: The radio show has become the major activity of the club. I made a connection with Mr. Jim Diederich, known as Mr. D., at the local high school and made arrangements for the kids to do a weekly radio show called 'The Bruce Springsteen Show'. I must add that Mr. D. has been an indispensable part of the club, and we wouldn't be where we are without his contribution. In return he has benefited by having students arrive at his high school interested and, more importantly, more prepared to join his broadcasting program. Ironically, because of the professionalism of the middle school radio show, he occasionally uses the middle school students as models for his high school broadcasting students.

Anyway, the children choose from a list of available songs. There is a basic format we utilize where they have to choose a mixture of album cuts, alternative versions, cover songs, live songs and outtakes. Then they research something about each song. They look up funny trivia, stories, reviews, etc. about the songs. Then they script everything out and rehearse them. The students go live on the air. After the first show airs, we edit the show to remove minor goofs (usually Mr. D's or my fault as the kids are generally flawless) and upload it to our school webpage.

If you check out the radio listings you will see the kids have undertaken some great causes through the radio shows. For instance, two girls did an entire show dedicated to a local charity cause, 'Lungs for Lisa,' to raise money for a woman who needs a double lung transplant. They also did a special show for a school in South Africa. In the early part of the 2010-11 school year, we were contacted by a rock and roll station in Boone, North Carolina, which put the kids on the air for the weekly show on their commercial radio station in the time slot directly before 'Little Steven's Underground Garage'. The radio station eventually changed formats but the kids were big time for awhile.

The club also holds weekly meetings to work on radio shows where they socialize, take quizzes, listen to music, attempt karaoke, create t-shirts and do whatever other activities that we can come up with. But we have obviously done many other things, like go to four Bruce Springsteen concerts, two Railroad Earth concerts and concerts by Bruce tribute bands. The radio show also enabled some of the club members to travel with you to New York City in April 2011 to tape several segments for SiriusXM Satellite Radio's ' E Street Radio' channel, which is dedicated to Bruce Springsteen 24/7. Can you tell us more about that trip and what impact it had on the students from an academic or 'life experience' standpoint?

The trip to New York City is without a doubt the most beneficial thing that the club has done since its inception. The 16 students of the club who were able to attend had never been to NYC prior to this trip, and most hadn't ever left North Carolina, some not even Caldwell County. In many cases the same could be said of their parents. In fact, when I took the second group of kids to the Bruce concert in Greensboro, one parent said to me, 'I don't like Bruce, his music, his politics, or him in general but I am 35 years old and have never been to a concert, a sporting event or anything like that. I don't want my kids to grow up like me, so they have permission to go.'

So culturally, the students were exposed to a big city that was almost overwhelming. Seeing such landmark sites as The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Ground Zero, Greenwich Village and the Statue of Liberty opened their eyes to things that just can't be duplicated in a classroom. The museum alone provided the kids with centuries of knowledge through the artifacts on exhibition. One student commented that 'After seeing all these places, I won't even be able to watch television or the movies the same again; now they will seem real to me.' Even such simple activities as experiencing a mode of transportation they had never been on before - the subway - was unique to them. Seeing Times Square and a television series being filmed was just icing on the cake for such a wonderful, educational experience.

In addition, the students were also afforded the opportunity to visit Asbury Park, New Jersey and become friends with an original member of the E Street Band, who regaled the students with stories of the early years of the band. This experience made everything come alive for the students, since many of Bruce's songs pertain to this geographical area of the country.

And the satellite radio show: this gave them the most unique opportunity to be able to actually broadcast from a worldwide satellite station and showed them an aspect of media education in the professional world instead of just at the local level. The students used their writing skills and communication skills to work together to prepare each of the shows they broadcasted. In a really telling statement to the benefits of the trip, two students were discussing how they had changed and one stated, 'We were constantly told that we'd be robbed or killed the first day in New York, but I felt as safe there as at home. I realized that I shouldn't let the fear of the unknown hold me back from traveling and experiencing other places.' I have to say that even for an unemotional self-proclaimed 'Tinman' like myself, seeing the excitement in the faces of the kids over and over was extremely touching. The kids certainly seem to be having a lot of fun. In what ways do they say the club has helped them academically?

MT: By all indications, they have been having a blast. I cannot give a single example of an unpleasant experience involving the kids, and it shows in their radio shows, their faces in pictures and in the way they carry themselves. These children pour over hundreds of songs looking for specific lyrics, metaphors, similes, personifications, etc. No matter how you classify this, it has to have benefits. While I teach computer technology and don't necessarily utilize club activities in the classroom per se, the language arts teachers have often commented how positively the reading and language arts-related activities have benefited the kids. Due to the radio shows being live on the air, I have noticed an increased confidence in public speaking in many of them. The mother of one sixth grade student has claimed that the club is singularly responsible for her daughter's increased interest in academics and also her maturity level. Many parents have hailed the club for motivating the students in different areas; several students now wish to major in communications or broadcasting.

One girl told me at the beginning of this school year: 'I hated coming to school last year. The only reason I came was because of the club.' You've been known to reference Springsteen songs and lyrics to relate them to the material you're teaching. Can you give us specific examples of how you've incorporated Springsteen's music as a learning tool or aid in the classroom?

MT: When I did the 8-9 week thematic unit on Bruce I used it in many fashions. We obviously studied lyrics, i.e.: debating if Terry was a guy or girl in the song 'Backstreets.' We also searched for figurative language such as similes and metaphors. Since I taught many subjects, all the core courses were instructed utilizing Bruce connections, like in math, where we calculated concert and t-shirt revenues, finding the area of Bruce's staging setup, calculating distance utilizing his tour route, things like that. In social studies we covered many topics found in his songs - Three Mile Island, Vietnam, etc. (and if I were still teaching that subject today I'd definitely explore the 'The Rising' CD and its many connections to the attacks of 9/11). Now that I am teaching solely computer technology classes I do not actually utilize a lot of Bruce in the classroom, although I've been known to sneak some into spreadsheet or database activities on occasion. But I do know that we have caused other teachers to utilize Bruce material in their classrooms, as they capitalize on the buzz created by the club. Is there anything else about the Jukebox Graduates or Bruce Springsteen's music that you would like our readers to know?

MT: From the website listings of the radio shows we have received messages from as far away as Europe, the Middle East, South Africa, Cuba, South Korea and of course all around the United States and Canada. Here is a message from a lady who found us online through a show the kids produced for a school in South Africa: From Alta Cloete - 'Your programme has been saved on my computer and will be kept as an example of the way music can reach across all types of boundaries. It really is a delightful programme full of precious gems.' These types of connections are now commonplace, and came about from starting a little unique club in Caldwell County, North Carolina. If this global connection is not exactly what the children need to be learning, then I do not have a clue about what is expected from education today. This is exactly the type of experience the students have been getting on a regular basis since the inception of the club.

Also, most people who hear about the club assume that I am a teacher who started it to push my interest of Springsteen onto the students. However, the fact is the club was started against my better judgment by students who badgered me into it. But even at that, I believe that while Springsteen is the ways to a means, and the vessel by which we operate, the club is more about bringing unusual activities and experiences to a group of students who might not otherwise be afforded these opportunities. Therefore, it is not about Springsteen - it's about the students. I believe that the club could have been about almost any topic, it's just that the Bruce connections opened so many doors to activities that tied into the subject matter that it made things transition smoothly. However, I also believe that if we were to create a music club, no other musician could have fit the requirements that I deemed mandatory: an artist who is more than a musical but also a cultural icon, who would be entertaining for students to experience live, shows great moral character, with relevant and appropriate lyrics, and subject matter in the lyrics that is relevant to the students' lives. There is no other artist whose own upbringing parallels that of the students and can be used as an example that you should never sell yourself short and that through hard work great things can happen.

Music education is a powerful tool. Check out our interview with Charles Lewis of Portland's Ethos Music Center.

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