There’s nothing like a good playlist. Like really, I live for a good playlist that includes some of my favorite songs. I have a playlist for just about every mood I am in. There’s one for driving to work. One for working. One for driving from work. One for when I have the kids in the car. One for when I workout. And, one for when I’m cleaning up the house (that playlist has all of those motivation tracks on it because I hate cleaning). I am actually listening to a Spotify playlist right now because music helps me write (especially California rap music). I remember growing up in Los Angeles in the 90s and listening to 92.3 The Beat with my cassette tape handy and ready to press record when my favorite songs came on. My homegirls and I would exchange mixtapes–and then CDs–that contained all of the songs that spoke to our lives during those very trying times…growing up in a trying city. 

The songs on a person’s playlist can tell you a lot about a person. If you listen to any playlist curated by me, automatically you will be able to tell that I am a lotta hood with a whole lotta Jesus. Hillsong and Maverick City will come right before (or after) Tupac’s “Ain’t Nothing But A Gangsta Party.” But, I also have a softer-side to me where sometimes I crave India Arie or Alessia Cara when I want to just be with my thoughts. When I want to get to know someone, the first thing I will typically ask them is “what type of music do you listen to” or

“what’s on your playlist?” 

Playlists are powerful tools for building relationships with people–especially our students. No matter what grade-level you teach, ask your students what is on their playlist, and listen to it. The first time I did this and curated a class Spotify collaborative playlist, I learned so much about the students I was teaching that year. I learned what song would get them out of their seats dancing, what songs calmed them down (especially after lunch) and, I learned that the number to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline was 1-800-273-8255. Yeah, that for me was a real eye-opener.  While 1-800-273-8255 is a popular song by the artist Logic, it was a song that many of my students, at the time, connected with despite their race, class, gender, or ability; it spoke to them, and it spoke to me. After having this song requested multiple times, I could not ignore the obvious. Some of my students were hurting and needed someone to be there for them at that time in their lives. 

If I had not asked them about the music that was on their playlists and what spoke to them about those songs, I would have likely missed the opportunity to create a culture of care in my classroom early within the school year. Since then, asking my students “what’s on their playlist” has become my primary way of relationship-building during the first days of school. Not only am I building relationships with students, through this activity, I am also building my cultural competence about each and every student as well as a way to continuously connect with and check-in on every student throughout the year.    

As our lives change, our playlists change. But one thing that will remain is the way we rely on music to communicate what we are feeling on the inside (but sometimes afraid to express it on the outside). Playlists in our classrooms are a powerful tool and, if you don’t have a class playlist, let your students build one today. Not only is music a gateway into our students’ culture, but it is also a way to bring students’ voice and student choice into our learning spaces and empower students by simply asking them “what’s on your playlist?”


Alexes M. Terry is a wife, mom, educator, and founder of TwistED Teaching Educational Consulting Company. She is also a doctoral student, pursuing a Ph.D. in Urban Education, and the author of REAL LOVE: Strategies for Reaching Students When The See No Way Out which was inspired by her passion for supporting educators in using Culturally Relevant strategies to create equitable learning experiences and opportunities for all students. Being a mom of four, she is always on the go (on the trampoline and playing soccer) but you can keep up with her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. If you’re looking for ways to “twist” the way teaching and learning happens in your classroom or school, you can subscribe to Alexes’ newsletter or YouTube channel for weekly strategies and resources on creating culturally relevant learning spaces that see all students, educate all students, and empower all students.