Hesam Panahi

Hesam Panahi

Essays, projects, and other adventures

Craft your classroom experience like a DJ

When I was in college in Atlanta, I was obsessed with dance music. I collected vinyls. I bought turntables. I would practice DJ’ing at home and make mixes for my friends. When I came back to Houston, I became a DJ at what could be best described as a “clubby rock bar”. On nights off, I’d help my friends with lighting sequences as they DJ’ed at clubs in the city. I loved curating a musical experience for an audience.

My obsession led me to follow, admire, and learn from some of my favorite DJs. Once, I flew halfway across the world to the Netherlands to watch my favorite DJ, Armin van Buuren, perform an 8 hour set in front of 10,000 people. It was an intense experience: as they always say about concerts, you just had to be there. It wasn’t just someone pressing play: it was a performance.

20 years later, I find myself in a university classroom instead of a club. And it turns out that, as teachers, we can learn a lot from DJs. Here’s what I’ve carried over from the days of DJ’ing into the classroom. 

DJs are unapologetic about borrowing from others, but make it their own

DJs deconstruct a song to the basic building blocks: the beats, the rhythm, the tone. It’s part of their craft. They adjust the speed and the levels of different instruments to draw attention to some elements and take away from others. They add their own emotional flair, creating a new, unique musical signature. 

Like DJs, teachers rely on the work of others: cases, readings, videos, frameworks, and theories. But we sometimes forget that we need to put our own stamp on what we share with our students. That often requires getting into the details of the stories, examples, and metaphors we’re sharing, remixing them to add our own personality. Making it personal and having that attention to detail makes it clear to students that you’re offering a perspective that is different from what you’d get elsewhere. Anyone can play a song, but not everyone can make it memorable. If you feel a sense of ownership with the work you’re sharing, it shines through. Your enthusiasm can be infectious. 

DJs engage more than one sense

The best performances include music, visuals, and movement. When you see a DJ perform live, you’re rarely sitting down. Like a puppet on strings, the music moves you. You dance like nobody’s watching. The music is so loud you’re wondering if you’ll lose your hearing. Lights pulsating, you’re in a trance. Fog comes out of nowhere and the air rushes past you. It’s electric.

While I’m not suggesting you host a light show and dance party for your next class session, consider how you can improve the classroom experience by bringing in more senses. For every course, I create a shared playlist that students can add their favorite tracks to; the styles range from electronic dance music to country. We then play these during class sessions. For visuals, I’ll often change the design of the classroom, adjusting the lighting and the layout. I think carefully about what a person’s impression will be when they first walk in: will their eyes light up in surprise or will they be walking into yet another class session?

To engage in movement, I sometimes switch from digital to analog, from inside to outside. Last Wednesday, I handed every student an index card. They wrote down an assumption their team was testing as part of our new ventures course. I didn’t want them to stay trapped inside the classroom, though. 

It was a beautiful, crisp sunny day and there was a grassy area with shade right outside of our classroom. We walked outside, and under the shade of the trees, paired with each other, sharing feedback. Every few minutes, we’d walk around the grass, switch pairs, and improvise a new place to stand or sit. The contrast from an air conditioned classroom to fresh air in nature was invigorating. It’s these moments that separate in person educators from recorded online videos: the opportunity to bring in more senses, making the experience more memorable.

DJs respond in real-time to their audience

To make it as a DJ, you need to be able to read the crowd. You can’t copy paste what you played at the last gig, or play for yourself. You are building an experience, from the first song to the last, and connecting with the audience is the first step. 

If you’re a DJ on autopilot hitting play, you’ll lose your audience. They won’t walk away having felt like you just had to be there. You’ll be yet another DJ performance, a faint memory. Similarly, when we don’t connect with our students, we risk being yet another class on someone’s schedule. Like you, students will show up on autopilot in the classroom, eyes rolling to the backs of their head as they desperately try to stay awake. Let’s be honest: after a few semesters of doing the same thing, you’re probably falling asleep too.

You can’t always predict how an audience will respond. As a DJ, you can play a classic track that always gets the audience going, and this time it flops. What do you do? Change it up. As an educator, you need to always be noticing what’s resonating and what isn’t. Oftentimes we’re hyperfocused on the next assignment and learning outcome. But what’s the energy in the classroom? Do people seem detached and distracted? Or do you have their attention and they’re fully showing up? And if it’s not working, what can you change today, in the next class session, or the next week, to change the tempo and mood? 

Be more of a DJ, and less like Spotify. Spotify playlists are created by you or an algorithm, but you’re unable to provide actionable feedback to what’s playing in the moment. Unlike a playlist, DJs have a unique advantage in being able to change the song they’ll play next based on how the crowd is responding. You should do the same in your classroom.

If we are to succeed in a world when there are so many ways to learn online and asynchronously, we have to think carefully about creating a unique classroom experience. You want students raving about your class with others, sharing memories of what they enjoyed. This isn’t about showmanship. It’s delighting people by thinking about the different layers of a student’s journey in your classes, from the material they learn to what they see and do when they’re in your classroom. By remixing the work of others, engaging the senses, and responding in real time, students will walk away remembering not only what they learned, but how they learned it.