As an eighth-grade English teacher at an under-performing middle school in Orange County, David Soberg witnessed firsthand the inadequacies of the California public education system. In the Los Angeles Unified School District alone, for instance, only 48 percent of African-American and Latino students who start ninth grade graduate four years later. So Soberg, 31, created Rock Notes, a combination CD and teacher's manual that joins standardized curriculum with heavy metal and punk music.
When did you first realize that something like this needed to exist?
I was teaching in San Juan Capistrano, and as a hobby while I was teaching, I was playing in a rock band called Get Some. It was a heavy metal band that was doing the same thing as all the other punk and metal bands. But I actually thought of [Rock Notes] when I was working on my master's degree [in education]. I had a test to do. I had a weekend to study for it, I had to learn this whole book, and I had to get an A on the test to pass the class. I thought, I would way rather sit and play my music instead of studying for this test. And it just kind of hit me -- I took the book and outlined each chapter, and made it into a song and recorded it, and then I just listened to it all day. I got an A+ on the test.
And then you introduced the same concept in your classroom?
Yeah. I'd have eighth-graders writing at second- and third-grade levels, but they'd know the words to all these songs. So I wanted to keep the power in the music the same, but I wanted to teach them what they needed to know for school. In California they have what's called an exit exam. I think it's in 37 states right now, and you have to pass this test to graduate high school. A lot of kids were just sliding through the system, but they weren't proficient. What the schools are doing is they implemented a standards-based system, so at each grade level, every English teacher has to teach this, this, and this. So with [Rock Notes], the standards are divided into seven parts [parts of speech; literary terms; punctuation; prefixes and roots; spelling; vocabulary; and writing], and I took each of the parts for the standards and made that into a song. Starting next fall, I'm planning on recording a math CD.
I'd guess you were partying a lot when you were a rocker. Did Rock Notes significantly change your life?
It has a lot. First of all, the people in my band -- I had to cut them to do this. There was a lot of jealousy. It was almost like the Sammy Hagar/David Lee Roth conflict. These guys just didn't have the education background and the kind of heart that I have. They criticized it all the time: "You're a teacher trying to help kids? That's stupid!" And it ended up that with my kids in class, this was their favorite CD. They just loved it. And it brought their test scores up. Like on the parts of speech unit, they got a 49 percent average on the first test. And then after I taught them the songs and I went through each lesson and did the worksheets, out of 150 kids I had three kids who didn't get an A+.
Are you teaching in Pittsburgh now?
I'm moving my credentials over. Next fall I'm looking to go play assemblies at the schools -- live concerts. And I'm going to work with a TV production class at Mount Lebanon High School and I'm going to try to put a video together.
Are you finding that educators in Pittsburgh are less amenable to this than the people in L.A.?
It varies, really. You have to walk a fine line, trying to bring the academic community together with the rock community. That's the biggest challenge in this whole thing, is for people to understand what I'm doing, because when I go into the schools with my education background, it's completely academic. It's completely positive. But sometimes the way I play, I'm just throwing down as heavy as I can. It's misinterpreted sometimes -- I like to play it loud. I like to play at the level the kids love and that I love.
Have you ever had someone turn you away after seeing a performance?
Normally, every time I play I put so much heart into it, and it's so much fun, that usually I end up winning people over. But with some people ... you know how it is. People are opinionated.
Plus, you're depicted as burning in a fiery hell on the back of your CD.
But I think when the kids get all these books in front of them, that's kind of how they feel, too. It's just overwhelming what they have to try to learn, especially if it's something that they're not into. And they're bombarded by the media with all this other stuff. I wanted to be able to teach them on the level that the media's teaching them.