Teaching Social Justice: A Case Study of Riot Grrrl at School of Rock


In this paper, I examine a ‘Riot Grrrl’ performance project at a School of Rock in the US Midwest, suggesting that this case study offers useful insights and reflections for teaching social justice in popular music education settings. This case study is particularly interesting and complex for having been initiated and led by two male instructors and taught to a mixed-gender group of teenage students. Drawing on participant-observation and interviews, I examine the dual aims of teaching and learning Riot Grrrl as music and as social justice, looking at the ways in which the two perspectives co-existed in the instructors’ pedagogical practices and the students’ learning. I pay particular attention to the ways in which these aims can be at odds with one another, examining a conflict that arose between the instructors as an instance of these understandings being in tension with one another. I suggest that such moments of tension can be productive and instructive for these seeking to balance musical and social justice aspects of teaching and learning in popular music education.


Dr. Kayla Rush is a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellow in the School of Theology, Philosophy, and Music at Dublin City University. Her research examines rock music schools as sites for the performance and reproduction of social class. Previous work has been published in Religion and the Irish Journal of Arts Management and Cultural Policy, and she is co-editor (with Sonja Kleij) of a forthcoming special issue of Liminalities titled ‘Performance and Politics, Power and Protest’. Kayla is a teacher and practitioner of creative ethnography, on which topic she edited a recent special issue of the Irish Journal of Anthropology.


  1. Hi Kayla,

    Interesting stuff. I’m not so familiar with US demographics but wondered how you might
    look at your syllabus in relation to BLM.

    Thanks Simon

    1. Hi Simon,
      That’s a fantastic question, and one to which I’m afraid I don’t have much of an answer, as I’m still working through this as well. (My core fieldwork/data collection period has unfortunately been postponed due to Covid, so I’m also working from very limited data at the moment.) I’ve intentionally tried to leave the ‘suggestions’ at the end as open as possible, as I think there’s room to apply them to teaching racial justice and Black music as well. In terms of rock schools, I do think there’s important work to be done around expanding what is perceived as ‘canon’, especially with regards to race, gender, and sexuality.
      As I’ve been working through these ideas, I’ve also begun to think about how this study really demonstrates the paucity of approaches that ONLY focus on the music that students enjoy or find relevant. I understand the thought process behind this approach, and it appears to be effective, up to a point (or as a starting point into engaging with music). But I think there’s also a case to be made for introducing music that is unfamiliar or doesn’t necessarily appeal at first as a way of guiding students into encountering cultural ‘others’ whose life experiences are different from their own, and as a way of challenging entrenched ideas of what music is important, relevant, or valuable.
      I should also note very briefly that I can’t lay any claim to the syllabus used in this study – I’m only reporting on and re-sharing (with permission) the great work done by the two instructors. ‘Odin’s Beard’ in particular put a ton of effort into reading and learning about Riot Grrrl in order to craft his syllabus, so all the credit for that goes to him.
      Would love to hear any thoughts you might have on this; it’s still very much a work in progress!
      – Kayla

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