From the December 2019 issue

Rocker Carolyn Striho Inspires her Special Education Students

As a high school special education teacher, a musician and a cancer survivor, Carolyn Striho doesn't let anything hold her back – and her students take note.

Photo by Kate Levy

Passion, resilience, courage: They’re some of the most powerful traits we can hope to instill in our kids, and they’re also some of the most difficult to teach.

But local educator Carolyn Striho doesn’t need to try. She’s just living it.

The high school English teacher spends her days instructing special education students in Macomb County, sharing her knowledge and compassion while taking every chance she gets to bring the “fun.”

When school’s out, you might find her rocking out on a stage in Detroit, penning lyrics or performing behind the keyboard or guitar in England with her band. The 11-time Detroit Music Awards winner even just published her first book, Detroit (Maiden Energy): Street Princess Poems & Lyrics.

In music and in teaching, Striho has found what so many seek: lifelong passions – the “why” to the daily grind, the wayfinders that keep her going in the difficult times, like when she faced cancer five years ago.

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“I just kept playing music, and I went back to teaching as quick as I could,” she says. “You have to do your thing. It’s going to make you keep going. You have to do what you love.”

Pursuing dreams

Doing what she loves is a motto Striho has followed all her life. As a child, she took an early interest in making music on a vintage organ at her aunt’s house. Formal piano lessons followed and, by age 13, Striho was starting bands of her own and teaching herself the guitar.

“I’ve done music pretty much all my life,” she says. “I never stopped. All my life I’ve had my own kind of music – mostly originals, some covers.”

Photo by Richard Blondie

She spent five years as a DJ for WDET and later worked for a law firm, enjoying it so much that she almost pursued a law degree before ultimately deciding to return to Wayne State University for a master’s in teaching. Now in her 10th year as an educator, she can’t imagine it any other way.

“I love teaching and I’m glad I discovered how much I love it,” she says. “My focus is on just helping the kids as much as I can. We have a lot of fun.”

Doing it all

Through it all, Striho has proven that pursuing more than one passion is possible. Though she spent periods focusing on her music full-time – a months-long tour in Japan, for instance – the unique path she’s carved for herself could easily serve as an inspiration for her students.

“They do say to me, ‘How did you do it, though?'” she says.

Her best advice, she notes, is being willing to come out of your shell, go after what you want and connect with people who can help.

“It’s hard to explain, but you really have to seek out those people – connecting, collaborating,” she says. “It can be hard to do that, to come out of your shell.”

That, and a little resilience goes a long way.

“They give up too easily sometimes,” she says of young people. “I think that kids need to just constantly be encouraged.”

‘Deep breaths’

As a special education teacher, Striho aims to be a source of support and encouragement for her students. When the inevitable meltdowns or bad days happen, she’s there with reminders of “deep breaths” and trying to regroup.

“‘This is gonna work out. Right now it’s bad, so we’ve gotta do something, and then the next day might be better. Maybe it won’t, but we just have to keep trying,'” she says. “You just have to help them as much as you can.”

If a student walks into her classroom and is struggling – books slammed down, head down on the desk – “I gotta help him,” she says. “I’m there to help.”

Carolyn Striho with some of her graduating seniors

Structure and rules matter, too, of course, but “life is hard,” Striho emphasizes. “We’ve all got issues,” she says. “We need to be able to have some fun, too. I’m always looking out for something good that’s going to move things away from the negative.”

A native Detroiter, Striho says her own positive experiences in school – both in Detroit and briefly in Plymouth – were a strong influence.

“I had some great teachers growing up, and I think of them,” she says.

New song, book

Released in October 2019, Detroit (Maiden Energy) is a collection of Striho’s poetry and lyrics spanning her decades of experience as a Detroit area rock icon who’s performed everything from punk rock to gypsy folk – or at least a “volume one” of that, she adds.

“I’m excited because I’ve been wanting to do a book for years and I finally did,” she says. “It fell into place.”

Her most recent album, Afterthought, was released in 2016 and made it on the 2018 Grammy Awards first-round ballot for Best Rock Album of the Year.

Striho’s battle with cancer inspired her to write a new song, which was recently performed at a Dancing With Survivors event in Southfield to benefit the Pink Fund, a nonprofit that provides assistance to breast cancer patients.

In her spare time, Striho – stepmom to two grown children – enjoys reading (she’s “kind of obsessed”), watching movies, bike riding and spending time near the Muskegon River, Traverse City and Mackinac Island with her husband, Scott.

“You get that feeling when you’re up north that you’re ‘away,’ and sometimes you can’t get that here – though sometimes you can get it here if you’re in the right frame of mind,” she says.

And when her students or fellow teachers catch her at a show? “It’s pretty cool,” she says. “Everybody loves music.”

Inspiring teens to love lit

We had to ask Striho some of her tips for tuning her high school students into English. Here are five tactics she uses.

  1. Write songs and poems. Striho’s students are encouraged to find a song they love, print the lyrics and play it in class so everyone can follow along with the words.
  2. Five-paragraph essay. She puts a unique spin on this classic writing assignment, letting students get inspired by poems or even mixing art and lyrics into their final product.
  3. Music jam. A musical break can do wonders. Teens enjoy testing out multiple instruments, Striho says. “Kids love trying guitars and keyboard.”
  4. Movies as literature. “Compare the film and book,” she suggests. It’s a crowd-pleaser and a thought-provoking exercise for students.
  5. Read-alouds. “Audio books are great, but there’s nothing like reading it and listening to each other,” Striho says. Plus, “students help each other” as they go.

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