For obvious reasons, I’ve been reminiscing about my mother these days. When I am teaching I often think of questions I would like to ask her, or stories I’d like to tell her. She was an amazing piano teacher for most of her life, but I think she could have taught almost anything. She had a knack for figuring out what it was about a piece that would cause a student to struggle and then start unwinding that problematic place. I know this because she rescued me when I was in college. All education majors had to take a course called “Class Piano”. This was at the dawn of electronic keyboards with headphones, which our college did not use. Instead we had old upright pianos to practice on. Our professor literally banged out the beat with her fist on top of one of them, while we all tried to play My Country ‘Tis of Thee transposed into four keys in time with each other. It was excruciating to be in that classroom so I asked my mother to teach me. She saved my life. And my ears.
My own focus in teaching has been on integrating the arts into all aspects of education. My mother did that, too, and always told me that everything she knew about the world she learned through music. She learned history through music history, one thread leading to another, from a composer to a historical era and all that went on to influence the composer’s works. She learned about literature, science, math, art, drama and language through music.
None of us learn very well in a vacuum, but that is mostly the way we learn in school. Each subject is separated from the next. In fact, we learn by making connections to things we already know. We create metaphors to help us understand new subjects, linking the old knowledge to the new. In most of my work in schools, we write songs, often about scientific topics. With the recent focus on STEM education (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), writing songs is proving to be a very useful tool. Children who otherwise shut down in the face of math and science, love the process of composition, whether it be writing poems to existing melodies, using software (like Apple’s GarageBand) for creating melodies, or making up their own melodies. Walter Gershon, a Ph.D .at Kent State University, has been studying the use of songwriting in urban classrooms as a way to bridge the race and gender gaps that loom in science education across the nation. His program “has demonstrated that the process of songwriting can effectively engage students in science content, help early readers and writers express their knowledge, serve as a curricular tool for literacy and scientific inquiry and create a context in which students of all ages can experience what it feels like to be lost in ideas and the creation of meaning.”(from a press release for the opening of Gershon’s exhibition, Making Sense of Science: The Sounds of Teaching and Studenting in Four Urban Classrooms, at the Akron Art Museun on March 24, 2012.)
This unusual exhibit presents Gershon’s methodology, which he calls “Sonic Ethnography” and recordings of the students final works, as well as their conversations while they were solving the problems inherent in writing songs about anything!
Gershon’s work is to be applauded, but it has been done (without the museum piece) by teachers and resident artists across the country for years. My friends from The Children’s Music Network and any of you who work with children should applaud Gershon for providing us all with scientific fodder to justify our work. These days all strategies used in the classroom have to be “scientifically based”. Maybe with his work, the work of so many resident artists and musicians can be justified, thereby motivating students at risk to work toward success. Sad that it should come to this. Meanwhile, children who could be learning through art and song are busy preparing for what I call the Stupid Tests, losing their love of learning while teachers lose their love of the profession. The tides will turn soon, as they always do. I hope that kids can survive the ebb and flow.