Transcription of the episode “Cultural responsiveness: is music optional?”

[00:00:15] Jon M: I’m Jon Moscow. 

[00:00:16] Amy H-L: And I’m Amy Halpern-Laff. Welcome to Ethical Schools. Our guest today is Anne Smith. Dr. Smith is a music teacher in Northern Virginia with almost 40 years experience teaching in daycare, elementary, and middle school. Welcome, Anne. 

[00:00:33] Anne S: Thank you very much for having me.

[00:00:35] Jon M: You wrote an article for Rethinking Schools magazine describing a situation that arose with a fourth grade student, Neema, and her mother. Could you describe what happened?

[00:00:46] Anne S: My classes come to me basically once a week, and this particular student was always very quiet and respectful, the perfect kid that every teacher wants in class. She was very shy and didn’t always participate, but in music, that’s sometimes par for the course. When I got a message from her mother that she wanted to speak with me, it, I was concerned. It wasn’t parent teacher conference. She wanted to speak with me and I didn’t understand what was going on. And what came out of that was the fact of an interesting conversation and journey that it put me on. The parent explained to me that culturally, they did not participate in music activities outside of religious celebrations, so she did not want her daughter participating in music class anymore. Music is a required part of the curriculum for elementary school, so I was a little bit stumped as to what to do. And the article came out of the journey that I took in research and finding out that there are many people who don’t use music as I do, all day every day. And what do we do with our students, and how are we talking about being equitable and valuing everyone’s religious beliefs and perspectives? And that’s where the article came from. 

[00:02:31] Amy H-L: So what was your initial response to this mom? 

[00:02:35] Anne S: Before I met her, quite honestly, I couldn’t believe it. I was in shock. I couldn’t understand how you function without music because music had always been a part of my life before studying it. It was just always around me at home and school and the grocery store. There was always music, so I didn’t really understand what she meant by that. When she came in and explained it, I began to understand, and that’s what really made me start to think about some of my friends growing up, that I had not really considered what they were going through as well, because they had religious parents who did not want them to listen to secular music, so I was more used to that. But the concept of no music whatsoever was just baffling to me. 

[00:03:45] Jon M: When you brought this issue, this situation, to your colleagues, what was the general response? What had the school been doing with this student up until this point? 

[00:03:59] Anne S: The response from my colleagues was really disappointing and enlightening. They were completely unsympathetic, uninterested, and almost blaming the family, wanting to shame the family. Rather than finding solutions, it was more, that’s their problem and we don’t have to deal with it. We’re going to teach music regardless the way we’ve always done it. There was no thought, in my mind, about the student. It became more about protecting our jobs the way we were going to do it, and not looking at the family. And however we always talk about families as being partners in education, we weren’t listening to this parent. So they were not very open to giving me any ideas other than, well, it’s the law. They have to do it. End of story. 

[00:05:07] Jon M: And so what changed your response? What was your interaction with the mother like?

[00:05:14] Anne S: In the beginning, it was tense. And again, listening to my colleagues really opened my own eyes to my own attitudes, and I went back after listening to other music teachers and said we can’t do this. We can’t talk about equity. We can’t talk about child centered learning. We cannot do this to our students.

So I did not like the attitude that I was presenting, honestly. And I am not a person, oddly enough being a musician, I am not a person that is an extrovert. So going back and talking to people on my own is not something that I’m very good at or comfortable with. But I did want to go back and reach out to the mom after those conversations and try to work with her, to see if we could find middle ground or something that we could do together to help her student succeed. 

[00:06:28] Amy H-L: So what was the outcome? 

[00:06:31] Anne S: The outcome was a music festival, and we actually got to expand music. Our program is actually based on more than just performance. However, what most teachers rely on is the performance aspect. And we started looking at, in the classroom, the rhythms. The mom and I talked about what was acceptable — poetry and movement and history. And we started looking at all of the other aspects of music, which are actually music standards. We looked at historical aspects of music. We looked at cultural aspects of music. And we wound up with, on the night of the performance, there was one area which was a performance stage, but there were also other students who wanted to be involved but didn’t want to perform, so they did projects. One student did a diorama of looking at the opera houses and acoustics, so we got a little bit of STEAM thing going in there, so it really turned out to be a much more expansive program that year than it had been in the past.

[00:07:57] Jon M: You obviously have strong beliefs about the importance of all aspects of music education as well as sensitivity to the culturally and linguistically diverse children and families in your classes. How do you find the balance?

[00:08:15] Anne S: Honestly, I don’t always get it right. A lot of people like to talk about how they get it right. I have to work at it and I have to check myself on a fairly regular basis. What I know, luckily, I love to read. And I found that I like to research, and my desk proves it because there’s stuff everywhere all the time from things that I have read and found out. But balancing it, it’s never perfect, it’s never a 50- 50, sometimes it’s an 80-20. And I have to give myself a little grace on that. I will reach out. Talk to students. I can speak with parents. Just a little while ago, I had to speak with a teacher about a student who had just come back, and how we handle music in the classroom with that student. Same type of situation. And I just have to keep working at it to try to keep myself on track, of looking at, when we talk about instruments that I don’t just stay with Western European instruments, that looking at greetings, there are greetings around the world, there are drums from all around the world, that I don’t just stay locked into the European perspective. 

[00:09:48] Jon M: Should there be a balance between the mandated curriculum and individual parents’ views of what they want their children to participate in? 

[00:09:58] Anne S: Absolutely. There should be a balance, but that balance can only come if there’s a conversation. And the piece that I think we don’t always have are the conversations between the education professional and the families because understanding on both sides where people are coming from and what is required and why it’s required, and what can be excused and what cannot be excused, and how we can work together to make this a better experience for the students. 

One of the things. I know that it’s been done over the years. I’m certainly not unique in this, but in learning facts, there are programs now. That they use chanting and rhythms to teach facts. I am old enough to remember that wonderful favorite program of Schoolhouse Rock, where you learned all of these things on Saturday morning on the commercials between the cartoons, and things such as that, where music is used as a part of a learning tool. And now, we’re finding the classrooms are coming back to that. They’re adding in the chants, they’re adding in the movement, they’re adding back even the singing on, on some level. And so parents should know that by opting out of a music class per se, a performance class, does not mean that their student is not going to be exposed to music, that it is going to be as background in art. I don’t know that these conversations are being had between the schools and the families, but I think that definitely needs to be that they absolutely need to be a part of each other. Hmm. 

[00:12:02] Amy H-L: Anne, do you see a difference between parental objections to music education and to, say, literature or science, such as evolution or climate change? 

[00:12:16] Anne S: No, not really. I think that, again, conversations have to be held. And I know culturally, again, some cultures do not come into schools. So having those types of conversations about what’s happening in the curriculum, we are very explicit about family life, education, and allowing parents to opt out, so to speak, of those classes.

But I think that’s often because everything is laid out and explained. But again, I go back to the curriculum should be explained. Why we’re doing it. We didn’t just decide to put music in the curriculum for no reason. We didn’t decide to put the arts in and expose students just because we want to make the world beautiful. There are skills that come from participating. Certainly the beauty of them is emphasized, but there are so many other skills and things that go along with that. 

And I think when we talk about life sciences, opting out, and climate change and evolution. I think it has to be when we’re talking about higher order thinking, and if the purpose of education is to create people who are educated and who think about brand new worlds and brand new things. The reality is our students are going to live in a world that is far different than the world most of us were raised in. And they need to be prepared to navigate that world, and that can only come through critical thinking and exposure to all of these other things. 

[00:14:19] Amy H-L: So it seems to me that we need students to learn some basic common facts about evolution, say, about climate change so that they can participate in a democracy. Do you feel that we need to justify everything in the curriculum that parents might object to? 

[00:14:42] Anne S: I don’t think we need to justify every single decision because that’s too much on all sides. But I think we, as educators, need to know why we are teaching what we’re teaching. We need to be able to articulate it for ourselves. And I say that because I’ve seen people. . . Well this particular instance with the students, what was happening before was people were saying, well if they don’t want to do it, then we just won’t do it. We’ll find something else. We’ll just send them to the library to read. We’ll find some games for them to play. And my attitude was no! Music exists. There are reasons that we do this. And it is not just, I don’t expect them to all be performers. That’s not what my goal ever is. Music is a really hard business to go into. So I expect other things, but I always believed in the other aspects of music. It records history. We see history recorded in music. We have collaboration that comes from working with other people. We have the science of how sound is made. We have the businesses. Music is a business, even as small as making instruments to running record companies or music entertainment, lawyers, things such as that. But in order to do that, you need basic information about what music is and how it’s constructed and what those possibilities are. 

[00:16:39] Amy H-L: So for most of us, when we were students, music class had nothing to do with our future vocation, right? It was just a matter of having our lives enriched Now, I’m wondering if you think that it’s okay for parents to say no, I don’t want my child’s life enriched in this way. And music is a big part of the way many of us navigate the world, even though it’s not our profession. 

[00:17:14] Anne S: Right, Absolutely. Certainly, as a parent, you have the right. Would I think that it is the best choice? No, I think that my background educationally was music therapy. So I do think that music is one of those things that will get you through a lot of things. So yes, even if it is just singing for yourself or tapping out a rhythm for yourself, tapping your toes to something, enjoyment, the aesthetic pleasure certainly should be a part of it. And I think it should be a part of everyone’s lives. And sometimes you just want to make music and you know, really rather than thinking about all of the great grand things that are going on, sometimes you just have to drum on a drum, tap on a table, and do what you need to do. Sing in the shower at the top of your lungs just feels good. It is a great expression. So I do think that yes, that should be a part of everyone’s life, every child’s life.

It’s one of the few things children do organically. We don’t have to teach a child to sing or pound on what did they used to be, cereal boxes or things like that. From the beginning, they start doing that on their own organically. So I do think that is something that should always be a part of life and a lot –to lose that to me, makes me very sad.

[00:19:03] Amy H-L: Is there an age up to which parental objections should matter more?

[00:19:11] Anne S: I think once the foundation, probably of about nine or 10, you can start to see what the student is interested in. Different districts handle it differently. Some districts you get to choose whether at fourth grade, which is around 10 years old for most of us, whether you want to simply go on an instrumental track or a vocal track.

But again, you’re only between those two. The students who want to be composers or arrangers or engineers, things like that, there’s a gap. And they don’t get to try those things out until they get to high school, if they’re lucky. But the parent can decide, “Okay, we’re not singing anymore, we don’t want them involved in vocal music,” so they push them into a instrumental track. And then in middle school, they have many other electives and options that they can go towards, but I think, again, it goes back to having a good, strong foundation from the beginning so that they can make decisions. 

[00:20:30] Jon M: You’re teaching in Virginia where the governor is aggressively pushing parents to object to aspects of education that he doesn’t like. How are teachers responding? 

[00:20:43] Anne S: As imagined, they are doing it many different ways. In some counties, it is more rigorous than in others. Some teachers are just, I’m going to go in, keep my head down, go from whatever time, nine to three, and be done. I’m not doing anything extra. We’re not putting in anything, we’re not going to take any chances. And they’re not doing anything outside of the curriculum.

A couple of years ago, I was working with the Department of Education when the governor was running. And we were doing lesson plans and we were going cross-curricular and we were talking about November, and I made the statement, I said, “You know that first of all, there’s still indigenous people in the state of Virginia. There are nations in the state of Virginia.” Oh, well, we’ll just do the regular ones. It’s November. We’ll do a powwow and. Yeah, there’s way more than that, but people are staying in their little narrow thing and they’re not stretching out. They’re not going to push, They’re not going. And some of it is fear.

 I will admit it, that I’m sure some of it is fear, because there are kids who will use it. If you don’t do what I say, I’m going to call the line, I’m going to let them know. And it makes it difficult having to stand up just to teach. And there are other people. I will say, unfortunately, I’ve been doing this for a very long time and it’s only October, and I have never heard as many people say, they are looking for another job. They’re not coming back. If they could get out, they would. The teachers are just not happy, and that seems to be the overwhelming thing that I hear constantly. 

[00:22:59] Jon M: Is the union, I don’t know how strong the union is in Virginia and how active. Is a union fighting back? Are there grassroots groups of teachers who are fighting back against what’s going on?

[00:23:13] Anne S: Yes. I was actually just at a union conference this weekend. They are trying to fight back, but again, people are not joining the union as much. Virginia’s a right to work state and someone made the statement to me, “Why would I join? I have to have a job. I’m going to have a job anyway, so it doesn’t matter.” And they’re not going to fight, to stand up and put themselves on the line, as I’ve seen people do previously. I’ve seen it previously. I’ve seen it with other people. My mother, I remember, I don’t remember what year is was, but my mother was a teacher in DC and I remember when they went on strike. At one point, she had me on the floor with her making the signs, coloring in. I had no clue what I was doing until later, but she had me coloring in signs so she could go out and walk the line with her sign. So it’s always been something I knew about, but a lot of people just are not. To finally get back to your question, a lot of people are just backing off. They’re staying in their little [inaudible]. They’re coming in, they’re leaving, they’re done. 

[00:24:30] Amy H-L: You shared that when you were in school as a child, your mother was clear that the school shouldn’t be teaching “Old Black Joe.” First of all, what is “Old Black Joe,” and what happened?

[00:24:42] Anne S: It was a song. They were considered folk songs, and in the state of Virginia. Just as an aside, Virginia is I think still the only state whose state song is instrumental. Oddly enough, they have not changed it. Governor Wilder, which was many years ago, I believe, in the eighties, the first thing he did when he came into office was to ban the singing of the lyrics of “Carry Me Back to Old Virginie” because of the plantation references that were in there. So they play it instrumentally, but they don’t sing the lyrics. “Old Black Joe” was one of those songs that was considered just a happy little folk song. And they talk about Old Black Joe as a character that goes to a lot of folk songs. He was an Eskimo, he was this, he was that. He would travel through the plantation or sing with mammy and do things like that. So he was a character in this particular song I was singing. Again, I was at home singing it as Old Black Joe an Eskimo in the good old summer time. And it was like, where did you get that song from? And you know, I learned it at school. And when she went and spoke with them, they were, ” Oh, well, we didn’t realize that that was upsetting.” They just didn’t want to upset her, so I think they just let it go with that. But I don’t think there was any deep conversation on it and reflection on it. If I thought back, there were probably, they said, okay, there were all these other songs that probably had some issues that we would take issue with now, such as Jump, Jim, Joe, or Chicken on the Fence, things like that, which were plantation songs, but also songs that were sung during lynchings, to be quite honest. If you don’t research the history, then these things will continue and a lot of them still do. 

[00:27:01] Jon M: You’ve described yourself as an educational equity activist who uses the arts to educate and promote equity. How do you do this?

[00:27:10] Anne S: I write plays and poetry. I really do a lot of my own curriculum. I go with what the standards are and then I just have to create what can work. There’s no reason why we can’t sing ” Adios Amigos” when we’re singing a goodbye song. Why does it always have to be something in English? Why can’t it be in another language? We have a hello song and I have five, six or seven languages, and after a while a student will tell me, “Well, we say it this way in my language,” and I’m like, “Perfect. Help me. Let’s do that.” And I bring the kids in there with their “what do you say at home? What do you say in the morning when you wake up?” Because everyone doesn’t say hello. That should be a great book. “Everyone Doesn’t Say Hello.” You know, we say different things.

And so I write stories. If there are pictures, they laugh at me because I have my people colored crayons and markers. And if there are just even stick people, I will color them with different faces on the outside of my door, I use people colored faces and they have different, you know, red hair and purple hair and earrings and jobs and all kinds of things so that students can see not only themselves with the mirrors, but that other students can see there are other people in the world. Everybody wasn’t raised in your house. So when we do plays in poetry and things, I want them to hear about other people. I want them to know about other people and places and things that go on. Always trying to do it through an equity lens so that students go with the windows and mirrors, but that you have to look at it from the other side as well.

[00:29:15] Amy H-L: Why do you think schools treat art and music as dispensable? What would a curriculum look like that really valued the arts? 

[00:29:26] Anne S: Oh, two questions. One, I think they treat it as dispensable because honestly, we don’t make the money. We like to say that we love all of these things, but we like money in this country. And in the eighties, the big thing was everybody had to go to business school. It didn’t matter what you did, what you knew, how you could do it. And the push became you have to start your own business. You have to be an entrepreneur. You know, that’s wonderful, but no one told you that you have to work 80 hours a week. You don’t get to go home at 4:30 as an entrepreneur.

For the arts, they did not see the benefit. If you weren’t going to be the superstar., Then what was the point? With athletics, yes. They knew that most people were not going to be, and of course it’s only recently become with women involved and it’s still not equitable on that front, but the sports field, at least they were bringing in money into schools. So it still comes back to economics. On Friday nights, you know, the pep club and boosters and everyone sold the T-shirts and all of those things. It was economics. They go to college. Who brings in the money? The choir’s not bringing it in, the music department isn’t bringing it in. It’s no longer the Fisk Jubilee Singers, which was the group that came out of Fisk, an HBCU in Tennessee that toured the world to support the university and actually kept it going. At that time, they didn’t have a sports team. It was the music department. But that is rare that you will have any type of accolades for the arts and respect on that level. 

So many schools have just, and I’m thinking colleges at this point. So again, if the colleges are not supporting it, then the high schools are saying, “Well no, then we need to get them ready to go to college and there’s nothing for them to major in, and what job are you going to get?” So it comes back to economics. “What job are you going to be able to get?” Honestly, education is not high on people’s lists. Especially if you’re talking about money, you’re not going to do that being a museum curator. That’s not high on people’s lists if you’re talking about money, and it comes down to those things. 

[00:32:22] Jon M: So the second part of the question, what would the curriculum look like if it really valued the arts. If you could just make up the curriculum, what would you like to do with it?

[00:32:36] Anne S: From the very beginning, I think that music and art would have to be treated as subjects like everything else, like science. In our district, they call them “encore.” In some places they call them special subjects, and it’s always seemed like, seems as if it’s an add-on and when you can add something, you can take it away. So I think that’s the first thing, that it should not be considered… And not that I want to test anything. I think we way over-test everything and prove nothing, but that’s a whole other conversation. But when it is not a testing subject, we don’t consider the fact that you can be tested in music or that you can be assessed, and that goes back to that assessment piece of, of where we look at that aesthetics versus assessment, that it has to be valued by our colleagues as well. I was with someone this weekend at the conference and when they said, I taught music, “Oh, that must be fun.” I’m like, “Does anybody say that to a math teacher?” And you get math people, they love what they do. Science people love what they do, but no one says, do you, That must be fun, right? But they always consider everything here as fun. And don’t get me wrong, I love my job most of the time. Fun? Maybe sometimes. So I think that’s it, that the respect for the profession from the other professionals has to start, has to be the basis, and then we grow from there. That respect will go to the students, that it is not something, “Oh, you’re not doing well on your test. We’ll take you out of music.” “Oh, you, you need extra help on this. We’re not going to go to art today.” And that’s what happens. “We’re going to schedule this field trip around your art class so you don’t miss anything important.” 

So it has to start with the adults and the curriculum, and then working with the professionals, the music and art professionals, that how can we help you in the classroom? What can we do? You’re talking about science, you’re talking about sustainable materials. But let’s talk about this. How we make instruments, how were instruments constructed, What can we use? What happens in the rainforest? How do different materials make different sounds? How can we recycle things and use them like the orchestra in Paraguay that used recycled instruments, and how did they create those things? These are the things that we have to start working on together. And I think that’s one of the problems with education. We’re still doing everything separately rather than organically. Yes, you have to read. You’re reading in science, you should be reading in social studies. We should have all of these things together as a curriculum to create wholly educated students.

[00:36:16] Jon M: Thank you Ann Smith.

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