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The New Normal: An Equitable Approach to Rebuilding School Music Programs

Wanda Vasquez-Garcia • April 2021Modern Band • April 6, 2021

As we commemorate a year of the COVID-19 pandemic and enter the last quarter of this school year, a lot is going on for teachers. For some, this means returning to the classroom after a year of teaching remotely; for others it means starting or perhaps moving away from a hybrid model. As we begin this transition, I recognize how much my teaching has evolved over the last year, and I have a newfound awareness of the impact I have on my students. In addition to adapting my teaching during the pandemic, I am also working on addressing inequalities and inequities that have been brought forth during this time, particularly the system of oppression, embedded in our education system, that harms our BBIA (black, brown, indigenous and Asian) students.

Teaching remotely has clearly shown me which of my students are able to thrive because of the system of support and resources to which they have access, and which of my students rely on our school community to help them reach their goals—and it’s no coincidence that these two groups are divided almost perfectly by racial identity. It’s for these reasons that I want to encourage our profession as a collective to reflect on this year and consider preparing ourselves not just for a return to “normal,” but to a truly new normal.

As I became more aware of these issues, I threw out everything I was doing and began planning new lessons from the ground up, keeping my students and their identities at the center: I reviewed many of the resources that started circulating last summer focusing on the racist background of many traditional songs, and eliminated them from my curriculum. I joined a group of teachers who directed our efforts to bring change by challenging the publishers to stop promoting minstrelsy repertoire originally created to entertain white patrons at the expense of humiliating, stereotyping and dehumanizing the black population. I now work to implement my belief that to be an anti-racist teacher is to advocate for justice for our marginalized communities and to dismantle the systems of oppression in and outside of the classroom.

In reshaping my lessons, I focused first on my remote teaching period. I was able to create activities that helped my students to think deeper about their relationships with music and share those realizations with me and their classmates, building stronger musical identities without pressure or influence by their peers. At the beginning of the year, each student created their “music identity profile,” where they provided songs that represented their cultural identity. They shared songs that related to where they come from, the kinds of music they listen to when their families have parties, the kinds of music their parents, grandparents and themselves listen to, what songs make them turn up the volume when they come on the radio, etc. We created a class playlist where they could share their contributions to the project. Through this activity, students found both differences and commonalities among the different generations in their family and were able to freely share about themselves and their personal and cultural identities.

Another aspect of my teaching that has changed is how and how often we listen to music in class. I started playing a different song from a different genre every period, as the students entered my virtual class, and later our in-person class, as a transition/warmup/settling activity. This playlist was built using the songs students provided me at the beginning of the year, and from my own very eclectic musical identity. One day we might listen to classical composer Chevalier de Saint-Georges; the next day to Mexican huapango music; the next to Mary J. Blige’s version of “Stairway to Heaven,” followed by Led Zeppelin’s original version; the next to Leontine Price in Madame Butterfly. The possibilities became endless. I could see how different pairs of eyes would light up each day, as students identified with or were surprised by the selections.

Having this “informal” listening space allowed for more authentic responses from my students. After the music was done, I asked students if they liked the music or not and why, always with the note that “we don’t have to like everything, but we need to know and be able to express why.” Then, I asked one specific question that related to the listening and to one or two elements of music. For instance, after listening to Dr. Euridice Alvarez’s “Verano Porteño” by Argentinian composer Astor Piazzola, I took the opportunity to introduce the bandoneon, and briefly, the composer.

Something else that has transformed my classroom into a more equitable space and brought so much inspiration to my students is the privilege to see active musicians showcase their artistry. In this time of Zoom, I find that it is more accessible to reach musicians and have them talk to my students. This year, my classes were able to experience a folklorist from my native Dominican Republic and learn about Palos; they heard from a sound designer about this process; the list goes on and on. We are also fortunate to have a few parents who are professional musicians—an Argentinian piano professor: a musician from Ghana. Having these conversations with a diverse group of active musicians has been transformative, as my students can now see clearer possibilities for the future.

As we work to reach all of our students and provide them with all of the opportunities they deserve, we must include a diverse school arts program to help them achieve their goals. Such goals can be as wide-ranging as becoming more empathetic human beings, sensitive members of their communities, and supporters of the arts. They can also use music as a means for self-expression, becoming the next generation of artists themselves. Our goal is to provide them with a path to achieve these ambitions. For all of these reasons, we need to start our planning process for everything we do by promoting representation and diversity that reflects the cultures of- and opens possibilities for- the students we serve. Equity, inclusion, and accessibility can all be achieved with a music program that enriches the lives of our future generations.

 

Wanda Vasquez-Garcia, MM, is a music specialist at Escuela Bilingüe Pioneer Elementary; a K-5 music specialist, children and youth choir director for First Congregational Church of Greeley; children and youth choir director and chapter secretary for Choristers Guild Rocky Mountain Chapter; and secretary and board member for Union Colony Music Children’s Academy.

 

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